The Learning Process for Dogs
I often come across people who get angry and frustrated with their dogs because, from their point of view, the dog is “being stubborn” or “not listening”. So I thought I would write this blog about how dogs learn.
More often than not, it’s a case of not realizing there is more to training than working in the home a few times, getting a good response and then expecting the same response in every situation.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
There are basically 4 stages of learning:
1. “Acquisition” – the dog acquires the behaviour
2. “Fluency” – the behaviour becomes automatic
3. “Generalization” – the dog will do the behaviour anywhere (this is what most people want)
4. “Maintenance” – use it or lose it
Too often, people stop at the first step. For example, once the dog learns to sit on cue in the house, no further steps are taken. People make the assumption that the dog knows “sit” and will always do so when asked.
We also see this with the behaviour “come”; the pup learns to come running happily to you in the house but as soon as you go to the park amid other dogs or distractions, it falls apart.
If you want responses to be consistent, you cannot stop training at step 1.
Think of the above in the context of learning to ride a bike:
Acquisition: This is the stage where you learn to sit on the bike, balance, and co-ordinate the pedals and handlebars in order to move forward. You need to think of everything you are doing and your mom and dad give you lots of feedback and encouragement.
Fluency: You can get on the bike without much thought, your feet find the pedals and you can propel yourself forward easily. Now you can pedal faster and faster and don’t have to think about what you are doing – it just happens.
Generalization: You’ve ridden your bike on mountains, in valleys, on city roads, on grass, on asphalt, on gravel (carefully ☺) and through streams. No matter where you are, you can hop on a bike and begin to ride – the steps you take are the same.
Maintenance: Here is where the new skill and all it entails becomes part of your skill set. If your friend says, “let’s go for a ride”, you know exactly what it means, be it in the woods or through the city. Although, if you haven’t performed the skill in a while, you may need a small refresher.
If you were teaching your child to ride a bike but he got frustrated and stopped at Acquisition (stage 1), you would not expect him to hop on a bike and go for a ride over bumpy terrain in the woods. He doesn’t have the skill set.
The same goes for dogs. If you want your dog to respond in a particular manner (e.g. a recall in the park), you need to take the time to teach the behaviour, practice it, generalize it and maintain it. Otherwise, the dog will not have the skill set to respond as you like.
My expectations for a puppy learning “sit” on cue begins with small criteria – follow a hand signal in the house with no distractions. I gradually increase my criteria to ensure success at each stage before moving forward.
“Sit” while someone is doing jumping jacks is different than “sit” in an empty room. “Sit” in the park when other dogs are running around is even more advanced. I would not expect my puppy to do that in the early stage of training.
Be aware of your dog’s behaviour repertoire and know what he is capable of doing. If he is not responding to your cues in the park, outside a store or at someone’s house, ask yourself:
Have you practiced in enough places?
Have you trained him around enough distractions?
Has it been a really long time since you asked him to do it?
Has it been maintained or has he simply forgotten?
The takeaway is that without fluency, generalization and maintenance, your dog may be dynamite in and around the house but this does not mean he will be as responsive in other situations.