Last weekend, I read Excelerated Learning by Pam Reid. As a side note, this was the first book I ever read on dog training, and it took me two months to get through it… and even then, I didn’t understand much of it. This time around, it took less than two days, and most of it was review.
But there was one section that I found very enlightening (and which I cross referenced against several other books): the processes of habituation, adaptation, and sensitization. Each of these is a way that a dog determines whether or not something is important or not, and how to respond.
Habituation happens when a dog “gets used to” something. Typically, the stimulus they get used to is something that initially causes either a startle or orienting response (“Woah, what’s that?”) but not outright fear. Through repeated exposure, the dog learns that the stimulus is not important and quits reacting to it.
The author gave the example of dropping your keys on the kitchen floor; the loud noise would likely cause your dog to jump or whip around to look at what just happened. If you were to drop your keys every thirty seconds, your dog might realize that nothing bad happens to him, and so the noise has no significance. This is habituation.
Habituation is prone to spontaneous recovery. That is, if your dog habituates to the sound of dropping keys on Monday, but then you don’t drop them again until Friday, chances are pretty good that he would startle or look for the source of the sound again.
Learned irrelevance is similar to habituation. When a dog has learned that something is irrelevant, he doesn’t react to it. However, unlike habituation, the stimulus originally caused little (if any) reaction. This means that stimuli that have been subjected to learned irrelevance are not susceptible to spontaneous recovery. The most common example of this is a dog learning that cue words have no consequence or meaning because they’ve been introduced so poorly or repeated so often.
Although adaptation is often used interchangeably with sensitization, they are not the same thing. I have a decent collection of books on dog training and ethology, and even so, only this book and Ken Ramirez’s book on animal training distinguished between the two.
Adaptation does not involve learning (as habituation does). Instead, it is a physical process in which the sensory neurons get overloaded. For example, people who smoke typically don’t notice the smell that clings to them while non-smokers notice it right away. This is because the smokers have adapted to the smell.
The opposite of habituation is sensitization. Instead of getting used to something, the dog’s reaction to the stimulus becomes stronger. Using the example of the keys, if a dog is becoming sensitized to them, each subsequent time you drop them, he will go startling to more intense reactions like barking or running away.
This is part of why expecting a dog to “just get over” something can backfire; instead of teaching them the stimulus is nothing to worry about, they get worse. Stimuli that elicit strong emotional responses tend to sensitize. The problem, of course, is that you don’t always know when something will do this. If your dog was a rescue, and if his previous owners threw keys at him to punish him, he might have a strong response to that and sensitize to it.
Of course, it may have nothing to do with a previous experience; anxious dogs are likely predisposed to sensitization instead of habituation. The author notes that sensitized dogs tend to over-react to many things, and often this is a very generalized response instead of stimulus-specific.
Finally, since we’re talking about the idea of “just get over it,” a discussion on flooding is worthwhile. Also known as response prevention, flooding is an extinction procedure in which the dog is forced to be around a stimulus the startles or scares it. Because the dog is prevented from escaping an uncomfortable stimulus, they often get worse; being trapped is scary.
This isn’t to say that flooding never works- it can- but the author states that it only works if the dog becomes exhausted and unable to respond. Personally, I am so not interested in doing that to my dog, but even if was willing to do it, the risk of learned helplessness is too great.
Learned helplessness happens when a dog is subjected to aversive stimuli that has nothing to do with his behavior, his behavior has no effect in preventing or stopping it, and he’s unable to escape. Dogs who develop learned helplessness become shut down and “just take it.”
And that’s your quick crash course on what happens when a dog decides if something is important (or not). Anyone else out there read Excelerated Learning? What was the biggest thing you took away from it?