Normal is always changing

by | Aug 6, 2020

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.

What we have learned in the past 20 years since the R+ clicker revolution wave first hit is changing the courses we offer and what folk are wanting to learn. All the time we are becoming more sophisticated in what we understand which in turn changes our application.

I was recently holding an online conversation about training young collies to work sheep. Would I teach the “down” (or drop) with a clicker and food prior to working on sheep?

Not now, not today.

Lie down!

The dog is not actually required to down, sit or stand when working on the sheep. It is only required to come to a stop. The tradition of viewing “must lie down” is similar to the view of “dogs must sit” when greeting.

It is the view that suppression should be used to achieve control of behaviour and control of the dog. Control is always present within the dog, originated by the dog for beneficial outcomes and the sooner we recognise when it occurs and harness it, the sooner we stop forcing control.

On the sheep the “stop there”, serves as a function of ending the current movement and listening for the next instruction.

It is much harder for the dog to take instruction when on the move, and then to change direction or momentum. The “stop there” is like engaging the clutch, prior to changing gear.

Reward prediction

When the dog recognises a learned cue or signal that has a history of reward (reinforcement) for successful responses, the memory of that reward is triggered when hearing the cue. This memory serves as an incentive to perform the behaviour. We now refer to this as Reward Predicting Stimulus (RPS).

The behaviour is affected by anticipation of the specific reward.

When the dog is trained to lie down on a verbal cue, clicked and rewarded with food, several responses will be happening. The click, or marker, functions as a cue (Reward Predicting Stimulus) which will cause to dog to look (at the person) for information on food delivery.

When working on the sheep, we do not want the dog to look at the person but maintain continual visual scanning of the sheep.

Often you will see the dog anticipate food rewards with a lick of the lips. A click causes Merrick to drool. If the dog is not going to be rewarded by food but by continuation of the predatory activities then conflict can occur.

This would be similar to you arriving at a restaurant, ordering your dinner and then rewarded with a new book or a coupon for a holiday. The repetition of the reward-error is going to screw you around and you may stop ordering dinner at all.

Behaviour in context, reward in context

Forcing a down position can be inappropriate for that dog, doing that behaviour, at that moment. The stopping position should be at the discretion of the dog suitable to the situation. The dogs that are inclined to completely drop at any opportunity as their predatory response, are more often or not called to “get up”. These are considered sticky dogs.

I would teach the dog the stop long before going anywhere near sheep, either during play, but certainly in conjunction of predatory behaviours – stalking, watching, circling, flanking, and the reward would be additional predatory opportunities. This can be in parallel with lots of juvenile behaviours, young collies often practise their behaviours on other pups, chickens, and through observation you can see the moments where they naturally come to a stop and pair that with your signals.

Not food, not a clicker.

This drop not that down

I do teach the accurate and specific “drop” or a cantilever, sphinx, where the dog drops with a level spine, avoiding any forward progression. The cue is a verbal “drop”, and I would only use this around sheep if I wanted the dog to take up this position and look to me.

The new normal is then aligning the reward to compliment continuation and repetition of that specific behaviour. The behaviour of lying down can occur for several different reasons: to take the weight off the feet, in preparation of a roll over and scratching the back, a submissive gesture, to crawl underneath something or as a predator hiding from prey.

EACH of these occurrences is a different behaviour, each should be rewarded with specific rewards suitable to those behaviours. When planning to teach any behaviour is becomes our norm to analyse the natural function of that behaviour to be able to choose the most appropriate reward.




Build the Learning

Lifelong skills built in activities and play. A dog that is curious, confident, resilient with a natural enthusiasm for learning.

rewards skills

Learn about the fascinating landscape of rewards and how to make them the centre of your training and relationship.

Management or Training

Find a pathway to suit your lifestyle of living with dogs. When management temporarilly supports the learning, or choose training.

learn well
learn it once

Setter Members

Access to The Sett community and groups

Discount for all courses and videos 50%

Archives of previous courses and books

Share your learning, upgrade your thinking


Key Reading

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.

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 …

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.

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?”

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?

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.

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?

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

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.

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.

Remote lures

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

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

News on courses, articles and stuff you don't want to miss.