Understanding how dogs learn in patterns is key to successful dog training and behaviour modification. By understanding the patterns of behaviour that our dogs form based on their experiences, we can use this knowledge to help shape their future actions and reactions. Whether it’s teaching a puppy new behaviours or modifying existing ones, pattern-based learning can be an effective tool for getting the results you want from your four-legged friend. In this blog post and podcast, LWDG Group Expert Claire Denyer discusses why pattern-based learning works so well with dogs, as well as some potential pitfalls of using it too rigidly. So if you’re looking for ways to better understand and train your pup, listen and read on!
Written By Claire Denyer
By forming predictable and rewarding patterns in both daily life and training sessions with your pup, you can help shape their behaviour. Positive patterns are a great way to build confidence in shy or anxious dogs as well as modify how they feel about situations, stimuli, or even new surroundings. What’s more, is that these same patterns may be utilised to construct desirable behaviours from scratch!
We use patterns in behaviour modification programmes, puppy training, and gundog training, it’s one of the fundamental parts of training. Dogs are fabulous problem solvers. Dogs learn that their behaviour brings consequences (good and bad) and it is from there, that a dog will develop a pattern which gets an end result. Through repeating behaviours (repetition) the dog learns a pattern. Dogs learn that the behaviour that was occurring at the time brought about an outcome or consequence. This needs to be within seconds. This is one of the main reasons we must be very careful about the timing of rewards.
Example 1: dog whines for attention and you give attention within 2 seconds, you’ve rewarded that behaviour
Example 2: dog whines for attention and is then quiet for 2 minutes before you go over and give them attention, you’ve rewarded the dog for the behaviour they are doing at that moment, which could be being quiet, or laying down
As you can see, both of these examples can very quickly build patterns of behaviour, one good, one not so good. When forming a pattern the handler needs to be consistent. A dog will be watching the handler’s body language, as well as responding to words. An example of this is when I teach my dogs position transitions. I teach both with my voice, and also with body language. So, I must be consistent in both.
Patterns Of Behaviour In Different Environments
The location may also become part of the pattern, this is what we sometimes refer to a dog as
environmentally trained. Example: dog walks perfectly on a loose lead in a training environment, but pulls like a freight train elsewhere. This is why proofing of the training is important.
When we say, your dog is learning with every interaction, this is because the dog is forming patterns and learning all of the time. All too often owners believe that the dog is only learning during a training session, but the dog is learning with every interaction, and with every outcome of his/her behaviour. Your dog is continually forming patterns of behaviour based on the consequences (good and bad)
Example: Your dog comes over to you whilst you are eating, and stares at you, you respond by giving eye contact and smiling, and you then give the dog some food…
I am sure you can see the pattern of behaviour forming there. The dog will very likely try this behaviour again because it was rewarding. If the dog believes there is a good outcome they are likely to repeat the behaviour. This is why well-timed, reward-based training is so effective in increasing desirable behaviours.
Do remember though what motivates a dog will be very individual to the dog, if your dog isn’t motivated by food, food rewards will be less effective, if your dog doesn’t value play, rewarding your dog with a toy won’t be as effective. The dog is less likely to repeat a behaviour if there is no value in the reward.
It is worth mentioning that you should be aware of bad consequences. Imagine you are out with a puppy during the socialisation period and you are trying to positively introduce them to something new. It may only take one very scary experience for a puppy (or dog) to believe that a specific pattern of events leads to a bad outcome,
Example: you have your 14-week-old puppy out in the park for the first time, and he runs over to an unknown dog and is attacked.
It is very likely that without support and training, the puppy may grow up fearful or aggressive towards other dogs. Dogs that display dog-to-dog aggression while on a lead have very often learnt a pattern of behaviour which they believe works for them.
Example: a dog walking on lead is attacked.
This is a terrible experience for the dog. The next time the dog is walking on lead and he sees another dog he may bark and growl to warn the other dog off, his owner, shocked by his reaction, pulls him away from the other dog, and he isn’t attacked. It is highly likely that in future he will repeat that behaviour as he believes it kept the other dog away. As quickly as that the dog believes that he has learnt a pattern of behaviour that works, totally unaware of how distressing it may be for the owner, and the owner is very likely unaware of why the dog now responds that
the way every time he sees a dog on the lead.
By understanding that dogs learn in patterns you can teach them, guide them, and support them. It can also help you realise how an unwanted behaviour may have developed. You can also use patterns change behaviour.
I use pattern training in behaviour modification programmes, puppy training, and gundog training. It really is at the centre of everything we do. That being said, I always discuss the pros and cons with my clients.
For example: Creating too rigid patterns in life with your dog can cause issues with some dogs like frustration.
We certainly use patterns to build confidence in a dog, and reduce inappropriate behaviours and reactivity, like aggression and over-excitement, as part of a behaviour modification programme.
Dog owners and trainers naturally use patterns, most probably without thinking of them as patterns.
Patterns of behaviour are an important concept to understand when it comes to working with dogs. By recognizing how your dog is forming patterns based on the consequences (good and bad) of their behaviour, you can use pattern training in puppy training, gundog training, and even behaviour modification programs. While this method has its pros and cons, understanding the power of patterns can be a great way for owners to build confidence in their dogs while also reducing inappropriate behaviours like aggression or over-excitement. With a little bit of effort from both owner and pup alike, these powerful techniques make it easier than ever before to create positive behavioural change that lasts!
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