This gets a little in the weeds, but as professionals, we do need to understand the different types of learning and which ones the animals we work with best learn by. Since this website is primarily for dog trainers, this article will be discussing dogs and how they learn. After I started writing this article, it occurred to me that it would be a great topic for a short online dog trainer course, so I’m doing a FREE webinar on types of learning. This article will give you an overview, but we’ll look at video and discuss the types of learning in more depth during the course.
The two types of learning we, as trainers, use most are respondent and classical learning. Because there is so much to these two topics, and they are so crucial to our industry, I’m going to be very brief in this article, but I will do an in-depth article or dog trainer course online for each of these types of learning.
Respondent learning is also known as either classical or Pavlovian learning, and this phenomenon was discovered and studied by Ivan Pavlov around the turn of the twentieth century and, in fact, he won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine in 1904 for his research.
Respondent learning deals with conditioned responses. Conditioned responses are when a stimulus (such as a clicker) evokes the same physiological response as an unconditioned stimulus (such as food). The animal has made an association between the two events, and the conditioned stimulus predicts the unconditioned stimulus.
Of course, there is much more to respondent learning, but this is it in a nutshell. And, as promised, I will do another presentation on this topic in more depth. The thing to remember is that ALL learning has its foundation in respondent learning. When you teach a dog to sit, he’s making an association between the cue and the behavior, and the behavior and the consequence—the association is classical learning.
As with respondent learning, probably most of what we do revolves around operant learning. The name comes from the idea that the animal is “operating” on his environment. The main difference from respondent learning is that the animal chooses his response—i.e., he chooses whether or not to sit when he hears the cue, he chooses whether or not to chase a squirrel in the park. So an example of operant learning is the dog perceives a stimulus/antecedent (such as the lid comes off the dog food bin), he decides on a behavior (to come into the kitchen—although he could equally decide not to come into the kitchen), and there will be a consequence of his decision (if he comes into the kitchen, he’ll be closer to his food when it’s ready—if he decides not to come into the kitchen, it will take him longer to eat).
As you can see, there is the potential for a lot of different outcomes to this scenario. Most dogs are pretty food motivated and a lot of their life revolves around meal time. However, if the dog isn’t hungry (motivation), he may decide it’s not worth the effort to get up from his cozy bed and walk into the kitchen.
Again, I’ll do an article or trainer course online where we can discuss this in much more depth.
Social facilitation is when an animal is motivated to perform at a higher level because someone else is doing that behavior. Dogs learn very well through social facilitation. Say two dogs are barking at a squirrel. If it were just one dog, he would probably stop barking after the squirrel was out of sight; however, because of the second dog, they continue to bark, even though the squirrel is gone.
Often, lay people see dogs doing something another dog is doing and attribute it to imitation of observational learning (see below), but there’s little evidence that dogs learn through those means. Usually, it is social facilitation or local enhancement (see below).
Much of the research in social facilitation revolves around humans and sports. For instance, one of the early studies (by Norman Triplett) showed that cyclists racing against another cyclist performed better than when racing against a clock.
Local enhancement is similar to social facilitation in that there are two animals involved in the behavior. However, in local enhancement, dog A perceives dog B doing something (barking, digging, etc.), and dog A decides to do it, as well. So the difference here is that had dog B not been barking, dog A probably would never have started barking. As trainers we often hear about a family dog who never barked until a new dog was brought into the household and “taught” the original dog to bark.
TASTE AVERSION LEARNING
Taste aversion learning is interesting because it is the one type of learning that can have a significant period of time elapse between the behavior and the consequence. Of course, this is an obvious survival response—if you eat something that makes you sick, you don’t want to continue eating it!
SINGLE EVENT LEARNING
Single event learning is when it takes only one trial for an animal to learn something. Usually, this involves fear or some kind of aversive event. It happens once, and the animal remembers it.
In imitation, you copy another’s actions precisely and learn from that. There is little evidence that dogs learn from imitation, however there is a great deal of research happening which may result in a different opinion. Some examples of imitation might be formal dancing, children learning to tie their shoelaces, etc. Often, people confuse imitation with social facilitation or local enhancement.
In vicarious learning, you learn from watching another and the consequences that result from their behavior. If you watch your little sister steal a cookie from the cookie jar and your mother gives her a spanking, you are less likely to steal cookies from the cookie jar.
There are other ways of learning, but these are the most relevant to dog training. If you’d like to attend the FREE dog trainer course I’ll be holding online in July, click here.
Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides online education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year. Sue also owns East Valley Dog Training in the San Tan Valley of Arizona.