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How dogs learn

Beautiful black lab standing on a log

The way dogs learn is very similar to how humans learn, it involves observing, processing, and retaining new information.

For example, how did our son Beck learn to talk? 

  • He observed us talking to him and each other, 
  • he then processed those observations, 
  • then he made the connection of what the mouth sounds are for (communicating). 
  • then once he began to talk himself, he retained the basics of the behaviour, how it’s done and what it’s for.

Now onto conditioning, which is about stimuli and responses, and comes with two theories, classical and operant.

Classical conditioning

This theory suggests that behaviours are reflexes that act as responses to certain stimuli. And you’ve probably already heard about Pavlov’s dog?

Ivan Pavlov is the psychologist behind the famous dog experiment explaining classical conditioning in dogs.

Through different stages of experimentation Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate with just the sound of a bell. He did this by ringing a bell just before he served the dogs their food. Over time with repetition the dogs started to salivate just by hearing the bell, even without seeing any food.

By that point, the salivation was pretty much just a reflex rather than as a direct response to food.

You can now see how the principle of classical conditioning with things our dogs are apprehensive about, like leads, nail cutters, etc and so on. So, in theory, slowly and gently exposing our dog to the negative item before presenting them with a good thing like food, treats, or a good walk.

Operant conditioning

Like Classical conditioning, Operant Conditioning is based on the idea of stimulus and response. But this time, it doesn’t view the responses as reflexes but rather as a result of either positive or negative stimuli.

Think of it as a ‘rewards’ and ‘punishment’ sort of thing.

Basically, when you do something good and get a reward, chances are you’ll want to do that good behavior again to get another reward? Like when you were small and you got a gold star for doing well at school, you kept on aiming to get more and more gold stars.

And if you did something wrong and got punished for it, you’ll probably never want to do it again.

It works similarly with our dogs. They behave in a certain way to get rewards and avoid punishment. Rewards can range from treats to praise, or anything else your dog enjoys.

At Tails of Tranquility, we ONLY use and condone the gentle and kind teaching of dogs.

Social learning theory

The idea of this theory is simply that humans (and dogs) learn behaviours by observing how other humans (or dogs) behave. 

It says that behaviour is a product of observation and imitation.

Unfortunately, we humans can’t use social learning to teach new behaviours to our dogs because they only learn socially by observing other dogs. So no, your dog won’t learn gently on the lead just by watching and imitating you.

Dogs are smart enough to see that we aren’t like them, so we don’t have the social influence it takes for the Social Learning Theory to be applied with them.

If you know of a well-mannered older dog who knows the tricks you’re trying to teach your younger dog, then you can try that. 

But this theory isn’t always full proof, in our house Daisy our youngest dog has taught our oldest girl Flame some very cheeky tricks!

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