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  • Writer's pictureBobby Dwyer

How Dogs Learn

Conditioning is a process of teaching and conditioning is constant. You must know that a dog is being conditioned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is the process by which reinforce certain behaviors to increase the frequency of those behaviors. Conditioning comes in multiple forms and we will use these forms of conditioning to teach our dogs. Classical conditioning is how a dog learns something by establishing associations between different events and stimuli. Another form of conditioning is Operant conditioning. Essentially, we reinforce desired behavior to cause it to occur more often and then we punish a behavior to cause it to occur less often. Essentially the idea of operant conditioning is that behavior is influenced by the consequences that follow. We will use a combination of the conditioning techniques described above to teach our dogs everything. The basis of conditioning that we will use is based on four main components:

  1. Positive Reinforcement (increases target behavior): You give your dog something that he likes.

  2. Negative Reinforcement (increases target behavior) : You take something away that your dog finds unpleasant.

  3. Positive Punishment ( decreases target behavior): You give your dog something that he finds unpleasant.

  4. Negative Punishment (decreases target behavior): You take something away that your dog finds pleasurable.

We will also use reinforces and punishers to shape our dogs behavior:

  • Primary Reinforcers: What your dog needs to survive. Examples of this are food, water, air, and sex. We will use food rewards to reward our dogs when teaching new commands.

  • Secondary Reinforcers: Objects or events that your dog finds pleasurable. A dog in the wild would ignore a bumper or ball, but our dogs will find this as a reward because we will associate these things to fun and play.

  • Primary Punishers: These are things, or events, that your dog associates with punishing, or something that hurts the animal. This doesn’t have to be just a pain stimulus given by a trainer but can be objects such as an electric fence.

  • Secondary Punishers: Things, or events, that the dog finds unpleasant. An example of this is the word “no”. Over time the dog will learn that this word means the handler is unhappy.

Some other conditioning terms and concepts will be helpful for us to understand are:

  • Extinction: Making a specific behavior disappear through a deliberate process of not reinforcing the unwanted behavior. This is the best way to reduce unwanted behavior because it has fewer negative side effects than punishment and is simple. But it can take some time and those behaviors you are trying to stop will come back right before the behavior is extinct. Make sure to not reinforce the undesirable behavior in any way.

  • Stimulus Control: You train your dog to only respond to the stimuli that is important the the work you are trying to perform. This means that the dog doesn’t point the scent of humans but will point the scent of birds. The best way to explain this is that when we see a traffic light as red when driving, it means stop, but if we see a red billboard we continue driving.

  • Stimulus Picture: This is when a certain environment evokes associations for the dog and typically with a set of expected actions. We will use this to teach our dogs that a duck blind means we are going duck hunting. Or that when he jumps off the truck and sees an open field it means we are searching for quail. This is important for us because the dogs are going to be taught expected actions in certain types of environments. If your dog starts searching for quail when you pull up to your duck blind then the dog doesn’t understand the stimulus picture.

  • Negative Stimulus Picture: This is due to improper and heavy handed training. The dog perceives the picture or area as a negative. This will cause their performance to go down so we will be careful to avoid this.

When teaching our dog something we must break it down into small steps because your dog will learn quickest when he is successful. Success will motivate the animal to continue learning and increase confidence. In the beginning stages of teaching a new command we will reward 100 percent of the time when the dog performs the action. Later in training we will reduce the amount of rewards and will move to a variable reward schedule but we don’t want to reward a dog too infrequently. It is important to find what motivates your dog (food, play, etc.) and use that as your

dogs currency in training. This currency is what your DOG finds valuable, not what you think the dog should find valuable. Since our timing of a reward is important and digging out a treat can take too long we will use a Bridge Signal. The Bridge Signal is a word or sound that the dog has linked to a reward so that signal will become the reward in itself. For our purposes we will use the word “good” but you can also use a clicker or other type of verbal marker. The goal of the Bridge Signal is to signal to our dogs “Great job! Here comes a reward!”. When teaching our dogs its important to keep the task in mind and reward when it is expected. Your dog won’t fully understand the task at hand if you move the goal line midway through a task. We will raise the expectation as we continue but when trying to reach a certain level we will reward when that level is reached.

Dogs (and humans) will always be looking for a shortcut to the reward. They want to find the easiest route that quickly gets them rewarded. We need to make it clear to the dog that shortcuts will not be tolerated. It is important as a trainer to always be on the lookout for when your dog is trying to take a shortcut and preventing it from being rewarded. I will describe what to look for when teaching your dog new things so that this can be avoided. Physical punishment, corrections, or positive punishment, is something that we will be using to teach our dogs certain behaviors are unwanted but these must be given out carefully because if performed incorrectly it will erode the dogs confidence and not actually teach them anything. Research has shown that positive reinforcement forms a longer-lasting and stronger effects that positive punishment or negative reinforcement. A high-level of correction can actually cause your dog to shutdown and can block the learning process. If you deliver a misunderstood correction to your dog you could end up spending a lot of extra time trying to build your dogs confidence back up. I have made this mistake before when E-collar conditioning a dog. I pulled the dog, strapped the E-collar on the dog, and while walking through the field I corrected the dog for not coming back to me. I wasn’t paying attention and my E-collar transmitter was a much higher level than I would’ve used on this dog because I was working a much tougher dog before this one. It cause the dog to completely freeze and even be scared to move in the field. I spent the rest of the day with a handful of treats trying to fix my mistake. We will be using corrections and lower level E-collar stimulation to shape our dogs behavior but there are three criteria we should use to decide when to use a high level of

positive punishment:

  • A behavior that puts the trainer or handler at risk.

  • A behavior that could cause a risk for bystanders.

  • A behavior that causes risk to the dog.

When preparing to teach our dog something new it is important to think

ahead, plan it out, and then put your plan into action.

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