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Dog Training How Dogs Learn

Definition of Dog Training
Dog training is about being able to effectively control your dog during times when control is most needed, whenever and wherever that may be.

How dogs learn.
Dogs, like people, learn through a combination of classical and operant conditioning (association). However, the similarities end there.

In "operant conditioning" the subject (dog) learns by the immediate results of its actions and the association of events that occur closely in time. The dog’s behavior is influenced by the results it produces.

In "classical conditioning", the subject (the dog) learns to associate a neutral or meaningless stimulus (a bell) with an unconditioned stimulus (such as food) and results in an involuntary or conditioned response (salivation). The subject has no or little control over the response.

Firstly it is important to understand that dogs are not a sub specie of humans, humanising the relationship between man and dog (anthropomorphism) will result in confusion on the part of the dog and disappointment in training outcomes and possibly owner disappointment in their dogs.

Behavioural research has also proven the following regarding dogs:

  • Highly developed olfactory senses
  • Are predators
  • Are highly social, pack animals
  • Have a finite socialization period (ends at approximately 4 months)
  • Are opportunistic and scavengers
  • Have no concept of $ value of an item
  • Do experience emotions
  • Do not learn well through observation
  • Cannot move mentally through time (from present to past or future) Do not think abstractly (reason)
  • Cannot distinguish right vs. wrong – But do learn safe vs. dangerous
  • Cannot understand human language – But do learn the relevance of particular words
  • Can communicate through facial expressions, body postures and vocalization
  • Reinforcement always increases the probability of a behaviour and correction always decreases the probability of a behaviour.
  • Dogs do have a capacity to learn, what they can be taught is limited only to an owner’s imagination and your dogs’ ability to perform the tasks.

Dogs like humans learn at differing paces, some faster some slower, as a handler it is important to understand this and practice according to your dogs ability, your continued training should ultimately challenge your dogs abilities so that with more practice the next level is reached.

A dogs willingness and capacity to learn is directly proportional to the dogs early handling, breeding and genetic makeup (instincts), some breeds are more versatile than others e.g. Border Collie, German Shepherd, Labrador and Golden Retriever are utilitarian breeds able to multitask, whilst other breeds are more specialised e.g. Beagles are great sniffers they were bred to follow scents up and down hills and across fields free running, they do not make great obedience dogs where control and attentiveness to handler is paramount.

Learning by Association

The training of dogs is achieved through repetition as well as the presence of positive and or negative reinforcement.
The repetition of an action to a command together with the reinforcement creates the Association, prior experience determines whether your dog heeds your commands.

Good Association - Positive Reinforcement
Dog performs required task; Positive Reinforcement (+R): The application of a pleasant consequence during/after the performance of behavior. Results in increasing behavior. Example: Dog comes when called, owner gives piece of steak. – Experience gained by performing task, good.

Bad Association – Negative Reinforcement
• Negative Reinforcement (-R): The removal of an ongoing, unpleasant stimulus during/after the performance of behavior, results in increasing behavior.

Example: Dog goes close to boundary of an electric fence, warning tone activated, dog moves away from boundary, warning tone ceases.

• Positive Punishment (+P): The application of an unpleasant consequence/stimulus during/after the performance of behavior. Results in decreasing behavior.

Example: Dog crosses boundary of electric fence, electric shock received.

• Negative Punishment (-P): The removal of a pleasant stimulus during/after the performance of behavior. Results in decreasing behavior.

Example: Owner enters house, dog jumps up to greet owner, owner abruptly leaves the house.
Area Association
The experiences your dog gains as they mature will also help shape and broaden their social and interpersonal skills, handlers are advised to subject their dogs to a wide variety of places, environments and activities, visit, exercise and train in known and unknown areas.
Changing Associations
We are able to change associations simply by changing the result. We can change a good association into a bad association, and in time and with patience we can change bad associations to good.

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