How Dogs Learn, How Dogs Think

Whenever we consider how dogs think, and how dogs learn, the discussion invariably veers towards how dogs are not human.

Indeed, dogs are not human. They do not learn in exactly the same way that we learn, nor do they think in exactly the same way as we think.

Dogs most frequently learn about each other and about us through visual and scent cues. In particular, they observe body language and smell butts to get information. Sometimes, they also use verbal communication, but much less so than we do. For example, dogs usually pick up hand gestures a lot faster than they do verbal commands.

Note, however, that just as dogs are not human, we are not dogs. Therefore, we should not pretend to be one by simulating dog bites with our hands, using alpha rolls, or try to fight like a dog. Even if we tried our very hardest, we would make poor dogs. We do not have sharp teeth, our skin is thin and very sensitive, we cannot run very fast, nor can we jump very high. We certainly did not get to the top of the evolutionary ladder because of our physical strengths.

Dogs are not stupid, they can clearly see that we are not dogs. They are also very good at observing human behavior and human gestures.

How Do Dogs Think?

Dogs do not read or write so they do not think in words and symbols the way humans do. However, just like us, dogs have needs and goals. Some of those needs may include the need for food, the need for shelter, the need to herd, the need to hunt, and the need to play.

When we do not provide proper activities for our dogs to fulfill those needs, they will act on their own. This is when, in our eyes, they suddenly become bad and destructive. Without any warning, it seems, they are chewing up our shoes, digging up our prize roses, and tearing apart our furniture.

When we lock our dogs up to keep them away from our shoes, couch, and roses; their needs and goals are still there, they just no longer have an outlet for them. As a result, they become frustrated, and that frequently leads to what we may perceive as dog aggression.

Contrary to what some may think, dogs are not slaves put on this Earth to please their human masters. Dogs have their own needs. It is important to fulfill our dog’s needs, and not just use him to fulfill our own.

Another important aspect of how dogs think, is how dogs learn.

How Do Dogs Learn?

Dogs can learn from other dogs through social learning. They can also learn from us through a process called conditioning.

Psychologists such as Pavlov, Skinner, and others have done many experiments on animals, including dogs, in the area of behavioral conditioning. The behavioral conditioning methods that we use to train all dogs today are based on their extensive work and studies.

Dogs respond to classical and operant conditioning. Simply put, classical conditioning is responsible for involuntary responses, e.g. a dog salivating when dinner is served, while operant conditioning is responsible for voluntary responses, e.g. a dog sitting for a treat.

Classical conditioning can be useful in giving positive associations to potentially negative objects (e.g. muzzle, nail clipper/grinder, harness). For example, if we show our dog a muzzle before the start of dinner each night, he will start to associate the muzzle with dinner. Since every time he sees the muzzle, he gets dinner; he may start to salivate when he sees the muzzle, because food is likely on the way.

Based on operant conditioning, there are two classes of techniques for shaping a dog’s voluntary behavior, reward dog training (positive reinforcement, negative punishment) and aversive dog training (negative reinforcement, positive punishment).

Operant conditioning techniques are what we mostly use today to stop bad dog behavior, as well as to train them to do tricks and commands.

How Dogs Learn – Operant Conditioning

Based on operant conditioning principles, we can change a dog’s behavior by adding or taking away a reward stimulus; or we can change a dog’s behavior by adding or taking away an aversive stimulus.

A reward stimulus can be food, or it can be a variety of other things including toys, freedom to roam, walks, play, and much more. Similarly, an aversive stimulus can be a collar correction, an electric shock, a slap on the muzzle, a finger jab, an unpleasant sound, and much more.

Different stimuli will have different results on learning depending on the temperament of the dog, the temperament of the trainer, the type of dog, the environment, the trigger event, how the stimulus is applied, and a variety of other factors. Some dogs are food focused which means that food will be effective at training good behaviors and stopping bad behaviors. Similarly, some dogs will wilt with just a stern word, while others will turn around and bite when jabbed by a foot or a finger.

