Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guest Post: 4 Stages of Learning

The premise for this week's post is the 4 stages of learning for dogs.

The four stages of learning according to Pam Reid in her book, Excel-erated Learning are:

1. Acquisition
2. Fluency
3. Generalization
4. Maintenance

Acquisition is the teaching phase where you are using continuous rewards with treats or kibble when the dog performs the desired behavior such as come, or lie down.

Fluency is the next stage where the dog automatically performs the behavior when you give the signal whether its a signal or a word like sit.

The third stage is generalization where the dog begins to understand that "sit" means to put his rear on the ground whether he is in the kitchen where you taught it, or in the dog park. This is a big step for many owners because they think that if the dog knows it at home in the den, he "knows" it in the dog park and is misbehaving when he doesn't perform. Nay, Nay! Dogs don't generalize very well so they may, in fact, know what "sit" means at home, but don't recognize it as the same old command when they hear it in the dog park when they are bouncing around. It is similar to kids knowing a teacher in school but being shocked to see her shopping at Publix.

The fourth stage is habituation where the behavior is a habit - this is the stage we want. The cue is intrinsically linked to the behavior and occurs every time and in every situation.

So lets explore this with a command - let's call it a cue because we are trying to be positive leaders with our dogs. I'm going to use "Come" because it is a cue that is hard for many dogs and can be a matter of life or death. "Come" means come even when the dog sees a deer and wants to chase it in front of a car. Come is especially hard because there is not an equivalent in the dog world so it is not natural, but it is a life-saving command/behavior for the dog living in our human world.

First stage COME means to run to your owner in the house when she has a piece of steak and you get a taste. Acquisition of what COME means.

Second stage is where the dog knows that COME means to run to you for a treat every time he hears it like you know a red light means STOP.

Third stage - generalization is when COME means get to owner as fast as I can no matter where I am or what I am doing.

Fourth stage - that COME is a habit and the dog always comes because the word COME (stimulus) has been totally integrated with the behavior and is behaved as though it were an instinct. I'll come because that is what I do when I hear the sound COME!

Now the big question - how to achieve each of these stages.

Well today, I'm only discussing the first stage, acquisition. This is a time when you give the dog consistent rewards every time he performs the behavior. This should be the shortest stage. Once the dog is performing correctly 5 out of 5 times in 2 or 3 sessions he probably understand the actually behavior and you can move your treat to the other hand or put it in your pocket and not Lure him to perform the behavior. Trick! If he does it without the lure, pay off more. Message to the dog is - perform without the lure of a treat, and you get a bonus!!!!!

Dogs do what works, so teach them that performing even though they don't see a treat pays double time and they are thrilled to perform without a treat in sight. Then surprise them with 5 treats and they will work so much harder for you. They never know when they'll get one so like tourists in Vegas, they keep pulling that slot machine in hopes that this time it will pay off.

Hint - you have to pass out an occasional reward to keep their interest up.

For more information on Terry and all the cool things she is doing, check out her website here.


Denise Zaldivar with IES said...

Very interesting! I believe there are a few commands that our dogs took to stage 4 already, such as "let's go outside", "let's go eat", "do you want a treat?" or "who wnats a cookie?"...m...I am now noticing that most commands are related to food. Maybe we should introduce some others!!
Very helpful for us to understand how they learn! I didn't know that about the generalization, for example, but it makes perfect sense! Thank you!!

doglando said...

LOL.... yes like in most pet owners' cases..... their are motivated by treats first.

Generalization is the key to reliable training.... how generalized are your dogs cues and how reliable are they in their response?

Thanks Denise.