Do dogs get better at learning with practice?

When Betsy was young(er) and I first started teaching her tricks, we both found it quite challenging. I’d spend several days focusing on teaching her a new trick, Betsy would express her frustration on day one, and slowly we’d build up until she had a mental breakthrough and suddenly everything would fall into place. (As soon as Betsy figures out what I want, she gets all excited and performs the trick so joyfully, I swear she’s puffing up with pride that she finally figured it out.)

Fast forward to a year later, and it often feels like Betsy can jump to conclusions about what I want with ease. Teaching her new things can be crazy quick. For example: I taught her to roll over in a single evening. It took maybe an extra day or two to really firm things up, but she understood it pretty freaking well on day one.

So why why why.

I think it makes sense that my own training technique has probably gotten better. But I don’t think I am the main reason for Betsy’s improved comprehension.

I like the idea of a dog-handler bond (or, less romantically put, “learning how to learn.”) – over time and with practice, Betsy has learned that when I do certain things, I am trying to teach her a new behaviour. She knows that it’s her job to figure out what that behaviour is. When I first started training her, she had no previous experience in learning new things, so she had no idea what to make of what I was doing. The more she has learned, the more she can draw on prior experience to infer what I am trying to teach her.

I wrote this post up awhile ago but couldn’t find much in the way of science to back it up, so I just kind of left it sitting to see if anything came to light. And, as luck would have it, something did!

Does training make your dog smarter? was the title of the post in psychology today, and it talks about a study lead by Sarah Marshall-Pescini of the Psychology Department at the University of Milan.

They tested two groups of dogs: Dogs that had been highly trained in some area of expertise (agility, shutzhund, etc), and dogs that had either only basic training or no training at all.

They had these two groups of dogs attempt to solve a problem.

The result: In the group of untrained dogs, only 30% could solve the problem. In the group of trained dogs, 61% managed to solve the problem, AND they were much more focused on attempting to solve the problem, instead of losing interest and wandering off.

The summary of the study basically jumps to the same conclusion that I did: The better trained dogs are not actually smarter, they have just learned how to learn.

In short: The more you teach your dog, the better they get at learning new things 😁 🐶

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