How and what a dog learns is also highly dependent on timing (when a stimulus is applied), and frequency (how often a stimulus is applied). Generally, we want to apply the reward or aversive stimulus as close to the target behavior as possible. Operant conditioning studies also tell us that we do not want to over-correct our dog. If we apply an aversive stimulus too frequently, our dog will get habituated to it and it will no longer be effective.

Similarly, we do not want to reward our dog too frequently, or he may learn to expect a reward every time, and not be motivated to give his best effort.

How We Think and How We Learn

Bad dog behavior relates to how our dogs think and learn, but it also relates to how we think and learn.

For example, once we commit to a given style of dog training, there will be a very great tendency to stick to it no matter what; even in the face of insurmountable opposing facts and data. In social psychology, this is also called commitment and consistency.

Do not let yourself be manipulated by carefully edited television shows or unsubstantiated dog training myths. Instead, do your own research on how dogs think and learn. Try out a variety of safe and reasonable dog training techniques, to find what works best for our own temperament and for our dog’s temperament. Always observe and listen to what our dog is trying to say.

The best decision that we can make for our dog, is an informed decision.

Do not dismiss new facts and data simply because it is inconsistent with our current set of beliefs. To make the best decision, we want to consider all the data objectively, and then decide what is best for our dog.

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Comments

  1. Oliver Stieber says

    What a great site, my mum has a couple of dogs and while we’ve managed to cure them of a lot of their bad habbits there are still a few that are proving a little tricky to resolve,about 25% of their total bad habbits!!!
    Anyhow, my mum got loads of books, has seen a few trainers and goes to dog school with the (sepreratly) a couple of times a week, so I thought I’d have a look from a more scientific perspective that you get in the typical dog training guides and came across your site.

    It’s certainly given me a lot of helpfull pointers, though there’s one thing that would be absolutly wonderful if you could include…. some links to published research for some things or equivilant sites.

    This is important to me because I relize that timing is key.

    We use a mix of very mild adverse training, e.g. initially physically moving the dog away from the window it was barking at and sticking it in another room, but mostly reward based training (but after reading your site probably not enough removial of rewards when those things are causing issues and too frequently reqwarding (the bit about giving intermitant rewards was interesting, shall defninatly try that).

    I wouldn’t say we really use any adverse training any more but it was really usefull to get a good command response started in the first place.

    • Oliver Stieber says

      I’ll reply to myself quickly,
      another example of adverse type training that we did with one dog was to desensitise if from ‘loud’ noises and that kind of thing, also stopping and starting walking (not on a choke chain though) to get the dog to pay attention whilst walking instead of trying to go after the bikes etc… that occasionally went past.

    • shibashake says

      Hello Oliver,

      For a deeper explanation of operant conditioning, I would first look at Skinner’s work.

      The Wikipedia overview of operant conditining may also provide links to related studies and work.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning

      Aversive techniques (positive punishment/negative reinforcement) basically add or remove an aversive stimulus, while reward techniques (positive reinforcement/negative punishment) add or remove a reward stimulus. An aversive stimulus is something that a dog does not like and wants to avoid, e.g. pain, loud sound. A reward stimulus is something that a dog likes and wants to have, e.g. food, freedom.

      When we remove our dog from a high stimulus area (e.g. the window) and put him temporarily in a lower stimulus area (e.g. a boring room), we are removing something that he likes and wants, i.e., his freedom to sit by the window. Therefore, it is a reward technique. We are temporarily removing/restricting some of his ‘freedom’.

      When we do collar corrections or spank a dog, we are adding something that he does not like and wants to avoid – pain. Therefore, those are aversive techniques. Not all aversive techniques involve pain. For example, shaking a can of pennies creates a loud sound that many dogs do not like, therefore it is also an aversive method. However, not all aversive methods are equal. The risks and stresses introduced by pain based methods, are much higher because pain is a much stronger stimulus to dogs, and to people as well.

