Most of us are aware dogs learn via operant (or classical) conditioning. By adding or removing positive or negative stimuli a dog will likely repeat or cease to practice a certain behaviour. There is however another learning principle that is very important that we will focus on in this article. It is called Long Term Potentiation (LTP) and it affects all your dog’s actions every minute of every day!
Let’s first look at the scientific side of things. LTP is referred to as: ‘a process by which synaptic connections between neurons become stronger with frequent activation.’ This means that every time a dog engages in an activity, a pathway through the brain is formed (from neuron to neuron), and every time this activity is practiced again the pathway gets stronger. A set of activities combined make up a behaviour, hence we can state that LTP affects your dog’s behaviour. Translating LTP into easier to understand terms, as I have been taught by Dr Amber Batson, it means that: practice makes permanent.
Have a look at the below image for illustrative purposes. On the left-hand side there is a dog that has just started practicing a new behaviour. The ‘road’ the dog is following is still small and bendy and basically inefficient. It works similar in the brain: neuron connections are new and there is a weak pathway running through the brain. On the right-hand side you see a dog that has practiced a behaviour for a lot longer! There is a large and concrete road ahead of him, symbolising a strong and efficient pathway through the brain. A route that the dog brain is much more likely to take in the future as it’s the path of least resistance.
Take a moment to let this sink in. Think about all the actions your dog takes in daily life, whether they are activities that lead to wanted behaviour or to unwanted behaviour. Because LTP affects them all!
Let’s look at some examples of common unwanted activities that are affected by LTP.
Common unwanted activities:
Dog that is jumping up when meeting (new) people
Destroying toys or even furniture
Barking when home alone
Growling to other dogs
Stealing food of the counter
Escaping the yard
Playing too rough with other dogs
These are just a few examples, ranging from minor inconveniences for the owners to potentially real issues. Let us now dig into one of the examples given above to illustrate how LTP affects your dog’s learning: "playing too rough with other dogs".
When we adopted our first dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback (RR), we quickly found ourselves with a very boisterous playing (big) dog. Thankfully we found some larger breed buddies for him in the neighbourhood and could enjoy watching them paw each other on the head, chewing on each other’s legs, and wrestling each other to the ground. Whenever our RR saw another dog he would engage in these same actions, regardless of the size of the dog. You could imagine not all dogs appreciated such interaction!
Often, it’s even the case that a smaller dog might choose to flight in such a situation, and that the boisterous dog would start a chase. Now there are already two actions practiced that aren’t desirable: being too physical in play AND chasing small dogs. We had to invest time and effort in teaching our dog to choose more subtle behaviour around other dogs. This didn’t mean that he could never engage in a bit of boisterous play anymore, but that also alternative actions were practiced enough to give him options in the future.
LTP is the reason why the very first step in changing unwanted behaviour is: MANAGEMENT. Making sure your dog does not practice the unwanted behaviour any longer. It means not bringing your dog into a situation where he is able to respond as he has done in the past. This is because the (very) strong pathways that have formed in the brain need to be “weakened” before another pathway can be created! (This weakening of the pathways, the opposite of LTP, is referred to as Long Term Depression). For the boisterous play of our dog it meant no play with his regular buddies for a while. Instead we did a lot of social walks with calm dogs while on a lead (ensuring enough space).
Now we know how “bad habits” are formed we can use this knowledge to create good habits too. Let’s look at the use of LTP to form desired behaviour through wanted actions:
Common desired activities:
This list can be endless, but let’s focus on “being calm around visitation”. Imagine you have a visitor coming over at your house. Your dog starts of a little excited, but after saying ‘hello’ and having a good sniff the dog decides to walk over to his bed to take a little nap. Many owners would likely really appreciate this course of action from their dog. Remember: every time your dog practices an activity, he is more likely to choose the same action in the future, meaning the dog is now more likely to choose to take a nap in the future when visitors come over.
Recall is another activity we like our dogs to excel in. Hence if you train a recall, you must make sure your dog SUCCEEDS when you call him. It is because of this that your trainer will tell you to practice in low distracting environments first before making it harder. The more successes you have, the more likely you are to be successful in the future! At some point it will become a habit for your dog to return to you once he hears his “cue”.
What does this mean in daily life? Make sure your dog doesn’t practice unwanted behaviour, and make sure you provide the right conditions for your dog so he/she can make the right choices and consequently practice wanted behaviour!
Want to know more on how LTP works in the brain, check out the following explanatory video: