Behaviour can simply be described as anything your dog does. And this can include what you cannot see and cannot observe.

ABC’s of Behaviour

Behaviour is guided by what we refer to as the ABC’s of Behaviour. Antecedent conditions – Behaviour – Consequences. Antecedent conditions refer to the circumstances and conditions that precede behaviour and that set a particular behaviour up to occur. The behaviour that occurs always has some purpose that is useful or important to the dog. And finally the consequences that occur define the likelihood that a behaviour will repeat and be utilized again.

Behaviour Always Has a Purpose To The Individual Exhibiting It.

Barring teeth and biting, for example, have the purpose most often to move something or someone away. Raising the hackles on one’s back and lifting the head and tail make one appear bigger and therefor may be used to intimidate another and protect oneself. Running around a ring barking, or biting at the handler can help them deal with stress and anxiety. Not doing obstacles and running slowly can prevent a handler from getting mad when they have doubt about what is being asked of them, rather than do something that leads to anger and punishment.

Desired and Undesired Behaviour

Some of what they do by nature is desired by us and some of what they do is not. Certainly as a trainer, and I would think that mostly for any dog owner as well, that maximizing desired behaviour would be our goal. We wish to replace undesired behaviour with desired behaviour and if not we may also manage and prevent undesired behaviour from occurring,  thereby reducing its frequency of occurrence and hopefully eliminating it all together.

Examples of undesired behavior often surround how they handle stress to different aspects of life that put pressure on them and cause anxiety and, or fear. Until they are familiar with sites, sounds and smells, they may respond to circumstances in inappropriate ways.  The world constantly presents them with new stimuli; sounds, sites and smells in particular, but also touch (ground, floors and footing) and even taste potentially (although this is heavily influenced by the sense of smell) that they must interpret and respond.  Some dogs in some circumstances pick behaviour we like to see, but since they are dogs and may choose a behaviour we don’t want them to use; leaving the choice up to them is often not a great idea.

Preventing Behaviour That You Don’t Want To See

One of the easiest ways to avoid undesired behaviour is to avoid the circumstances that create it. Alternatively, we often manage the circumstances in a way that allows us to modify the resulting behaviour. I can think of many behaviours I never want to see and would never want to repeat. Aggression to other dogs or people, for example. Or maybe a dog that jumps and rolls in a mud puddle, or one who rolls in dead fish on the river banks. All of these circumstances that lead to this can be potentially be avoided, or maybe managed if not.

I intentionally prevent behaviour I don’t want to see from repeating and setup circumstances to train an alternative or specific  behaviour I do want. This applies equally dog dog agility and training the desired behaviour necessary for the game. It is far easier to train the behaviour you want than to undo behaviour you don’t want and replace it with behaviour you do want.

Extinguishing a Behaviour You Don’t want. 

Commonly trainers and dog owners add punishment as the consequence of a particular behaviour in an to attempt to extinguish the undesired behaviour, but this method ignores the purpose of the behaviour and can be ineffective in many cases. Also, it almost always destroys motivation and has a significant negative consequence that goes beyond the behaviour and may reduce the quality of our relationship with our dog.

Getting the Behaviour You Want To See

Alternatively, we can attempt to elicit and train a new behaviour. Training is absolutely required if one can not simply avoid or alter the circumstances that lead to a behaviour. Knowing the purpose of the behaviour can be invaluable in getting them to offer a  desired behaviour or maybe to replace the behaviour you wish to eliminate, or “extinguish” as it is more commonly referred to in Psychology.

In creating and shaping new behaviour, it is easiest if we start simple and control the circumstances leading up to the desired behaviour. For example, in training jumping, specifically what we refer to as collection where a dog needs to stay close to the jump and wrap around the jump without looking ahead or jumping long over the jump (extended), we try to eliminate motion leading up to the jump and away from the jump and control excitement during the initial training of the behaviour. This prevents them performing behaviour in this type of jumping that we don’t want to see when wrapping a jump, but that might be desired when they are running long and jumping straight ahead.

Shaping the Behaviour You Want

Shaping behaviour is the art of getting a behaviour you want in some form and controlling the antecedent conditions and consequences in order to alter the behaviour into something specific you do want.  The intention is to create a reliable and robust behaviour that occurs under all circumstances and conditions, regardless of the magnitude of stress that is present when we ask for and/or expect a particular behaviour.

Incremental growth of skills and behaviour is best accomplished by challenging the limits of ability based on actual observation and not expectations while maintaining high success/reward rates, but also pushing them slightly past the threshold of success. We and our dogs gain confidence from repeating success, but we learn new things from trial and error, or what is called, planned failure.

The robustness of a behaviour also determines how well they generalize to new and unfamiliar circumstances and environments. Often the term “proofing” is used as part of the shaping process in order to create a behaviour that will not fail to occur when it is needed. Training is complete when they cannot fail, which might just mean we are always training, depending on the complexity of the behaviour and the variability of the circumstances under which we expect it to occur.

