What’s your dog’s learning style? What’s yours? Do you ever think about those factors before taking a class or training your dog?
I’ve learned over the years, many people don’t. I used to ask each and every one of my private lesson clients, and many of my group class folks as well, “Tell me, how do you learn best?” After a while, I stopped being amazed that so many people had no idea. So we’d talk about it, we’d work to figure it out based on their past learning experiences. If I was working with someone who learned best through demo, then I’d ask if they were comfortable with me demonstrating with their dog or having them move along side me mirroring the movements I wanted them to make. If I was working with someone who learned best through reading, I’d make sure we included time at the end of each session for me to write up their homework for them to review during their practice. If I was working with someone who learned best through repetition, I’d provide them the space and patience to repeat as many times as they needed. And so on. I always wanted to maximize the chance of the client being able to internalize, remember and really learn the skills we were practicing and I was working to teach, therefore it behooved me as an instructor to provide materials and presentation in the way that was most accessible to that individual learner.
And the same for our dogs. The dogs in my own life have taught me, just as with people, each has their own individual learning style, strengths and weaknesses. If I recognize those factors, training is more enjoyable, efficient and down right fun for us all.
Zora practicing her dumbbell holds using a chin target
Take Zora for example. Her learning style really compliments the parts of the training process I truly love. Mainly the planning, research, thinking, finding a dozen ways to approach any end goal stage. With her, once I find the way that makes the most sense to her she’ll have what I am working to teach her down flat in a nano-second. With her, if she doesn’t have the skill within a couple cumulative training minutes, I know I need to go back to the drawing board stage and figure out another way to approach it. It’s awesome. I love it. I get near instant gratification for the thinking, planning, problem solving, questioning part of the training process that I already love. Someone once told me as we discussed how I had attempted to complete a BS in chemical engineering, “Oh you’d have been a terrible engineer.” I asked why? He replied, “Engineers are really great at filling the box, but terrible at creating the box. That’s what the managers are for. You on the other hand are really great at both creating the box and filling it an endless number of ways. Being a formally trained engineer would have driven you nuts.” (living with my computer engineer husband, I concur with his assessment of engineers. W is a really good engineer, he’s great at filling the box. He cannot though create the box to save his life.) Zora’s learning style allows me reinforcement to create the box and fill it an endless number of ways. It’s awesome!
Tom in harness guiding me to a log in the woods
Tom, he has a very different learning style from Zora. Tom’s learning style, I’m not complete sure how much of it was influenced by the early compulsion training approach he had as a pup in the guide dog raising program (they have now since changed their puppy rearing and training approach) and how much of it is his own natural tendencies, but he’s a dog who if I show him what I’d like him to do, or I bounce the new thing off an already existing behavior he knows well, he’ll grasp it very quickly. But if I were to ask him to guess, he would find it very stressful. Tom does well with brief periods of luring or even molding, then shifting to reward based. He also has an excellent memory, especially for context, and if I teach or ask him for a behavior one time in that context, the next time the context occurs he will offer it usually unprompted. For example, the very first week I had Tom home, I accidentally cued him to turn up my neighbor’s driveway on the cue ‘home’, and praised him when he took the turn as I thought I was my own driveway. It then took me nearly 2 weeks to retrain him that ‘home’ was actually the next driveway over, ie our actual driveway. After 1 week he wasn’t turning up it, but he was still head bobbing as we reached it, that took the 2nd week to eliminate. But that part of his learning style does come in handy so often. He can remember things about environments that we last went to once years ago, and he brings them to my attention to see if I’m going to reinforce that behavior once more this time now that we are back in that context. It’s really awesome and has saved my butt so many times in places where I’m sort of not really familar.
Niche a liver colored flat coated retriever in mid stride with an orange training dummy in his mouth
Niche, my last flat coat, was an incredibly literal learner and really awesome with patterns. With him, I had to carefully think through anything I wanted to teach him, do all of my research and planning, carefully decide exactly what I wanted him to be learning, and then teach it. As he would give me 1 shot. Once I taught it to him, he’d repeat it for the rest of his life upon being asked, but if I wanted to change it, oi that took a lot of work and convincing. He would happily offer behaviors, loved shaping training sessions, but was usually rather literal in his progressions and as I said once I’d put something on cue and reinforced it a number of times, that was that in his mind, and to be repeated exactly as taught with little to no deviation. Was really great for competition skills, and made me really improve my training plans, but could be challenging in daily living as he would find and create patterns in the smallest of details. He was a dog that believed to his core that correlation and causation went hand in hand. If he felt A caused B then it must be so. Even though often A really had nothing to do with B and was just a product of coincidence.
Little black flat coated retriever puppy Obi chewing a toy next to my laptop, he was around 8wks old
Obi, now Obi’s style I found incredibly fascinating and really it’s why he was the pup I took home in his litter as I observed this in him as young as 5 weeks old. Obi was a natural mimic. It was so super cool. Thankfully he was also a sweet heart lug head of a dog who wanted nothing more than to be loved, which prevented his learning style from being more challenging than it was to live with. He unfortunately developed idiopathic epilepsy by the age of 6 months which I think also damaged some cognitive abilities for him, but he was a sweet heart to say the least. My favorite Obi mimic story was how he learned, through watching me do it many times, how to open crate doors. He knew how to open spring loaded crate latches, Varikennel turn latches, pull latches. How do I know this? Well one day when I apparently didn’t latch his crate, I came home and all the dogs were loose. Which they hadn’t been when I left. Then it happened again. I knew Obi was a mimic, so I had a suspicion it was him. So with him outside of a crate, I latched a crate door and asked him to then “Kennel up.” He went to the crate, found it locked, used his mouth to unlock it, opened the door with his paw, and hopped into the crate. I then did this with every style of crate I had in the house, he knew them all. The saving grace, he never figured out how to unlatch the crate while he was actually in one (though I was incredibly cognizant of latching all outdoor doors using the deadbolt from then on! I figured if he learned crate doors it was a matter of time before he figured out door knobs!).
Every dog I’ve had has had their own unique individual differences when it comes to many things, learning included. The four I gave are just a couple of them. I find this part of dog training so much fun and fascinating. Working to figure out my own dog, what makes learning easier and more fun for them, and how I can compliment that through the training approach I take with them.