How dogs learn? – part 1

13. July 2020.

My first husky

Have you ever wondered how behaviours are learned?  In this post I’d like to write about the science of dog training and how dogs learn.

We need to understand that our dogs don’t do certain things to upset us or make us angry. They are a lot more selfish than to care about our feelings. Dogs are self-satisfying creatures, they do what is reinforcing. If a behaviour is pleasurable (like chewing a bone, digging a hole, chasing a cat, etc.), they will display that behaviour more and more often. If a behaviour is not pleasurable or if it has an unpleasant result the dog will do that behaviour less and less. When a dog is allowed the freedom to choose what is most rewarding to him, he always will!

We humans generally approach the question of dog training from our own perspective: what I don’t want my dog to do (don’t jump on people, don’t chase the squirrels, don’t eat food from the ground, etc.)
Dogs don’t understand „don’t”, because don’t is a concept. Dogs understand DO – because doing something is a behaviour! Instead of focusing on what your dog shouldn’t do, teach him what he should do, create a behaviour that you want.

Dogs can learn from us through a process called conditioning.

Classical (Respondent) and Operant Conditioning are terms that describe learning with animals and even with humans. Understanding these two concepts and how dogs learn can help you to become a better trainer. If you put these to work and apply them in real-life dog training, you can get the behaviours you want from your dog more easily and eliminate the unwanted ones.

1. Classical conditioning was first studied by Ivan Pavlov behavioral psychologist at the end of 1800s. You’ve probably heard about his experiments with the dogs, today referred to as ‚Pavlov’s Dogs’.

Classical conditioning is a basic learning process which pairs a positive stimulus (eg. food, toy, etc.) with a neutral (bell ring, clicker) or negative stimulus (eg. grooming, visiting the vet).

Respondent conditioning involves repeatedly pairing an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral stimulus until the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. For example, the sound of a bell presented immediately before food may become a conditioned stimulus and evoke the same response as food.

You can also check how your dog reacts if you pick up the leash or the car key. Due to regular repetition your dog learned over time what exactly will happen if you act this way or that way. This creates an association. Your dog will have an involuntary response e.g. excitement or fear to your actions. Car key jingling = car ride = dog park = excitement or walk on the regular path towards the vet clinic = vet clinic = fear.

2. Operant conditioning is a method of learning through the strength of a behaviour which is modified by reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement following a behaviour will cause the behaviour to increase, while if the behaviour is followed by punishment the behaviour will decrease. Dogs learn through their actions resulting in rewards or punishments.

B.F. Skinner – referred to as the father of operant conditioning – observed that through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence.

We’ll talk about the four consequences in operant conditioning in the next post.

My first husky

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