A Clear Plan

by | Aug 21, 2019 | Klog | 0 comments

For everything that we teach, or want our dogs to learn, we can build a plan from examining the topography (shape) of the behaviour(s) involved.

This will lay the pathway to the teaching choices for that behaviour, how we design the learning environment, and how it may be built to fluency. By understanding the topography we can often identify why some protocols struggle to secure the results that would be indicated. Our externally delivered reinforcers may be contradicting an inner instinctive response and putting the animal into conflict.

The process of planning gives you a clear picture of what is looks like, where you are going, how it may be achieved and can offer alternative options that can be adapted to suit the individual.

A plan should also provide points of assessment to check the progress.

There are a series of questions that I would seek answers to, before I begin to teach.

Learner’s profile: what have they learned

You should have a note book for each dog/learner. I have an index of all that I have taught that dog, plus a journal of progress. We need to keep track of what skills they have, what they find difficult and how we can expand training for their benefit.

1. A clear description of the behaviour:

Do not presume anyone knows what you mean by the “behaviour”. A good physical description can often high-light key learning elements or identify key skills you will need to teach. If you cannot fully describe it to another person of the same species (language variations accepted), then how can we be expected to teach it?

For example: What is the description of “sit”? Do you want an outcome of “no daylight under the bum” or are you interested in how they sit? Should the action be of bringing the rear feet to the front feet or the opposite way around? What sort of energy are you looking for? Is this for a resting behaviour or prior to arousal – such as jumping or retrieving?

2. Does this behaviour exists naturally for the species, breed, individual?

Just because some dogs do it, does not mean this dog does it, or enjoys doing it.

I have a definite “non-sitter”, who will sit because she needs to scratch an ear, avoid her butt being sniffed by another dog, but has never included it as an option in training.

Observe your learner and make sure you have seen the behaviour occur, and hopefully because we are examining our teaching, it occurs for positive reasons and is a positive experience. Teaching a non-natural behaviour is questionable, ethically, and also a hard task for the teacher.

3. What is the natural function of this behaviour?

By understanding why this behaviour exists we can align our teaching with that function which adds a beneficial flow (or a following wind) to the learning. It is much easier to go with the grain than against it.

Again – looking at the sit – if we were trying to teach a “fast sit”, we would need to look at the function of sitting, which is in the majority a resting behaviour, done with thought and in a relaxed style.

If we wanted to teach “prancing”, we may need to find the conditions under which that occurs – possibly to flirt a toy in front of other dogs, preliminary to sex or to engage in being chased.

4. What maintains this behaviour?

If this behaviour is occurring frequently then a reward is in place. Some behaviours may occur as juveniles, and that function may not continue as an adult, and vice versa. Or the function may change as the dog matures or be absent during certain growth periods.

5. Is there a recognised stimulus for this behaviour?

This would be useful, then we do not need to teach this behaviour at all, just collect it under a new stimulus that we can replicate – capture it.

Taking the naturally occurring event, adding our own cues, adding an additional reinforcer is the easy route. Take it if you can.

6. What skills are required to perform this behaviour?

Skills are learned, so we may need to ask if the dog has learned the skills for this behaviour.

A puppy can adopt a sit, in fact they adopt a sit before they stand. But this is not a sit I would wish them to perform as an adult. It is very unstructured as the bones in the pelvis are still changing shape. An adult sit requires controlled motor skills. For some dog they simply do not have those skills until young adults, especially large, male dogs. It may also require physical strength to perform a consistent action, especially on a slippery surface.

7. Is this behaviour going to expand / grow with training?

Are we taking a nubbin of a natural behaviour and expanding it by shaping it with reinforcement?

Most animals can change direction or turn 180°. This may not be a tight turn, but a wide curve. We can teach a tighter turning circle which results in turning on the spot, and then ask for this to occur twice, which result in a spin. We may ask for this to occur faster.

We also need to consider how far we shall take that expansion, or repetition, as endless or fast spinning may not be beneficial to the dog.

8. What is the future of this behaviour?

We need to think where we are taking this. A sit may be a requirement for dog sport, in which case you may need a forward action as well as a backward action. It may be for an indication behaviour, a retrieve. It may be for husbandry or physiotherapy.

The future of the behaviour should be considered when choosing the teaching strategy and method.

9. Is this a foundation behaviour for other behaviours?

This needs to be considered for the cues we shall add where they do not conflict with future behaviours. A chin rest on your hand will not be much use if you need it for husbandry where both your hands will be needed.

Teaching a dog with hands that are not part of the future of the behaviour can put the dog into conflict.

10. Does this behaviour need a component or foundation behaviour secured?

Back to sit – yes I would like the dog to be able to stand with stillness as a foundation to moving into a sit.

