One Event Learning

One event learning…. I know some of you have heard me in class reference this or those with fearful, aggressive or reactive dogs.
What is one event learning? Why if they learn off one event can’t they remember when they learn “sit” one time?
One event learning is where your dog has had some kind of NEGATIVE event. These usually occur during the dogs first 2 yrs of life. What seems minor and no big deal is actually a BIG deal. Dogs go through several periods of critical socialization

The first occurs fairly predictably at around 8-10 weeks of age. The puppy is very young at this point and owners are (hopefully!) managing her environment carefully and exposing them to lots of great stuff for socialization purposes, so often times this first fear period passes without any obvious signs or behavior changes – many owners never notice that it has taken place.

The second is more variable, but for most dogs it occurs as a 2-3 week period in late adolescence, somewhere between 6 and 14 months of age. This one is sneaky – it pops up when owners least expect it, long after their tiny pup has become an independent teenager. By this point, most of us are giving our dogs more freedom and no longer micromanaging how they interact with the world. It can be a shock, then, when something happens at this age that turns all of our assumptions upside down.

So what happens during the fear period, exactly?

You may notice that your previously friendly, confident adolescent dog becomes spooky about certain things that don’t normally bother them… perhaps he/she refuses to go near a new garden flag in the yard, or barks at a man with a beard who says hello to them on the street. This sudden increase in suspicion and reactivity towards things in the environment is normal – as long as you are cheerful and don’t make a big deal of the problem, it will pass on its own and you’ll have your familiar, happy-go-lucky companion back in 2-3 weeks.

The dangerous part is this: during this particular developmental stage, your dog’s brain is on a hair trigger, exquisitely sensitive to anything “bad” that may happen. A single frightening or painful experience during the fear period can have a lasting impact for the rest of your dog’s life.

This is a phenomenon called single event learning – meaning that it only takes one experience to result in an intense, permanent emotional reaction to the trigger that caused it. It makes a lot of survival sense in the wild, when a young wolf needs to steer clear of a dangerous predator without requiring multiple near-death experiences to teach the lesson. But in our pet dogs, this peculiar little “glitch” in the brain’s memory processing system can have devastating consequences.

For example you take your happy go lucky pup to the dog park. Been there multiple times never been an issue. But today your dog gets attacked. Not bad, what some may say as corrective behavior or well the puppy is learning. But if not handled correctly this can escalate over months. (If it is bad you will have the same issues and more reactive immediately depending on age.)
Now when you walk your dog, you have a dog that is reactive on a leash, goes at other dogs, can’t be left to play with others any more. This is very common. While I used the dog park example, this can be dogs that meet up and don’t play appropriately and suddenly have a dog fight. Bad daycare facility( most are just there to break up fights and have NO understanding of dog behavior what is right or wrong so until the dog starts a fight or a dog has had enough of a bully dog it’s allowed to continue) It can be dogs in the same household, a child accidently falling on a dog, bad visit to the vet, clipping nail to short one time. It can be anything.

So what can we do with this knowledge?

Unfortunately, we can’t keep our dogs in a bubble. The world is an unpredictable place, despite our best efforts… we cannot always control everything that happens to them or how they may react. But, we can try to ensure that scary experiences are few and far between during these sensitive periods of development.

And if bad things do happen – we can recognize them for what they are, and be proactive in responding and addressing the fear before things get worse.

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