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Problem Solving: The Function and Strategy for Teaching Dogs

By Chris Bach and The Third Way – The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training

For the past six months, a lot of time has been devoted to teaching several methods of Chris’ Eye Contact Game. These various methods can be used any time you want to practice proofing an exercise, or if you just want to play the Eye Contact Game for fun.

In June, Chris provided a detailed outline on her “Dinner Dish Method” for teaching eye contact. We are now going to move into a very important area of dog training, PROBLEM SOLVING. Chris is going to share her theory on the “function and strategy" for teaching dogs.

Problem solving is completely different than teaching. They have different functions and therefore different strategies are utilized.

The function of teaching is to give new information to a dog. Dog trainers endeavor to inform dogs about the new consequences for a response that is cued.

“Consequences” can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and only pleasant or neutral ones are employed by THE THIRD WAY.

A dog’s “body” knows how to sit, down, run, pick up things and perform other overt behaviors. So the function of teaching is not meant to introduce a new action or motor pattern. Rather the trainer attempts to get the dog aware of what he is doing. Then the dog can become aware of the consequences that the trainer will provide for accurate performance of the targeted response when it is cued.

This process is called “instrumental learning” or “operant conditioning”. Its success depends upon the dog being aware of what he is offering and the trainer being able to control the consequences of the dog’s actions. Controlling consequences is the key to successful operant conditioning.

There are also responses or motor patterns that are classically conditioned. These are behaviors that occur naturally as a result of an intensified emotional state. These elevated or suppressed emotional states are associated with stimuli that occur internally or in the environment. These associations and the resulting behaviors are not dependent upon their consequences. They are generated by the presence of the inducing stimuli. A trainer’s only influence on these responses will be as a result of changing the dog’s emotional state.

These responses are not “taught” by the trainer and they are much more difficult for a trainer to modify than responses that have been operantly conditioned.

In order to influence classically conditioned responses, the trainer must control the stimulus (environment) and/or the resulting change in emotional state. Controlling consequences to teach behaviors operantly is a difficult enough task for any trainer. But controlling the environment and/or regulating a dog’s emotional state is even more challenging.

One last consideration that is very important to the function of teaching is how the trainer’s emotional state affects the dog. Dogs mirror people’s states. Therefore, an aroused or depressed trainer will classically condition a dog to be in such a state under those circumstances. Also a dog can operantly respond to a trainer’s change in emotional state as if it were a cue to do something such as leave or jump up.

The strategies for teaching are to get the targeted behavior on a voluntary basis, which minimizes emotional fluctuation in both dog and trainer. Once the response is occurring, the trainer then endeavors to give it a cue.

During this entire process the trainer manages the dogs access to the environment as well as the dog’s ability to offer undesirable responses. Management allows the trainer better control of consequences and aids in maintaining a level emotional state in both dog and trainer.

Teaching is an endeavor that takes time, effort and skill!

(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002. All rights reserved.