Foundation behaviours – “I can skip this part, right?  My dog knows the basics.”


The following is an excerpt from Nancy’s online course entitled “Greeting Skills: From Friendly Tornadoes to Warm Hellos”, available at It’s offered once (sometimes twice) a year.


This is it.  This is the part where most people casually get off the bus, convinced they “already know this stuff” and that it doesn’t apply to them.  “This is too basic… I want to work on my actual problem!”

Ah, but this is precisely the stuff that will get you over the hump you’ve been struggling with.  You may think your dog has already learned all the foundation behaviours he needs, and you’re probably right… in certain contexts.

Sometimes, your dog gets it perfectly right, and he’s a star. After all, you’ve already put hours and hours of work into training your awesome dog.

It’s just in a few other contexts that the problem surfaces, amirite?

You’re certain that if you could just work in those particular contexts, you will resolve the issue.  “My dog already does X behaviour perfectly at home, I don’t need to practice that.  I want him to learn to do X behaviour in the other context, where it becomes a problem.  Can’t we just work on that already??”

Well, sort of, yes.  But mostly, no.

Let me explain.  But first, a little anecdote:


I once had a client who wanted help with her dog’s “Stay” behaviour.  We talked for a while, she and I and her dog standing in my training facility.  She was growing frustrated at my suggestion that we start at the beginning again – revisit the foundations of that behaviour – because she felt her dog “already knew” a basic Stay.

“I can ask to him to Stay and then leave the room for 10 mins at a time, and he won’t move.”  Great!  Then what was the problem?

“If I ask him to Stay and I call my other dog to me, he’ll stand and follow us.”  Ah, I see.

Well now, that’s a whole different behaviour.  She wanted us to work together with that as a starting point, and while at first glance, it would seem as though “a stay is a stay” and should be pretty straight-forward, the reality is that the contexts were so different that they weren’t even on the same side of the tree.

Tree?  What tree…?

And here is where it will all make sense for you.  Consider this illustration:

1. A behaviour is like a tree.

2. The roots are the foundation skills.

3. The trunk is where the foundation skills for that behaviour come together and become strong.

4. Each large branch – or limb – represents a different context in which that behaviour can take place.

5. Each smaller branch growing from those limbs represents more details about that context.

6. And each even smaller branch, right down to the individual leaves, represents even more contextual detail.


While I stood talking to my client about her dog’s Stay skills, she explained to me that her dog was able to maintain a stay while she was out of the room.  Okay… that’s a limb: “Stay, even in owner’s absence”.

I asked about distractions.  She said that her dog was rock-solid.  He was able to stay while she literally ran circles around him, waving her arms and shouting excitedly.  Okay… that’s also part of a limb on the “Stay” behaviour tree:

“Stay while your person moves”.

And another branch off that limb:

“Stay while your person moves around excitedly.”

And another smaller branch off that branch:

“Stay while your person moves around excitedly and shouts.”

I asked her to cue her dog to stay and to show me what that distraction looks like.  As she moved around and shouted excitedly, I tossed a ball off to the side.  Her dog stood up immediately, unsure what to do.

Tossing a ball is a context that belongs on a different branch that grows on a different limb. Tossing a ball is not attached to the limb that represents “while your person moves”.

Before we marry both contexts – Context #1: the movement/shouting, and Context #2: the ball toss – we need to work on each context separately, from the foundation, up the trunk, onto the limb, and across to the appropriate branch.

What my client was suggesting was the equivalent of jumping straight from the “movement and shouting” branch, clear across to the other side of the tree to the “tossing a ball” branch.  But that’s where the problem was… it’s too far a stretch, even for Tarzan.

That’s why she hadn’t been able to solve the problem of her dog breaking his Stay in order to follow her other dog.  She was attempting to skip a few vital steps.  Her dog had not yet acquired that skill.

We can’t jump from branch to branch until we’ve taught each behaviour from the roots up, separately.  Instead, by building each behaviour from the foundation up, you are building a sort of tree-house that will allow you easy and direct access to all the different branches.  A solid platform.


Swiss Family Robinson tree


So here we are now, you and I, standing at the roots of this particular behaviour tree:  The “Polite greetings” tree.

This behaviour tree is made up of several branches, each representing a different context and skill.  Look up, and you’ll see the “greeting people at my door” branch, and the “walking by another dog and ignoring him” branch, and the “standing still while someone approaches us” branch… and off of that branch are even smaller branches: “standing still while someone approaches us from behind”, or “… from head-on”, or “… from head-on while jogging”, or “… from head-on while jogging with a dog”.

You get the picture.  Each of these is an entirely different context requiring a different skill set.  They will each need to be practiced separately, systematically working our way through levels of difficulty.  With each practice, you are building your tree house, so that one day you can own that entire behaviour tree.

Foundation skills are where it’s at, and we’re going to spend some time here together.  I promise you it’s worth it.  Let’s move our way up the trunk and work on each branch systematically so that we can finally help your dog get it right in all the contexts you envision.