Can’t not learn

by | Dec 30, 2019 | Klog

4 min read

Dog, puppy or person, we can’t not learn. The environment is “playing on us” all the time, when we are watching TV, FaceBooking, listening to a podcast, in a lesson, we cannot not learn. Are you aware of what learning is happening? What we learn may not be advantageous to the individual, the community or society. It may not be of any use to our future or for our benefit. And we cannot “unlearn” which makes it hard, hard work to re-learn what we wish to correct.

Who takes responsibility for what is learned?

If the teacher-trainer has a specific goal then they should be verifying what is being learned step by step, not just at the final outcome. By examining the learning in small steps the teacher-trainer can make adjustments to ensure success, avoid the learning taking the route to nowhere useful and monitor the progress along the tracks.

A learner is also responsible for what they are learning and be given space to demonstrate that.

Attending my workshops often induces anticipation meltdown when I work around the room asking “what have you learned”? I usually only do this at the end of a day but I should be doing this every step of the way.

There are two elements of this learning – learning how to use a tool (the clicker, the cup on a stick, a target) and learning how to implement a process. Both have their own technology – the use and knowledge of tools, techniques, systems or methods in order the serve a purpose or solve a problem.  

What skill?

The workshop may be teaching the cup on a stick protocols. One element is developing the skill of loading food into the cup on a stick whilst simultaneously preparing the next treat in the other hand for the re-load – but what learning is happening? Demonstration of doing it is one part, verbalising why you are doing is the next part, then transferring what you have learned to a different context is the final part – the critical part. This is central to the measuring of what learning has happened, and whether I, as the teacher, needs to make adjustments to the learning environment.

The adjustments may be a slower demonstration whilst simultaneously voicing the critical elements, (rolling the next piece of food into the fingers, shortening the hold on the stick), or exaggerating a particular aspect. Learning to replicate from demonstration is a skill in itself, through visually identifying the critical points, memorising the order of tasks and then internalising the actions as you will perform them yourself. It may be a discussion of other contexts for illustration. It may be drawing on existing skills to make a connection. Everyone has skills of using spoons, a cup on a stick is just a very long handled spoon that holds food more securely. But can you use a spoon to pick up, move and place food with the non-dominant hand? Walk, move and deliver in different dimensions whilst at the same time watching the dog, assessing what they are learning and making adjustments in height, speed and the timing of delivery?

Active learners

Identifying, showing and explaining what you have learned is the responsibility of everyone in the learning environment. The teacher may has responsibility for the accuracy of what you are learning and guide you in a specific direction, but the hard work of learning is the learner’s job. It is an active, engaging, challenging process. It is hard work. It may involve unlearning, a change of established habits. It may involve a turnaround of core beliefs, a change to an established understanding. It will certainly involve critical thinking which is not easy, it is a hurdle that seems to elicit avoidance rather than attract approach.

Learning to learn with an active, questioning mind is often neglected and can gather many layers of rust from non-use. What am I doing right, what do I need to adjust, why is this not working? The sixteen week old puppy is the expert in learning to learn. They are voracious with massive appetites to learn, adjust, adapt and keep trying.

We can generate that urge again. It is not age related but it may be passion related. It is often historically suppressed but it is still your learning to own, stretch and polish.

You will know when it has arrived because you will want to use that learning, talk about what you are learning, try it out and share it with everyone and anyone as soon as possible. Look at the Baking Boom, we can’t seem to get enough of it.

The dog training field has two learners – the dog and the person. As a dual teachers we monitor that learning is happening with both learners. This may be why burn out is dog training is common as it is quite exhausting.

We set up activities that allow us to assess what skills are developing, ask the people to verbalise, transfer to new context, explain to a fellow learner. We look at the skill of accurate foot placement of the dog and test if the dog can transfer that placement to new context, new surfaces, new angles, whilst maintaining balance, fluency and rhythm. We can evaluate what learning has happened.

We can train for an outcome:

under these conditions, the dog has learned to step over and avoid novel obstacles

This is not the same as:

under these conditions this dog has learned to step on specific items,

which is not the same as

this dog has learned to step into specific items.


But all these outcomes are dependent on the core skills of:

visual assessment of the immediate environment,

the dog must be able to focus on and  look where they are going

accurate motor skills of placement of four individual feet,

walk with balance, fluency and rhythm, which is not the norm for sixteen week old male puppies

transfer of balance,

confidence to trust the environment, the assessment process and the outcomes

So when you are teaching your dog are you aware of identifying what they are learning or just replicating a recipe? It saddens and irritates me to see the stupidification of dog training through the “don’t think about it, just copy this and you will be a success” way of generating income.

Training is such a fulfilling activity to see learning happen in a creature that you love and see them bloom from that experience. When my Gordon Setter, a breed often associated with clumsy, gawky movement, exhibits elegance and athleticism in everyday activities let alone to music it produces a chemical, which probably has a scientific name, but I will feel it as a warm sensation in the centre of me.

Training happens all the time and most especially during the “in between” moments. As we come through a doorway together and give each other space, as the dog responds to your request to “shift up” so that we can both sit side by side on the sofa. Learning how to do this may require time set aside whilst you focus on the principles, work at learning how to do it, make changes, be challenged, explore. Training, learning, is happening to us at the same time, it would be impossible for it not to happen

I come back again to the Marcel Proust quote:

the voyage of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes”

blended with

when we change we way we look at things the things we look at change” Max Planck


Learning to see what both you and your dog is learning from moment to moment is new eyes. A new way of looking at what we see – not “a sit” or “stand on a box” but new motor skills, recognition of opportunities for reward, a deepening of mutual understanding and communication, responding and learning for pleasure.

This is the joy of learning.

1 Comment

  1. Iris Maxfield

    “We can generate that urge again. It is not age related but it may be passion related. It is often historically suppressed but it is still your learning to own, stretch and polish.”

    This is SO true, not everybody learns the same way, two legs or four, but if the trouble is taken to find their passion, direct the teaching on a path that has meaning to the student then learning can start to happen.

    Once learning starts to happen it can become addictive, the dog who’s eyes light up when you are setting up to train, the child that wants to go to school.


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