Dog trainers, dog lovers and animal enthusiasts have been able to teach dogs to do amazing behaviours. Trainers have developed a myriad of techniques and strategies for teaching a vast array of behaviours. Social media is abound with videos and pictures of dogs performing spectacular feats. These vary from the extraordinary, a dog sniffing out cancer and painting a picture, to the ordinary, sitting when asked. How do they do it? How do dogs learn?
The techniques used to teach dogs a skill is based in the science of how dogs learn. Two types of learning are taking place. Learning by association and learning by consequence. This learning happens all the time. It happens when trainers and owners intentionally teach dogs a skill. It also happens naturally when dogs interact with the world.
Dog learns by association
Dogs like people learn by association. This happens when a neutral person, object or stimulus is repeatedly paired with something the dog loves/wants or fears. The neutral person, object then elicits the same response. In Applied Behaviour Analysis this is called classical conditioning.
Dogs are making associations all the time. What is safe and good for them verses what is unsafe and bad for them or neutral. An example of this is the food bowl. After being paired with mealtimes our dogs become excited and start to salivate just seeing the bowl. Likewise tug ropes and tennis balls are neutral until they become associated with play and fun.
Clicker training, a popular training methodology, works this way. Trainers take a neutral sound, like the clicker or a word, and repeatedly pair this with what the dog loves. This is often food or play. As a result, the clicker takes on a positive association.
One of the biggest drawbacks to using punishment is classical conditioning. Your dog might learn that the behaviour being punished doesn’t work. It is also likely they will become fearful, threatened or anxious of anything else in the environment by association, including the punisher.
Dogs learn by consequence
Dogs, and people, learn by doing. The outcome or result of a behaviour gives the dog information about how useful that behaviour is for them. The better the outcome for the dog the more likely the behaviour is to be repeated. The dog has learned this behaviour is useful. Behaviours that result in undesirable outcomes are discarded or suppressed.
It is the dog, our learner, who decides what is useful or valuable to them. By praising behaviour we feel we are rewarding it, we have told our dog they did a good job. However, if our dog does not find this to be valuable or useful then the behaviour will not be repeated. The behaviour is not reinforced, no matter that we might want it to be.
In technical terms, reinforcement happens when a behaviour becomes stronger or more frequent. A reinforcer is generally access to something the dog wants eg food, or toy or affection. A behaviour can also be reinforced by avoiding something unpleasant. Punishment, another technical term, for when a behaviour is weakened and/or becomes less frequent. In Applied Behaviour Analysis this is called operant conditioning.
My dog jumps up at the back door to be let outside, scratching up the door. I go to the door and wait quietly for my dog to sit calmly before opening the door. Over and over we do this and my dog learns to sit quietly at the door to go outside. Consequently, the jumping behaviour rarely happens now. The sit has been reinforced by allowing the dog access to the back yard where he wanted to go. The jumping behaviour, which is now less frequent, has been punished by withholding something he wanted.
Through consequences dogs learn what works and what doesn’t work. No behaviour is done for the sake of being naughty or stubborn. All behaviour has a purpose.
The timing of the reinforcer is extremely important. With a child I could explain that the new toy he is getting or fun outing is because of a well-earned grade. The child understands this reward is being paired with a behaviour that happened yesterday or last week. This is not the case with our dogs, we’d have no way of communicating this so they would understand. For dogs the consequence needs to immediate.
Learning happens naturally
Learning by doing happens naturally. Our puppy approaches the family cat and tries to engage in play. The cat hisses and swipes at the puppy, scratching him on the nose and puppy moves away. This hurt his nose and the puppy learns to approach the cat more cautiously or not at all. The cat has also learned how to make the puppy go away.
Our dogs are learning from their environment all time, not only when you plan for it. At all times dogs are learning both how they feel about a situation, person, object and what to do in those situations with those people and objects. Effective learning can be compromised by poor health, overwhelming situations, forceful training techniques and inconsistency just to name a few. Therefore, in addition to understanding how dogs learn, creating a safe, secure, happy and healthy environment is essential to fun and effective learning.