Blocking and Overshadowing in Dog Training

Updated on August 15, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Blocking and overshadowing in dog training
Blocking and overshadowing in dog training | Source

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 challenges and better understand how dogs learn. 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 come up against difficulties and wonder what is going on. Most likely it is not Rover having a bad day; most likely it's your mistake, only you are not aware of it. Before getting frustrated and blaming your dog, it helps to better understand the science of training dogs and know 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.

Blocking versus overshadowing
Blocking versus overshadowing | Source

Comparing Blocking and Overshadowing

Blocking and overshadowing are two terms that are often confused. 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 pay 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).

Another 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 voices. 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 sit 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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


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    • GiblinGirl profile image


      7 years ago from New Jersey

      I'm really enjoying all your training hubs since I'm a first-time dog owner. Keep them coming :)

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      Yes wetnose, at times it's the other way around! Thanks for stopping by!

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      7 years ago from Alabama

      Dogs are so smart! Sounds like they are training the humans to get it right! LOL.


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