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.

learn well
learn it once

Setter Members

Access to The Sett community and groups

Discount for all courses and videos 50%

Archives of previous courses and books

Share your learning, upgrade your thinking


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

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

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.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

Shaping by rewards

When I see a dog showing a behaviour that is heading towards potential conflict, my first question is “what rewards are available?”

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

When we train a dog it grows

Most training starts from necessity. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict. Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit?

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.

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.

Top Training

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.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

News on courses, articles and stuff you don't want to miss.