Why You Should Care About the Stages of Learning

Learning is a process. A huge, daunting, amazingly complex, lifelong process. We send humans to school for 12+ years knowing this even if we don’t understand the inner workings of it. But when it comes to our furry companions, we seem to forget how long learning actually takes.  I regularly hear people boasting about their animals saying, “He’s so smart. He learned “sit” in just 5 minutes!” While I love the enthusiasm and pride that go along with this statement it’s not that simple. Don’t believe me? Let’s replace a few words and see if it still makes sense: “My 2-year-old child is so smart. He learned how to put his toys away in just 5 minutes!” Sounds near impossible, right? There’s a reason for that.

The animals in these statements (yep, humans count as animals) have completed half of the stages of learning but it’s usually impossible to get through all of them in 5 minutes. Very few things that we learn happen in a single event; it takes time and repetition for learning to truly sink in in most situations. Unfortunately for our pets, this fallacy in our thinking can (and often does) lead to later statements of, “He knows sit but is just stubborn.” Or, “He only listens when he feels like it.” We assume that our pet knows sit inside and out and so it must be a problem with the pet, not with the learning process. (To be fair, we also do this with humans. In grade school I was told girls are bad at math. For the next 10 years I struggled with math, thinking I was bad at it, while consistently getting high grades. Once realizing this internalized statement was the culprit, I recognized that math was one of my best and most enjoyable subjects.)

Knowing our pets’ stages of learning sets us up to accurately identify their behavior and recognize shortcomings for what they truly are and not what we think they are. Let’s skim the surface of these stages. We’ll delve more into these in future posts!

  1. Acquisition
    • This is where your pet is just learning how to perform the behavior.
    • No cue (ie: saying “sit”) yet! We’ll add that in later.
  2. Fluency
    • Your pet can consistently perform the behavior.
    • We’re adding the cue and our pet can now respond when cued 80-90% of the time.
    • This is where most people stop training their pets!
  3. Proofing/Generalization (they can, and are, used interchangeably)
    • This involves teaching your pet to perform a behavior in a variety of situations, including proofing through the 5 Ds:
      • Duration
      • Distractions
      • Distance
      • Different People
      • Different Places
    • This stage takes quite a lot of repetition. Without it your pet will not be able to reliably respond in various scenarios.
    • Check out our videos on proofing below!
      • Part 1: What is it and why should I care?
      • Part 2: How to proof your pet’s behavior.
  4. Maintenance
    • Use it or lose it applies to all species.
    • We’re now using random, intermittent reinforcement to continue the behavior.

What now?

Think about a cue you’ve taught your pet that they don’t listen to as reliably as you’d like. Did you make it past the fluency stage? How much did you proof it? Have you put it on a maintenance schedule or have they not been expected to perform it for months at a time? At which stage has the behavior fallen apart? Now that you’ve identified the troublesome stage it’s time to get training!