Creating a Framework... The underlying principles of a good method

In the dog training world there are a lot of techniques, tools, protocols, ideas, theories... and a lot of nonsense as well. The tenured trainer is likely able to move seamlessly through all of these things to find the quickest and easiest way (for them, the owner, and the dog) to complete training. For most of us, though, it may serve our purposes better to have a clear and consistent plan for how to address any and everything, and some rock solid rules of thumb for how to apply our work regardless of what our challenge is with our dog.

"As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble." - Harrington Emmerson

And this is why our training follows principles laid out in the Koehler Method. It is, simply put, the only methodology I know of that can offer, unaltered, as near 100% success as possible to the end user who applies it skillfully and tactfully. And it also allows the user to understand the underlying principles that allow additional flexibility if desired. In short, here is the process:

Teaching Skills

  1. Teach the dog what IT is you want (a basic skill)
  2. Give IT a name
  3. Praise the dog when they get IT right, and make it impossible for the dog to get IT wrong
  4. Only after the dog demonstrates clearly that they understand what IT is, correct them to help them keep IT right

Between the last two steps begin incorporating distractions the deepen the dogs understanding and responsibility, as well as their commitment to right action. In order to make sure that the dog experiences as much success as possible, while also ensuring that they have the opportunity to overcome failure (the true confidence builder for an animal still very much governed by instincts and a survivalist mindset), we make sure that we follow the Pareto Principle for proofing (increasing reliability against distractions):

The Pareto Principle

If your dog gets IT right at least 80% of the time, increase the difficulty (distraction level) by 20%. If your dog gets IT right less than 80% of the time, decrease the difficulty by 20%.

This assures that we are always being fair. And that our dog is always being challenged to progress. Overcoming failure is the key to progress, and you will see that we try to keep that to about 20% of our work, while the rest of the time, we bank successes and allow the dog to relax into the work as their understanding increases

When we correct or praise the dog to help them understand and work through a situation, we look to a well known fairy tale for guidance.

The Goldilocks Principle

Too Cold (not enough) - may not produce the desired outcome
Too Hot (too much) - may produce some undesired outcome
Just Right - produces the desired outcome

A note on corrections: The trainer with a good hand on a dog knows that "correction" means "to make correct". It is not a "punishment". If your correction (however it is made) does not have the result of creating the correct outcome, it was improperly administered. And if our correction does result in "right action", then that means every attempt the dog makes is praise worthy. There is time and place for "punishment". That is outside of the scope of this writing. 

A level deeper

Know that the sequencing of the exercises is important as well. Each week's work is not a separate lesson, but a continuance of building upon the foundation laid in earlier work. Specific to the Koehler Method, you will find that the work pays forward both week to week, and in 2-3 week increments. There's some numerology going on here that I know my buddy Bow Wow Bill appreciates. Here's an example:

The longe line work of week 1, informs the dog of their responsibility during the heeling work for week 2, and also prepares the handler to understand their responsibility for week 2, at least on gross aspect: move linearly... and when needed, in opposition to the dog.

The longe line work of week 1 also serves as a preconditioning exercise for the recall, introduced in week 4: move toward the handler.

Further, each lesson is meant to impart additional understanding to the dog at a cognitive level. 

For the trainer or owner who has completed the core work, we are now ready to move forward with problem solving. Again, there are faster and easier ways to do, well, just about everything. But none as sound, in my opinion, as this. With any issue, we need to discern the source of pressure (stimuli that is motivating ill response from the dog) and begin formulating a plan to use the skills the dog knows to change their response to that source of pressure. After all, we only have three options when it comes to these situations:

The Handler's Three Options

  1. Remove the stimulus from the dog (management, avoidance)
  2. Remove the dog from the stimulus (management, avoidance)
  3. Change the dog's response to the stimulus (training)

Some level of management/avoidance is required as we work through helping our dog become more comfortable. After all, if we are to maintain the Pareto Principle of Proofing, repeatedly putting our dog in a situation where they fail will prove counter-productive at best, and detrimental at worst.

But sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes an unforeseen situation comes up and we have to recover from a bad experience, and sometimes we simply do not have the luxury to work in a sterile environment and so we are left to work "what is" since we cannot work "what should be". And in those times, we provide recovery areas and experiences. We assure that we have an area of low distraction to escape to should we need to backwash our training so that our dog can bank some successes. We started our session there, with something relatively easy, to remind the dog how well they are capable of doing. We also go back to the last point of success (perhaps a different exercise, or a different point in the training process of an exercise) to help the dog remember how easy it is to be right. Primacy and Recency.  

So how might we apply the skills our dog knows to find resolution to some problem that is seemingly not tied to "obedience"? Let's look at two examples where often psychotropic drugs are usually the first line of treatment:

Separation anxiety is defined as "a form of anxiety experienced by a young child and caused by separation from a significant nurturant figure". And therein lies an important detail. The dog has incorrectly framed (likely due to the actions of the owner) the relationship between themselves and the owner as one where confidence and comfort is predicated on the proximity of one another. You see this in human relationships too: the notion of "you complete me" vs. "you compliment me". And so we work our benching, long down, walk away stays, and out of sight stays to reframe this relationship in two ways:

1. Your relaxation is what ends this exercise
2. My return to you does not always signify "relief". In fact, if you are not relaxed while I am returning, my return indicates corrective action and continuance of the exercise

Confinement anxiety (claustrophobia), is often confused with separation anxiety. But it is the fear of being confined, not left. And we may see both disorders present in the same dog, with potentially varying eliciting thresholds. For making the dog accustom to the crate, perhaps our approach would be to use the long down (typically performed on a training table, and probably conditioned there in advance of this work) and do it in crate, with the door wide open. Now the battle in the dog's mind is purely mental/emotional. There is no physical barrier. And so we work the long down in the crate until we reach not an extended duration, but noticeably quicker relaxation into the exercise ("conditioned" relaxation). And then we work our Pareto Principle, closing the door bit by bit, assuring we remain at a reasonable expectation with no more than 2 corrective actions required on the part of the handler, out of every 10 trials. Again, at this point we are not concerned with time in the crate. We are concerned with time to relax. Once we are able to have the door closed, now we can work on duration.

And our dog was prepared for these lessons all along. From the time we first placed them physically into a sit, we were teaching them to seek comfort through relaxation. First from physical tension, and now from emotional/mental. We see that happen over time with each exercise during the core work, as the process moves from resistance, to understanding, to physical relaxation, to emotional relaxation. And we make sure that the dog is rewarded for every success, appropriate to the level we are working, both with the primary (innate, unlearned) reward of comfort, and secondarily with our verbal and physical praise.

People often remark that the Koehler trained dog doesn't look "happy". My response is that most dogs we term "happy" are overly aroused. They've never met dog with a stoic "disposition" (trained... vs. "temperament" which is inborn), they likely follow hedonism, and unfortunately they have projected that philosophical belief onto their dog... who is, again, still governed by a survivalist mentality despite being domesticated (a natural stoic, if you will). Couple this with the understanding of hedonic adaptation, and you should be able to easily put the pieces together as to why a hedonistic lifestyle does far greater disservice to our dogs than it does to us. I hesitate to even make that statement... What with the national savings rate somewhere around 5%, and "lifestyle inflation" being a thing. More and better is never enough, all it does is create the same baseline with ever increasing requirements to maintain that baseline. 

I understand the penchant for instant gratification nowadays. I get that we like excitement. People watch NASCAR for the crashes, fights for the knockouts, go to concerts where showmanship trumps musicianship. And if that's your gig, that's fine. Me? I'll take Beck over Beyonce, a corner bar on a weeknight over a mega club on the weekend, a mountain or wooded retreat over South Beach. I also understand the movement for some to seek out support or the appearance of resolution for their problems rather than resolution of their problems. And there are folks all too willing to sell that to you. We live in a world now, where "life coach" is actually a profession. And one where carrying mortgage debt, a car note, and student loans essentially into perpetuity... is normal.

My hope with this essay was to provide not necessarily an endorsement for my chosen methodology of dog training, but to illustrate how the principles behind it provide a framework for dog owners and trainers to work within that provides clear steps to take to teach their dog and to solve problems, using a well designed method as an example. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes skillful implementation. None of us have enough of the first, any worthwhile task is deserving of the second, and only practice can provide the third. But a dog in your care, for whom you are wholly responsible, is entitled to all three.