The Spaces Between

by | Apr 5, 2022

eyes wide open

With pride that I’d “got the behaviour,” I review the video. The pride turns to astonishment to disappointment. One behaviour after another after another as I drop the food and turn away to reset. I observe in the replay the spaces between: his eyes searching for connection with me as I divert mine. His moment of glory, his reward: I treated it like a chance to buy myself some time. I’d got the behaviour but I’d lost sight of him.

The Process

When we think of “training”, we often think of something that’s linear, unilateral, and goal-oriented. We think of rapid repetitions of behaviours as the outcome and as the mark of the success. In fact, nothing could be—or perhaps should be—further from the truth. Human education has moved on from the idea that teaching is purely about imparting information to be memorised by rote, and even knowledge-based curricula embrace enquiry and problem-solving as important parts of learning. Educators recognise that learners will construct meaning that is determined by their own experiences, and that we can draw on these to deepen the connections that can then be made to new discoveries, new theories and facts, and new ways of engaging with ideas. At the heart of learner-centred education, the teacher acts as a guide whose role is to elicit rather than to impart, and learners quickly become empowered and equipped to transfer their knowledge and skills to new scenarios. This is in marked contrast to a mechanistic process that focusses on outcomes and that fails to acknowledge the multiple forms of uniqueness that each learner will bring.

The Disjunction

Yet, the common discourse surrounding the cohabitation of humans and dogs marks out their lives and their learning in behaviours and in our ability to elicit them. The ascription of value to particular outcomes—walking on a “loose lead,” recall, sitting when requested—these things inevitably funnel our focus in that direction. Try as we might resist some of the more arbitrary notions of how our dogs should move through a human world, the tendency to perceive our interactions with them as an exchange of actions—the pressure to “get behaviour”—can colour the edges of that shared world, and can result in a disjunction that positions us at opposite poles where we negotiate and trade to bridge the spaces between us. Yet rewards are at the heart of the learning process as the dog perceives it, and to place our focus elsewhere is to miss so much information that we can use to guide, is to lose sight of skills that can be transferred across contexts, and is to fail to honour and empower our learners.

His world, so heavily prescribed by my arrangement of it, is full of rewards that he seeks out; I vow to tune in more to the what, the where, and the how. 

The Reward

If learning is driven by rewards, and if the acquisition of new skills and the ability to solve new problems are pleasurable unto themselves, then it behoves us to tune in more frequently to what our dogs find rewarding and to how they enjoy it. It may be that they are thrilled by the anticipation, that they find pleasure in the exchange of something of value, that they relish showing it off, that they delight in being observed as they savour their prize.

Attentiveness to their rewards is not only a matter of demonstrating respect for our partners-in-learning, but it is also essential to guiding their acquisition of new skills. And if we can shift our focus to filling the learning with rewards and becoming part of that reward process through honouring it, then the entire process itself becomes enhanced for all concerned: through connectedness, through our pleasure at being part of their pleasure, and through a shift in focus that changes the colouring of the experience. We observe, we watch, and while we guide we empower them to enter into dialogue with us and to further inform the learning; our mutual communication and understanding will invariably improve as a result.

The Communication

To teach effectively is to listen: to fully situate the process on our learner, to understand how they are experiencing it, to make adjustments where necessary, to elicit a sense of agency in them, and to, in turn, learn from them ourselves. To shift the process from one that is concerned with what we may take from it and to think, instead, in terms of what our learners are gaining is to make room for them to express themselves, for us to know them, and for the learning to blossom in this dialogue—this requires that we pay attention.

He taps my foot when he wants something. A compromise, certainly, and a remarkable adjustment to interspecies living. But every tap is a signal of a history of my failure to meet him halfway, to perceive him on his own terms.

The signs that we use to communicate as a species are comparatively more elaborate than those displayed, read, and understood by our canine companions. Our emphasis on symbolic gestures, and particularly on verbal utterances, is a marked contrast to a system of communication in which the slightest movement of an ear or the ripple of hair can convey so much information to an attentive observer. We expect the same elaborate gestures in return, watching for and only responding to the loudness, the largeness, and missing the subtleties and the nuance. We focus on the behaviours that are most visible, most audible, and in doing so we often fail to observe the gaps in which the most important information is conveyed, to read what is tacit, to carve out space, to create stillness that will invite the dog to fill it with information.

An advert appears in my social media feed: teach your dog to “talk.” The key to understanding, we insist, is the one that we hold; the world to be unlocked is the one we perceive and depict; the duty for this rests on their shoulders. The onus for communication is not ours; never ours. 

The Silence

It is in the silence that the most vital information is to be found: in the spaces between actions, movements, responses. To learn where to look for these spaces and to understand how to navigate them are skills that must be developed over our lifetimes and over those of each of the ones with whom we share them. Silence is the framework to the process of interaction. We may perceive that interaction only in moments of direct connection: proximity, physical contact, a shared gaze. But it is in the moments unencumbered by a focus on doing, a focus on behaviour, that the most important learning is to be had: our richest learning is to be found in in the spaces between.

The Learning

Within the paradigm of an approach to learning that focuses on behaviours, we’re the ones controlling the communication; we’re the ones determining the acceptable responses; and therefore, in essence, we’re the only ones talking. To focus only on “correct responses” and not the complexity and vibrancy of rewards is to fail to listen to the conversation that’s actually taking place.

Yet teaching is a discursive process which is most effective when both parties are open to learning from each other. At its heart, it is a process of enquiry in which information is offered in every moment, but most particularly in the silences that bracket our delivery of the reward. The skill is in observing, in learning how to adjust and adapt to those moments in gathering the information from the spaces between in order that we may respond with greater openness, thoughtfulness, and care. In their attentiveness to the value of these moments—in their focus on what is most rewarding—dogs have far more to teach us than we have to teach them. 

When he’s done with his task he flicks a glance towards me. One opportunity for connection observed is a reminder of thousands missed. Not knowing exactly how to respond, but determined to learn, I invite him to come to me, and he does, pressing himself against my shins as I stroke him gently and talk to him in whispers. I straighten up, moving backwards a couple of inches as I do so, and he fills the space between us again. 

eyes wide open

Tighearnan: eyes wide open looking for a chance to learn.



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Key Reading

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.

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.

Think carefully

We cannot presume a cue is a reinforcer unless we can shape a new behaviour using that cue as the marker. Read carefully. Think carefully. Consider multiple perspectives. Sometimes it seems easier to let someone else do the thinking for you and just copy, but we need to become thoughtful trainers.

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.

Why add fun?

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

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.

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.

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?”

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.

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?

Going Shopping

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

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.


Preparing before you train and the final check list


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