2a. Dog Learning Basics


How Dogs Learn

Dog Learning Basics

Training should be fun and enjoyable for both you and your dog. Understanding how dogs think and learn will provide you with the knowledge to teach your dog.

It’s important to understand the dogs are amoral, meaning they do not understand right from wrong. They learn what is safe and what is not safe. What is good and what is not good. Dogs learn from consequences and associations made through interacting with the environment around them. These interactions help dogs understand what is good and bad in respect to themselves which impacts their emotional state and behavior.

Let’s look at how consequences and associations affect dog behavior.

A. Associations

Dogs are constantly making associations between the world and their behavior.

  • They can learn predictors (i.e. you put your shoes on- you are going out. You get the leash- the dog is going for a walk)
  • Rewarding behaviors that are important to you makes them more likely to happen again- dogs are creatures of habit.
  • Put food in small containers around house or treat bag, baggies in pocket so you can reward easily.
  • Things that are rewarded are practiced and what is practiced tends to get repeated.
  • Don’t take any good behavior for granted, especially something you got for free. Praise and reward all good behavior. Praise and reward engagement and focus.

B. Consequences

Consequences are the result of an action performed by the dog. He learns from both good and bad experiences. Good experiences are repeated and bad ones are avoided. A good way to think about it is, if it pays off, the behavior will most likely be repeated. Your dog isn’t trying to intellectually or emotionally do anything except get a good reward. Dogs usually will avoid further interaction with negative experiences unless the payoff is worth the negativity

A few examples of consequences:

  • Dog sits and receives a cookie.
  • Jumps on the kitchen counter and obtains food.
  • Jumps up on person and gets attention.

By controlling consequences, we can teach our dog to understand behaviors we like and reward for continued future behavior. By establishing a clear communication system between you and your dog, you will be able to facilitate understanding of the preferred behaviors.

C. The Importance of a Reinforcer

Reinforcement impacts behavior. It builds value either in doing the behavior more or avoiding the behavior for the dog.

Using a rewarding reinforcer creates a dopamine burst which not only solidifies learning but also encourages repeating the behavior. This is similar to a gambling addiction. Different reinforcers have different values in the amount of dopamine that is released. High value reinforcers release more dopamine… hot dogs, cheese and things like squirrels, birds, etc. Low value reinforcers release low levels of dopamine. An example of a low-level reinforcer would be your dog’s kibble.

We can use reinforcers to help meet challenges in the environment by implementing some of the tricks used by the world around us to engage our dogs.

For example:

  • Use movement to help keep your dogs focus- run or move the food around (I promise the squirrel is moving!)
  • Use scent to keep your dog’s attention- smelly treats help draw your dog’s attention
  • Use new things like pace changes, toys and games to change up your reinforcement because the environment is not always the same.

If you are not reinforcing your dog for good behavior, the environment will. Dogs are learning all the time. It’s important to develop a clear communication system with your dog so that they understand what behavior is getting reinforced.

Important Reminder about Reinforcement:

  • Remember, your dog decides the reinforcers, not you. You need to use something (treats, play, etc.) that your dog likes in order for it to be a reward.
  • Reinforcement drives behavior.
  • Reinforcement is a double edged sword. Be aware what you reinforce. It may not always be what behaviors you want.

D. Generalization

Dogs don’t generalize. Meaning that what you teach your dog at home has to be reinforced outside, in the car, at a park and any new place you take your dog. Don’t be surprised if you have to re-teach the cue in each of these new environments. Your dog will learn the cues faster in the new environments if it is not too distracting (imagine trying to study while the TV is on, the radio is blaring your favorite song, your phone is ringing and your family is playing toss over your head. Impossible right?). Dogs learn best in calm, low distraction environments. Extending the performance of the behaviors into distracting locations takes time, practice and distance from the distractions. Are you interested in leveling up your dog with distractions? You should sign up for the Focus and Self Control Class offered through The Dog Training and Learning Center.