At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training. When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them. When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often. What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world. If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street. What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.
The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning. Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention. Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you. One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertise my previous business. I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had. I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision. Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed. At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution. I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted. Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.
The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem. This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class. The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at. Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time. For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at. There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.
The next step is trying out solutions. With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document. This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training. This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is. As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point. Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit. Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs.
After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase. I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder. I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs. They don’t go away and think about alternatives. They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing. Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.
When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try. I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print. In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print. If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit. It just won’t work. The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result. I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase. The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him.
The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results. Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results. Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit. If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.
I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it. So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first. If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps. Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.
So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone? To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours. If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning. Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break. Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes. Then come back to what you were working on to begin with. Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful. If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days. Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again. If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.
In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog. The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too! It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyse your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it. Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.
The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual. If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on. My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour. It might look something like this:
When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong. I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training. I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level. Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days. Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week. Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step. If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time. Then I might let it sit for a while again. When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour. At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two. I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.
Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith. It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier. With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week. By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them. Wait a minute. Let the dog think. Reflect on your work. Are there holes to fill? Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.