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Frequently Asked Questions about the Science of How Dogs Learn.

(Warning: Long and only for those that are interested in this stuff!)

Q1. Can you train retrievers without this scientific stuff?
A1. Absolutely. Most FCs are made by trainers who don’t know the science. Nonetheless, many of the most effective, efficient and fair trainers practice the principles of this science, perhaps without knowing it. The principles of learning do matter!

Q2. Who cares? Why bother?
A2. The science of learning demonstrates that some methods of learning are longer-lasting, less stressful and more effective. Understanding them can help decide on best procedures. An understanding of the science can help you to train based on behaviour knowledge-not trial and error at your dog’s expense.

Q3. Why is the science so complicated and hard to understand?
A3. The science was not developed by retriever trainers but by behavioural scientists who describe their ideas in generic terms applicable to many species and situations. The principles that are universal have taken a century to develop. The basics are simple but the exceptions complicate generalities. The science uses terms quite different from that of the day-to-day person or dog trainer. Most of the explanatory books have been written by positive only proponents who have little experience with retrievers, e-collars and the methods that we routinely use. They don’t talk like we do! The scientific terminology is precise but foreign to many. This is evident in many RTF debates.

Q4. Can you explain conditioning?
A4. Conditioning is a form of learning in which the dog learns from the consequences of its behaviour. All of our retriever training is conditioning! Almost all working retriever training uses Operant Conditioning as opposed to Classical conditioning?

Q5. What in the world is Operant Conditioning?
A5. Lots of terminology behind the phrase Operant BUT it basically means behaviour conditioning. Our retrievers form an association between what they do (their behaviour) and what happens next (the consequence).
Think about that! Our retriever does something which is followed by something good or bad (a consequence) and the dog learns (is conditioned!). All of our training is based on that. Our retrievers are learning constantly-being conditioned- whether we plan it or not! Interestingly when no reward (good) or bad (aversive) happens the behaviour gradually disappears-this is called extinction.

Q6. OK then what is Classical conditioning.
A6. That’s Pavlov with his bell, dog food and salivating dog! The bell was a stimulus that got associated with the food. The dog knew what was coming and started to salivate. Scientists call the food a primary reinforcer-we don’t have to teach it. The bell was a secondary reinforcer-it got associated with the food. Note clicker training is based on this idea. Most of our training is based on operant not classical conditioning (unless EVERY time you blow your whistle you nick!!)

Q7. What is reinforcement and what is punishment?
A7. In learning theory talk as opposed to everyday talk, reinforcement occurs when a dog’s particular behaviour (like sitting) is increased in the future because of some consequnce. In contrast, punishment occurs when a dog’s particular behaviour decreases. Example 1. You say “back” and the dog retrieves a bird (good consequence)-this is called reinforcement when next time the dog goes on back with great gusto!. Example 2. You yell “no” and burn your dog (bad consequence) when he chases the cat. If he stops chasing cats this is called punishment (of the behaviour to chase cats).

Q8. What is negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement?
A8. It’s not what you think!!! We dog trainers think positive is praise (“good dog”) and negative is aversive (“e-collar nick”). Behaviour scientists use positive to mean add and negative to take away. Hmmn- remember your arithmetic!

OKAY here’s the tough part.

If you give something or something is added for the dog it is positive. If the behaviour increases it is positive reinforcement but if the behaviour decreases it is positive punishment. Example 1. Puppy is standing so you say sit, puppy sits and you add a treat. Next time pup sits quickly on “sit” = +ve R.
Example 2. Puppy is standing so you say sit and then add a hard push to sit. Next time puppy cowers and won’t sit but immediately stands= +ve P.

Similarly for Negative: If something is taken away from dog and behaviour increases it is negative reinforcement but if behaviour decreases it is negative punishment. Example 1. Puppy is standing so you pull up on leash to make him sit and immediately stop pulling when he sits. Next time he sits quicker = -ve R. Example 2. After “sit” puppy stands as you start to give treat. You withdraw treat. Next time he stays sitting and the standing behaviour decreases =-P.

