For a long time dog training and behavior modification has focused on producing results. More often than not these results occur in artificial setups where the environment and the variables at play within are both known and controlled. This is what dog trainers might call "an ideal training scenario."
Unfortunately, these types of training setups fail when they're applied to behavior happening in the real day-to-day world of the dog. This everyday world, with all of its inherent chaos, might be classified by the dog trainer as the "worst possible training scenario". The dog is distracted and overloaded with stimuli. The trainer is also distracted by the going on all around them: the sounds, sights, and smells. There's no question that when we start out on the path of working and training with our dogs it seems intuitively (or experientially) correct that these early lessons are best delivered in an ideal training scenario. So the dog has the best chance of getting everything right.
But what if this assumption is wrong?
What if the only way to effect real change in the behavior of our dogs when it really matters - when we are in a "worst possible training scenario" - is to observe and then work with the problem behavior at the time during which it is problematic.
Let's consider the issue from the point of view of learning. Imagine for a moment that we have a dog trainer trying to teach his client about how to elicit better, more consistent attention from her 18 month old terrier. The trainer has two ways to help the client learn what she needs to know to manage and mitigate the terrier's problem behavior: a total lack of attention when attention is required.
1. The dog trainer can teach the client how to use the tools that directly relate to the problem. For example, he might talk all about leashes and collars and how to manipulate them to garner the dog's attention. He might show the client steps on how to turn a neutral stimulus like a clicker or a whistle into a positively charged, attention grabbing sound cue. The trainer will do all of this in an environment in which there are simply not a lot of distractions to ensure the dog is able to comply with what the trainer is asking of him successfully. Sounds pretty straightforward for the trainer, right?
This is what is known as "teaching to the tools."
For the client, on the other hand, this is a very difficult way to tackle the behavior problem requiring attention. To mention just a few of the skills the client will need to learn how to manage to work "from the tools", the trainer might include: how to use a six foot leash with finesse and expert timing in relation to the dog and his lack of attentive behavior. The client will need to understand multiple rates of reinforcement and the value hierarchy of stimuli unique to her dog and her dog alone. She will need to make a list of all of the stimuli that drive her dog to distraction, and she will need to update it as her dog matures and changes and their lives together change over time. This list is by no means exhaustive. It isn't even comprehensive. In fact, we're barely scratching the surface.
With even a small number of difficult, time-consuming skills to master, it's no surprise when the trainer hears from the client two weeks later in an email expressing overt exasperation at the failure of the skills and tools she spent so much time, money, and effort to learn. She might even be feeling like nothing will ever change, or that somehow the deficit - the failure - is her own for not being able to become the "person her dog needs now". All this because she simply is not a dog behavior professional. She does not have the time, the exposure to different dogs in different contexts, or even the physical aptitude to utilize these tools with the expert precision the management of her dog's behavior requires in order to "work from the tools" effectively.
2. Instead, the dog trainer might think to himself, "Well, hang on a moment here. The dog isn't able to offer meaningful attention to the client in a wide variety of contexts, not just here inside the home." He might even have the foresight to look ahead and realize that, "these tools are not likely to be sufficient to redirect the dog's attention. What's more, thie clients' schedule and commitments will simply not afford her the time she needs to master these tools quickly enough to mitigate or even manage the problematic behavior." A really exceptional trainer might then ask himself, "What needs to happen to ensure the client is able to capture and hold her dog's attention in any scenario?"
This is known as "teaching to the problem".
Instead of presenting the client with the tools and the skills to use the tools in an expert fashion as a first approach, the trainer instead presents the client with the dog and says, "All right, let's look at this problem directly, and then apply those observations to what we do know about dogs in terms of immutable scientific fact (for example, the neurophysiology of the dog's brain. The fact that food rewards cause a certain part of canine brain to light up like a laser show, or where the predatorial nature of the dog lives in the brain and so on.) We might then ask questions like, "is there a pattern to the type of stimuli that elicit the behavior? Is the stimuli related to any of the dog's fundamental needs or wants? Does the stimuli cause a change in the affective (emotional) state of the dog, and if so, what about the dog's body language informs us what that emotional state might be?" We will intersect this information with the hard facts we do know about the dog: physiology, neurochemistry, genetic disposition, medical history, etcetera.
Once we've established a thorough understanding of our problem by asking critical questions, instead of defaulting to conventional approaches, a really amazing thing happens. The client begins to understand the usefulness of the tools (whether they're a physical management tool like a leash or a training protocol like Dr. Karen Overall's "Protocol for Relaxation") because of how they work on the problem. The leash, for example, working to establish safe distance, to impart impulse control where none exists, and to reinforce the connection between the dog and their human partner. The relaxation protocol, used to turn active attention into passive, relaxed attention through repetition, desensitization, and classical conditioning over time.
And wouldn't you know it, once that session is done the dog trainer doesn't hear from this client for four weeks. When they do finally connect for a follow-up lesson, the client exudes nothing but happiness and confidence. She's able to navigate the myriad of "least desirable training scenarios" with what she knows about the problem, and by extension she understands the necessary usefulness and practical application of the tools at her disposal. Not only is she able to manage her dog as regards the particular issue at hand, but she is able to extrapolate her understanding of the dog to new and novel problems as they arise throughout the rest of the dog's life.
This what it means to learn. To really, truly learn.
It may be that you've never experienced it before. The learning done in our high schools and universities is geared for mindless, unquestioning regurgitation of conventional truths and analogies. Even if you haven't yet experienced it, there is still time to develop this critical way of framing any problem.
If we continue to assume what is most effective in dog training and behavior modification is found through convention (what has always been done), or analogy (well it was this way for this dog so it must work for all dogs), we make it impossible to figure out where we might improve our approach and make things better. In any line of thinking, no matter the discipline, we want to make sure that the underlying premises we're working and building on are valid and useful in context of the problem we're facing. When we do reach a conclusion about the problem before us, we must then make sure that our conclusion is driven by these same principles. This is no more important in any other discipline than it is in the study of behavior.
It is this distinction that I hope to guide each and every one of my clients to understand and to embrace in their lives with their dogs. The reasoning that drives me is simple: I know that it will exponentially improve the quality of your life with your dog (and with every other animal you interact with) from the very first day we begin work together until your very last day on this Earth.
I can think of no greater calling. When you're ready, I'll be here. Let's get started.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.