Active vs. Passive Training

"How much time do I have to spend training my dog each day?" This is one of the questions that I hear most frequently from...


“How much time do I have to spend training my dog each day?”

This is one of the questions that I hear most frequently from clients and one without a simple single-word or phrase response.

I think there are two categories of training, “active” training and “passive” training.

Active training is what we do within the context of a dog training class or training session. In active training, a set goal is established and the trainer focuses on one or more particular behaviors to work on in a given period of time. When I am preparing for an active training session with my dog, I have treats prepared in advance and readily available, a notebook and pen where I’ve jotted down what I’d like to work on, what our current criteria for each behavior is, and additional notes which revolve around the rate and type of reinforcement selected, the dog’s response to the various cues, any noted areas which may need refining and improvement, signs of stress, confusion, or initiative and enthusiasm displayed at various times over the course of our session. Active training is basically any time I think to myself, “I’m going to get out the treats and clicker and work on this behavior.”

Active training doesn’t require very much time. I spend about 10 – 20 minutes a day with my dogs working on active training sessions at home. Usually, we work in very short sessions – 30 seconds to 90 seconds is common, occasionally going up to three minutes per session. I like short sessions for a number of reasons:

  • dogs don’t tend to have particularly long attention spans
  • always leave them wanting more!
  • latent learning rocks!

I encourage my clients to spend 10 – 2o minutes per day on active training as well. Active training is great for teaching new behaviors or refining known behaviors for increasingly specific criteria.

“Why does my dog pull on the leash in the parking lot on the way to class but never when we’re working on exercises in the classroom?”

This is another question I hear very frequently and speaks to the other type of training, “passive” training.

What is passive training? Passive training is what’s happening every second you and your dog interact together outside of an active training session.

Dogs are hedonists. They do the things that work to get them what they want. The dogs want to get into the classroom, they love class. They pull on the leash because they’re excited; the owner being dragged along at the other end of the leash. The dog has learned that pulling is an effective strategy to get into the classroom. Why walk on a loose leash? There is no expectation or incentive for polite leash manners. You see this in competition dogs a lot as well. A dog that heels beautifully in the ring and then pulls like a dervish in “real world environments” or the second she walks out of the ring is not uncommon.

One of the biggest challenges of my job is to get handlers to take their skills and behaviors on the road. They train well in the classroom. They train well at home. Learning to be aware of your dog’s learning at all times takes practice and awareness. It requires mental multi-tasking. When we are in the classroom, the students know, “we are here to train, we’re focused on dog training.” While active training can certainly expedite results, the real art is in learning to train passively. To make your dog’s learning processes a conscious aspect of all your interactions with her takes time. You may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but can you be mindful of your dog’s learning processes in all of the following instances?

  • Can you be aware, on a walk, of tension on the leash when you take every single step? Some estimates say that an individual with average stride should expect to take approximately 2,000 strides/steps per mile. If you take a mile and a half walk, can you be aware of the tension on the leash and whether you are reinforcing leash manners or rudeness for 3,000 individual steps?
  • Can you keep your shoes, socks, and underwear off the floor until your dog is trained to ignore them?
  • Are you aware of what your dog wants in the environment? For a socially gregarious dog, meeting new dogs and people are extremely potent reinforcers. Are you prepared to make sure that every time he greets someone new, he earns that opportunity through polite behavior and not pushy/demanding/rude behavior? What about the toy-crazed dog? Will he earn his play opportunities through focus and good behavior, or through grabbing the toy and smacking you with it until you play or dropping it at your feet and whining until you give in?
  • Every time you make eye contact with your dog or speak to your dog, you are giving him attention and therefore reinforcing the behavior he was doing at the time of contact. Do you have the self-control to turn away from your dog EVERY SINGLE TIME he jumps, 100% of the time? Maybe he paws at your leg for attention – you think it’s cute sometimes but other times it drives you nuts. You have two options – put it on cue and let uncued offerings go into extinction or make a hard and fast boundary – is this behavior ok all the time or never? Dogs need clear boundaries and limits so they can understand what is expected of them. (Cuba whines for attention – I have to ignore this all the time, despite the fact that he’s a really cute puppy and I know that if I just go pet him, he’ll stop that damned whining. Not even look at him. I also have to make sure my husband and any visitors ignore this behavior as well.)
  • Every time you sit down to have dinner with the family, your dog is learning whether begging or waiting politely will be the behavior which is most likely to earn him a dinner-dish-pre-washing opportunity. Which will be most successful?

“Does ‘x’ behavior work to get me ‘y’?” is the cost-benefit analysis your dog is constantly calculating. Virtually all unwanted behaviors are a product of reinforcement history – what is maintaining this behavior? The environment? The handler? What is the dog getting out of this? You always have to be thinking about what your dog wants in a given moment and how you may use those things to your training advantage.

Failure to do so is one of the reasons I think people struggle the most when it comes to introducing reinforcement variability and variety and weaning off the 1:1 behavior: treat ratio of continuous reinforcement. I think too often, we walk around the world with our dogs wearing blinders, we are not aware of what our dogs truly want or how to manipulate access to those resources contingent upon desirous behavior. It takes time to develop that peripheral awareness – in fact, I think it may be easier to learn the skills of active training, where you only have to focus on a task for a few seconds to an hour at a time, than it is to learn the art of passive training, which requires you be aware of your dog’s quirks, wants, and fetishes and how your dog earns access to them every second you spend together.

Active training is a thing to do with your dog. Passive training is a way of life.

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