The Science Behind Dog Learning: Understanding How Dogs Learn and Remember

Posted by Jackie Ly on

dog doing high-five with their owner

For dogs, learning happens all the time.  Life provides opportunities for dogs to learn. Even when you’re not actively training them, they are fast to pick up your every action tied up in different things and situations. 

For example, when you feed your dog while you’re eating at the dining table, you’ve unconsciously taught them that hanging around the dining table will get them food to eat. That also applies when you consciously teach them an action, like “Sit.” 

Whether you are actively training them or not, your dog is watching your every move and learning every time.

So, when you hear about the science in dog training, know that it’s not something new. 

It began in the early 1900s, when behaviourists Watson, Thorndike, Skinner, and Pavlov studied animal behaviour. That’s when they coined the terms classical and operant conditioning through reward and punishment, all under the Learning Theory.

The Learning Theory

The Learning Theory is the science that applies to dog training. It shows how all animals learn: dogs, dolphins, chickens, cats, and so on. This theory is basically the process through which learning happens.

To put it simply, dogs learn through association. Your goal as pet owners is to train your dog to associate words or signals with certain behaviours.

Motivators or Drives

Motivators, or most commonly known as “drives”, Motivators, sometimes known as "drives", are used in conjunction with reinforcers and punishers to teach dogs how to correlate behaviours with antecedents and consequences.

Drives are what motivates your dog to follow your commands. Drives could be different for each dog. It's also worth noting that different dog breeds were traditionally bred to do different activities, which entail unique character traits that might influence their drive to do or not do something.

Some dogs are motivated by sociability drive, and they’re perfectly content with petting or praising them as a reward. Other dogs are motivated by prey drive and enjoy chasing other animals or objects. Others are motivated by play drive and love to play with other dogs, toys, or people.

Knowing what motivates your dog most of the time will come handy when you’re training them. 

Learning Theory expounds that there are two main types of learning: Classical and Operant Conditioning.

Classical Conditioning - Pavlovian Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, describes how learning occurs instinctively or automatically and in a predictable manner.

This was discovered by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian experimenter, when he made his research about salivation in dogs in response to being fed. 

After the dogs were fed, he placed a tiny test tube into their cheeks to measure their saliva. Pavlov expected that the dogs would salivate in reaction to the food placed in front of them, but he saw that his dogs would salivate anytime they heard the footsteps of his assistant bringing them the food.

Pavlov (1902) began with the idea that there are things a dog does not need to learn. Dogs, for example, do not learn to salivate everytime they see food. This instinct is 'hard-wired' into the dog. 

That’s why Classical Conditioning was coined. ‘Classical’ refers to the fact that learning in this context is involuntary. ‘Conditioning’ refers to the process of teaching through association. 

Classical conditioning happens when a dog unconsciously associates two stimuli. For example, your dog salivates when they smell food. Thus, if you ring a bell repeatedly right before your dog smells food, they will eventually associate the sound of a ringing bell with food and start salivating involuntarily.

Classical conditioning helps dogs in forming positive associations with all types of stimuli.

When raising a puppy, you may use classical conditioning to introduce your puppy to things by rewarding them with food or playing their favourite game. The treats or games generate a positive connection with any stimuli.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is when a dog learns to associate a voluntary behaviour with a consequence. The term "consequence" does not necessarily mean negative consequences. On the contrary, in operant conditioning, consequences are often good.

You can influence your dog's behaviour by asking them to perform an action and then rewarding them for doing so. When you teach them the ‘Sit’ command, and you reward them for sitting, your dog will most likely repeat that behaviour because they liked the consequence, which is the reward– either a treat or a praise. This is known as Positive Reinforcement.

Operant conditioning has four tenets: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment. 

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement means adding something to encourage your dog’s behaviour. Perhaps they will receive a treat, a toy, or a play time with you!  This reward serves as a reinforcer for the behaviour, making it more likely that they will do it again.

For example, when you ask your dog to sit and they do, you reward them with a treat. The treat acts as a reinforcer, making it more likely that your dog will sit again. It is important to keep in mind that a reinforcer must be something your dog values or appreciates.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement means removing something unpleasant in an attempt to increase the chance of a behaviour occurring more often. This means that there is already something unpleasant happening, so you can remove it. 

The use of choke collars and bark collars in dog training is an example of negative reinforcement. As your dog tugs on the leash,  the choke or prong collar tightens, causing pain and discomfort. When your dog barks aggressively, bark collars deliver a static correction in a completely painless way, but still uncomfortable enough for your dog. 

That pain and discomfort stops them from pulling or barking aggressively. Once they do, you remove the pain they’re feeling.

The effectiveness of this technique depends on your dog feeling relief from the pain and discomfort. In hopes of encouraging the positive behaviour of loose leash walking, the unpleasant object that's removed is pain and discomfort.

Positive Punishment

In positive punishment, you add something unpleasant to control an unwanted or aggressive behaviour. In theory, you will do something unpleasant to your dog in an attempt to minimise the repetition of the unwanted behaviour. 

The use of choke and prong collars is again an example. The purpose of using these collars is to cut down or change the "pulling on the leash" behaviour. When they pull too much, you let them experience pain and suffering, in hopes that they will not do that again.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment means removing something your dog likes to correct an unwanted behaviour and reduce the possibility that it will happen again. 

An example of negative punishment is when your dog pulls on the leash and you stop walking. You wait until your dog stops pulling before resuming your walk.

Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA)

LIMA stands for "Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive". As the phrase implies, the goal of LIMA training is to use the least intrusive, least aversive strategy available to teach your dog the proper way to behave. 

In other words, the emphasis is on teaching dogs as gently as possible, using positive approaches rather than punishment.

LIMA dog training is supported by recognised national and international training organisations, including the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers (CCPDT), and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT).

Take LIMA as a framework that trainers and you may use to determine the most humane dog training option. It all comes down to spending the time to understand your dog and the behavioural issues in order to pick the training technique that would cause them the least amount of discomfort.

Humane Hierarchy 

Instead of using punishment, LIMA gives trainers with a variety of alternative options. Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University, developed the Humane Hierarchy. It ranks different training methods from least to most abrasive.

According to the IAABC website, there are six steps to consider when running through the Humane Hierarchy.

  • Health, nutritional, and physical factors - The first step is to get your dog examined by a veterinarian to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing the problematic behaviours. Physical environment factors that may be triggering the behaviour should also be addressed.
  • Antecedents - Implement management methods such as reducing triggers or changing situations and settings to prevent the behaviour.
  • Positive Reinforcement - Give rewards to encourage your dog to do good behaviours.
  • Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviour - The next approach is replacing the problematic behaviour with an alternative behaviour.
  • Negative punishment, reinforcement, and extinction - Now it’s time to consider 3 more options to modify or reduce a behaviour: Negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and extinction. Extinction means you permanently stop reinforcing a behaviour in order to eliminate it.
  • Positive punishment - The final option is to make the problematic behaviour uncomfortable for your dog in some way— from making loud noises to using citronella sprays or static shocks that are completely painless but are still uncomfortable for them.

When you welcome a dog into your life, you must know that they are still clueless about the world, much more in living a domestic life. 

As their family, it is your responsibility to teach them how to behave, ensuring that both of you can live together as peacefully and happily as you can.

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