Three Levels of Dog Training

Bunty, thinking about her options
Bunty, considering her options

I’ve been trying to formulate my own system of training and behaviour modification for a while now from the information I’ve learned from a number of great dog people. I’ve come up with a three level training/behaviour modification system which hopefully is easily to understand and apply.

Level 1. This is the most empowering level for both the dog and the owner. The crux of it is in the following statement which I learned from Dr Susan Friedman – control the environment, not the dog, to allow him to make other choices, and then reinforce those choice to make them more likely to happen in the future. It is hugely empowering for our dogs to be in control of their own decisions. Now this doesn’t mean we allow our dogs to do whatever they want. Through careful control of the environment, we can limit or change the dog’s options so it now becomes easier for them to do something we want them to do (and difficult for them to do something we don’t want them to do) and when they do it, the wise use of reinforcers makes it more likely to re-occur.

If your dog jumps up on people when you stop to talk to them, we can stand on his lead so he can’t jump (give him enough slack that he can still stand or sit comfortably). We have now controlled his access to reinforcement (the person) and we can now reinforce (with food/praise) four feet on the floor. If we do this every time, the dog now has a large reinforcement history of four feet on the floor, and a tiny history of being reinforced for jumping. Not jumping is now much, much more likely.

Level 2. This is less empowering for the dog but the dog still has lots of choice. In this level, we use previously trained behaviours to give the dog instruction about what we want him to do. This is useful if our environmental control, as described in Level 1, gets away from us and the dog isn’t voluntarily able to make a decision which we are able to reinforce. We can now tell the dog what we want him to do.

To give you a couple of examples, say we are training our dog to remain within a certain radius of us. The dog is almost at the limit if the radius and suddenly a pigeon lands very close to her. The environment now changed and we couldn’t do anything about it. It is unreasonable to expect the dog to return to us without prompting at this stage unless we have trained for it, but what we can do is prompt the recall with a verbal cue which we have previously worked on. The dog now returns to us and we can reinforce this choice.

Another example would be if your dog is reactive to other dogs. At 100 feet, he might be able to willingly look at you, which you can reinforce. At 50 feet, your dog might not be able to look at you without prompting, but if we have taught an emergency U-turn which he knows well, we can ask him to perform the U-turn and reinforce it when he does.

The reason this level is less empowering for the dog is that he has less choice and you are starting to rely on more automatic responses. Although these responses have been taught using reinforcement, the dog is starting to perform them automatically and without conscious thought, so the question we could reasonably ask here is how much choice does the dog actually have?

I don’t think this is too much of an issue as long as we are either practicing the behaviour to maintain it’s reliability or we are using it because the alternative (running off or reacting aggressively in the previous examples) is a far less attractive option for us and potentially far more damaging to the dog.

As part of a society, and I include dogs in this, there are absolutely times when we need to do what we are told.  We do this willingly in many cases but we are still doing it because we are either told to or asked to.

Level 3 – Physically moving our dog out of trouble. At level three, our dog is now unable to offer anything we want to reinforce, either voluntarily or with prompting. This is all about management and keeping the dog safe. At this point the environment has completely got away from us and we need to get our dog out of that situation. We are now controlling the dog. Examples would be if we are training a recall using a long line and the dog is running very quickly towards a busy road (think about how much environmental control we had in the first place!) we would stand on the line to stop the dog moving forward. In the case of the reactive dog, if another dog appeared round a street corner, and our dog reacted, we would physically move our dog away on a short leash to a non reactive distance.

When working on this, we can switch between levels 1 and 2 quite often. I use level 1 when I can, but also use level 2 frequently so we can use the available distractions as practice to keep previously learned behaviour strong and reliable. If we do this often, the ultimate aim is so that we don’t have to use level 3 and all.

The last thing to consider is training your dog to do many different behaviours. This allows the dog to offer previously learned behaviours during level 1 and gives you multiple options during level 2. If your dog doesn’t know how to do an emergency U-turn or recall, how can you ask for it? Also, different situations will call for different responses. Sometimes sitting may be more useful (when you are talking to someone in the street), other times having your dog to “leave”, “drop it” or “back up” might be better.

More training means more options. I’ll write more about this as I practice more. Until next time, happy dog training.

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