Why advanced instrumental learning?

Most experienced trainers are fairly well-versed in the basic principles of instrumental learning. Primarily, that means the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence and the four types of instrumental learning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. These concepts are fundamental to our understanding of why animals do what they do and how to change their behavior. But there is much more to learning than this. If you already have a strong understanding of instrumental learning basics and are looking for something more, then this is the class for you!

In fact, this course assumes a strong understanding of the ABCs of learning and positive/negative punishment/reinforcement, so we don’t cover that in this course. (If you are looking for that, check out my Introduction to Instrumental Learning course). When I took Learning Theory in graduate school, I was blown away by how much more detail and nuance there is to the process of learning and how much it helped me be a better, more effective trainer. As a graduate student, I taught Learning eight times. After I graduated, I wanted to bring the information directly to trainers, so I started teaching the course for dog professionals. Over the years, I have refined it and added additional content, so each year the course is a bit stronger. This post will briefly cover what to expect from the next Advanced Concepts in Instrumental Learning which starts this Thursday, January 14th.

Week 1

During this introductory week, we will jump right into the thick of things with a discussion of different types of reinforcers and why they matter. By different types, I don’t mean food versus toys, but rather different categories of reinforcers and how reinforcement influences behavior. We’ll then move on to different schedules of reinforcement and how they impact behavior. We’ll discuss what kind of behavior patterns you should expect to get based on how often you reinforce the dog and which patterns of reinforcement are most effective for different behaviors.

If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, no worries! Full students will also participate in a discussion group that is entirely focused on deepening the understanding of these concepts and applying them directly to working with animals. And that’s the other thing – notice that I am using “animals” and not just “dogs”. While the course is focused on dogs since that is where my experience is, the principles of learning apply to all species, so if you’re working with pigs, or horses, or birds, or reptiles…any animal, really, this information will still be applicable to you and your species of choice!

Week 2

Once we get those basics out of the way, we’ll move onto other factors that can drive behavior. For example, if an animal is presented with two options for reinforcement (say, getting a treat from your hand or smelling that really interesting smell) how do they chose between the two? How can we get them to choose us over the other distractions? We’ll also talk about how to maintain and refine behavior with a particular focus on the issue of frustration and effort. Finally, we’ll talk about a few different theories of reinforcement and how they can inform our approach to working with dogs.

As in week one, full students will have a discussion section where they will have the opportunity to get more detail on these concepts and practice applying them to work in the real world.

Digging is high on Darwins list of priorities.

Week 3

Week three takes a close look at two topics we talk about frequently when working with dogs – generalization and discrimination. We’ll discuss the difference between the two, how generalization and discrimination change an animal’s view of the world and how to use this information to your advantage. I will also sneak in a bit of information on one of my favorite topics – stress. Week three will cover some of the different ways in which stress can impact learning.

Yet again, the discussion section will give full students a chance to explore these topics in greater depth.

Week 4

Finally, in week four, we’ll talk about the two different types of instrumental conditioning (goal-directed and habit) and how we can use it to train more effectively. This is a fascinating topic that is chock full of great information. If you’ve taken my habit webinar before, rest assured we’ll go into a bit more detail on this topic, particularly for the full students that have the opportunity to stay for the discussion.

If you’d like to sign up for the course, it’s not too late! Registration is open until January, 1/14 at 5 pm ET. Click here to register or get more information!

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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