It’s Not Training

by | Jan 11, 2023

pup raising a paw

It is most certainly planned learning. What is the difference?

Us. Our view, our mindset is the biggest hurdle to our own learning let alone that of our dogs. Many of us can easily view the learning that is ahead of an eight week old pup. They will “need” to learn the difference between indoors and outdoors: places to pee and get bonus rewards and places that don’t. It’s not house training, it’s certainly not house breaking, it is a build of the pup’s ability to memorise places of rewards and develop geographical awareness of their small world. This is a skill.

WARNING: three minutes of your life with lots of puppy squeaking liable to waken any mum ….

I had a litter of 2-3 week old pups and realigned their world by turning the whelping box 90° so that they were not lying in full sun. They were exploring to find a non-bedding area to eliminate. Even though their eyes were barely opening this was also a move towards the window. But after moving the box, they initially used that light source as a direction to move to pee, not the touch. It took them a few more days to learn to “find” the non-bed area again. Innate skills of a sense of location and awareness at 3 weeks old. Dogs can continue to develop this through their lives and given the opportunity take you back to your car on the misty day you get lost in the woods.

They know where it is. They will have learned that skill.

But have you consciously developed it or just expected as part of the parcel called a Really Good Dog? Regular trips to the same location where the pup explores outward in different directions from the same parking spot gives this skill a chance to bloom. They will learn their place of safety and how to return in the case of a threat; they will learn to recognise the scents and terrain that is familiar. But if that pup is transported a hundred new places, then placed down to “explore” under the label of socialisation, the skill stands very little chance of good development. It will be overwhelmed.

It’s not training. It is a carefully planned learning pathway, paced to suit that particular learner for their life ahead.

Building the skills for your dog enables them to be able to thrive in their future environment. Whether that is learning how to step away from unwanted approaches, maintain stillness when their immediate surroundings are active, or develop the fine motor skills that allows a dog to collect up an article whilst on the turn and not even break their stride.

A simple looking behaviour is full of skills: as the dog approaches with speed they will use their experience to assess the perfect point of contact needed to lift and carry that object. At the same time they will decelerate enough to be accurate in collection whilst turning in anticipation of their returning path to travel.

Travelling too fast without physical coordination is likely to cause an overshoot before the collection. Poor collection skills will force the dog to come to a stop and test-mouth the object before lifting. Poor carrying skills will slow the dog down on their returning journey.

This is not training. This is:

  • Identifying the skills needed for successful completion
  • Isolating those skills for the dog to build their experience and competency.
  • Practising those skills with planned increasing difficulty
  • Integrating those skills with other skills either in the chain or occurring simultaneously.

The plan would also include developing a range of complementary skills of physical fitness, motor coordination, strength and balance.

This is not about repeating 3000 retrieves.

eyes wide open

This is not training. Think instead of building a skilful learner: planning your dog’s future and developing their skills to share your life.

Even their basic learning curriculum is very extensive but easy to overlook or overwhelm. Can a 7 month old pup be expected to walk along the street, assess the threat of 16 wheeled lorries and maintain a constant speed at your side whilst child on a skateboard approaches? I would be screaming into the woods under this onslaught and certainly hesitate about future opportunities for “a quick walk”.

Rose bushes and espalier apples trees are trained to grow in a decorative and functional way.

Do you really want to be a trainer? Or perhaps be a learning designer?


Dogs were born to learn, not be trained.

Courses for the benefit of the dog
Course Born to Learn
Sheepballs Course

Key Reading

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.

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

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.

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.

Why add fun?

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

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

Construction or suppression

Looking at the way the behaviour is carried out is the most important element, and that is the product of all the considerations.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

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.

Top Training

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.

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

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……

Going Shopping

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


Preparing before you train and the final check list

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.

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?

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.

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

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