Training: Conditioned Emotional Response

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a woman whom I consider one of my nose work mentors, Holly Bushard.  She said this, a concept she learned from my (and Toka’s) current favorite obedience trainer Hannah Branigan:  “You want to train your dog in the state in which you want to trial your dog.”

That statement has been percolating in my brain since I heard it.  I’m working with fun groups of nose work students, who, along with their dogs, have various levels of experience and competencies.  A foundation to Holly’s statement is that we need to train our dogs in the state in which both we and our dogs can maximize learning.

I hold an image of Toka as we prep for our mini-training sessions each morning.  He’s jumping about with excitement, thrilled that he gets to work (video of his shenanigans here.)   Perhaps a bit Orwellian, but he thinks that work is play and play morphs into work because I’ve conditioned him to believe it.  Training is associated with lots of cookies, lots of fun, and his exercises blend into playing which blends back into work.  It’s more fun for me that way, too.  His emotional response to training is one of excitement and enthusiasm.  My response to training him is pleasure and anticipation because of it.

I think about my nose work students, both two-legged and four.  It’s easier to condition dogs to be enthusiastic about the sport than it is to condition the handlers to believe themselves as capable, competent handlers.  Dogs don’t second guess what we are doing, while the handlers can be too self-critical and not trust themselves.

It is not unique to get frustrated and confused when learning a new subject or technique.  I tell my students that ‘confusion is a normal part of the learning process.’  The steps to competency are:

Unconscious incompetence                                                                                                    Conscious incompetence                                                                                                           Conscious competence                                                                                                                   Unconscious competence (fluency)*

Most of the students I have now waver between conscious incompetence and conscious competence.  Several will make great strides once they really believe that they’re entirely capable of obtaining and honing the handling skills required.

This is why I am a positive reinforcement trainer.  To me, training dogs is a pleasure and an honor.  Working with the humans who care enough about their dogs to want to engage with them is the same.

It’s also why I especially love the sport of nose work.  It’s all about positive reinforcement, with immediate application of reward when the dog finds the hide or indicates odor.  (I hope my students who read this blog can also hear me say ‘DON’T BE CHEAP!  You cannot reward enough! Especially when they have done something outstanding!’)

I think that a large part of my job as an instructor (of any subject) is to condition students  – whatever their species – to love the work, and to consider it play.

Holly and Hannah’s statement continues to percolate, and I’m sure I’ll have more insight because of it.  I haven’t even reached the ‘trialing’ part, and have been thinking about the application to training newbies.

(For more information and detail on conditioned emotional responses as well as behavior chains and operant and classical conditioning, Denise Fenzi has an excellent series on the topic, which can be accessed here.)

*The four stages of competency are borrowed from Noel Burch’s work







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