      For example, I do not like jarring loud sounds either, but someone punching me in the face would be much worse.

  2. Jen says

    James our 4.5 yo Golden Retriever came into our live as a 3 yo after being rescued from a life of neglect, malnourishment & abuse! He is now a boisterous happy boy and has settled beautifully into our lives.
    One issue we have however is getting him out of the house on a lead!! In the early days the site of the lead sent him into a heightened state of excitement, he’d struggle you to get to it, grab hold of it and tug like a mad dog. Through diversions with food we can now carry the lead around the house without too much hassle and we try to incorporate the lead in our day to day activities so he will get used to it in a relaxed state. This seems to have gone well so far but… I have no idea how to control his behavior when it come time to actually clipping it onto his collar! He will not let me get it too close to his neck, he will do anything to get it into his mouth and if I ignore him he just prances around like a proud Goldie holding a trophy! He will drop it if I put food near his mouth but will quickly grab it again and on it goes! If I struggle with him to get the leash back he jumps up, scratches, pulls & tugs resulting in me getting very frustrated!
    I desperately want to walk our boy but the only way I can get him out of the house is to open the front door and let him bolt to my car in the driveway where he will wait excitedly for me to open the back door! I think this has contributed to his refusal of wearing the lead because a lead means we’re heading out on foot and not a trip in the car which he loves. On the rare occasions that we’ve left the house on a lead, he will tug, fight and pull till he’s free of his collar and will then sit by the car!
    I sense his excitement is fueled by anxiety and fear & I think it is increasing the longer this goes on! He is very content and safe in the surrounds of his home, he does bark and growl a bit when his 4 legged friends come over for their regular play date, but this is short lived and followed by an entire day of non-stop playing!
    I would love to be able to build his confidence and trust so we could walk regularly and visit the amazing dog friendly places in our area! He gets lots of exercise in the confines of our property but it’s not enough! In the early days we would run and swim in nearby parks but his anxiety levels have risen and he now barks aggressively (fearfully) toward other dogs when we go out in public and with my stress levels growing I knew neither of us were in the right headspace to continue!
    Sorry for my lengthy email, I just desperately want my boy to get the exercise that he so needs and to be able to enjoy the parks and beaches in our area!

    • shibashake says

      My Shiba Inu had a similar problem – he was sensitive to wearing collars. Here is how I desensitized him to wearing a collar -
      http://shibashake.com/dog/train-your-puppy-to-walk-on-a-leash#collar-desensitize

      I went very slowly, and made sessions short, positive, and rewarding.

      Another thing that I do when I get a puppy is clip a very light leash on him and let him get used to dragging it around. I only do this with a flat collar, and I cut off the loop of the lead so that it does not catch on anything. I only do this when I am home to supervise.

      This helps puppy get used to the feel and weight of the leash, but he not constrained by it, and still has the freedom to roam around.

      Once puppy is used to dragging the lead around, I start playing the Find-It game with him. After he is comfortable with that, I lightly hold the leash, while playing the Find-It game in the house. Then I move to the backyard and so on. This slowly gets puppy comfortable with me holding the leash.

      What has worked with my dogs is to start small, and in a quiet, low distraction environment. This sets the dog up for success, which will help to build his confidence. Then we slowly increase the challenge and level of distraction.

  3. Mikel says

    We had the most amazing experience with our Rottie. When our school dog passed away we decided to teach her how to”count” (by barking a number of times in response to simple sums, add, minus, even multiply), as one of her tricks when visiting schools. Well, she never got around to visiting schools but as she learned what it was we were trying to do, she suddenly decided that here was her opportunity to teach us. Now she has a repetoire of very clear signals,which she has invented, combining barks growls hops and other body language. Over the years the very obvious signals she gave have become more subtle as if she expects us to know what she wants. Her companion, now 10 years old, a well qualified working trials dog has picked up on some of the signals and also uses them.Problem is that if we fail to grasp immediately what she is saying, she gets quite frustrated and a bit ratty!

