Conditioned Responses

Here is a question I received via email from a reader of this blog:

When a dog turns in a near perfect performance in one of the dog sports (KNPV, Belgian Ring, PSA, etc.) and the handler is unable to provide a correction in the ring/stadium or whatever, what can that near perfection be attributed to, since the dog is not wearing an e-collar, prong, etc.? 

This is a fairly complex quesiton, however, the simple answer is the dog’s behavior has been well conditioned to replicate in all manner of contexts. The way that we get there is to set up a standard of performance, and no matter what, hold that dog to that standard of performance at all times. This is the critical piece of the puzzle. It is also why the vast majority of handlers do not achieve the near perfection you are alluding to, because they are inconsistent in their expectations, or vary their standard of performance to which they hold the dog from training session to training session.

A dog is a creature of habit, and if you vary the standard of performance, there is no chance to create a habit to which the dog will revert. Thus you get a wide variety of behaviors, and you hear a lot of this: "My dog never did that before!" The other variable is time. Many handlers do not allow enbough time in training to have a dog establish a completely conditioned response. In fact, many handlers, once they see a response to a command cue a few times will claim their dog has "learned" the behavior, when in fact the dog is only in the fluency phase of training and the dog needs a lot more conditioning to get through the generalization phase (phases of training are discussed in Controlled Aggression: acquisition, fluency and generalization). This can be why the dog fails on a new trial field or with a slight change in a scenario context – the behaviors have only just started to take root, and slight changes in the environment or the scenario throw the dog off track. The response is not generalized yet.

As to equipment, it doesn’t matter if you use a leash and pinch collar, a choke collar or an e-collar, or completely motivational food reward if you can get the results you need to establish the conditioned response. (As long as the dog moves through the acquisition, fluency, and generalization phases completely). The training approach needed will be dictated by each individual dog’s temperament. However most trainers take the religious approach rather than match method to the temperament.  It is my opinion that purely motivational approaches or purely compulsive approaches are incomplete approaches and do not allow the trainer to completely condition the responses to their highest potential, and an eclectic approach that rewards the standard of behavior, and also corrects deviations from the standard of behavior, will achieve the best, and most enduring conditioned response in the majority of dogs, and especially with high drive working dogs.

However, I will say this, using an e-collar makes distance control easier, and it makes the timing of corrections during the training process much easier and more precise, and this is why you find most high level competitors using the e-collar.  The collar is not a fix, it has to become a part of the dog’s everyday life both in training and deployments in my opinion (this is why NTPDA allows K9 teams to deploy in certification with the e-collar receiver on, though the judge holds the transmitter) and the handler must hold the dog to the same standard of performance day in and day out.

Conditioning takes a good plan, good implementation of the plan, and the right tools for the dog in question.