Friday, January 31, 2014

Free Play vs. Rote Learning

Are We Putting too Much Pressure on Puppies to Learn Obedience too Soon?
Originally published in slightly different form at, on 11/12, 2010.

“I have spent the past few years puzzling over why dog training is no longer working that well. Today there is much more management and less reliability...” - Dr. Ian Dunbar.

Oddly enough, the reason for this downward trend in the effectiveness of dog training may be due to one of Dr. Dunbar’s own pet projects: getting as many puppies enrolled into obedience classes as early and as young as possible. In his book, Before and After Getting Your Puppy, Dunbar writes, “From the first day you get your puppy, the clock is ticking ... everything needs to be taught right away.”

Could teaching obedience skills at too early an age be one of the reasons dog training “is no longer working that well?”

In a recent article here, Dr. Peter Gray tells the story of L. P. Benezet, a superintendent of schools in Manchester, N. H., in the 1920s and 30s, who believed that teaching arithmetic to grammar school kids too early was worse than a wasted effort; it taught poor learning and reasoning.

Benezet proposed that if students were not taught any but the most practical math skills—measuring and counting—until the sixth or seventh grade, they would learn math with less effort and greater understanding. He then performed an experiment, which proved conclusively that he was right. By not teaching rote mathematical algorithms, multiplication tables, and the like, the students in the non-math classes eventually performed much better, not just in overall reasoning skills, but in math as well.

In a similar vein, fellow PT blogger and neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas says parents should wait to teach children certain cognitive skills, and focus instead on establishing an emotional connection, providing the infant with healthy feelings of attachment and belonging. 

In her blog article, “Your Baby Shouldn’t Read,” Lucas lists twelve abilities that will help kids to grow up to be well-balanced and well-balanced adults, and that she thinks should take precedence over teaching reading skills too early. Among them are, the ability to sustain attention, better management of emotions, decreased anxiety, better social relationships, greater confidence, and several others that could be applied to puppies as well as toddlers. 

What’s the best way to achieve these goals? 

I think the simplest answer is through free play.

Ian Dunbar again: “Play and especially play-fighting and play-biting during puppyhood are absolutely essential for the development of bite inhibition and a soft mouth.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens at most puppy obedience classes. The puppies—whose developmental needs insist on not letting them stay focused on one thing for very longare forced to do just that, and are taught, by rote repetition, how to “obey.” Then, when the pup reaches adolescence, everything he learned in puppy class has to be re-taught, almost as if he’d never learned it in the first place.

Many moderators of such classes shrug, “That’s just how it works. You always have to keep teaching obedience skills throughout the dog’s life.”

This isn’t true! In actual fact if you wait to train your dog until he’s at least 6 mos. of age, then just like Benezet’s math students, the pups will absorb their obedience lessons much quicker, and they rarely forget anything they’ve learned, as long as it’s part of a game!

There are two reasons puppies who were stars at their obedience classes “forget” their lessons when they reach adolescence. 1) Their little minds, bodies and emotions aren’t ready to learn things like the “down/stay” or how to “heel.” And 2) by the time they reach 6 mos. or so their brains have gone through a process called neural pruning, where much of what they “learned” when they were younger goes pffft! and disappears.

Evolutionary biologist Raymond Coppinger compares the cognitive differences between a neo-natal pup and an adolescent dog to the difference between a caterpillar and butterfly, as if he were talking about two different animals. He even says that the difference can be seen in how the neonatal, “sucking” skull, becomes resorbed into the adult, predatory skull. This strongly suggests that obedience skills (most of which are analogues of the predatory motor patterns of adult wolves) shouldn’t be taught to puppies until after we see a complete transformation from the puppy to the adult skull, which happens roughly around 7 - 8 mos. (which is the age when young wolves first learn to hunt). Yet most obedience schools take pups as young as 10 weeks, some even younger.

The following exchange is being passed around the internet right now. It’s an ostensible advice column, written by a kuvasz named “Blitz.”

A frustrated adolescent dog writes to Blitz with the following question. 

Dear Blitz, 

My owner and I go to obedience every week. He acts like we are going to go somewhere fun and then when we get to obedience class, I can’t wrestle with my friends or sniff or anything. What is the point? I know how to do it. I didn’t mind this when I was a puppy, but now I am six months old. What can I do? 

Signed (Pawed): Frustrated in Florida 

Here’s Blitz’s reply:

Dear Frustrated, 

You are completely missing the point of obedience class. Obedience is not supposed to be fun and games. It is an important tool to ensure that your owner does his most basic function: giving you treats. Treats are the reason that early dogs first agreed to share a cave with humans. (Treats and thunder of course.) The way to best guarantee the frequent dispersal of treats is to never respond to any of your owner’s requests too regularly. The optimum response percentage is between 30 and 60%. 

If you respond less than 30% your owner may decide that you are deaf, which will result in your visiting the vet. At the vet you may get shots and will usually have your temperature taken. Why risk it?  

If you respond more than 60% of the time, your owner will expect your response rate to increase in the future. The logical extension of that pattern is the dog who has to leap through flaming hoops to get a piece of liver. There are better ways for a dog to make a living. 

While amusing, this exchange is also reflective of the sadness Dr. Dunbar expresses when he says “dog training isn’t working that well.”

I think it’s best to follow the natural model. Remember, most obedience behaviors except the sit are analogues of the predatory motor patterns found in wolves, and wolves don’t start hunting until after adolescence. This is the model that has been set in place by Nature, and has worked for millions of years. Why change it now? Why force puppies to pay attention and “learn,” when Nature is telling them to jump around, bite, play, get distracted, and amuse the heck out of their owners?

The other problem is that it’s long been believed that a dog (or puppy) has to be calm in order to learn; dogs can’t learn when they’re highly stimulated. I’ve found that the exact opposite is true. I think it’s best to teach obedience skills as part of an active, high-energy game, where you stimulate the dog’s urge to bite, focus it on a toy, and teach him that he gets to win the toy by obeying your commands. The more actively the dog’s whole organism is involved—his emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts, and his brain—the better and faster he’ll learn. 

This is something, that frankly, you can’t do with young puppies because they only have 3 play settings: Off, Play Hard, and Play Way Too Hard. 

I think it’s time we re-think the whole idea of puppy obedience classes, and perhaps set them up more as owner orientation classes, where the owners can watch their puppies play while the instructor explains a few simple training techniques for teaching their pup’s basic manners, but does so through the spoken and written word, without using the pup to demonstrate the process. That way the owners can learn two important things: how to teach their pup manners, at home, on their own time, and how much fun it is to watch puppies play together. That way none of our puppies will need to write to Blitz for advice. 

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1) “Adolescence is a period of metamorphosis - anatomical remodeling. The neonatal organism is taken apart and reconstructed into an adult. Behaviorally, the individual is remodeled from innate neonatal feeding and hazard-avoidance behaviors to the adult feeding, hazard-avoidance, and reproduction systems. Sucking feeding behaviors do not grow, or develop, into predatory feeding behaviors any more than the 18 feet of a caterpillar grow into the six legs of a butterfly. Instead, the animal is de-differentiated ... New organs are created de novo while old ones are discarded, just as the highly complex placenta and its associated behaviors are discarded at birth. Skills do not grow from the neonatal skull (the sucking skull) into an adult predatory skill. The neonatal skull is resorbed while the adult skull is being laid down.” (Coppinger, R and L, “Biologic bases of behavior of domestic dogs,” in Readings in Companion Animal Behavior, Voith, VL and Borchelt, PL, eds., Veterinary Learning Systems Co, Inc, New Jersey, 1996.)

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