How Dogs Learn – Dog Training

A great relationship with your dog should be built on trust and mutual co-operation. This takes time to develop and you should start building it from day one. Sadly, many dog and owner relationships fall apart, and many bad habits develop, because we don’t know how dogs learn.

If you are going to train your dog yourself, it’s useful to know how he learns. Dogs always learn what we teach them. We’re the ones who, sometimes, don’t realise what we’re teaching.

Types of Dog Learning

There are two types of learning. One is where the dog learns to pair two things or events together. For example, after a few repetitions of putting the lead on your dog and taking him out for a walk, he becomes excited when he sees the lead. This is because he has learned to associate the lead with walks.

This type of learning happens without the dog having to do anything. In other words, he simply gets excited when he sees the coming does. The same thing happens with fear. Imagine you have accidentally hurt your dog while clipping his nails. Now, when he sees the nail-clippers he becomes afraid. Why? Because he learned to associate nail-clippers with pain.

Start Training Your Dog Early

Another characteristic of this type of learning is that one thing always leads to another: the cookie jar suggests a food treat . . . a car ride promises a run in the park. If a thing or event is paired with, and moves on to something the dog enjoys, that thing itself causes joy or excitement. If it’s paired with, or followed by something the dog hates or is afraid of, it causes fear or aversion – a need to give what’s coming a miss.

Learning to pair two things or events together is always happening, regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not. This is because your dog is in permanent contact with his surroundings. For example, let’s imagine umbrellas mean nothing to your dog. At the same time, he’s afraid of loud noises. One day he happens to be looking at an umbrella when a car backfires loudly, frightening him. Your dog may become afraid of umbrellas, simply because ‘something terrible’ happened to him while he was looking at an umbrella.

The other type of learning involves the dog linking an action with an instant outcome. For example, the dog sits and immediately gets a food treat. After a while he will link the act of sitting with food treats.

Another example is the dog pulling on the lead and you delivering a strong jerk, causing him pain. Quite quickly he will associate pulling on the lead with pain. With this type of learning, the dog changes his actions according to the outcomes they produce.

There are four instant outcomes you can provide for your dog’s actions:

  • reward him, punish him
  • stop the punishment
  • withdraw the reward
  • omit the reward

Here is one example of each. The dog sits and you give him a food treat – that’s a reward. The dog pulls on the lead and you pull him back with all your strength – that’s punishment. The dog stops pulling and you ease the tension on the lead – that’s stopping the punishment. The dog sits instead of lying down when you say ‘down’, and you don’t give him a food treat – that’s omitting the reward.

One of the most important ways of building a relationship based on trust and co-operation is to provide only two outcomes for your dog’s actions – rewards, and withdrawing or omitting rewards. You hold the goodies and have the power to give them and take them away, without causing your dog pain or fear. By providing these two outcomes your dog will do more of what is rewarded, and less of what isn’t.

When I explain this to my clients, many of them ask, ‘How can I take away a reward when I call my dog and he doesn’t come?’ Your dog doesn’t come when you call him because whatever he is doing is more rewarding. So, if you’re using a long line to teach him to come when called, you can ‘reel’ him in if he doesn’t come. That’s a way of taking away a reward.

Training a Dog – Why Rewards Work

dog training
Make Eye Contact While Training Your Dog

Rewards are powerful motivators, and dogs do more to keep them coming. This applies to actions we like, and to those we don’t. Often, unwittingly, we reward the dog for doing what we don’t want him to do. Imagine your dog jumps up at people to greet them. Sometimes they pat him . . . sometimes they push him away (a fun game, by the way)coming does sometimes they say: ‘Oh, come on. Get your paws off me,’ in a sweet tone of voice that sounds like praise. All these are rewards. Sometimes people ignore the dog when he jumps up at them, but end up giving him some kind of attention when he doesn’t stop jumping.

What the dog learns from this is to keep trying until the reward comes. In this case, attention is the reward. Do you see how responsive dogs are to what we’ve taught them? Do you see how sometimes we don’t know what we’re teaching them?

Perhaps you’ve read or heard that when you want your dog to do something, you must use a commanding tone of voice, and keep your back and shoulders straight. This is not true. Firstly, your dog doesn’t care if you’re standing up straight or doubled-over. Secondly, a commanding tone of voice often sounds like shouting. Because your dog should have an excellent sense of hearing, shouting is unnecessary.

Thirdly, it’s not what you do before an action, but what you do after that matters. This is because dogs, like all animals able to learn and have memory, do things depending on their past outcomes. Let’s take a closer look at this because then you’ll realise there’s no point in repeating your commands over and over, while changing your tone of voice and volume.

If I say to you, ‘Please sit down’, and then ask you why you sat, you’re likely to answer, ‘Because you told me to’. But, in fact, you sat because of your previous experiences with sitting or not sitting when asked to. Perhaps when you were a child your teacher told you to sit down, you didn’t, and he pushed your shoulders down. So you learned that not sitting when told to leads to punishment.

In this case, what made you sit again whenever your teacher told you to was the fear of being punished if you did not. Looking at a different scenario, you’ve learned that you become more comfortable when you sit, especially if your feet are sore. So my invitation for you to sit down is a blessing.

In short, your power as your dog’s trainer is in the outcomes you provide for his actions – not on how you tell him to do something. Dogs don’t understand any human languages, but learn to associate the sound of words with actions. If your dog could talk to you, he might say something like, ‘When I hear the word “sit”, I may be rewarded if I sit, or punished if I don’t’.

Now here’s a shocker! Dogs are eager to please no one but themselves. Please don’t get me wrong. They do form emotional bonds with us. Wonderful ones. So much so that there’s a common problem called separation anxiety. But when it comes to doing things for us, they comply if there’s something to gain from it.

Your dog doesn’t care if he’s trained or not. It’s in your best interest to train him so that you’ll have a well-behaved dog you can take anywhere. And if you want his co-operation, training has to be pleasant. Your dog should find it more pleasant to co-operate than to go and do something else. How do you make training pleasant? By choosing your rewards carefully. The following are a few things to consider:

  • If your dog is full and you choose a food treat as a reward, he may not find that pleasant. In fact, he may feel punished. It’s better to train him when he’s a bit hungry.
  • If he eats boring commercial food and you use that as a reward, it’s not pleasant either, unless he’s hungry or you mix something tasty with it.
  • If you choose a toy he’s been playing with all day, that’s boring. Use a toy he hasn’t played with for a while.
  • A pat and some kind words may be a good reward if you’re training in a place that has no distractions. But if you’re training in a place with distractions, use tasty treats.

The more you reward your dog, the more he will enjoy the training session and the more he will co-operate.

Rewards are not just food, toys, friendly words, and pats. The opportunity to continue doing what the dog was doing before you told him to do something is also a reward. For example, if your dog is playing with another dog, you call him and he comes running to you, reward him by letting him continue playing with the other dog.

Remember your dog will always choose to do what’s more pleasant or interesting to him. Become the most interesting thing in his world, and he will choose to co-operate with you.

Using Punishment to Train a Dog

Can you use punishment to train your dog? Sure. But what you’ll achieve is a dog that obeys out of fear. He’ll do things in order to avoid being punished, not because he’s enjoying doing them. In the long run, your relationship will suffer. And don’t kid yourself . . . when you see dogs being incredibly obedient because they appear to respect their owners so much, that’s often not respect – it’s fear.

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