No room for mechanics

by | Nov 15, 2021

Where there is a passion for a subject there is a wealth of nonsense and jiggery-poo that is designed to capture the innocent and naïve. Slick phrases are engineered as fast marketing tools that begin to seep into the way we function and apply our skills. Our thinking is warped, “training must be fun”, “end on a positive note”, “click for a loose leash”.

At one time a particular phrase may have had relevance and been important for beginner clarity to a complicated process. If we are to move our learning forwards, we need to be able to discriminate between marketing nonsense and usable facts that improve our skills or understanding.

“Training is a mechanical skill”

If I lean backwards to find some justification for this phrase, I can only arrive at a difference in common use between US English and UK English. The difference in usage has tripped me up before with the phrase: “to take a class”. In the UK, the person taking the class is the teacher or instructor, in the US, the taker is the student. After both of us standing around for several minutes waiting for the other person to begin we resolved the misunderstanding.


adjective: operated by a machine or machinery;
noun: working parts of a vehicle, motorised, automatic, machine driven

    1. (of a person of action) not having or showing thought or spontaneity, automatic
    2. relating to physical forces of motion

noun: branch of applied mathematics dealing with motion and forces producing motion


a person who repairs or maintains machinery

As usual we have more than one use of the same word, so give a daily appreciation if English is your first language. All the definitions are, without doubt, about an action that has absolutely nothing to do with the art of rearing a young animal.

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner. The very essence of the skills we are looking for are thoughtful, considered, empathic, careful, sincere. The antithesis of “mechanical”.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Motor skills

All of our movement and actions are originated and controlled through motor neuron pathways to muscles. We build these motor actions, or skills, through repeated conscious practice and  develop co-ordination, balance, perception which can range from fine to gross. Example of a gross skill would be climbing stairs and fine skill would be handwriting. Many of our movements become habits, automated responses where we maintain a repetitive action, or muscle memory, and cease to change or improve.

This is most definitely NOT where I want my motor skills to end up. I want to continue to improve, get better, more fluent, more expressive and never slide into mechanical territory.

Sad outcomes

Too often I have seen a graduate of mechanical training with a clear and unchanging demonstration of mechanical behaviours. The dog that responds to a cue with a sigh, looks away, places their butt to the floor and generally sags. The recall that sees a dog ambling towards Person eyes roving around on the journey. A paw wave lacking any enthusiasm. Side by side walking where neither party seem to be aware of the other. Pretty much the same way you do the washing up – job done, a chore, necessary, no enjoyment, no pleasure.

Why on earth would anyone wish to employ “good mechanics” in the process of teaching a dog, rearing a youngster, building behaviours?

If we live in the world of truly positive then an expression of pleasure when rewarding the dog is at the core of the process. Do we look for “expressions of pleasure” needing to be mechanical? Please, no.

That youngster is looking for your pleasure in their effort and achievement. If the response is purely mechanical then we are missing the essence of joy both teacher and learner gains from the interaction.

Delightful Young man

I have introduced thousands of people to reward based learning and seen their faces light up when their dog gets it. It is the true pleasure in learning, of both parties, to find that open avenue of communication. A pup that is seeking information, a person that can deliver it clearly, confidently and responds sincerely with the reward. It is a pure form of learning that rewards continuously, and honestly. It is the heart of the process.

Capture movement

I am fascinated when watching a beam engine, or production line that moves entirely mechanically with precision and elegance. An engine that will endure for decades with minimal maintenance and no reward.

This has nothing to do with building movement in animals. A trot or jump from a dog that is fit and well and able to perform with expression and pleasure in simple movement. A movement built with rewards, not simply mechanical reinforcement.

A reinforcer may function to increase the likelihood of repetition but a reward will function to build pleasure into the action, a desire to repeat, that is clear to see.

Actions centred around rewards will contain intrinsic value and be adapted to ensure the maintenance and increase of that value. The dog will get better at the task to gain more rewards. It will contain flexibility so that it can perform in different conditions, a dog that can track in snow or over concrete.

Reward delivery

This should never be regarded as a mechanical process. Even my computer will throw a party when I achieve a new level of learning. Delivery is a flexible (motor) action that requires practice and employs several skills.

Can you deliver to the perfect spot?

What does this look like? A table laid with all that you need in easy reach, your rewards at hand, not across the other side. A car designed with controls effortlessly touched. The perfect spot is not an accident, it is full of research, thoughtfulness and consideration.

An offered tasty morsel, that can be taken without head twisting, leaving the sit, or grabbing forwards?

An chunk of cheese attractively bouncing away inviting chase.

A moment of affection as the sausage is placed under your chin

Rewards that are delivered to give pleasure in the taste but also in the way they are delivered. The person that gives attention on how you take it, chew it, swallow and pause to enjoy the pleasure, before moving onwards.

Reward is a gift

The process of choosing rewards is like buying gifts, you either hate it or love it. A gift is something the other person would enjoy and feel a personal connection from your consideration of what they would find pleasurable. This comes from be actively aware of what they enjoy and respond to in daily life. A good day is filled with simple small pleasures that can be built and expanded.

Rewards are dynamic and continually changing. They will not be the same from one year to the next, as our skills increase, or decrease as we get older. An apple pie off a supermarket shelf will not taste as good as the one cooked by someone especially for you just the way you like it.

Look ahead down the pathway

Please do not learn to be a reinforcement machine. If you see the process as tedious and mechanical you will get back tedious and mechanical behaviours.

I suggest you find a new career in engine design.

Delightful Young man



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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?

And Why Can’t He Refuse?

I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value

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.

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?”

It’s Not Training

A carefully planned learning pathway, paced to suit that particular learner for their life ahead.

Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers

We lean on science in our efforts to bridge the gap as though it provides the answers to how things should be rather than describing how things are understood.

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

Why add fun?

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

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.

Top Training

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?

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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……

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.


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