ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Optiminzing a Dog's Ability to Learn

Note: The following is a summary of the slides from a presentation on this subject. I gleaned the information from research I did for a book on the topic. I put the book on indefinite hold, so you might as well take advantage of the info.

What we're going to cover

  • Heredity vs. environment

What's our goal?

  • Dog that excels as both a performance animal and as a "pet"
  • Requires:
    • Excellent structure and health
    • Solid temperament
    • Ability to learn what I needed him to learn
    • Ability to function in the world

Multi-tiered foundation

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Social

Core concepts

  • More like puzzle pieces than bricks
  • Overlap and interlock

How much can you control?

  • 35% heredity
  • 65% "other"
    • Training
    • Nutrition
    • Health care and physical condition
    • Socialization
    • Stimulation and enrichment

What is heredity?

  • Raw material
  • Can be influenced and modified within limits
  • Includes:
    • Breed-specific traits/abilities/tendencies
    • Physical characteristics
    • Health
    • Temperament

What is temperament?

  • In-borne traits that determine how the dog reacts to the world around them
  • Different from personality
  • "Style with which you approach the world"

Nine traits of temperament

  • Activity level
  • Rhythmicity
  • Approach or withdrawal
  • Adaptability
  • Threshold of responsiveness
  • Intensity of reaction

Traits of temperament, cont'd

  • Distractibility
  • Attention span and persistence
  • Quality of mood

Temperament categories

  • Three main "buckets":
    • Easy or flexible
    • Active, difficult, or feisty
    • Slow to warm or cautious
  • Many don't fall into a single bucket
  • Be careful with labels

What can you achieve?

  • Limited by heredity
  • Individuals have different strengths and weaknesses
  • Each characteristic has an upper and lower limit
  • Goal is to make Fido the best Fido he can be

Optimizing heredity

  • To get the best, start with the best
  • Choose the appropriate physical type
  • Pick lineage with proper structure and temperament and health
  • Give dam proper pre-natal care
  • Choose individual with best structure, temperament, and health

Bottom line on heredity

  • Heredity will influence everything in your dog's life


  • Heredity is tendency, not pre-determination
  • Non-genetic factors are, overall, a more significant influence

Canine learning and development

  • Begins in utero
  • Critical periods:
    • Prior to 16 weeks
    • During "teen" months
  • Continues throughout life

Development in utero

  • Nearly all brain cells formed
  • Development affected by maternal nutrition and emotions
  • Ability to move and sense of touch present prior to birth
  • Sight and hearing not present

The canine brain

  • Two main areas:
    • Cerebral cortex
    • Limbic system
  • Composed of neurons
  • Neurons increase in size and complexity, not number after birth

Reasons for good nutrition during pregnancy

  • Promotes proper inheritance of genes
  • Ensures proper brain development
  • Later stimulation has greater effect on well-nourished puppies

Negative effects of malnutrition during pregnancy

  • Concentration of protein in brain cells is insufficient
  • Brain weight is lower than normal
  • Myelination is delayed
  • Brain size is smaller with fewer cells
  • Less branching of dendrites

Negative effects, cont'd

  • Puppies cannot respond to sensory stimulation normally
  • Physical growth and health are impaired
  • Behavior is retarded
  • Motor activity and coordination are impaired

Affects of maternal emotions

  • Stressed moms have stressed pups
  • Moms petted and caressed during pregnancy have more docile pups

Sensory input in utero

  • Unlike humans, pups cannot see or hear prior to birth
  • Can feel and move
  • Both touch and movement stimulate brain development


  • Good nutrition before, during, and after pregnancy
  • Keep mom in low-stress environment
  • Perform TTouch or massage, including belly touches

Neonatal period

  • Birth to opening of eyes
  • Sensitive to thermal, tactile, and motion stimuli
  • Little to no cognitive learning
  • Mild stress improves development of pituitary-adrenocortical system

Benefits of mild stress during neonatal period

  • "Gradedresponse to stress later
  • Accelerated maturation of the nervous system
  • More rapid hair growth and weight gain
  • Enhanced development of motor skills
  • Enhanced problem-solving ability

Benefits, cont'd

  • Mature sexually earlier
  • More resistant to some forms of cancer and disease
  • Withstand cold better
  • More stable
  • More exploratory
  • Learned faster

Early neurological stimulation

  • ENS, "Bio Sensor," or "Super Dog"
  • Performed once daily on days 3-16
  • Five exercises
  • More isn't better
  • Not a substitute for routine handling, play, socialization, or bonding

Five exercises

  • Tactical stimulation
  • Head held erect
  • Head pointed down
  • Supine position
  • Thermal stimulation


  • Early neurological stimulation
  • TTouch and massage, especially around mouth

Transition period

  • Opening of eyes until the startle response
  • By end of this period, all senses present
  • Motor abilities develop rapidly
  • "Reorganization" of behavior
  • No fear


  • Continue massage
  • Add new visual and tactile stimuli
  • Introduce potentially scary stimuli that will later be routine

Socialization period

  • Begins when ear canal opens
  • Ends after fear period, when pup becomes more independent
  • Vital time for both positive and negative experiences
  • Key relationships formed

Pat Hasting's "Rule of Sevens"

  • By the time a puppy is 7 weeks, he should have:
    • Been on 7 types of surfaces
    • Played with 7 types of objects
    • Been in 7 locations
    • Met 7 new people
    • Been exposed to 7 challenges
    • Eaten from 7 types of containers

Don't overdo it!

