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Single Event Learning

One of my closest friends and best students is a lady named Nicole. Nicole's lovely dog Leila is Mokie's best play mate (after Monte, of...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jun 23rd 2010


One of my closest friends and best students is a lady named Nicole. Nicole’s lovely dog Leila is Mokie‘s best play mate (after Monte, of course), and has been a student of mine since she was a puppy.

Leila was a very fearful puppy when she started class. Having been rescued with her littermates from a dumpster, it’s understandable that she had quite a socialization deficit. With Nicole (and her husband Rob’s) dedicated and consistent training, Leila is now a socially gregarious dog, viewing every new dog or person (or cat) as a potential playmate. She allows various types of handling from a variety of people with enthusiasm and aplomb.

There is one thing, however, that Leila hates: having her nails trimmed.

We worked extensively on husbandry when Leila was in puppy class and she did very well. I asked Nicole what happened to make Leila so fearful of manipulation she once readily accepted. Nicole told me that one time at the vet’s office, Leila’s nails were “quicked,” causing her pain and stress. At this time, Leila was an adolescent.

Dogs don’t generalize well, so what happened here?

Trainers often say that “dogs don’t generalize well.” This is, for the most part, very true; and is why we must teach our dogs that our cues have relevance through repetition and practice in a number of environments. Why is it that this one traumatic experience can create such an enduring fear response?

The answer is “single event learning.” Learning a strong fear response to that which causes pain is a survival mechanism. Animals that have no fear of that which could cause them bodily harm are not likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

Keisha goes to Costa Rica

My good friend Keisha traveled to Costa Rica a few years back. On her trip, Keisha unfortunately suffered food poisoning.

Who knows which meal might have been responsible for Keisha’s illness? Keisha decided it must have been the fried eggs that she had for breakfast one morning. Since then, she no longer eats fried eggs. Also, any time someone says they are planning a trip to Costa Rica, Keisha warns them about contaminated food and food poisoning, especially if they plan on having eggs. She said she’ll never go back to Costa Rica again.

Illness is extremely aversive. Dogs who frequently get sick in the car commonly develop an aversion to riding in the car through associative learning much like individuals who have experienced food poisoning might never again have a particular type of food or visit a particular restaurant or even nation once they’ve associated that stimulus with causing their illness.

Keisha, like Leila, has generalized her fear resulting from an aversive experience. Truly, the vast majority of meals, even those with eggs, served in Costa Rica are likely quite safe. Equally likely is that the percentage of vacationers who suffer food poisoning in Costa Rica compared with the total population of people eating in Costa Rica is probably minuscule. Also, people get food poisoning in the United States. People get food poisoning from meals they are served in restaurants and from meals made at home as well.

Behaviorist Ali Brown, of Great Companions, LLC, wrote about the topic of single event learning in her training blog, The Bing Blog 02: Single Event Learning.

Single event learning creates powerful associations. Counteracting these negative associations requires a lot of patience, diligence, and careful management on the part of the handler while behavior modification techniques are implemented. It may take hundreds or thousands of reinforcements to counteract one bad association.

While single event learning can cause negative associations at any stage of a dog or person’s life, dog owners should be aware that the highest risk correlates with particular stages of canine development associated with fear development.

Fear Imprint Period (8 – 11 weeks): Anything that frightens a puppy during this stage of development will have a longer lasting effect than if it happened at any other developmental stage.

Second Fear Period (approximately 6 – 14 months): Dogs in adolescence experience an additional fear period. This may come and go throughout the adolescent developmental period, and is indicated by a fearful response to stimuli the dog may have reacted to enthusiastically and confidently in the past. In adolescence, your dog may suddenly become afraid of men with beards when previously he adored them.

Remember that the solution to fear is confidence. Through patient and consistent training, careful management, and developing positive associations, your dog will gain confidence in you and himself.