11. How is teaching this going to be of benefit to the learner?

We may be teaching this behaviour for different reasons. Often “sit” is taught to supress jumping up. Although this may benefit the dog by not being punished for jumping up, a suppression of behaviour is rarely to the benefit of the learner, this is for the convenience of people. The solution here is to look at the function of jumping up and find a way to meet that need.

If we have a learner that has poor control of motor movement, then the behaviour may be purely to enhance those skills. Many of the learning skills are integral with good teaching skills.

We may need to teach behaviours that are necessary for the future of this learner – often this is husbandry, or wearing equipment, or management.

12. How can I teach this?

We should be looking for several ways to teach, or release, the behaviours or actions we are seeking. The more way we can engineer this the greater chance we have of clearly communicating to the learner what will earn rewards.

If I have the skills to teach with luring, micro shaping, guidance from furniture, prompts, modelling, hand contact, multi-targets then, yes please, all of those.

We trap ourselves into believing there is “a way” to teach and only one way, or one recipe.

As you go through the planning process, makes notes on your preparation, including what you want to rehearse or practice in advance.

Note: we do not teach tricks. This term has just been used to market training behaviours that may have more appeal to non-specialist. It can also implies the purpose is to entertain for the modern circus known as YouTube.

Knowledge & Understanding


Natural behaviour: behaviour that is natural to that species, emerges without intervention or outside influence, may also be innate or instinctive behaviours.
Examples:stretching, sitting, trotting, suckling

Instinctive patterns: a collection of behaviours that enable that individual to perform specific functions such as reproduction, predation, etc. Often genetically enhanced through selective breeding. Sometimes referred to as fixed action patterns (FAP), or modal action patterns (MAP). Examples: the predatory stalk, nesting

Releaser stimulus: The antecedent, or situation that causes the instinctive behaviour (patterns) to emerge. Examples: grass for urination

Skill: Learned behaviours that are categorised as cognitive, perceptive and motor. Developed through practice, wrapping of neural pathways in myelin.
Examples: eye foot co-ordination used when jumping, going up a stair case.

Base behaviour: A behaviour that underpins many other behaviours. A specific behaviour that is used/taught as the foundation or pivotal behaviour for other behaviours. Example: focus, observation, standing still, maintaining a still position for husbandry

Core skill: Skills that are generic to many other skills.

Learning skills: Skills that enhance the ability to learn effectively.

Default behaviour: Behaviour that a chooser will select when no other choice is selected.

Component behaviour: A simple behaviour that is often used as part of a more complex behaviour

Compound behaviour: A collection of component behaviours, that may occur sequentially or simultaneously or a combination of.

Chain: more than one behaviour that occurs in a specific order to be successful

Sequence: more than one behaviour that can occur in any order to be successful

Skills &

Application & Activities


Walking Together
  1. Description of the behaviour

Compound behaviour. Continually maintaining a position approximate to the person by adjusting speed and direction with the person. Can be in stroll, walk, trot or canter. Observing the environment, air scenting.

  1. Underlying purpose or function

To be able to travel in a group or with other dog.

  1. Topography of the behaviour

Stride length and gait is adjustable, directional changes. Awareness of companion and environment at the same time. Rarely near the heel of the person.

  1. Stimulus or antecedent

Under training conditions.  

  1. What maintains the behaviour

Arrival at destination that is desired, companionship, connection. Being out and about in the environment, stimulating.

  1. Competency

Juvenile dogs may have difficulty in adjusting stride to match that of the companion. Also maintaining focus on companion in highly stimulating and novel environments.

  1. Future possibilities

Expectations of very extensive generalisation.  

  1. Training parameters

The lead/leash. Verbal cue, connection.


Example: Sat

  1. Description of the behaviour

Rear end of the dog on the ground, front end propped up by front legs. Front and back feet close together.

  1. Underlying purpose or function

As a juvenile non-threatening behaviour to adults.
To ponder a situation, relaxed watching and observing the environment.
In preparation to scratch with hind leg.

  1. Topography of the behaviour

Tail usually raises to allow the rear legs to bend when moving from standing. Front feet or back feet will step in to close up. Back feet are usually positioned wider than the front feet. Dog can move to this behaviour from standing up or from lying down. When moving from lying down the front feet push the front part of the body upwards.

  1. Stimulus or antecedent

Environment, safety, rarely used when anticipating activity. An itch.

  1. What maintains the behaviour

Comfort, resting and viewing the environment, social approval from adult dogs.

  1. Competency

Puppies may sit with an unstructured, open pelvis, one leg may be tucked under. Speed can increase with practice and correct muscle development.

  1. Future possibilities

Foundation behaviour for many sport activities. Regarded as a demonstration of obedience and control. Base behaviour for beg. The actions of having sat from standing or from down should be regard as different behaviours.

  1. Training parameters

Very responsive to “added value”. A behaviour that is maintained and valued, rather than one that develops and changes.

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