The Stages of Learning

To train your dog well,  take her through all of the stages of learning.  The first stage is acquisition. 


That means we want the dog to perform a behavior, on cue, the way we want them to do it, with some ease.   Sit for example, is a behavior that dogs are physically capable of on their own, of course, but when left to their own devices they don’t sit much!  Dogs would never sit for greetings or at the street corners if not taught that we want this behavior.  In fact, sitting is not a behavior dogs do much when humans are not around!!!

A key component of acquisition is learning that a behavior is rewarding.  Once the dog associates a behavior with reward he will do it more often.   It will be on his list of behaviors that are successful and worthwhile for him.  This is why during the acquisition phase of learning we reinforce frequently with high value rewards.

A note about corrections

If a physical correction is administered during the acquisition of a particular cue, it may decrease the dog’s desire to perform the cue at all.  This is sometimes called “avoidance behavior.”  Be careful and work a lot on reinforcement.


Second, the dog needs to generalize the behavior. Generalization is when the dog learns that even if the cue is given in a different location in a slightly different way, the response should still be the same.  Once he has learned sit in your kitchen, for example, he needs to learn to sit outside the coffee shop.

When you move from acquisition to generalization you may need to go back a step and make the exercise easier, with a lure or less distraction, for example.   It is key, when you are in the generalization stage, to keep the rate of reward high.  Many people will teach their dogs sit with the cookie in the kitchen or backyard, but then when they get to the front door or the coffee shop at the corner they do not reward the dog they forget to take their treats along!  This is a big mistake.  The dog learns that sometimes sit is rewarding, but it isn’t usually rewarding when you’re not at home.

So, when you teach any new behavior make sure to practice it and lots of new locations, even new locations around the house.  That’s another reason why it makes sense when you’re first training your dog to safely store treats around your home or to wear a treat pouch or stuff your pockets full of cookies.  It is also important to practice it with new and different people around you.

Another piece of generalization  is helping your dog learn that’s sit means sit whether you are sitting down standing up or lying down. Practice cueing your dog to sit when you are sitting in a chair or  looking up at the sky, or have your back to him.  Remember to make these drills easier if your dog fails to do the requested behavior more than twice in a row.  You’re does not being stubborn, you haven’t appropriately taught the dog to generalize the behavior.


To maintain a behavior, it Is a good idea to practice and occasionally reward the behavior throughout the dog’s life.  If you train a dog to do something that is no value to him and stop reinforcing it with a reward, gradually the behavior will go away!   A dog might stop sitting for company if you don’t occasionally practice and read that behavior.

If you really pay attention to your dog’s behavior, you can maintain a behavior by always rewarding the best examples of that behavior.  For example, when you go on walks, always reward for quick sits at the corner.  That will help maintain a good example of what you would like to see.   Always rewarding your dog for NOT pulling and being good when there is another dog around is also a good idea.

Dogs learning to live with humans and follow our many cues might be compared to humans learning another language.  You and your dog have to keep practicing to stay sharp, and sometimes you will need to go back and review.



About Laurene

Laurene von Klan is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer serving West Los Angeles
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