At a quick glance, it seems that a dog takes many repetitions to grasp a lesson. According to “dogma”, a dog has to practice a behavior many times until the lesson seeps into his limited mind. Then, once a lesson is mastered, it becomes so ingrained in the dog’s brain that it becomes a habit. That dogs require repetition to learn from an experience is particularly noticeable when we are trying to train the dog to do something that isn’t natural for him, such as walking nicely on a lead in an area full of interesting sights, sounds, and smells. It would seem that this exercise is difficult for a dog to learn and would require many practice sessions for it to become a reliable habit.
Therefore, traditional thinking holds that it’s best to start practicing the lesson with puppies before they might have the opportunity to practice the undesirable habit of pulling hard on the lead and also while they’re small and easy to out-muscle.
A clue that repetition, while part of learning, isn’t fundamental to learning is revealed by other observations that people commonly make that contradict this traditional premise. For example, we don’t think of ball playing as something mastered through repetition. It looks like the dog is having fun, and that seems a sufficient explanation. The first time the owner attracted his dog’s attention to the ball and rolled it away, the dog immediately chased it, grabbed it, and then carried it around proudly. The lesson took one repetition and had a permanent effect for the rest of the dog’s life.
This pure example of learning shows us the formula at the core of the process. If an activity is natural, the dog gets it immediately without the need for repetition. And, since the most natural activities involve the prey instinct, we find the best examples of quick learning in this regard. In ball playing, what determines each individual dog’s enthusiasm and rate of progress is how much prey value he invests in the ball. That some dogs may take longer to build an attraction to the ball is not due to a need for repetition, but because the prey instinct isn’t yet turned on. Through repetition, as the dog grabs the ball, his sensitivity to its novelty or his owner’s influence starts to relax until drive starts to flow into prey making. Once uninhibited, the ball no longer has a being to which the dog needs to appeal for access, which initially thwarted his drive to chase and bite it.
A habit is like a riverbed: The stronger the flow that courses through it, the deeper the bed is carved, and the more water it will be able to channel. When the full current rushes through the organism, a completely mature behavior emerges as if learned. In truth, the lesson was gained in the first instant of making contact through the prey instinct, no matter how feeble the first trickle. It just took time for the pathway to be scoured deeply enough in the dog’s brain and body to handle the full load of drive.