Many of the things we teach our dogs are quite complex.
A touch, a turn, a jump – these are all simple ‘units’ of behavior.
In training, the dog is often rewarded after each of these individual behaviors.
In this article we will compare these simple steps with the complex routines you can see dogs performing in talent competitions, for example.
What Is A Behavior Chain?
A behaviour chain is a string of separate behaviors that are associated with one another in sequence.
Usually with a reward at the end of the chain.
In dog training, these individual behaviors are usually taught one at a time, then linked together to form the chain.
Many dog training skills involve behavior chains, and it is important that we understand how to use and teach them.
Teaching Complex Behaviors
We can use behaviour chains to build complex behaviours that a dog would otherwise not be capable of.
Let’s take for example, a dog being taught to unload the washing machine.
Behavior Chain Example: Unloading the washing machine
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Next he can be taught to drop the sock into a basket.
Now we can teach him to walk a little way with the sock, and then drop the sock in the basket.
Finally we can teach him to pick up the sock from the washing machine and then put these behaviours together into a chain.
Pick up, hold, carry, and release.
A behavior chain.
Eliminating Bad Behaviors
We can also use behaviour chains to eliminate undesirable behaviors, by making each link in the chain contingent on the behavior behind it.
For example. A dog that whines in the car, as you approach the dog park or dog walking area, will often have a chain of cues that reinforce the whining.
He whines when you get out of the car because he is excited that you are about to release him from the car.
He soon whines as soon as you turn off the engine because he is excited that you are about to get out of the car.
It’s not long before he is whining as you drive into the car park, because you’re about to park and switch off the engine.
You get the picture.
The same applies to the dog that gets hysterical in the house about an impending walk.
He barks and spins when you get down his lead, barks and spins when you put on your coat, barks and spins when you clip on his lead, barks and spins when you open the door.
Resolving this bad behavior chain involves a waiting game.
You just wait for the dog to display calm behavior before proceeding to the next part of the chain.
We teach the dog that we don’t give the cue ‘ok’ which allows him out of the car, until he is quiet.
This cue ‘ok’ also reinforces the quiet behaviour that precedes it.
Teaching A Behavior Chain
When we teach a new behavior chain, we teach the individual components separately.
This often means starting at the end and teaching the last part of the chain first, just as we did in our unloading the washing machine example.
The most commonly taught behavior chain is probably the retrieve. Whilst some dogs are naturals at this complex behavior chain, many are weak on certain links in the chain.
The next link in the chain is the chase, then comes the pick-up, the hold, the carry, the return and the ‘delivery’ or placing the object in the owners hand ready to be thrown again.
However, we don’t need to teach the retrieve in this order, in fact, if we do, it can be difficult to string the whole thing together.
So we use a process called back-chaining.
Backchaining In Dog Training
If we teach the chain in sections, starting at the end with the hold and release, we ensure that all the sections of the chain are strong and well understood.
This is because every time the dog engages in the chain, he finishes up with something familiar that he already knows.
Once we have taught him the last part of the chain, the other parts are then added in sequence working backwards, finishing finally with the outrun.
The cue for part of a behavior chain, will often also be the reinforcer for the preceding link in the chain. So when we teach the dog to ‘hold’ and release a dummy or dumbbell, the release cue is also the reinforcer for the hold that precedes it.
You can also work on strengthening other parts of the chain, but backchaining is often the best way to begin.
Behavior Chains and Backchaining In Dog Training
Behavior chains and backchaining can be applied to any aspect of dog training. Whether it’s teaching a new skill, resolving an issue or encouraging a certain behavior.