Why it’s important to understand how dogs learn when training them.

When training dogs it is important to understand how they see the world and how this relates to their learning. First of all we need to understand that dogs are always learning, sometimes this is good – when they are learning what we want them to do – sometimes it’s bad when they are learning something that we don’t want them to do.

Dogs learn by association. To understand this, let’s look at this from a human perspective as we also learn by association. When we meet someone for the first time we come away with an association – we either felt the interaction was positive, negative or neutral. If the association was positive, that is we enjoyed the time we were with that person, we are likely to be happy to see that person again. However if the association was negative, say they were argumentative, difficult to talk to, rude or brusque the chances are we would probably avoid that person in the future.

Back to dogs, they experience life much like this on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis. Dogs lack a filter for rational thought, they are however constantly forming associations around what is happening ‘right now’. They are constantly making a decision of safe, dangerous or neutral or in other words ‘good for me’, ‘bad for me’ or neutral. If the decision is based on some external stimulus that produces a pleasant result the dog is likely to remember that – for example most dogs know the procedure that their human goes through when they get the dogs food ready. The clinking of ceramic bowls always raises a dogs ears, if the clinking is of the right ceramic bowl the dog normally gets excited. I have four dogs and as soon as I start to get their dinner ready they all go to their spots ready for dinner. They understand that my specific actions always predict dinner.

OK so dogs can associate actions or sounds to predict things happening, how does this help us in training?

Let’s say we have a new puppy and we are taking him out for a walk, we see another dog and the puppy starts to get excited and bounce around and bark as he wants to go meet the other dog. Now suppose we don’t like that behaviour and we shout “No” and jerk the leash; and every time we see another dog we do the same thing – shout “No” and jerk the leash. Very soon every time we see another dog our dog is going to react – he will begin to bark, growl and lunge at the dog. Why? We have built a negative association with seeing other dogs – we have in effect taught him to fear or dislike other dogs. We can reverse this situation by using Behavioural Adjustment Training and I’ll cover that in another blog.

Remember that we said that dogs live ‘in the moment’ we can use this to our advantage to build positive associations. Say we want our dog to sit, we lure him into the sit position with a treat in our hand and as soon as his haunches hit the ground we give him the treat. Do this several times and soon the dog will automatically sit and look at you expecting the treat. He has built an association between sitting and getting a treat.

The simple basis for positive reinforcement training is to reward a dog for behaviour you like and to ignore or redirect behaviour you don’t like. However we need the correct timing to train dogs. Give him immediate feedback—let him know right away when he has done something you like. Use praise, treats, or other rewards such as throwing a ball, opening a door, or letting your dog off leash to play.

Dogs then learn how to get by in this complicated human world by making instantaneous decisions, is this safe (and then good for me) or is it dangerous (and then bad for me). Another example, say our new puppy pees on the carpet in front of us and we punish him. He hasn’t learnt the difference between inside and outside he has just learnt that it is dangerous to pee in front of us, but it is safe to pee when you aren’t there.

When training dogs we need to remember a few simple things:

  • They decide instantly if something is safe (good) or dangerous (bad)
  • Given a choice they will always do what is safe (good)
  • Their attention span is in fractions of a second – timing is critical
  • Dogs do not understand the concept of right and wrong – they just do what’s safe (and works based on past experience)

Dogs do what is safe and what works. That’s all.

Remember dogs are dogs not people they do not come pre-programmed with a series of commands and the ability to toilet outside from birth. They have to be trained to do what we want them to do. It is easier and much more fun to use positive methods to train dogs and please remember nothing your dog does can be interpreted as trying to dominate you.

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