Addressing learned irrelevance when training the dog
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Addressing learned irrelevance when training the dog

Dogs
Education & Training

If you found the process of training your dog or puppy fairly straightforward, and got over the odd hitch or slip-up without too many difficulties, the concept of learned irrelevance may be one that you have not been faced with before!

However, it is entirely possible that even the normally well-trained dog may display signs of learned irrelevance without you being aware of it, and if your dog simply seems to be stubborn or wilful when it comes to learning or reliably repeating one or more commands, the chances are that you are dealing with it on a daily basis!

Learned irrelevance is a phrase that is commonly used by professional dog trainers and behaviourists when helping dog owners to tackle problems with training, and it is a useful concept to understand, as it can help you to tackle various training problems yourself at home. But what is learned irrelevance, what does it mean, and why is it a problem? Read on to learn more!

Understanding learned irrelevance

Learned irrelevance is the term used to refer to the old familiar concept of a dog that knows and understands a command (which can be verified by them previously or sometimes responding to it) not responding to it in future, or failing to execute the command reliably when told to.

This occurs because the dog has learned over time that the command itself does not trigger the response reaction within them, that the command is meaningless, or that the dog gains nothing from reacting to it. There are a whole variety of reasons behind why this might happen, and we will look at some of the most common ones below.

Moving too quickly with the command

The process of teaching a dog a new command is very fluid in terms of timings; some dogs will pick up and understand a new command with just a few repetitions, while others will take much longer.

For instance, if you tell your dog to “sit” while they are already sitting or were about to sit down anyway, you might think that your dog has understood the command and can repeat it, but really, your dog has not made the connection between what they are doing and the accompanying command.

While there is merit to using this process of action and association to make a dog connect the command to the action, in order for the command to truly become learned, your dog must be able to repeat it ad-hoc, whether or not they were already doing it! If this is not the case, you might find that other than within a very set combination of situations, you can tell your dog to “sit” repeatedly, and your dog will be very familiar with the word itself, but not know what you want from them when you use it.

Over-use of the command

Learned irrelevance can also occur if you over-use a command repeatedly without gaining the correct response; if your dog refuses to sit, you may keep telling them to “sit” over and over again, and think that you have succeeded when the dog finally complies; but again, the dog might have misunderstood or not really registered the command, and were simply ignoring you or trying out a whole range of things to find out what you want, and ultimately landing in the “sit” was incidental.

Your dog may then not know for sure Which one of the movements they made was the correct one, as you were telling them to “sit” so many times, or for so long.

Repeating a command many times without achieving compliance can lead to learned irrelevance, as can giving the command and not following through with demanding compliance. Steer clear of falling into this trap to avoid learned irrelevance!

No reward

Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, every time your dog complies with a command, it is because they associate compliance in their minds with a reward. This may take the form of a physical reward such as a treat, or an intangible reward such as praise and knowing that they have done well.

If your dog simply does not receive a reward for their actions reliably, over time, the command may become meaningless to them, as it does not provide them with a positive result for compliance. This meaninglessness in turn can morph into learned irrelevance.

Tackling learned irrelevance in the dog

If you have identified learned irrelevance in the dog, you have also taken the first step to being able to resolve it! It is important to work out why the dog is displaying learned irrelevance in the first place, in order to avoid repeating the same mistake again. You will also need to pick a new command for the activity in question, one that does not start out as a “deaf” word to your dog due to an already learned irrelevance to the term.

Go back to training basics, bearing in mind the tips above on avoiding learned irrelevance. Choose a new command, and use it sparingly, rewarding for compliance, and ensuring that your dog does not once again lose their understanding of the word in a fog of confusion.

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