Insight: How do dogs learn?

How do you know what a dog experiences when you ask her to do a new task? She doesn’t come to us understanding our language, expectations or social norms. So I’ll ask again – how do we understand what it is like for a dog when we teach her a new skill? Maybe we are teaching a relatively simple skill like sit, or maybe it is something more complex like retrieve, or a dance routine, or how to do some fancy maneuvers on an agility course. No matter what we teach our expectations are the same. We want our dogs to listen, understand, learn and execute the new skill. And, we want them to do this even if we are poor communicators/teachers!

A note about the photos – they tell the story of how a dog learns to retrieve and bring a dummy to hand. The photos are not specifically related to the post because I am not allowed to bring a camera into the prison where this story took place. The person in the photos is a friend and the specific skill we were working on was for Jade to retrieve and deliver to hand to a person other than me.

Jade returning item to hand
Since we aren’t able to photograph in the prison here are some other fun photos. Jade returning item to hand

I work with a group of inmates who want to be dog trainers. These guys are good sports! They are always happy to try whatever new task or game I bring their way.  During one of my visits I thought the guys were going to tell me I had another one of those “crazy ideas” they think I make up just for them. However once we started working they realized what an insightful gift I was giving them.

We played a version of”fruits and veggies” that I adapted from Suzanne Clothier’s book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs  The guys enjoyed the game because it provided insight into what it is like for dogs when we teach a new skill. In other words, it taught the inmates empathy. Most important of all, we had fun when we played the game!

Good job! Delivering dummy to hand
Good job! Delivering dummy to hand

The rules of the game are simple, the  “trainer” can only use words that are fruits or vegetables when speaking to his “dog.” Since these words are used out of context the words have no meaning until the “trainer” has assigns meaning to them. It is really important for the trainer to be sure that the “dog” understands what each word means. Sounds easy.  Well, don’t be fooled, this exercise is much harder than it sounds.

Here are the steps for each “trainer”:

  • Select a cue from a food bowl to train the “dog”
  • Select a fruit/veggie word for the cue.
  • Select a fruit/veggie word  for a negative marker
  • Select a fruit/veggie word for a positive reinforcer.

To help you understand how the game works, “Cherry” might be the cue, “plum” could be yes, and “apple” could be “ut-oh.” The inmates learned that it was critical to be consistent and use the same word each time for the same cue/marker/reinforcer/etc.!

Are you ready? Do you want to get your dummy?

Since we were in a prison setting the inmates didn’t have “treats” to give the “dogs” as a positive reinforcer so they had to be creative! It was great to see the different ways the guys came up to reward their “dogs.” It was a good reminder for the “trainers” because in life we aren’t always able to reinforce our dogs with food.

A few more  rules:

  • The trainer can not hit, jerk, or use other harsh corrections;
  • The dog CAN growl, bark, and offer other behaviors that we often associate with dogs that are bored or frustrated;
  • Dogs were encouraged to offer behaviors;
  • The dog CAN NOT BITE;
  • The dogs were off leash.

There were two members in each team. Each person would have a chance to play the role of “trainer” and  “dog.”

Self Control is important... not so easy, but important
Self Control is important… not so easy, but important

After the teams were established and cues were selected the “dogs” left the room so the “trainers” could develop a training plan. The trainers had to find creative ways to teach their “cues” using the fruits or vegetables words and no hand signals, luring, or mirroring of behaviors. The challenge was on!!

All about teamwork

Best Friends love to play together!
Best Friends love to play together!

The inmates decided that each team would work and the other teams would observe.  They wanted to have an opportunity to be an “audience” of the other teams so everyone would benefit from each team’s experience.  It turned out to be very valuable for the guys to observe and learn from each team’s challenges and successes. Everyone participated in developing the training plans especially as we got farther along and learned more about what did and did not work well. It was really neat to see the inmates learn from this game.When the “dogs” entered the room they were reminded that they were “off leash” and that they could behave as an off leash dog would… if they got bored they could wander off, they could misbehave, bark, growl, but they could NOT bite! They should offer behaviors….and have fun!

At the end of the day I know what I need to do... bring the dummy to you!!
At the end of the day I know what I need to do… bring the dummy to you!!

Lessons learned

  • The “dogs” had trouble distinguishing between the “yes” marker and the “cue” word
  • “Dogs” that offered behaviors were MUCH easier to train;
  • Laughter is important! We all laughed when one of the “dogs” jumped into the arms of his “trainer” and would not let go! (this wouldn’t be true in real life, but it was funny because it seemed like such a doggie thing to do. Besides, who would have thought that an inmate would dare to jump up and hold onto another inmate like that? It never crossed my mind!
  • They discovered that it was really hard not to cheat! We don’t realize just how much we (humans) offer behaviors for mirroring, or we glance with a nod. When you play this game you realize how easy it is to lure, and use hand signals! (we were tough – the teams got called on those infractions)
  • The “dogs” were surprised to find that they followed body language more than the words for instruction;
  • In addition to body language tone of voice was very important to knowing whether or not the dog was on the right path;
  • The teams discovered that humans tend to talk too much when giving instructions to the dogs!
  • What was the resounding response to this game? It was fun and everyone said they had a better understanding of what dogs experience while they are being trained.

Going through this exercise really helped put the onus back on us – the human part of the team – for being responsible about communicating what we want our dogs to do.

Everyone learned when they were the dog that the dog relies heavily on human body language.

Everyone realized they talked too much to their dogs when giving instructions. It was much easier for the dogs to learn if the human kept it simple! That way the dog could understand what it was that we wanted her to do!

On a separate note… As I rebuild my blog I am writing new posts and updating old ones.  This is an updated version of a previously published post.  I am publishing it now by special request.  If you have any requests for past posts please let me know.


Clothier, S Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs   2009

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