Poodle reading a bookI have had numerous conversations of late, with clients and other trainers, on the topic of Learner-controlled Learning. It is something I am very strongly in favor of, as a force-free trainer. Now, before you assume I’m advocating chaos and subversion, let me explain what I mean.

Has anyone ever forced (or rather, attempted to force) you into learning something? I expect you resisted the process and you never became truly conversant in the subject of the lesson. A teaching session becomes forced when the teacher is controlling everything about it, without regard to your state of mind or preferred style of learning. I’ll bet you can remember at least one such occasion when you thought to yourself, “It would have been so much more effective for me if only . . . “ I’m not anthropomorphic when I make this analogy to human learning. Behavior principles that are true for humans are true for many other species on this planet—including dogs.

The perspective behind Learner-controlled Learning is that the dog learns more effectively, because she’s in control of the learning process. There are several tenets to this training approach:

  • You are still the one guiding the learning objectives, on the grand scale.
  • You work to the dog’s capacity to learn. This means duration of the learning session, the challenge level of the learning, and the teaching method you use.
  • It is not a directive approach, where you decide exactly how, what and when the dog is going to learn and then pursue it. It isn’t a hard and fast plan.
  • It is a give-and-take engagement. You give feedback to the dog for her behavior and she adapts her behavior according to how she perceives the feedback. Then you adapt to her modified behavior.
  • Capturing and shaping are critical components to successful outcomes of this method.
  • This is a great method for standard training goals; and an exceptional method for modification of problematic behaviors.

Let me put this into some real world context.

Scenario One: I have met many dogs who just cannot be lured into a Down position. It doesn’t matter which of my several luring methods I use, they just aren’t going to do it on my terms. For these dogs, I have to “capture” a Down, meaning that as soon as they do it on their own, I have to be ready to mark and reward it. Yes, this means I am not in control of the learning process and it may take longer than I want it to. So what are my options? Well, I could force the dog into a Down, either by pushing the dog to the ground or by jerking the leash down and holding it there. In this approach, what has the dog learned? First, she hasn’t learned a Down; she’s learned that I am bully and she can’t trust me, and she won’t want to learn from me. Second, she may learn to fear (a.) my hands, (b.) the leash, and/or (c.) the word Down (also known as a “poisoned cue”). Alternatively, you give the dog control and as soon as she gets the idea that laying down is going to work out really well for her, the learning curve speeds up and she will be offering Downs like a champ.

Scenario Two: We’ve all met high-energy dogs that seem to have the attention span of a nanosecond. I relate well to these dogs on a personal level. My attention span tends toward the short end of the spectrum, and I fall victim to Shiny Penny Syndrome more often than I care to admit. These are the dogs that tend to be most vocal and demanding in group classes. An entire hour can be just too long for them. They get bored or overwhelmed and find other outlets for their energy: barking at other dogs, grabbing at their humans, sniffing every square inch of the floor, etc. It is fruitless to try to force them into a set lesson plan. We have to modify our training approach for these dogs:

  • Fewer repetitions and shorter durations
  • Intersperse training moments with recreational moments (toys, Kongs, Find It games, etc.)
  • Flipping to different behavior focuses throughout the class

Accommodating their pace of learning will yield far greater results.

Scenario Three: Have you ever had a fearful dog or know someone who does? Fear is responsible for numerous problematic behaviors. It doesn’t matter whether the dog has a genetic pre-disposition to fear; was poorly socialized as a puppy; or has had one or more bad experiences that caused her to be fearful. The dog is not in control of her fear. It exists on a physiological level. Forcing a fearful dog to do things she is afraid of will often result in biting, destructive, disruptive, and other anti-social behavior. But when the dog knows she’s in control of her comfort level, she’s far less likely to engage in these problematic behaviors. Take, for example, meeting new people. If your dog is hesitant to engage, dragging her up to someone will likely increase her fear and sense of helplessness. On the other hand, capturing and rewarding her looking at, taking a step toward and air scenting the person will reinforce those Acts of Bravery. Then let her retreat to relieve stress and recharge to try again. Many a fearful dog has learned to live a well-adjusted life by giving her control of her environment.

I understand the resistance to this Learner-controlled Learning approach. We want behavior change as quickly as possible. But as I’ve posted before: there are no quick fixes. Behavior change takes time. And if you want a loving, joyful, spirited dog who relishes learning from you, give her control over the learning process. In the long run, you’ll both be happy with the results.