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Understanding Learned Irrelevance in Dog Training

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

Learned irrelevance in dog training

Learned irrelevance in dog training

What Is Learned Irrelevance in Dog Training?

You may have never heard about learned irrelevance in dog training before, but it could be that your dog is displaying signs of it sometimes, and you are not aware of it. Don't worry; it's not a disease! If you ever caught your dog repeatedly "turning a deaf ear" to a request of yours, there is a chance you may be witnessing this phenomenon. If so, don't get frustrated; there are effective ways to override this. If possible, employ the help of a certified professional dog trainer near you for some help.

What Is Learned Irrelevance?

So, what is learned irrelevance, and how does it affect your dog's training? Learned irrelevance is similar in many ways to habituation, but it's also somewhat different. In learned irrelevance, the dog stops responding to a specific stimulus (cue, trigger) because it doesn't have a particular significance that is relevant to the dog. Put simply, it's the dynamic that causes your dog to pose deaf ears to your continuous command to "sit," "stop biting," or "come."

Knowledge is power. If you know your enemy, you are better equipped to fight him. This is my mantra when behavior and training challenges occur. So, don't get discouraged if your dog cares less about your commands to "sit," "lie down," "come," "no bite," "off," or "leave it." There are some remedies!

How to Deal With Learned Irrelevance

  1. Introduce new commands properly.
  2. Protect your commands.
  3. Train them on a new command.

1. Introduce New Commands Properly

So you are training Rover to sit on command. You are using a treat as a lure and lifting it from his nose towards his head. He is following the treat, and when he lifts his nose up, his rump touches the floor. Bingo! It's tempting to want to say "sit" right away next time, but bite your tongue and wait a bit. You are still luring with a treat; your dog is likely to make mistakes. Most likely, your dog won't be able yet to do several sits in a row without making a mistake . . . the wait will pay off, I promise!

Rep after rep, after your dog seems more fluid, you can start fading the lure (removing the treat from sight), letting your dog rely on the hand movement more and giving the treat once the dog sits. Once your dog relies more and more on the hand signal and appears fluid, you can start adding the voice command, followed by the hand signal and then you can gradually fade the hand signal (making it less and less relevant). If you are having difficulties, have a dog trainer guide you through this process.

2. Protect Your Commands

Once your dog responds to a command, it's an investment. It's as if practice after practice, you are depositing coins into a bank and making the connection between the antecedent (the sit command), the behavior (the sitting behavior) and the consequence (the reward) stronger and stronger.

Remember: While your dog is in the learning stage, you need to be on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, meaning that you need to dole those treats out EVERY time your dog does the behavior right. Only once your dog is more fluid can you start getting a bit picky and reward only faster sits, then move to a variable schedule. But don't progress too early, or you'll cause frustration or a dog that gives up and says, "Goodbye; see you next time!"

It's important not to ask a command when you are unsure if your dog will listen. For instance, if your dog is at the dog park and his recall isn't too reliable, don't call him when he's fully engaged in play. This may cause your command to become irrelevant, going in one ear and coming out the other, and the more you call your dog, the more irrelevant it may become. Remember to add distractions gradually; you can't go from teaching a dog to come in your hallway and then move to the dog park the next day!

3. Train Them on a New Command

Learning theory tells us that it's easier to train a new command from scratch than to try to recuperate a command that has become irrelevant. So, if your dog isn't listening to "Come!" try going back to scratch and training the command all over, using a different word such as "here."

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Once your dog has a reliable recall, do your best to protect your investment $$$ from becoming a poisoned cue and a victim of learned irrelevance. Happy training!

FAQ About Learned Irrelevance

Why Does Learned Irrelevance Happen?

Why does this happen? It happens for several reasons. After several years of training, I can count two common mistakes commonly made when training dogs.

Adding the Command Too Early

The first mistake happens when the dog is in the delicate phase of learning a new command. This is a phase during which the dog is very uncertain and iffy about what he's being asked. Introducing a command at this stage may make it irrelevant to the dog at this stage. You may be saying "lie down" repeatedly while the dog has no precise acknowledgment of what his body is actually doing, so the command doesn't register in his brain.

Also, you may be saying "lie down" when the dog is making mistakes and moving in ways that are far from a correct lie-down. In short, it's like telling a person at a restaurant, "This is lasagna," when the person is being offered only one or two ingredients and doesn't have a clue of what a real, complete lasagna really is.

This is why dog trainers recommend adding the command only once the behavior is fluent and your dog gives signs of understanding what he's being asked for. I usually introduce the command once the luring phase is over and the dog has learned to respond to the hand signal. This usually happens in week 2 or week 3 of class, depending on how well the owners did their homework.

Repeating Command Over and Over

Another circumstance where learned irrelevance takes place is when a dog was trained a command, but the owner repeats it so frequently without following through that the dog learns that it's irrelevant, just as the birds chirping in the trees. I see it often when dog owners desperately ask for help as their dog no longer has a clue what "come" means and acts as if the owners were not there. When I ask them to show me their recall, they keep on saying, "Come," and the dog just sniffs around as if he never heard them in the first place!

The Bottom Line . . .

You want to avoid learned irrelevance as much as you can for the simple fact that it's quite difficult to gain back relevance once it is lost. In the next paragraph, we will see how to avoid this from happening and what steps can be taken to compensate for the loss.

Geek alert: If you are a learning theory junkie, the learned irrelevance phenomenon takes place when there is no longer a contingency between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. Basically, Pavlov's dogs are no longer fed after seeing the scientist's white lab coats, so the drooling doesn't occur because the white lab coats have pretty much become an irrelevant, neutral stimulus . . . yes, just as birds chirping in the trees . . .

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.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 20, 2013:

Hello Midget, I am happy you found it useful! It takes a few mistakes during the initial stages of learning to totally confuse dogs. I always remind this in classes. Take care and thanks for stopping by.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on May 20, 2013:

This is useful, Alexadry. The mistake about repetitive commands without controlling the environment and the mistakes made sure contributes to dogs being confused and turning a deaf or confused ear. Keeping this for reference and sharing.

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