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Understanding How Your Dog Learns Helps You Teach Effectively

Winners do what works. Dogs are winners.

Your dog is smart and he is going to engage in the behaviors that work for him. Regardless of whether there is a formal training program, your dog is learning by association all day long. He learns what works for him, what does not work, what is scary and what is fun.

It is important to understand that dogs do not go through in-depth analysis of their actions. This is not to say that the dog's actions are not complex, but for training a new behavior or breaking an old one you have to form new associations in his mind in order to be successful. A host of factors contribute to the dog's actions, including his genes, breed, health, socialization, and experience. But experience is the key when training.

Learning by Association

From the first moments of his life until now, the dog has been learning how to exist in the world. In his mind he has a set of associations that tell him whether something is good, or not. For example, the aroma of dinner is an experience. If he routinely receives table scraps, then he knows it as a good thing. However, if dinner means that a small child is coming that likes to pull his hair, then he will not like the smell as much. Both responses are generated by the same stimulus. Events AFTER the stimulus (cooking aroma) are highly related to a dog's response to that stimulus. Positive experiences are the key to producing the desired behaviors.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

To train these choices, reinforcement and punishment are used. There are two types of reinforcement - positive and negative, and two types of punishment - positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement is giving something good to the dog that he will enjoy to reward desired behaviors. This can be a treat, attention, etc. The point is to give a positive thing to the dog for a good action.

Negative reinforcement occurs when something bad is taken away as a result of an action. For example, if you have a headache and you take ibuprofen, the headache will go away and you will feel better. This encourages you to take ibuprofen the next time you have a headache; it has been negatively reinforced because the pain pill took away pain. In training a dog, negative reinforcement can be seen when a dog is resisting a sit command and force is used to make him sit down. After he sits, the force is removed.

Positive and Negative Punishment

Positive punishment exists when a correction, physical or verbal, is given to the dog for an incorrect action. An example is a tug on the leash when the dog is pulling in the other direction. The word, "positive" is somewhat misleading. It is not a "happy" action but simply an "additional" action.

Negative punishment is the withdrawal of something good as a penalty for incorrect behavior. Turning away from a dog attempting to jump up to greet you is an example - because of his actions, the attention was taken away.

During training, positive reinforcement and negative punishment are the best tools. The dog is encouraged to follow obedience commands by being rewarded for the correct actions and not rewarded when he performs an incorrect action or fails to perform the desired action. By rewarding the dog for the desired behaviors, he forms positive associations with that action. Motivation to follow the commands emerges, because following the commands gets him what he wants.

Conditioned and Unconditioned Reinforcers

When providing reinforcement in training, we begin by offering unconditioned reinforcers. An unconditioned reinforcer is something that the dog finds inherently rewarding. It could be food, attention, a toy, or anything else that he values and which can be given as a reward. The unconditioned reinforcer is what he wants.

A conditioned reinforcer is something that represents that good stuff is coming. A dog will learn that "cookie" means that a cookie is going to be given to him. So if he is called into the house by being asked "Do you want a cookie?" he will learn to respond to "cookie" even in the absence of the cookie. In this example, "cookie" is a conditioned reinforcer because it stands for the item he wants. During training, words like "good" or "yes" are often used as conditioned reinforcers. Clicker training employs the clicker's sound as the conditioned reinforcer.

Time, Consistency and Patience

Learning by association does not always happen immediately. Not only does the dog have to learn a new association, but he also has to unlearn prior associations. Clicker training often produces results faster because the clicker noise itself is new to the dog. Warm words like "good" or "yes" are not new to the dog, so they do not pinpoint the right behavior for the dog as easily, since he has heard them before, sometimes when something good happened, but also when nothing happened at all.

When training a dog, emphasis should be placed on positive reinforcement when first teaching a command or trick. After all, the dog must understand what is being asked for before he can be corrected for failing. Negative punishment – withdrawing treats or attention – is introduced after the dog understands the command. The corrections – positive punishment and negative reinforcement – are sometimes appropriate when the dog knows the command well but still refuses to obey.

Punishments should be used rarely. As noted, dogs learn by association and they can learn to associate the item seen at the time of the correction with the punishment. So if a dog is punished for pulling toward another dog, he may develop aggression toward dogs, since he has learned that seeing other dogs precedes pain.


Actions learned by association must be reinforced on a regular basis to keep the response strong. This is particularly important with training in which the dog has learned to avoid an enjoyable action, such as barking out the window, in order to receive a reward for being good in the leader's eyes. If the behavior is not refreshed from time to time, then the dog will backslide toward instinct and what he finds rewarding. With diligence and patience, dogs can be trained to associate obedience with joy.

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