Tips For Dog Owners – How Dogs Learn


How Dogs Learn (An Introduction for Doggie Parents)

Hello Neighbors and Fellow Doggie Parents. This post is a brief overview on how dogs learn. Part of becoming a Certified Dog Walker was taking courses at an accredited dog walker school. Among the many things I learned about dogs was an introduction into basic learning theory. I found the material to be very fascinating and helpful from the context of a dog parent Some things I already knew from being a dog parent but there were many other things that I learned which helped me understand my dog’s thinking a lot better. I came away from this with a better mindset to how my dog thinks and learns and this intern, has helped me become a better parent. My goal in this blog post is to share a little what I learned with you so you can have a more effective relationship with your four-legged best friend.

There are countless books written on the subject of dog learning theory. Additionally, many more books debate the effectiveness of varying views verses one another. I am not a dog trainer and I only hope to give you a brief introduction into this universe. I will also provide some useful links that should give you a path (should you choose) to learn more about this subject.

If there is one thing I hope you takeaway from this post is that dogs, unlike humans, cannot take a step back and analyze a situation in its entire context. Like all animals, dogs react. This is what makes humans different than all other animals. When presented with any situation we take a step back to look at all the relevant things around and pertaining to a given situation to form a big picture. Dogs do not do this. If a person encroaches too far into a dog’s personal space, the dog will most likely react defensively like growling or even biting. Dogs are reacting to a situation. If someone were to encroach your personal space, you would most likely look around and analyze why this is happening as opposed to immediately going into a defensive mode. Are you blocking that person’s way? Are you standing on something that may belong to that person? Is that person approaching you in such manner as to protect you from something falling? Etc… Understanding this will greatly improve your ability to teach and train your dog. Part of dog effective training (as I learned) is for humans to anticipate your dog’s reaction to specific situations. This way, you can avoid having your dog do something you would prefer your dog not do (like bite someone as a defense mechanism).

So how do dogs learn? Basically, your dogs learns in two ways. The first way is she will figure out what actions she produces will lead certain outcomes. In other words, your dog will figure out that if she sits when you say “sit”, she will get a treat or when she barks at people while on a walk, she will get a leash tug followed by you pointing at her say “no!”. This is called Operant Conditioning.

The second way your dog learns is she will figure out that certain objects or sounds will correspond to a result. The objects or sounds by themselves will not directly relate to the end action, but your dog will learn to associate one with the other. This is the Pavlovian response. Perhaps you have heard of Pavlog’s Dogs? This is where a psychologist conducted an experiment where he rand a bell every time he fed his dogs. He then noted that when he rang the bell, the dogs would salivate. The dogs learn to associate the sound of the bell to food. This is call Classical Conditioning.

Why is understanding these concepts good for me as a doggie parent? By understanding these two concepts better, you can more effectively train your dog or shape her behavior.

Let’s briefly talk about the first way, Operant Conditioning or learning by outcomes of actions. O.C. is divided into two camps. On one side, there are those who practice rewarding dogs for good behavior and taking something away from dogs for bad behavior. Examples of this are giving your dog a treat for let’s say sitting. The dog will learn this behavior because the dog will want the positive reward. This is called positive reinforcement. To teach your dog not to do something (in a positive, non-harming way), you would take something away when she does something you do not want your dog to do. For example, if your dog has a problem jumping on you when you first walk through the front door, the way you would “take something” away is to turn your back on your dog and walk away. Your dog will learn that jumping on you will result in the negative consequence of you ignoring her and waking away (probably not what your dog is hoping for). This is called negative punishment. Note that both these methods are non-physical similar to the way parents teach and punish their kids without the use of spanking.

