The Power of Passive Learning

by | Jul 29, 2021

Active learning

where the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort

Passive learning

where there is little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

Passive learning is a straightforward but it requires understanding and planning.

There is minimal effort from the dog therefore it is ideal for very young puppies right through adolescents (who will have very little brain space available for active learning) and new learning for adults.

As we learn there will be an emotional association with that experience. If the learning is too complex it can affect our confidence, if too confusing we can lose interest, if unpleasant will be avoided.

We arrange the learning as a positive, not negative, experience for our dogs. Every time there is a positive experience, which can be any activity, comfort, eating, relief from hunger, playing, chasing, exploring:  passive learning is also happening by association. WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT. This can be a signal, activity, or sound, that occurs during, immediately before or immediately after the event.

Repetition will ensure the association is part of the dog’s memory. It only takes a surprisingly small number of repetitions to make an association, but continual top-up will secure more reliability.

In this video Merrick is enjoying running around with her toy. This is how she enjoys a toy, it is her choice and self taught. As she runs towards me I can associate the action and direction (running: towards me) with a sound (I whistle). I can use this whistle in the future as a cue to run towards me and it will have a pleasant response.

The pleasant activity or experience can also be associated with the location where it occurs. In this video she is enjoying this in the garden, the garden will have pleasant association.


It is logical that a dog needs to remember where both good and bad things happen. If they have been successful in capturing dinner, they will not need reminders or a map to know where that place is. They will return there at every opportunity even over several years. If they received a threat from a dog when passing a garden, they will avoid that location. Dogs are designed to remember WHERE they are (location) what is nearby and the experience that occurred. This can be a negative association as well as a positive. Management in conjunction with passive learning is about avoiding the negative and arranging the positive.

Wait at the corner

When I take my dogs for an “uncontained” walk there are some locations where I wish them to hold their position until I have visually checked it is safe to go ahead.

One is a blind corner. On our first outing in this location I call the dogs to me, stand still and have treat games at this location. We may even enjoy some active learning in a short session. Even if a youngster has yet to learn the return to me signal, the engagement of the other dogs ensures the pup would not want to be left out and they will join the group activity.

With only a handful of repetitions I do not need to prompt the dogs at this location. If they are at the location before me they will wait for me and as a consequence get to enjoy the treat games.

In addition to the location prompting the waiting, I can also use my activity, standing still when treats games are employed as a stimulus for them to join me.  

The key success to the waiting element is to ensure that the waiting, or stillness, is the behaviour that is rewarded, AND that it happens only when I am standing still. If I only rewarded for the return or was moving as I rewarded the waiting element is unlikely to occur. At that location the dogs are only likely to check in to see if the treat-games are likely to occur, but also keep moving.

I use the same technique for all open gateways around the farm. I want two safety protocols:

Stop at a gateway BEFORE you go through, and WAIT for me

After we go through, STOP, and check in with me before you blast off.

You can employ the same technique everytime you:

Prepare to take your lead off the dog – stand still and orientate to me (not look longingly and dream about the wide open space you are going to enjoy)

Open the car door – stand still where you are

Get out of the car – stand still and orientate to me.

Much of this passive learning is occurring in conjunction with management, in particular containers and door gates. Indoor learning with young pups is the perfect start to outdoor learning.

Door gates are preparation for field gates, street gates, park gate ways.

Container openings are preparation for car safety.

We cannot ignore it ….

It is our habit to focus on teaching the dog a specific thing: pee in the garden, walk calmly, carry this object etc, but where this is happening, or being overwhelmed, how difficult the puzzle, or simply getting tired is also going to be learned.

Passive learning is surrounding us all the time and it requires our attention. It can be a very effective and efficient way of adding dimension to learning and experience when used thoughtfully.



Build the Learning

Lifelong skills built in activities and play. A dog that is curious, confident, resilient with a natural enthusiasm for learning.

rewards skills

Learn about the fascinating landscape of rewards and how to make them the centre of your training and relationship.

Management or Training

Find a pathway to suit your lifestyle of living with dogs. When management temporarilly supports the learning, or choose training.

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This is an excerpt from the Management or Training online course. There are many more powerful strategies that are a blend of the science and practical experience of living with dogs.

Management or Training

Find a pathway to suit your lifestyle of living with dogs. When management temporarilly supports the learning, or choose training.

Key Reading

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

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 Cost of Cherrypicking

When we admit that the ideas we’re sharing are derived from the work of others, we demonstrate our own commitment to learning

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.

A Road to Nowhere

When familiarity is stripped away we seek recognisable signposts that will take us back to comfort and security. This is survival instinct. It is worth listening to as it keeps us alive.

What’s Cooking? A Warning About Recipes

Recipes for “training” dogs are so prevalent in how we live with and talk about them that their existence often goes unquestioned.

Don’t Let Them Learn

Becoming aware that we share our lives with premier learners, dogs, is about saving you frustration, despair, anxiety and endless hours further down the road.

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

Dogs are Born To Learn

We can build tremendous learners when we get beyond the idea that “dogs are trained”.

It’s Not Training

A carefully planned learning pathway, paced to suit that particular learner for their life ahead.

Top Training

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

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.

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……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

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