In training we talk a lot about teaching our dogs behaviors. But what are we really teaching them? They come knowing how to move their own bodies. What we’re really teaching them most of the time is not how to sit, stand, lie down, walk, or look, but rather when, where, and why.
The when is generally either “when I give the cue,” or when a certain thing in the environment happens. The where is position—where do you want the dog to be or go or do that thing? And the why is what’s in it for the dog. No behavior will keep happening if there’s no reinforcement in it for the behaver.
This is of course the idea behind the technique of “capturing,” my favorite way to teach all the basics. You just have to watch your dog, and when he’s likely to sit or lie down anyway, be ready to reinforce. The dog quickly learns to repeat the behavior to get you to do your part, and then you can add whatever cue you want to use to tell the dog when reinforcement is available for that particular behavior in the future.
A really easy way to teach a dog when, where, why, or all of them at once is to simply teach him that a certain cue (from you or the environment) reliably predicts that something he likes will appear in a certain place. He can actually figure out which behaviors will put him in that place at the right time, especially if he has a repertoire of actions to choose from that have worked in other situations. Teaching wait, which I wrote about last month, is one example. Another is following a hand target: if you have taught your dog very well that putting his nose in your hand produces a click and a treat, you don’t really have to teach him to walk toward your hand to touch it. He knows how to walk already; he just doesn’t know when, where, or why yet.
The same idea can be used other ways, and to solve specific problems that might initially seem more complex.
Here’s an example where a specific problem was solved:
Archie was a six-month-old black lab in a home where the front door was below street level and the main living area was up a flight of stairs from the foyer. The top of the stairs was gated while Archie learned that keeping his feet on the floor was the best way to get his favorite people to come through. But the area they stepped up into once the gate was opened was tight, so we still wanted to prevent crowding. And if Archie did make a mistake and jump, we didn’t want him to knock anyone backwards down the stairs.
Our first step was to place a bathmat along the side of the stairs (if you’re having trouble picturing the layout, see the video link below). Archie had previously been reinforced for standing, sitting, and lying down on this mat using Nan Arthur’s Relax on a Mat technique, so the idea was to give him a strong hint about where he could go (side of stairs) and why (because food tends to appear when his feet are on the mat). And guess what—if Archie was alongside the stairs, he could not also be at the gate.
Then we taught him when. To start, each time I went down or up the stairs, I simply reached through the railing and placed a treat on the mat, even if Archie wasn’t on it yet. If he didn’t go to the mat right away when I came upstairs, I didn’t come through the gate. With no reinforcement forthcoming for hanging out at the top of the stairs, which were gated, he would eventually move to the mat at the side to get the treat, and then he started to move to the side faster and faster.
I repeated this pattern until Archie saw me coming up the stairs, anticipated the treat, and moved to the mat ahead of it. Anticipation of what predicts where food will appear is a basic survival skill, and I just capitalized on it: When he started moving to the side reliably, I began to wait until he moved to give the treat. Then we repeated the training process with different family members. You can see a video of part of the process here. The family kept a container of treats at the bottom of the stairs so that they could consistently reinforce this behavior when they came home.
Additional steps can include fading the target mat and varying how we reinforce Archie for moving to the side—sometimes with a treat, sometimes with petting and happy talk that takes place a few safe steps away from the top of the stairs.
We didn’t teach Archie to walk or stand or put his feet on something. He already knew how to do that. We just provided the information about where, when, and why he might want to do it.