Can Motor Learning Principles be Applied to Dog Training

October 30, 2017

As I am both a researcher in the field of (human) motor learning and a dog trainer, I often wonder whether principles of motor learning can be used to improve the way we train out dogs. After all, what we teach our dogs are actions or motor skills. We do not teach them to read or philosophize, we do not teach them history and literature, we teach them to do something - whether it is to sit, to spin, or to pull a wheelchair.


Motor learning is a scientific field that, in general, examines how we can improve the learning and performance of motor skills. Whether it is painting, driving a car, kicking a football, or dribbling a basketball, there are ways that we can make learning better. Over many years of research several methods that can improve learning have been found. Importantly, we must distinguish between the learning phase (also called the acquisition phase) and the retention of skills. Based on certain principles, we can improve learning throughout acquisition stage, thus improving the retention of skills for the long run. In dogs, for example, what we teach in a certain amount of sessions can be examined later on. We can train a dog to perform a certain behavior, and then, after a day without training we check if this behavior was retained. This is sometimes called a "cold trial" in dog training jargon. 


One concept that has been researched extensively in the motor learning domain  is termed "Contextual Interference". Simply put, we can train behaviors in blocks or in random. An example will help to explain this. Let's say that we want to teach a basketball player three behaviors - (1) to dribble, (2) to shoot, and (3) to block. During a training session we have time for 60 repetitions. In blocked practice we will perform the first behavior - dribble - 20 times, the second behavior - shoot - 20 times, and the third behavior - block - 20 times. So we have 3 blocks of 20 repetitions summing up to the 60 repetitions we had time for. In contrast, in random practice, we will perform the three behaviors in random order. We will still get 20 repetitions of each behavior but in an order. It may look something like this: dribble, shot, shoot, dribble, block, shoot, shoot, block, dribble, block, shoot....until we get 20 repetitions of each. 


So what happens when you use blocked or random practice? well, if you look at the acquisition stage, or in other words - during practice, blocked practice usually produces better performance when compared to random practice. However, when you examine how well the behaviors were retained a day or two later, you find out that it is actually the random practice that produces better performance. Importantly, the retention test is what we are looking for. We don't really care if the basketball player shoots successfully during practice (acquisition), we want him/her to shoot successfully during the game (retention). How does this relate to dogs? well, you can also say that we don't really care if the dog performs a tight heel in training (acquisition), we want the dog to do it well in the ring.  


Taking this information into account, if we want to train several behaviors in a session, it might sound reasonable to train them in blocks - and we will be probably reinforced for doing that because the dog will perform better. However, when we try this behavior the next day, it might not be performed as well. In contrast, if we train the behaviors in random order, the performance in the training session may not be as good, but when we try it later on, we will see a better performance. 


Now, mind you, this is just a thought, and I haven't tried it in dogs. In addition, it is not that simple even in humans. There is a term called "Optimal Challenge Point" (provided by Mark Guadagnoli and Tim Lee in a 2004 paper published in the Journal of Motor Behavior). The idea behind the optimal is that there is a level of difficulty for each learner and for each stage of learning that will produce the best results. In the context of Contextual Interference, random practice is more difficult than blocked practice. So for beginning learners, it is possible that blocked practice should be applied. However, as the learners improve their skills, blocked practice will no longer challenge them, and a transition towards random practice is warranted. When should this transition occur? there is no one right answer. It depends on the learner. When it comes to our dogs, it is up to us to find the level of training that is just hard enough so the dog can succeed and gradually improve.


We have many ways to increase the challenge in dog training. We split the behavior to small behaviors , we gradually add duration, distance, or distractors, etc... However, I'm suggesting that we can perhaps optimize our dogs learning even more by using concepts from the field of human motor learning. Think of blocked vs. random practice the next time you train your dog. Try to think if your dog has advanced enough in training to apply random training and see whether it helps you or not.





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