What is the “right” way to train? (How dogs learn)

The field of animal behavior is completely unregulated to any governing organization and that leaves so many discrepancies for people who are trying to help their animals. I feel for you.

Should you use treats? Should you use choke chains? Positive reinforcement? Shock collars? When it comes to training your dog, it’s an individual choice. I’m not here to judge. I don’t think anyone appreciates judgments about how to raise their children, so why would they want judgments on how to raise their dog. I’m certainly not going to change your mind. Or can I?

I think that just like anything else, people should receive the facts and then make their own decisions. Hopefully after being presented the facts, you will go with the scientifically studied methods that are known to work without negative consequences that other methods produce such as fear, anxiety and aggression. So what are the facts? How do dogs learn?

Dogs learn in 2 ways- association and consequence. Association has a fancy scientific term called “Classical Conditioning”. Think of the famous Pavlov and his dogs, you ring a bell, the dogs salivate because they have learned to associate the bell with food. Association is a powerful thing that naturally happens, but we can also manipulate situations in order to change associations. “Counter Conditioning” is how we can change an association that is perceived as negative, to a positive association. This is how we can change fearful behaviors.

Consequence also has a fancy scientific term called “Operant Conditioning”. Basically, if I do this, I can expect this to happen. Operant conditioning has 4 consequences- positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Without making this too confusing, think of “positive” as adding something and “negative” as taking something away. Think of “punishment” as reducing a behavior and “reinforcement” as increasing a behavior. And it’s just that simple, if I want my dog to do more of something, I reinforce that behavior and if I want my dog to do less of something I don’t reinforce that behavior.

Wait it’s that simple? Yep! Well then why are there such discrepancies in what people teach? Well the straight answer is that they don’t understand psychology and how dogs learn. Cesar Millan is a shining example of this. He has made his living off of telling people that dogs are pack animals and you have to be a pack leader. Yet he can’t pass a basic test that involves questions on learning theory.

Dogs have evolved, they are not wolves. Dogs live in houses and have cushy beds and some even sleep in our beds. Wolves don’t. Dogs walk on leashes and understand owner commands. Wolves don’t. Dogs rely on us solely for their food. Wolves don’t. There are so many differences in these 2 species- the most telling being that one is a wild animal and one is domesticated. So to try to place behavioral traits on your dog that come from wolf behavior is just not going to work because your dog is not a wolf.

First of all, if you are going to try to behave as part of your dogs pack, why wouldn’t you watch other dogs interact with each other and replicate that instead? Not wolf behavior. And second of all, because we are a totally different species than our dogs, we can’t possibly communicate with them correctly acting as a dog because, well, we are not dogs! So we shouldn’t bark at them, or replicate a bite, or alpha roll, or anything else that is not species appropriate.

What we should do is act like a human and have our dog act like a dog. What a concept! We should have realistic expectations for our dogs and then teach them either through association or through consequences. Association is a powerful tool for treatment of fear, anxiety and aggression. You can change how the dog FEELS and thus change how the dog ACTS. (Remember Counter Conditioning?) Consequence is a powerful tool for say teaching your dog about stealing the Thanksgiving turkey. This could have different consequences for the dog, its self-reinforcing to steal the food because the dog gets to eat (Positive Reinforcement), and yet it can also have the consequence of getting caught by the owner and have the food taken away (Negative Punishment) or the dog being punished (Positive Punishment).

Dogs are highly adapted to us as humans because we have made them that way. So communicating with your dog can be very easy. You just need to understand how. Hopefully, now that you do, it will help you understand how you can keep a behavior or change a behavior. Now when your dog behaves a certain way, I want you to think- do I want them to keep doing that? If yes, how can I reinforce that (food, praise, toys)? If no, how can I change that behavior (association, interruption, teaching an incompatible behavior-my dog can’t jump up on people if he is sitting down)?

Now that you are educated, you can make the decisions for yourself on how you want to raise and train your dog. I hope arming you with the information that you need and the understanding of how dogs learn will make you a better companion to your friend and a better communicator. Many times, people just need help communicating with their dog. Communicate effectively with your dog and the rewards will be great!