Monday, June 8, 2009

Learning styles of dogs

Well it has been quite awhile since I've blogged. May was pretty much of a blur for me with all of the family stuff to do.

I just spent three days with Gail Winnick at a herding clinic in Wisconsin. It was very fun and a nice break from agility training.

Having read Stacy's blog many months ago about "Thinking dogs" versus "Doing dogs" and "Thinking-Doers" as she calls them I have really liked that way of looking at dogs. I was talking to a friend yesterday on my way home from the herding clinic and talking about how dogs have different learning styles just like people do. So I asked why do we feel the need for a "cookie-cutter" approach to dog training? We seem to recognize that people don't learn the same way so why should dogs?

I used to think (and I still do sometimes) that I would like to try to train different breeds of dogs from "different groups" such has sporting, hunting etc. so I could experience different learning styles of dogs. However as it turns out I have two dogs who are 10 weeks apart in age and the same breed with two completely different learning styles.

I discovered they were different early on when I was trying to teach them things as young puppies. I love to use the clicker when working with young puppies and to do a lot of shaping of behaviors. Tay, my black tri girl just loved the clicker. She could offer me behaviors at a rapid-fire pace as if to test my timing and miraculously she would know exactly which of the behaviors I had clicked. She was and still is very fun to teach new behaviors to. She just loves it. As a result I do have to be careful or she will offer me some of her favorites such as jump on any nearby object and sit. Not always a good thing. The down-side is that it has been extremely difficult to teach her to stay - being still is very hard for Tay.

However Sinco my little red girl had a really hard time with the clicker. The absence of a click seemed devastating to her. Both puppies were raised the same and I have never made an issue out of making a mistake. I always teach all my puppies that it is ok to make a mistake. However internally Sinco is very much of a thinker and she thinks making a mistake is just horrible - she wants to be right with every fiber of her being. So she would rather offer no behaviors than risk being wrong. At first I worried a lot about how she was learning but then I adapted. I started using luring. She loved it - I could show her what I wanted and she could be right. She is very smart and she is easy to train as long as you show her what you want. She was also very easy to train to stay.

Her breeder took her for awhile and was going to teach her to lie on the couch on her side or her back for a photo shoot. At first she tought it would be easy because she is clicker trained. However she soon discovered that Sinco did not respond well to that. As soon as she started luring her and showing her what she wanted then Sinco got into the training session. She did it perfectly for the photo shoot as it turned out.

Different dogs do learn differently. I have seen this in my students' dogs but often it is hard to tell how much of it is the dog's learning style and how much of it has to do with timing on the part of the trainer/handler. But in my side by side real-life situation I can say with confidence that dogs do learn differently even if they are the same breed and living in the same environment. I can also say that Sinco's littermate is much more interested in clicker training than Sinco is and that is two closely related dogs.

I believe that the "Thinking-doers" do best with clicker training. The "doers" are often too busy moving and not paying enough attention to what their body is doing to catch what the click is marking. The "Thinkers" are analyzing the situation or worrying about making a mistake to want to just "do" behaviors.

Just like with people, when we impose a particular training style on to a dog and it doesn't match the dog's learning style then we create stress for that dog. The more stress the dog experiences the less likely the dog is to learn anything.

In college I studied a lot about operant and classical conditioning and I worked with rats and pigeons quite a bit. I went to a mini-Bob Bailey chicken camp. I enjoy capturing behaviors when offered and I enjoy shaping behaviors however I appreciate that it is a difficult skill to acquire and I appreciate that not all dogs enjoy learning that way. It is too easy to blame the trainer for poor timing but it may be that the dog doesn't really respond to that kind of training.

The irony is that the idea was that using clicker training created "thinking dogs" because dogs could figure out how to get reinforced - solving the puzzle. I think that is an illusion. What it does is make dogs think it is their idea to earn the food reward. I think some dogs want that sense of control of the situation and operant conditioning does put the dog in control. This is very effective for many dogs. Many times when the trainer is slow to put a cue on a shaped behavior then the dog truly does establish control by exhibiting that behavior a lot of the time when it is not desired. There is a fine line between putting the cue on a behavior too soon and waiting too long.

With a dog who is worried about making a mistake it may be too much pressure to be in control of the training session. There may be a correlation between the dog's social status and the desire to control the training session. In the case of Sinco, she tends to be very submissive to people and dogs so she may have no designs on controlling any situation that involves learning new behaviors. Once she understands what is required of her then she is very willing to go do that behavior - like in agility and herding - she is not shy about stepping up to the plate for that work. But when we first started and she was first learning she was very cautious.

