Still Learning

I am working with some clients and their dog in teaching the dog not to pull on leash. They had come to me after a frustrating full-time pulling outing with their dog.

I take the dog’s leash from my client’s hand and we take off walking, the dog was barely pulling and very interested in what I have to offer him.

My clients who are standing nearby can’t believe their powerful dog is not interested in pulling and jokingly (and probably happy to see their dog can learn) tell me that they are not making stuff up… that the dog was really pulling! I tell them that I know they are not “lying” and that I believe that their dog was pulling because most dogs will pull if they have not been taught otherwise.

As I describe to them what I am doing and why the dog is now not pulling, one of my client’s offers that she thinks her dog is walking nicely without pulling because I am assertive. I tell her that it is not so much that I am assertive (which I am but not the main reason for my nice walking on leash “success”) but that the main reasons are:

  1. I know what I want the dog to do. In other words I have a clear picture in my head of what walking nicely on leash is. So I can aim for this goal with less work and more rapidly. Similarly to having good directions when not familiar with a destination.
  2. I am paying the dog handsomely for tiny success of him remaining semi-close to me or at least walking in front of me with a loose leash – the opposite of a taut one.

I turn to her and I tell her… the “trick is to recognized that Rover is still learning how to walk nicely on a leash.” He is in effect in the first of four stages of learning; the Acquisition stage.

When a dog is in this first stage of learning the dog must learn what we want him to do. What exactly will produce a reinforcer. In order for our learner to move into the next stage we must provide ample feedback (read: treats, smiles, praise etc.- any good stuff that will make the dog want to continue learning and working with you).

Fluency is the next stage. In essence the dog becomes capable (or fluent) in his ability to perform the trained behavior as if on “auto-pilot”. At this stage we are seeing more and more correct responses and as the responses go up in number also the number of times the dog is reinforced for “good answers” and because reinforcement increases the behavior that has been reinforced… the number of correct behaviors continues to increase.

Now we can begin stage 3: Generalization. At this stage the dog learns that the new learning has many relevant applications (or context in which it needs to be performed). In our example of walking nicely on leash the dog is now able to walk without pulling not only in a semi-distracting environment. Say, when being walked in front of his home, a familiar location, but in addition, the dog learns that walking on a loose leash when seeing a familiar dog, getting a scent of an interesting smell etc. is the way to go. I know, it sounds almost impossible but it happens all the time!

The final stage is that of Maintenance. At this last stage our learner is consistent in offering the correct behavior in all sorts of instances or environments.

Now, I just described to you what the learner is learning and the process of learning, but what is the role of the “teacher/coach/ trainer/owner” as we teach our dog to engage in desirable behaviors?

There are so many important skills and knowledge base that is needed in order to teach anyone with efficacy and empathy- dog training is no different! And that is in part what makes it so interesting to some of us and such a big challenge to most people.

The one skill I want to focus on is that one of providing feedback to the dog.

One of the biggest misconceptions in training dogs is that the dog learns by the use of a verbal cue (command). In reality dogs learn in two main ways and one of them is by consequences – good and bad.

What I mean by feedback is the use of a reward (reinforcer) as a form of “payment” to the dog but most importantly as a motivator – something the dog wants or would work for, for doing what I want him to do!

There, the big secret is out!

So what I was doing with my leash-pulling friend was reinforcing him for very small successes that kept him wanting to not only pay attention to what was earning him the reinforcer, but also able to continue to work for me for a longer period of time – so learning was taking place. Trainers often hear the following question: How long will I have to continue feeding my dog? The answer is that is depends.

It all depends on the stage of learning your dog is at for that specific behavior. Yes. It is more complex (and fun) than the description above but in essence that is correct. As the dog becomes successful in what we are aiming to teach him we can scale down on reinforcers.

Curiously enough, this in itself will maintain the behavior going strong – under learned circumstances. Once again, the science of animal learning is much more complex than saying “pay lots at the beginning and then pay less.” The devil is in the details and in the understanding of a few principles that will enable our learner to learn and for everyone involved in the process to enjoy it.