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7 Reasons Why You Need to Know How Your Dog Learns

Are there things that your dog does that frustrate you, or that you just wish you could improve?  Maybe you’ve tried training and haven’t seen the results that you would hope, or maybe there is something that your dog is doing that has really just driven you to your wit’s end.  Maybe it’s time for you to do some learning, in order to more appropriately teach in a way your dog can also learn.  So, why do you need to know how your dog learns?

Until you understand how your dog learns, you may be actually reinforcing undesirable behavior, or at a minimum, you will always feel like you are spinning your wheels trying to teach something to your dog that he seemingly refuses to learn.  You and your dog will both be unhappy until you can learn to teach what you want from your dog in a way that he can understand.  The onus is on you to understand how your dog learns. 

Top 7 Reasons Why You Need to Know How Your Dog Learns:

1. Eliminate Frustration

Until you understand how your dog learns, you may unwittingly reinforce bad behaviors.  Keep in mind that your dog does not think like you do.  You can’t assume that your dog should “know better” and you can’t expect him to just understand because you “said so.”  If you are making too many assumptions about what your dog understands, you could actually be working against yourself and creating habits in your dog that are counter to what you truly desire.  Ultimately, this will only serve to frustrate both of you, as you see your dog repeatedly doing something that you don’t like, and as he gets confused by your unexpected negative reaction. 

2. Better Communication

 Your dog could make you miserable if you don’t know how to train him.  Dogs need to understand how to fit in with your life, otherwise, it will be a constant challenge for you as you clean up their messes and struggle to meet the idyllic notion that you may have had about owning a pet.  Here’s the good news.  Your dog wants to be with you, and to please you.  It’s just up to you to know the right ways to communicate with him in order for that to be accomplished.  Once you better understand how your dog learns, you will communicate with him in ways that he will grasp, and he will adjust behavior in line with your desires. 

3. Danger for Your Dog

Your dog could get himself into danger if he doesn’t understand what is allowed and what is not.  Behaviors like running after cars must be corrected for your dog to stay safe.  Simply chasing him down as he’s running after the car is not going to correct the behavior the next time a car speeds by.  The only way that you are going to be able to teach him not to run after that car, putting himself in danger, is by working with him in a way that aligns to his natural learning patterns. 

4. Danger for You

You could get hurt if your dog does not know how to behave.  It’s not just your dog that you want to keep safe.  You need to be safe around your dog as well.  Dogs are very reactionary to their environment.  Anyone remember Doug from the movie, UP?   Can you say, “Squirrel!”?  If you are out walking an untrained dog and he suddenly wants to chase something, like the squirrel bouncing across your yard, you could be hurt in the process as he jerks on the leash, especially if it is a larger dog.  You need to be able to teach your dog appropriate behaviors that will keep you from getting hurt, just as much as it keeps him from getting hurt.  Again, they only way you are going to be able to do that is if you can teach him in a way that he can effectively learn. 

5. Good Dogs Need Good Teachers

You will not be able to teach your dog new tricks if you don’t understand how your dog learns.  You know the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?  Well, the truth is, you can teach your dog anything, regardless of his age, if you understand how he learns.  It’s typically the human owner of an old dog (or young dog) that has a hard time understanding how to appropriately teach that is the problem.  A well-trained dog starts with a well-trained teacher.  You can be that well-trained teacher when you understand how your dog will learn. 

6. Patience Is Important in Training

Trying to train your dog without an appropriate understanding of how he learns will be a continuously frustrating endeavor, for you and for him.  If you do not understand the need for patience, for instance, your training attempts will fail. Dogs learn by repetition over time.  You can’t expect a single training session to stick long term.  Only patience and repetition will create lasting behavior change.

7. Poor Training Can Damage the Relationship

If you don’t understand how your dog learns, not only could you inadvertently create new bad behaviors, but you could actually damage the relationship you have with him.   This is often the case with people who think their dog will learn by yelling at them or by using physical punishment.  If you think that harsh correction will teach your dog, you are likely creating a negative environment that will drive your dog away, rather than strengthen your bond.  True learning is difficult, if not impossible for your dog, in this environment.   If you hurt your dog in an attempt to stop a bad behavior, you could create unnecessary anxiety and possibly even emotional damage.   You are much better off learning to reward good behaviors or redirect your dog from bad behaviors, rather than focus on negative consequences when your dog misbehaves.  A simple, yet firm, “No” is often enough to get your dog’s attention and become that negative result to dissuade him from doing that action again.

So, how does my dog learn?

There are two main ways that your dog learns.  They are called operant conditioning, which has to do with the immediate consequences of behavior, and classical conditioning, which is learning by association.  Both are beneficial as you train your dog in various ways. 

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the most common type of training that will be consciously performed.   It focuses on the consequence of a behavior, whether good or bad, to reinforce a course of action.  So, a behavior that has a positive consequence, like a treat or your affection, is reinforcement in a way that encourages repetition of that behavior.  A behavior that has a negative consequence, like you yelling or withholding a treat, discourages repetition of that behavior.  This is why treats are typically used as a part of the training process.   The dog sits, he gets a treat, he is happy, therefore, when you tell him to sit again, he will want to perform that task again so that he can get another treat.  Because repetition is a key to all learning for dogs, this process of performing the behavior and getting the reward must be repeated many times.    

