Latent learning happens when an animal (or human) stores information in its long-term memory and displays this knowledge, when needed, at a later date.
Latent learning is particularly effective when a dog is learning a new behaviour. It enables the dog on subsequent occasions to have a clear memory of the successful way it did the training by recognising the triggers it learnt to gain its reward.
The most effective way of achieving latent learning is by providing quiet reflective time immediately after the event so that the brain has the opportunity to -
- Absorb the information without distraction otherwise it
may not have time to realise the connection between the behaviour
it has just done, and the reward it was given immediately
afterwards. This is why training one exercise at a time is so much
more effective than teaching a dog a number of different behaviours
in one session. For instance, if a puppy is taught "Sit", "Come",
and to do "Loose Lead" walking all in the one lesson - it will only
latently learn the lead walking part of the lesson and may even
begin to see the lead as a stressful trigger as it was confused and
tired by all the new commands, exercises and the training
- Assess the importance of the event to see whether the
event was rewarding, or threatened the dog's safety (see Memory). Dogs find latent learning particularly
difficult when they are stressed as the
high levels of adrenalin effect their ability to concentrate and
- Store the triggers and/or
environmental photo in its long-term memory OR
- Forget the information it has assessed if the event is neither rewarding nor worth being stressed or worried about.
- Only teach ONE EXERCISE in a training session
For instance, when teaching a dog to consistently come to you when called (see Recall), do not ask it to "sit" when it arrives at your feet - it will link the final command (Sit) with the reward rather than the behaviour of running to you, which you are trying to train.
- Teach the dog a maximum of FIVE ATTEMPTS in a session
Keep the training sessions short. I have always found that repetitions of over 5 times always end in failure(!) either because the dog becomes bored, it tires and cannot concentrate, or we humans ask too much from the dog by expecting it to progress too quickly in the training session.
- Once the dog has fully understood what is expected of it, further
steps can be added to the dog's Training Program
By teaching the dog in small manageable steps that it learns and retains in its long-term memory by latent learning, the dog has such a firm foundation on what it has been taught that subsequent short training sessions can progress with the dog being confident of what is expected of it. These dogs rise to the challenge of more difficult exercises being taught to it through this well-founded confidence. For instance, by first teaching the dog to Recall Bronze standard, then doing the same exercise over jumps (Bounce), then teaching it to retrieve (Hand), we can then combine all the exercises together to do the complicated chain of behaviours such as Bounce & Hand.
- Manage the end of the training session so that the dog is NOT DISTRACTED (points 5 -11)
- Avoid excessively talking to the dog
The dog has just been concentrating on the handler's body signals and vocal commands in the training session and will still be in "standby mode", waiting to see if it will be given further commands. Some dogs can become concerned by their handler's sudden silence (they are used to the handlers chattering away!) and in these cases I encourage the handlers to hum a little tune as they walk back to their car - both dog and handler seem to enjoy it!
- Try to avoid making eye contact with the dog (it is not easy!)
Attention (eye contact) is a very high value life reward for dogs and can distract them - stimulating them to produce various types of behaviour in order to gain further attention (eg. Barking). Whatever it has just learnt in the training session will then be "forgotten" as it tries to keep your attention.
- "To sniff or not to sniff - that is the question....?"
Some dogs benefit from being allowed to go off and explore the training area with their noses before being put back on a lead - it helps them to unwind and begin the latent learning process. Other dogs would be distracted by this freedom to explore and are best being put straight on to the lead and walked calmly out of the training area.
- Do not walk your dog past other dogs as you walk back to your car
These dogs may enter your dog's "personal space" causing it concern as it walks past them. Also nearby dogs will be displaying communication and/or stress signals which will flood your dog's brain with loads of information and stop it latently learning what you have just taught it in the training session. If it is not possible to avoid passing other dogs (such as an indoor training venue) the trainer should encourage the other dog handlers to either keep the other dogs away from the door or, more ideally, ask them to wait outside until it is their turn to train (see 10 & 11).
- All alone......
Some dogs which have high levels of long-term stress find even the sight of another dog in the distance too distracting for them to cope with as they leave the training area. In these instances they are best trained either at the very start or very end of the day's training when the other dogs are not in the vicinity. I strongly recommend that trainers always arrange to have a dog's very first training session by itself at the end of the training session, when all the other dogs and humans have left. This then gives the trainer the ideal opportunity to assess the new dog with the least amount of environmental distractions as possible in this first training session, and see if the dog is showing signs of long-term stress even in this apparently calm and relaxed atmosphere.
- Screened and well-ventilated cars
The best place for dogs to stay both before and straight after a training session is in the owner's car. The dog is very familiar with this environment, will feel safe from any "dangers" and feel able to relax and recall what it has just learnt.
- Quiet time
However, not all dogs can cope with being left alone in their cars - some even regard it as a punishment to suddenly be put in "solitary confinement" after having so much fun with their handler in the training session. For these dogs (see Alternatives) I encourage the handlers to go off to some quiet corner of the venue so that the dog can unwind by having a good sniff around and relieving itself, while the handler silently holds the loose lead and wanders wherever the dog wishes to go. This quiet time helps the dog to relax and unwind and promotes latent learning. This quiet time does not necessarily have to take very long (eg. 5 minutes or so) and can often be sufficient for the dog to happily return to its car without becoming stressed at being left there.
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