Back to Basics?
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.