John Rodriguez


The Development of Power in the Young Dog
A Three-Part Series, Part Three

by Lori Rodriguez | Published in Schutzhund USA, BSA News (Great Britain)

Part 3: The Young Dog, Building the House

Part I and Part II stressed the importance of selecting a genetically well put together dog then laying a solid foundation as a basis for training. Throughout his young life the dog has learned to channel stress into positive behaviors, drive has been developed, the dog is well-socialized, negative behaviors have been extinguished or diminished, the dog is in good physical condition--we have a happy, energetic, athletic, healthy, confident base to work with! What's next?

Teaching to Learn

Many books, articles, and videos are available to explain and teach specific exercises for Schutzhund work, AKC obedience, police dogs, etc. There are many different methods to achieve training goals--no one being right for every dog. It is important to have someone watch you train because it is difficult to see your own strengths and weaknesses. The beginner as well as the expert can find joining a Schutzhund or obedience club worthwhile to receive constructive criticism and advice. In addition, the experienced trainer can pass his knowledge on to others.

Even though there are many training techniques, the theories of learning apply to all of them. General canine behavior patterns and developmental periods apply to all domestic dogs. More specific patterns can be seen within breed classifications even within certain bloodlines within a breed. The more we understand these patterns and the theories behind learning, the easier and more appealing training becomes.

John Paul Scott in his book Animal Behavior defines learning as "when an animal is repeatedly placed in the same situation and stimulated, its later behavior is affected by what has happened before. or simply the modification of behavior by previous experience."

  • Success: the achievement of something attempted
  • Variability: the tendency of any species to try alternative possibilities in response to a stimulus
  • Conditioned (or Conditional) Response (CR): to modify behavior so that an act or response previously associated with one stimulus becomes associated with another
  • Primary Stimulus: produces a reaction without preliminary training (experience) (also called a releaser)
  • Reflex: an automatic and often inborn response to a stimulus without reaching a level of consciousness
  • Unconditioned (or Unconditional) Response (UR): the response to a primary stimulus
  • Secondary Stimulus: a stimulus learned to be associated with a primary stimulus
  • Inhibition: learned response to do nothing to a stimulus (also called negative association)
  • Generalization: the act or process whereby a response is made to a stimulus similar to but not identical to the primary stimulus
  • Discrimination: the process by which two stimuli, similar but differing in some aspect, are responded to differently
  • Extinction: the process of eliminating or reducing a conditioned response by not reinforcing it
  • Recovery: the act, process, or instance of regaining a response to stimulus once it has been extinguished
  • Releaser: (see Primary Stimulus)

(Refer to Part I, Schutzhund USA July/August, 1992 for definitions of Activity, Aggression, Behavior, Drive, Resolution, Security, Stimulus/Stimuli, Stress, Tension, and Threshold.)

"The basic nature of adaption (learning) consists of two parts which somewhat oppose each other. The first is the tendency to vary the response to stimulation, particularly if the fist attempt at adaptation fails. Every animal has its repertory of behavior that it runs through when faced with problems of difficult adaptation. The second part is the tendency to modify behavior on the basis of previous experience and so make it less variable. Another aspect of adaptation (is) that there are differences in all of the internal factors affecting behavior, including the capacity for learning itself, and that these differences are the result of biological heredity."4 Scott P 115-116

Any species has a variety of responses that may be tried as alternative possibilities in response to a stimulus; otherwise they would never succeed in adjusting to new situations. Think of a mouse in a maze. If the correct direction to gain passage to the next section was to the right, but his first attempt was to the left and he never varied in his attempts to run the maze but continued all efforts to the left, he could never progress further than that first wall--he would be doomed to always fail. The dog trainer must understand that in teaching a new lesson to the dog, chances are he will fail several times before succeeding. Failure is a necessary component of learning. However, if the dog always fails, or is not rewarded for success, he will learn to do nothing in response to the stimulus (inhibition). How many times a dog will try before giving up (inhibition) is determined first by heredity, second by experience.

