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Blocking and Overshadowing in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Blocking and overshadowing in dog training

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 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 concepts 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

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 at 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." On the other hand, if 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 of these terms 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 in handy if you are wondering why your dog may not be listening to you and you need to do some troubleshooting.

For Further Reading

  • Dog Behavior: Can you Reinforce Fear?
    We are always told not to pet, cuddle or comfort a fearful dog because this may reinforce fear. But can you really reinforce fear in your dog? Learn what the experts say about this.
  • Dog Behavior: The Power of Counter-Conditioning
    Dog counter-conditioning is behavior modification technique that goes to the root of your dog's problem by changing your dog's underlying emotional responses.
  • Dog Behavior: Understanding The Process of Desensiti...
    What is dog desensitization and how do you start the process? How does your dog become sensitized to a stimuli and how do you un-do it? This guide is a helpful for dog owners interesting in learning about the science behind changing dog behavior.
  • A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and ...
    Say NO to coercion and say YES to rewards. Learn effective modern based dog behavior modification techniques. As the words imply, behavior modification entails modifying a dog's behavior for the purposes of increasing or decreasing wanted and...

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.


GiblinGirl from New Jersey on November 12, 2012:

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

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 12, 2012:

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

wetnosedogs from Alabama on November 12, 2012:

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