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Latent Learning in Dogs: Give ‘Em a Break!

September 15, 2015

As humans we often like to practice a new skill over and over until we reach a certain level of success. But did you ever notice that when you are struggling with something new that if you take a break and get a good night’s sleep it seems easier when you come back to it the next day?

This is due to a concept called latent learning, and it is useful for our dogs, too! Brains benefit from “down time” to process and absorb information, after which they can come back to the next training session (later the same day, the next day, or even longer) at a seemingly higher level of understanding than where they left off. Thanks to latent learning, even if your dog did not fully grasp a skill in a single training session, s/he may come back to the next session seeming to learn it more quickly and easily. This effect can be quite dramatic; people sometimes describe it as their dog seeming to suddenly “just get” how to do something s/he was struggling with previously. It is not magic; it is the brain using that quiet time to store information and learning (learning which might not have been apparent at the time) in the long term memory and pulling it out later.

You are unlikely to need latent learning’s help in order to teach simple commands like “sit,” but if you are teaching your dog more complicated tricks or skills it can be very useful. To take full advantage of latent learning, keep training sessions short and do no more than 5-8 repetitions of a particular skill in any one session even if you did not reach the desired level of success. Trying “just one more time” is often counterproductive and hinders rather than helps learning. Provide your dog with some quiet, relaxed free time after a training session and come back to the skill later. You should find that your dog has more success with each subsequent session. If you ever find yourself getting frustrated, end the session and tackle it again next time.

Latent learning can help make training smoother and more fun for you and your dog! If you have questions, consult a trainer or feel free to call the clinic to speak with us!


Written by: Karen Christopherson DVM CVA

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