The Joy of Learning
Curiosity, discovery, success, confidence, understanding, growth: all of these things can nurture a joy of learning for its own sake in humans. For dogs, while the same should be possible, the focus is frequently on “the dog will learn to do,” where “success in learning” is understood in terms of ability to perform an action or movement on cue. This often comes at the expense of the pleasure of the learning process itself.
But what if our dogs could discover a joy in learning that sparked curiosity, that made them hungry for learning for its own sake, that proved rewarding in and of itself?
We asked some of the Learning About Dogs community what lets them know that their dog enjoys learning, and here are their responses.
I can always tell when my dogs are intrinsically happy to be learning versus when they are just working for the reward. I had to open my mind and heart and to observe all the little nuances in our sessions that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to in the past. I had to be 100% present and slow down. When my observation skills improved, I could see some notable differences between what it looked like when he feels “well this is rather ho-hum” versus when he is saying “this is rad!” For my Collie it is not big tail wags. Instead, it’s very subtle. Mostly I see it in his eyes: they sparkle and brim with curiosity. I can say the same for his speediness to do the work or start the work. It is now almost impossible to settle for dullness in a session. I seek that spark in him that he wants to be doing a thing with me—not because I’m trying to do a 5-minute skill, but because he finds me an interesting companion to learn with.
I’ve also learned that this doesn’t exist on its own to be turned on and off in a skill session. It’s a way of living and connecting throughout the day and in different environments. The conversations are ongoing and the “learning session” is just another component in our day now like a quick card game with a friend. It is not a white board “ to do” like it used to be in my past.
I like the “moments” when they’re working towards a solution, and the moment they get it, (marker) we see them light up. For a few seconds even Merrick does not go straight for the “well, … feed me?” face, but seems to savour the aspect of finding the solution, or remembering the cue, or just feeling great when she does a certain movement.
Before arriving in the Learning About Dogs community, I never saw the parallels between canine and human learning, and never even thought about how to help foster a love of learning in T. But his repeated success, even when what he is learning deepens, the centrality of his rewards, and the mindset that this engenders in him means that he doesn’t distinguish between learning and play. He’ll request access to a piece of equipment with the same enthusiasm as a favourite toy; he’ll transfer a new skill across contexts with relative ease; he approaches new learning with a genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. It’s so wonderful to be able to help facilitate that.
It’s a look.
It’s a presence.
It’s in their body.
It’s in the beauty of the motion.
It’s in the approach.
It’s in a movement away. Anticipating the place.
It’s in the conversation. The pauses and the bits in between.
Hattie pauses and considers. She waits while I pause and consider. She waits for me to think!
Hank urges me to make a decision because whatever it is, he’s present and ready for game on.
It’s much like defining art. For me, art is in the colors and why they work together. I don’t know the rules of art; I don’t know why some colors shouldn’t be next to other colors. But for me they work. Did the artist break the rules? I don’t know or care. I pause because I have seen something that I like and want to look at it again.
So when I see my dogs show me things that go together, it’s an awareness that they’re driving their own learning. It’s not whether they should go together—they do for them. Wow…just wow. Can I remember how they go together? This is my learning.
The dog is enjoying the learning when they remain present while I learn.
Most of the time I didn’t even think to consider (let alone know how to observe) enjoyment in learning on the dogs behalf. Probably because it is not a criteria that is on the tick list for most training regimes? I have never seen it addressed anywhere before, which is strange really as it’s so central to everything else. It is a very subtle and detailed art to be able to observe how a dog enjoys their learning and to have the skills to facilitate that. That’s a journey in itself.
When a dog genuinely enjoys learning, that enjoyment is clearly palpable. Thoughtful engineering of that learning, tailored towards that individual and what they need to be successful, underpinned by solid planning and thoughtful reflection, and centred on the reward process make the joy of learning all the more likely. If you want to learn more, check out Build the Learning.
Tighearnan: eyes wide open looking for a chance to learn.