Doing It ‘All’ – Latent Learning in Dog Training

With A Little Help From Latent Learning


In a previous column, I presented a crazy idea that one’s show dog could participate in multiple events successfully. I gave examples of sports with overlapping skills that an owner could do during different times of the year, allowing one to work towards whatever goals were established.

Many people I have talked with about this approach are baffled by starting one sport and switching to another before earning that sport’s title(s), but this is practical for me because of the changing seasons. Dogs don’t learn like people do, so this method is working well for me because of something called Latent Learning.

Latent learning in dogs


Latent Learning

Latent Learning, as described by Karen Christopherson, DVM, CVM, is a process of assimilation of concepts subconsciously. This means that, in dogs, material presented and repeated several times may not prompt the correct behaviors to cues “taught” at the time of a lesson; however, given time, the dog “gets it.

Observing a trainer who does not understand this phenomenon, one can see the trainer become frustrated and the dog stressed. As frustration builds, methods change and often become harsher, making the experience one that a dog remembers as a negative one. The ideal trainer’s response is to quit and allow the dog time to subconsciously process the lesson. This is a case of less is more.

Learning is stressful no matter the methods, which is why using methods that reduce stress usually enhances a dog’s ability to learn, retain information, and enjoy training. Unfortunately, many trainers get frustrated and give up.

So, in a practical sense, what does this mean and how can one use this knowledge to help one achieve goals. How about an example first?


Example of Latent Learning in Dog Training

Willie” is the son of a Grand Champion/Master Hunter bitch I own. Willie has always seemed smart like his mom and loves retrieving birds, so I thought he was a good prospect to follow in his mother’s footsteps. But Willie had a layer of silly in him that seemed to limit his ability to take any lessons seriously. In advanced hunt tests, dogs must retrieve multiple marks (2-3 thrown birds) and birds planted and unseen by the dogs (called a blind). Blind retrieves require dogs to learn to run in a direction sent, sit to a whistle command, and then take a cast (hand signal) in a new direction.

Willie learned all the handling concepts well except sitting to the whistle. We worked on that cue and behavior much longer than usual to accomplish that lesson. I reluctantly decided he just wasn’t goingto get it, and gave up, setting this part of his performance career aside. To give him a break from the concept that he wasn’t mastering, I resumed tracking with him as the weather was suitable for that sport.

 border collie sitting on grass

The following spring, I resumed our field training and was shocked that the first time I blew a sit whistle for Willie, he turned and sat looking at me as if to say, “Now, what?” I was shocked, to say the least. Since this experience, I’ve realized that this has happened before, many times, just not as obvious as with Willie.

Training “breaks” have been as short as a day or two, or as long as a few months. So, I am now playing with this piece of the learning process and using it to my advantage. This is not a scientific study by any means, as I have relatively few subjects in my experience to make any generalizations, but I can say with confidence that this really seems to work.


Latent Learning in Dog Training

In trying to understand what is happening during these breaks from training, I have done some research on the dog’s learning process, finding theories regarding memory that may be at work here.

One theory Diane Bauman describes in her book, Beyond Basic Dog Training, is the “Fifth Week Plateau.” This theory suggests that as dogs are trained, they reach a stage when they become so focused on the cue (command, verbal or nonverbal) that they “forget” the intended behavior. Her suggestions are to expect this at around five weeks of training and to train through it patiently.

This period lasts for varying lengths of time and is not a permanent problem. Pat McConnell explains behaviors like this as relative to memory storage. She says dogs have both short- and long-term memory banks.

New lessons are stored in the Short-Term Memory Bank, but repetitive experiences with that cue stimulate a process of transferring that information into a Long-Term Memory Bank. During the process of a lesson being transferred from the Short-Term to the Long-Term Memory Bank, dogs are unable to recall the behavior cued by that command.

I am certain that the time it takes for this to occur varies among dogs, meaning trainers can’t assume that in a day or two all will be back to normal. Silly Willie took quite a while to recall what the Sit Whistle meant, while other dogs have struggled for a week or two. I just didn’t realize what was happening. These concepts may explain this part of the learning process and are important for dog trainers to understand, to enhance their patience with multi-purpose dogs.



Doing It ‘All’ – With A Little Help from Latent Learning 
Latent Learning in Dog Training
By Sandy McMillan



  • Latent Learning in Dogs: Give ‘Em a Break,” Christopherson, Karen
  • Beyond Basic Dog Training, Bauman, Diane
  • Sandy McMillan is a retired cardiac research and rehab nurse who survived terminal endometrial cancer to find her dream job; breeding, training, and exhibiting Labrador Retrievers under the kennel name Dutch Hollow. Since life-saving surgery in 2002, she has rescued and rehomed approximately 350 dogs, mostly Labradors. She has also raised thirty litters of Labradors that have been trained and shown in the all-breed and specialty rings, tracking fields, hunt test fields, and obedience rings. Her dogs have earned more than 100 titles and awards, including multiple specialty wins and placements, breed championships, tracking championships, rally and obedience titles, and tons of hunt test titles that have included Master Hunters and even a GCH MH/Specialty Winner. Sandy has been an AKC tracking judge, judging more than 50 TD and TDX events since 2004. She is also an AKC Breeder of Merit who has an interest in puppy enrichment programs and the careful selection of dogs for breeding based on health clearances, conformation, and performance. Sandy has been a member of Capitol Canine Training Club of Springfield since 1986, where she has been Canine Courier Editor, Director of Training, Chair and Secretary of the club’s tracking tests, and an obedience class instructor. She is a member of the Labrador Retriever Club, serving as the Chair of the club’s National twice. Sandy is currently a member of the LRC Rescue and Versatile Producer of Merit Committees. She is presently keeping busy with her current pack, and training dogs for pet owners and hunters. She sleeps well.

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