The majority of behaviors that I teach are accomplished via reinforcing specific criteria. I know exactly how I want the dog to look at each step of the process as they move towards the final behavior. This is a process-driven approach.

Other things I teach as concepts. With those behaviors, I don’t actually care how the dog accomplishes the task; I simply want them to do it in a way that ends with the behavior I want to see.

When I teach precision elements like sit, down, stand or formal heeling, I have specific criteria. I care very much how the dog gets into those positions at each step of the process! The following video is an example of behaviors that have all been taught with specific criteria:

Those behaviors could have been taught as concepts (goals) instead. For example, if I wanted the dog to lie down and if I didn’t care how they got there; front-end first, rear-end first, flopped over on the side, etc., then the answer would be to ignore the “how” of it, and simply reinforce when the dog achieves the down behavior. The dog will eventually understand that you care about the position and not the process; they can choose the route that works best for them.

Let’s look at a second video; in this one I am teaching a concept:

The goal that I want him to internalize is to prevent me from escaping. It’s up to him how he can best achieve that. I can escape forwards, backward, or sideways. I can jump off of an obstacle or dive around it. I can attempt to block him by picking up an obstacle. The only thing that matters is that he has to catch me as fast as possible because for the sport of Mondio, every yard I get away costs us points in competition.

It’s up to him to figure out where he needs to be to achieve that goal. He can be in front, back, or pushing me sideways. He might decide that being on an obstacle is faster, or maybe being on the ground works better for him. To train this, I need to ensure that he gets as much experience as possible while I show him different possibilities – I try and escape.  You prevent that however works best for you.

Teaching concepts versus criteria is not right or wrong. It truly depends on the end goal. The more problem solving and independent you want the dog to be, the more you will want to strive for concepts. If you care about every step of the process then focus on teaching specific criteria.

For example, if I’m in the house and I want my dog to pick up an object, I just point to it and ask them to get it. They understand! They pick it up and hand it to me. Goal-driven. Concept.

But for competition obedience? Not so much! I want you to go directly, pick up super fast, turn on a spot, run back, and sit in front! Criteria make sense there. Process.

In summary, if you are teaching Concepts, actively reinforce a wide variety of ways the dog might achieve the final goal, and put a premium on active problem-solving. If you are teaching criteria, set up your training situation to make the dog most likely to pick the option you want and reinforce that heavily, while ignoring the alternatives.