Q9. Ok if I understand these terms how do they help?
A9. Frankly the terms don’t help-it’s the principles that do. The terms only matter when we are reading the literature or talking to others such as on RTF. Understanding this stuff can help you read your dog and react to either reinforce or punish. Sometimes you will want to stop behaviours but much modern day retriever training is based on trying to increase good behaviours as opposed to stop bad behaviours. These days our dogs need to be comfortable going anywhere. The days of ‘don’t get out on the point’ or ‘always just get in the water’ are long gone. Understanding reinforcement can help you train a dog to make good decisions by teaching rather than testing. The alternative method is to test, set up for failure and then correct. This can be a very discouraging process for a sensitive dog. Both methods use an aversive but reinforcement has been shown to last longer and thus be more reliable than punishment training. I think many of today’s dogs tend to be quite sensitive and better candidates for reinforcement training.

Q10. How can I relate this to every day retriever training?
A10. All of the procedures that we use in retriever training can be analysed in terms of learning theory. Most training issues such as ‘noise by dogs’, ‘cheating around ponds’, ‘getting out down the shore early’, or ‘creeping’ can be addressed though punishment or through reinforcement. If you analyse the schools of training by various “authors” you will see an emphasis on one or the other. For example, the dog climbs out on a point and is nicked there so he avoids landing next time. What is that –reinforcement or punishment? What do you do and why.

OK you read this far.
Is this stuff appropriate format on RTF? Maybe Chris has thoughts here?
Do you want to know more? Like where does indirect pressure fit in?
Do you have more questions? What are they?
Do you think this is all Gobbledygook? I realize that this stuff is NOT for everybody but only for certain types of minds (and that is who it is written for). I never expect to change the minds of the others and it won’t bother me if you don’t use it.
You probably got out of it what you paid for it! Nothing.
Hint: press “back” or “delete”!


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You're the man! Thank's for all the time and effort you put into helping us better understand our dogs.

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5,315 Posts
Thanks Dennis.

It has been my contention over the years, sometimes articulated on this very forum, that a basic knowledge of this is a must especially for those using an e-collar as the aversive. Of course that is just me.

This may be pressing it but, as a topic , Indirect Pressure described in these terms , would be much easier to grasp. So if you find time, could you give us your thoughts ............


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Thank you. But is your analysis harder to train a dog? Because now you have to think like a dog and not think about what makes you tick. And now train changes from testing to teaching or am I confused? I like this topic. Thank you it has me thinking.

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Didnt understand all of it,, but the specific training examples helped a bunch.

I would really be interested in reading more.



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Loved it Dennis and please provide more. I very interested on your thoughts about indirect pressure, and well anything in the training realm. Thanks.

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Nice to see that some people are interested in this topic. I have had articles on the topic in Retrievers On Line for many (well over ten) years now ---- probably around 80+ or so of them. One segment is an entire series on starting pups. There is usually a limited audience that is interested but there is some following and encouragement for me to put them out in a manual. Maybe one of these days I will have time enough to get it done.

My primary actual career was teaching (and researching) effective learning strategies , based on applied behavior analysis, for the hard to teach. The principles work just as well for dogs as humans that I was teaching and researching. The articles translate (in fairly simple terms) what principles are used done in training that make it work or not. Keep in mind that these principles are working every time someone teaches or trains --- regardless of whether anyone knows any of the terms or not. It is just like gravity --- it is there all the time whether you think about it or not.

Correct use of principles and concepts are what make dog training easy and effective (happy trainer and dog) or if used wrong, make it a mess and unhappy situation and bad dog attitude. No one needs to know the exact terms to be a good trainer. Actually sometimes the words get in the way. A 15 minute session of double-T would take a grad class about an hour or two to discuss effectively.

So -- easiest place to get examples of training using the principles and concepts is to contact Dennis and order the last ten or more years of ROL if you don't already subscribe. I also have published in a variety of other magazines but ROL has been the primary place. Dennis and I talk about the topic all the time.......but it does not interest many. It does make a difference in training success --- regardless of whether the terms can be named.

BTW -- ROL is also filled with other valuable articles that help train more effectively. Dennis writes at least two or more each issue and his success is obvious if you look at his history. He trains alone a great deal of the time and has had two Canadian National Amateur Champions and a Canadian National Open Champion and multiple FC AFC titles in USA and Canada. He has a DVD coming out soon (we hope) on training alone.

No I don't want to get involved in a long discussion thread on this topic --- just don't have the time.

Happy Retrieving,

Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh

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This may help a understand the roots of operant's sort of the cliff notes version, but it explains it a bit more...Dennis did a very good job of relating it to retriever training....

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Ok, that's great stuff... Let me ask a question though. How do you know when to use positive or negative. Can you give more examples as it relates to new puppy training?
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