When learning how to become a dog trainer, remember that these principles apply to all animals, including humans. We’re specifically talking about dogs, but you can use them with any animal and should use them with owners to help them efficiently build their skill set.
Now that we’re prepared with good timing, adequate motivation, achievable criteria and solid rate of reinforcement (see article: Dog Obedience Training – The 4 Elements That Must be Present for Learning to Take Place), we’re ready to go to the next phase and make sure you do know how to properly train a dog. Let’s discuss actually getting the behavior. There are four phases in learning a new behavior and they are:
Acquisition is when the dog is actually learning the new behavior, i.e., making the associations between the cue and the behavior and the behavior and the consequence. If you really want to know how to become a dog trainer – a really good dog trainer – knowing how to get behavior is crucial. When you first start training a new behavior to a dog he has no idea what you want, so it’s trial and error on their part. A savvy dog who’s been trained in positive reinforcement methods will usually start trying different things until they hit on something close enough to be reinforced. From there, we shape it into the behavior we want. If the dog isn’t so savvy, we may need to help them out a little. We’ll discuss the four ways you can get behavior from a dog (including shaping) in the next article.
Once the dog understands the behavior that is wanted – i.e., they’ve made an association between the cue and the behavior, and another association between the behavior and the consequence – we start working on fluency. Fluency is a combination of speed and accuracy. When the dog understands what the cue means and performs it quickly and accurately, then we can consider him to be fluent in that behavior. This is an important point – many trainers train for accuracy and consider the behavior fluent; however, fluency requires that the behavior also be performed speedily.
In the process of learning to become a dog trainer, it’s helpful to examine some common examples of human behaviors which most adults will be extremely fluent in are things like driving, using eating utensils, tying our shoes, or just walking. All of these behaviors had to be learned, but we learned them when we were young, we’ve used them regularly for years, and today we’re very good at them – we’re fluent. We don’t have to think about stepping on the brake when a car pulls out in front of us, we just do it – we do it accurately and we do it quickly; that’s fluency.
Generalization is the ability to take a new behavior and apply it under other contexts. Usually, generalization is going to deal with distance, duration, distraction and handler orientation (i.e., where is the handler in relation to the dog when he gives a cue).
When an aspiring trainer finally manages to become a dog trainer, we often do generalization as part of the training process. For instance, if we’re teaching loose leash walking we address duration and distraction as part of the criteria – i.e., we don’t think of it as generalization, we think of it as criteria. If we’re teaching a formal stay, we address duration, distraction, and distance as part of the criteria. The goal is to get the dog to stay no matter what, so we think of these elements as criteria rather than generalization. And this is fine, as long as we understand what we’re doing and why.
A great example of a behavior that often isn’t generalized, yet the owner thinks the behavior is well-learned and reliable, is house training. We are often fanatic about house training in our home, but if the dog goes to someone else’s house, they may eliminate. In fact, this probably happens more often than not, and that’s because the behavior hasn’t been generalized.
Once a behavior is learned and fluent, it must be maintained. Practice makes perfect. An interesting exercise for those of you teaching classes and private basic obedience would be to periodically assess your clients after they’ve finished their lessons with you. I’d assess at the following times:
- During last lesson
- 3 months after last lesson
- 1 year after last lesson
- 5 years after last lesson
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ll bet they only use two to three of the behaviors they learned from you and the rest have been lost through disuse. If you find this to be true, it might be worth considering what behaviors you really need to teach. Perhaps fewer behaviors to higher fluency, better generalization, and more functionality (i.e., name recognition for recalls, leave it, loose leash walking, etc.) would make your clients happier over the long haul.
An example of a behavior we might have once been fluent in but are no longer, could be something like handwriting. Although I do occasionally write by hand, in the computer age I don’t do it nearly as often as I did when I was younger, and I’m not nearly as good at it – not that I was ever very good! Any sport we played in high school and no longer play on a regular basis, is going to be less fluent than it once was.
Okay, that’s it for the four stages of learning. In the next article on ‘how to become a dog trainer’ we’ll talk about the four ways to actually get behavior during the acquisition phase of learning. Here’s an in-depth course: Understanding Learning Theory