Behavior Chains in Dog Training – Part 1

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Why Knowing about Behavior Chains in Dog Training Is So Important

What is a behavior chain?

A behavior chain is a series of behaviors that you (or your dog or someone else) does in a predictable pattern.  Each link in the chain is a distinct behavior, and each link signals the next link is coming.  The easiest way to explain it is by example, so here goes.

An Explanation of a Behavior Chain

You start at the beginning, Point A in the diagram.  There are two options where you can end up – Point B or Point C.  Point B is the “bad” behavior you don’t like.  Point C is the “good” behavior you do like.

The distance between Point B and Point C is enormous – look at the size of that arrow.  But the distance between the first link of the chain going towards Point B (Link B1) and the first link of the chain going towards Point C (Link C1) is not – that arrow is much, much smaller.  That’s where you start, at that first link.  If you start further along the chain, it gets harder and harder to change your dog’s behavior because he has already been rewarded for “bad” behavior. The trick is to discover what the first link is because what you may think it is may not be what your dog determines is the first link.

An Example of a Behavior Chain in Dog Training

Here’s a concrete example.  A client had two large dogs that pulled her down the street.  The only help she wanted from me was to get her dogs to stop pulling. To top it off, she lived on the second floor, and she was afraid, rightly so, that the dogs might pull down the stairs.

She thought that we were going outside and I was either going to yank and crank her dogs into submission or that I had some magic fairy dust to sprinkle on them.  Neither of those things happened.

I explained to her that if she didn’t have control of her dogs inside the house where she has more control of distractions, she could never have control of them outside where she could not control distractions.  And this is the important part – the control starts at the beginning when the dogs had the first indication (that’s the very first link in the chain) that they were going for a walk.

Here is the sequence of her behaviors before taking the dogs for a walk.  Each behavior is one link in the chain.  However, for brevity, I’ve included only the gross behaviors.  We’ll talk more about the smaller behaviors in a minute.

  1. She always went barefoot in the house, so the first thing she did was go to THE closet where her shoes were.
  2. She took the shoes to the bed where she put them on.
  3. She went into the kitchen to get the clean-up bags.
  4. She went to the living room and got the leashes from the drawer.
  5. She struggled to put the leashes on her dogs.
  6. She opened the door and went for the walk with her dogs pulling her out the door, down the steps, and down the street.

With each step in the chain, the dogs got more excited because they knew what was coming next, i.e., the next link in the chain.  By the time she got the leashes out, the dogs were crazed and out of control.

We needed to change the chain.  The links were going to be the same, but the dogs’ behavior determined when they would get the reward of the next link.

Part 2 is the new behavior chain we used in training her dogs.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Key Concepts in Dog Training – Secrets You Need to Know to Make Dog Training Easier and Faster.

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