January 1, 2016

How Dogs Learn

Although dogs (like people) learn fastest when they are younger, no dog is too old to learn some new tricks, or even basic obedience.When training is done correctly, it’s fun for both the person and the dog. And dogs that are regularly trained correctly, even on small stuff, enjoy life a lot more than dogs that are continually corrected and prodded into doing something.For example, as an urban trainer I’m obviously almost always walking dogs on leash, except for early morning off-leash hours in the park. So you know how when you walk a dog the leash often slips under one of the front legs and you have to bend down to reorganize leg and leash? Well, I hate doing that. And not a little.It’s a complete buzz kill for me, and it has to be done a dozen times on every walk, three or four times a day, every day, 365 a year. So I don’t do it. Instead, I spend a few minutes teaching my dogs the correct response to my saying “Fix it!” “Fix it!” means “Please lift your leg over the leash so I don’t have to.” And the little tiny reward I give when they do – either a morsel of a treat or an enthusiastic “good boy!” or a kiss on the nose (which they like), or all three – means it works every time.That’s training. And it’s the same with sits, downs, offs and comes.So perhaps you’ve adopted an older dog, or just never got around to training the dog you acquired when it was a puppy. Either way, there is no time like the present to improve your dog’s relationship with the humans in its life through training. She’ll be happier, and, equally important, you’ll be happier!One thing I’ve noticed as a professional trainer is that clients do not know how dogs learn. Why would they? But having an understanding of this sequence makes a huge difference as clients go through the process of training a dog. It explains why certain hiccups occur and what the owner needs to do about it. When Fido sits beautifully inside but won’t outside, it doesn’t mean he’s “being stubborn” or “stupid”, it just means he hasn’t generalized sits to the outside. I explain below…How Dogs Learn:There are four stages in the canine learning process:The Acquisition Phase – this is the first phase, and the one in which the dog acquires whatever piece of new knowledge you’re putting forth – sitting on cue, lying down on cue, leaving something alone on cue, etc. The dog learns that certain behavior is expected of him in response to some cue you’re giving (visual or verbal), and you the trainer focus on the accuracy of that response. This is the phase in which you will treat a lot! Most owners have no problem with this phase.The Reliability (or Fluency) Phase – this is the phase in which the dog improves his performance so that the response becomes reliable and natural. Your focus is now the speed of the response. This is the phase in which you will treat on an intermittent schedule to strengthen the response and fade the use of treats. And most owners have no problem with this phase, either.The Discrimination and Generalization Phase – This is where most owners fall apart when training their dogs. I’d say about six out of 10 owners give up before getting through this phase. This is the phase in which the dog learns to tell the difference between one command and all the other commands, and that this command is relevant in a variety of situations.For discrimination, it means that when you ask for a Sit, the dog will sit, and when you ask for a Down, the dog will lie down. Early on, your dog might sit when you ask for a Down, and if so, Fido’s hasn’t finished discriminating between the two cues. It’s a little muddled for him. Keep practicing by rewarding the correct responses and letting him know the incorrect ones are incorrect (I give a quick “uh-uh” and ask again), and he’ll get through this little hiccup pretty quickly.Generalization, however, usually takes longer. Dogs actually generalize very poorly, compared to humans, and I’ll explain that now. Let’s look at our learning process first. When a history professor teaches us new material, we recognize that the relevance of the material is the same whether the teacher is wearing pants or a skirt, whether it was provided to us in a small classroom or a large auditorium and whether the teacher was standing or sitting at the time of the lecture.Now let’s look at how dogs learn. Dogs initially see everything as being tied to the relevance of the command, including the trainer’s body position and the space in which the command is taught. A dog has to learn that Sit means to sit whether in an apartment’s living room, in the building hallway or out on the street. If you’ve been training your dog at all on your own, you know that you can have great response to a new command in your home, but then bump into a friend on the street and try to show off your dog’s education, and your dog will stand there looking at you as if you just grew a second head. It’s not stupidity or obstinacy! Not at all. It’s just that you haven’t practiced that command out on the street, so he’s not sure if that’s what you mean. How could it be the same? It’s a different place! Ditto with body position. Teach Sit facing your dog until you get 100% response, then turn sideways and see what happens. You’re seeing that two-headed thing again.So how do you and Fido get over this natural hurdle? Keep practicing!!! A lot. Depending on the dog, the magic number for generalization is usually between five and eight, meaning once you’ve taught Sit in five or eight different locations, the lightbulb will go on and Fido will understand that Sit means Sit in all locations. Or once you’ve taught it with several body positions, you can stand on your head and ask for a Sit and you’ll get it. This is generalization.The Maintenance Phase – this is the phase in which the dog incorporates the new response into its day-to-day behavioral menu. And here is a hard-and-fast rule: If you do not revisit certain commands after training to 100% response, the dog’s response will eventually deteriorate. That’s why training never really stops—you may be finished teaching your dog new material, but you will always be revisiting the commands you’ve already taught her.And this is why I have 100% lightning-fast response to “Fix it!” day after day, year after year. I’m always asking for it (life makes that possible), and I’m always acknowledging and rewarding the response. There’s nothing inconvenient about it, it’s how I interact with my dogs outside. And it’s great fun…just another opportunity to celebrate what amazing animals domestic dogs are.

About Jennifer Reed