It’s Elementary My Dear!
(Understanding How Dogs Learn)
One of the most important things we can do as animal owners, trainers, and care takers is learn to understand how our animals perceive the world, communicate, and learn. This enables us to fulfill not just their physical needs, but their mental and emotional needs as well. Understanding how they best learn also empowers us to teach them our expectations and desires in an efficient and ethical manner. It is the first step to a positive and conflict-free life with our beloved companions.
So, how do dogs learn? Believe it or not, that question has a long, in depth answer based on a huge amount of scientific research, but for our purposes, we’ll stick to the highlights.
To understand how dogs learn, we need to understand why dogs do what they do. All behavior serves a function, whether it’s play, counter-surfing, napping, or doing a spin, all behaviors are performed for a reason. And that reason is pretty easy to nail down, because all dogs are motivated by two things
1. The desire to attain something they want or,
2. The desire to avoid something they don’t like.
Every single behavior your dog does is done for a reason that falls into one of those two categories and the motivation to attain something they want is naturally stronger than the motivation to avoid unpleasant things. How about some examples?
• A dog that sees food on the counter will very likely jump up on the counter, why? Because they WANT to eat the yummy food. Same goes for digging in that garbage bag full of smelly goodies.
• A dog that is uncomfortable with someone touching it may growl or snap when a person tries to nudge them off the sofa. Why? Because the dog WANTS the touching to stop, and is using very normal dog communication to try to make that uncomfortable thing go away.
• A dog that is very excited to see its owner come home may jump up on their owner. Why? Because they WANT to do something with all that excitement and energy and jumping is a natural way to express these feelings. It may also get them attention and interaction from said owner.
• A dog that has been scolded in the past for going potty in the house may start to go potty behind the sofa, or when no one is present. Why? Because they need to use the restroom but WANT to AVOID the scary scolding.
There’s a key point in these examples that we need to make sure we don’t brush over – these dogs are all doing very normal dog things, and communicating in very normal dog ways. It is always, always, our responsibility as a dog owner to understand how our dogs naturally act and communicate and take that into account when we interact with them. A dog doing things we don’t like is not a bad dog. They are simply a dog being a dog. A dog doing something we don’t like even when we’ve been having success training them to not do that behavior is not a dog that is stubborn, disrespectful, or choosing to be bad. They are a dog who is more motivated to do the thing we don’t like than they are to do the thing we do like.
Thankfully, that’s a straight forward fix. All we have to do is use their natural desires to make them more motivated to do the behaviors we like, which they will then do instead of the ones we don’t.
Dogs naturally learn through associations; the association of their actions and the direct consequences or the associations between two stimuli (anything heard, smelled, seen, felt, tasted, and experienced in any manner). We’re gonna get a little scientific for a minute, but stay with me because this info is gold for those who want to be able to train any animal (including your children or spouse!)
There are two main types of training; classical conditioning, which handles reflexive behaviors and operant conditioning, which handles intentional behavior, behavior an animal chooses to do.
The first type of training – classical conditioning – focuses on the emotions of the dog. This method is about the positive and negative associations our animals have with different things in their environment, how those associations make them feel, and how those feelings influence their actions.
When we use classical conditioning in dog training, we are usually focusing on dogs that are fearful. This fear can look significantly different depending on the dog and the situation. Some dogs may cower, whine, or try to run away while other dogs may growl, lunge, or bark.
The way we change this is by changing the associations or emotions the dog has with the stimuli (also called the “trigger”). We introduce the trigger at a level (distance, duration, and/or intensity) that does not evoke the fight or flight response, and consistently and repeatedly pair it with something that causes significant positive feelings (often an extra special treat). Over time, their comfort and confidence around this trigger grows and they react to it far less. This training can take lots of time and forethought.
The second type of training is operant conditioning, so we’re going to look at observable behaviors and influence them to happen more or less often by manipulating their consequences.
There are three pieces of the puzzle with any operant behavior – the A,B, and C.
• A stand for “antecedent”. This simply means anything that causes a behavior to occur. It could be the word “sit” which would hopefully cause your dog to sit, or it could be something in the environment like the smell another dog left behind that causes your dog to go sniff that spot.
• B stands for behavior. This is anything your dog does, desired or undesired.
• C stands for consequence. Any direct result of a behavior, good or bad.
There are four types of consequences. Each one has a different effect on behavior, but some are more or less humane, more or less effective, and more or less efficient at communicating. The four types of consequence are:
• Positive reinforcement
• Negative reinforcement
• Positive punishment
• Negative punishment
In operant conditioning, positive doesn’t mean good, it means “adding” and negative doesn’t mean bad, it means “taking away”. A reinforcer is anything your animal wants, it rewards. Reinforcement makes behaviors happen more often. A punishment is anything your animal doesn’t like. Punishment makes behaviors happen less often BUT they also often cause other behaviors to occur, and usually not ones we as owners want to see. So, if we combine these definitions we can now see that positive reinforcement means we are adding something our animal likes to the environment to make a behavior occur more often.
And here in lies an important key to animal training. Remember back when I was talking about why animals do things? I mentioned that an animal’s desire to attain things they want is almost always stronger than their desire to avoid something unpleasant. So, if we want one behavior to stop and another to take its place, we need to make the behavior we like more rewarding then the behavior we don’t like. THIS is what will create long-lasting change in how your dog acts.
• How about an example? If our dog jumps up on us to say hello and we don’t want them to do that, we can choose an alternative behavior. Maybe we want them to keep all four on the floor, or maybe we want them to bring us a toy to play fetch. All we need to do is reward our dog for doing these alternative behaviors and not reward the jumping and boom, with some patience and LOTS of practice the jumping stops and our faithful companion is now doing something we find more agreeable.
Let’s bring it all together now –
Always do your best to make sure you are meeting your dogs needs - this includes mental, physical, and emotional needs.
If your dog is doing something you like, reward it!
If your dog is doing something you don’t like, there are three steps to creating the change;
First ask yourself “what is the function of this behavior – what is my dog trying to get or avoid by doing this?”
Second, as yourself “what would I like my dog to do instead of this?”
Third, change the environment so your dog can’t keep rewarding themselves for the wrong behavior, change their daily schedule to make sure any un-met needs are being fulfilled, and start rewarding them for the behavior you want to see instead.
Dog training often involves the use of both classical and operant methods, which is why it is often helpful to have an experienced and knowledgeable professional to help guide you and your dog through the process.
Believe it or not, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to animal behavior! There is so much more to learn!
Here are some links to helpful infographics and articles: