Training A “Default” Behaviour

The Problem

Several years ago, at the nearby National Park, there was an incident where a small dog jumped out of his human’s car into the bison enclosure and ran off into the forest. This dog was from out of the country, and his humans looked for him for a while and then had to return home without him.

The dog had turned “wild” as it was described almost immediately, and wouldn’t return to the car even when given “commands” that he knew well in normal situations.

In the spring, the dog was seen near the townsite of the park by some workers, was cornered and “apprehended”.  The “owners” were notified and the dog was returned to them none the worse for wear. Amazing. He was somehow able to survive the winter in the forest with no previous knowledge of it or ever being alone or free before, but when returned to his home, was his same old self. You could say that in order to survive in that situation, the dog had to call on his “default” survival skills – something that he had never practiced but knew instinctively. His “wild” side was likely brought on by seeing the bison and getting worked into a tizzy.

The Possible Solution?

This “default” instinctive behaviour is similar, but different to the default behaviour that a dog is trained for in a life lived among humans.

Technically, a “default” behaviour is one that your dog does automatically because the training has so ingrained the behaviour into the dog’s mind and muscle memory that he doesn’t even really have to think about it when the cue is given. The dog in the forest had a “default” behaviour of survival that had been ingrained by nature. It is important that every “civilized” 😉 dog have one of these default cues trained so that in an emergency situation (such as being at a bison park) the cue will more than likely to work and possibly save a dog’s life.

What are the keys to doing this?

The keys to training a “default” behaviour are as follows. Make sure that most, if not every situation is covered in the training. It is unlikely that the humans of this runaway dog would have been able to stop their dog from taking off without extensive training. Working around many different and increasingly distracting situations would have most likely been the preventative for this issue. But, it takes work and persistence, which is the ages old problem that causes people to say that their dog is untrainable ;-).

The other thing that you can do to prepare your dog for such a possibility is to train with many repetitions. As I have said before, the training sessions themselves do not have to be long, but the number of repetitions should be high over a long period. Not only that, the actual behaviour that you have decided to teach as default should be done correctly. For example, if you are making “down” as you dog’s default behaviour for whatever reason, the dog needs to be all the way down on the floor or ground with the chest resting there and possibly the dog being swung over on his hip. If the behaviour is not done correctly to begin with, it will start to fall apart at some point and possibly make it easier for the dog to get up and run in the face of distraction.

Which behaviour?

A good default behaviour to teach is “sit”. It can be used in many situations and is relatively easy to train, as well as a very commonly taught behaviour. I ended up with sit as a default for my dog Tommy when I was training for competition obedience. We repeated it so many times in different situations, that I was able to use it to get him to focus on me when people came to the front door, or when we were in crowds. The act of sitting became  second nature to Tommy because we had done it so often. 

Accidentally On Purpose

I also trained the behaviour of going to the agility table or pedestal as a default by accident. I had set the tables and pedestals out in the small yard and left them there for months. Any time we would go out in the yard, I would reinforce one or more of the dogs for getting up on a table without being given a cue (I always carry food rewards). I was doing this because we were training for agility and trick titles. table1

At the time I didn’t realize what I was doing, but when I later had the tables set up in the large running yard and brought the dogs there for exercise, they would immediately run over to the table and hop on. I thought this was great but later realized that it was the result of having continually reinforcing them for this behaviour. All the dogs also responded to the cue of “table”, but I didn’t necessarily use it every time. Even AJ got into the act, being too big for most of the pedestals. Two feet are better than none!



So, back to the dog who ran off into the forest. Obviously the situation was too exciting for the poor dog to handle but luckily his default survival skills came through for him.

I would like to think that training a default behaviour would prevent my dogs from taking off after bison, deer or other such animal, but the truth is unless the training has been done in such highly distracting environments with some repetition, it is not likely. There is always that possibility.

To be safe though, it is a good idea to do SOME training as a preventative. Some is better than none.