How Dogs Learn

And Why it Matters!

Whether you want to be a high level competitor in dog sports or your goal is just to get your dog to sit nicely while company comes in the front door, it is important to understand how your dog, and really all living, breathing, eating animals learn. When you understand how animals learn you are in a better position to use that knowledge to your advantage to reinforce the behaviors you want from your dog and to get rid of the behaviors you don’t want.

How Dogs Learn

First, A Little Theory
Dogs learn by two methods:

Association also known as Classical Conditioning

Consequence also known as Operant Conditioning

Associative learning or Classical Conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov who in 1904 earned the Noble prize in Physiology. Classical conditioning was discovered by mistake. Pavlov was investigating digestion, salivation and stomach processes. Salivation is called an unconditioned response, meaning, you cannot teach a dog or human to salivate. It is initiated by things that predict eating, like the presence of food or delicious smells.

Pavlov noticed that the dogs were salivating when they saw the technicians enter the lab. Why? Because the technicians fed the dogs, so their presence predicted food, which initiated salivation.

You may see the effects of Classical Conditioning with your dog. Does Rover get very excited to see his leash? Why? Because the leash predicts going for a walk or something else the dog enjoys.  Does your cat get excited and come running at the sound of a can opening? Why? Because can-opening predicts yummy cat food.

I had a dog who got violently ill when riding in the car. When she saw or heard the car keys she would tuck her tail and run and hide under the bed. Why? Car keys predicted getting violently ill. People are also classically conditioned. Last year, after eating eggs benedict at my favorite diner, I suffered for three days with serious digestive issues. Since, then I have not been able to eat eggs benedict anywhere. Why? Because for me, after getting violently ill, eggs benedict predicts unpleasant digestive issues.

Learning by Consequence or Operant Conditioning was discovered by B.F. Skinner.  Skinner was born in 1904 and is best known for his Operant Conditioning chamber and behavior analysis among others. No surprise he was influenced by Ivan Pavlov.

Skinner is best known for his Skinner box. Rats, pigeons and chickens were placed in various boxes where consequences were administered. All the animals learned that pushing or pulling a lever produced food, a positive consequence, thus they pushed the lever more. The scientists saw an increase in the behavior of lever pushing. On the other hand, the box also contained a special mat that delivered an unpleasant sensation if the animals stepped on it. They learned to avoid the mat. The scientists saw a decrease in stepping on the mat because there was an unpleasant consequence.

Dogs will operate their environment to their advantage using the principles of Operant Conditioning. If, from the dog’s perspective, a behavior produces something that tastes good, feels good and is safe, the behavior will be repeated or increased. If the behavior did not produce something that felt good, tastes good or was not safe, the behavior will decrease. Let’s take a look at some common dog behaviors and why they occur.

Why do dogs jump? Many dogs jump because as puppies, they were rewarded/reinforced to jump. How? Who can resist a cute little puppy? When puppies jump on us, we bend down and greet the pup, or we pick them up. All of these responses are rewarding/reinforcing to the puppy. Now your dog weighs 70 pounds and jumping isn’t cute. However, jumping and getting attention in the form of petting, eye contact, and being spoken to has been repeated so many times, that the dog has learned the behavior produces a positive consequence.

Counter Surfing
The first time your dog eats off the counter he is rewarded/reinforced with the equivalent of the Power-ball Lottery. Why? Left over pizza to your dog is equivalent to a $50,000 lottery prize. Maybe he ate the birthday cake, a stick of butter, or the loaf of bread including the plastic wrapper, all worth thousands of dollars.

Under the rules of Operant Conditioning any behavior that is rewarded/reinforced from the dogs perspective will increase. Is the dog going to jump on the counters again, yes!

Mouthy Behavior
Nipping and mouthy behavior can be a bit more complicated. Some breeds are more prone to being mouthy, such as herding dogs, who instinctually use their mouths to herd live stock. Never the less, dogs can be taught to keep their teeth off us. First, we need to understand how we are rewarding/reinforcing the behavior.

When a puppy bites us, it hurts and we scream and pull away quickly. To most puppies and dogs we sound and feel like a fast-moving squeak toy or wounded prey. Our reaction can be very rewarding/reinforcing from the puppy’s point of view.

Fluffy slippers look like toys or small fluffy animals to chase. Long flowing skirts, pants or pajamas also look very inviting from the pups perspective. The basic act of chasing you, playing tug with your slippers or clothing is all naturally rewarding/reinforcing.

Putting it into Practice
The key to Classical Conditioning is to pair high value food (roast beef, cheese, hot dogs) with any new experience to help your dog create a positive association before anything negative happens. The first few times your dog or puppy goes to the veterinarian, a relative’s house, or for walks in a busy downtown or anywhere new, the experience can be paired with amazing and delicious treats so that visiting these new places becomes super valuable from your dog’s perspective.

The key to Operant Conditioning is to begin to see things as your dog sees them. When your large, rough playing dog jumps on you and push him off, he may think you are playing rough. He may see your pushing and yelling as reinforcing and will jump more. So what do we do about that annoying jumping behavior? Think about asking your dog for a behavior that is not compatible with jumping. Behaviors like a sit, a down, or a go to your mat command come to mind. Practice training the behavior you want (i.e. a sit) and reinforce the heck out of it so that the sit becomes far more valuable to your dog than jumping on your family or your guests.

Dogs are learning about consequences and making associations all the time, not just when you have set up a picture perfect raining session. If your dog barks and paws at the crate door and then you open the crate; you have just reinforced the behavior of barking and pawing to make the crate door open. These are probably not behaviors you want in the long run. Dogs in our house learn pretty quickly that the only thing that makes a crate door open is a quiet, calm dog.

Remember that dogs are looking out for their own best interest and will repeat behaviors that get them what them what they want (attention, yummy treats, an opportunity to play, etc.). Asking for and reinforcing the behaviors that are important to you is an effective and efficient way of teaching your dog what you want from him/her and provides lots of opportunity for practice and reinforcement.

Denise Mazzola

Denise Mazzola


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