Are you teaching “new” behaviors?

A (brief) introduction to Israel Goldiamond’s Blue Books

The Blue Books

Recently, I have been reading through The Blue Books. I plan to share some of my thoughts and musings as I work my way through them over the next few weeks. (Well, probably more like the next few months, they are over a thousand pages!). I have read most of The Blue Books over the past few years while I was earning my Master’s degree, but I have not read the entire text chapter-by-chapter from start to finish. So, I decided to tackle them as part of my summer reading this summer.

First, a short aside. “The Blue Books” were a series of educational texts about the analysis of behavior that were written by Israel Goldiamond and Donald M. Thompson about 50 years ago. Although no longer available in print, they have been edited and revised and are available digitally through The Cambridge Center’s website.

As Paul Andronis describes in the introduction to the revised edition:

“The so-called ‘Blue Books’ were a series of brilliant, relatively short, apparently basic, yet overall comprehensive ‘modules,’ developed for a course taught at IRB during the 1960s, originally called A functional analysis of behavior and its extensions….The Blue Books comprised a series of short units, printed ‘landscape-style’ on durable 8 ½” x 11” paper, and bound in sky-blue cardboard covers (hence the eponym). These modules were sequenced to produce a programmatic introduction to the functional analysis of behavior, well before that term gained its current popularity and form, and conceptually well beyond what is currently considered under that rubric….It represented (and still does) a comprehensive approach to the analysis of behavior that transcends any specific uses.”

Two types of behavior change

From some of the reading I’ve been doing, I’ve been thinking some about what it means to train new behaviors. Animal training is all about teaching our animals new behaviors.

Or is it?

When training an animal, the trainer is changing behavior, but the trainer is not necessarily teaching new behavior.

As Goldiamond writes in the Blue Books:

“One meaning of behavioral change is the development of new behaviors that did not exist before, such as the child learning to speak. Another meaning of behavioral change involves bringing the behavior, which had hiterhto occurred only under certain conditions, under the control of new conditions that had not affected the behavior before. When first graders learn to read, they are saying words they have already acquired elsewhere now in the presence of printed material. This material did not control such verbal behavior before they learned to read.”

Start thinking about the behaviors you have taught (or would like to teach) your animals. What behaviors have you “taught,” but that the animal already knew? In which instances have you taught truly new actions or behaviors?

In most cases, when we are training, we are not teaching new behaviors, but instead teaching the animal to do old behaviors in new contexts or in response to new cues.

For example, Ginger dog knows how to sit, lie down, stay sitting, come running when called, speak, bow, turn in a circle, and much more. The horses I’ve trained know how to come when called, back up, lower their heads, turn right and left, target objects (touch the object with the nose), pick up their feet, and more.

These are just a few examples of behaviors that are commonly taught to animals, but that are actions that the animal can already perform and that the animal already does as part of its normal life.

Realizing this can improve your training.

How does the animal do the behavior? If you are training a behavior the animal already “knows” it can be worthwhile to see which version(s) of that behavior the animal already knows! For example, a dog can go into the down position from a stand or a sit. From a stand, he might lower his front end first, and then his back end, or lower both at the same time. He might lie down so that he is straight (in a sphinx position) or lie on one of his hips, or stretch out all the way on his side. Or, endless more variations. If you will be trying to train a particular version of down, it will be helpful to know how your dog usually gets into the down position and which position(s) he favors.

Training is really all about communication. Your dog already knows how to sit, lie down, stay, and come over to you. If your dog is having difficulty learning one of these, what this really means is that you are having difficulty conveying to the animal which behavior you want and when you want the animal to do it. If the animal is not doing the right behavior, he’s not dumb or stupid, he just doesn’t understand what you want.

When does the animal do the behavior? If you know in what contexts or situations the animal already does the behavior, you can often train the behavior by capturing it and adding a new cue. I have some nice quotes from Kay Laurence about capturing in this blog post, so go check it out for a longer discussion about this concept.

When does the animal do the behavior? (part 2) Most basic behaviors are things the animal already does. However, if the animal is really struggling to learn a behavior, it can be helpful to pay attention to when and how the animal does the behavior. You might realize that the animal doesn’t actually do the behavior all that often, and there might be a good reason why.

For example, I have a middle aged Rottweiler mix in one of my group classes that really does not like going from a sit into a down. It’s not because she’s stubborn, but because she has hip issues. I also had a terrier mix in a class earlier this year that was not comfortable sitting or lying down on our hard rubber floor, but that was more than happy to practice on a towel or blanket. Certain species and breeds also sometimes have difficulty with certain actions because of the way the animal is built. It will be much more difficult to train a “sit” if the animal does not sit naturally!

