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The Four Phases Of Learning

Delving into the mind of a dog can we quite complicated and frustrating. On the surface, dogs look like simple animals, but under the hood, there is a lot more going on. It can often take even the best dog trainers years upon years of dedicated time and study to really master the mind of a dog. Though I might be biased in saying that taking the time to understand a dogs mind is a beautiful thing. I realize that not everybody has that sort of time and interest in learning. Luckily for the average dog owner, the learning phases that a dog goes through can be simplified and easy to comprehend. Learning these four phases is essential, just because your dog knows how to sit in your living room, doesn’t mean he will be able to sit in your backyard or down the street. Learning them will be enough to give you a general concept of what it takes to get something as simple as a sit and start proofing it for that real-world obedience you’ve wanted to achieve. The four stages of learning are broken down into 1) Acquisition 2) Automation 3) Generalization 4) Maintenance. I will break each one down and talk about them more in depth.

Acquisition: The Acquisition Phase also known as the teaching phase is often the shortest phase of learning. In this phase, we often are not naming any commands. Let’s use a sit command for example. We can use several ways to get the dog into a sit such as shaping, capturing or luring. Example: The dog is silently lured into a sit position using some kibble, once the dog is in the sit position mark the behavior with “good” give your dog some kibble and then release. This phase is often the “ah-ha” moment for your dog. They are figuring out what it takes to get paid.

Automation: The Automation Phase is where you can get the behavior consistently enough to where you can start naming it with little to no help at all. This is where you really want your dog to understand the verbal command before moving on. You want to make sure that all lures or cues used are faded out. Before moving on make sure your dog can perform the behavior asked at least 4-5 times without any guidance.

Generalization: Once you have the dog understanding the command clearly, this is where you take what the dog knows and start working them in different environments. It’s generally most natural to start indoors and then move from indoors to your backyard then down the street etc. Not only different settings but different people and positions are just as important as well. For example, training the command while you are sitting in a chair. It’s essential to give your dog as broad of a spectrum as possible. We are also aiming for the three Ds in this phase. Distance, Duration, and Distraction. Along with the three D’s comes more expectations. This is where I often like to incorporate training tools such as a prong collar, e-collar or slip lead to help proof the command for real-world obedience. That is why the generalization phase is often one of the most prolonged stages besides the maintenance phase. At this point, you can also begin weaning your dog off of a continuous reinforcement schedule and onto a random reinforcement schedule.

Maintenance: The second most prolonged phase that your dog goes through will be the maintenance phase. The maintenance phase is often the phase that people take their dogs home in when they complete one of our board and train programs. The maintenance phase will last a lifetime. I equate this phase as in going to the gym. Have you ever heard the phrase “if you don’t use it, you lose it”? Well its exactly that. You can go to the gym and get your beach body, but as soon as you stop working out or start making poor food choices, you will begin regressing. You can’t expect to lift a weight for two years and still keep the 200lb bench press that you worked hard for. The same with dog training. If you don’t practice the techniques and commands regularly, you will slowly start to see a deterioration of the learning. The good thing about this is muscle memory. Back to my gym example, if you once had a 200lb bench press eventually your muscle memory will kick in, and you will achieve your old lifts/ body back much faster than somebody who has never experienced or obtained this before. The same thing with dog training, the good thing is what once was learned can be relearned at a faster pace than a dog that has not learned any of the material before. So investing the time and effort into training is priceless, even if your dog does fall off the wagon for a bit.

– Angelo Presta