Your dog is an individual but he or she learns in the same two ways as any other animal. Dogs learn through association and consequences.
Association is how animals learn reflexive, involuntary responses; things they do automatically, without thinking. Emotional responses like fear and excited, joyful but over-aroused anticipation are the easiest to notice. Dog owners can use association, also known as classical conditioning, to adjust those emotional reflexes. Simply pairing the stimulus that results in the emotion with something good like a treat can help the animal start expecting good things and respond calmly to that stimulus, even if it used to frighten him or cause him to be “over the top”.
Consequences of behaviors teach dogs whether to repeat those behaviors or not. This type of learning happens naturally just like association does. It can be applied by dog owners, too, just like association is. When you give a treat after a behavior and you do it every time the animal performs the behavior, that consequence ensures the behavior becomes part of a dog’s repertoire. This is positive reinforcement, the consequence we recommend you use for training your dog. It’s also known as operant conditioning.
“Training is simple, but not easy.” – Dr. Robert E. Bailey
What gets in the way of your dog’s learning?
A dog’s emotions can put him in a state in which you don’t have much control over what he learns. Likewise, if you don’t control the environment you’re using to train him in, his attention can be drawn to a multitude of things that don’t have anything to do with your training. Both of these issues can slow your training down.
How do dogs learn in the midst of emotions like fear or over-excitement?
Just like your own emotions, your dog’s emotions can cause him to behave impulsively instead of thinking about the training problem you’re trying to get him to work through. Your dog learns best when he’s curious about what’s going on, exploring the new situations you’re presenting in training, and using the “thinking” part of his brain to figure out how to solve the problem of what behavior to choose.
Solutions to help your dog learn when emotions are in the way
If your dog is fearful, drop treats on the floor near him and see if he eats them. Reaching toward him could make him feel threatened, so let him know he can get the treats without that intrusive action. If he eats the treats you drop, you can start training by delivering treats for reinforcement that way.
If your dog is over-excited, do the same thing – be calm, drop treats one at a time a few feet away from you and see if you can get him engaged in eating one each time you drop it. Once you get that going, try dropping a treat when he stands still for a second or when he looks at you – these simplest of behaviors will get you started with training.
How do dogs learn when they’re over-stimulated by things around them?
Your dog may have trouble focusing on what you’re teaching when there are so many other things that are easier to concentrate on. Smells, sounds and visual stimuli that have nothing to do with your training can really get in the way.
Solutions to help your dog learn when outside distractions are in the way
Train in a quiet environment, like a room in your home where there’s not much going on. Many trainers start training new behaviors in the kitchen, an empty hallway, or even in the bathroom because those environments don’t offer many distractions. When your dog has a handle on the new skill, start training it in a different room. Don’t try it in the super-exciting outdoors or in front of other people until he’s really good at it!
How do dogs learn when they don’t understand what you want?
Your dog can appear clueless about what you want him to do when you ask for too much or when you respond inconsistently to the choices he makes. You will confuse your dog if you sometimes give him a treat and other times do nothing when he performs a new behavior he’s learning. Worse, if you sometimes scold him when he does it, you can create a problem with future training. Read our article on balanced training for more on this topic.
Solutions to help your dog learn what you want him to do
Learn to make a plan before training. Use your observation skills: notice when your dog is doing something close to the final behavior you want. In your plan, outline what behaviors the dog is likely to do to take steps toward the goal. Will he look at you or at an object? Take a step in a certain direction? Turn to the left or right, just a little? Notice those predictable, tiny steps. Give the dog a treat for each one, every single time. During the learning phase, reinforce every behavior on your path to the goal. Some dogs move more slowly than others. But if you find yourself waiting more than 10-15 seconds for the dog to do something you can reinforce, you’re probably asking for too much. Stop the training session and make a new plan to reinforce a smaller step. That’s a misunderstanding you can avoid by asking your dog for a smaller piece of behavior.
How can you help your dog learn?
All dogs, in fact all animals (including humans) learn through association and consequences. Your dog may need you to help him get into a better mental state for learning by carefully choosing what to teach first, setting up the environment, and polishing up your training skills. The better you are at your training skills, the more quickly your dog will learn the behaviors you want him to learn!
How do dogs learn? With your help.
If you want to delve deeper into how dogs learn, try the book How Dogs Learn by Mary Burch and Jon Bailey. It’s simple reading with plenty of evidence-based science.