The second camp with regards to Operant Conditioning is the more old-school approach. Rather than rewarding good behavior, you would already have your dog in position or situation that is uncomfortable so that when she performs the behavior you want, you remove your dog from that unwanted position or situation. An example is pulling tight a choke chain on your dog until she sits or goes a certain direction. Then you loosen the choke chain. This is called negative reinforcement. For unwanted behaviors like your dog jumping on you when you get home, rather than taking something away, you would directly punish your dog by kneeing her in the chest or grabbing her scruff after she does this and shouting at her “NO!”. This type of punishment is referred to as positive punishment (or the use of spanking in parents from my earlier analogy)

Negative reinforcement and positive punishment used to be accepted as the norm when training dogs. Some people still use that approach. More and more trainers and other dog professional are being schooled and pushed towards positive reinforcement and negative punishment. When I did my dog walker certification this past summer, positive reinforcement and negative punishment were highly stressed as the way to go.

There are endless amounts of books and professionals advocating one camp vs. the other. Additionally, there are many who advocate some kind of combination. Each has their arguments debating which method(s) will lead to the best results when it comes to dog training. If you have ever seen episodes of “The Dog Whisperer – Cesar Milan, he has stirred up a lot of controversy among the dog training profession because he uses a lot of negative reinforcement and positive punishment techniques (you see him poking and kicking dogs all the time to get them to do what he intends). My personal approach and belief in dog training (more as a parent) is positive reinforcement and negative punishment. All this being said, it is also not as black and white and I’ve read cases that uses various combinations of all for quadrants (positive reinforcement and negative punishment and then negative reinforcement and positive punishment). It is not for me to say which is the best so I encourage you to research these further and to for your own debate.

Finally, let’s briefly talk about the second way dogs learn. Dogs also learn to associate certain objects an sounds with certain outcomes as first exemplified with Pavlov’s Dogs. Often the two are unrelated. If you ever have been a dog parent, you must remember a time when you would grab your keys or put on shoes and notice your dog would get excited because that often meant you were going on a walk or a drive. For me, whenever I put on my running shoes and grab my running hat, my dog would see this and automatically start to jump around in excitement because she would know it’s “jogging time”. This is learning by association or what psychologists like to call Classical Conditioning.

Understanding Classical Conditioning can be useful for you because it gives you the ability to train your dog without touching them. If you are a recent doggie parent, you may have heard of the clicker. The clicker is simply a small keychain size device that makes a clicking sound. You would click the clicker every time your dog or puppy would do something good like sit or bark at the door when it’s time to go pee. What you are doing is shaping their behavior. Timing is key in clicker training. The clicker combines both classical and operating conditioning. I’ve included a link below should you like to read about clicker training further.

Classical Condition gives you the ability to be proactive in trading your dog or shaping her behavior. If you understand how your dog associates unrelated objects with situations, you can prepare for or avoid unwanted scenarios and reenforce good behavior. A real world example is when my own dog was a puppy, she learned very quickly that when ever I grabbed her car harness, it would mean a trip to the vet where she would get poked and prodded. By combining operant conditioning (positive reinforcement in this case), I helped shape her fear of going to the vet by giving her treats while I secured her in her harness. Then, after each vet visit, I would take her to her favorite park for some Chuck-it play time. Quickly, her negative associations with going to the vet were shaped into positive ones where she learned if she endured the vet, she would be rewarded with treats followed by play time at the local doggie park.

Dogs are incredibly smart, as you already may know, and with a little guidance, you can effectively train and shape their behaviors for the good. Again, I am not a dog trainer (I’m a dog jogger and dog walker). However, my introduction to the world of how dogs learn tremendously improved my teaching as a doggie parent. I now understand why my lab does certain things and looking back on her life, I now realize I could have handled various situations more effectively. My goal in writing this is to give you more insight into this subject and provide some useful resources should you like to research this further.


Useful links and Sources for this post:

Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner)

Operant Conditioning (How Reinforcement and Punishment Modify Behavior)

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning (How It Works and a Few Examples of It In Action)

Pavlov’s Dogs

Classical Conditioning – Dog Training Excellence

Foundation for this post is my study at Pawsitive Tails School for Dog Walkers

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