Life Skills

The necessary difference between Life Skills and Performance in dog training

You see a dog on the training field that is full of energy, optimism and excitement and performing the tasks exceptionally well – what a smart dog and well trained too, must be a joy to live with…

Well…   not always, or more accurately not often.

My Training in Drive System has been developed over many years, the goal of the program is to be able to gain the dogs best performance he or she can deliver in the handlers chosen sport or work; but I know more than anyone this is NOT the program that most people need.

YES it has produced podium winners in just about every dog sport there is.

YES it produces a reliable performance where the dog invests all he or she has

NO it does not teach the dog to be calm, relaxed or chilled out – for that there is my Life Skills program.

I feel that every high drive dog should be trained in both systems so that there is a place for performance and there is a place for calm, well-mannered behaviours.

Life skills
Herzhund Agent Performance Heel work created by Henna Kuusisto in Steve’s Training in Drive System

Developing these “on and off switches” helps dogs and owners understand what behaviours are best at what time. So you don’t have a dog prancing down the main street expecting a high energy reward when your just heading out for coffee, and alternatively, you don’t have a dog that is chilled out and falling asleep on the training field or distracted by anyone and everything.

Everyone agrees that…

Well actually very rarely in the dog world does everyone agree on anything but most will agree that consistency is highly important.

So, imagine when you give your dog a heel cue and today this will end in a game of tug when the dog prances along for a few steps, but tomorrow you give the same heel cue and walk your dog around the block.

What does heel mean to your dog if you use the same word for different outcomes?

There is a huge benefit if you teach your dog multiple behaviours when there are different requirements, such as one cue for Loose Leash Walking and another for Performance Heel work.

Herzhund Blaze and Herzhund Drama Loose Leash walking through town

The Loose Leash Walking behaviour is low energy, with a low energy reward, like praise or affection and the Performance Heel work would have a high energy reward.

This can really help a dog learn when energy is needed and when it is not.

I have seen dogs winning Obedience competitions and once they leave the field the dog pulls on the leash, ignores the owners and does what ever takes their fancy.

When a dog expects a high value reward and that reward is withheld or removed or simply not given, this can create frustration, and this frustration can elevate arousal causing the dog to misbehave.

The answer is not to punish the behaviour but change the dog’s expectations in this setting so that he or she is not expecting a high value reward, therefore is not frustrated when it is not forthcoming.

Life Skills are an excellent way to rehabilitate aggressive dogs

Using different cues can help and teaching behaviour chains that have the dog expecting the correct reward, by delivering the right behaviour, over the duration expected by the handler.

An example is that you may have an obedience champion that can-do a down stay in the ring but cannot relax at the coffee shop for more than a couple of minutes.

The dog becomes agitated, impatient, fidgety and unsettled simply because the two behaviours have some things in common but they are not the same.

Having a dog that understands when to be calm and relaxed and when to be switched on and trying their hardest is not rocket science, but it does not come naturally either.

It must be taught separately and as I mentioned above, different cues are helpful too.

Life Skills

This is teaching a dog how to participate in your life without needing all of your attention, your dog will be happy to hang out and not be the centre of attention. Giving you time to enjoy life without tossing rewards and games at your dog constantly.

This may sound nice for the dog but in reality they end up just being left at home.

They will need to be taught, trained and proofed like everything you train and part of the training must include teaching the dog to expect to hold the behaviour for a longer time than say performance work.

When I go to a café I expect my (high drive) dogs to lay down beside me, calmly and quietly and remain there, even when another dog walks by, even when it has been half an hour, even when I don’t have food treats, in actual fact – no matter what happens I expect the dog to be calm and not expecting rewards every moment.

Life skills
Tapua Rosie Cheeks Loose Leash Walking created by Hunter Courtney in Steve’sLife Skills program

As I said, this does not come naturally for many high drive, high energy breeds but this certainly does not mean that it cannot be trained reliably.

The benefit of this means that the dogs are storing their energy and not wasting it at this time, so when I do switch them on, they have plenty!

It is very worthwhile taking a look at your dogs training system and asking yourself if there are separate programs for Life Skills and Performance.

I see many dog owners that cannot understand why their dogs behave badly everywhere except dog training? One answer is “how do you behave at dog training vs the street”? Do you have handfuls of food at training and not on the street?

Is the program at your club a Life Skills program or a Trialling program?

If you are training to trial your dog in competitive obedience, understand this will not ever produce a dog that is great at both unless the programs are very different from each other.

I see dogs that are fantastic at Agility but cannot be taken out for a simple walk to the coffee shop without pulling, lunging and being told off by the owners. Certainly, well trained, but not in Life Skills.

Performance will suffer

There is a strong belief that if you teach your dog to be calm and well behaved it will kill the dogs performance, and to a degree that “can” be true, depending on how you train it.

If you make your communication clear to your dog of your expectations and teach the steps, then you will get performance gains!

Life Skills
Herzhund Blaze in high drive down stay created by Rebecca Chin in Steve’s Training in Drive System

A dog that is constantly seeking reward from you and not getting it most of the time and being told off for trying some times will certainly benefit from being told when he or she should be on and when he or she should not.

All of these things play a role in how your dog will behave in a given situation. If you do not train for the environment your dog will not behave in it.

Life Skills training is a must for all dogs, especially performance dogs!

As always feel free to share and comment.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. Hi Steve, would you mind to give specific examples of a high and low energy reward please? I understand the training in drive and life skills systems but I’m not quite sure I can picture what you mean by the high and low energy rewards. Thanks

    • Hi Karen, in my system energy is developed through the method in which the reward is delivered, the amount of investment the dog has in it and how much work the dog needed to to to get it.

      So the dog can geared to display high energy in some exercises and low energy in others.

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