Learning to Learn

“When there is no fear or pain, learning can occur immediately.” ~ Alexandra Kurland

I saw this quote on a Facebook dog training page recently, and it got me thinking. It can be hard to stay positive in a society where dog training too often means “putting the dog in his place” or teaching through aversive methods. But this quote really speaks to what i try to share with my clients and their family pets.

Fear and pain, even at very low levels, actually inhibit learning. They cause an animal to experience stress, which means they are primarily focusing their energy towards avoidance behaviours – how can i make this stop? Training methods that involve sharp sounds (ah, tsst, grr), leash corrections, taps, touches, and physical manipulation typically create a situation where an animal is uncomfortable (physically or psychologically) while performing the unwanted behaviour. They can escape this discomfort by doing what the trainer wants. The end result is there, but the journey wasn’t a whole lot of fun for anyone (trainer or trainee).

One of my favourite moments to witness in a training session is the moment that a clients pet realises that their behaviour can make good things happen. Some trainers refer to this moment in training as a light bulb moment, the moment when our pet suddenly switches on to what we’re doing. They know their role in the training game, and they love it!

keg smile

Positive reinforcement training typically uses a bridge, or marker, to let the animal know when they have made the correct response. When we first introduce a marker our pet has no idea what it means. Within a few repetitions though, you can see a change in their demeanour. They start looking for that moment, that marker. If one thing doesn’t work, they try something else. They become active participants in the training process. They become creative. They learn to learn.

This is what i teach people. By handing over an element of control to our dogs, cats, birds, etc we can empower them to be part of a team where we work together to achieve our behavioural goals. This style of training is not just for tricks. It works on any species, and can be applied with great success to basic training as well as working through complex behavioural problems.

Perhaps the most exciting this is it can be used on our pets regardless of their training history. Picture a dog that is waiting for a leash pop, but instead gets feedback that they’ve got it right! Nothing beats the change in that dog’s demeanour as they light up and start working with their owner.

You don’t need to be tough to change behaviour, you need to be smart. Help your friend learn to learn – you will both love it!