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What is Foundational Training? Part One

For years, training dogs has focused on training specific behaviors, put on verbal or hand cues, so that the human could instruct the dog to perform that behavior. How these behaviors are taught and maintained has evolved over the years, and many trainers focus their training on teaching discrete behaviors in this fashion. Good trainers ask the question, “What do you want the dog to do?” instead of focusing on suppression of unwanted behavior. Most trainer discussion revolves around what behaviors need to be taught, and the best way to teach those behaviors. It’s fun to teach a dog a new behavior – to see them begin to understand, become eager to perform the behavior, and to one day show mastery over the skill. I think it’s a good thing, and important, to teach dogs to sit, lie down, stay, come when called, all the “basics”. I also think we need to rethink how and when we ask for those behaviors in the larger context of our dogs’ lives. More importantly, I think dogs need to be taught some general concepts that lay a foundation for anything you could want to do with your dog. These foundational skills are the first thing I teach a dog, and the first thing I fall back on when my dog is struggling. I can sum up these foundational skills into three basic categories: 1)The dog can always check in with the human to get feedback about the environment, 2) The human is a more reliable access point for reinforcement than “self-serve” reinforcement from the environment, and 3) It feels better to be relaxed than worked up. I’ll talk about how I teach the first concept in this post, and I will cover the second and third concepts in my next post. The major take-away is that you should always focus on skills that you and your dog can be successful with – don’t keep asking for behavior your dog can’t do.

The first concept I want all dogs to learn is that they can always check in with their human to get feedback about the environment they are currently in. Dogs have all sorts of strategies to deal with new information, and many of them are undesirable to us. Some dogs stress down and refuse to go anywhere, others stress up and are barking, lunging messes, while others can’t contain their excitement. All of these dogs need a system to gather the information they need in an appropriate manner, and the human is their check-in station. We want our dogs to look to us when they are uncertain, stressed, or over-the-top excited, so that we can give them feedback on how to proceed. I call this “reorienting”, and it involves the dog not only physically, but mentally disengaging with whatever is holding their interest. While there are specific behaviors we can teach our dogs to do in these circumstances, they should all center around the first concept – check-in with your human. I start with Pattern Games from Leslie McDevitt, which allow the dog to fall into a familiar framework that they have practiced and recognize. I am fluid in using all the Pattern Games I have taught a dog to have a conversation about the environment. It’s never about a specific behavior the dog is doing, it’s about teaching the dog that I am reliable in helping them get the information they need from the environment. Once they have gathered information, and feel comfortable in the environment, I can start thinking about what specific behaviors I want the dog to do there.

In my next post I will cover the second and third concepts mentioned above. If you would like to be notified about new posts, you can click here and enter your email in the banner at the top of the page to subscribe.


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