How learning works

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How learning works

Post by LizP on Mon Aug 31 2015, 18:11

There are so many training theories that it’s easy to get very confused. A lot of trainers will tell you ‘do this and this will happen’ but then you try and it doesn’t. For me, the ‘what’ without the ‘why’ isn’t always that helpful as it can leave you floundering when things don’t go as you expected.

The psychology behind learning is very complex but it is possible to condense it into a few key points that will at least give you something to work with yourself, so you can start to understand some of the ‘whys’. I hope this will give you a little knowledge that you can apply a long way!

From the dog’s perspective

The biggest mistake many of us make is to forget to look at things through our dog’s eyes. We expect them to have human understanding and human motivation, and an instinctive concept of our human environment that we expect them to live in. A carpet is to us not only something that keeps our feet warm, it is also something we’ve often chosen for asthetic reasons and that has cost us a lot of money. It is part of the house that we (for reasons that escape me) like to keep clean, so we like to keep our carpets clean too. None of that makes sense to a dog. The carpet is there, it is warm and comfortable and if, as a puppy, you happen to wee on it, what’s the big deal?  
We also forget they have dog senses, not human ones. They are drawn by things that we don’t even know are there, especially smells, and can be put off by things we find attractive such as that sweet pea and vanilla dog shampoo (ever seen a dog sniffing a flower that hasn’t been weed on?). And I still think that poo flavoured treats would probably be the answer to many training problems!

The cornerstone of making sure your dog learns what you want him to is to understand how he perceives something and to use rewards that are good for him.

It is also essential to understand what an animal is actually capable of. There is no point asking a very young puppy to hold his bladder for 8 hours, or to ask a deaf dog to come to a verbal command. Be realistic in your expectations and you will be able to expand as you go along. Achieving small things is also brilliant for building confidence.

What’s in it for me

This is the basic principle of learning. We all learn to do things that get us what we want. That can be the obvious, such as food treats or cuddles, but it includes all the stuff that we go through life not even aware of. Big ones that spring to mind with dogs are getting attention and avoiding things they’re not sure of. Day after day, the sequence of action-consequence is repeated time and time again, with our dogs learning that X action is followed by Y consequence, so if you want Y you do X again, if you want to avoid Y then you’d best leave X alone (or make yourself look big so it leaves you alone, but that’s another story...).

In behaviourial science terms, these consequences are called either reinforcers or punishments, and there are 2 of each.
- positive reinforcement is when you get something good
- negative reinforcement is when something you don’t like is taken away, which is also then good (don’t confuse it with punishment)
- positive punishment is when something not nice is added. It doesn’t have to by physical or painful, it just has to be something that is not nice. A cross word is a punishment.
- negative punishment is when something nice is taken away or withheld

The two reinforcers encourage the action to be repeated (do it again so you get something you want), the two punishers are deterrants (don’t do it again to avoid what you don’t want).

I know that’s not always easy to get your head round but if you can it’s worth keeping these four in your mind because every falls into at least one of those categories, and sometimes more than one.

Setting up to succeed

The best way to teach is through positive reinforcement, so through reward, but you then need to make sure the dog does the behaviour you want so you can reward it. There are 2 things you can do that will really help your dog earn his rewards and so learn what it is you want.

The first is manoeuvering the situation so he does what you want. A good example is teaching sit. If you start with your dog standing facing you, by holding a treat up above his head while at the same time walking towards him, you’ll find (90% of the time!) that he will back up a bit by moving his front end back and end up sitting. Bingo. No pushing bum on the floor or endlessly shouting ‘sit!!!’, just creating the situation whereby he does what you want automatically. You can now treat and praise.

The second most helpful thing you can do is reward the try. If you expect your dog to do something perfectly and only reward him when he reaches the final goal, you can end up waiting a long time and the result will be frustration for both of you. You’ll also switch your dog off – if he gets nothing for trying, what is the point?

Say you want to teach your dog to sit on a mat. He won’t have a clue what you want him to do, but he might look at it. Yes! That’s a great start and there is now something in it for him, so you’ll have his attention. Reward that a couple of times and he’ll soon be looking at the mat to get his treat. You can then build up to sniffing the mat, putting a paw on, standing on it and soon he’ll be going and sitting on the mat when you ask, pleased as you are with what you’ve achieved.

Especially in early training, you can’t break things down too small or reward enough. Think about it, would you go to work to do something you don’t understand and for no pay? Make life as easy and as rewarding as possible. Why else would you want it to be otherwise!

Timing

One more huge element of learning is timing. What is being reinforced is what the dog understands is being reinforced, regardless of what you think it is, and that’s usually what’s happening at the time. Giving a treat or, worse, a punishment that is unrelated in time is generally going to be counter productive. Lots of treats for nothing means they will loose their meaning, and the same with ‘good boy’ for having done diddly squat. Late punishment can lead to a fear of something completely unrelated with the intended target action. One of the most common examples of this is the dog who is scolded for weeing in the house while you’re out. The cowering you get when you come home to another puddle isn’t because he knows the puddle is offensive to you, it’s because he knows to fear you when you come home.

The golden rule is that the action must be the last thing in the dog’s mind for the reward/ punishment to be effective.

Repetition

Very often, it will take more than one go at something for a dog to understand. Even step by step training will take practise, as lessons gradually start to make sense and the dog understands what’s wanted and what he will get for his efforts. If, though, it really isn’t working after say 4 or 5 sessions, then look for another way. Not every animal learns the same thing the same way, and very often it’s the way we are setting up and explaining that isn’t right.

Equally, if you keep practising the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way, then that’s what your dog will learn too. As the saying goes, practise makes perfect but only if your practise is perfect. Many years ago, I had a puppy retriever called Mungo. I was trying to teach him to, well, retrieve! He’d run for the ball, pick it up and then stand there. “Fetch”, I’d say, but nothing happened. Knowing very little about animal training at the time, I rolled my eyes, sighed at how stupid he was being, then went over to him to try again. He’d drop the ball, I’d pick it up and throw it for him to race off again in delight, only for him to then stand there with it in his mouth despite my pleas for him to ‘fetch’.

He then started to anticipate. I’d throw, he’d chase and pick it up, I’d call ‘fetch’, and he would drop it, waiting for me to pick it up and throw it again. Forever more, Mungo understood the word ‘fetch’ perfectly. It simply meant ‘drop the ball’, and was later extended to mean ‘drop whatever you have’.

Who was the stupid one, him or me?


Last edited by LizP on Wed Sep 02 2015, 09:43; edited 1 time in total


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Re: How learning works

Post by -Ian- on Mon Aug 31 2015, 21:05

A great post and read Liz. It's true, we often forget to think like the dog. In my experience once a behaviour is learnt there's a temptation to forget to reward in the weeks, months or even years after which can lead to perceived bad behaviour.

The comment you made about the Deaf dog made me laugh, however, as strange as it sounds, my Flo will respond to some verbal commands provided that she is close enough and the wind is blowing in the right direction Rolling Eyes Laughing


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Re: How learning works

Post by Mia05 on Mon Aug 31 2015, 21:19

a great read

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Re: How learning works

Post by I❤dogs on Fri Mar 03 2017, 21:12

I loved this post
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