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Using the Learning Cycle to build confidence in your anxious dog

“Understanding who is responsible for each part of the learning cycle hands power back to your dog, building their confidence.

The Learning Cycle

Have you heard your dog trainer or behaviourist talk about the ‘ABC’ cycle? Maybe you understood it, but if like me you nodded politely the first time, I’ll aim for a simple explanation.

The ABC stands for:

  • A - Antecedent

  • B - Behaviour

  • C - Consequence

This means:

  • A – what happened before the behaviour

  • B – what was the behaviour, what did you see

  • C – what happened after the behaviour

There is some debate about how helpful this model is, but I find it useful for people who come for lessons with anxious or reactive dogs. I feel that if you understand who is responsible for each part of the cycle then you can hand some much-needed power back to the dogs, building their confidence through a simple training session.

A lot of our thinking on anxious or reactive dogs comes from the outdated dominance theories. These theories encouraged us to take power away from our dogs, to dominate them, take charge and be in control. Besides the dodgy theories of wolf pack behaviour, at its heart this thinking is wrong because we have a lot of control over our dogs by default of being human. We get to decide what our dog eats, where they live, if they get to breed and even have the power to end their lives with euthanasia, however difficult that decision may be.

With this much power we can afford to hand some back to our dogs in our training sessions.

Common Errors

It is easy to get into the habit of reaching for the food (C - consequence), before giving a cue (A - antecedent), or reaching for the food (C), before the dog has completed the behaviour (B).

This prevents your dog from learning how they received the food. By interrupting their thinking and movement, they miss the reward of learning how to get the food from your hand to their mouth. A dog that makes the connection between their behaviour and your hand reaching for the food, experiences a moment of pure joy, you can see it written on their face and I know you feel it because your face lights up in return. At that moment dog and person are exquisitely connected to each other, a moment of magic. Worth taking some time to get right?

How does this look?

A. Antecedent, what happens before - setting up the environment, selecting the teaching method, providing cues, choosing the reward belongs to you.

Cue seeking, or saying ‘yes I am ready to train’ belongs to your dog.

B. Behaviour, what can you see - belongs to your dog, it is their responsibility to complete the behaviour or not (a non-response or incorrect response is simply information that we take on board). In our world we avoid forcing a response.

C. Consequence, what happens afterwards - this is where it can get complicated, be patient with yourself whilst learning about rewards, reinforcement and other consequences. Getting to know your dog and choosing an appropriate reward and reward delivery method is your responsibility. Seeking the consequence belongs to the dog, wait until your dog is focused on you saying ‘I am ready to receive the food’. Choosing the consequence belongs to the dog, if your dog completes the behaviour and then chooses to bark at a seagull as the reinforcer, that is their choice, they don't get the piece of food as well.

Monitoring all of this and delivering the food, if selected by the dog is your part of the cycle.

All the behaviours you would like to teach your dog will fit within this cycle of learning whilst building the confidence of a sensitive learner. It is worth your while to take some time to understand this.

Need some more help?

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