How We Learn – Humans and Dogs

By February 22, 2017News

As we educate dog trainers, we talk a lot about how dogs learn. But if we consider what we know about how humans learn, we can get a fresh perspective and maybe some new ideas about what will succeed with any given dog.

In the MHHD Soundwork curriculum, we consider different types of motivation, and communication styles that lead a dog to understand what’s being requested. This doesn’t really surprise anyone. It’s logical that dogs would respond differently based on their predilection toward food, or praise, or play.

What is interesting to consider beyond that however, is how the fundamental learning modalities of humans can come into play for dogs.

How Humans Learn

When a group of students graduates from Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD), we always fling open the doors for a live Open House session online.

We acknowledge our students for what they’ve achieved, talk about the discoveries they (and we) have had during the course, and we invite everyone to adopt a general-purpose learning game that can accelerate the progress of whatever dog you’re training or loving in your life.

To attend the Open House, you’ll have to become a member of the MHHD Open Forum group on Facebook. We post an event announcement there, and you simply RSVP so that we know to add you to the chat group.

The session takes place in live text chat. This makes the conversation accessible to everyone. It’s a great way to experience the model we use for the live chat sessions in our courses.

So we usually say that humans tend to learn through four basic styles, or modalities. They are auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile. Some people learn best when they see things (ie. they depend on reading, or maps, or charts) and others learn better when they manipulate things manually (ie. they do well with physical models, puzzles, or toys).

Interestingly, we find that irrespective of a preferred learning modality, people retain information at a much higher rate from kinesthetic or tactile learning, and everyone does much better if they employ multiple modalities to learn a principle or skill.

And you know what works well for almost anyone? Repetition. If we learn how to do something, and repeat the skill many times, we can master it to the extent of developing unconscious competence.

How Dogs Learn

So think about the implications for dogs and how they learn. First, we might agree that most dogs are primarily kinesthetic learners. When they learn something by performing physical action, they tend to be able to reliably repeat it. And of course, more repetitions makes the learning durable. An oft repeated skill lasts for a long time, maybe even for life.

We focus in our curriculum then, first on identifying motivation, and then on learning exercises that harness the kinesthetic learning modality. And we strongly stress the power of repetition. Trainers who adopt this approach find that they succeed and get great results from the dogs they train.

So if we imagine that dogs are fundamentally kinesthetic learners, you might wonder what that implies about the prospects for a dog who must respond to auditory cues in its work. (ie. a Hearing Dog)

It’s one of the things we have to talk about during our early courses in the Soundwork curriculum.


Vincent Lowe is an Education Consultant with over 20 years experience in the design and delivery of adult learning programs. As the Dean of Technology at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) he was the co-architect of the online learning system currently in use. The partnership is a natural fit because Vincent is passionate about education and learning, and anyone who knows him would certainly describe him as a “dog person.”

When Vincent isn’t creating or delivering training materials, he’s haunting the ballpark, a live music venue, or stomping around a live movie set.