How Do Dogs Learn? And The Secrets of Obedient Dogs

dog learning to catch ball

When you look at your adorable bundle of joy and they give you those classic “puppy dog eyes” for some affection, you might think to yourself “how do dogs learn?” It’s a valid question. How does your dog know to give you the cute stare when they want a nice bit of attention? What exactly happens in your pup’s brain when they learn something new?

The Basics

The basic way all animals learn, including you, is through operant conditioning. In this process, the consequences of an animal’s actions dictate if the animal will do something more or less than before. Essentially, the dog does something, something good happens, the dog will be more likely to do that “something” again.

The Example of Sit

A simple sit makes a great example. We include how to teach sit in our Dog Savvy course, but lots of pet owners find their dogs have learned to sit almost entirely on their own. For most pups, a sitting position is relatively natural and comfortable. So, when your cute little puppy sits and you immediately praise them and coo over them, you’re reinforcing that behavior.

Now let’s take that into a training session. You’re holding a treat and cute little Fido can barely contain his excitement. Because he’s gotten so much praise and affection for sitting, he associates sitting with good things happening and even just likes to sit when you’re nearby in the hopes he’ll get some attention. He pulls that out of the bag now, and BOOM! It works!

Because he got something he liked, something he found reinforcing, Fido is now more likely to sit again.

Positive Reinforcement

That example is a perfect demonstration of positive reinforcement. Lots of people have heard the term positive reinforcement but don’t have a real idea of what it actually means. They hear the term positive reinforcement and just think treats. This goes deeper than that. Positive reinforcement is anything added to your dog’s environment that the dog likes.

The added is the “positive” part of the equation, and the fact your dog likes it is the “reinforcement” part. When you’re petting your dog while they sit (and they’re actually enjoying it and not just tolerating you) you are positively reinforcing your dog. It honestly has nothing to do with treats, they just happen to be a really simple way to reward your dog!

We utilize positive reinforcement training methodology in all of our training courses and programs.

Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement isn’t reserved for simply giving dogs treats, and unlike many people incorrectly believe, negative reinforcement is not punishment. If positive reinforcement is adding something your dog likes, making them happier – negative reinforcement is removing something your dog doesn’t like, making them happier.

In this situation, the term “negative” refers to taking something away and the term “reinforcement” refers to an outcome your dog likes. For example, if my dog doesn’t like the nail clippers, I might wait until they hold still for a few seconds while I’m trimming and then take the nail clippers away.

By taking away the unwanted nail clippers, I’m making my dog happier and increasing the likelihood they’ll hold still the next time. Though I’d probably throw in a food reinforcer for good measure as well to really hammer the point home

Positive Punishment

In that nail clipper example, the primary issue is that I must introduce the nail clippers at some point. When I walk up to my dog and pull out the hated nail clippers, I’ve brought in a mild element of positive punishment. When I take out the nail clippers, I’ve added something to the environment that my dog doesn’t like.

As you might have guessed by now, the positive element is that I’m adding something, and the punishment element is that the dog doesn’t like it. We commit many subtle positive punishments throughout our dog’s lives and even their days. Putting a harness on, brushing the tangles out of their fur, dogs can find many things unpleasant and thus punishing.

There are certain punishments like the ones listed above that we must do, but we work on teaching our dogs to tolerate them. However, using punishment as a training tool can have unpleasant consequences even under the best of circumstances.

Dogs can begin to associate bad things happening with you, strangers, other dogs and even entirely random objects or sounds.

Negative Punishment

The final element of how dogs learn, negative reinforcement, removes something from your dog’s environment that they like, thus making them unhappy and decreasing the likelihood that they’ll repeat the behavior. As is the case with the previous examples, the negative involves removing something and the punishment involves an outcome your dog doesn’t like.

One simple way to demonstrate this involves biting. When your puppy bites you while playing, and you immediately get up and leave, you have negatively punished the dog. This is because you have removed something the dog found reinforcing (you).

Over time, your dog will learn that biting during play results in play ending and should avoid biting while playing.

With that said, this process takes time and works more quickly when you utilize several different training approaches, so we usually recommend clients struggling with puppy biting seek extra resources from our Training Library.

Better Behavior Isn’t Black and White

While many of these elements come into play when training your dog, an overall picture of better behavior and how dogs learn isn’t restricted to direct interactions like this.

Everything in dog training isn’t about positive reinforcement. When it comes to unwanted behaviors, things like repetition and your dog’s mental health play a huge part in why dogs do “bad” behaviors.

That’s why having all of the elements spelled out for you can be crucial in stopping unwanted behaviors. You might see success using a single element, but it’s going to take a lot of time and energy. By using all of the different concepts at one time you can alleviate unwanted behaviors much more quickly.

You can find resources for a number of different problem behaviors using our different training courses and programs.


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