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The Stages of Learning in Dogs

Learning in Dogs

Understanding the stages of learning in dogs permits a deeper knowledge into what happens in the dog's brain when it is in an active learning state. When learning a new task or behavior, complex processes in the brain occur in response to practice and muscle memory and this yields to significant changes in the central nervous system. To pave the path to learning and make the dog more receptive, it helps providing the dog with an optimal environment for learning. Following is some interesting information about the stages of learning in dogs.

dog trick

Paving the Path Towards Learning

Just as it happens with students in a classroom, dogs need to feel safe, engaged and supported in order for their brains to become receptive to learning. They also need to trust their owners. These conditions for learning emphasize the importance of training dogs in quiet, safe places using humane, positive methods that aren't based on the use of force or intimidation.

Stress or fear cause serious impediments to learning, because, when the body is flooded with hormones, as it happens when the fight or flight response is activated, the ability to concentrate is dramatically affected. Even as humans, this phenomenon is easy to comprehend. Just image having to solve a math problem when you are reaching the top of a scary roller coaster ride!

Unless, the learning is linked to survival, (for example, watch how quickly a dog terrified of storms learns to hide inside a closet when he hears the first roll of thunder!), dogs face the same problems if they are fearful or stressed and owners are trying to train them.

Those cognitive functions just shut down until the body is back to a normal state of homeostasis. It's therefore imperative that dogs feel safe, both physically and mentally.

Just as fear and stress impedes learning, so does excess energy. Dogs who are hyper, and bouncing off the walls or dogs who are excited, may have a hard time concentrating. Walking them, exercising them before training can help and so does avoiding exposing them to situations that evoke excess excitement, basically aiming on keeping these dogs at minimal, subthreshold levels.

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Dogs need to feel motivated and this is often done through the use of reinforcers such as treats in food-motivated dogs and/or games in play-motivated dogs. Individual learning needs should also be considered. Not all dogs learn equally at the same pace and some breeds may have a hard time accomplishing certain tasks and therefore require some astute strategies to help them out.

"Learning is generally defined as the acquisition of information or behavior through exposure and repetition. At the cellular and molecular level, learning is defined as cellular and receptor changes that are result of stimulation of neurons and the manufacture of new proteins."~Dr. Karen Overall

The Stages of Learning in Dogs 

dog training

Once a safe, engaged and supported environment is provided, dogs are in a more receptive state for learning. Learning is not something that happens right away, rather it comes in stages. Following are the several stages of learning in dogs.

The Acquisition Stage

In this stage, dogs are introduced to the new task or skill. Just like it happens in people learning a new skill, it's totally normal for dogs to be clumsy at this stage. Hesitancy and uncertainty are expected.

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The dog at this stage may only be able to perform a part of the skill. A lot or repetition is needed and feedback must be given for correct responses (or close approximations), albeit not yet in perfect form.

This is the stage where the trainer is likely to use several strategies to help the dog "manufacture" the behavior. The behavior may be taught through luring (often using a food lure to guide the dog into a position), shaping (clicking and reinforcing successive approximations of the final behavior), capturing (reinforcing natural, spontaneous behaviors) molding (using physical prompts hopefully as gently as possible such as guiding a dog with a leash).

Dogs during this stage learn that a certain behavior leads to a pleasant consequence. It's a matter of the trainer's ability to work on preventing as many errors as possible. Should the dog ever show difficulty, the exercise can be broken into smaller steps. To prevent confusion or disorientation, dogs must receive continuous feedback on their progress through a continuous schedule of reinforcement (reinforcing every single correct response or approximation of response).

During the acquisition stage, the environment is important! Distractions affect concentration, hence the importance of starting in a quiet room (no noises, no people, no other pets in the room).

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The Proficiency Stage

In this stage, the dog has acquired a general idea of what the task entails and is able to complete the whole task with less and less use of help. Food lures are faded by now. The action is given a name, and therefore, a verbal cue is added. While the dog may perform the task accurately upon listening the cue, he may still be a bit slow. The goal of this stage is to increase latency (the time between the dog hearing the cue and his response) and build fluency.

Overlearning takes place as the trainer asks for several repetitions until the physical movements become more and more fluent as muscle memory sticks in. As the successful synchronization of the dog's mind and muscles takes place, the movement or task becomes almost second nature, automatic, almost reflexive. The dog also feels more confident in completing the task.

At this stage, it's important to pay attention that the dog finds the activity still enjoyable. While many dogs are moved to a variable ratio of reinforcement at this point, it's important to still keep the dog on a high ratio of reinforcement to keep his motivation high and prevent ratio strain.

The Generalization Stage

Dog owners often report their dogs perform the task only sometimes yes and sometimes no. This is often a tell-tale sign that dogs need to learn how to apply that task in different settings. The widest range of settings and situations introduced, the better.

Introducing the generalization stage. This is the time time when the dog needs to learn to perform the task in new environments and under different distraction levels. The dog must also learn to not confuse the specific skill with other skills (a dog asked to sit should not confuse the cue with lying down).

This is a stage where the behavior may start "breaking apart" if a too high level of distraction is presented and the dog is not ready for it. Distractions should be introduced gradually and high-value treats should be used. You may need to move back to a continuous schedule of reinforcement initially, and then swap back to a variable ratio once the dog demonstrates to become more proficient in that specific context.

The Maintenance Stage

This is not really a "stage" but it's ultimately a time of lifelong practicing. Once your dog has learned the behavior, it's important to maintain it. There is such a thing as "un-learning" and just like us, things can start getting a bit "rusty" if dogs aren't asked to perform a certain behavior for some time.

Letting your dog practice and rehearse the skill through refresher sessions, will help maintain it overtime. The behavior will become an integral part of the dog's behavioral repertoire. Also, it's important to consider that maintenance of behavior requires that reinforcement through primary reinforcers (food, treats) be at least given intermittently or the behavior risks becoming extinct.

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