How Dogs Learn: The Secrets Of Dog Psychology

How Dogs Learn: The Secrets Of Dog Psychology

There are many schools of thought on dog training.  The two most popular are reward training (positive reinforcement) and aversion dog training (negative reinforcement).  Both of these training methods are based on operant conditioning, the fundamental premise of dog training.

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is simply recognizing the strength of a behavior and modifying it by its consequences.  In other words, you reward the dog for performing a desired behavior you take away something for unwanted behavior. 

In operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence of that behavior.  In other words, the consequence of an action is influenced by a behavior. The premise is that actions that are followed by a reinforcement or reward are more likely to occur again in the future.

For example, when the dog sits on command, you offer a reward such as a treat or tug.  If the dog refuses to sit, you refuse to give a treat or tug toy until the dog does sit.  At times, it may also require taking away a stimulus that is distracting the dog.  Let’s say the dog won’t sit because it wants to play ball.  Simply remove the ball then ask the dog to sit and reward accordingly, eventually getting to the place the dog will sit with distractions.

Why does operant conditioning work?

Dogs are not human and don’t communicate the way we do.  They rely primarily on verbal, visual, and scent clues.  As they go about their day, they watch, sniff, and sometimes make verbal sounds to communicate.

They learn from each other by observing and interpreting body language.   Although dogs are not human, they share some basic needs with us, such as the need for shelter, food, water, and companionship.  Dogs also have the ability to think on their own and make decisions.  However, these decisions are not always in line with what their human owners think they should be.

Therefore, we train our dogs and provide them with what they need to be great family companions.  They are happy to comply because they get their basic needs met plus they love to learn and please us.

Because dogs are social and great at observing, they easily learn what we want by reading our body language, social cues, and commands.  By rewarding them for grasping a command and performing it, we condition them to learn commands and boundaries.

Dogs are reward motivated

Dogs are very reward motivated (think of the Pavlov’s Dogs experiment). They repeat behaviors that offer them a reward, such as food or pleasure.  They don’t repeat behaviors that offer them no reward or cause them pain.  In nature, wild dogs learn what works and what to avoid in order to stay alive.

In training, when we reward good behavior, dogs get excited about their reward and will offer the behavior again and again.  That is one reason why we need to be careful about inadvertently rewarding unwanted behavior.  For example, let’s say you don’t want your dog to jump on you when you get home from work but the dog is so cute and happy you just can’t resist offering a hug and a rub. You’ve just rewarded unwanted behavior.  How much easier it would be to come home and ask your dog to sit before petting or giving a treat?  This is operant conditioning at work.

Repetition is key

Dogs learn quickly but because they are also free-thinking creatures, repetition in training is key to a well trained dog.  By practicing your training, commands, and continuing to reward good behavior while correcting bad behavior, you set your dog up as a life-long learner.

We’ve all taught our dogs to do something, such as sitting before racing out the door.  Then we get lazy and inconsistent the next thing we know our dog is racing out the door, or sneaking a treat from the counter, or jumping on us.  When this happens, the fault falls squarely on us for not being consistent because the dog is simply being a dog and performing a behavior that he enjoys.

Painful punishment destroys trust

Dogs live to please and to be rewarded.  They don’t need harsh or painful punishments to learn.  While extreme punishments certainly will stop an unwanted behavior, it will also destroy the trust your dog places in you.

Mutual trust and affection will create an unbreakable bond with your dog.  Harsh, painful punishments will create an anxious, fearful, nervous, or traumatized dog that won’t know how to do anything except avoid you and will often engage in other unwanted or destructive behavior.  It’s up to you to create a well rounded, socialized, well balanced dog.

Control your dog’s environment

Controlling your dog’s environment is also important to their training.  In other words, don’t set them up for failure.  For example, your dog should learn how to behave inside and outside their own home before expanding their territory and giving them more privileges. 

For example, teaching a dog how to walk on a leash and perfect recall is imperative if you plan to take them off leash on a hike or at the beach.  If they don’t already know these things, you can’t expect them to walk politely or come when called with tons of fun distractions around.

The concept of operant conditioning and building on training seems simple enough but a trip to the vet, dog park, or other place people frequent with dogs will show you this is not always the case.  By controlling your dog’s behavior, you strengthen the bond you have with your dog, teach your dog how to behave, and build on the foundation you need to go on new adventures with your best friend.

Related Posts