Blocking and Overshadowing in Dog Training
How Blocking and Overshadowing Can Affect Dog Learning
When you are training your dog or attempting behavior modification, you may encounter some obstacles. Understanding blocking and overshadowing will help you overcome some challenges and better understand how dogs learn and the many implications derived from ignoring certain dynamics that come into play. While this article is more for dog training and behavior professionals or learning theory junkies, my goal is to present both blocking and overshadowing in simple terminology so everybody may understand.
Often, when you are training a dog you may come up with some problems and wonder what is going on. No, most likely Rover is not having a bad day, most likely you are making a mistake and are not aware of it. Before getting frustrated, it helps to understand better the science of training dogs and some dynamics that may take place. Interestingly, these dynamics also take place when it comes to human learning; indeed, blocking and overshadowing are terms used when studying human psychology.
Comparing Blocking and Overshadowing
Blocking and overshadowing are two terms that are often confused and were driving me and other training students nuts last year as we prepared to pass an important exam. Basically, it seems to boil down to this:
What is overshadowing? Overshadowing takes place when a certain stimulus is not noticed by the animal because there is a more salient (more evident) stimulus around. Let's try to make an example.
If you are training using luring, rest assured that dogs will tend more attention to a treat used as a lure than a verbal command if the lure is not faded quickly. In this case, the most salient stimulus (the lure) overshadows the other stimulus (the verbal command). To better understand luring as a training technique read my article: Dog Training: Luring versus Bribery
Another common example; if you are training your dog to sit and you say sit while you move your head downwards, guess what will likely happen? Your head movement will overshadow your verbal command. Dogs are masters in looking at our body language, so our movements are much more salient than our voice. What will happen then? You may end up with a dog that will not sit if you just say sit and fail to move your head downwards, but will sit promptly if you do move your head, even without saying "sit".
If you are not into dog training but into human psychology or you failed to grasp the lure example, here is another example: a man is admiring a beautiful woman walking by the street as he is driving the car. Yet, the red stop sign is more salient, so he pays attention to it and stops looking at the pretty woman to watch for passing cars. In this case, the red stop sign has overshadowed the pretty lady (and thankfully so!).
What is blocking? In blocking, a stimulus becomes irrelevant if it is presented together with an already familiar stimulus. Let's try to make an example.
For instance, if you are training your dog German commands and say "down" and "platz" the dog will likely not rely on "platz" because the familiar word down provides enough information plus it has a history of reinforcement so who cares about platz. If on the other hand, you say 'platz" first and then "down" second, your dog will learn that platz means down, and since dogs like to anticipate, after some reps they will attend to the word "platz" alone even if they don't hear the familiar command down.
If you are looking for a human example here is one to make the concept clearer. If you have always stopped at a red stop sign, the day you find an intersection with both a red and a black stop sign, you will likely attend more to the red sign because it provides more information to you as it has a history of grabbing your attention. In this case, the red stop signs are blocking the black ones from having an effect on you.
As seen, both blocking and overshadowing have an effect on the outcome of dog training. While you may not need to understand these concepts to train your dog, they do come handy if you are wondering why your dog may not be listening to you and you need to do some troubleshooting.
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