Mental Frameworks for training

When you’re working with a dog, you can start your approach with different mental frameworks, and any of them is likely to get you where you want to go.

You can focus on the observable behavior, the emotions that underly that observable behavior, or the arousal level.

Emotions – what do you think the dog is feeling? If it’s negative, what can you do to change that? For example; Dog is running through the house barking hysterically. What is the dog feeling that is causing that? Happy and excited? Fearful? Frustrated? Address the underlying emotion and the behavior will improve. If I think the emotion is negative, I’ll probably work pretty hard to fix that rather than worrying about what I see or the dog’s arousal level. What can I do to make the dog feel better? Better behavior and arousal will follow if you get the dog in a positive emotional state.

Behavior – Dog is running through the house barking hysterically. What are you observing? Feet moving! Dog zooming! How can you change what the dog is doing? Likely you will focus on identifying what happened before it all started up and intercede at that point. You may give very little attention to guessing about how the dog is feeling emotionally – just change the behavior itself.

Arousal – Dog is running through the house barking hysterically. What is the dog’s arousal level? High! What knobs can you turn that will bring down that level of arousal to what you want to see in the house? Can you intercede at the point (in the future) where you notice the arousal level escalating? Change the arousal level and better behavior will follow.

What is interesting is that any of those three is perfectly likely to work and may give you the same plan. And ideally, you are aware of all three frameworks when you’re trying to change behavior.

For Dice, I find it helpful to think in terms of arousal – if I drop his arousal level there is no problematic behavior and that simplifies the process in my head. Of course, I’m observing behavior and I’m aware of what emotions might be behind that behavior but they are not my focus.

And when I’m training skills I tend to think in terms of all three – emotions (is he enjoying this?) arousal (Right motivator for the task at hand?) and behavior (do I like what I”m getting here?) Probably of the three my greatest focus is on emotions – if I keep him happy I can get the right arousal level easily and behavior is the least of my worries – happy dogs in the right arousal state are very easy to train for skills.

These are interwoven ideas. Any of them can get you from here to there – which is most comfortable for you?

Words matter. Frameworks matter – they set how our brain proceeds and pull our attention. Not good or bad but interesting to contemplate.

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