How Dogs Learn

In this job, it’s not uncommon for me to meet a lovely new client and their dog and be told a list of wonderful things they absolutely adore about their faithful canine companions. And then, in the next breath, be told a list of things they aren’t quite as keen on. Things like ‘they like all dogs except [insert breed here]’ or ‘I can’t stop them jumping up at people’ or ‘please don’t say the word walk/ball/treat it will send them [insert adjective here]’. Many people (myself included) can get stuck in a rut with tricky behaviours, unable to see a way out or even believe it’s possible to change things. Well 99% of the time, with some hard work and lots (and lots!) of consistency, behaviour modification is possible at any age. There are of course, always the exceptions. Dogs just like us can suffer from a variety of neurological complexities that can make progress much harder if not impossible, but regardless of your dog’s unique personalities I believe everyone can benefit from truly understanding how our dogs’ brains work, how they learn new things and interpret the world around them.

Types Of Learning

Dogs learn in two different ways, Operant and Classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is where dogs learn by the process of association, they begin to predict an action based on the smells, sights and sounds associated with whatever the trigger is. Putting your boots on means going for a walk (boots are the trigger), opening the treat jar means it’s time for a treat (jar or sound of jar or smell of treats are the trigger). Unfortunately, this can also teach them to predict a fear-based response if you have a dog with a nervous disposition. Dogs can easily become scared of people and other animals if they have negative experiences with any of them. For example, if a child chases a small dog and scares it the next time the dog sees a child chances are it will be more scared than it was before it was chased.

Operant condition is the term used when a dog learns something through and immediate consequence to their action, the most common form of this is ‘Sit = Treat’. Dogs tend to repeat things that they enjoy or that end in positive outcome, they soon learn to repeat sitting for a treat once they figure out that’s what ‘sit’ means. This kind of learning is mostly used in training and obedience classes, and it works very well! It can also be used in detrimental ways, such as giving a dog a treat from your plate whilst you are eating will more than likely (definitely!) cause your dog to beg every time you put food on your plate. This is generally the type of learning we as humans get wrong, we reward at the wrong times causing the dog to display unwanted behaviours in the hopes of gaining said reward. The good news is though, these can all be retrained!

How Does This Affect You?

Dogs, just like us, are constantly assessing the world around them. They learn through these processes whether we want them to or not. Understanding how to use them to your advantage is one of the most useful skills you can learn. So exactly how does it all affect you as the owner? Operant conditioning is probably the more important when it comes to behaviour modifying, but both come into play in many different scenarios. Let me give you an example;

Picture the scene, you’re about to take your dog our for a walk. First thing you do is get up grab their lead and say, ‘time to go for a walk buddy!’ and your dog becomes a little ball of cute but uncontrollable excitement. This is Classical conditioning; the dog has learnt to associate the action of picking up a lead followed by major excitement and going out for a walk. As you walk (get dragged) out the door there’s another dog on the other side of the road. Because of the huge excitement from leaving the house your dog begins to go crazy at the dog on the other side of the road. You pull on his leash, call his name, tell him to stop, all to no avail. This is Operant Conditioning, every word and action such as pulling back on the lead you are displaying towards your dog at that moment is reinforcing their current behaviour, even calling their name whilst they are in this state is conditioning it to their current action.

But just how do you change the course of action if you can’t get through to your dog? There are a couple of options using operant conditioning, if your dog is food, toy or even praise motivated these can be used as tools to redirect their attention away from their trigger. Some dogs’ rewards are things like running and chasing, these actions can be used as rewards but would be more suited to a training class environment, so the scenarios can be better controlled. A lot (not all) of dogs will ignore the dog on the other side of the road if you’re waving a piece of cheese or ham in front of their noses, or they’ll turn away from the other dog in an instant at the sound or sight of a squeaky ball. If their drive for these things is strong enough you can use whatever tool works best to distract your dog away from it’s trigger, ideally just before he reacts. Once your dog has diverted their attention away you can reward with whatever they prefer, sometimes it’s just a simple ‘good boy’. If you repeat this process enough your dog will soon learn that seeing another dog = reward from you rather than seeing another dog = go crazy at it. To a dog, the over excited behaviour is a reward to them also, it’s why they repeat the behaviours over and over, they become stuck in a self-rewarding loop. If you can provide a more rewarding outcome to your dog than the behaviour they are displaying, they will soon learn a new way of reacting to their triggers by looking to you for their reward rather than the dog on the other side of the road.

Dig, Dig, Dig!

Another example of self-rewarding behaviour is digging. If your dog starts digging a hole and you ignore it, it really isn’t going to care that you’re not paying them any attention, digging is far too much fun! If you do not redirect the rewarding behaviour onto something that you would prefer they have their attention on such as a bone to chew or an appropriate place to dig like a sand pit, the next time they get to that spot chances are they’re going to dig! This is a self-rewarding loop, they will continue to dig unless a better option comes their way.

Operant conditioning is a technique that can be used throughout a dog’s life, the earlier you start the better. If you reward your new puppy with a small treat every time they walk past and ignore other dogs and people, they will soon learn to focus on you rather than what’s going on around them. Operant conditioning focusses on strengthening or weakening voluntary behaviours with rewards. If the puppy voluntarily looks at you and is rewarded for it, the puppy will learn to look at you more.

Huge thanks if you’ve made it this far, I hope this has helped even if just a little bit! Next time I’ll be coming back to similar scenarios but talking about relaxation training, a technique that can be used for SO MANY THINGS from separation anxiety to sitting calmly for food to sitting at the door waiting patiently to go out. Thanks for reading!

Photography credit: Elmar Rubio

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