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  • Writer's pictureToby

Understanding how dogs learn

Animals are learning all the time and every time we interact with them, there is an exchange of information. There are 2 main types of learning we consider: Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning.

Classical conditioning is learning by association - 'this means that'. Dogs can predict what is going to happen in the future by what has happened in the past...

  • Many of you may know about Pavlov's Dogs. After a few repetitions, the sound of the bell had the dogs salivating for their meals before the food came out.

  • You open your fridge door and your dog rushes to the fridge. He/she has learnt that the opening of the fridge door predicts something yummy is going to come out.

  • The sound of the vehicle arriving in the driveway means the favourite people have just arrived home. Dog is jumping at the door predicting you are going to walk in

  • You pick up the lead and your dog dog starts biting at the lead or harness predicting you are going for a walk together

  • Equally if a dog has been hit or hurt, the raising of a hand or broom may cause a dog to cower predicting another painful/scary experience

  • If we take a bone away from a dog, he may growl the next time we approach when he has a bone. He is predicting we will try to take it from him again

Operant conditioning is learning that there are consequences for your behaviour. With positive reinforcement we add something the dog likes. This increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be performed again in the future

  • We ask a dog to sit and give him a treat. If the treat was reinforcing enough for him, he may sit again when he is asked

  • We teach a dog to stand calmly and wait at the door to have his harness fitted. If he likes going for a walk, he is likely to wait patiently at the door in the future

  • You ask your dog to wait on his mat when you are preparing his dinner. If he loves his dinner, he will likely wait on his mat in the future

Your companion may find all of these behaviours hard though if he/she has already learnt that these situations are really exciting and is already jumping all over you. Both classical and operant conditioning are happening all the time. There is a saying in dog training that 'Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder'

What does this mean to us as caregivers when interacting with our companions? It means that even if we are trying to teach new behaviours (or asking for known behaviours), our dogs may have already made associations before we start. A good example may be trying to teach our dogs to walk beside us on lead when they have already learnt that other dogs mean 'I get to engage and play with every dog I see'. It can be hard for them to focus on us. It's not that they are 'being naughty' but they have already created associations with these stimuli. They can't unlearn what they already know.

Another example may be dogs not wanting to come back to us at a dog park. They have learnt by association that coming back means the end of all the fun. We havent trained that operantly , they have learnt it classically.

It can often therefore be easier to teach behaviours without too many distractions, and in the comfort of your own home first. When training, we like to set a good foundation of any behaviour without distraction and gradually add one of the 3 'D's as we progress. Distance, Duration and Distractions. Its important to only work on one 'D' at a time when increasing criteria. it can take lots of successful repetitions for dogs to be able to perform behaviours in different locations and under different circumstances. This is called generalising behaviours.

Some dogs may learn some behaviours quicker than others. Many things impact learning including genetics, prior learning and current environment. A fearful dog may find it harder to learn new things than a more confident dog. Dogs are often categorised as being pessimists or optimists. Optimists will generally be keener to learn and may be quicker to learn new behaviours than pessimists. We know that punishment makes dogs more pessimistic which affects their learning and also the retention of what they have learnt.

Helping your dog to feel more confident will definitely help. Giving dogs choice and control in their environment can help be encouraging fun activities your dog wants to participate in. Nose work is a great fun activity you can practice at home, as are dog parkour and movement puzzles. Moving their body without restriction of harness, collar of lead can be very beneficial to all dogs - provided they are not in pain.

Health will also affect learning. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of dogs live with some sort of pain in Australia. We know that pain and behaviour are inextricably linked. Regular vet checks are really important as well as any time you see changes in behaviour. Its important to rule out pain first.

Behaviour is not good or bad, it is just behaviour. If you see any behaviour that is problematic to you, you may like to consider what associations your dog has already made that are impacting. Cheers, Toby xx

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