#1: Function Drives Behaviour

This is one of my favourite lines from modern dog-training science. (Love a snappy mantra, you’ll see…)

Bear with me for this tangential dog’s leg (pun intended) it will all make sense in a moment.

The science suggests a couple of things: using the least aversive training method will make the concept more secure even though it might take a little longer. This is because aversive methods, methods that inflict pain/discomfort/fear, will give you compliance because the animal is trying to avoid the aversive, not because they want to show you the behaviour you have asked for.

A more enjoyable path, for both the dog and their handler, is to figure out what drives their behaviour and use that as a reward or find more appropriate ways for them to carry out that behaviour. 

Imagine seeing that pesky squirrel, Nuts, on your favourite woodland walk. Your brain goes into overdrive at the prospect of chasing it, because (as a terrier, bred for chasing small creatures) that behaviour is inherently rewarding.

Scenario 1: Your human calls your name, you turn back to look at them, they are standing there calling. BORING! Off you go, into the wilderness after Nuts the Squirrel.

Scenario 2: Your human calls your name, you turn back to look at them, they are waving their arms about and running away. A game of chase? You want to play with me? YAY! Off you go, zooming towards your human and when you arrive they dispense your favourite snack. 

By understanding the function that drives the behaviour of the animal, the handler is able to adapt their response, providing an opportunity for compliance with the requested behaviour (in this example, recall) that is inherently rewarding. This simultaneously reduces the likelihood of practising non-compliance (Scenario 1) and makes the desirable behaviour a rewarding behaviour to perform, reinforcing the cue attached to it. 

If engaging with our session and curiously questing for answers is an inherently enjoyable task (and this isn’t me advocating for just playing games… ‘Humans are a challenge seeking species’ (Mary Myatt), there is a place for games but tackling a conundrum gives us a sense of achievement too) then it is more likely to be repeated, leaving less room for the undesirable behaviours.


For anybody who has had even the smallest interaction with me via the Qualified Tutor Community, you will have probably gleaned two things.

  1. Mary Myatt’s Ted Talk is my favourite. I think she’s fabulous, because she approaches learning from a research based perspective, is willing to have challenging conversations and backs it all up with science
  2. Reading Paul Dix’s book, When the Adults Change, Everything Changes, was a watershed moment for me in terms of behaviour management

If you haven’t read it, I thoroughly recommend it as an essential read, followed swiftly by his second book which I am currently midway through. 

“Behaviour management” has the potential to be a divisive topic because our experiences of it can end up being intertwined with our own emotions. Consistent, calm adult behaviour is something that Paul Dix advocates for. That doesn’t mean that adults are centres of zen 24/7, it means that when a child crosses a boundary the response is appropriate and proportionate.

Paul Dix and others advocate for alternative solutions to detentions/isolations/thumbscrews et al. with pathways and consequences that are restorative. Instead of shutting a student out, the suggestion is to bring them in, usually by providing a restorative opportunity that helps strengthen or rebuild an unstable or under-developed relationship.

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