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.