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

In praise of naughty dogs

.. a desire for solutions to problems that weren’t problems until someone else outside of the relationship suggested they were.

Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

Experience changes our ethos. There are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

A Road to Nowhere

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.

Guidance is not dependence

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give you guidance.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

50 years a student of sheepdogs

In recognition of my half-century of being a student of collies I want to celebrate their skills as masters of my learning.

When we train a dog it grows

Most training starts from necessity. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict. Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit?

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Since the Dawn of Dog Training

The old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right” and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

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?”

Top Training

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

Nose Target. No thanks

Nose target is a popular behaviour taught to many dogs, and other animals. It seems easy to teach and have practical application, but it is often not such a pleasant experience for all dogs. There are many other options available that give the same practical benefit, without the unpleasant extremes.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

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

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

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.

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……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


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