This is why I continue to offer training that is individualized. Even the beginner class is set up to progress at the rate of the dog and handler team. If a method doesn't seem to be working then we can try something different. I have preferred methods but often I've had to suggest different methods in order to help a dog and handler progress. Training handlers and dogs is very challenging because there are two learning styles involved as well as many other factors that can influence training progress. I have had many "teams" train contacts and/or weaves in ways that are different from the others in the class. The main thing is to try something long enough and well enough to see if it is working.

Annelise and the Aussie girls


  1. Hi,
    This is so very interesting. Dog training has become so very interesting.

    Annelise, what you do in classes works because you are so aware that learners do have different styles. I have seen you adapt your explanations to fit the learning style of the person. In my case, specifically, when we found that I could learn best by watching and then imitating what you were doing, that made a huge difference for me in being able to understand the exercises. I have seen others in class totally able to understand what you are explaining in class just from a verbal explanation. Others I have seen really get it when left to work it out themselves, comparing different approaches, and then I can see the aha! when it really becomes clear.

    This makes so much sense that dogs would have the same type of variations in learning styles. We can see how, in a litter, one puppy runs right out and is all over something new, exploring with mouth, paws, pouncing it, interacting with it, while a littermate may sit and watch what is going on, and then walk up and know exactly what to do, without all of the trial and error.

    One of your many talents as a teacher is to be able to deliver your "individualized training" in a way that is appropriate both for the dog and for the handler.

    (part one, I ran out of space, see part two)
    Myra Fourwinds

  2. (part two)
    This throws some light on the way so many people have a tendency to cult-ize high profile trainers: as in the "Volhard Method", the "Susan Garrett" method, the "Nancy Gyes" method, the "Sharon Freilich" method, the "Sharon Nelson" method etc., and then to be disappointed. While these outstanding trainers have been able to develop a technique of training that works for them, that doesn't necessarily mean it will work for everyone else!

    I do feel it is important to choose a trainer, and if you find someone you respect and feel confident in, to follow that trainers directions without mixing in other's "techniques", or trying to combine "methods" that another trainer teaches. Each really good trainer, in working with an individual student, develops a long-term training plan based on the student's goals, and sets up exercises to move the student towards those goals over time. A student won't be able to see the over-view, and the steps along the way, but this is always in the trainer's mind, and is constantly being tweaked and adjusted for better impact.

    Training at the same time with several different trainers, unless they are familiar with each other's teaching, and know that the student is moving between trainers, can cause serious set-backs in training, and confusion for the dog and handler.

    Like-wise, using a prescribed formula, such as the "Method" of any particular super-star handler, when we consider the differences in individual learning styles both of the human and the dog, can be a recipe for training that falls short of meeting the actual goals of the team.

    In "The Color Purple", the characters developed a pair of pants that was one size fit all. But in agility training, Julie is going to wear a different size pants than I do, or than Pam does. This doesn't mean that Julie, or Pam, or Myra is the "right" size for agility. Agility comes in many flavors and varieties.

    It seems to me that good agility training should take that into account, and deliver training that is the "right" training for each individual person's and dog's needs. We now understand that different people and different dogs learn in different ways. If we go to the gym and work with a "personal trainer" we expect an individualized training plan. So how can we assume that in agility training there is a standard "WAY"that will get everybody to the same place?

    We are so fortunate to be able to train with Annelise. Watching the other students in her classes is so educational. Seeing the mistakes and successes of others on particular exercises is important information. This gives us access to an added level of learning. Seeing the progress of other students over time, as they accomplish little goals along the way makes it so totally clear that what Annelise is delivering is appropriate to each individual. Our talents, abilities and goals may be different, but when we can see ourselves, and our co-students progressing, we can see the results of Annelise's "method".

    This has given me a lot to consider in my own teaching. When I see a particular student in my own classes having a more difficult time with one exercise than another student, I have to consider that the problem may not lie with the student, but in my delivery. My view or "method" of training was probably developed based on my learning style and the learning styles of my dogs, because that would be where I would have the most success. That would make my material more accessible to people and dogs that have similar learning styles to my own, but give people with alternative learning styles a real disadvantage.

    Oh, dog training has become so interesting!
    Myra Fourwinds