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The Role of Muscle Memory in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.

Spinning in circles and many other tricks and commands are the fruit of muscle memory.

Spinning in circles and many other tricks and commands are the fruit of muscle memory.

What Exactly is Muscle Memory?

Also known as motor learning, muscle memory takes place when, through repetition, a specific motor skill becomes consolidated into memory. After several repetitions, the motor task is performed without conscious effort, therefore, requiring less and less concentration and attention.

In humans, examples of muscle memory involve tasks like riding a bicycle, playing a musical instrument, typing on a keyboard or playing a video game. When it comes to these skills, the saying "practice makes perfect" is the most suitable.

Edward Thorndike was a leading pioneer when it came to the study of motor memory and he acknowledged how it takes place without conscious awareness. He, along with Hill and Rejall, discovered how the memory retained typing skills even after a 25 year period with no practice.

When a motor skill is initially learned, movement is slow, stiff and lacks fluency. The mental state is attentive, and concentrated. With practice, the motor skill becomes refined, becoming more and more smooth and fluid and can be performed easily performed without conscious effort.

In dog training, the same process takes place, the dog initially is slow in learning, does't know exactly what he's being asked for and doesn't know exactly what he's doing. Repetition after repetition, he develops muscle memory, he learns new motor skills such as how to lower his rump in a sit or how to lower his elbows until they touch the floor in a down.

Muscle memory is what helps makes these responses more and more fluent with the dog responding automatically with little conscious effort. Veterinarian M. Christine Zink in the book "Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation explains that muscle memory is basically the establishment of new connections between neurons which causes movement to become habitual.

However, when training any new type of movement, good precision is needed; otherwise muscle memory can work against you, bringing along habits that may be difficult to remove.


Making the Best out of Muscle Memory

In the initial stages of training, dogs are often lured into specific positions. A food lure is like a magnet that draws the dog's nose while his body follows the movement. For instance, when training a sit, the food lure is lifted from the dog's nose towards his head and as the dog's nose follows the treat, the dog will face upwards which causes his rump to lower to the ground. When training the down command, the food lure is moved as if drawing a letter "L" allowing the dog to follow it until his elbows touch the floor and his rump lowers to the ground.

While the dog normally sits and lies down during the day, he does so when he is tired of staying on all four legs, but he doesn't know how to do it cognitively on command. Same with rolling over. Dogs naturally roll over on their own, nobody taught them how to do that. We humans have brought the sit, lie down, roll over commands to a totally different level than what nature intended. We have basically taught dogs to sit, lie down and roll over on command and more frequently, but no longer for relief of tiredness, or in the case of rolling over, to get a nice backscratch or to absorb scent from a dead animal, but mainly for our delight and for rewards.

Interestingly, Steven Lindsay in his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior explains how it's very difficult to train a dog to lift his leg on command; yet this is a completely natural behavior in dogs who urine mark. He therefore explains that leg lifting is an instinctive response quite resistant to voluntary control and controlled at a primitive level of neural organization.

As the dog is trained, he becomes more aware of what it takes to sit and lie down. When the treat is guiding him, from the dog's perspective he's just trying to get the treat, and the position change into a sit or lie down is just the way to achieve it. He may be slow, sloppy and make mistakes. As the exercise is repeated, the dog develops muscle memory, the movements get more fluid and the dog no longer needs the lure, because he does it more automatically and other aids can also be removed such as body cues. When muscle memory has started to establish, this is a good time to introduce the command, by presenting it prior to the hand movement.

What you reward is what you get in the world of training animals. This means that if you repeatedly reward your dog for sitting crooked --what is known as a sloppy sit, muscle memory will build on that, and you'll find this habit to sit sloppy hard to get rid of. It's not the dog's fault, he was ultimately just rewarded for that, and rep after rep, sitting that way has become ingrained in his memory and part of his neural organization. A good way to remedy this in the case it has been established for some time is to give the command a new name. Generally, the more muscle memory you build the better, something golfing pros know well as they invest tremendous amounts of time in perfecting their swings.

Spinning in circles requires muscle memory

For further reading

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  • The ABC's of Dog Training
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  • The 3D's of Dog Training: Distance, Duration and Dis...
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli