Raising Canine

Professional Dog Trainers: Learning Theory

Understanding how animals learn is a helpful tool for professional dog trainers

Let me count the ways. No matter what field you’re in, the more you know, the better you are. Knowledge is a powerful tool and gives its possessor a leg up on the competition. If you want to increase your dog trainer salary, you should be studying dog behavior and how animals learn. There are many ways to do this – conferences, weekend seminars, on-line dog trainer courses, webinars, books, magazines . . .

Understanding learning theory also helps understand behavior

Learning theory is our scientific understanding of how animals learn. This includes overriding concepts such as Thorndike’s Law of Effect (a response that produces a desirable effect is more likely to occur again in that situation, and a response that produce an undesirable effect is less likely to occur again in that situation), and deeper-dive concepts such as how to shape behavior and the advantages and possible pitfalls of doing so (resurgence, small criteria increases, contiguity of reinforcement, high ROR, etc.).

However, for professional animal trainers, just the simple act of studying learning theory also requires us to study behavior, because the two intersect. For instance, learning theory teaches us that behavior must be reinforced if it is going to be maintained. That leads us to look at a behavior problem and wonder what is maintaining that behavior – what’s the motivation/reinforcement? Learning theory allows us to be more systematic in our study of behavior and rely less on traditional lore and supposition, and actually identify the root causes of the behavior.

When you don’t know why the animal you’re training isn’t responding to your protocol, you can go back to the basics (because you know the basics!)

Learning theory also teaches us why behavior happens and what must be present for behavior to happen. So, when we’re stuck, we can go back to the basics: timing, motivation, criteria, rate of reinforcement. These are the basics, and if behavior isn’t changing when a protocol has been implemented, it’s going to be one or more of these factors. Of course, we can dig much deeper into each of these categories, as well – for instance, professional dog trainers might discuss generalization, but that’s really a function of criteria. Regardless, knowing these rules and principles can only help us.

I need a dog trainer! My dog eats my stuff.

When a client asks you a “Why does my dog . . .?) question, you’ll be able to speak with authority – even if you don’t know why

When you can speak knowledgeably on behavior, learning, and training, when you don’t know the answer to something you can say so and maintain your credibility. You can also tell your client that you don’t know the answer, but your best guess is . . . I write an “Ask the Trainer” column for my small local paper. Someone asked me why her pug likes to sleep under the covers. Well, I don’t know! It could be any number of reasons. But, I was able to put forth some ideas – one had to do with the breeding and another with the practical aspect of comfort.

When challenged with an outdated idea or training model, you can speak with authority on why it’s outdated

Although our industry has come a long way in the last twenty to thirty years, it will be a long time before people get the idea of “dominance” out of their heads. When we are challenged by a client, a competitor, or possibly a veterinarian, we can give logical, science-based reasons for dominance not being a valid behavioral model. There are many other strange ideas out there as well, and understanding how animals learn and why they behave as they do can only help us.

It increases your credibility with potential clients and veterinarians

Similar to the topic of clients asking you a question about their animal’s behavior, having good knowledge at the ready increases your credibility. Remember that veterinarians are scientists, at heart. They like information to be based on science, and understand that model.

You can carry on intelligent discourse with your peers

More and more trainers are becoming familiar with how animals learn – some have a deep knowledge, some have a rudimentary knowledge, but they have knowledge. Understanding the terminology and the concepts helps us discuss behavior problems with our peers in a productive way. We’re all on the same page with language and understanding, and our discussions become streamlined and efficient. I highly encourage those wanting to become a dog trainer to get started on the right path and study how animals learn.

It’s fun!

Not everyone will agree with this statement, but I think it’s fun, so I’m sticking’ with it!

At the end of August, I will be presenting a webinar called Understanding Learning Theory. This is a great course for beginners, those getting ready to sit for the CPDT-KA exam, or as a refresher for those who need it. For more information on this course, go to https://www.raisingcanine.com/course/understanding-learning-theory/. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides remote 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.

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