Learned Irrelevance

learned irrelevance 1Do you ever make the mistake of thinking your dog knows English?  Maybe you ask him a question like “Do you want to go outside?”  You have asked this question many times and your dog actually does seem to understand it — he runs for the back door.  The understanding is more contextual than you think, though.  You ask the question while heading toward the back door and putting your hand on the doorknob so there are multiple signals at work and many repetitions too, not just the question “Do you want to go outside.”

What about other times, such as when you explain that the toy he or she just  chewed up was brand new and this is why we can’t have nice things?  You kind of know it’s not truly two-way communication, but you give the lecture anyway.

There’s actually a learning theory at play here which is important to know about.  In this case, the term is Learned Irrelevance. Technically learned irrelevance occurs when signals are repeatedly presented without any reinforcement.  Ask a 6-year old to train a dog to sit and he or she will give the command “sit!” repeatedly and will then await the expected result. Any grown up knows that the learning required to produce a sit isn’t going to happen like this but the child is surprised when it doesn’t.

Even with adults, our language bias is so strong that we just can’t stop ourselves from being wordy when we are engaged in dog training.  It’s so strong that the human actually has to be trained by the dog trainer not to give repeated verbal commands.  The learned indifference happens like this:  you offer the treat and say “Sit, Fido, sit, sit, sit, please, sit Fido, sit!”   The dog doesn’t understand the command but understands that something needs to happen.  Said another way, the single command to “sit” means nothing, but saying it five or six times does mean something.

Unless your dog has a hearing problem, he or she heard you first time.  The use of verbal commands, especially repetitive/urgent verbal commands, is effectively you speaking to the dog in a foreign language.  It’s like you being in a foreign country and asking the shop owner where is the bathroom in English but louder each time. In dog training, we pare it down.  We stress the importance of saying a command one time and then expecting that a response will follow.

So what does this mean for day-to-day training? Give short commands and ONLY when you know your dog is giving you their full attention.  Give treats every time they respond positively.

Talking to your dog all the time can produce the same results. When you talk to your dog, all they hear is a stream of sounds they do not comprehend.  They can pick up on your mood and tone quite clearly, but it is very difficult for them to pick out key words from a stream of sounds. Telling your dog about the day you have just had or about something happening on TV may be hard habit to break. But consider the impact that your speech could be having on your dog’s ability to understand your commands when the time comes.

You can also try training with hand signals instead of, or in conjunction with, verbal commands. Dogs are responsive to visual cues and hand signals leave little room for confusion. “Sit, Fido” while holding up a fist will be clearly understood.

Training is Never Over!

learned irrelevance 2Another way learned irrelevance can occur is if you stop rewarding desired behaviors. For example, say you give Fido a treat whenever he sits. Then after a while, you continue using the ‘sit’ command, but you stop giving treats. Fido will eventually catch on that there’s nothing in it for him, so he will no longer sit for you. You’ve taught him that he does not get a reward for sitting. For this reason, regular practice of training techniques and use of positive reinforcement is important not just during training but for the long term.

Read More of our Training Articles:

Being Your Dog’s Leader

How to Stop Leash Pulling

Additional Resources on Learned Irrelevance:

Pet Helpful – Understanding Learned Irrelevance in Dog Training

So Much Petential – Understanding Learned Irrelevance