How does a dog learn and how can you make this work to your advantage?

How do dogs learn?The learning principles

To understand how a dog learns, it is good to know two learning principles, namely: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

In short, it basically means that your dog learns through experience. In the case of classical conditioning, your dog observes something and draws a conclusion from it (he learns cause – effect). In the case of operant conditioning, your dog performs something and that behavior has a consequence.

What is your dog learning?

In both cases, your dog can learn something without you being very aware of it.

Classical conditioning

Let’s give a few examples where your dog draws cause-effect conclusions.

  • For example, every time you go to bed, your last action is to turn down the thermostat. Dogs are super good at making connections, without you having to teach them anything. Dogs benefit from a clearly predictable world. Your behavior makes this situation super predictable for your dog, because he knows: it’s late at night, I just peed and my owner turns down the thermostat. Your dog’s conclusion: it’s bedtime.
  • When you go to work, you put on your dress shoes. Your dog knows: she’s going to leave the house without me. Are you planning to go to the woods with your dog, then the hiking boots come out of the closet. Your dog knows: she’s going for a walk and I can come along.

It may well be that you can see from your dog’s behavior that he draws certain conclusions. For example: in the case of the bedtime, your dog will leave for his sleeping place as soon as he realizes what time it is. You can see that same behavior when your dog understands that you leave and he can’t go. But your dog can also start to squeak, for example, when he finds it annoying to have to stay home alone. In the case of the hiking boots for example, is he jumping (if he feels like it) or does he disappear under the couch (if he doesn’t feel like it)…

Open-ended conditioning

Dogs not only like to have clarity, they also like to influence the situation. In this case we are talking about operant conditioning. A few examples of your dog’s behavior and its consequences.

  • Self-rewarding behavior is an example of operant conditioning. But suppose your dog tries to steal food from the counter and a frying pan accidentally falls on his head. Then your dog can learn not to try this anymore. Actually this is a correction, but in this case one that arose by chance without anyone’s influence.

In addition, someone else can also play a role in operant conditioning in your dog. Consciously or completely unconsciously.

  • For example: your dog jumps up on people who come to visit. Those people are trying to push your dog away. But what they do not realize is that they are actually rewarding this behavior. Because your dog gets attention and he loves that. What he learns is that jumping gets him attention. This will make him repeat the behavior, when you actually wanted to achieve the opposite.

How does a dog learn?

How do you use conditioning in training?

Of course, to understand which approach will make your training work, you need to understand how your dog learns. Your dog’s motivation can differ per situation. So always remember:

  • What is the reward for your dog in a certain situation?
  • How can you use that reward to your advantage?

So you can use any desired outcome for your dog as a reward in response to behavior that you would like to see more of in your dog.

For example:

Your dog likes to play with other dogs. You teach your dog ‘here’ and as soon as he comes, you leash him and take him home. How does your dog experience this? In other words: what does your dog learn from this (cause – effect). Chances are your dog won’t come the next time you call him. Why? Because your dog a bad experience gained from coming to you. The fun was over immediately. In effect, you have punished your dog (in his eyes) for coming “here.”

So be very aware of your dog’s perception of the world and the learning principles that play a role during your training and even the daily routine.

  • When your dog has a bad experience as a result of his behavior – this behavior will decrease
  • When your dog gains a pleasant experience as a result of his behavior – this behavior will increase

So think about what behavior you want to reward and how. Take a good look at your dog what is a really good reward for your dog? This is certainly not the same for every dog. Always choose to reward to teach your dog behavior, instead of punishing unwanted behavior. Punishment is detrimental in many situations because your dog doesn’t know an alternative way to handle the same situation. Teaching your dog what to do, in the same situation, often works much better. Moreover, punishment has the negative effect of making your dog afraid of you and that is certainly not a good basis for your relationship.

Connection method
Connection method

How is conditioning used in behavioral therapy?

Also when performing the right therapy for your dog, it is extremely important to understand how your dog learns. In addition, with unwanted behavior it is extremely important to understand your dog’s experience. Why does your dog exhibit certain undesirable behavior?

In most cases, aggression arises from fear. Punishing such behavior only makes the dog more anxious and does not solve the behavior.

That is the reason that when applying a good therapy, the association that the dog has with a certain situation is looked at. Changing that association often resolves the associated unwanted behavior as well.

During good behavioral therapy, more attention is paid to the underlying emotions than to the behavior that has arisen as a result. Classical conditioning then plays a major role in a good approach.

Give your dog input. Ask him for his opinion

Your dog is an individual with its own wishes and preferences. If you take this into account, your dog will have a voice. But how does your dog tell you what his wishes are? Take a good look and you’ll see. Feel free to follow your dog if he seems to want to go right rather than left during the walk. Don’t be afraid of dominance, listening to your dog is only good for your relationship and understanding. Below is an example of a self-chosen route by dog ​​Cinnamon: let yourself determine the pace, duration and direction.

Favorite walk

Free reward-oriented training course

Free reward-oriented training course with your dog: it sounds so easy, reward-oriented training. In practice, however, there is still a lot to learn about this if you are just starting out.

Sign up for free here.

Connection method

Dog taskCredits

Written by canine behavioral therapist Judith Fick

The Dog Task courses are aimed at changing and improving your dog’s behavior: If you have a question about your dog’s behavior or training, please feel free to contact us at info@honden

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