The Power of Observational Learning
Observational learning (known also as social learning theory) is a topic I so rarely see tackled within the dog training world. Yet the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” is precisely this. People are careful not to swear in front of their parrots that can learn words, because they might hear those words repeated back at them. People often expound the benefits of letting dogs learn from their mother and siblings. And trainers will often tell you to make sure your current dog(s) behavior is at a place where you want it before adding a new dog, lest the newcomer learn your other dogs’ bad habits.
But what about harnessing that learning process to make your lives easier? Anubi is an impatient worker. He doesn’t enjoy shaping. He gets annoyed with all the fumbling about that luring entails. He doesn’t particularly care about food or toys overly much. He wants to work and have a job, which for him is a reward in and of itself. So when I first needed to teach him how to retrieve a ball for flyball (a behavior that doesn’t come naturally to most sighthounds) I took out Argos, who has always loved playing ball. I would put Anubi in a down and play fetch with Argos, then I’d give Anubi a turn. Within a couple weeks, he has returning with a ball every single time. And within a few more weeks, he was getting a dead (placed, not rolled) ball fifty feet away. Just letting Anu watch and learn what I wanted did all the work for me. I have to be careful when at an agility trial, if he watches a dog run the course wrong, he’ll wrong it wrong the same way. If I let him watch dogs run coursing before his turn, he’ll cheat the turns early. I often use him as a bye dog to certify young dogs to be able to run him with competition, when I do this, I also know he’s likely to anticipate the lure the next time he runs it unless they swap the direction of the course.
Like different types of learning, observational learning doesn’t work well for all dogs. Amidi will happily play shaping games with you all day. Whereas, Amalu just wants you to lure her through the motions and then fade the lure. But I have found, particularly with insecure dogs that needs confidence, pairing them with dogs that are confident and know your expectations if a good way to build confidence. I quite often will take my training dogs that need more confidence on pack hikes with my dogs (training dogs stay on a long line). Where their owner would expect their dog to spook or run away, generally, the new dog follows along, taking their cues from other dogs and almost always sticking very very close to me, not sure what to expect.
I once was working a Great Dane who was deaf and had limited vision (she was double merle, which is a problem that carries with it a host of health problems). We were using low level e-collar as a prompt once she knew behaviors, but getting her to learn those behaviors was challenging at times. She knew Sit quite well, but her owner wanted her to learn how to lie down on her Place. I struggled with luring and guiding leash pressure with her for a couple dates until I noted her watching a co-worker training with a dog across the room. I immediately went and got one of the other dogs I was working that day, one who had excellent manners and knew the behaviors I wanted. I asked for several Downs first. Then with light leash pressure, the Great Dane started to copy the other dog. Within minutes I’d accomplished the first part of my task that had previously taken days. From there we started adding in a Place behavior, on a raised platform to help the Great Dane feel where I wanted her to go. By the end of her time training with us (four weeks total), she was able to go to a designated place and lie down.
I never want to raise puppies without adult dogs who know the ropes. They make my job so much easier. My puppies quickly adjust and Amalu was doing light, easy demo work with me by six months old. This is part of why, working with a trainer that has solid demo dogs, especially when you don’t have a live-in good role model for your new dog, can be so valuable.