Conceptual Training


Over time I have noticed that certain behaviors are easier to teach to a dog that had previously learned related behaviors.  I also noticed that dogs who had previously learned behaviors that were similar to a new behavior that I was teaching ended up with a crisper, cleaner version that required far less polishing and proofing.

I am specifically referring to behaviors that are related via concept rather than appearance.  A dog that has learned the idea of duration in a previous behavior will be more keen to adding duration in a new behavior.  They’ve already learned the concept of holding a behavior, it’s much easier to apply it in a new situation.

I use the idea of conceptual training with all of my dogs.  Rather than diving head first into a new behavior, I break it down into concepts and make sure my dog has a good idea of those concepts before teaching the new behavior.  A formal obedience retrieve is a great example of a behavior that contains multiple concepts that can be taught preemptively.  Let’s break it down into segments: stay in basic heel position, object target and pick up, return to front, hold/release and return to basic heel position.  The obvious prior learned behaviors are basic heel position with a stay and return to front.  However, even those behaviors can be broken down into further concepts. The conceptual segments that are often overlooked include targeting the object with the mouth, the hold and the give to the handler.

There are at least four fundamental concepts that I believe every dog needs to learn to have successful career in most dog sports.  All of these concepts are related to operant training.  The first three concepts are specific to creating an operant dog, one that experiments freely to determine the desired behavior.  Those three concepts are object operance, self operance and spatial operance.  Object operance is the concept that a behavior can be performed with the assistance of an object.  A great example of this is all four paws in a box.  Target and pivot work also fall into this category.  Self operance regards any behavior that the dog performs with their own body. This is the most common type of behavior; sit, down, stand and spin all fall into the self operant group.  Any  behavior that involves a position around the handler is included into spatial operance.  Basic heel position, front position and leg weaves would fit into this category.  The last fundamental concept that doesn’t fall into one of the previous three categories is duration.  I believe that duration should be taught initially as a concept, rather than added as a final thought onto a completed behavior.  Almost all of the behaviors that we teach our dogs require duration at some point and it can be a difficult addition if the concept isn’t understood.

Let’s take a look at our formal retrieve in regards to the four fundamental concepts and see how they tie in.

Formal Obedience Retrieve:

  1. Basic heel position
    1. Spatial operance
      1. Heel position is in relation to the handler
    2. Self operance
      1. Sit
    3. Duration
      1. Stay in position until released
  2. Pick up dumbbell
    1. Object operance
      1. Pick up object with mouth
  3. Return to front
    1. Spatial operance
      1. Front position is in relation to handler
    2. Self operance
      1. Sit
  4. Hold/release
    1. Object operance
      1. Hold object
    2. Duration
      1. Hold until released
  5. Return to heel
    1. Spatial operance
      1. Heel position is in relation to handler
    2. Self operance
      1. Sit
    3. Duration
      1. Hold position until cued otherwise

Now, while the retrieve is taught in pieces and often back-chained, those pieces can be further broken down into concepts as shown above. It is far easier to teach each piece with a dog that understands the concepts than one that does not.

To teach these concepts, I use easy behaviors that don’t really have any purpose outside of teaching my dog an idea.  The reason I use these “throw away” behaviors is because I have no emotional connection to them.  I won’t be heartbroken if a superstitious behavior gets tied in or feel pressured for the dog to perform the behavior perfectly.  By using a “throw away” behavior, I’m willing to let the dog learn in their own way even if that means a couple detours along the way.  The behaviors I use to teach each concept are outlined below.

  1. Object operance
    1. All four paws in/on a box
    2. Nose target to object
    3. Pick up object with mouth
    4. Go to a mat
  2. Self operance
    1. Spin
    2. Down
    3. Sit
    4. Paw raise
  3. Spatial operance
    1. Hand touch
    2. Leg weaves
  4. Duration
    1. Chin rest
    2. Go to mat (stay on mat)

I experimented with the idea of conceptual training a bit while teaching my dog to hold a dumbbell a few months ago.  Even though she was willing to take the object from me, she was having a hard time with the concept of duration, that I needed her to hold the object until clicked.  We tried several methods until I remembered how she initially learned the idea of duration, through a chin rest. Rather than having her hold the dumbbell while doing a chin rest like I had seen other trainers do, I wanted to use it as a concept, a clue into what I was looking for.  I asked for several chin rests with varying duration, rewarding each one.  I then offered her the dumbbell and clicked for any duration.  I alternated between asking for chin rests and offering the dumbbell to keep the idea of duration in her mind.  Very quickly, she began to hold the dumbbell for longer and longer.  After two sessions, she had a calm hold for up to 15 seconds.

Since the experience above, I’ve started to notice other places that I’ve relied on conceptual training without realizing it.  I believe its a fantastic tool that could be utilized in so many different ways in our training to create clean behaviors that are taught quickly and easily.

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