This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section One of the Beginner's Course

Dog Training Basics
Page Three of a twelve-page section

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The Rule of First Responses

The rule of first responses says that the consequence of a first response will carry sway over the dog or person who made that response that is almost incomprehensibly out of proportion to the influence that consequence would have carried had the response been previously well established.

The Need to Hit the Ground Running

The clear implication of the rule of first responses is this: The newer the response you are working with, the less familiar the surroundings are to your subject, and the less accustomed he is to the cast of characters, the more profound will be the impact of your intervention.

For that reason, if you are working on a new response in a new setting, a little encouragement or a little discouragement is likely to have a wildly disproportionate impact on what your dog does and does not do in the future, relative to the results you would get if you made that same intervention at a much later time, after the response was well established.

For example, imagine that on his first day at your house, your new puppy barks at a stranger passing on the sidewalk. If you instantly react by doing something that causes the dog to feel anxious immediately after he makes that very first bark-at-passers-by response, there is an excellent possibility that he will never again in his entire life, verbally harass passing pedestrians.

In contrast, if you made the exact same move and upset the dog in the exact same way the fiftieth time he barked at a passerby, instead of doing it the first time, your intervention would have had no discernable effect at all.

Such is the power of first responses, and such is the potential for the wise trainer to use first response situations to maximum effect.

The fact is that your dog's newness quotient is going to be at its highest at the moment he is first introduced to your home. Indeed, the conditions for shaping your dog's behavior and personality will never be any better than what they will be at the very minute he first steps in through your front door.

Therefore, you will want to hit the ground running so you can start working with your new dog the moment that he first steps paw on your property.

All of this is born out by decades of research into the factors that determine how difficult it will be to get your subject to stop engaging in and forever abandon any given undesirable response.

Clearly then, it is critically important that you begin incident training with your dog right away, when he first arrives, before he has a chance to build any bad habits.

Once the little refugee has landed on your doorstep, it is extremely important for you to react instantly to encourage his good behavior when you see it. And it is equally essential that you be ever vigilant in order to ensure that your dog's bad behavior always quickly produces an unpleasant consequence. Because the research clearly shows that to be effective, the consequences of your dog's behavior need to befall him either during or immediately after he emits the target response.

However, if you are going to react instantly to what your dog does, then you are going to have to plan everything out in advance in order to determine which of his behaviors you are going to reward, which of his responses you are going to discourage, and which you are going to ignore.

If you are going to respond instantly to what your dog does, then you can't wait until after he does something before you start trying to decide how you should react. If you do that, then by the time you think it through, it will already be too late to react immediately and you will have missed your chance to arrange the consequences for that critically important first response.

If you are going to respond instantly to what your dog does, then before he arrives on the scene, you are going to need to make a list of what he is and is not going to be allowed to do.

The List of Cans and Can'ts and Do's and Don'ts

To happenstance train effectively, you need to be ready to instantly react to whatever your dog might do, but to pull that off, you are going to have to make all of your decisions well in advance.

For example, what about barking? Do you want your dog to bark at you and other family members when they arrive home after having been away for a while? Do you want him to bark at the arrival of people that he does not know, but not at the arrival of people that he does know?

Do you want him to bark at everyone who passes by on the public sidewalk? If you think that will somehow make you safe, keep in mind that if your dog barks at everything and everyone, then when he sounds off, you'll have no idea whatsoever whether his vocalization signals an intruder climbing in your bedroom window or a leaf blowing in the wind. In other words, by allowing your dog to bark frequently, you will render him all but worthless as far as sounding the alarm goes.

Also, before you put your dog outside to bark at everything he sees, you first need to give some careful thought to how that will impact the health and sanity of your neighbors. People who love their dogs do not put them out untrained where their unrestrained barking can make them targets of neighbors who may be driven to desperate measures by the unrelenting stress of noise being continuously force-fed into their homes.

If you don't want a war with the guy next door, then, you will do well to remember that your neighbor very much does not want the sound of your barking dog force-fed into his living quarters. Even if you're from Texas - you can forget about the Alamo. Just don't ever let your dog outside without taking a moment to remember the golden rule. Enough said - one would hope.

I once knew a man who had a dog that would sit with him indoors and bark at him whenever she was bored or wanted attention, and she would keep it up until he stopped what he was doing and played with her. What are you going to do if your dog demands your attention by becoming vocal? What is your policy going to be on that?

You can determine everything about your dog's barking behavior, including when he barks, who he barks at, how much he barks, and under what circumstance he does and doesn't do it. But you have to plan it out in advance, because your dog's capacity to get his act together can never rise above your ability to make up your mind in advance, so you'll know exactly what to do when those critically important first responses unfold before your eyes in unexpected moments.

Is it okay with you if your dog gets up on the couch? If not, you had better be ready to instantly react to your dog's couch-jumping behavior by somehow turning the event into an unpleasant experience, because first responses never come a second time.

Is it all right with you if your dog grips your hand or your arm with his mouth? I like to wrestle with my dogs, and that's not as much fun for the dog if he can't grip you, so it's all right with me. But others find it disgusting and unsanitary. What is your policy going to be?

Your dog is perfectly capable of learning that certain things are okay with some people but not with others. For example, my dogs know that it is okay to grip me in a wrestling match, but that it is not okay to grip anyone else who does not invite that sort of play. Dogs can easily make such distinctions, as long as each individual is immaculately consistent about what he will and will not allow.

How do you want your dog to behave around other dogs? If it is important to you to raise a dog that is not aggressive toward other canines, then, the first time - the very first time that your dog moves to bully another dog, you need to be there to see it, and then, you need to instantly be all over your dog like a revenuer on an inheritance, to make sure that he will conclude early in life that unprovoked belligerence begets not but emotional upset.

Do you want your dog to sit close by, begging for table scraps while you eat dinner? If not, then, you had better be ready to ensure that his first attempts to solicit a handout don't work out well for him.

It is absolutely essential that everyone in your family agree on what your dog will and will not be allowed to do, because if some members of the family are reinforcing a given response while others are trying to put a stop to that exact same response, you can hope for little more than a confused, unhappy dog who will never be well trained, and whose behavior will be anything but exemplary. Hence, the need for a list of cans and can'ts and do's and don'ts that everyone can agree on.

Once you have your list in hand, you'll have a blueprint telling you exactly how your dog is supposed to behave and, by inference, how you need to react in order to exert maximum influence, and bring him to an understanding of what is and is not acceptable.

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This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network