The Dog Already Knows How: Teaching When, Where, and Why

In training we talk a lot about teaching our dogs how to do behaviors. But what are we really teaching them? They come knowing how to move their own bodies. What we’re really teaching them most of the time is not how to sit, stand, lie down, walk, or look, but rather when, where, and why.

The when is generally either when the human gives the cue or when a certain something else happens in the environment. The where is position—where do you want the dog to be or go or do that thing? And the why is of course what’s in it for the dog. No behavior will keep happening if there’s no reinforcement in it for the behaver.

A really easy way to teach a dog when, where, and why is to simply teach him that a certain signal (from you or the environment) reliably predicts that something he likes will appear in a certain place. He will figure out which behaviors will put him in that place at the right time—so all you need to do is make sure he has a repertoire of actions to choose from that have worked in other situations.

This approach can be used to solve problems that might initially seem to require a more complex plan. Here's an example:

Archie, an adolescent black lab, lived in a home where the front door was below street level and the main living area was up a flight of stairs from the foyer. The top of the stairs was gated while Archie learned that keeping his feet on the floor was the best way to get his favorite people to come up. But the area they stepped into once the gate was opened was pretty tight, so we still wanted to prevent crowding. And if Archie did make a mistake and jump up after the person came through the gate, we didn’t want him to knock anyone backwards down the stairs.

Our first step was to show Archie where to go instead. Archie couldn't be at the side of the stairs and at the top of the stairs at the same time. So to give him a hint, I laid a bathmat along the side of the stairs. He had some reinforcement history with this mat, having been taught to settle on it as a young pup, but he would have needed lots more training, with lots of incremental steps, to be able to settle on it from the time the doorbell rang to the time a guest finally reached the main floor. I wanted to give him and his busy people a simpler, more accomplishable plan.

Next, we taught him when and why. Each time I went down or up the stairs, I reached through the railing and placed a treat on the mat—even if Archie wasn’t anywhere near it. The treat wasn't contingent on his behavior; it was contingent on me arriving at a certain spot on the stairs.

If you're a behavior nerd who's thinking "hey, that sounds a lot like a classical conditioning procedure," well, you're not wrong. But to paraphrase Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, in a discussion last month at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference: if Pavlov's dogs had not been strapped into harnesses, you can be pretty sure that in addition to salivating when the meat guy walked into the room, they would have moved toward him too.

Anyway, I repeated this pattern until when Archie saw me coming up the stairs, he anticipated the treat and began moving to the mat ahead of it. Anticipation of what predicts where food will appear is a basic survival mechanism, and I just capitalized on it. When Archie started moving to the side reliably, I began to wait until he moved to stick my arm through the railing. The treat now became contingent on his behavior.

If Archie didn’t go to the mat right away, I stopped on the stairs and waited. I didn't place the treat on the mat, and I didn’t come through the gate. When it was clear there was no reinforcement forthcoming for hanging out at the gate, he would move to the mat at the side, and then he'd get the treat. He started to move to the mat faster and faster.

Then we repeated the process with different family members. You can see a snippet of this in the video above. The family stashed a container of treats at the top and bottom of the stairs so that they could consistently reinforce this behavior whenever they went downstairs or came home.

Additional steps included fading the mat and varying how Archie got reinforced for moving to the side—sometimes with a treat, sometimes with butt scratches and happy talk once human and dog are safely away from the top of the stairs. On a visit about a year later, the gate was gone too, and as I came up the stairs, Archie still moved to the side. Good boy, Archie!

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.