We often hear animal trainers, particularly those whose animals are participating in performance sports, advise solving a behavior problem with an animal by going “back to the basics” — that is, working on a remedial behavior or set of behaviors, then progressing once again to the problem behavior. Occasionally a trainer will call this procedure “going back to kindergarten.” Using this tactic can be an effective way to address behavior if you’re having trouble identifying the behavior’s function, or when the reinforcement for the behavior is readily available.
What do we mean by “back to the basics”?
Usually “back to the basics” means anything we teach at the start of a complex behavior or behavior chain. In many cases, this means the foundational exercises of a sport, such as a stands or body handling for conformation, drive for the lure in lure coursing, or sits, heel position or stay for obedience. In other cases, as when working on a behavior problem, the trainer will use the basic obedience positions (sit / watch / stay) as the foundation behaviors. These basic obedience exercises then may serve as replacements for unwanted behavior, such as jumping up, counter-surfing, or barking at the door.
An example of using “back to the basics” to address a training issue might be: The dog pulls the handler towards a fire hydrant during a walk. The trainer advises the handler to walk the dog away from the hydrant, practice behaviors the dog is already fluent in performing (such as “sit,” “watch me,” etc.), and then walk by the hydrant again. Usually there is a story from the trainer as to why the dog is pulling that isn’t a functional analysis (i.e., “The dog does not respect you.”). There may or may not be food involved during performance of the remedial exercises.
Let’s look at some reasons the “back to the basics” mantra works.
Many basic training exercises are designed to help the dog become stronger performing the task at hand, including behaviors such as standing still for a brief period. If a dog can perform these “basics,” that is indicative of physical strength. Improved strengthening can help performance. Many of these types of exercises are foundational to dog sports.
If you’re looking for ways to help dogs build physical strength, check out this handy list of fitness toys and gear from Your Dog Advisor.
When using shaping to train behavior, “Back to the basics” may address steps in the training hierarchy that may have inadvertently been skipped or rushed the first time through. In the fire hydrant example, perhaps the handler had not yet shaped “Watch me” with a potent distraction so close. Practicing and succeeding just a few feet away from the hydrant addresses that gap, allowing the pair to walk by with the dog’s focus on the handler the second time. Thoroughly reinforcing early attempts at a new behavior is fundamental to training incompatible behaviors, such as laying on a mat, versus jumping on visitors.
This is my favorite explanation. When the “basic” behavior is trained using positive reinforcement, the dog performs the behavior to receive reinforcement (operant conditioning), and the dog begins to associate the handler with the reinforcement (respondent conditioning).
In the fire hydrant example, assuming the basic behaviors being practiced are reinforced, the dog increases those behaviors. This can set the stage for an “easier” repetition of that behavior past the hydrant (behavior momentum), or can increase the dog’s attention to the handler as the dog expects to receive additional reinforcement, based on past experience.
Thanks to reinforcement history, behaviors trained with positive reinforcement may be effective at counter-conditioning unwanted behavior. There may even be an element of relaxation involved. For example, a dog jumps out of the car in a new setting, and the handler begins working on well-trained behaviors that have a long reinforcement history for the dog. Does repeating a known behavior in an unknown context help promote relaxation? If so, we can thank respondent conditioning for creating an association between relaxation or enjoyment and performance of the behavior.
Relaxation also can be trained using operant conditioning. Horse trainers are aware of this phenomenon, and use it to monitor and create relaxed expressions and body postures in horses. A relaxed animal is easier to train. We need relaxation to train the more difficult behaviors that follow the basics.
“Back to the basics” often forces the handler to stop and focus on which criteria to address during a training session. This benefits the handler in terms of attending to the environment (our dogs usually see and smell much more than we do, and sooner), as well as allowing the handler to re-focus his or her efforts on changing the target behavior. Using our fire hydrant example, the handler is paying more attention to his or her training technique as s/he and the dog approach the hydrant the second time.
Punishment and its side effects
If the “basic” behaviors were trained using punishment or negative reinforcement, these strategies have the side effect of inhibiting behavior. Generalization or association with the handler may be at work to inhibit all kinds of behavior in the dog, following punishment. In the fire hydrant example, a handler may go “back to the basics” by using punishment (positive or negative) after the dog’s too-slow response to a different request. Example: Handler asks the dog to come into heel position, the dog is slow to respond and the handler jerks the leash (positive punishment). Generalization of inhibition means the dog offers very little behavior the rest of the walk, including large motor behavior as he passes the hydrant.
Or, hyper-vigilance, another side effect of the use of punishment and negative reinforcement, may come into play as the dog keeps his eyes on the handler while passing the hydrant, to avoid bad things happening. In addition to these unwanted side effects, using punishment and negative reinforcement to train behaviors means you lose the helpful side effects of positive reinforcement, such as positive emotional states and a positive reinforcement history.
‘Basics,’ or good training?
Any (or more than one) of these explanations could be at play when you go “back to the basics,” depending on your training approach. Examining this mantra creates another great reason to watch as much animal training as you can, and think about how these principles apply to your own training sessions.