Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Technical learning theory jargon applied to dogs and kids

Wow, it's been an embarrassingly long time since I last updated my blog. You'd think with a toddler and two active dogs that I would have tons of time to write, but somehow I don't. Go figure!

This entry will be a bit of a departure from my other entries. I'm getting ready to take the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam ( and I'm going to multi-task and up date my blog while I solidify some concepts in my head. I'm a visual and physical learner so typing gives me the chance to read what I've written and it helps to get it stuck in my brain better. But more on learning styles when I get to that point in an entry!

Much of this section on basic vocabulary comes from Pam Reid's book Excel-erated Learning. As she explains in the intro, this isn't a “how to book” it's a “why” book – interesting for the dog owners out there but particularly useful for dog trainers. The format of my study entries will be a definition of the term, an example of the concept learned from working with dogs and another observed by working with my daughter or other children.

At the most basic level, learning is a change in behavior based on past experience.

Cousteau has learned that when I am out of the kitchen, putting the entire front end of his body on the counter will enable him to reach food anywhere on that surface.

Bug has learned that positioning her stool in certain locations along the counter enables her to reach almost anything on that surface.

Both Cousteau and Bug experimented several times before finding a technique that was effective and this is the first technique tried at the next opportunity. Before they would try to reach an object with all feet firmly planted on the floor.

Learning/Performance Distinction
The distinction between knowing how to do something and actually doing it.

Cousteau can execute a perfect heel pattern in a lesson. He has learned how to do it. However, when we are in a trial setting he does not perform a perfect heel pattern. Just because he does not do a heel pattern in a trial does not mean that he never learned how to do a heel pattern. (It just looks like it!)

Bug loves to sing. She has learned the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or Tinkle, Tinkle, Widdle Stah). When asked to sing the song for guests she does not know well, she will not sing. The absence of her singing does not negate the fact that she has learned the words to the song.

Latent Learning
The act of learning how to do something but not having the ability to display that knowledge until later.

Cousteau has known for years how to get something off the counter, but he did not display that knowledge until Bug became old enough to leave food on the counter and walk away. (I swear I'm going to stop picking on the big yeller dog soon!)

Toddlers are great demonstrators of latent learning. Bug learned how and when to say one of my Dad's favorite phrases “It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.” She did not display this knowledge until at least a day later when I offered to carry something heavy for her and she replied “It's a tough job, but someone's gotta dew IT.”

Four Stages of Learning
acquisition (acquiring) – first phase where new knowledge is acquired

fluency (automatic) – second phase – response is fluid and automatic and speed of response can be improved

generalization (application) – third phase – learns that new knowledge is relevant in a variety of places and circumstances. (Rarely automatic – must be emphasized during training)

maintenance (always) – new knowledge is incorporated into the learner's “tool box” of behaviors. Needs review to stay at this level.

Cousteau took about 2 years to go from the acquisition to the maintenance of flyball skills.

Acquisition: teaching him all of the little parts – first going over one jump and then two, three and four. Then triggering the box, passing other dogs, and dealing with distractions.

Fluency: going down four jumps, getting the ball, coming back over four jumps, and getting his tug without breaking it down or frequent cueing, so basically, the sequence became automatic.

Generalization: applying the knowledge of doing the entire sequence in practice and also in tournaments both home and away.

Maintenance: we continue to practice despite the fact Cousteau has the basic steps. He will (almost) always complete the flyball sequence no matter what – other dogs in the lane, bad passes, jumps knocked over, commotion on the sidelines, different handlers, etc.

Bug LOVES her tricycle. It was hands down her favorite Christmas gift and she went from acquisition to maintenance very quickly.

Acquisition: watching how the pedals move to push the bike forward and that moving the handlebars changes the trike's direction. Figuring out where to put her hands and feet.

Fluency: pushing the pedals first for any movement and then smoother and faster movement. Holding handlebars straight and then turning them to change direction.

Generalization: being able to ride the trike not just in the kitchen, but the living room and rec room and at Nana's house. (It's too darn cold and snowy to test generalization outside yet.)

Maintenance: riding the tricycle all over the place without thinking precisely about how she's moving her hands and feet.

Principle of Parsimony
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one, unless there is evidence to the contrary. In other words, if you're sitting at a horse ranch and hear hoof beats, don't assume there's a zebra coming.

Cousteau started drooling for no apparent reason. The first time it happened I checked in his mouth to see if there was anything caught there. This is a logical and simple explanation of the behavior. I didn't see anything, but noticed a broken tooth. He stopped drooling for awhile and then started it up again. Even though the tooth didn't appear to bother him during a couple of exams by some dog savvy friends, my vet, and myself, I decided that must be the problem and scheduled a removal. This is logical, but not a simple explanation. Three weeks after the removal he drooled again. This time I realized each previous episode was when he was around a female in heat and drooling is a common event for males when a female is in heat. A simple and logical explanation for the behavior and ultimate the correct one since I've now noticed he only drools in the presence of a female in heat.

Bug has been very cranky lately. I had begun to wonder if she had some sort of illness that didn't physically manifest itself as a fever, rash, or intestinal distress, but caused a change in her behavior. This is not a simple, nor especially logical explanation given the facts I have. She was just horrible at flyball last night – refusing to sit down or cooperate with me even in the simplest requests. I commented on the behavior change to a teammate who is also a nurse working up to asking her if she'd ever heard of such a disease. She told me her son went through the same thing at that age. Then we got home and discovered Bug had horrible diaper rash. Age-appropriate behavior and obvious physical discomfort are two simple and logical explanations of the behavior. (Diaper rash is cleared up today and she's much happier.)

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