Your approach to dog training can make or break your service dog's success! Everyone has skills in some areas and not in others. Knowing if you tend toward being a "recipe trainer" or a "concept trainer" can help you know what to focus on to improve your training.
Check out this chart to contrast the two approaches. Where do you fall on the continuum between the two types?
|Recipe Trainer||Concept Trainer|
|is skills-based. They follow a lesson plan to teach specific skills only.||is theory-based. They learn and understand the principles such as systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, operant conditioning, Premack's Principle, capturing, shaping and chaining.|
|is a procedural learner. They memorize but not understand what they are doing or why. They are great at following step by step directions from someone else and may vary it a bit but that’s it. It is very much like following a cooking recipe. You measure each part but are afraid to test the parameters as you might wreck the product.||is principle learner. They can apply (generalize) the principles and concepts to teaching many behaviors and situations.
|believes that one training plan can work for all dogs||knows their dog's specific learning style and can choose training approaches and recipes that best suit that specific dog|
|has weak observation skills and poor interpretation of their dog's body language. Doesn't know or understand natural dog behavior.||has strong observation skills and can interpret their dog's body language and use that to change the course of a training session. Understands canine ethology.|
|focusses on short-term goals. Teaches only specific behaviors to pass a test such as those needed for the Public Access test for service dogs.||keeps long term concepts in mind while teaching the smaller goals. Teaches the broader goals of being safe in public, being calm and reliable in public and working as part of a team.|
|hopes the dog will figure out how to react appropriately in public||prepares the dog for the unpredictability of real life in public using systematic desensitization, counter conditioning etc. as needed|
|limited ability to apply recipe to other behaviors||applies principles, situations, tasks and to teach concepts. Teaches the dog many examples of the concept so she can learn it. An example is duration. If the dog is taught to hold her nose to a target, wait at a door, stay in a relaxed down, hold an object in her mouth and look at you, each calmly for a duration of time, the dog starts to understand that patience gets her what she wants.|
|rarely reviews or evaluates what they have done and why it worked or didn't work||regularly reflects on and analyzes training and situations and applies changes to current ones|
|tries to solve specific problems without seeing the bigger behavior patterns involved||looks for patterns in behaviors and between behaviors. They use critical thinking skills and categorize and organize information using logic.|
|has hard time breaking behaviors into smaller steps when they haven't seen someone else do it first.||understands the smaller pieces that make up behaviors. For example, a nose nudge is made up of three behaviors or a retrieve is at least 6 different behaviors.|
|follows what others have done||creative thinkers for behaviors and problem solving|
In human and dog training, concept learning is key since there are so many different behaviors the handler and a service dog need. They also face so many different daily challenges. Learning to teach your dogs conceptually means that you can figure out how to teach any behavior or task you will need as your medical condition changes as well as being able to teach your own successor service dogs with less guidance. This will save you money and is also empowering and fun! Your dog will learn faster once you have put in the time to learn the theory upfront.
Problem Solving Examples
Conceptual learners are good problem solvers. They are creative in applying what they know. They seldom need help with teaching their dog new skills. They see the big picture while also seeing the immediate picture and how they fit together. Conceptual knowledge allows the trainer to break the steps down when they are teaching their dog. This is especially helpful for problem-solving since they can isolate the problem part of the behavior and reteach that.
A procedural learner would ask:
“How do I get my dog to ignore people while working?”
She would receive the list resources (such as a step by step approach, human helpers etc.) that was given to her, and then apply them so the dog would not engage with people.
In contrast, a conceptual learner would ask:
“What is the general approach I can take to help desensitize my dog to a trigger?”
And with a few general ideas from others, would be able to create a plan on her own, identify what resources are needed for the plan and carry it out. In addition, she would be able to recognize and apply the ideas to other situations that need desensitization such as overexcitement, fear of people, other dogs and animals, loud noises, etc.
When faced with a dog that has low interest in doing a specific behavior or task, a procedural learner would ask:
“How can I get my dog more excited about performing my medical task?”
In contrast, a conceptual learner would ask:
“What principle can I use to increase my dog's enthusiasm for the task?
The conceptual answer would be: “You can apply Premack’s Principle to increase his enthusiasm for the task.” If the handler didn’t know what Premack’s principle was, they could research it and see some examples of how to apply it, then generalize those ideas to their specific situation.
A procedural learner asks: “How would I prepare my dog for going to a concert?”
A conceptual learner would ask: “What specific things would I need to desensitize my dog to to prepare him to attend an indoor concert with me.”
The first is looking for an a, then b, then c type answer. In other words, they want you to tell them how to do it step by step. The second is asking for ideas of specific criterion they need to train for that they might not have considered (especially if they have never been to an indoor concert before). They already have a broad plan in place (using desensitization) they are just looking for things they might have missed.
Look at Other People's Questions
Take a look in various dog training groups on social media and look for the types of questions people ask. From them, you can tell what kind of trainer they are and what types of answers that would be helpful for each. A recipe trainer wants a step by step answer, perhaps one that considers all the "What if's". A concept trainer only needs to be pointed to the principles that apply and they can figure out the rest of the process.
The good news is everyone can learn to improve their concept training! That will allow them to deal with any situation that arises and to train any behavior, skill or task their service dog may need. That will save money and hassles in the long run.
Improve Your Knowledge!
If you want to begin learning the theory and skills behind training your dog as a service dog, take a look at our online "Foundation Skills" self-paced classes. Then if you want to keep learning, check out our other classes such as Loose Leash Walking, Settle/Relax and Public Access Level 1 and 2 (Preparation for Public Access). Between the four classes, you will learn the major teaching Principles and how to apply them so can train your own service dog to be a safe, responsive partner for you in life.
Booking a one hour session or more with Donna can also help you pinpoint what principles you need to learn more about to improve your service dog training skills.