Four Phases of Learning: Know These Before Training Your Dog

Jan 09, 2017

At what age should my dog be learning each skill?

My dog perfectly performs this skill at home, but it's like he knows nothing when I go to a new spot. What do I do?

My dog was amazing at the trainer, but now, she acts like she doesn't know how to retrieve.

How do I know when my dog is ready to move on to the next skill?

You may be asking yourself some of these questions. Surprisingly, your dog doesn't need to learn a specific skill by a specific age. It needs to learn according to the 4 Phases of Learning. Think of these as dog training stages. These stages of learning will also answer questions on why your pup may do well in one place but not in another place. 

4 Phases of Learning

One of the key things we have learned since we began dog training is understanding what phase of learning our dog is in. To retrieve in any scenario, your dog will need to work through each phase of learning with each skill that you teach it. Knowing what phase our dog is in connects us with the dog and tells us what our dog needs to continue training smoothly.

We hear it all the time. Someone calls wanting help with their dog. They had their dog with a trainer, and the dog did well on pick-up day or on videos that the trainer sent them. However, when they started working with it at home or in the field, it just didn't perform as expected. Maybe you have experienced this or had your pup not perform when you move to another drill or training location.

Does that mean the trainer did a lousy job? Not likely; it really has more to do with what phase your dog is in with that particular skill. When you know what phase your dog is in, you will know what to expect when you go to a new location. 

Another way to think of this is how to know your dog's level of training on each skill. Once you fully understand this, you will know if your dog is ready to move on to new skills or if your dog needs continued training. You will also know if your dog will crush it when you go out to the field or if your dog is not ready for a new location.

We know you want your dog to end up being a great retriever that is steady in the field and able to retrieve anything you send it on because we want the same things for our dogs. 

If you follow this simple plan, you will be well on your way to knowing how to get your dog there. 

1. Understand the 4 Phases of Learning.

2. Track what phase your dog is in with each skill. 

Overview of the 4 Phases

Acquisition - This is the 1st phase. When you are teaching your pup a skill, it is where your dog acquires the new behavior. Patience and accuracy are the keywords here.

Fluency - This is the 2nd phase and is where your dog becomes fluent or good at the behavior you are teaching it. Repetition and speed are the keywords here.

Generalization - This is the 3rd phase, and it is very important. In fact, this is where owners sometimes get frustrated when their dog doesn’t perform at the level they had hoped. This is what is missing if your pup will do the skill in one place but not another. This is stage is where you will likely be when your dog comes home from the trainer. Time and experiences are the keywords here.

Maintenance - This is the 4th phase of training, and it is ongoing. The dog can definitely perform the skill in many different situations and locations. In addition, different handlers can get the dog to perform as well. Enjoyment is the keyword here.

Another key to effectively developing your gun dog is keeping a checklist of skills and/or drills and having a visual of where your dog is at any given time. Here is an example to give you an Idea.


In the above table, each Phase is represented as follows:
* = Acquisition
** = Fluency
*** = Generalization
**** = Maintenance

It is vital that you realize that your pup or dog can be fluent but not generalized from one skill to the next. Take teaching your dog to sit for example. If your puppy is fluent at Sit, your puppy will sit in your backyard almost every time. However, your puppy will not likely sit if you move it inside. 

In the chart above, all three dogs are fully trained in the Recall command in various situations. They have proven themselves to respond 10 out of 10 times regardless of the environment and situation. Only Bo is fully trained in Delivery to Hand and 50yd Memory. Bo is acquiring the Back Command. Henry is gaining fluency in Delivery to Hand while acquiring the 50 yd Memory skill. Lula is acquiring Delivery to Hand.

As you can see, you can be in acquisition with one skill while you are in generalization with another skill. 

Building a legendary gun dog takes time and requires mastering the skills necessary in a building block-type process. Think about this as you work through one of the courses at Cornerstone Gundog Academy. Each skill builds on the last until you have a complete and well-trained retriever. It’s a learning process for both you and your dog.

Once a dog is fluent and generalized in non-hunting situations, you can move the training to the field or blind. Now, you are generalizing through many retrieves in a variety of hunting situations. Keep in mind that it will take a while for the dog to fully understand what you want on the hunt when the emotions are high.

When you go to the field during the first season, we recommend choosing the mindset of being there for the dog. Help your dog get accustomed to the experiences. Once you do that, your dog will be there for you for many seasons to come.

Before long, you will begin to see the dog anticipating what you want from them and performing at an exceptional level.

If you don't understand dog behavior and how they learn, you will constantly be frustrated with your dog. You will have expectations that your dog cannot meet. You will be embarrassed when you bring your buddies to see your dog. The change of having new people around is confusing for your dog. 

However, when you understand the phases and track your dog's progress, you are well on your way to training an amazing retriever. You will feel like you have the knowledge you need to get your dog to the next step. You will have the right expectation for your dog. Your training sessions will be smooth, and you will understand your dog's behavior. 

When you teach the dog following this training plan, you are setting yourself and your dog up for retrieving success.


Keith Parvin
Cornerstone Gundog Academy

P.S. Learn more about how our online courses can reduce the frustration and confusion that can come along with retriever training by clicking here.