How Dogs Learn

3 min read

How Dogs Learn

Dogs are too smart for their own good, really. As in, it’s all too easy to imagine them endowed with human-level cognitive skills. But dogs are smart in a canine way, and if we take the time to understand exactly how they learn and process information, we can use this knowledge to better communicate with them - and help them navigate our world. Here’s a primer:

Dogs learn in two ways: By association (emotional response) and by consequence (doing).

Learning by association (emotional response).
Dogs form associations all the time. The classic example is a leash. Show a brand new puppy a leash and he won’t react. He has a neutral association to leashes. Show a grown dog that has been on many leash walks the same thing and he’ll likely fly into paroxysms of joy. A leash combined with his human’s excitement (“Want to go walkies? Who wants to go out?”) predict a walk, so the dog has formed a positive association with leashes.

What does this mean for us? That we can manipulate how dogs feel about the world. This is great news because it gives us a way to shape dogs’ behavior and make them more comfortable with their surroundings. But it’s also a big responsibility which can unintentionally backfire. Say my dog reacts in a way I don’t like; he barks at a stranger on the street. If I tell off or punish my dog now, I’m in essence teaching him to dislike strangers. He’ll associate strangers (which already gave him an uneasy feeling; hence the barking) with shaming or pain. If instead I pair the sight of a stranger with excited talk and a treat, over time my dog will form a positive association to meeting strangers on the street, and the embarrassing barking will disappear.

To many people, this is illogical. Surely treating a barking dog rewards the barking? Not in this case. Dogs are like toddlers in this respect. When upset, they can’t control their behavior, they just react. Your cheerful voice and treats work to change your dog’s association, which in turns changes your dog’s behavior.

Learning by consequence (doing).
Consequence learning is an easy concept for humans to grasp because it’s how most things function in our world. I flip the light switch; the ceiling light turns on. I work all week; I get paid. I eat fewer desserts; I lose a pound or two. Dogs learn really well through consequence, too, but with one important difference. With dogs, feedback has to be immediate and precise. Dogs can’t connect the dots between being asked to sit and getting a treat five or ten seconds later. In the interim, the dog has licked his nose, looked left, and sneezed. Then the treat arrives. For all he knows he earned it by sneezing.

Thus the first secret to using consequence learning effectively is giving immediate and precise feedback. (A great training tool for this is the clicker. See our article: The second is to remember that dogs do what works. They don’t misbehave (as we see it) out of obstinacy or spite. They simply think their behavior will get them something they want. If your dog jumps on you and you greet him enthusiastically, the jumping worked and he’ll do it again. If your dog barks to get you to throw a ball and you do, the barking worked and he’ll bark again next time. But the reverse is also true. If your dog jumps on you and you turn away (or leave the room if he persists), that didn’t work. Combine this with consistently praising and petting your dog for keeping four paws on the floor during greetings, and he’ll quickly catch on. Never throw a tennis ball unless your dog has been quiet for ten seconds, and that too will become the standard. 

The long and short of it.
If you pay attention to which associations you help create in your dog, and are careful about what you reward and ignore, you’ll train your dog every day to be responsive and well-behaved. He may not understand you the way you once imagined, but so what? You’ll understand him better and he’s no less wonderful for being a dog, not a human.