long term memory -"BAD"

This page contains: -

  • Long Term Memory - "Bad"

  • Long Term Memory - "Boring"

When a dog has a very unpleasant experience (or an unpleasant one that is repeated until the dog associates it as being a very unpleasant), it stores the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures of the environment in its long-term memory by making an environmental photo.


When it recognises the same "photo" in the same or similar circumstances the dog will display various calming signals both to its owner and to the dogs around it in order to avoid conflict. It will also feel a very strong desire to avoid and escape the situation it finds itself in. If the dog has no escape route available (ie the handler does not recognise the dog's body language and calming signals, and prevents the dog moving to a more manageable distance from the "threat") it will resort to more drastic measures to resolve the situation -


SNARLING - GROWLING - BARKING - LUNGING - SNAPPING = NIPPING and eventually BITING - either at the perceived "threat" or the closest thing to its mouth (often the handler).


If a dog is prevented from using any of these steps of the ladder (particularly the lower ones such as snarling, growling or barking) the dog has no option but to go further up the ladder to make the threat go away. This is why aversion techniques that prevent dogs from barking (such as squirting them with water, or collars that squirt citronella) can result in the dog resorting to more unacceptable behaviour (lunging, snapping & biting) to try to avoid the perceived threat.


The only humane and lasting answer to overcome these behaviours that have been triggered by its long-term memory is to manage the dog's lifestyle and environment, and gradually introduce the dog to situations that it can cope with (carefully monitoring its body language and signals), giving the dog new positive associations of the environmental photo by offering it rewards that it enjoys.


Once again, using the same example that we used previously, below is an example of the drawbacks of long-term memory if the dog assesses the Event as threatening or unpleasant, combined with positive long-term memories that reinforce unwanted behaviour -


The very first time a dog goes to a new training venue


The dog enters the venue and finds a number of other dogs already there. It feels overwhelmed by the close proximity of these dogs and can see, smell and hear their stress (pheromones) as they try to cope with the situation that they also cannot escape from.


The dog becomes anxious and makes bigger and stronger calming signals to its handler and the other dogs to try to resolve the situation. This does not work and the dog still feels trapped in a situation that it cannot cope with.


So the dog becomes defensive and starts to bark a territorial warning to the other dogs in the hope of keeping them at a safe distance. The barking attracts the handler's attention (remember that even this sort of attention is a high value REWARD to the dog) so that he either handles, speaks or looks at the dog in an attempt to stop the dog barking. The dog perceives the act of barking as a rewarding behaviour while also being a useful tool to deter other dogs coming too close to it and its handler.


Eventually the dog is taken out of the situation at the end of the lesson (this is yet another reward to the dog for barking as it has now escaped the whole stressful situation).


The environmental photo that the dog will retain in its long-term memory will be the sights, scents, and sounds at the venue, the tastes of the food that was given to it as a reward while being trained, and touch/texture of the surface it walked on. These will trigger the dog into feeling stressed, trapped and anxious whenever it enters the training venue. These stressful symptoms will prevent the dog retaining anything it learns in its long-term memory and it will find the whole training experience very unpleasant. The dog will also repeat the rewarding behaviour it learnt in the first visit - barking - as this results in the handler's (and others at the venue) attention and eventually escape back to the car.


Another drawback from this first experience of training is that the dog may generalise some of the senses that triggered the "photo". It may feel stressed -

  •      when doing the exercise elsewhere

  •      when given the same reward it was given at the venue

  •      when hearing or seeing the other dogs in the class elsewhere (or dogs similar to them)

  •      when it smells the stress pheromones similar to those it detected on that first occasion.




When a dog finds an experience boring, tedious or irrelevant to its day-to-day survival or safety, it either FORGETS the whole incident or stores the environmental photo in its long-term memory so that when its senses detect a similar "photo" it will recognise the Event as being boring and trivial. The dog will ignore the Event and "do it's own thing".


For instance, if the Handler uses the dog's name for lots of different reasons: -

  • eventually the dog will ignore the sound of its name as it seems to have no or no relevance to the dog; in other words, it does not recognise its own name as a signal to look for the Handler
  • Lodgers often have a number of boring "photos" stored in their long-term memories and and this is why they become very withdrawn and introverted with the humans and dogs around them

Following on the example below is an example of what happens if the dog assesses the Event as boring or irrelevant -


    The very first time a dog goes to a new training venue


The dog is intrigued by the presence of all the humans and dogs at the venue. It tries to do calming signals to greet the other dogs but they seem unable or unwilling to respond (probably because they are restricted by their leads, or are too stressed to notice the dog's body language).


All the humans seem to be talking and listening to one another most of the time, which the dog has learnt since puppyhood to be a "Boring" environmental photo as humans never interact with their dogs while talking to one another.


The dog finds the whole situation unrewarding and even though its handler occasionally rises from their seat to do an exercise with the dog, it decides it is far easier just to "switch off" and wait until it is time to go home.


The dog stores all the environmental information of the situation as a "photo" and retains it in its long-term memory. On subsequent visits to the training venue the dog will compare what it detects from its senses with the "photo" is has in its memory and will automatically loose interest - it is now programmed to see dog training as boring.


This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).


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