How do dogs learn? – a little theory to help your training

How do dogs learn written above a yellow labrador lying on an open book

© / tanitue

You open the door to your home, tired from a long day. As you step through your door, you brace for impact.

Bailey, your exuberant Labrador body slams you with the joy of a linebacker making the game-winning tackle. You fall and shield your face from the drool droplets showering down as your overgrown puppy straddles you and tries to lick out your eyeballs.

“Bailey! No!” You scream through the slobber shower, while trying to regain your footing and dignity.

Bailey dances around you, tongue lolling, and leaps away as you give chase.

Contents & Quick Navigation

  • 3 Frequent Harsh Punishment Destroys Trust
  • 4 Train Using Wild Wisdom – Dogs Only Do What Works
  • 5 Timing Is Everything
  • 6 Back to Bailey
  • 6.1 Sarah Hansen
  • Not Speaking the Same Lingo

    As you race around the table trying to corral your disobedient ward, you wonder why she hasn’t gotten the message that you hate her personalized welcome-home salivary attacks. After all, you’ve been angry every time she has done this behavior. Why doesn’t she get it?

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    To top it off, the “greetings” are getting worse. What started with the cute action of dancing around you has now progressed to the body-slamming stage. If the behavior doesn’t stop, Bailey’s next act may be to pick you up and bury you in the backyard like a bone.

    Many people are perplexed when they can’t seem to change their dog’s behavior. Unfortunately, since they don’t understand how dogs learn, they unknowingly reinforce the very bad behaviors that they are trying to correct.

    Call of the Wild Logic

    While we like to envision the furry pups at our feet as pampered pooches, they actually carry the DNA and thinking of wild wolves.

    Since wolves don’t have guaranteed full food bowls at six o’clock sharp every evening, they tend to look at energy expenditure very differently than modern-day humans.

    Repeat What Rewards You

    In the wolf mind, every action is only worth repeating if they receive a positive outcome. For example, chasing prey burns a lot of energy. Yet, if they catch the prey, they have dinner. Dinner is a positive reward over starving- so they continue to repeat this behavior.

    Dogs are wired the same way. They try different behaviors and continue to repeat those that bring about good things. If their efforts create a bad or neutral result, they will no longer do it. After all, energy is expensive in the wild. Why continue wasting precious calories on behaviors leading to outcomes where nothing improves, or maybe even makes life worse?

    Rewarded Repetition Creates Learning

    Now, while this principle holds true, it often takes a few repetitions to sink into the canine cognition. After all, if a wolf ran after a deer and the deer ran away – a negative outcome in the wolf’s mind – the wolf would starve if he just gave up at this first attempt. Therefore, wolves often need several consistent consequences over a long period of time to establish a complete behavior change.

    The same is true for your dog. If you are trying to change a behavior, you may have to practice patience and repeat either positive reinforcement, or cause the behavior to lead to an undesirable or neutral result multiple times before your pup gets the message.

    Frequent Harsh Punishment Destroys Trust

    Some people resort to very extreme corrections. However, these types of painful punishments, while they can be effective at stopping unwanted behaviors very quickly, also deteriorate the relationship you’re working to establish with your dog.

    When you hurt your canine partner, you break their trust. Over-the-top discipline can create anxiety or emotional damage, which can lead to other behavioral problems. It’s far better to reward good behaviors and ignore or redirect bad behaviors.

    When you continue to control your dog’s environment so that good behaviors are set up for success and rewarded, and bad behaviors aren’t easily accomplished and offer no benefit to the dog, you’re able to create a model companion.

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    Train Using Wild Wisdom – Dogs Only Do What Works

    The behavior of your dog operates on the wilderness principles of only continuing actions that bring about good things. Once you understand this, you can then train using principles that make sense to the canine brain.

    For example, if your dog has the dangerous habit of chasing cars, fix this by first ensuring that he isn’t off leash to do this dangerous stunt any longer.

    Then, every time a car goes by, he is unable to scare the metal monster away with his bad self due to a leash. You then can replace his desire to chase cars with a new positive behavior. You could ask for a sit, down or heel command- and then reward the dog with high-value treats and praise when he listens.

    Soon, your dog will enjoy the rewards of praise and food much more than the previous exhilaration of chasing cars.

    Since your dog is now leashed, the bad behavior is no longer achievable (a neutral response). Therefore, the energy put toward the car chase is no longer warranted. If your dog still feels that life lacks purpose without racing after things, you could give him something safer to chase. After all, a Frisbee or a lure can still satisfy his thrill of the hunt.

    While it may be tempting to correct your dog harshly for chasing cars, since it could get them killed, it’s still not the right way to alter behavior. Dogs often associate punishment with the person administering the punishment rather than their specific action.

    Timing Is Everything

    Dogs learn by the immediate result of their actions. This literally has to be within the second of when the behavior takes place. This is why it makes little sense to yell at a dog for making a mess on your carpet when you get home from work. The mess may have happened hours ago, and the bewildered pup has no idea why you’re angry.

    Your dog will soon make a different association than you desire… that every time the master comes home they get angry. They will soon cower when you return in anticipation of your anger.

    If there is a mess, many pet owners think the dog feels guilty because of their reaction, but this isn’t the case. The dog has learned the association of events that occur closely together… every time you come home, you yell at them. However, they don’t understand how their “present” on the carpet was the first falling domino that started the anger chain reaction.

    In order to use our dog’s way of thinking to our advantage, we must understand that the essence of training is to control the consequences to all behaviors. When you master this skill, your dog will stop behaviors that don’t benefit them and continue the behaviors that bring about a happy outcome.

    When this is repeated consistently, dogs will mirror their actions to what you positively reinforce in their environment.

    Back to Bailey

    With this new understanding, lets go back to Bailey. You may think that you’re negatively punishing Bailey’s slide tackle by yelling and chasing her. However, in Bailey’s mind, this is a fun game.

    You get down on the floor with her and give her attention, and you then play and give chase. From her perspective, you’re “playing” and positively reinforcing bad behavior.

    Instead, try ignoring Baily when you get home by bracing yourself and turning your back to her. Then show Bailey that if she sits quietly at your feet, you will praise her and give her a treat.

    If you’re consistent and give her a neutral behavior when she jumps on you and a positive reward when she sits quietly, it won’t be long before you can enter your home without the need for body armor.

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