Emotions Are Part of the Learning Process

Blog post also published in Speaking of Dogs May 2016 Newsletter.

As humans we have all experienced how emotions affect our ability to learn. For example, think back to when you were learning a new language at school: if you were feeling happy and your teacher was encouraging and supportive, you put time and effort into mastering the skill so you could put it to good use. And even now, when you speak that particular language it may bring back good memories and feelings.Photo: Aino Mutka

On the other hand, if you were always feeling tired and cranky when going to class, and on top of that the teacher scolded you when you made a mistake and shamed you in front of the whole class, you probably started to dislike the new language and had no desire to use it then and still have no desire to use it now.

These same concepts apply to dog training. Why do dogs absolutely love offering us tricks but getting them to sit sometimes takes several repetitions of the cue (and even then the dog only offers the behaviour really slowly). One reason for this can be how both the dog and the person are feeling when practising these behaviours. We train tricks, such as shake a paw or rollover, when we are feeling happy and usually ask for them proudly so the dog can show them off as a party trick. We then, of course, also tend to lavish the dog with tasty treats.

However, we usually train behaviours such as sit quite differently. We often ask for such behaviours quickly and in situations when the dog may be feeling stressed. For example, when a reactive dog sees another dog and starts barking and lunging or when an overly exuberant greeter tries to jump on people in an attempt to get attention, us humans will often start yelling “sit” and keep yelling it until we get the desired behaviour. In other words, to prevent behaviours from getting unwanted “emotional baggage,” it is important to first train them to fluency when the dog is feeling relaxed and receptive to learning.

It is important to remember that “relaxed” and “receptive to learning” are conditions determined by the dog, not by us: if asking the dog to do a sit on a busy street corner only gets you a wide-eyed stare and lots of stress signals, there is no point in asking them to do it. A more effective approach is to practise first in calmer surroundings. Also, if you’ve had a stressful day and are feeling tense, it might be better to just postpone the training session until you are feeling better, as your dog will be able to sense your foul mood.

Lately, one context in which I have been thinking about emotions as part of learning is conditioning reactive dogs to their triggers. When training reactive dogs, we do a lot of desensitization and counterconditioning to change the dog’s emotional associations toward their triggers (such as other dogs or people). When the dog sees a trigger, we feed them amazing treats, and when the trigger goes away so does the food. When training reactive dogs, we’re always very careful to only train when the dog is calm and not yet in a reactive state of mind. Eventually the dog will start to associate the food with the trigger, and they will begin to orient toward us, expecting the food. This is called a conditioned emotional response (CER) or “auto-watch,” and it means the dog actually feels good when they see the trigger.

Achieving a calm learning environment for counter-conditioning can be difficult in urban environments, where everything is so unpredictable. Often, we end up feeding the dog when they are already feeling stressed. Sometimes the stress diffuses because they’re getting the very best of the best food and they start to feel better and offer the CER. At other times, however, the process can backfire: even though the dog eats when they see the trigger, it may just be a reflex, and the sight of the trigger is still overwhelming them. A lot of trainers (including myself) will say that you cannot increase fear, stress, or frustration by feeding the dog when they are already experiencing those feelings. As such, you may think feeding a stressed-out dog does not actually cause any harm. However, I have come to believe that even though feeding a stressed dog does not increase their fear, stress, or frustration, we will still not get the desired result as the dog is unable to relax because of the stress hormones running through their system.

You may still get the “auto-watch” back toward you, but it ends up being just a learned behaviour: “I disengage and then I get food, but I’m still feeling pretty stressed and worried about the dog staring at me.” Therefore, doing counter-conditioning first in controlled settings, where we can control the proximity of the trigger and make sure that the dog stays relaxed, is key to ensuring the dog has a happy learning experience and is in the right state of mind to repeat the behaviour when prompted.

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