    • shibashake says

      Hahaha, that is awesome.

      My Shiba Inu is a bit like that. He is pretty clear about communicating what he wants. If we don’t understand, he doesn’t mind repeating himself until we do! :D

      I know that Border Collies have been trained to answer multiple choice type questions on a touch pad. Have you seen Pixar’s Up? They have hilarious portrayal of what dogs would say if they could talk.

  4. PaperNotes says

    All animals, dogs especially are intelligent creatures. Sometimes I even think that it is us humans who are stupid because we think mighty high of ourselves yet we are the ones doing wrong to the animals and destroying our earth. In fact I even read an article in one animal blog that in a certain place, the government actually wants to eliminate wolves.

    • shibashake says

      Yeah it is just awful. Ken Salazar has an awful track record when it comes to protecting animals. None of our politicians seem to care much about protecting animals and animal rights.
      The three states that want to take wolves off the endangered species list are – Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
      We are poor stewards of this planet and its many inhabitants. I would have thought that James Cameron’s message of preservation and bio-diversity would have had some sort of an impact … but maybe it is still too early to tell.

    • shibashake says

      According to the governors of the three states they want to kill wolves to protect their livestock.

  5. Maria Cecilia says

    This is nice and the dog is really cute.. I like this part “Dogs have their own needs and it is important to fulfill our dog’s needs and not just use the dog to fulfill our own.” I have observed some dog owners that over trained their dogs… I believe dogs are intelligent creatures, just by treating them well and provide their basic needs, training them won’t be that hard anymore… I am not really a good trainor but I am contented with my dog’s behavior… they are not perfect of course but as an owner you also have this level of tolerance..

    • shibashake says

      Hello Maria,
      I totally agree with you. My dogs are not perfect either, but they are a lot of fun to be with and they seem to enjoy life most of the time.
      I think it is necessary to have some rules, mostly for safety and health, but other than that, life is filled with walking, playing, digging, sleeping, and eating. :)
      “I have observed some dog owners that over trained their dogs”
      Yeah I agree. When you have some time, you may enjoy this article about Stepford Dogs -
      http://shibashake.com/dog/stepford-dog
      Btw. I had a lot of fun reading your Dog Fashion show hub. PM looks really cute in her Birthday blouse. The contest looks like a lot of fun and many of the costumes are quite amazing. My favorite I think is the dog in the tiger outfit!

    • kblover says

      What’s scary is that Stepford Dogs (and Wives for that matter) actually exist in reality.
      Of course, I’d never want one. So sad that people can create dogs that are so scared of making a false move that your sneezing example exists.
      Dogs are very much thinkers – and I mean in a rational sense as well as irrational (i.e. emotional) or instinctive sense. Dogs are capable of short-term prediction (i.e. what we call anticipation as well as understanding patterns of consequence – operant conditioning – as well as “skipping steps” when learning a behavior chain), they are capable of problem solving, including using previously learned behaviors in new situations. Not to mention all the thinking shaping requires from the dog.
      I see all this in Wally alone, and I’m sure every other dog is capable. Unfortunately, too many want the Stepford Dog, or the dog that only does what he’s told. :(
      And, yes, people, listen when she says not to be fooled by shows or “systems” or myths. There are no secrets. Instead, learn canine communication, learning conditioning of both flavors, and use them.

    • Maria Cecilia says

      thanks you should leave your comment there so I would know, thanks for saying PM is beautiful, she’s a loveable dog, shy outside our home but inside she’s really playful and naughty that keeps me laughing all day.. I love all the comments here, looks like I will learn a lot from you all and we all love dogs, I wish you visit my other hub so you can also meet my 10 year old dog Peso

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