How does Concept Training Through Games work?

Concepts are like the building blocks of a dog’s brain. They make up the dog’s personality.

concepts and the brain

When put in a situation, the brain will produce an outcome = behavior, based on a dog’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Quite often those responses are not appropriate to a situation = unwanted behavior. This doesn’t mean that the dog’s reactions are “wrong” or that there is an actual behavior problem. It’s just behavior that is based on the current strengths and weaknesses of the brain. What’s considered a weakness in one situation may well be a strength in another. For example the focus and engagement that a border collie shows when working livestock is highly desirable in that situation. When they display this kind of behavior towards moving vehicles or joggers, it’s completely inappropriate (and potentially dangerous).

There’s a time and a place for each of these concepts and the resulting behaviors in our dog’s lives. The good news is that whatever the ‘wiring’ of the brain looks like right now, it can be shaped to better suit your dog’s (and your) lifestyle. This happens through playing GAMES!

Let’s look at an example for possible outcomes (= behaviors) for a dog seeing another dog in the distance:

  • barking
  • lunging, pulling on leash
  • whining
  • cowering, showing fear
  • no response at all!

Which response would you like to see in YOUR DOG?

What sets Concept Training Through Games apart from other (positive) dog training methods is the understanding that you can’t change the outcome = behavior IN the situation. Instead, we determine which Concepts are lacking and come up with a training plan to strengthen them by playing the right Games. The re-shaping of the dog’s brain has to happen outside of the situation, so the next time a dog finds himself in that particular situation, he will have learned the skills to respond more appropriately.

Depending on each dog’s life style and circumstances, they need to have a specific skill set in order to deal with their individual day-to-day situations. Building this skill set through playing Games is how we can truly prepare our dogs for everyday life without having to put them into those (scary) situations where they will be triggered to repeat the unwanted outcome = behavior, again and again, and therefore make THAT behavior stronger.


I’m going to pick 2 Concepts and dive deeper into how they affect our dog’s behavior and how we can re-shape the dog’s brain to make these Concepts stronger.


There are many ways to describe the Concept of OPTIMISM. I like this one: “Optimism is whether an individual sees an ambiguous, novel situation in a positive or negative way.”

The flip-side of the coin = opposite of Optimism, is Pessimism.

What this means for our dogs is, how they react to a novel or ambiguous situation depends on how optimistic or pessimistic they are. Do they perceive that plastic bag hanging off the fence as a scary object and bark at it like crazy? Do they feel like every dog they see at a distance is “out to get them” and go on the defensive immediately? Is that person walking with a cane and a limp a scary sight? Barking is a typical pessimistic response! Does this explain some of your dog’s seemingly irrational behaviors in novel situations?

Now a healthy dose of pessimism is absolutely necessary for survival or we’d step out into the road, assuming that vehicles will stop for us every time! Just like us humans, dogs have a natural tendency towards either being more optimistic or more pessimistic. It’s not a one-for-all situation where an individual is always optimistic, or always pessimistic but by nature, we all have an overall inclination.

The good news is that we can make our dogs more optimistic!!! You guessed it … by playing GAMES!

Shaping games are a great way to teach dogs that there’s a great probability of a positive outcome and the more successes they have through shaping, the more likely they will feel optimistic about trying something new!

Here are some fun games to play with your dog to grow OPTIMISM

Show me what you can do

Cardboard Chaos

Another great way to turn your dog into an Optimist is my favorite game from Absolute Dogs, it’s called D.M.T.

D = Distraction (could be anything the dog sees or hears)

M = Mark: using a specific calm marker, such as “nice”

T = Treat: follow up with a positive outcome = a piece of tasty food (or moving away from the scary thing)

By pairing the sight or hearing of a novel “thing” with a calm marker, followed by a positive outcome, such as food, we can teach our dogs that the world is not such a scary or exciting place and that we “have their back”, no matter what! The result of this will be a lesser or non-response to future events… dogs saying “whatever …none of my business”!

Here’s a little story I’d like to share: Djin was about 6 months old when I brought him along to an arena sheep trial where Jai was competing. There were many new sights and smells to be expected so when I took him inside the building, I was armed with some of his daily food. There was a resident cat who was very much unconcerned by all the strange dogs, waiting their turn to work the sheep. However, many of these dogs were rather interested in the cat and either stared at it or lunged towards it, daring it to run! The response from all of the owners was to tell the dog off by saying something like “leave it alone” (in a gruff tone), or give them a “leash correction”, neither of these did accomplish anything, as it didn’t change how the dogs felt about said cat! Now Djin had seen cats where he grew up and at times later on but he wasn’t sure about how to respond to this one and I just calmly said “nice” and delivered a piece of food. Pretty quickly he settled into minding his own business and feeling o.k about the resident cat! Now his initial response wasn’t anything dramatic and I could have gotten away with doing nothing. Instead, I chose to be proactive and shape Djin’s brain into feeling good about strange cats! Which method do you think is more beneficial for the human – dog relationship?


Arousal means that your dog is experiencing a heightened emotional and/or physical state and may seem more alert, more focused and more intense than they normally are. Scientifically, it describes the degree and intensity of activation of a dog’s brain. A dog’s level of arousal will influence how they react to the environment and their ability to respond to our cues.

Behaviors that are directly influenced by a dog’s arousal level:

  • recall
  • performance in sports
  • speed and sharpness in performance of known behaviors
  • vigilance towards sounds and sights
  • greetings
  • novel encounters

For optimal performance in dog sports we need an appropriate degree of Arousal (not just for our dogs!). For each individual and activity there is an optimal level of arousal, beyond which we are in Over-Arousal and performance declines.

Behaviors we’ll see from Over-Arousal:

  • barking, lunging, biting (dogs or people; even the owner)
  • unable to take and eat food
  • jumping up
  • frustration barking, nipping
  • zoomies
  • inability to listen to well established cues (=> another concept called “Thinking in Arousal”)
  • lack of accuracy in performance

To lower a dog’s arousal level we teach Calmness games, such as Boundaries, scatter feeding, slow feeding, just to name a few.

It’s really worth experimenting with your dog’s arousal level through games, interactions with toys and getting to know your dog’s optimal state of Arousal.

A few examples of my own dogs:
Hope can function (=remain responsive) in agility at a very high level of arousal, which means that I can tug with her at any time and she’s still able to respond to all of my cues. However, Mick’s arousal level gets too high with toys so I use food and slow patterned walking before an agility run, otherwise he gets too barky on course. Djin can benefit from some Arousal Up prior to doing scent work (or agility) so we either play with some tugging or fast moving food follow or spins.

Ideally there is always an appropriate degree of Arousal for any given situation, not just an “ON” or “OFF”. We call this the DIMMER SWITCH.

light switch or dimmer switch

This can very much be dependent on breed and specific purpose of individual breeds. Again, through playing strategic games, we can teach our dogs to develop more of a Dimmer Switch vs. a Light Switch. Practicing those settings between 0 and 100 is so useful when we only need an activation of, let’s say 40, for a particular exercise! This ability is not only empowering for our dogs but also beneficial to their health as they’ll experience less stress caused by constant spikes of high arousal (level 100).

Have a go playing these games with your dogs:

Boundary games and impulse control    

Arousal Up – Arousal Down with a toy

Arousal Down through Slow Feeding


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