Dog’s learn in a range of different ways, just like people. They learn through play, experience, habituation and observation! My youngest dog Lawrence is a working Labrador and is both sensitive and full of drive. If you’ve met him you’ll know he tends towards being loud and rambunctious but he is now beginning to show some more sophisticated behaviours around other dogs!
Not all puppies develop his level of confidence. As a puppy Lawrence had the opportunity to watch my other dogs move through tunnels and round all the equipment we have on the paddock. I realise now how beneficial this is. Now when I’m teaching agility training I take on new dogs who have not had this experience and they are often quite fearful of going into a curved tunnel where they can’t see out of the other end. It’s a survival fear. Where I have fearful dogs like these I will, if it’s suitable, use a trained dog to demonstrate that the tunnel doesn’t eat you all up, you just go in one end and out the other end. Quite often a fearful dog will look to see if they can get in the tunnel half way along it’s length! It is not unusual for the owners to be taken aback at the surprise on their dogs face when the demo dog disappears into the tunnel AND comes out the other end! I haven’t studied this in detail but my feeling is that it makes a significant difference and is one of the reasons why early stage training is better in small groups. The same is true of the see-saw which can confuse and scare new dogs. Observational learning has a proven effect on dog learning especially in respect of adaptive skills for survival. From the dog’s perspective disappearing into a dark tunnel may appear to present a risk to life. It also stands to reason that like all other learning this impact is strongest during a puppy’s critical early stages of development.
The importance of play
From the start Lawrence has absolutely loved agility. We’ve always had a tunnel in the garden and in a multidog family it’s invariably been used in many a game of chase. I’ve also filled my garden with other enriching dog things like old tyres, wobble boards and low A frames. This means that Lawrence was used to using these pieces of equipment in play from a young age. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s loved all the agility training time, from the fundamentals at 12 months to full courses including the weave poles at 18 months. It’s a wonderful opportunity to chase and run with your main human, a sophisticated game in itself! This playful training has helped him not only to have a hugely positive association with the experience, but as provided him useful training for life in terms of his running, jumping, turning and coordination skills.
Learning through habituation
When we started training at a local dog training school all the equipment was wooden and he quickly mastered all the equipment. As we progressed we joined a ‘competition school’ and I was taken aback that on the first ‘assessment’ week he could not do their ‘dog walk’ or the ‘see-saw’ because they were metal and felt very different to him. He didn’t just lack confidence he looked genuinely fearful of them and would jump off if I encouraged him too strongly to go on. He had never walked or run on metal contact equipment. It took some time for him to realise that the stimulus of the metal underfoot was not meaningful and was an irrelevant stimulus. Gradually he showed a decreased response to the stimulus with exposure, but for weeks on this larger pieces of metal equipment his pace slowed completely and he walked more anxiously over them. After a few weeks though he became completely habituated to the new sensation and his old confidence and speed returned i.e. he was able to disregard the stimulus with sufficient experience as he realised it wasn’t relevant.
As we progressed further, we started to compete and during the early stages of this he really struggled in the agility ring. He is highly social and all the other dogs so close together completely overwhelmed him. Outdoors, the ‘ring’ was often just a single piece of rope so he used to just run off, much to my overwhelming embarrassment. Over time, though, he’s learned that these particular ‘other dogs’ are just ‘there’ in the environment, that is he learned that the stimulus of the other dogs in this setting don’t mean anything. After repeated exposure to the stimulus of other dogs in the environment he became habituated and was able focus on playing agility games with me instead. This was only true because the ‘other dogs’ in this context were not relevant, they never played with him and were not free to socialise, so the stimulus of the sight and sound of the other dogs was not relevant to him in this context.
At my training paddock, I would sometimes meet friends and chat while our dog friends played. I noticed that during intense games of chase with particular friends Lawrence would throw in the odd jump sequence or tunnel into their games building in amazing extension and foot placement. It felt like he was doing it for the sheer joy of it as well as to spice up their game. The opportunity to practice in play has helped him bring a different level of confidence, physical skill and awareness to his jumping courses when competing or running with me. I’m interested that he hasn’t (yet) chanced including an A frame or dog walk in these games, I suspect because he does not yet have the conscious competence to judge the entries and exits safely without me to guide him. Although I’ve caught him on the seesaw on his own, just for the fun of it!