Back to Basics?

by | Nov 29, 2023

Collie puppy with text Basics is not for begnners

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

And, of course, this makes sense: we’d never think of overlooking the importance of good foundations to a building: after all, those foundations are what give the building strength and support and protect it against the natural forces that might otherwise cause it to topple.

We might very easily analogise this to learning, despite the denigration of “the basics” in the dog business where product is often seen as more important than process: behaviour rather than skill. Yet, solid foundations support all of the other learning that will be built on top of it through the duration of the dog’s life, and will protect that learning against the challenges that might otherwise cause it to topple (the possibility of other rewards to be found elsewhere; various life stages and the complexities they bring).

Without strong basics, learning will be flimsy and fragile. A dog who has not experienced various modes of reward delivery may not trust the reward process, which may destabilise any actions or movements being asked (if the dog has not experienced Breakfast in Bed, for instance, they may choose when to terminate the movement to collect the food).

On the other hand, a dog who has learned the pleasure of being served by their human will await delivery of room service, which means that it will be easier for them to learn to extend an action. A dog who has learned to stand well can balance through different gaits, adjust muscle groups, and rebalance in a way that can protect them against injury.

All of these components can, in turn, be pared back to ever more basic elements – the skills of learning itself – which are, in essence, the bedrock of support for all that we and our dogs will build together in their training. 

Recall, for example, is not merely the act of returning to a person, but rather a chain in which the dog stops what they are doing, and returns to their person after seeking them out. Each of these elements must be taught and practised separately, and made flexible by the introduction of new contingencies, before being assembled; the idea that “recall” is merely the conditioning of a word is insulting to the level of skill and the trust in the reward process that the dog must demonstrate.

And when the components of learning are assembled, we do not end up with a “finished” behaviour: the skills on which the learning is based must be constantly assessed and refined. The basics are not, therefore, a starting point from which we begin and away from which we move. They are our home – our base – the place of which we take particular care as the place to which we will always return.

 When viewed in this way, all of the dog’s learning is a series of elements working together: these individual basic components on top of which new strata of learning have been laid.

When familiarity is stripped away we seek recognisable signposts that will take us back to comfort and security. This is survival instinct. It is worth listening to as it keeps us alive.

Key Reading

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

What’s Cooking? A Warning About Recipes

Recipes for “training” dogs are so prevalent in how we live with and talk about them that their existence often goes unquestioned.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

The Fade-in Protocol

Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. An error is simply the difference between my expectation and the dog’s response. No more “distractions”, but faded-in environments.

Shaping by rewards

When I see a dog showing a behaviour that is heading towards potential conflict, my first question is “what rewards are available?”

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

Why add fun?

When an activity gives intrinsic pleasure we do not need to add fun.

What Words Conceal

The language across all kinds of media paints a picture of dogs and our relationships with them.

Play Health Check

When we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced?

A Family of Multiple Dogs

Another addition is not just an extra bed and bowl. It is important to build a home that is healthy, content and well-balanced.

Top Training

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.


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