1. Dogs learn by association / emotion
Human example: Just like humans learn by association. When you meet someone for the first time you come away with an association—positive, negative, or neutral. If you really enjoyed the interaction, you will look forward to seeing that person again. If you found the person difficult, you might get that little pit of dread in your belly when they are in sight.
Human–dog comparison: Dogs experience the world this way. In fact it may be more intense, because dogs lack the filter of rational thought. They are constantly forming emotional associations—safe, dangerous, neutral or good for me, bad for me, neutral. These associations will form the decisions dogs make and how they react to various situations and things in their surroundings.
Dog example: A common example of associative learning in dogs is their reaction to the sight of a food bowl. Pull out the right bowl and the average dog will jump into fits of joy. It could even be the routine of leading up to the food bowl. This is because dogs have come to learn that this particular bowl/routine always predicts mealtime. So dogs associate bowls with eating.
What is incredible is that we can manipulate dogs’ associations to experiences. For example, new puppies may find leashes insignificant; when first shown a 6-foot length of nylon with a clip at the end they have a neutral association to it. Teach a dog to associate anything with something he loves and you can teach him to love that, too. How? Clip on the leash and give him treats or take him for a walk. Every time you leash him, either take him for a walk or give him treats until you take the leash back off. Pretty soon the puppy figures out that the leash is a fun experience.
Unfortunately, that learning by association also works in reverse. You can teach a dog to hate or fear leashes by repeatedly using them to give corrections or tie him up outside on his own.
2. Dogs learn by consequence / doing
Human example: When I was a kid my grandmother would send me $1 for each A I got on my report card when I was in grammar school. I would call her as soon as I received it and tell her as she expected. So when I received that money in the mail (she lived out of state), I was being rewarded for grades I got a week ago, and I got those grades for work I did over the past couple of months.
Human–dog comparison: Obviously a dog could not understand this situation. This concept is not within their ability. Dogs do learn by consequence, however the consequence has to be immediate.
Dog example: Let’s say I put a dog into a sit with my hand signal. Then I search my pockets for the treat. By the time I deliver the treat five or 6 seconds later, the impact is lost because in that time, the dog barked, sniffed the ground, and barked again. All of a sudden a treat appeared. As far as the dog is concerned, he got it for barking. You will eventually teach that dog to sit, but it will take a while. Or you might end up with a dog that sits and barks.
What does this mean?
Accurate and instantaneous reaction is imperative to train dogs. Let them know right away when they have done something you like. You can use praise, treats, or other dog rewards such as feeding them, opening a door, or letting your dog off leash to romp.
Everything you do around your dog influences the associations he makes.
A dog’s view of the world. Dogs learn in two ways—by association/emotion and by consequence/doing. Because of this, dogs see the world in two ways: What is safe/good for me vs. what is dangerous/bad and what works vs. what doesn’t.
Dogs vs Right or Wrong. Dogs don’t do behaviors we dislike because they are mad, stubborn or naughty. This is a myth. To dogs the world is either safe or dangerous and things either work or they don’t. Right or wrong does not affect the decision, because dogs do not have the concept of reasoning.
Dogs do what is safe and what works. That’s all.
If a dog barks at you to throw the toy and you throw it, rest assured he will do that again. If you ignore the barking he will eventually give up and try something else. He is not trying to be obnoxious; he is just doing what works. If you ask a dog to sit and he doesn’t, he is not being stubborn; you just haven’t trained him well enough yet.
In other words, dogs are dogs, not people. Be patient with your dog and careful about what you give attention to and what you ignore, and you will soon have a relaxed, content, and well-trained four-legged friend.
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