We can never say for sure what a dog knows or understands, but when it comes to dog training, focusing on this isn’t actually that important. Trying to figure out what Fido is thinking won’t help to move your training forward because we can't actually tell what Fido is thinking - we can only guess.
What is important however is what a dog actually does (ie their behaviour) and how they learn. Just like us humans, a dog’s behaviour adapts as it learns. By understanding how dogs learn, we are able to change their behaviour and reach our training goals. We can create situations to enable dogs to learn what we want them to. Focusing on the behaviour your dog offers you is what matters.
Essentially dogs learn using the two main methods below:
1) Classical Conditioning
2) Operant Conditioning
Ready to learn how it all works? Yes? Awesome! Let’s take a look...
This form of learning controls involuntary responses. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, who lived over 100 years ago discovered that if he always rang a bell before feeding his dogs, eventually the dogs drooled when he rang it – whether or not they got fed! The bell was causing the dogs to drool, without them having any control over the drooling.
In human terms think lemons! Take a moment to think of lemons or sherbet (or anything sour) – what do you notice? Do you notice an increase in salivation? This is because your body is responding to a specific past event i.e. tasting the bitterness of a lemon and this is now become a conditioned response.
So how does Classical Conditioning affect your dog training?
Classical Conditioning happens all the time. Whether you like it or not, your dog is picking up on its environment and its body will start to react to repetitive or reinforced patterns. Here is how you can use Classical Conditioning to your advantage:
1) Create a conditioned response
This is how the popular ‘reflex to name’ exercise in class works to strengthen the response to Fido's name! We pair our dog’s name with a treat which over time builds a conditioned response.
2) Extinguish the body’s expectations
Change the routine. Open the cupboard door but don’t feed your dog. Or ring the doorbell but don’t have anyone enter the house.
3) Create new pairings
Rather than try to extinguish your dog’s unfavourable responses, try counter conditioning. For example, if your dog gets excited when greeting visitors at the front door, shower him with treats on a mat when the doorbell goes. He’ll soon learn to drool and expect food when he hears the doorbell, rather than focus all his energy and attention on the visitors. This will make it a much calmer greeting ritual.
The second way a dog learns is through Operant Conditioning.
Like Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning is also in play all the time and the basic rule is that if your actions have a good outcome, you’ll repeat the behaviour that enabled it. Equally, if you don’t get a good outcome, you probably won’t bother repeating the behaviour again. B.F. Skinner was the first scientist to document this process.
So how does Operant Conditioning affect your dog training?
Operant Conditioning is perfect for dog training as it helps to build and strengthen certain behaviours while weakening others. It relies on consequences.
Use your dog’s favourite behaviours as rewards. Work out what your dog is most likely to do each situation and use that behaviour as a reward for what you’re trying to train. For example, if your dog loves a tennis ball, but pulls when on a lead, use the tennis ball to your advantage. When your dog walks nicely on the lead, give him the tennis ball.
This learning technique is based on the Premack Principle (aka Grandma’s rule) that states that ‘more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours’.
Do you remember when your Grandma wouldn’t give you dessert unless you ate your vegetables? The Premack Principle is effectively the same – you can strengthen the weaker behaviour (eating vegetables) by using a more likely behaviour (eating dessert) as a reward.
Operant Conditioning is based on five possible consequences to each doggy behaviour – your dog just learns what works best. By familiarising yourself with these consequences you can enable your dog to learn and therefore change or create new behaviours:
Reinforcement - when the consequence of a behaviour increases the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated, the behaviour gets strengthened; Reinforcement is what builds and maintains behaviours. This can be done by adding something (positive reinforcement) or taking something away (negative reinforcement).
Let's take a look at some examples:
1) Positive reinforcement - If your dog gets a treat when he watches you, he’ll watch you more. You are adding the treat which is reinforcing the watching behaviour.
2) Negative reinforcement - If your dog jumps off the see saw before it hits the ground, he’ll avoid getting a sore jolt in his back. The pain is taken away which increases the likelihood of him jumping off before it hits the ground next time.
Punishment – the consequence of a behaviour decreases the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated. This can be done by adding something (positive punishment) or taking something away (negative punishment). Please note the term ‘punishment’ is a purely technical term here, describing a consequence that weakens the behaviour for the future.
Here are some examples:
3) Positive punishment - If your dog is stung by a bee while weaving during agility, his weaving behaviour will deteriorate. The bee sting is added, which decreases the likelihood of the dog’s weaving correctly in the future.
4) Negative punishment - If your dog’s foot target is briefly removed when he tries to mouth it, you’re removing his opportunity to earn a reward. This decreases the likelihood that he’ll grab the target with his mouth in the future.
Extinction - if the behaviour produces no consequence at all, that behaviour will eventually decrease and disappear. So if your dog never gets a reaction from you when he begs, eventually he’ll stop begging because there’s no consequence at all.
So there you have it – how dogs learn using Classical and Operant Conditioning.
So next time you are training with your dog don't forget the Golden Rules:
· Dogs are learning all the time so pay close attention to what you reinforce
· Your dog is not doing ‘bad’ things to spite you or ‘good’ things to please you, they are just doing what works (remember there are only five possible consequences to every behaviour which enable learning)
· Reward good behaviour as it happens and reinforce it
· Apply extinction or ‘negative punishment’ to weaken unwanted behaviours e.g. if your dog is pulling on the lead, stop. The opportunity to walk forwards is removed until they slacken on the lead
· Set-up the environment for good associations
xxx HAPPY TRAINING xxx