Types of Learning and The Associative Nature Of Canine Learning

Publishing Author : Jay Gray

Date Published : 28/09/18


Episodic Types of Learning in Humans

Throughout psychology, we have come to understand that there are many different methods of learning and they all have their place in different teaching methods, with different students.  With that said, however, we have come to understand that dogs and humans do not learn in the same manner.

Humans, as we will discuss in further detail throughout this paper, are episodic learners, whilst dogs are associative learners.  The misunderstanding of this information leaves many owners frustrated and many dogs confused.  The clarity of the communication between dog and owner is paramount for progress to be made in any training situation.  Without this people struggle for the results they desire, and the entire process becomes an uphill battle between dog and owner.

Before we jump into understanding how canine’s learn, it is important to understand how we as humans learn, and this is more important than one may initially think because not only does it depend on how a person best retains information but it also determines how a person recalls information, represents memories within their own mind and can even dictate the word choices in speech when portraying said information.  Most studies will break down human learning habits into seven categories: Visual, Aural, Verbal, Physical, Logical, Social and Solitary.  All humans have a preferred way of learning that falls into one of these seven categories.

Visual Learners are naturally visual by nature and they will find it much easier when taught with as many pictures as possible including imagery for the explanation of concepts rather than verbal words or text on a page.  Visual Learners when unable to intake photographic information can often find it useful to jot down key points of a passage of text in order to register and retain the information more successfully.  Visual Learners will also often retain information as pictures rather than as the written word.

Aural Learners respond to and retain information best through some kind of sound which is often musical in nature.  This can be difficult when teaching scientific based courses such as Physics or Mathematics but there are options in how to learn in this manner if one thinks outside of the box.  There is a distinct difference between Aural and Verbal learners as we will explain now.

Verbal Learners respond well to the spoken word over the written word or pictures.  These are the people who will find it best to sit and discuss their learning objectives to best retain the information.  Verbal learners often do well in lecture-based settings.  Furthermore, people who are verbal learners may learn well from word play games such as acronyms or mnemonic devices.

Physical Learners are learners that will often go on to work with their hands.  They understand the world around them by touching it, building and dismantling things etc.  For Physical Learners having to understand theoretical work, it helps for them to understand the feeling associated with things and going through the motions of how things are put together, whether that be an equation or a radio.

Logical learners enjoy puzzles and lists etc. They are naturally suited to more logical subjects such as mathematics or physiology. Logical learners are often naturally leader like in their characteristics and enjoy their data to be in a neat, orderly fashion.

On top of these five initial learners there are two sub categories which is why there were seven listed in the original statement.  The final two are Social Learners and Solitary Learners.  The reason I have separated these from the rest of the groupings is because Social and Solitary Learners can also be dominant in another area.  For example, one could be a Solitary Logical Learner.  Social Learners enjoy learning in a group of people where they can discuss and debate their ideas whilst Solitary Learners prefer to be alone, internalising the information they are trying to retain.

All seven of these learning types are examples of episodic learning.  They involve the learner to understand complex rational thought in order to process this thought and turn it into a memory.  For example: When a human goes to a French class they can recall the entirety (or a vast majority of) the picture in question.  They can think about where the class took place, what the teacher was called, what they were wearing and on top of that they can associate the words and phrases used whilst being taught.  We can remember complete episodic sequences and we can learn in an associative manner, but we are primarily an episodic learning animal.  Dogs, on the other hand, are much the opposite.


Associative Learning and The Canine Mind

It is important to properly learn about how the human mind works before one delves into the canine mind.  This understanding allows a further understanding of learning overviews to paint a clearer picture in the communication between canine and human.  As outlined in the above factors, humans learn by episodic learning and memory and canines learn almost primarily by associative learning and memory.  Following, are a few examples of associative learning in everyday canine life.