In the exercises outlined in Part II, the dog has been set up to succeed by modifying his behavior to responses that will gain him easy success in training, reducing the rate of failure. We have modified his default behaviors, encouraging those responses that will lead to success and discouraging those that lead to failure.

Magnifying Effect of Threshold

"One of the most important ways in which heredity affects behavior is to increase or decrease the ease with which an animal can be stimulated or motivated. This in turn has an enormous effect on the ease with which an animal can learn." 5 Scott P 133 of interest, Scott notes "that it might also be possible to transfer a memory trace from one animal to another."4 Scott P 114

A dog which cannot do something, quits soon, but a dog which can but barely, keeps trying because the dog becomes more highly motivated with each success. Motivation leads to practice. Too much practice, however, produces a habit of mistakes. Making the same mistake over and over forms habits. But too little practice, the errors are not remembered and therefore bound to happen again.

You may have seen a dog who is working well get worse and worse as and exercise is repeated over and over. The handler becomes more and more frustrated because the dog knows the exercise but is making mistakes. A vicious cycle begins as the dog receives corrections for his obvious disobedience. Over practicing has the dog confused, add to the confusion the pressure from the handler and the dog begins a pattern of negative behaviors creating more pressure. Soon the association of the command (the 2nd stimulus) with the reward (primary stimulus--ball, food, praise) dies out and an association between the command and a different primary stimulus (fear, pain, etc.) is developed. If you have come to this unfortunate point, stop. Give a break from stimulation for 2-6 weeks or more, and then go back to motivationally associating the command with the reward. Remember however, that studies have concluded that traumatically acquired habits maintain a marked resistance to extinction despite lack of renewed primary reinforcement.

Training for Life

Don't blindly follow any particular training method. What works for some dogs may not work for yours. Be attune to your dog's individual abilities. Educate yourself; then evaluate and adapt training techniques as they pertain to your dog and your situation.

Most training methods use either or both reward and punishment--positive and negative motivation. Positive motivation is often referred to as Motivation or Motivational Training and negative motivation as a Correction or Force Training.

The exercises discussed in Part II illustrate the principle of association--that a secondary stimulus which closely precedes a primary stimulus becomes associated with the responses normally produced by the primary stimulus. Many of these exercises develop what is known as Conditioned Responses. For instance, the dog is now conditioned to sit at the verbal command sit. This is a conditioned response (CR) the secondary stimulus (the command "sit") is now associated with the primary stimulus (a reward ball, food, praise). The command "sit" can now be given without the reward and produce the same desired response.

If the primary stimulus is not given over a period of time, the association between the command and the reward dies out--the conditioned response becomes extinct. Interestingly, given a break from stimulation for days or weeks, the dog will respond as conditioned previously. The association never completely disappears. An old dog can learn new tricks, but it is difficult to make him forget his old ones. This attribute of learning is both an asset and a detriment.

Studies have shown that the ability to develop a conditioned response is more rapid with feeding than with electric shock--motivation as opposed to a correction. Training methods that involve corrections during the teaching phase make extra work for the trainer, unpleasant experiences for the dog, and create conflict between the trainer and the dog.

Training against undesirable responses can be done without punishment by making sure the dog always gives the correct responses. The dog forms an inhibition against it. For example, if a puppy is not given the opportunity to relieve itself in the house, he develops a habit of urinating/defecating outside. When he is grown, he will not relieve himself in the house even though he was never corrected for doing so. This is called passive inhibition. The most effective form of controlling undesirable behaviors is a method of passive inhibition combined with positive reinforcement of desirable behavior. This theory should be applied to all training.

The Basics of Dog Training: Teach, Learn, Confirm

There are three phases to learning--teaching, learning, confirming. As you teach the dog a new command or exercise you create a stimulus that puts the dog in stress. The dog tries to adapt his behavior (activity) to resolve the tension and gain the reward (security). The dog goes through his default behaviors trying to succeed. As the dog makes mistakes he varies his behavior, trying new approaches. This is the teaching phases. If the dog has a successful attempt, the next time he is faced with the same stimulus, he will vary his response based on his previous experiences. This is the learning stage. Once the dog has adapted his responses to produce the successful behavior he will confirm his findings by repeating the learned response.

