Using dog-friendly methods to train your dog requires rewarding him a lot. This speeds up
the training process and enhances learning because dogs do more of what they get
rewarded for. In other words, if you give your dog a tasty treat or play with him every
single time he comes to you, he’ll come to you more often. But it’s also true that
rewarding him for the rest of his life isn’t necessary and, in fact, may be
counterproductive. This is because the longer he is rewarded for complying with your cues
the more prone he will be to no longer comply if they are no longer forthcoming.
At this point you may be wondering why the very things that keep him complying are the
ones that may cause him to stop complying! The trick is to know at what stage of the
training process you need to switch to intermittent rewarding and then stop it altogether.
In order to know that, it’s important to become acquainted with the various stages of
learning.
A learning process goes through 4 stages: acquisition, fluency, generalization and
maintenance. For learning to be optimal, you should reward your dog every single time he
complies with a cue during the acquisition, fluency and generalization stages, and switch
to intermittent rewards during the maintenance stage. But what does all of this mean?
Let’s understand the 4 stages one by one.
Acquisition: this is the first stage in the learning process and is characterized by your dog
learning to associate a cue (command is an outdated term) with a behavior and the
behavior with a reward. For example, sitting when you give him the “sit” cue and getting a
treat for it. At first he may hesitate, respond slowly or not complete the sitting movement.
This is because he needs many repetitions of the cue –» behavior sequence. No matter
how clumsily he may sit, reward him every single time he responds to the “sit” cue.
Fluency: this is the second stage of the learning process and at this point your dog will
start offering immediate responses. In other words, he will respond faster to the “sit” cue
and will sit in one smooth and continuous movement. But his responses are likely to be
limited to the place or quiet environments where you usually train him.
Generalization: by now your dog has an immediate response to the “sit” cue and does it
fluently, but not everywhere. The generalization stage is when he learns to respond to
your cues any place and in any situation you want him to. This means responding
regardless of you standing and facing him or sitting when you cue him, and regardless of
being in a quiet room or in a park full of distractions. Carry on rewarding him every single
time he does anything you ask him to.
The main reasons why it is so important to give your dog a treat or briefly play with him
every single time he responds to your cues during these three stages of learning are: a) to

ensure the behavior becomes part of your dog’s behavioral repertoire; b) as he has
learned to expect a reward every time he responds to your cues, he may stop complying if
you suddenly stop rewarding him. This doesn’t mean he has become addicted to treats or
other rewards, as some people are falsely led to believe. Expecting something isn’t the
same as being addicted to it!
Maintenance: this is the last stage of a learning process. By now the behavior is well
acquired and generalized – we can say it has become part of your dog’s behavioral
repertoire – and needs to be maintained by intermittent rewards. In other words, the
maintenance stage is characterized by your dog being rewarded sometimes only and at
random and still doing what you ask him to do. This is because at this stage he learns to
expect rewards sometimes and to not expect them other times. Because he will still
respond despite no longer being rewarded every time you should gradually, very
gradually, stop rewarding. As a rule of thumb, I advise my clients to reduce rewards over a
4 week period.

Troubleshooting

 The behavior falls apart and your dog no longer performs it. Go back to rewarding
him every time he complies with your cues and then reduce it more gradually than
before.
 Your dog sits anywhere at home but not in a busy park. Make the generalization
process more gradual. For example, instead of transitioning from training at home
to training in the park, transition to the front door of the building where you live
(or just outside of your front door if you live in a house), to a quiet road, to a
slightly busier one, to a new neighborhood, to the park when it’s quiet and then
when it’s busy.
 Your dog doesn’t accept treats when outdoors. Opt for very delicious treats, and
make sure he’s not stressed or afraid of something in the environment.

  • Alexandra Santos –

THE STAGES OF LEARNING

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