If you grew up in the age before video, you were shown what to do by someone who had already mastered the skill. Patiently or not, that person gave you the steps to follow, and then allowed you to try. Maybe they moved your arms and legs, or maybe they just talked you through it.
You failed at first, didn’t you? You fell. The ball wobbled and landed nowhere near where you were trying to throw it. You struck out—a lot. You got the dance steps wrong, and out of sequence.
Your teacher showed you again. And you failed again. This process repeated itself, for hours, days, or weeks, leaving you frustrated and feeling as if you’d never “get it.”
Then one day as you were practicing, after a number of repetitions over the days or weeks, the activity fell into place as if you’d always known how. Once you knew it, you could never again not know it. A feeling of euphoria washed over you. Your teacher celebrated with you. Maybe you even skipped off to teach someone else.
The next time you went to learn a new skill, you knew it might take some time. You instinctively knew that you would need to practice to get better, and this knowledge boosted your self-confidence.
Now think about, at around that same age, how you learned not to touch a hot stove.
Was there any practice involved in learning this important lesson? Not only did no one demonstrate how to avoid the stove, you were actively warned against practice for this task.
How quickly did the learning occur? If you are like most people, you only needed one repetition—just one—for this lesson to sink in.
That is what is known as “one-trial learning.” It’s behavior change that takes place extremely quickly, typically because the consequences are painful, scary, harmful, dire—or all of these.
What does this have to do with dogs?
Dogs, like most social beings, learn in many of the same ways we do: by practice, and repetition, and by consequence (reward or punishment). Every behavior has a consequence, and how the animal perceives that consequence determines whether the animal will repeat (practice) the behavior. If the consequence pleases the dog, he will practice more, and gradually improve to mastery. If the consequence is displeasing, he might attempt the behavior a few more times, then give up. If the consequence is scary, painful, or dire, he will cease the behavior—usually after one trial.
So what does that mean for us, as dog owners and teachers?
Why, when teaching their dogs new behaviors, do so many owners assume that the dog should know what to do after only one, three, or five successful trials? They weren’t riding a bike as well as Lance Armstrong after one attempt, but they feel like Fluffy should “get it” immediately. Or, even worse, they assume Fluffy “knows” it and is just disobeying to spite them! (This is definitely incorrect.)
Maybe this expectation stems from our “want it now, get it now” culture. We are an impatient species these days.
Wherever it comes from, it’s not helpful.
No good training uses dire (scary, harmful, painful) consequences to teach new behaviors like sitting, coming when called, or lying down. When we want a behavior to continue, we use pleasant consequences after it occurs (or we help it to occur). Since we are not using dire consequences, we will need multiple repetitions to get the dog to a place of mastery. These multiple repetitions should happen over a period of days, weeks, even months. There is no humane way to get “one-trial learning” of a positive behavior like “come.” It takes the time it takes, with multiple reps in “easy” locations, then in different locations under different conditions, so that the dog understands.
This is textbook learning theory, and there aren’t any shortcuts that work. Dog training takes patience, just like learning to throw a ball. Practice daily, reward small successes, and give it time to work, just like your parents, teachers, coaches and friends did with you.
The relationship that blossoms with your dog may surprise you.