In my last blog I discussed the role of habit in our dog’s lives.  I focused on habits in relation to house rules and not to performance dog training and that was on purpose.  Now I’m going to switch gears a little because I often want my dog consciously engaged in the process of figuring out what I want rather than relying on habits.

That’s when I’m going to use active training where I engage my dog’s brain – conscious thought rather than habit. I will want my dog thinking about choices, picking the correct ones, and finding that classic reinforcement possibilities (cookies and toys) show up for those choices.  I want my dog to fluidly switch back and forth between training which is a function of habit ( aspects where I want to see no variation over time, such as the weave poles or an automatic sit at heel when I stop walking)  and training which is a function of conscious thought (aspects where I want the dog using me as a resource to guide their choices, usually via cues but not always. Examples might include cue discrimination exercises in obedience or following handling cues in agility)

When I cue “down” I want my dog’s body to fold into a down by habit; no thought required! When I ask my dog to go over a jump and pick up an object? Same thing. I don’t want my dog to do it with conscious thought or variation; simply follow the cue 100% of the time with as little thought as possible.   I want to develop a highly predictable habit.

But how about when specific behaviors are in chains where the dog’s appropriate responses are in flux; quickly directed from one activity to another, like in the handling aspects of agility? Now I want my dog to develop a habit of paying attention to my handling but NOT operating on habit for the work itself! As a result, I’m going to maintain that habit of attention by changing my requests frequently so that my dog remains flexible with the work, and yet always with the habit of attending to me! Sometimes we’ll go left and sometimes right. Sometimes we might pass the tunnel and go to a jump. Sometimes you’ll leave the start line straight ahead, and sometimes I’ll send you to a jump that is behind you.

In those cases, my goal is to reduce the possibility of a work driven habit and increase the role of conscious thought.

How about the obstacles themselves, like weave poles or dog walks? I want habit! Muscle memory!  I want the dog’s mind and body to hit them and not do any thinking at all – the body should power through while the brain is available to take the handler’s direction for the next obstacle.

When habits form, they create grooves in the brain. The more times a dog and handler do a specific thing in a specific way, the deeper the groove. Your goal, when teaching your dog behaviors that will never vary, is to make an incredibly deep groove in the brain for that behavior.   And your goal, when teaching your dog to attend to your cues that show up in a chain which are likely to be random, is to prevent the development of those deep grooves in the brain – to keep the dog in the realm of conscious thought.

Another way to think about it might be this:  if it’s a foundation behavior that will never vary, for example, the dog’s response to the cue “sit”, then we want the dog in the realm of habit – unconscious thought. But when the dog is waiting for the next possible cue?  Then we want the dog consciously listening and engaged so that they will perform as directed and not predict or operate out of habit.

Let’s consider how this might be applied in your training decisions for a moment.

In obedience, there are exercises where you want a predictable response. For example, the retrieve over the high jump. This exercise is never going to be different so I’m perfectly happy for the dog to have a strong habit.  The dog knows what is going to happen. I cue “fetch” and…the dog should leave me, clear the jump, pick up the dumbbell cleanly, clear the jump on the way back, sit straight in front and hold the dumbbell quietly until I ask for it.  An entire habit driven exercise!

But what happens if the dumbbell goes off center?  Now I need the dog to become conscious of the exercise; to think about how to find the jump on the way back or to sit straight, even though they are not coming directly towards me.

But what if …the dog starts to anticipate? Before I send to fetch, the dog is already fetching!  Now what? One of the problems with habit is that habits allow the dog pay less attention to us.  So what does one do when this happens; when habits cause the dog to stop attending to us at all?

If that happens, I’m going to break the habit.  Instead of sending my dog after throwing the dumbbell over the high jump, I might cue my dog to “spin” before I send.  The proportion of times I ask the dog to spin versus cueing a formal retrieve is in direct proportion to the dog’s temperament and how important it is for the dog to think rather than simply responding to whatever is happening in front of them.

Pesky details like temperament.  Always mucking up training plans.

Now let’s consider the cue discrimination exercise in AKC open obedience, or the directed jumping exercise in Utility. In these exercises, I need the dog paying attention to me with conscious thought every single time.  I don’t want a strong habit for the exercise because it always varies and I need the dog to remain flexible, but I do want a strong habit for the actual cued behaviors, like sit, down or stand.

Give some thought to which exercises or behaviors you want to develop with a strong habit and which ones you want to remain flexible. As a general rule, foundation behaviors are a function of habit, and chains are a function of varying degrees of conscious thought.

It’s also worth considering the temperament of your dog. Is your dog more comfortable doing things exactly the same way each time? If so then take advantage of that. You will do more pattern training with your dog and you won’t vary it very much unless you begin to see anticipation.  And if you notice your dog becoming a little dull with his work, responding fully on autopilot?  Then you need to break some of the habits within those chains and give your dog a reason to pay attention by adding complexity to the work, incorporating games or varying your cues to keep your dog on his toes.  Ask yourself which gives YOUR dog more confidence, speed, and enthusiasm for the task, developing and maintaining habits or conscious thought?

When choosing, remember that habits provide comfort and security and conscious thought creates energy and brings out the “game” aspects of work. Of course, using conscious thought and games assumes that your dog is highly successful via a training plan that encourages self-confidence.  If your dog is low in confidence and you cannot find a way to create sessions that allow your dog to be highly successful the majority of the time, or if you cannot handle your dog’s errors with a cheerful attitude, then spend more of your energy on habit and preserve your dog’s confidence.

And how about you, the handler? Personally, I don’t do well with habit based competition dog training; I like games and variation.  Conversely, I have encountered handlers who have a very strong preference for training with habit; they do each exercise exactly the same way and in the same order every single time.  Which doesn’t mean that dogs and handlers cannot be flexible and leave their preferred approach but it does mean that we show individual tendencies.  Temperament matters.

Spend some time thinking about habit. For a given situation or behavior, do you want to create a deep and predictable groove in the brain?   If you want something performed exactly the same way every single time with no thought whatsoever, you’ll probably want to go with habit.  And what if, for a given behavior chain, you want your dog operating with thought and attention? Then you do not want to develop a habit for that behavior, except for the habit of attending to the handler.

Enjoy your training!

And on an unrelated note…Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is still accepting registrations for the October term.  If you’ve been meaning to sign up, time is running out!