What’s Cooking? A Warning About Recipes

by | Mar 6, 2023

Book Perfect \puppy

The Appeal

“With the dog in a down…take a piece of food in your right hand…hold it at the dog’s…wait for the dog to…click and treat…when the dog gets it right four times out of five…increase the difficulty by…”

Recipes for “training” dogs are so prevalent in how we live with and talk about them that their existence often goes unquestioned. We often hold the authority of others in higher regard than our own knowledge of our dogs and our intuition: what to do when we first bring them home; what games to play with them and how; how to deliver their meals; what stimuli to introduce them to and when. While it’s reassuring to have guidance and support from external sources, there’s a danger that we might, in the face of all of the often simplistic information that circulates, disregard our own knowledge of what’s best for our dogs, our understanding of who they are, our own most solid instincts.

several cups of tea

The Difference

Is a cuppa always a cuppa?

Only between 2pm and 5pm. The Irish brand of teabags that comes in the red box, made in my 500ml-capacity mug with the cartoon characters painted on. Bag in, boiling water on top, stir three times, squeeze the bag against the side of the mug before removing. Splash of soy milk; no sugar. Perfect…for me.

Not your cup of tea?

sample of ingredientsI once took a cooking course, which, as you might imagine, was assessed in part, at least initially, on our ability to recreate dishes. Our instructors were overwhelmingly focussed on our knife skills, temperature control, precision in applications of heat, balancing of flavour profiles. All of these skills had to be in place before we were allowed to progress to prepare dishes, but they had to be demonstrated the entire way through the course. Graduation tasks involved creating recipes to very broad specifications: small bites, cold soups, etc., and here we were encouraged to think beyond recipes to our understanding of harmony of flavours, textures, the consumers of the dishes, etc.

The instructors analogised recipes to route planners: they are one way of getting from A to B, but they aren’t the only way or the best way. No tarragon in the cupboard? Understand the flavour profile of the dish and be familiar with herbs to decide if and how to substitute it. Fan oven? Adjust the temperature and cooking time. Want a slightly different texture? Consider what ingredients or methods to add or adapt to produce that effect.

We learned that working with recipes is not only a matter of preference, but also a matter of chemistry: the results of a sourdough loaf can be affected by humidity, altitude, the seasons, the brand of “strong white bread flour” used, the bacterial composition of the yeast. Roasting vegetables will produce different flavours depending on the size and the cut; the role of thyme in a dish can depend on whether it is chopped or not, and how finely, where on the plant it is taken from, and whether the stems are included and how.

For someone who just wants a roast potato, these details may not matter, but for someone who wants their roast potato to be just right, they matter very much. And I can assure you that just right when it comes to my roast potato will be very different from yours, and yours from a hundred different people: all of these just rights shaped by physiology, learning, experience, sensory preference, and many other factors besides.

Selection of books perfect puppy

A Perfect Dog?

We’re led to believe that “dog training” involves following a series of steps to achieve a certain result, regardless of whether the two individuals involved have the requisite skills, or, in fact, whether that learning is appropriate. Yet, if we recognise that no two dogs are identical, no two humans are identical, no two partnerships are identical, then we repeatedly need to enquire of the learning, the partnership, and the other party when designing any learning. This is, in fact, where learning actually happens, for both us and our dogs. Just right for them, for us, for our lifestyles will diverge significantly among each of us, and even within our multiple-dog households.

When it comes to our lives with dogs, then, recipes abound, as though we can produce identical dogs to order. The appeal that we might be able to take a formula and apply it to achieve certain “guaranteed results” is understandable, but is it really desirable? A takeaway version of “dog,” neatly packaged in the distinctive wrappers of negative attributes (dog does not bark, bite, growl, pull on lead, protect their possessions, struggle with being alone, jump up, counter surf). A veritable menu of suppression, with easy-to-follow steps to get the dog you want as fast as possible. Not only do we inherit recipes for their learning, then, but for their entire existence, putting us in danger of becoming so reliant on external guidance that we repeatedly look beyond the relationship and our own instincts.

Someone else’s recipe for a Good Dog, though, is not the same as mine. And the reality of the individual dogs with whom I live will differ, too, from my idea: while I’d like a dog who’s indifferent to strangers out and about, for example, Tighearnán doesn’t want to meet them; Nika, on the other hand, finds novel humans (in real life, or even on TV) extremely arousing. I wouldn’t change either of them for the world – they’re perfect versions of themselves – but I can set up their environment and build their skills and rewards to facilitate their success at moving through the world in a way that’s best for them, for me, for our lifestyle together, and for those they encounter. And only they and I can determine what this means.

Essential for whom?

Are we just making dogs compliant for people or should we give more consideration to what is going to be beneficial for that dog, living in that lifestyle and an uncertain future?

Greeting strangers
Strangers outcome

My dogs have never had to walk in busy traffic (Checklist item #35), mingle with children (Checklist item #2), encounter steam trains (Checklist item #306), or go to restaurants or bars (Checklist items #10, 186, 283, 945); I don’t foresee any of these things in their future, so they’re not where I invest our time and energy.

I don’t want them to sit to greet – in fact, I don’t want them to be greeted by strangers at all I want us to connect on our walks together (Recipe #67) but that doesn’t mean that they need to look at me every few steps (Recipe #148); instead, it will mean that we will match our pace, communicate with each other in various ways including through the lead, and share our focal points. I don’t want them to look at me on cue (Recipe #1035); I want them to look to me when I’m about to do something relevant to them because they’ve learned to read the sound of my breathing, my posture, and other cues that I unthinkingly transmit that tell them a reward is available. I wouldn’t have “trained” them to make eye contact (Recipe #3456) if it hadn’t come naturally or comfortably to them and it would serve no discernible purpose in my relationship with them. I don’t want a vet visit to be an exciting and gleeful event (Recipes #87, 91, 234, etc.); I want it to be minimally stressful and over as quickly as possible – they don’t need to have lots of positive experiences in that place, but I will ensure that we minimise the negative ones” (which is why Tighearnán and I wait in the car, or why Nika licks pâté off the table so she doesn’t notice the needle).

Resisting what others, especially those who claim expertise, tell us is best for our dogs is not always easy. In fact, it puts back on our shoulders the onus of thinking critically about the life we want for and with our dogs, the responsibility for their behaviour, and the duty of engineering their learning thoughtfully and with care. It requires that we examine who they are, our lives with them, and our individual situations to make choices that are in the best interest of all concerned. But it is worth doing if we want to make sure that the ingredients that we have – them, us, the way we live together – combine into a dish that’s just right.

More on the Shelf to Read

A Teaching Plan 
Discusses the importance of learning design and provides some examples of what this might look like in the context of engineering learning for dogs. The importance of considering the individuals involved in designing any learning. The benefits to both parties.

Heartbeat of Living with Dogs
A post seeks to shift the paradigm from the mindset of adapting dogs to fit our lives and towards  attentiveness to the individual dogs themselves.

Think Carefully
An investigation of learner-centred education through the example of Merrick’s learning preferences.



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

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Key Reading

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

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.

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.

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.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

Experience changes our ethos. There are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

It’s Not Training

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

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.

The Answers Await Discovery

The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:”

Top Training

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.

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.

Luring: Hand lures

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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