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How The Rule of 7 to Dog Training and Behavior Modification

George A Miller published “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review

What a mouthful. It may be a big complicated name, but the premise is simple. Miller studied mammalian psychology and realized that a mammal can remember only seven unrelated items of new, simple data at a time.  He called this restriction “channel Capacity.”

Think of it as a funnel. All the information is poured into the top – but only 1 – 7 pieces of data are stored in the brain.

Some trainers grabbed this and, without studying, believed that if you introduced a dog to 7 other dogs, then it would be socialized to all dogs. Others believed you needed to introduce 7 dogs to your dog, for 7 weeks. While this isn’t a bad idea, it misses the point.

When your dog goes into a new situation it will only remember 7 things. They may, or may not be what you want your dog to learn. Most often, they are the wrong behaviors.

For example, lets say that you go to puppy training class. Your puppy has never been in the car after dark and is upset. Your puppy sees a dog it likes in the group. Then it is startled because the trainer sticks her hand infront of your dog’s nose and smiles at you (to build affinity with you). Next your puppy sits on a mat but doesn’t like the new texture. Puppy looks at you and you yank the lead (first time) because it didn’t sit like the other puppies. Puppy is overwhelmed because it has never been in a pack situation.

That is six situations that ‘impact’ the puppy so there is only 1 more thing the puppy can learn at puppy training class. But more important, what have you taught your puppy tonight:

  • Be worried in a car at night – stress
  • It can’t play with puppies it likes = strange dogs are obviously to be avoided
  • Strangers might invade their space – they might be scary
  • Training centers feel uncomfortable – stress
  • Training centers = pain

It doesn’t feel nice being around strange dogs

Of course this is only hypothetical. Another puppy may see the situation totally different:

  • Wow – something out there is hiding – are we going hunting?
  • Puppy is looking at me – I don’t like it
  • That person tried to hurt me
  • I don’t like this place = This place is bad
  • Training Centers get me excited and over aroused
  • Other dogs make me excited

The Rule of 7 and Dog Training

So you can see that the rule of 7 doesn’t mean that your dog needs to step on 7 surfaces, meet 7 dogs, etc. The rule of 7 refers to Emotional Intelligence. Or to make it simple – it is about memory.  What will your puppy come away from Puppy class with.

Now, let’s look at another scenario:

Your puppy is in the car, at night, for the 10th time. Your puppy has visited the training center for puppy play/socialization three or four times and had a great time. The trainer stood quietly talking to you and waited till the puppy came to them to sniff, then the trainer offered a treat. Puppy took it politely because you’ve had strangers giving your pup a treat for three weeks.

You’ve been doing mental stimulation and problem-solving skills since your puppy was 8 weeks old so the new mat incites a ‘we are going to learn’ mentality and a sense of expectation in the puppy.  Your puppy won’t sit so you engage it, and distract it from the pack with treats and familiar mental stimulation games.

As you can see this puppy has been set up for success. All puppies in these scenarios will learn something. But what will they remember. The memories that your puppy will remember are those which are ‘flashbulb’ memories or repeated memories. Clicker people use flashbulb memories created by a reaction of the pituitary gland when the dog hears the ‘click’ sound.

Many dog trainers use pattern training, repeated behaviors, to imprint a behavior in a puppy’s mind and build memory. Both of these are ‘at work’ in everything you do. When a puppy is startled and feels stress or fear it remembers.

Generalization and Association

Training goes wrong when a puppy associates a behavior with an emotion. The puppy sees another dog and is corrected (feels pain) so the puppy associates pain with the appearance of other dogs. As the dogs get closer the fear of pain grows, and the dog becomes reactive.

Generalization happens when a dog associates a ‘thing’ with an ‘emotion’ and then decides that all similar things are bad.  Your dog is sleeping, and a child pulls its ear. The dog wakes and growls. You cause pain to punish. The dog associates pain with children. To be safe the dog now wants to keep all children away. Because we’ve associated fear with children then we are now discussing a ‘survival’ skill, not an obedience task. Your dog believes that if it lets children come close then it will be harmed.

This is an unrealistic expectation, and one you certainly didn’t intend to teach your dog. But this type of learning can teach a dog  an inappropriate behavior.

The Rule of 7 in Behavior Modification

Harvard memory researcher, George A. Miller, wrote a paper ‘The Magical Number Seven: Plus or Minus Two’ (1956).  According to Miller, the average person can remember between 5 and 9 digits, with 7 being the typical result.  More than 7, the ‘cognitive load’ becomes too difficult for most people to recall.

So next time you are training your puppy remember that it will remember the 7 ‘biggest’ things. So make sure you have set yourself up to be the biggest thing, and your puppy will remember your lessons – in theory.

Let’s look at this in behavior modification. Done wrong we force the dog to engage with the trigger so the trigger remains the biggest thing so that is what your dog will focus on. Most people who start behavior modification are nervous, so your dog picks this up.

Let’s look at another situation. You enter the training center and the dog is let loose to explore. You talk to the behaviorist, who is asking questions about your dog’s history. The dog has a chance to find out that nothing in the center will hurt it. There is nothing scary. No triggers are introduced. So, your dog leaves with a good memory and you have 1 or 2 calming exercises to teach your dog. The behaviorist will watch the dog and determine what 7 things impact the dog. They will use that to create a custom program for your dog.

Next time the dog arrives at the training center it has built good emotional association with the place, so even if a trigger arrives the dog will not instantly default to survival mode.