  • Don't overstimulate or overwhelm
  • Goal isn't to introduce pup to everything he will ever experience
  • Teach "new and different is good"
  • Variety is key
  • Stress and recover to teach bounce-back

Minimize fear and over-stress

  • Fear begins at 5 weeks, peaks at 6-7 weeks, levels off by 12 weeks
  • Things to avoid:
    • Long-term changes in locality
    • Isolation
    • Discipline from humans or dogs
    • Traumatic visits to the vet

When to rehome puppies?

  • Scott & Fuller recommended 8 weeks
  • Wolters recommended 49 days
  • 12 weeks is better for pups
  • Benefits include easier house-breaking, better bite inhibition, better dog skills, less separation anxiety, calmer adolescents, better learners


  • Continue massage or TTouch
  • Introduce basic problem solving
  • Introduce variety of stimuli at puppy's rate
  • Don't let pups practice undesired social behaviors
  • Great time to begin clicker training

Juvenile period

  • Begins with first independent forays
  • Ends at sexual maturity
  • "Age of Independence"
  • Brain growth slows
  • Stable period


  • Same as socialization period
  • Begin enrichment


  • Begins at puberty and ends at adulthood
  • Not just hormones
  • Period of massive brain growth
  • Impulsiveness is high; ability to make decisions is frequently retarded
  • K.I.S.S.


  • Continue enrichment
  • Continue variety of types of behaviors
  • Emphasize core behaviors you want your dog to have through his life

Building a Strong Foundation

Physical foundation

  • Genetic influences
  • Nutrition
  • Careful growth
  • Weight
  • Health


  • Moderate exercise, largely self-paced
  • No jumping until growth plates close
  • At higher risk of injury due to growing body
  • Get health clearances first

Add variety early

  • Textures/surfaces
  • Tunnels
  • Hills
  • Swings
  • Balance
  • Body awareness

Adolescents and adults

  • After most growth achieved, begin gradually increasing exercise
  • Skills and endurance
  • "Cross train"
  • Like humans, warm up, cool down, and stretch
  • Rest!

Physical skills and learning

  • The physical foundation is vital for optimal learning
  • A dog in pain, stiff, or sore cannot concentrate on learning
  • It takes brain power to learn physical skills
  • Well-learned skills require less brain power
  • Nutrition and exercise help manage stress

Social foundation

  • Begins at week 5 and continues throughout life
  • Not just people and dogs
  • The way your dog relates to his world
  • Optimize according to his temperament

Social skills and learning

  • Can't learn or perform if overwhelmed by the environment
  • "He's trained except when there are distractions" isn't trained
  • A socially inadequate dog is frequently stressed

Emotional foundation

  • Emotions came before cognitive thought
  • A tendency to act is implicit in every emotion
  • Emotion is inextricably tied to cognitive thought

Emotions and learning

  • Too much negative emotion creates "neural static"
  • Faulty prefrontal control over limbic responses handicaps intelligence
  • Most common emotional problem for dogs is impulsivity

Importance of self-control

  • Self control is cognitive rather than reactive
  • Social creatures without self-control become outcasts
  • Those with self-control handle frustration better, learn better, perform better, and are more adept socially

How to teach self-control

  • Prevent dog from becoming reactive
  • Early intervention is key
  • Mold calm body postures if necessary
  • Perform simple, well-known behaviors during stressful events
  • Use diet and exercise to maintain stability
  • Teach problem-solving

Problem solving

  • Opposite of impulsivity
  • Those with problem solving issues cannot handle stress-they shut down or react aggressively
  • To teach problem solving, have the dog solve problems of gradually increasing difficulty

Mental foundation

Variety is key

  • Individual, object interaction, and dog/person interactive
  • Stationary and active
  • Close and at a distance
  • Scent, shape, and object discrimination
  • Front and rear end behaviors
  • Left, right, over, under, push, and pull

Let your dog do the thinking

  • For mental development, use training methods that require active thought
  • Shaping is the most cognitive method of getting behavior
  • When choosing a training method, consider your overall goals

Concepts vs. behaviors

  • Behaviors stand alone or are combined
  • Concepts underlie behavior
  • To teach a concept, teach simple behaviors that include the concept

Core concepts

  • Resiliency
  • Confidence
  • Tolerance / Trust in the handler
  • Problem-solving
  • Concentration

Training concepts

  • Latency
  • Work at a distance from the handler
  • Duration
  • Work in distractions
  • Work in different locations

Other possibly helpful concepts

  • Think first
  • New = good
  • Other dogs = good
  • People = good
  • Mother may I?
  • When in doubt, watch me

Concepts, cont'd

  • People skin is fragile
  • Body awareness
  • Objects have names
  • On-off cue
  • All good things come from handler

Trainer skills

  • Excellent timing
  • Proper setting of criteria
  • Ability to evaluate when to increase criteria
  • Willingness/Ability to maintain a high rate of reinforcement
  • Quiet body

Trainer skills, cont'd

  • Ability to break down complex behavior
  • Ability to see subtle nuances of behavior
  • Ability to predict when target behavior will occur
  • Ability to create and choose reinforcers
  • Ability to control the environment

Trainer skills, cont'd

  • Good record-keeping skills
  • Knowledge of the animal being trained
  • Patience
  • Flexibility
  • Objectivity
  • Practice without the dog

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2005 Melissa Alexander


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