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Understanding the 4 Learning Stages for Training Your Dog

Category: Training Tips
Posted: 08/13/2015

Photo courtesy of Maria Chavez
Photo Courtesy of Maria Chavez
One of my hobbies is practicing Muay Thai Kickboxing at my favorite gym. (Muay Thai of Colorado) I have been going to this gym religiously for almost 10 years. I love the challenge my teachers give me at the gym, the sounds of Thai pads when I kick, and the movement of sandbags when I punch. I knew I was out of shape, I knew I’d be sore for the next few days, and I knew I’m getting old and slow, but I decided to get back to the gym last week. Although I haven’t been to the gym for a few years, I saw a few familiar faces and they all smiled and welcomed me back, and I felt at home once we started practicing the techniques.

After I had a great session and sweat my butt off at the gym, I felt great and I was (of course) thinking about “Training” on the way back home. I was thinking how my teachers and partners helped me train at this beautiful art, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and it reminded me how animals learn. (Including humans!)

There are 4 stages of learning in animals, let’s use my experience to help explain.

  1. Acquisition- an animal learns a new behavior
    Example: I learned how to kick- My teacher shows me a technique, and s/he supervises my moves closely.
  2. Fluency- Combination of error and rate (How well an animal can perform the behavior under giving circumstances)
    Example: I can kick in the right position using the right power 6-8 out of 10 times on Thai Pads- When I first started going to the gym, one of the students asked the teacher “How can I get better?” He smiled and replied. “Consistency-If you can kick 1000 times, then kick 5000 times more”. I went to the gym 5 days a week because I wanted to be good at it, and practiced a number of kicks and punches. My teachers no longer have to supervise me so closely when I use the techniques, but s/he will point out a few things for me to get better.
  3. Generalization- How well the behavior has been generalized
    Example: I can kick in the right position using the right power 6-8 out of 10 times in the ring with a sparring partner- When I was allowed to spar in the ring, I realized that I haven’t learned anything when I thought I knew everything. So many thoughts were crossing my mind yet my body wasn’t moving the way I learned! How could this happen to me? I’ve been consistent, and I’ve been practicing it for several years, yet I felt like a deer in a head light! Although I had experiences using the technique on Thai pads, I didn’t have a sparring experience to use the technique I knew. Eventually, I learned how to spar and use the techniques I learned on Thai pads with not only the same sparring partner, but different partners as well.
  4. Management- Remember, behavior is like our body muscle. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!
    Example: I couldn’t kick 10 times on Thai pads without being out of breath after 2 years of absence but I still remembered how to kick. I will be able to kick without being out of breath if I continue to go back to the gym.

Now, getting back to training our dogs. Think this “4 stages of learning” for your dog before you say “My dog is doing this (whatever the unwanted behavior) because s/he is stubborn” or “S/he should know what to do by now”. When you feel like your dog is hitting a plateau or having a set back, stop working with your dog and think for a moment. Did you teach her what you want her to do? (Acquisition) Can your dog “Sit” 8 out of 10 times in the kitchen when you ask her to do? (Fluency) If so, that’s good. How about in different context? Have you asked her to “Sit” in a different room, the back yard, the front yard, or at the stop sign? Dogs cannot generalize well; just because s/he can “Sit” in the kitchen 8 out of 10 times, it doesn’t mean she can do the same in a different room. Perhaps you may raise the bar too high too quickly after your dog acquired a new behavior? (Generalization) Perhaps your dog was able to “Sit” in different context most of time and you don’t ask the behavior so often anymore? (Management)

Living with dogs is like having a homestay student who is trying to learn our culture and language from a different country. We must help each other and learn from each other to develop the skills, just like I had my pad partners, sparring partners, and teachers who are all so patient, and each and every one of them are helping me to achieve the correct position and techniques. Everyone has a different and unique way of learning, and you know what? I keep going back to the gym because my teachers and partners always make me want to learn more and I always have fun there. I’m sure your dog will perform whatever the behavior you want her to do when she is having lots of fun with you while she is learning! So don’t forget to have fun while you train your dog!

Meanwhile, watch this short and cute video of 6 months old Missy who is learning to get on a skateboard with lots of treats, praise (acquisition), and all of us are having fun!!

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