Dogs are very outcome driven. They will continue doing behaviors that have positive outcomes.  Food, for example, is a positive outcome, which is why many dogs will perform tricks when they are rewarded with food.  Similarly, attention from their favorite person (i.e. YOU) is a positive outcome for your dog.  Conversely, if there is no reward or a negative outcome from their action, they will not be inclined to continue the behavior. This can become a trial and error type of learning.  They will continue to try various things to see the different outcomes.  Those things that produce positive results will be repeated.  For a behavior to truly be solidified, the action and the reward will have to be repeated multiple times over.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is more about association or prediction.  If you always get the leash out of the closet right before you take your dog for a walk, your dog will begin to associate getting the leash out with it being time to take a walk.  Similarly, your dog will associate a car ride with the place that you normally take him in the car.  If you regularly drive to the dog park, the car is likely to have a positive association.  If you only take him in the car to go to the vet, however, he may not be so excited about getting into his seat.  You can use association to make things that might otherwise seem scary, into things that your dog will want. 

Classical conditioning is not training per se, but it is an important part of the training process.  You need to help your dog associate positively with the behaviors that you want.   So, if you have a difficult time cutting your dog’s nails because he is always apprehensive about what you are doing, look for ways to make the experience more pleasant, and find ways that he will start to associate it with something he likes.  Maybe give him his favorite toy or treat while you are trimming his nails.  You can even get creative and put peanut butter on your face or tuna fish behind your ears to give him something to lick and have fun with while you clip away, if you are so inclined.  The important thing is to make sure your dog feels happy in the process, thereby creating a positive association. 

For those of you who desire to use clicker training, understand that it relies on classical conditioning.  It is the association that is developed in the dog’s mind between the treats and the clicker, known as charging the clicker, that makes clicker training effective in the long run.  Without that association, the clicker would have no particular meaning to the dog. 

Additional Understanding of Learning in Dogs

So, based on these two broad ways that dogs learn, operant conditioning and classical conditioning, there are additional specifics that we can apply to how dogs learn that will aid in directing the learning process. 

Trial and Error

Like humans, dogs can learn from trial and error.  We mentioned this in association with operant conditioning.  A positive outcome of the tried action, reinforces repetition of the behavior.  A negative outcome of an action reinforces avoidance of that action.  If they are exploring outside, for example, and they encounter something new, they will learn about that thing through trying various approaches.  If they see a worm for the first time, they may first try to approach it to smell it.  Then, they may try nudging it with their snout.  They may try barking at it to see if they get a reaction.  Your dog may even go so far as to pick it up in their mouth.  It is in the trial of these various approaches that the dog is learning what a worm is, and what it is not.  Through this trial and error, they learn that while it may smell interesting, it is not likely to make a good playmate. 

Use of Senses

Dogs gather information largely through their senses of smell and sight.  This is important to recognize in order to apply the right tools to the training process, whether as a part of operant or classical conditioning.  Whether it is a reinforcement or an association, the most powerful tools in the training process will be things activating these senses. 

From the standpoint of operant conditioning in training a new trick, this means that a lot of your dog’s learning will come from observed body language, not verbal language (sense of sight, rather than sense of hearing). They will pick up a hand gesture as a part of being trained for a new trick often more easily than a verbal command.  You should always use these together.  Provide a down gesture when you say, “Sit.”  Reinforce the action once they perform the behavior with a treat and affection. 

From the standpoint of classical conditioning, the most impactful associations will also come from things related to smell or sight.  Dogs are highly activated by smell, and the things they probably like to smell the most are their favorite foods (can you smell the bacon even now?), and the smell of their favorite person (yes, you).  So, they are likely to have the most positive associations from times where they got to experience the bacon and your cuddles.  If you want your dog to become more relaxed when friends visit the house, let your friend provide the bacon or the other treat while you sit close to them and have your dog approach. 

Socializing

Some of the things that dogs learn are from socializing with other dogs.  This can be readily observed if you bring a puppy into the house with an older dog.  You will notice over time that the puppy will often develop habits, both good and bad, from his older canine sibling.  I noticed this with my older black lab and Vizsla mix puppy.  I saw my little Vizsla start to imitate my lab, following him all over the house, doing things like getting up to go upstairs whenever I was headed that way. This was clearly a learned behavior, since my lab is much more of a mamma’s boy who wants to stay with me, while my sweet Vizsla girl definitely likes her daddy.

These learned habits can also work to your advantage.  If you have multiple dogs in the house, understanding how they learn, and effectively teaching one, especially the dominant one, can be a big help in developing those same behaviors with other dogs in the house.  This is also very much in line with the concepts of operant and classical conditioning, because dogs are pack animals.  Their place in the pack is very important to them.  It has a similar effect as peer pressure for people.  They will feel positively rewarded or positive associations with behaviors that they have modeled after other dogs, who will in turn give them a better standing in the household, their pack. 

Restriction

Your dog can learn through restriction.  This is in line with classical conditioning, as it creates associations between different elements, and it can be a huge advantage to you when you are trying to teach your dog things that go beyond, “Sit” and “Stay.”  For example, if you want your dog to walk close to you, you first train him on a leash.  Only after he has learned that he is supposed to walk alongside you through the restriction of the leash should you start lengthening the leash and ultimately allowing him off the leash in places where it may be safe to do so.    During the process, he is being conditioned to associate that walking with you means that he is expected to stay close.  Note once again, this is a time when patience is required.  It may take years or months to make sufficient associations through the repetition of behavior, in order for you to have the confidence to move on to next levels.

Summary

Your dog can learn in multiple ways, but it is up to you to understand his learning patterns and focus your training in ways that will help him succeed.  This process is critical for the safety of you and your dog, as well as for the blissful environment that you want to create in your home with your dog.  Taking the time to understand how your dog learns, and apply training methods in line with that, is something that you must do for his sake, and for yours.

Rebecca Chesonis

Rebecca Chesonis is a business professional with a lifelong love for dogs. She has owned and worked around dogs since she was a child. She has a love for all breeds, and a particular fondness for large dogs. She loves to write articles and create videos that will help you take care of your dog and find activities to make life with your dog even more fun!

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