The kind of training I like is called Concept Training. It teaches dogs life skills — things like optimism, patience, impulse-control, and flexibility — rather than to obey simple commands. Instead of walking in circles while yanking your dog’s collar or forcing her butt down anytime she refuses to sit promptly, you play training games that teach dogs the skills they need to make their own smart choices. Instead of training behaviors, ie Sit, you train things like Focus — which does, in fact, also wind up with a Sit behavior usually, but the goal is to teach the dog to pay attention to you, which is both more complicated and just about infinitely more useful than a simple Sit.

Here’s a link to a great article on the subject: Concept Training Concepts. 

And here’s another to the people who, I believe, named the idea: Absolute Dogs If you follow that link, you’ll see that concept training also believes dogs are unique individuals with their own personalities and that you train to the dog, not to one-size-fits-all.

Concept training is not positive reinforcement training, although there’s plenty of positive reinforcement within it. Also, there’s some confusion in the world about what exactly concept training is. Karen Pryor Academy, which is where Sophie and I started our training journey back when she was a puppy, uses the term concept training to refer to teaching dogs things like targeting and release cues, that you can then use to build complicated behaviors, such as opening doors. The “concepts” for them are really just partial behaviors, rather than traits or characteristics. I didn’t hate Karen Pryor training — it was fine — but I also didn’t care enough to do much of it. It’s basically clicker training, and it’s really focused on tricks, imo. Things like heel, which honestly, I just don’t care enough about to work on.

Concept training, on the other hand, is what I used to teach Sophie to wait for me before crossing a street. When we go out for a walk, I only use a leash if there are other people or cars who might be made nervous about an off-leash dog. Literally, I put her leash on when I’m worried that a driver might see her and feel like they need to slam on the brakes. I am not worried that Sophie will run out into the street in front of a car, even though she’s off-leash, because she knows that we watch for cars, and she does it herself. I will sometimes tell her to wait, but generally, I don’t have to, because she isn’t obeying my commands, she’s exercising her own judgement, which, after a year of training like this, is really pretty good.

A therapy dog, IMO, needs optimism. She needs to walk into new places with new smells and new noises and lots of chaos and feel safe and interested, not concerned. She needs to believe that the strange people reaching out to her won’t hurt her. She needs to be confident that the strange smells around her don’t indicate anything bad. Sophie already has that kind of optimism and trust in the world, although more experiences would build on it.

A therapy dog also needs focus. She needs to be able to pay attention to her person and listen to her person’s messages even when there’s a lot of stuff going on. Sophie could use some work on focus — she’s got room for improvement — but she’s off to a pretty good start.

A therapy dog also needs patience. There will be plenty of times when what’s happening won’t necessarily make sense to her, so she will need a willingness to sit quietly and wait and see what’s going to happen, while also staying alert. Sophie could definitely do that someday, but she’s probably not there quite yet.

Concept training would teach all of those skills beautifully — it’s exactly how concept training would consider the question of how to train a therapy dog! — so that’s what I thought I was getting into. It’s what I expected, just because it makes so much sense. Prong collars and corrections are so 20th century. Old-school. And therapy dogs are not really an old-school idea, IMO.

Anyway, it was so good for me to write this out/think this out — thanks for your questions and comments, both on the blog and via messages. I’ve withdrawn from the local program, but I think I’ll be spending my dog training $s on joining the absolute dogs game community. I do want to train Sophie more, because it is fun for her, rewarding for both of us, and I need to learn more in order to get better at teaching her.

But also, it’s time for me to get back to my own training. I made no progress this weekend on any of my work/business goals, and it might be time for me to actually set the goals and deadlines that I’ve talked about setting. A timetable for deciding on a business name, finishing my second certification, and maybe actually putting some of my course creation plans in writing would be a really good start to a productive day. Note that I’m not saying I’ll do all those things, just setting a deadline for getting them done. 🙂 Meanwhile, time to flip the laundry, take a shower, and maybe play some ball!