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Learning Dip


Techniques Conditioning > Learning Dip

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Sometimes, when a subject seems to be getting the idea of things and is being brought under stimulus control, they suddenly seem to go backwards, becoming slower in response or even forgetting everything. But then with the persistence of the trainer, they 'remember' what is wanted and reach the state of reliable response to cues. This is the 'learning dip'.

When a subject displays a learning dip, avoid showing your frustration or anger and do not give up. Just steadily persist. If needed, go back stages so they can remember or re-learn.


A dog owner is teaching a young dog to sit with just a raised finger as cue. They seem to be making progress but then the dog just seems to ignore the signal. The trainer re-introduces the verbal 'sit' command and calmly waits until the dog sits before the reward is given. Eventually the dog learns and the hand signal is enough.

A child is being taught at home and seems to be getting on just fine when they suddenly seem to lose interest. The parent asks them what is up but get little response. Watching the child, they notice that the child is less engaged on Friday, as if they have 'checked out' of learning for the weekend. The parent then discusses this with the child and agrees to sign off at Friday lunchtime as long as they have demonstrably already covered the assigned learning for the week.


The learning dip can happen when the stimulus and action are insufficiently paired. Hence presentation of the stimulus does not reliably lead to the action. When you only have a statistical chance of getting the desired response, getting several in a row can seem like successful pairing but is actually just 'luck'. A loss of control can also be caused by changes in the environment. Even wearing different clothes to your normal training session gear can make the contextual stimulus seem to change for the subject, throwing them into confusion.

Another possible cause of the dip is where the subject has only unconsciously learned about the cue but does not consciously notice it (and hence does not consciously take the resultant action). To cure this, you could make the cue more noticeable, for example by making movements larger and speaking more slowly and clearly.

This period can be frustrating for the subject as well as the trainer, especially when they expect a reward but have not yet understood exactly what they have to do to get it. They may hence respond angrily, and an escalating situation where both trainer and subject are angry with one another can easily happen. This is one reason that the trainer must always remain calm.

Human psychology is rather complex and a reversal during a learning sequence may be due to them becoming reactive as they rebel against what they perceive as being somebody 'taking control' of them. A way of addressing this is to engage the subject in the decision process.

See also

Response Lag, Release Periods


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