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.
emma thompson says
The puppies are soooo cute lol
Haha! Yes! Pups are too awesome!
I have the sweetest little girl dog. Almost to sweet. But she is tearing everything up. No matter how much we walk play or try to tire her out. She is a distucto in hyper motion.
I have only once in my life of owning many animals hit a dog. I have hit her. Really give her a good beating. Absolutely does nothing but bring both of our spirits down. ( I did not actually hurt her but bruised both of our spirits)
I have used all my tools that I have learned through classes and youtube. However, I still have hit her on three occasions. I will never hit her again this is horrible.
What can I do. The feeding her with a muzzle is absolutely not something I would recommend. Unless a bitter.
I do walk with her and have her on a short leash just to get use to walking with me, She does great. Does great sitting does great
Get her spayed
I would recommend offering her a number of safe things to chew on – robust toys, cow hide chews, sticks, even soft toys that she has permission to destroy. The chewing phase is something they grow out of and is something they do when left alone. If your dog is having a lovely time with you on walks – it’s possibly she has attachment anxiety which is leading to the chewing behaviour when you are gone. Look into a doggy daycare for when you are away long periods of time.
Joann Stanfield says
I have recently acquired an 11 year old lab/border collie mix. He has had a life of abuse and neglect. Being thrown against a wall when he was a puppy because he pooped in the house. He needed to relieve himself but his owners neglected to let him outside. Also for 3 years his owner couldn’t have him in her apartment, so she left him with her father who shut him up in a small laundry room 24/7. He was let out to poop 2x’s a day. Fed once a day and the left to himself the rest of the time. His owner has a child 2 yr’s old, is pregnant, works full time, and is going to school. He was left for hours at a time. she also had a boyfriend who has a dog and didn’t like this dog. I agreed to take him and he loves me as I love him. The bad thing is that when he sees another dog he goes bonkers and is very aggressive. I can’t let him out if there are dogs around. I am 82 and I want to try to walk him with a HALTI. I really love him but he needs to stop this aggressive behavior. CAN YOU HELP ME? I love him and don’t want to give him up.
You could hire a dog walker as a short term fix! Also see a trainer. You may need to try to take him in areas where there will not be many dogs u til the behavior is under control.
I have two dogs – one part retriever and the other a pitt. When we first got him he would go bonkers with other dogs, because like yours, he was not socialized by the previous owner. In order to aid with this (and the pulling) liked to do we use a “gentle leader” to help him focus.
Secondly, exposure is a powerful thing. We have had him a year now and he likes meeting other dogs, but is able to “get over it” if we do not stop to say hi. If you can, start off in controlled environments and ease your way out. Allow him to pass one dog on a walk but avoid all others as much as you can. Also, I bet your little one is just getting used to being able to go out for a walk. I know it sounds simple, but the same thing happened with our pitt as well. After months, he started realizing walks and outside time was a normal thing to expect.
Transitions, especially for this guy will take some months to get used to. Also, I agree, with the post above – if he is too much to start out with, go on walks with the dog walker. If you get a “gentle leader” though, this might solve a good bit of your problem because it does give you WAY MORE ability to train your animal.
Lastly, I recommend you read the short book recently published by Cesar Millan called CESAR MILLAN’S SHORT GUIDE TO A HAPPY DOG. It really helped me to connect with my dog more, even though I knew a good bit of the information already. Your energy and body language can make a big difference….. Well, I hope some part of my rant above helps! Patience, firmness and gentleness!
This was a great article to read and shows you are quite knowledgeable about huskies. But one of my queries for you was I just bought a husky, he is about 10 weeks old and struggles to be left alone. We’ve only had him for about 4 days and he has settled in a little bit when left alone but during the night if he wakes up after we’ve sat with him and waited for him to sleep he keeps barking and howling the whole night. What do you suggest doing to overcome this?
He or she is lonely give the dog something that has both of your cent on it I give my dog one of my old shirt he lay down on it and go,straight to sleep try it out good luck God bless
U could put a ticking clock in with him or a radio some times that works an maybe a stuffed animal he could cuddle up to or animal heating pad on low
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?
Again, great site, and beautiful dogs you have.
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?
There is no need to have an ALPHA approach. I know this question was asked a while ago and I hope things have worked out well. But every dog is different and at the end of the day whatever behaviour the dog has is because of the owner. Agressove dog who chews everything? The owner didn’t give him proper exercise and chew toys. Didn’t train him not to chew on things. Dog pooped and peed everywhere after the age of 10 weeks? Failed to potty train and can only blame themselves. Not the dog. If people CHOOSE to get a dog…how about tale care of it? I’ll never understand why people take the time to get and pay for a dog but then beat the shit out of it when he pees in the house. Just be a good dog owner. Take him out to potty in the morning. Feed him. Take him to a park for 30min. Love him. Give him toys. Snuggle on the couch/bed. Play tug of war. Pet him. Take him to potty when you get home from work. Feed him dinner. And snuggle up. There is no need to be alpha anything. No need to make it be known you’re the master. He knows. Its a given who rules the roost. Jisy have a happy life together anf everything will be great. Take care.
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.
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?
With my dogs, it is just a matter of training, i.e. training them to recognize their name. Initially, I pair their name with a very simple positive command, e.g. Look. Later on, I can pair it with slightly more challenging situations, and then ultimately use it for recall training.
More on how I trained my puppy.
When you call the dog start saying both names then slowly transition to the new name. There is no time frame