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Theories of Canine Learning

Introduction

The concept of learning refers to any processes which result in either permanent storage of new information or modification of previously stored information (Schweizer and Koch 2001). Different learning tasks require various demands, e.g. in a canine, the use of a litter tray as observed in conditioning may require the formation of a new association. Animals with central nervous systems such as dogs can learn through more complex processes that allow them to adapt to a larger variety of environmental circumstances. The main types of learning of this nature include classical conditioning, operant conditioning, imitation, and imprinting. Durkovic (1975) and Cammaerts (2004) have shown that other types of learning including sensitization and habituation are generally regarded as simple forms of learning however this can also be observed in unicellular organisms. Similarly learning by association follows the same mechanisms as habituation where the animal establishes a link between behaviour and a stimulus or a particular situation. Kolb has defined Experiential Learning Theory as an interactive process which involves four clear learning modes which form two bipolar dimensions of learning (Metallidou and Platsidou 2008). However this theory is limited in animal training due to the fact that it relies on active experimentation and reflective observation. In animal training these two facilities are unavailable and it has yet to be proven that animals have the ability to reflect.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning also called Pavlovian conditioning involves the creation of a conditioned reflex (Buser 2006). In his most famous experiment, a neutral stimulus (S), in this case a bell is rung just before meat powder (unconditioned stimulus US) is squirted into a dog's mouth. The powder produces the reflexive response of saliva production (unconditioned response or UR) which was measured through a cannula inserted in the dog's mouth as seen in figure 1 below. If the bell is rung and shortly followed by the meat powder many times in succession, however with a rest period between presentations, in due course salivation will occur to the sound of the bell before the meat powder is delivered. The bell is now a conditioned stimulus (CS), and saliva production to the bell is now called a conditioned response (CR). This will result in the formation of a new conditioned reflex. According to Bitterman (2006), the conditioned response will be sustained as long as the ringing of the bell continues to be linked with the presentation of the meat powder. As in this example, the conditioned response is adaptive because it prepared the dog for the impending unconditioned stimulus.

Speed of Learning

Many different studies have engaged a number of task types to investigate the relationship between processing speed and intelligence, (Neubauer 1997; Roberts and Stankov 1999). The main advantage of a high processing speed as discussed by Neubauer (1997) implies that it increases the prospect of temporarily stored information to be processed suitably before decay occurs.

Conclusion

In conclusion, learning produces a relatively lasting change in behaviour as a result of experience, thus allowing animals to adapt and cope with variable environments. Animals with central nervous systems such as dogs can learn through more complex processes that allow them to adapt to a larger variety of environmental circumstances. The main types of learning of this nature include classical conditioning, operant conditioning, imitation, and imprinting.

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