Dogs are Born To Learn

by | Jan 23, 2023

Tremendous Learners

Dogs Are Born To Learn

What do we want our dogs to learn? What skills are going to be of greatest value to them? Learning to learn is a skill. It is full of critical elements that will transfer to everything they do for the rest of their lives.

A pup can learn to recognise signals and movements from people: when food is coming, what affection is available, what to watch quietly and study their world. A blend of observation skills, memorising patterns and distinguishing sounds. Where to pee and when rewards are bonuses. Selecting what is relevant and what is not in connection with what directly affects them.

Learning to move with balance, coordination, power: negotiate staircases, climb in an out of cars, walk with a different people, balance to be able to pee, run without crashing into trees. Learning motor skills that can underpin lifelong movements begins with simple disciplines, such as siting, with good form. Poor form can lead to discomfort, injury and inflexibility. Learning to run to a stop, run to grab a toy, racing with friends, dancing for butterflies can be enjoyed when the foundations are sound.

The learning skills do not happen by accident. Any dog can develop these at any time when given the right opportunity to learn. This begins with their natural enthusiasm for learning combined with a plentiful choice of rewards.

When a dog feels safe and comfortable learning will happen when given the right guidance along their individual learning pathway. A pathway planned for their individual future. Not too much too soon, not too difficult to progress from one stage to the next, not struggling to learn for tricks or to “impress” but to become a Tremendous Learner. A pathway that is filled with ease and pleasure.

This pathway is laid by our skills to be able to see what they are learning, adjust that learning and design situations to build flexibility and strengths. A pathway to bloom and flourish.

Learning to See Learning Happen

Instead of “training the dog to …”

Training the dog to sit?

Dogs already know how to sit before we come along. The process gets dirty when we try to train them in how they sit or when they sit. Training implies it will be done in the way we expect, repeated on demand and expected without question.

A lack of clarity to see poorly executed movement that gets reinforced because: “well, the butt hit the floor”, can develop a body with injury, discomfort and inflexibility and dog that avoids movement or only performs when they have little choice.

Wonky sits, two-steps-back-before-a-plonk sits, sit-hopping are all demonstrating a lack of the skill in the movements. These 6 week old pups are lacking muscle structure. If we carefully watch the process of sitting of a skilled dog we can see the order of the muscle engagement.

Do you know the good form required for any movement your dog will learn?

Looking at these we can see that the movement is carried out in different ways, even though the outcome: A Sit, is the same.

eyes wide open

These 6 week old pups have yet to develop muscle and structure and learn good form.
This is very much “butt hits floor”. We need to consider what we are rewarding.

What learning is happening?

Learning follows a pathway of stages and then by gradually integrating different processes.

Learning begins with knowing WHAT to do: which muscles must be engaged and HOW they will do it. The movement of muscles is coordinated and executed in a specific order:

~ Information as to WHICH muscles will contract

~ the FORCE with which they will contract

~ ORDER and temporal phasing (timing) of the contractions

As the specific actions take place there is feedback and adjustment happening when the output of the muscle action is monitored.

If the order is incorrect we see the dog step backwards, often without sitting. This is a balance change happening before the rear leg muscles have contracted. If a dog is choosing to sit forwards (front feet remain stationary) then the back feet need to step forwards before contraction. If the dog is to sit backwards the front feet need to be moving backwards as the rear legs contract. Getting the order right will affect the outcome. We can develop a skill of monitoring the movements before the resulting sit position to identify what learning is happening.

Learning the forward sit: the rear legs coming towards the front legs. 

Learning technology

By learning the underlying technology in detail we become skilled at being able to build a plan and guide the dog to gain more rewards. It matters little how your dog chooses to park their own butt, but it matters a great deal that you understand the learning needed to be able to do this successfully and assist a dog that struggles to complete this or any other movement.

Is your dog comfortably walking at your side or ambling, strolling, pacing or trotting? Do you know the difference and know good form? Is the dog able to move with ease and comfort or compromised by the equipment or reinforcement process?

If you are familiar with horse riding then you will be aware that knowing these gaits is critical to success but the dog world is poorly backward in teaching this basic understanding.

Dogs who need our guidance can benefit significantly when we become diligent students of learning.

We can build tremendous learners when we get beyond the idea that “dogs are trained”. We can build learning skills so that they can:

    • process faster and develop the learning skills with ease
    • make changes and adapt their learning with flexibility
    • develop their abilities to assess and process situations
    • read the environment and begin physical preparation in anticipation
    • increase perceptive skills
    • recognise and remember more stimuli, environments and situations

Are you moving towards designing learning for the way that learner chooses to learn or just carrying on training the way you like to train?

More learning opportunities

If you are interested – the Born To Learn course starts in March 2023:

Born to Learn course

If you would like to explore the detail of teaching something simple with good form: 

Key Reading

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

The Answers Await Discovery

The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:”

Do you see what I see

Doing better is the reward from doing the work. This work needs to be the right work at the right time with the right intent done in the right way.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

A Family of Multiple Dogs

Another addition is not just an extra bed and bowl. It is important to build a home that is healthy, content and well-balanced.

And Why Can’t He Refuse?

I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

Guidance is not dependence

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give you guidance.

Top Training

Nose Target. No thanks

Nose target is a popular behaviour taught to many dogs, and other animals. It seems easy to teach and have practical application, but it is often not such a pleasant experience for all dogs. There are many other options available that give the same practical benefit, without the unpleasant extremes.

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

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