Increasing Robustness and the Frequency of Desired Behaviour

My goal for all my dogs would include increasing the frequency of behaviour I want to see and eliminating behaviour I do not want to see.  This is defined by me and not by my dogs. I am their guide and their trainer. How we respond to the behavior they choose and how we guide them in their responses has a big influence on their entire life.

In particular, how they handle stress from new things, people and places early on impacts very significantly how they will handle things later in life. Teaching them to deal with stress in controlled and manageable ways is important. If they experience stress in a controlled manner with easy to manage anxiety levels they can cope more easily with new and stressful experience, with investigation and patience, moving away when stress becomes too much with some concern and maybe needing reassurance from me (a glance), but not fear unless truly warranted. Once they calm slightly, they can then forge forward once again and incrementally deal with increasing stress on their own.

Having a dog who exhibits almost exclusively desired behaviour can be a very relaxing and rewarding experience wherever you go and with whatever you may do.  But there is no free ride to this point.  This is achieved by taking the time to work with your dog in some way each day.  This might be just training daily behaviour and correct choices like leaving socks and shoes alone in favor of dog toys, or not playing with cables and other things, or it might be self control behavior like sits, downs and stays, or maybe you go further into some tricks or other amazing things they can do well.

Shaping Behaviour with Positive Methods

Having the dog choose to offer behaviour we are looking for so we can reward it is a referred to as shaping behaviour through “operant conditioning.”  In controlled circumstances we can mark and reward successful desired behavior offered by the dog.  It is important to note, that it is important to set criteria and require incremental growth that is achievable, given the circumstances. Controlling the circumstances to achieve high success and reward rates is critical to building confidence. Occasional failure to present the desired behaviour is good; the lack of reward, or planned failure creates learning.  This is why we try to create controlled circumstances that reward success 75% – 80% of the time. Rewarding often creates confidence and trust. Failing without punishment keeps the desire to try again high and given opportunity to succeed they will make the correct choice for the reward.

Training Consistent Behaviour Anywhere and Everywhere

I consider it important to be consistent in what you expect from your dog and how you them. Positive methods should be used everywhere they can be and teaching concepts like self control and focus require consistency in order to become reliable. Dogs can learn different expectations for different places and different people, but in order to be highly reliable at specific behaviour under highly stressful conditions requires that behaviour to be very good everywhere. Sits, downs, stand and the concept of stay certainly are far better in the dog agility ring if they are great everywhere else.  Self control when excited or under high levels of stress is far more reliable if the behaviour is asked for and consistent everywhere. In the house, in the yard, on the street, in the park, at the training facility, at fun matches, parades and festivals and at competitive events.

Value of Relationship to Behaviour and Performance

Behaviour is only part of the overall picture for having a great dog who is well trained, however.  The relationship you have with your dog and how it impacts the performance of desired behaviour during the ongoing activities of your life together is fundamentally important as well.  Whether this is walking down the street, visiting friends, or getting involved in dog related activities, having a great relationship will create a strong desire to perform the desired behaviour no matter where they are and no matter what conditions there are when it is called for.  Performing desired behaviour under stress, in new places and in new situations is very important for you and your dog.  This is when their behaviour is truly understood by them.

The performance of behavior must extend beyond the home and training environments into how they respond to the circumstances they will face in their day-to-day world, as they go out in the yard, onto the sidewalks and down the streets.  Going into stores, and parks where people gather, these are where we want to continue to see desired behavior.  A great deal of desired behaviour we want to grow and increase the likelihood of it occurring under a greater variety of circumstances.  We do this by making sure we can have successful behaviour and reward it often.


On the other hand, children, for example, who are punished for failed attempts tend to offer any behaviour less often in their attempt to avoid punishment and this is not just for the behaviors that are punished. This is very true of dogs too where a dog will be more reluctant to try and find the correct behavior and will hesitate and offer less than a dog who is rewarded for success and not punished on failure.  We can try to extinguish the undesired behavior using punishment; reducing its frequency until it is not presented, or we can replace it with another response, which might be a new behavior, or it might be an already present behaviour.

In other words, we can be a passenger in their  life, driving a nail in our relationship each time we punish them, or we can be involved in their development and help them and teach them how to behave in our world. Certainly minor corrections where there is no meanness, or abuse can be used and may have value ,but caution is always required if one wants a happy dog, willing to have fun and try new things without fear. I have said this elsewhere, punishment when used must be minimal in strength and used rarely to be effective and maintain growth and desire.

The Value of Training Behaviour Beyond Daily Requirement

In addition to the behavior they exhibit on their own, or require for day-to-day life, there will generally be behavior we want our dogs to be able to perform  for their benefit and for ours as well.  This is certainly true for trainers and likely for most if not all dog owners as well.  There are many things like enjoying the quiet and peacefulness of a kennel, sitting or laying in place, or maybe doing a few tricks that strengthen skills like self control and ability to focus and think. Or maybe you want to get involved in dog sports and activities for the benefit of your cognitive and physical health as well as for your dog’s physical and cognitive health.

