Raising Canine

Dog Obedience Training – Four Key Elements

This is the first in a series of articles on the science and art of animal training and dog obedience training. Although the discussion is about animal training, don’t forget that these principles apply equally to humans, so if you’re a professional animal trainer, don’t forget to apply them to your clients, as well as their pets.

For canine obedience training, we have two problems we generally deal with: basic dog obedience training and dog behavior training. When dealing with behavior problems, we’re usually trying to reduce an unwanted behavior such as jumping up or separation anxiety. With obedience training, we’re teaching a dog to increase a desired behavior. For this series of articles, I’m going to focus on obedience training.

There are some basic dog obedience training methods that most trainers know – but it never hurts to review them. So, let’s start at the beginning with the four pieces of the training puzzle that must be in place before a new behavior can be learned:

  • Timing
  • Motivation
  • Achievable Criteria
  • Rate of Reinforcement

If any one of these pieces are missing, the dog is less likely to learn the behavior.


Let’s start with timing. The “dog psychology” term for timing is contiguity – which is the proximity of a stimulus and response so that an association can be made between the two. In other words, the two events (stimulus and response – in this case, behavior and consequence) must happen close enough in time that the dog is able to make an association between the two.

There are different “rules” about how much time can pass between the behavior and the consequence, but there’s no doubt that sooner is better. Probably the most common recommendation is that it should happen between one and three seconds; personally, I would be aiming for between immediately and one second. AND – this is very important – if you’re a clicker or marker trainer, the marker can give you some extra time, but I’d still be going for less than one second between both the behavior and the click and less than one second from the time of the click to delivery of the consequence. The clicker buys you time, but the food is the consequence.

So what this means is, be prepared! Have treats in your hand, ready to be delivered. Don’t have them in your pocket, a baggie, or even your bait bag because it takes too much time to get to.


We all know what motivation is – it’s the reason we do something. Motivation can be to acquire something or avoid something. In the science-based/positive reinforcement dog training community, we generally use something the dog wants such as food, toys, etc. For purposes of this article, we’ll use food as the consequence. Food is easy to work with, highly motivating, and helps achieve a high rate of reinforcement.

You should use the smallest, least valuable reinforcer the dog will work for. Use smaller treats because you’ll be dispensing a lot of them and you don’t want to satiate the dog before you’ve completed the training session. As to the least reinforcing, well – save the big guns for more difficult challenges. Another thing to consider is when to break out the higher-value reinforcers. A lot of trainers jump to higher value treats as soon as the dog displays any indifference to the training session, or doesn’t appear to be learning. If the dog will eat the food if given freely, then it’s probably motivating enough for the training session. So, the problem is probably a function of criteria rather than motivation.


Most trainers understand timing and motivation. Where they often go wrong is with criteria. Criteria is the behavior you want the animal to do now. This can include many things such as position, duration, distance, speed, level of distraction, and so on.

The most important thing about criteria is that it should be achievable. If it isn’t achievable, all the motivation in the world isn’t going to help. In human terms, think about asking a 2nd grade school child to do a calculus problem. You can offer him $1,000.00, his favorite ice cream every day for the next year, whatever he wants. If he doesn’t know how to do it, the motivation isn’t going to help him.

Additionally, criteria should be specifically defined. If the requirements change from moment to moment, you have very fuzzy criteria and you’re going to get fuzzy behavior. In a later article, we’ll discuss specifically how to set criteria – when to raise it and how much to raise it.

Rate of Reinforcement

Rate is about how often something happens in a given period of time. Rate of frequency refers to the number of times a behavior occurs within a specified period of time. Rate of frequency is how we measure learning – is the frequency of the behavior increasing or decreasing? If not, then the animal is not learning what we’re attempting to train. Reinforcement refers to the consequence that increases a specified behavior. As we know, behavior is consequence driven – i.e., we are likely to repeat or not repeat a behavior, depending on the consequence of that behavior. So, rate of reinforcement is the number of times a reinforcer is delivered for performance of a specified behavior within a designated period of time.

Timing, motivation, criteria, and rate of reinforcement are the four elements that must be present for learning to take place.

In fact, if behavior is changing these four elements are in place – the trainer may or may not be aware that they’re in place, but they are. A good trainer knows they are necessary and arranges their training around them.

These same principles also apply to puppy obedience as well as when training an older dog. For that matter, they apply when teaching horses, cats, cockroaches and humans!

The next article will discuss the four stages of learning. Meanwhile, I will be presenting a webinar on this topic in January, so if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

NOTE: Since this is the first article in this series, I thought I’d bring this up now. Early in your career, you should know what to call yourself. A lot of dog trainers call themselves “dog behaviorists.” However the term “behaviorist” is an earned title that takes a lot of work, so out of respect for our affiliated professionals, we should not refer to ourselves as dog behaviorists unless we have earned that title. I suggest the term “dog behavior consultant.”

Susan Smith is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer as well as a Certified Dog Behavior Training Consultant. She has co-authored the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Dogs and has authored or sponsored hundreds of online dog training courses.

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