The first example is one that many people will be familiar with during their daily routine.  When the owner of a dog picks up the dog’s lead, the dog will very often exhibit excitement, over arousal or high energy behaviours.  The second example will be a negative associative learning experience for the dog.  As a pre-requisite to this example it is implied that the crate in question should be taught correctly to avoid this association but let us assume that this was not the case.  If the dog was thrown into a crate every day before the owners leave work for ten hours, the dog may show signs of discomfort, stress or even fear when he or she hears the banging of the crate door.

As you can see, association can work in both directions across the negative and positive spectrum.  This is something that many trainers are using in their training in every day life without even fully understanding it.  It is vitally important to fully understand why these behaviours occur in order to manipulate the external stimulus and the ratios of reward and punishment to properly help the dog learn.  Please note, punishment and reward are in reference to the quadrants of operant conditioning, not in reference to the usual terminology in the English language.

These examples are actually the outcome of an accidental training scenario that has been input into the dog over a repetition of the behaviour over a number of weeks or months. By understanding this we can attach associative learning to any behaviour and desired outcome that we wish.  It allows an endless stream of behaviours to be taught just by associating them to external stimulus, command or instruction or even reward.

Ivan Pavlov is the most famous person in history to discover this realisation with his Classical Conditioning studies, commonly known as Pavlov’s Dog.  This topic will be covered in more detail in a later paper investigating the history of Ivan Pavlov and his studies.  In short, Pavlov was studying the salivation in dogs in response to being fed.  He would ring a bell and feed the dog for a repeated amount of time.  He would measure the salivation from the dog.  As the experiment progressed he would stop feeding the dogs but measure the salivation before the meat was shown.  What he found was that the ringing of the bell was enough to cause the dogs to salivate.  They had associated the sound of the bell with the receiving of the meat and thus, Classical Conditioning and Clicker Training as we know it today was born.


Examples of Associative Learning in Training

Understanding the concepts of canine learning alone are not that important to many canine professionals.  The importance arrives in the implementation of these methods and techniques.  Within training circles, half of the professional trainers only use classical conditioning alongside positive reinforcement in their training.  Although not recommended alone, these are the most obvious examples of Canine Learning and how associative behaviour translates into real world behaviours.

Teaching a dog even the simplest behaviours involves associative memory and learning.  As an example, when a trainer teaches a dog to sit, they must first gain the dogs engagement and attention, which is a foundation based in association.  The dog associates that paying attention to the trainer brings a reward (usually food).  Thus, repeating the behaviour more often to gain the reward more frequently.  After this step, the trainer will lure the dog into a position and mark the behaviour (either with a clicker or a verbal reward marker which also needs associating before any training can start in this area).  After the dog has been successfully lured multiple times, the dog will again associate the arrival of reward with the physical mechanics of sitting down.  Over time, this becomes instilled and then the final association to a command has to be made.  The trainer will say a word, then lure the dog, mark and reward.  As time goes on the lure is faded out gradually until it is replaced only by the single word.

Over a period of several sessions the dog has undertaken a journey from no understanding about the behaviour in question into associating several minor behaviours cumulating in a final behaviour that was desired from the start.


Dogs Do Not Think Like Humans

Encasing the information inside this paper, it is still important to understand that dogs and humans do not think in the same way.  This transfers over to training, when one understands that they can begin to rationalise themselves how their dog is learning.  A dog does not truly understand the logic behind any command, whether that be extremely basic or as advanced as is possible, they are merely associating actions and stimulus in their outside world with a positive or negative consequence.

Looking into this in slightly more detail we can see that our dogs are not rationalising any behaviour they perform in the outside world.  If they are barking at other dogs (commonly known as reactivity) it is the direct result of an association.  The job of a good trainer is to understand and unearth what these associations are and how to deal with them.  In this case it could be an association to the other dog causing them pain, it could be an association to anxiety or it could be an association to extreme excitement.  This is why it is vitally important for all trainers to understand all aspects of Canine Science including Canine Body Language and Psychology.

Once a trainer can pin point the associations being made (or the lack of associations thereof) they can begin to counter condition these associations into new ones that produce a more desired end result and behaviour.

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