No matter what kind of dog training you do, it seems that there is always talk about learning the “fundamentals” or learning the “foundation” of training your dog. It’s always interesting to me to see what that means to different people. I remember back 20 years ago being in a basic obedience class and being taught the “fundamental” skill of leash-popping. Back then we used metal choke chains and we were told that if we didn’t have the correct technique, the dog would not hear the chain rattle to inform them that a correction was coming and that they should respond to our command.
The strange thing about that example is that, knowing what I know now about dogs and training, there was something even more fundamental that I should have known before choosing to use a choke chain at all. How do we motivate behaviour? What is it about the choke chain/leash-pop combination that makes it work? Why will my dog respond correctly if I used that particular training technique? And that’s where understanding basic animal learning theory and canine behaviour comes in.
What could be more fundamental than knowing the principles of learning, canine motivation, and basic canine biology? I wonder sometimes if our rush to find specific solutions to specific problems has led the dog world to thousands of different ways to solve the same basic problems. In all of our efforts to be honestly helpful and be good caretakers, have we overlooked some of the basics of understanding and communicating with animals?
When I hear some people talking about their dog’s recall, it sounds more to me like someone describing how to fine tune a machine more than it does teaching an animal. They want a guaranteed response in a certain time frame every single time. That seems a little unreasonable given the fact that my dog will be more focused on a discarded chicken bone than I can be on a world championship sporting event! Sometimes what we have to say is just not that important to them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work on training them and making their cooperation more likely. But treating it like a “problem” that needs to be “fixed” might not be the best way to go. We shouldn’t just reach out for the next new “recipe” that someone has come up with to teach “Sit” or a recall. We would be better off with a good understanding of the fundamentals – behaviour, learning theory, and how to communicate with our dogs. Teach. Don’t “fix.”