“Sit.” “Down.” “Fetch.” These are things that most people associate with dog training. But is there more we can teach our dogs beyond simple behaviours? You might be surprised that you already do! And there might be more you can teach them.
Every dog owner’s idea of “dog training” is a little different. That’s not surprising, we all have different requirements for our dogs. The family dog that is a playmate for the children needs different training than the herding dog that works most days in the field tending to livestock. The same is true for the urban dog who will spend much of her day amusing herself indoors compared to the farm dog who gets to spend his time outdoors with the other family dogs.
Even though we all train for different lifestyles, there are some common things we expect and train our dogs to do. Behaviours like “sit”, “down”, and “stay” are pretty universal, as are directional behaviours like “off” and “here”. But there is other learning going on while we train and live with our dogs that may be more or less obvious to us. One of the most critical things our dogs need to learn is how to read humans.
Learning Beyond Training
There is an old saying among some dog trainers that goes something like, “Every minute you are not training your dog, your dog is training you.” I can’t quite agree with all of that because I don’t believe my dogs have an agenda that they are actively trying to train me to follow. Instead, I would say that “Every minute you are not training your dog, your dog is still learning but you may not know what she is learning.”
As her caretaker, I am the single most important element in my dog’s life. Learning as much about me as she can is understandably a high priority. She quickly learned the routine that means we were going out for a walk or that dinner was being prepared. She learned when to stay quietly to one side when I’m busy or to come and cuddle if I had some downtime to relax. Our dogs do a remarkable job of learning our habits and signals even if we don’t realize we’re putting them out there.
What A Concept
Teaching my dog how to “sit” or “come” are behaviours. I’m asking her to do something. By contrast, “dinner time” or “going for a walk” would be more like concepts. There’s nothing for the dog to do but they have learned enough to watch for our subtle signs and use them as cues to determine what’s happening next. Our dogs do understand other concepts like “bedtime” and “settle down.”
Perhaps the most startling example I have heard about dogs and conceptual learning came from professional animal trainer Ken Ramirez. Ken pointed out that guide dogs for the disabled are able to naturally account for the space requirements for both themselves and their human when moving through crowded areas or doorways. Now there is a concept – “will both of us fit?”
Accidentally On Purpose
If our dogs are capable of understanding concepts, are we able to teach them concepts on purpose? Trainer Ken Ramirez would answer with an emphatic “YES!” Ken has worked at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium for over 20 years training marine mammals, birds, and a variety of other animals at the facility. As the Executive VP of animal care and animal training, Ken has pioneered some interesting training experiments including having dolphins learn new behaviours by watching another dolphin perform them, in essence “do what he is doing.”
Of course we humans have already taught our dogs some concepts even if we don’t normally call it that. Teaching a dog to track a particular scent is an example of the concept “matching to sample.” It’s basically saying “find me one of these.” The dog has to understand the concept of matching in order to perform the tracking task correctly. But can we teach other concepts to our dogs?
In the sport of dog agility, some competitors focus on what are called “directional” cues for “left” and “right.” These are not behaviours but information that goes with other cues for behaviours. Ken Ramirez calles these “modifiers” because they are paired with other cues. For example you could say “left jump” or “right tunnel” to indicate which particular piece of equipment the dog should take next. And this idea could be take farther to teach dogs concepts like “far and near”, “taller and shorter”, “higher or lower”, “bigger or smaller”, etc.
Let’s come back to that idea of what we might not realize we are teaching our dogs. There are a few concept lessons that we are giving without thinking about it. One of the most basic concept lessons happens when we choose to scold or correct our dog for something we do not want them to do. Our dog may or may not understand the thing we are punishing them for (we hope they do!) but the lesson that they are certain to take away is a knowledge of what it is we are willing to do to them. Whether it’s a harsh verbal reprimand, a smack on the nose, or being banished to their crate for half an hour, our dog now knows that under the right circumstances, their human is capable of inflicting that punishment on them. They learn something about who we are as caretakers.
The same could be said of any training or life situation. Think about how you approach training or working with your dog. Does your dog get it wrong more often than they get it right? Do they get scolded more than they get rewarded? This can affect how your dog conceptualizes working with you.
Training For Success
In raising Tiramisu, I intentionally introduced a few concepts into her training routine. Because we were training for the sport of dog agility, it was important to me that Tira learned that responding to several cues before receiving a reward would always be worth her effort. Typically agility courses will be made up of 12-24 obstacles. That means Tira would have to respond to that many cues before getting any kind of reward for her efforts. So when she was 6 months old, I began training the concept “stick with me, this is gonna pay off – I promise.”
The methodology was simple. Our normal dinner feeding routine included asking for a behaviour before putting down the bowl. By 6 months of age, Tira already had a repertoire of more than 20 different behaviours I could ask her to do. I began to vary the dinner routine by sometimes asking for one behaviour and sometimes asking for two behaviours before putting down the bowl. I gradually increased the number of behaviours I would ask for but always the end result was a big bowl of dinner. Worth the effort? You bet!
Another element I added to this training was variation. My progression was not linear. One day I would ask for 2 behaviours before putting dinner down. The next day might be 5 or 3 or 6 or even just 1. By building both the total number of behaviours I would ask for (sometimes as many as 13 or 14) and varying how many I would ask for on a given day, Tira learned the concept that she should continue to follow direction and that it would eventually lead to a good result for her. I had taught my dog “perserverence.”
Limits Are What We Make Them
In an interview with Julie Gordon for Clickertraining.Com, Ken Ramirez says that “When we limit ourselves or our dogs, we also limit our view of what is possible.” Thinking beyond the usual boundaries of standard behaviour training allows us to explore what is possible with conceptual training. If I can teach my dog “perserverence”, what else might be possible?
Teaching foundation learning skills like Mark and Reward training and shaping are essential in giving your dog the tools necessary to explore and learn concepts. It’s an investment we make in our dog’s education. Just as we prepare human children with basic arithmetic skills in preparation for higher level mathematics like algebra, we need to prepare our dogs with skills and the motivation to work without fear of reprimand as they explore. This is where positive training excels. Reward what you want and ignore the incorrect response. You dog learns a very important basic concept “no harm in trying!”
Speaking from my own training experience, concept training has been a great deal of fun and opened up tremendous creative possibilities for me and my dog. It has stretched me as a trainer into new areas and made me think “outside the box” to get what I want. Using Mark and Reward (Clicker) Training has given me a dog that is eager to explore and experiment with me.
I would encourage you to expand your own training adventure and see what concepts you can teach your dog. Some of you have already started, I’m sure. Let’s push beyond old limitations and see what is truly possible for dogs – and for trainers!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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