Watching a well-trained dog listen to his owner, and do exactly as he is instructed, is often a thing of amazement and wonder.  This article will help you understand how dogs learn so you can better train those “instructionally-challenged” dogs.

Upon viewing the “trained” dog in action, the questions or comments that usually follow are, “how did you get him to do that”, or “I tried that, but my dog just won’t listen”, or “he just doesn’t understand  what I’m asking him to do”, or a myriad of other partially-frustrated sounding responses.

The general reply to each of those comments is, dogs learn new things in two very basic ways. Although there are a number of behavioral processes at work behind the scenes with each of them, how dogs learn new concepts and behaviors, ultimately can be grouped into two forms of learning. Those two forms are Classical or Associative Learning (Conditioning), and Operant or Instrumental Learning (Conditioning) .

How Dogs Learn with Associative Learning

Now what does all that mean?  Basically, Associative (Classical) learning is where, as the name implies, the dog learns to match
or associate different items or events in his environment with other items or events. The dog learns that when one event happens, another one, most likely will occur. For instance, after a certain number of times your dog hears the doorbell ring, he learns, or associates the ringing of the doorbell with the presence of a person being on the other side of the door, and reacts accordingly.

His reaction, positive or negative, will depend on how your dog views vistors. The point is, that the dog has associated the sound of the doorbell to either something he really enjoys, or something he really dislikes.  Through association, the ringing of the doorbell now means something else is about to occur and his natural reactions will then take over.

Although this is a very simple example, it shows how dogs learn to predict things in their environment. They learn to respond to one event (hearing the doorbell) in anticipation of a second event (greeting a guest). This is also how dogs learn to associate a spoken word, Sit, Come, Stay, etc. with a particular activity. Each of these words is paired, or “associated” with a particular activity that the dog learns to perform.

For instance, dogs have no idea what the actual definition of the word Sit means. However, since the word sit has been paired with some activity (through training), when they hear it, they should tuck both back legs underneath them and place their back-end on the ground.

This is so, because they’ve associated the word Sit with the act of sitting. However, you could have associated any word to the act of sitting and it would work the same way. As long as the act of showing the dog how to sit is paired with a completely unrelated word, the new word would now mean Sit, and the dog wouldn’t know any different. Dogs don’t understand our language. What he has learned is that by hearing a specific word, or seeing a specific event, he should perform some act.

Now, why you ask, does the dog actually WANT to act upon the activities that he has “paired” together? The answer to that question, which is basically the underlying impetus for any form of dog training, and which also dovetails right into the second form of learning, Instrumental Learning, is MOTIVATION.

How Dogs Learn with Instrumental Learning

Without motivation, there is no incentive to perform learned behaviors. If a dog isn’t motivated to perform a certain activity, he just won’t, plain and simple. Dogs do what works and in the art of training dogs, it is every dog trainer’s job to find out what motivates a particular dog to get him to perform desired activities. Motivation is where Instrumental Learning begins.

Instrumental (Operant) learning is where the dog learns that his behavior has consequences. He learns, that his actions actually have meaning and can dictate what happens to him in his environment. Sometimes his actions get him the things he really likes or needs (positive), or they can backfire and can get him things he really dislikes and/or could do without (negative).

For example, if your dog happens to go to where his favorite goodies are stored, barks and is then rewarded with a cookie, he has learned that, by performing some action (barking), he has received a very positive end result (gets cookie). The dog has now learned that his behavior can influence what happens to him, and in this case, he will be very motivated to keep repeating it. Remember, dogs are extremely intelligent, and they do what works for them.

Always be mindful what actions you are rewarding. You may wind-up rewarding things that you could regret later on. It’s the motivation factor that provides the energy for the dog to perform a particular action to get that anticipated end result. This is how we get dogs to perform the behaviors we desire.

To summarize, Associative learning is where dogs form predictions, or associations between different things or events in their environment. Instrumental learning is the process by which dogs determine on their own, that by performing some type of activity, they can control what happens to them.

Both forms of learning are used in dog training to teach dogs new behaviors, and both can have positive or negative effects on dog behavior. For a continuation on this topic, please see our article on Stages of Learning.




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