The Parallels Between Behavior Modification and Performance Training

The Cognitive Canine focuses on two different worlds of dog training; behavior modification and performance dog training.  There are very few trainers in the field that are extensively involved in both of these worlds.  Most behavior specialists just dabble in dog sports at best, and most dog sports enthusiasts focus their efforts on performance training.  Often what is believed in behavior circles is contrary to what is believed in performance circles, and sometimes that’s for good reason.  But my unique background of equal involvement on both sides of this coin has actually provided me with skills in both arenas.

Tug is actually your friend.  Often in the pet training or behavior world the game of tug is considered a lethal game–one that encourages inappropriate play behavior at best and aggressive behavior at worst.  This is not to say that ALL pet trainers or behavior specialists feel this way,  but the warnings about tug are alive and well in that world.  Because of my background in performance training I recognize the value tug games have for relationship and drive building.  I have used it to create great performance dogs AND I have used it to heal fearful or aggressive dogs.  Learning to play well with your dog (whether it’s tug or any other game) is vital to a good relationship with them.  That holds true for performance dogs, pet dogs, dogs with behavior problems, and dogs that just hold the couch down.

Shaping>Luring>Coercion. Good performance trainers use shaping to get behaviors, while most good pet dog trainers use luring (neither are worth their salt if they are using coercion).  It’s commonly accepted that you can teach people who want to be in dog sports how to shape their dogs, while you must “dumb down” dog training for pet owners and use luring.  I might be risking tomatoes being thrown at my head here, I realize, but I do find that luring is a dumbed down version of what is possible with your dogs.  It doesn’t take any extra or higher skill to use shaping, it is just a different skill.  Perhaps the real trouble is that pet dog trainers have never used shaping themselves, which is why they don’t teach it to their clients.  If a dog trainer (of any variety–performance trainers are just as guilty of this as pet trainers) is using one technique on her own dogs (like shaping, because it works best) and is teaching an entirely different technique to her clients (like luring, because it is easier to instruct), I believe she is doing her clients a disservice.  I teach what works best to all of my clients, it is that simple.

Desire for the task at hand is invaluable; whether the task at hand is attention heeling, reliable contacts, or choosing calming signals over aggression.  Too often pet trainers and behavior specialists, even when they are lovely trainers who get the job done without force of any kind, neglect to build real enthusiasm into the behavor for the dog.  Whenever a reliable response is required, like solid attention heeling, unflappable two on two off contacts, or consistent non-aggressive reactions to strangers, the response will be better maintained if the dog has deep internal value for that response.  For attention heeling I make sure that the dog is up, happy, and ready to play with me before we ever begin the training.  She must remain enthusiastic about the task or we quit, always.  For the two on two off I use very high value rewards, consumed IN POSITION, to create the same kind of intensity for that position that the dog would display if you plopped a plate of roast beef on the ground.  For aggression work, I do not work with dogs that are bored, scared or distracted.  I create an environment of safety and I use sought-after rewards.  The second the dog begins to indicate that he is tired of working on this (and it is tiring to learn to change social behavior) we do something else.  I want a dog working toward being less aggressive to be as enthusiastic about his work as my agility dogs are about running a course.  I find that this creates the best trained animals, in or out of the performance arena.

A connection to the handler is vital.  In progressive behavior, pet training, and performance work, the old idea that dogs are inherently “willing to please” has been tossed in the garbage, where it belongs.  But unfortunately, the idea that the dog and handler have an important and valuable connection is often tossed out with it.  In Obedience I encourage my students to build themselves into the rewards by playing interactive games and providing sincere praise with every cookie.  In Agility I teach a handling style that is respectful of body space and encourages the dog to chase down the handler on course.  In my behavior work, often the connection is damaged by poor training or corrections, and that connection must be repaired and rebuilt.  Bottom line in any kind of dog training; at some point you will find yourself without your equipment, and you need to be able to trust what you have left when your cheese, tug toys, or leash are gone.

My three agility dogs, being great pet dogs:

 

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