Our job as trainers is to guide the dog into the proper responses. If a proper foundation has been established, the dog has a repertoire of default behaviors consistent with the desired training, often eliminating the teaching phase of learning. Corrections during the teaching and learning phase should be avoided in most cases. Under the added stress, the tendency to avoid into improper behavior increases, slowing the learning process.

When is a Correction Necessary?

A dog makes a mistake for three basic reasons:

  1. the correct response has not been adequately learned,
  2. the association between the command and the motivation died out,
  3. the drive to do something else is greater than the drive to obey.

In the first instance, the dog should not be corrected because he has not yet learned the exercise. In the second case, the association of the second stimulus and the primary stimulus must be made strong again, no correction. In the third instance the dog should be corrected. Discipline is a necessary element of training. The dog must know the hierarchy of command. The drive to obey the handler must displace any other drive.

Of course, we want willing workers, not submissive, brow beat dogs. Corrections properly applied are neither harsh nor unnecessary. To survive as a pack in the wild, there are rules to obey, structure to live by. There is no malice or spite, the rules are clear, the corrections swift and measured. It is natural for a dog to receive corrections for breaking the rules. Too many dogs end up being transferred from home to home or to the dog pound as bad dogs because the owners were unwilling or unable to properly correct their dog. As part of the confirming phase of learning the dog will test his learned response to the stimulus. If the dog is allowed to change his learned (conditioned) response, he will begin to adapt his behavior thus unlearning the proper response, creating confusion.

The Proper Correction

There are four key elements to a proper correction:

  1. clearness: the dog must clearly understand why he is being corrected, and the correction must be strong enough to eliminate the behavior,
  2. consistency: the dog must be corrected every time he is disobedient,
  3. timing: the correction must be made during the improper behavior because the dog will associate the correction with what is doing at that moment,
  4. reward: as soon as the dog stops the unwanted behavior and engages in the correct behavior, he must be rewarded.

Clearness. If the correction is not strong enough to stop the behavior, the handler has failed. If the correction is too strong, it is abusive and will create other training and behavior problems. Each dog is different; each situation is different. A simple, No is an appropriate correction in many instances. In bite training, however, the correction must be much stronger, because the dog is in strong drive. A good correction is all about feel. Many people nag, nag, nag their dog because they don't want to hurt him--a noble reason. But the wrong result. The dog learns to ignore his trainer; the behavior gets worse, and the trainer becomes more and more frustrated. The relationship is in danger. Again, know your dog; know the situation.

Consistency. If the dog is usually corrected for being on the couch but allowed to lie on it every so often. He can never be quite sure if today's the day they let me on the couch and will test his luck. On the other hand, if the dog has learned that he gets a correction every time he gets on the couch (and the corrections were clear and strong), he will not get on the couch. He doesn't have to try it and see, he knows.

Timing. If the correction is timed wrong, the results are obvious--the dog will associate the correction with what he was doing at the time of the correction. For example, the owner calls his dog, the dog does not respond, a game of chase ensues, finally the dog comes to the owner who then corrects the dog. Wrong! The dog associates the correction with coming to the owner, as opposed to associating the correction with his incorrect behavior.

Praise. When training your dog, you need to make a clear distinction between wrong and right-- correction for wrong behavior, praise for the right behavior. In our couch example, the dog is wrong when he is on the couch and right when he is off the couch. So, after you have corrected the dog and his has gotten off the couch, he is correct and should be praised.


The development of power in a dog starts at conception with his unique genetic makeup, then continues as positive behaviors, confidence, and enthusiasm are developed; making him the most he can be. As training begins, the handler controls and channels that power to create the perfect picture of a dog/handler team--well bonded and in sync, flawless in performance with spirit and enthusiasm.


Part 1: The Puppy, Building the Foundation

Part 2: The Young Dog, Preparing to Build the House

Dog Behavior Primer

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