So, next time you set off to train a “new” behavior, take a second a consider – is this a new behavior, or something your animal can already do?

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  • WeeklyWhiskers

    Communication can be so frustrating to the learner. Although free shaping can help capture something to begin building upon an existing behaviour, I found the cats (and other animals) learn far better and quicker with visual targets to shape the behaviours. Just the mere sight of these targets piques the kitties interest to try something versus guessing through shaping which is absolutely demotivating to them; sometimes giving up altogether too soon.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment!

      If we have good communication, training shouldn’t be frustrating for the learner.

      Unfortunately, I think in animal training that “shaping” is becoming synonymous with giving the animal no guidance or direction and letting them experiment and guess to find the right answer.

      However, good shaping should involve a well-thought out progression of steps, that allow the animal to confidently and successfully move from the starting point to the goal behavior.



  • Max

    Great article! Do you think also that training is as much about motivation – if not more – than about communication? A great trainer mentor of mine said to us that motivation trumps communication every time. Without motivation the animal will not even try. You can communicate all you want, but unless there is something in it for the animal (and that can be something to escape or something to gain – the latter if we are using positive reinforcement) then all the communication in the world may be insufficient to produce any reinforceable behaviour. But even without communication, the animal that is motivated by working with you, will try to guess what you want. I thought that was a useful perspective!

    • Hi Max,

      Great points!

      I agree and disagree. I think we really must have BOTH for training to be successful.

      If we have a great training plan and great communication, but nothing to motivate the animal, then, like you said, we’ll probably not make much progress.

      On the other hand, though, we can get into really big trouble during training if we have something very motivating for the animal, but poor communication and a ill-designed training plan.

      I’ve seen animals (and humans) get SO frustrated when the trainer had something the animal wanted, but the animal had to continually struggle and guess to figure out what the trainer wanted because communication was lacking.



      • Max

        I agree Mary – poor, or no communication can be demotivating! It was the reason I’ve felt more at home with using targets to shape behaviour rather than free shaping. I recently taught my horse to bring his hindquarters across towards me using a target. He got it INSTANTLY because he understands the language of targets – targets as a way to explain what we want. I see the communication as the way we explain what we want and the motivation as the way we convince the animal to want to do it, and not to want to do something else. And we need both – in spades!!

  • H

    Hi Mary,
    These are such good things to think about. In terms of horses, there is a lot we teach that is not naturally occurring. Saddles and girths and bits and covers and getting on them or off them or making them pull something.

    Lots of people have trouble going from ground work to ridden work because they don’t realise that the horse has to re-learn the cues with the person in a very funny position where the horse can no longer easily read their intention. And then the horse gets blamed for not co-operating!

    • Great points!

      I wonder if one reason horse trainers get into trouble so much (and get totally frustrated at the horse) is because in some cases what we are teaching are natural behaviors (or already taught behaviors), but we are asking the horse to do them in completely new, unnatural contexts. And, as humans, we don’t realize how weird or foreign this will seem to the horse.
      For instance, horses spend a lot of time standing around doing nothing. But standing around, not moving, while a person gets on your back — totally weird and foreign.

      Or walking into a trailer. Horses spend quite a bit of time walking, and even walking up and down and on a variety of different surfaces. But walking into a moving cave on wheels? Must be weird.

      So, the trainer gets into trouble because the trainer “thinks” the horse already knows how to do the action behavior, but doesn’t stop to think about how foreign it will seem to the horse to do the behavior in this new context.

      Just some ideas that popped into my head after reading your comment, will have to think about this further!



      P.S. We had a group of young horses at the rescue at one point that had basically spent the first few years of their life out to pasture. They were friendly with people and with other horses. But, the first time they saw a person on a horse!!! They didn’t know what to think at all about that.

  • Kimberlee Strauss

    Excellent blog and wonderful discussion points all around! For my part, when working with the horses, if a communication problem arises, I always stop and try to figure out how I can communicate more clearly what I am looking for. The horse is willing but I have somehow dropped the ball. It can be challenging and will stretch you but the outcome is that you become a better educator. That’s why I refer to my horses as mentors.

    • Hi Kimberlee,

      Thanks for the comment. I love the last part you wrote — “That’s why I refer to my horses as mentors.”

      I definitely agree!