What is Concept Training?

Sometimes I struggle finding the right words and examples how to explain the difference between Positive Dog Training and Concept Training. What is it that sets Concept Training apart from using rewards to increase the occurrence of desired behaviors?

Over the years, we have (hopefully) evolved from punishment based training to positive methods, where we reward desired responses of our dogs, instead of using force and aversives to suppress unwanted behaviors. This has been huge progress but I think it is time we take it another step further.

In positive, aka reward based training, we teach specific responses to cues = behaviors, like a sit, down, stay … which are then rewarded in order to increase the probability of these behaviors getting repeated. While it is important for our dogs to know some of these cues and respond to them reliably, the responsibility to get these appropriate responses in specific situations lies mostly with us.

In Concept Training, we teach broader concepts, such as calmness, impulse control, proximity, just to name a few. In fact, we’re teaching our dogs to make appropriate choices on their own. This puts more responsibility on our dogs which then in return allows us to give them more freedom, knowing that the appropriate choice doesn’t depend on us telling the dog what to do in any given situation.

To elaborate on this, I’d like to look at a few examples:

Scenario: there is something enticing that my dog finds on a walk and they have a choice to either eat it or roll in it.

a) I can now tell my dog to “leave it” and reward/praise the desired response.

b) my dog has learned that random “things” are none of their business; he notices the “thing” but checks in with me and since I don’t encourage any interaction, chooses to leave it be and continues on our walk.

Let’s look at another example: how to teach Loose Leash Walking

a) we practice on a leash every day and reward moments of not pulling on the leash, eventually we get more of that by rewarding it frequently .. until something really exciting presents itself and our dog forgets everything we worked for!

b) we work on the concepts needed for Loose Leash Walking, such as calmness, proximity, impulse control, focus by playing a variety of games to strengthen each of these concepts, while spending very little time using a leash (in my 4 week class: Loose Leash Walking – Mission Possible, there are 3 games that require the use of a leash). The end result is that a leash becomes an optional tool and the dog learns to choose proximity and ignore distractions.

The difference between these approaches is what we call, “training FOR the situation, not IN the situation”.

By teaching concepts instead of behaviors, I often see very welcome side-effects. When I worked with Jai on his responses to the environment, I realized that he was just a pleasure to walk on leash although I had never focused or worked on Loose Leash Walking. We had however practiced ignoring distractions that he would have reacted to; walking calmly on leash became a bonus gift!

All the concepts build on each other, by strengthening one or more, others get better too, without really ‘working ‘ on them.

For each of the concepts we can select from a variety of games and many of the games help improve several of the concepts. We can keep our training interesting for dogs and owners and if one game is not suited for a particular team or situation, there are several others and it never feels like training since we are “just playing games” and having fun!

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