Criteria, Consequences and Consistency

I think I can safely say that ALL dog training consists of these three elements.  Before you even start training any particular behaviour you must have some idea of what you want (Criteria).  Your training philosophy will determine the consequences and your consistency in establishing realistic criteria and providing consequences will make the learning process quick and trouble-free.

Criteria

Even when training a basic behaviour such as a sit you need to decide what you want from your dog.  This sounds simple enough.  You want your dog to put his rear end on the ground when you say “Sit”.  But, once you have decided what the basic behaviour is, you have to start asking yourself these questions:

  • Where do I want the dog to sit in relation to my position?
  • What do I want the sit to look like?
  • How long should the sit be sustained before I release him?
  • In how many real life situations do I need my dog to sit when I say “Sit”?

All  this means is that you have to give some thought to the complexity of the behaviour.  Once you know exactly what you want the behaviour to consist of it is then simple to formulate a training plan.  This doesn’t need to be complicated with charts and schedules, but it will help you to know what to do next.  All behaviours can be broken down into steps and will go much quicker and easier if you tackle one step at a time.

Consequences

Consequences drive behaviour.  In other words, consequences are what make a behaviour strong – or weak, for that matter.  If there are no consequences there will be no behaviour.  Behaviour cannot exist in a vacuum.  If the consequences are unpleasant, the behaviour will be suppressed or will weaken.  If the consequences are pleasant, the behaviour will get stronger.  This is operant conditioning, and it is how all animals learn.

Say now we are teaching our dog to respond to his name.  Our criteria is that our dog must swing his head towards us immediately (within ½ a second of hearing his name).  If he meets our criteria he will get a treat.  If he takes 2 seconds to swing his head around, the consequence is no treat.  Of course, if we have set our criteria too high, then we are setting ourselves up for failure, and this is why setting realistic criteria is so important.

Consistency

No matter how carefully you establish your criteria and how much thought you have given to providing good consequences all your training can fall apart if you are not consistent about what you’re asking for (in other words the criteria for that particular behaviour) and what happens as a consequence of meeting your criteria (or not, as the case may be).   A lack of a consistent experience can slow down or even disrupt training so that your dog fails to learn, or learns an unexpected variation of a desired behaviour.

So, set your criteria realistically depending on where your dog is at that particular stage of the training, provide appropriate and desirable consequences if the criteria is met, and be consistent in your communication with your dog.  If you can maintain these things your training will be more enjoyable for your dog and yourself, with fewer errors and a lot less frustration.    

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One Response to Criteria, Consequences and Consistency

  1. […] wrote a post recently about behaviour and consequences and how consequences drive […]

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