All Dog Owners are Dog Trainers

In fact, all dog owners must be dog trainers and must teach the necessary skills for survival in our world and guiding their development. Training their skills and shaping their world is completely our responsibility. Shaping their behaviour into desired behavior and replacing undesired behavior with that which is desired is what we do for our dogs throughout their lives, whether we do special activities with them , or not.

Canine Communication

Canine behavior is unique from other species and is certainly different from human behavior.  We tend to rely a lot more on verbal communication and rely on behavioral components less so in most cases (but not all).  Dogs are certainly the reverse.  They communicate almost exclusively with behaviour by nature.  They learn verbal sounds, expressions and tones as part of this behavioural communication between themselves and other dogs as well as between themselves and people.  Words themselves; we add and ask for and they can learn, but verbal language and communication is non existent aside from a list of behaviour commands/requests that are assigned meaning in behaviour by us.  They do not have cognitive skills to rationalize and reason. They see, smell, hear and act on what they believe is the best response to achieve their immediate goal – receive reward, or avoid punishment; depending on the environment they are raised in and the circumstances they face. Of course in my home, since I love my dogs, I prefer them to seek rewards of attention, affection, food and play over avoiding things out of fear.

Rewards and Reward Value

As for what is rewarding to dogs, or what are referred to as “unconditioned reinforcers,” these include receiving food, play, attention and affection. All will increase desired behaviour although to varying degrees depending on the individual character, breed and experience of each dog.  These are often shaped by trainers into what we want them to be by training them intentionally and improving our relationship with our dogs as a result.

Behaviour is about stimulus and response. That stimulus may be an agility jump in their path, or it may be something you do; it can be anything. The behavioural response is what they do about it. Unconditioned reinforcers that reinforce desired behaviour and therefore increase its frequency include the desire for food, the desire for play/prey and the desire for human attention, all of which  are instinctive and untrained These are used as a reward, to increase a response we want by marking the occurrence of the desired behavior then providing the reward immediately following.  Although not trained they can certainly be influenced by training, the environment and experience.  Again, the uniqueness of this reinforcement to each dog requires experimentation and effort to learn what works best for each dog.

The actual value of each is unique to each individual. It is important to establish rewards of different intensities and value in order to have better control over responses your are looking for. Not everything needs an extremely exciting reward. Sometimes calm behaviour is desired and a less intense reward may server that purpose better.

Natural Versus Trained Responses

Conditioned responses are trained responses. All responses are behavior whether they are unconditioned (natural), or conditioned (trained) and all have meaning. Some are desired and some are not, some are precise and some are not, some are relevant to the dog and some are not, some are intense and some are not.  There is a great deal of variety and versatility in what may be required for a healthy and happy dog. Natural responses are more durable over time and are likely to stick with a dog unless a particular traumatic, or stressful event alters that response. Trained responses generally require some form of periodic reinforcement to maintain these skills and desired behaviour. To the benefit of the intelligence of dogs though, I have seen well trained dogs retain incredible skills without training for long periods of time.

Constant Process Throughout A Dog’s Life

Shaping their behaviour as they grow is a constant process, sometimes easier than at others.  Being able to carefully see and observer their behaviour in detail, define what you would like to see in their behaviour – desired behaviour – and set out to understand it, break it down into components that can be trained and shaped into what is desired are not natural skills to us and must be learned by people in order to improve the care and behavior of their dog in a healthy and positive way. Everyone seems to understand punishment by nature.  Understanding how to reward and encourage successful desired behavior is much less common, but their are many opportunities to learn this way.

The idea that a dog should not need rewards to be a good dog is quite ironic in many ways. I do not know people who will work happily without reward. Whether it is in the home, or in the workforce, some form of positive experience or a pay cheque is required. And the more often you get paid and the greater the value of the cheque and the more positive the environment you work in, the more motivated you are to work hard. Dogs are no different and it seems quite silly to think they are.

What it Takes to be A Good Dog Owner and Dog Trainer

Knowing what we want, observing what we see, shaping with success, controlling excitement & stress, perfect practice makes perfect.  This is what we strive to achieve as dog trainers and as dog owners.  What is written on the pages here and on ones to follow is intended to help with this process.

Future topics will include:

Art of observing behaviour
Defining criteria for behaviour
Shaping behaviour
Operant and Classical Conditioning – Associative Learning
Clicker Training
Positive reinforcement
Variable Reinforcement Schedules
Predictable versus unpredictable
Markers, marking behavior and reward placement
Rewards and value
High rates of reward
Eliciting versus offering behavior and the operant dog
Learned Helplessness
Providing choice and opportunity for success
Working at the threshold of success and failure
Planned failure
Excitement and self control
Attention and Focus
Stress, distress, anxiety fear and fight, or flight
Behaviour adjustment training
Behaviour modification
Dog Agility specific training