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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  1. Zac Frost says

    Hi there. Great site, great articles. Me and my wife are seriously considering gettting a husky to be a part of our family and are currently educating ourselves as preparation. This is how we found your site, and so far, yours has been the most enlightening and relatable.

    Question: Most of the sites we’ve visited on huskies advocate the “be the alpha” approach (e.g. eat before the dog does, pass through the door before the dog does, alpha roll, some even advise “growling” at the dog, etc.). However, here, at least as far as the articles i’ve read, it seems you don’t exactly follow this approach (?). May we ask what your thoughts are on this “be the alpha” approach?

    Thank you.

    Again, great site, and beautiful dogs you have.

    • shibashake says

      Hello Zac, Thank you very much for your kind words.

      In terms of the ‘alpha’ approach, it can cover a large range of things so it depends. I am a big believer in rules and structure for my dogs. I teach and motivate them to follow rules by controlling their resources (e.g. food, access to people, access to walks, backyard, play-time and more).

      However, some people use ‘alpha’ to refer to pain/dominance based aversive training techniques (e.g. alpha roll). That is something that I have tried, and that did not work out well with my dog. It had some short term results, but in the long-term it caused a lot more problems. I no longer use such techniques and would not recommend them.

      Here are two articles that talk about dog-dominance and the alpha approach-

      In terms of dominance rituals such as eating before a dog, I talk some about it here-

      This article has more on how I get my dogs to follow rules by using the Nothing in Life is Free method-

      Another thing to consider is the temperament of the dog. We picked more submissive puppies from the litter with both our Huskies. We did have to deal with some fear issues and desensitization, especially in the beginning. However, they are both much easier to train and are a big joy to live with because of their more easy-going temperament.

      Story of the difficult times we had with our Shiba Inu.

      Hope this helps and good luck with your Husky search! Are you thinking of getting a puppy or adopting a young adult?

  2. Stuart Williams says

    First of all, I just want to compliment you on the site. I found a lot of interesting information on it and tips that I will use with my dog.
    I wonder if you could clarify my dog’s behavior as I cannot figure out what I am doing wrong. We have a 9 months old Lab and Husky cross. During the day is stays out in the back garden or in the kitchen (and he sleeps in the utility room which is next to the kitchen). We dont allow him to wander in the rest of the house all the time but in the evening we have him with us in the TV room. He is fine for some time but then he starts getting giddy and excited and wants to play and every time it escalates to being very mischievous (he jumps on the sofas and runs to the door and back). I am only able to keep him sitting or lying down when I have treats in my hands (I tell him to “sit” or “lie down” and give him a treat when he does). This works and he is happy to lie down provided that I keep giving him treats every now and then. Not having treats doesn’t work.
    I guess he gets excited as he enters a room where he doesn’t stay for long and potentially he sees it as our quarters (he is not allowed on the sofa either which possibly contribute to his excitement). Do you have any ideas on how to control his behavior? Many thanks in advance for any suggestions you may have.

  3. Lonnie Starr says

    First off, LOVE the site!
    secondly… I am purchasing a dog soon and we are recently divorced so I are going to get a rescue pup, but even the young ones are name by the staff they can be pretty bad, there was a little pup names Obi-Wan Kanobi, i would like to name our pup after my brother Mason who passed away so I was wondering if there is a time frame available to change a dogs name or when they learn what their name is?

  4. allyjcm says

    I am wondering what you would do in our situation. We have a rescue labradoodle. He is lovely and has settled in well. He has taken a shine to my 12 yr old daughter and follows her around. In itself that is fine. But he wants to constantly play or be stroked by her. So much that when she stops he has started growling at her to make her stroke him again. What should we do to stop him doing this and accept that when we stop stroking him, that is it. My husband says it is not a problem as he is talking to her saying he likes it and wants more.he thinks it is not aggressive, more of a grumble but i think it is and i dont like it as it makes me nervous. It is as if the dog is telling us what to do. Am i daft tobe worried about a dog telling us he wants to be stroked?

  5. jane says

    We have a problem with barking whilst on the lead what is the best way to tackle this ? We have 4 dogs and they do tend to set one another off !
    We are thinking we should walk one at a time and do the sit treat method to alter their mindset when they see another dog as its a little hard to do this when walking 2 dogs !
    They also bark at the window or door when a dog passes or comes into our salon ! We do have a couch infront of the window that they sit at but to be honest ive no where else for it to go 🙁 small houses in the UK !!!

  6. P Powell says

    Dogs aren’t humans, but they still have the same basic needs we do, feel safe, comfortable, nice food and with others they trust

  7. Mikka says

    This is a fantastic site. I’m so glad to have found it! Thank you for all the wonderful information.
    I have a problem I’m hoping you can help me with.
    Five days ago we adopted a 4 month old Mastiff X Lab pup. From what we can tell she was treated well but not trained at all.
    Our problems are excessive barking, chewing on everything she shouldn’t even with toys and play available, leash pulling, excessive whining and separation anxiety- but primarily the issue is her peeing in the house. We can usually time when she’s going to poop, but she pees constantly inside on the floor. I don’t scold her when she pees inside, but run her to the patio door and keep her outside for a minute. She never finishes outside, and it often seems she waits until after long walks to pee inside. On the occasion she does pee outside she is rewarded. She has even peed on our bed where we all sleep. It hasn’t been very long I know, but I am getting quite disheartened. Could you point me in the right direction please?
    Thank you kindly,

    • shibashake says

      Has she been to the vet for a check-up? Has she ever pee-ed lying down? Is she eating and drinking normally? Sometimes, frequent peeing can be due to some physical issue, e.g. urinary tract infection.

      After I am sure that it is not due to a physical issue, then I start looking at other causes. Peeing in the house can also be caused by anxiety, e.g. separation anxiety. Therefore, the next step is I try to determine if the peeing is caused by lack of potty training or something else, e.g. anxiety, submission, etc.

      When I was having problems with my Shiba Inu, I also consulted with some good professional trainers/behaviorists. We did private lessons. They would visit with him, help read his body language, and evaluate his behavior within the context of his regular environment and routine. It was not easy to find a good trainer, but the good ones offered me some pretty helpful insights into Sephy’s behavior, and also helped me with timing, management, and more.

      More on how I potty train my dog.

  8. Lasse says

    Hey Shibashake

    This is a great site. Me and my wife just got a small brown lab a few days ago, and I have been trying to find out how to train it, I have watched a lot of Cesar Milan, and I like some of the stuff he does, like the claming of space, it works really nice with saying no, and the thing about projecting energy is also quite nice, but I am trying to mix it with positive reinforcement, and reward her when she goes potty outside, and to make sure not to scold it after it has pied on the floor.

    But it is a jungle, and a lot of people seems to hate Cesar Milan, and some doesn’t like Stilham.



    • shibashake says

      Congratulations on your new puppy!

      But it is a jungle, and a lot of people seems to hate Cesar Milan, and some doesn’t like Stilham.

      Yeah I know! It was very confusing for me when I first started looking for information because there is so much contradictory stuff out there. I try to keep an open mind, I read up on animal behavior, and most of all, I observe and listen to my dogs. If some of Millan’s techniques work and help to make my dogs happy, I will use those. Same with Stilwell, Dunbar, etc. I made a lot of mistakes, but the important thing for me is to learn from them and move on to better things.

      Here are some places that I go to for dog training information. The ASPCA website is a good resource.

      Big hugs to your pup!

  9. 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.

      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.

  10. 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 –

      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.

  11. 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! 😀

      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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 –
      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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