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How Dogs Learn - Training Trends and Theories

A basic understanding how your dog learns and responds to training is a valuable tool.

Most dogs are intelligent and like to please, but they love to be the class clown and have the energy to upstage and challenge you time and again. Dogs can also be head strong, and understanding how to keep them on your side can help prevent standoffs. It can also help you ensure your dog's training is in tune with its abilities and paced to its learning level.

There are two main learning theories that are applied in dog training, and familiarity with both will help you understand the science behind the methods used in training. The first is called Classical Conditioning, and is most often associated with Pavlov's experiments with dogs. Pavlov sounded a bell prior to feeding his dogs, and in time his canine subjects responded to the bell with salivation. Many of us have seen this in action, with our dogs drooling at the sound of the electric can opener. But what's really going on?

Dogs and other animals react automatically to primary stimuli such as food or pain without learning. Through training, secondary stimuli (such as a ringing bell) that are associated with primary stimuli again and again begin to elicit a learned response. You can train your dog to respond to a clicker just as it would to a treat, once conditioning has occurred. Rewarding with a treat the moment your dog performs a desired behavior is no longer necessary: a click or praise will suffice as a reinforcer.

The theory of operant conditioning is also important to training. Its focus is the association of a behavior with a resulting consequence. In this case, the consequence is the stimulus. For this to be effective in dog training, the consequences must follow the behavior immediately, or the association will not take place. Again, a substitution may be used for the consequence (such as a click instead of a treat), provided an association between the primary and secondary stimuli style has already taken place via Classical Conditioning.

Stimuli that are added or given as a consequence are considered positive; those that are taken away are called negative. A stimulus aimed at increasing or strengthening a behavior is a reinforcer, while one that seeks to decrease or eliminate a behavior is a punisher. How effective individual reinforces and punishers are may vary, but the theory behind their effectiveness in training methodology is scientifically founded.

Once you understand some of the science behind training methods, it is easier to put them into practice, and keep your patience! Look for ways to use learning theory to your advantage in training your dog. Pay careful attention to positive reinforcers and punishers you might inadvertently introduce to your dog. What about negative ones? Be on the lookout for new, desirable behaviors you want to reinforce, and training will become a natural part of your dog's life.

Please consult the services of a Professional Dog Trainer, Behaviorist or Veterinarian before implementing any of the advice contained on this site.