A default behavior is what your dog does in the absence of a specifically cued behavior. The most ‘desired’ default behaviors vary by sport and activity.
For example, in AKC obedience and rally, we expect our dogs to default to a sit in heeling when we halt (technically one could argue that this is not a default since our body language – halting – cues the sit, but let’s ignore that for now). In freestyle dogs are taught to stand at a halt.
In AKC obedience, most of us teach our dogs to default to heeling if we move forwards without a cue. But in IPO, dogs default to a “stay” unless cued otherwise.
Defaults can be overridden by alternative cues, so an IPO dog will heel along with their trainer if cued to do so, and an AKC dog will stay instead of moving with their handler, but only if specifically cued.
There are benefits to training specific defaults.
Brito is learning to come “find front” as a default when he is moving and facing me at a distance. I want him to come to front, unless cued otherwise.
I am doing this to help him with a few exercises: to distinguish the drop on recall from the straight recall – keep coming unless cued otherwise! For the broad jump – come to front after you jump, unless cued otherwise! Bring dumbbells, scent articles, and gloves to me, unless cued otherwise!
There are different ways to teach a default behavior. In Brito’s case I set him up for success- I just called him to front when I wanted that. It gave him confidence and sureness. But eventually, my “silent staring” when he is moving towards me needs to mean “come to front”.
To work on this, I start out with my normal amount of chatter, but right before he gets to me I go silent – and then I reward the front. First without objects, and then with objects. Over time I substitute “silent staring” for the recall cue. (Remember, he is moving, so there is no issue with his stay).
When that is going reasonably well, then I add alternative cues. So…when he is reliably returning to front with my “silent staring” as his only cue, then I need to add something like “down”. Or “stay”. and then release him from that alternative (I could say “ok” or “come” – either would work) to return to his defaults.
The default part – that is usually easy. The hard part is when you start adding in the alternatives. For example, after I drop Brito with a down cue, on the next repetition it is likely that he will try dropping without a cue rather than performing his recall default. That is normal! He is learning and working it out in his head. I am patient. I do many many more defaults than alternative cues as he works it out. And I look for ‘signs of learning and processing’ such as – almost dropping but then coming to front. Those make me happy because I know that he is thinking!
Here is a video. Note that standing quietly and still is the default body cue to tell him to come to front after a cookie toss. Note how I handle error!
Note: This video is edited. I included all of the errors, both before and after the actual errors, to give you context, but I removed most of the correct repetitions to keep the video a bit shorter. If he were making this many errors as a percentage of the total than something would need to change in my training program.
12 sec – first error – I cued down and he came to front. That was my error – at this point Brito only knows how to down if I ask for the behavior as he is picking up the treat – here I was too late and two things had happened – he was returning but more imporant I was moving my foot back. That is a clear cue for him to come to front at his stage of training. So – he gets a screw up cookie and I let him finish as if he were perfect, since he believed that he was correct. That was on me.
Correct drop at 29 sec – earned his ball; a higher value motivator here than a cookie.
1:45 note the tiny pause here. He wasn’t sure if I was going to ask for another drop. Good boy Brito for coming in!
2:10 Drop is slow – that doesn’t worry me at all. The distance was greater and he’s working it out. He will speed up when he’s ready. I can also use reward placement (reward behind him) to hasten that process.
We’ll work on this hundreds of times, until I can do multiple drops in a row and he still defaults to a recall when I do not cue another behavior.