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What Is Latent Learning?

What Is Latent Learning?

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Calming Exercise & Latent Learning

Calming Exercise & Latent Learning

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Latent Learning Chapter 1-2

Latent Learning Chapter 1-2

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Have you ever seen an owner of a dog that can walk into home depot, off leash? An owner who can walk into the liquor store, while his dog waits patiently outside. Shows up at parties, and his dog is not a nuisance. When asked what trainer he hired, his response is…


“I've never trained this dog. He's just an old soul. He's always been that way.”


You might notice a homeless dog appearing to know how to cross the street while waiting for traffic or signal lights to change in order to reunite with his owner on the other side of the street. All while ignoring other dogs as they pass by. When you ask that person, how did you train your dog to do that?


They just look confused by your question. They respond, have no idea he's just always been that way.


There's a behavioral and scientific explanation for that. It's called Latent learning!


An example of latent learning can be seen in wildlife biology. Animals in the wild have a cognitive map of the forest and have latently learned to survive. Latent learning is simply animals observing their surroundings with no particular motivation to learn the geography of it; however, at a later date, they are able to exploit this knowledge when there is motivation - such as the biological need to find food or escape trouble. It is learning that does not need punishment or reinforcement to learn a new behavior.


Wildlife does not need human intervention to teach them how to be Forest animals. In fact that’s what makes it difficult for wildlife rehabilitation, when re-introducing a species to the environment. Wild animals have amazing abilities in problem solving that humans are unaware of or have not witnessed.


The process of how to duplicate it with our pets, is the difficult part. It’s easier to do with puppies before they have been influenced through training that pulls them from latent learning and into stimulus reactive behavior.


Latent learning is widely used to aid individuals in their learning process in todays psychology and academic schools. However it hasn’t made main stream dog training yet, because trainers aren’t able to articulate how it can be used with dog training. But the fact is, that it cannot be utilized in dog training, for the simple reason that it’s natural learning not conditioned training. So, In fact it has nothing to do with training. So many trainers don’t understand the difference between altering behavior and actual learning.


Can latent learning be used for behavior modification?


In order to help your canine develop an appropriate coping mechanism latently, It’s also important to stop supporting what we call “twin behaviors”. As an example, if a dog has small animal prey drive, and I notice he’s obsessed with killing and shaking his stuffed squeaky toys, I would consider this behavior “Mock Hunting” and this qualifies as a twin behavior. In this example as long as twin behaviors are allowed to continue, the rehabilitation will always reach a plateau.


Latent Learning revolves around research that was done by The University of California Berkeley. The study was done by Edward Tolman In response to BF skinners research, proving that Latent Learning was much more effective then rewards and no rewards training.


In my experience I find that a lot of training that involves a stimulus and response theory (operant conditioning) is often trying to fight fire with fire. Your using one form of stimulation (reactive behavior to food) to overcome another reactive behavior (stimulation to dogs). Which ever stimulation is the strongest between the two will end up winning over your dogs attention.


It’s like trying to win over an emotional alcoholic by redirecting his attention towards a treat bag of cocaine. Your replacing one reactive behavior over another.


But getting to the source of what’s actually causing the issue as opposed to just the symptoms (reactive behavior) still needs to be addressed. For example, proper coping mechanisms on how to deal with environmental stress and discomfort that drives someone to want to escape discomfort by self medication of substance abuse.


I know canines are not alcoholics, but in a similar fashion they are often addicted to their emotional response to stress in what they perceive as being proactive through reactionary behavior.


If you are attempting to train away the twin behavior through operant conditioning than the answer is no, latent learning would not work if you are also using operant conditioning (dog training). The reason is because usually a negative behavior is created through stimulation and response that often times is self rewarding, such as chasing balls or destructive chewing of toys.


When your counter conditioning with dog training, most trainers primarily use operant conditioning, which is once again based on a stimulation and response. Based on B.F. Skinners research (operant conditioning). So once again your fighting🔥 with 🔥 so to speak. In order for latent learning to take hold, we need to stop training and reverse the reactionary responses that were created through operant conditioning.


When solely using Latent Learning however (The ability to learn without the use of reinforcement or conditioning) then your answer is yes, because in latent learning often times the animal will not display what they learned until there is motivation to express a cognitive decision.


I’ve been fortunate to have had friend and mentor who held a PhD in comparative psychology and Applied Animal Behavior to help me create a foundation of how to habituate past blindly conditioned responses that an owner or trainer created either by mistake unknowingly or on purpose in order to bring a canine back into a latent state of mind.


So until that can be undone first, you won’t be able to utilize latent learning. That usually involves a 30 day process of habituation. But for an explanation of why…


when reviewing Tolman’s research, don’t focus so much on the proof that cognitive learning takes place without observing a change in behavior. Instead focus your thoughts on why the control group had more difficulties creating a cognitive map of the rat maze.


Once you realize that the rats in the maze could not learn the layout of the maze after being conditioned so long to always exiting for the food reward, then you realize that a detox of the past conditioned behavior using extinction needs to take place in order to get an animal back into a latent state of mind. Extinction in psychology is extinguishing a conditioned behavior through a lack of reward. This is where a 30 day in home detox needs to take place, before venturing out to experience real world distractions which we address during the 30 day in home detox.


About the author:

Tony Nila is a Canine Behaviorist with over 27 years experience. He works with wolfdogs and dog owners, internationally as well as within the states, online via Zoom and in person. He is well versed in all training modalities, but prefers a holistic tool free approach. He is an expert thoroughly trained in canine ethology, learning theory, interpreting canine body postures and specializes in behavior modification, Wolfdogs & Coyote crosses. Tony was an Animal Behavior College Mentor, Former host of K9 Talk Radio in Flagstaff AZ, given community lectures at Shasta College and owner of one of the biggest dog behavior companies in Orange County. Tony also offers Business Consulting & Mentorship. You can learn more or contact Tony via his YouTube channel:

If your searching for dog trainers in Orange County, then your search is over! Get to know some of the best Orange County dog training experts in the country. We are thoroughly trained in canine ethology, learning theory, interpreting canine body postures and specialize in behavior modification. Orange County Dog Behaviorist company Grumpy Puppy Training is your go to for Dog Obedience Training in Orange County. Is your dog jumping, pulling, bolting out the door? We can help! If you need an Orange County Dog Training professional, then don’t wait, act now and choose Orange County dog training favorite Grumpy Puppy Training!

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