Thursday, May 23, 2013

Learning in dogs

This is ZsaZsa learning to distinguish between sizes. She had a 100% success rate in this size recognition activity after many trials.


How dogs learn, process and retain information is fascinating to this behavior consultant/trainer.  It absorbs my day and fills my nightly dreams.  So I'd like to take a look today at learning in general.  What I don't want to talk about is the robotic, don't move unless I say so, and painful disguises of tools labeled as learning through punishment. I am not interested in the shut down dog, or the non-creative dog, or the dog who wishes they were somewhere else with displacement signals and head turns. I am talking about the willing participant, however, the dog who can't wait to get to work. Let's talk about real learning, and about dogs who have a insatiable desire to work, who absorb like sponges even into later years, and who in body language express the joy of learning. These dogs are creative, they think, they comply because they want to, not because they have to and they know without doubt the right behaviors expected of them. They look at hands as applause and reward and faces as smiles and encouragement.

Learning is defined as "a relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of prior experience." The experience for a dog can be force free or forced. Force free means "free" or "free of pain devices" or "+R" or "rewarding what the dog is doing RIGHT".  It instills "willing compliance".

A dog learns by association and consequence. They learn to do what works. They learn by modeling their pet guardian or other dogs.

In my behavior training day and working with clients, learning involves change, changing behavior, changing individuals, even changing lives.  It involves transformation and positive solutions. What is often hard to swallow for trainers is that this learning could happen earlier with consistency and commitment, and yet many clients wait until something really bad has occurred before they seek help. Learning is a process and in order to be retained and considered successful, results-oriented, progress has to outweigh regress.  Change has to be relatively permanent.

Learning is simply reflected in behavior. It is always unbelievable to me to see pain devices touted as learning when a dog simply complies to avoid the pain. Complying is rewarded. Since learning is reflected in behavior, if the behavior is still there, learning, true learning hasn't taken place. A dog might appear to be learning, but because of the lack of motivated willingness, may not exhibit changed behavior without the pain device being used. Behavior caused by physical corrections does not constitute learning.  Learning is more complicated and the systematic results far outweigh the alternatives.

In order for learning to occur, the experience of learning must be reinforced. If reinforcement is not there, eventually the the behavior will reappear.  A high rate of reinforcement accelerates learning.  Learning occurs throughout the dog's life and is not confined to a six weeks basic manner's course.  A pet guardian's role as their dog's educator is to provide for that learning on a daily basis, meeting the dog's needs, creating an appropriately enriched environment, and a positive and systematic learning experience.

The theories of learning are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, cognitive theory and social learning theory.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING. A physical event (setting events as James O'Heare describes it in his Aggression In Dogs book) - termed stimulus - that DOES NOT elicit a specific response acquires the capacity to elicit that response as a result of repeated PAIRING with a stimulus that elicits a reaction.  This type of learning is common in dog training/behavior and plays an important role in reactions such as fear, sound sensitivities and environmental challenges, dog dog reactivity, and human reactivity.

Skinner felt that classical conditioning explains only respondent (reflexive) behaviors, the involuntary responses elicited by a stimulus. Skinner felt most behavior affects, or operates, on the environment. In classical conditioning the phrase "change the environment, change the dog" might apply.  The dog starts to associate certain stimuli which elicits certain behavior.  If I pick up a clicker and treat bag, the dog knows we are going to do something fun, even if that is serious learning because the clicker and treat bag have come to be associated with working. If I pick up a leash and that leash is only used for walks, it comes to be associated with walking and the dog's behavior shows excitement.

OPERANT CONDITIONING. (instrumental conditioning) - Behavior produces certain consequences determining how one "operates in an environment". If actions have rewarding effects, then they are more likely to be repeated in the future.  If an action creates an unpleasant effect, the dog is less likely to repeat them in the future.  The associations are what differ in those last two explanations. For me, as a force free behavior trainer, I want actions to have a rewarding effect, and to be repeated. Showing my dog what is RIGHT versus punishing for what they are doing WRONG is the differentiation.

COGNITIVE THEORY OF LEARNING. Learning is a cognitive process. Learned responses depend on the meaning applied to the stimulus. Developing a thinking dog entails creating an individual that can piece together a puzzle then respond to a stimulus.  Teaching a dog to make good decisions through behavior modification is what I strive for in a systematic behavior modification process. Expectations and being able to influence a dog's behavior are cognitive concepts.

SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY (observational learning). This emphasizes learning by observation. The observation of trainer, other dogs. We all know the adult dog with learning deficits who watches a savvy teacher dog and absorbs knowledge on how to respond in social interactions or the dog who fetches a ball after watching another dog repeatedly fetch a ball.  Action leads to interaction, observation leads to repetition of a behavior.  A behavior trainer can shape the dog's behavior by systematically reinforcing each successive step that moves the dog closer to the DESIRED response. For instance, if a dog has typically been latent, say 1 minute, to a cue of come when called, sniffing or peeing before responding, and then is latent only 20 seconds, the trainer reinforces that improvement.

These are new times and knowing and experiencing learning theories is becoming increasingly important. Applying it to force free technique creates a learning experience for the dog. Learning is enhanced, retained and longer lasting, because it changes behavior. So for me donning a clicker, filling a treat bag, and making sure my body language is encouraging and rewarding to my dog is the relationship I want to create. I want to create a creative learning environment where my dogs feel safe, trust me and the process and gain confidence in well-being and happiness is visible body language. Nothing else is acceptable to me.

Working with the most challenging dogs, those no one else wants to work with, it makes sense that learning just becomes another day in the life of this behavior trainer's client dogs, my own dogs and educating/teaching becomes a positive and rewarding lifestyle and simply just another day in the life of a behavior trainer.

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