Updated: May 6, 2020
The first behaviour, and emotional stability, that you can reinforce. Always look for something to reinforce and begin to build from that - Kay Laurence
In our training world we construct new behaviour rather than suppress unwanted behaviour. We base our training on teaching our dogs what to do, rather than focus on what not to do. All of this is built from the foundation of base behaviour.
Base behaviour is a term I first came across when learning with Kay Laurence. As I understand base behaviour, it is the foundation of our training. If this foundation is sound then what we build above, should also be sound.
The base behaviour we want to strengthen is cue seeking but before we discuss this further, we need to think deeper about 'emotional stability'.
There is a tendency to think of emotional stability as always being a state of calm but is this accurate? Can you predict a situation where you are expectantly excited - Christmas, birthday, holiday, a seminar, a night out, the January sales, a new book or film? How about a situation where you are appropriately anxious or unsure - dentist, waiting for results, a difficult interview? What about different personality types and life experiences - is emotional stability for one person, the same as emotional stability for another? Is it realistic to expect all dogs and people to respond to the same events in the same way?
Is it possible that training for 'calm' could actually be experienced as punitive?
Let's return to cue seeking; the state when our dogs are seeking information from the environment. In class we would expect them to be seeking most of their information from us. Out and about this might not be so appropriate and our dogs need to seek most of their information from the world around them.
Protocols that ask the dog's to 'look at us' or 'look at that' risk taking options away from our dogs that might benefit their survival or meet their emotional needs. This risks an increase in behaviours that are described as reactive or aggressive.
In class we build cue seeking behaviour towards us by playing a game that I call the 'focus game'. Quite simply a piece of food is thrown out for the dog to eat, once the food is eaten, the dog returns their focus towards the owner and that behaviour is reinforced with another piece of food.
I call this game the 'focus game', not because it builds focus on the handler but because it tells me where the dog needs to place their focus. If the dog cannot even follow the piece to the floor, then that dog is telling me they are struggling to cope within the class environment and I need to make changes. If the dog eats but then watches the other dogs, then I have information that this is the reinforcing event for the dog. If the dog eats and then returns their focus to the owner in a continuous loop of behaviour, then I have information that the dog is comfortable within this environment and is 'ready to train'.
Out and about our dogs need to cue seek from the environment as well as from us. I begin to teach this by building the skill of assessment. Left to their own devices pups would spend a lot of time hanging around behind the adult dogs, watching the world go by and learning from the reaction of the more experienced dogs.
We buy our puppy and because we have been brainwashed to ‘socialise’ our puppies, we take them here, there and everywhere. This advice to ‘socialise’ was well-meaning. At the time, the veterinary advice was to keep pups inside for up to 15weeks before letting them out. The advice to keep pups inside was given for health reasons but as the pups were often only dogs, they were effectively isolated.
Unwanted behaviour was the result of this, so the advice to give the puppies as much human contact and new experiences as possible was given. However, experience shows that this type of exposure can overwhelm a pup and cause more problems than it was designed to cure. In order to process and learn from a new event a dog needs time to watch, internalise and register before moving on.
Training for an appropriate base behaviour can give you a solid foundation to all your training. Base behaviour, once thoughtfully trained, is always associated with confidence and creating confident dogs who have a joy in learning is the goal of Clare Teaching Dogs.
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