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Dog Psych 101




Training a dog; Teaching a dog new behaviors

The ways of dog psychology are nothing new. Dogs have been learning the same way for centuries! There are a few ways we can categorize or understand “how dogs learn” as humans though, so I will be breaking down a few of them so we can have a better understanding of our dogs. The purpose of this is to understand how our dogs learn, and through this, how we can form a better life with them. This is important because they are literally animals living in our homes (I knoooow, they're your baby), they will still do dog things, and this is sometimes frustrating if we don’t have a good understanding of how dogs operate. 


Learning Theory:

Humans have many theories for explaining dog behavior and why it is that we can teach them specific physical actions combined with “commands” or words that cue these actions. 

Pamela J. Reid explains in her book Excel-erated Learning that, “Learning theory is an explanation of how learning works; how learning comes to occur. All you can see is the behavior but if behavior changes , you assume that something has been learned. Learning is a process that occurs somewhere in the brain at some physical level.” I am going to briefly define a few of these theories of learning which humans have developed. 


Classical Conditioning: Classical conditioning was studied and defined by Pavlov in the well-known experiment of ringing a bell, feeding the dog, and studying salivary responses. This is the idea that certain things go together, like the bell ringing before dinner--causing the dog’s mouth to water. Another example, if you burn your dinner, the smoke alarm will go off. In dogs we can see this when we say certain things like “are you ready to eat” and they jump up and go to their bowl, or “let’s go on a walk” and they run to the front door because they have learned that this phrase means going outside and walking. 

“There is a predictable relationship among the events and the animal learns to respond to the first event in anticipation of the second event. That’s what classical conditioning is all about: anticipation.” (Excel-erated Learning p. 20)



Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning was defined and tested by B.F. Skinner. The theory is that, “the behavior operates on, or has an effect on the animal’s world. It is also called instrumental conditioning: responses occur because they are instrumental in making something happen” (Excel-erated Learning P. 25). Operant conditioning is essentially the idea that what you do has an effect. This can be as simple as “if I lay in the sun for a long time, I will get a sunburn” or “if I don’t work, I don’t get paid”. Within this system there are four possible effects:

#1 Positive Reinforcement: you say “sit”, dog sits, then you give the treat. Increases the likelihood of “sit” happening in the future. 

#2 Negative Reinforcement: you say “sit”, dog sits, you stop applying pressure with the slip leash. A human example: kid does homework to avoid mom’s nagging. Increases the likelihood of “sit” happening in the future. 

#3 Positive Punishment: you say “sit”, dog lays down, you jerk him onto his feet with the leash.  Purpose is to decrease the likelihood of him lying down instead of sitting in the future. 

#4 Negative Punishment: you say “sit”. Dog lies down, and you eat the treat he would have gotten if he had sat. Purpose is to decrease the likelihood of him lying down instead of sitting in the future. 



Dogs do dog things.


Drives & Traits: This is the idea that there are inherent motivating factors within each dog– some of which we can build up or suppress, and some which are genetic, meaning that they are what they are (we can’t change them). We see this most in “drives” such as prey drive, play drive, retrieve drive, etc. A great example is in “prey drive” seen in many dogs. Prey drive is seen when the dog desires to chase squirrels, rabbits, sticks, balls, etc. We can also see this in genetic factors (Traits) such as fear. A dog who is very fearful will generally always have some factor of fear because it is something that is genetic. We cannot necessarily get rid of fear completely but we can do a lot of things to help improve it (primarily building up confidence, desire to play, desire to follow the leader, etc).


Motivation: In training each individual dog, we should first learn what motivates them, what makes them want to learn, what makes them excited to do what we’ve asked of them. The “motivation” is essentially, their payment. You don’t like to work for free do you? Neither do they, so we have to get to know our dog and learn what is the most rewarding payment for them. This motivator/ payment could be treats. Many dogs are highly food motivated. We can use this desire to get food as a method of payment for them. Their primary motivator could be a favorite toy. Many dogs enjoy getting to chase a ball or tug on a rope– we can use this desire to pay them for their work. A lot of dogs really like to be praised and petted. We can use this as a motivator for their work. 


Dogs will always do what they need to do to get what they want. They will always choose the method that gets them what they want. This means that if they know that when they “come” to  you they will get treats/ a ball thrown/ or ear scratches from you they are much more motivated to come immediately and with enthusiasm. On the other hand though, if they are chasing a squirrel and that is more fun than anything in the whole world, they will likely choose the squirrel– this is why a stimulation can be useful, because then their motivation is to stop the stimulation. The stimulation of an e-collar should not be causing any significant pain, but it will be an uncomfortable nagging and something they wish to stop. A stimulation is something that can also be used to break their focus on the squirrel or anything they have focused on to the point that you can’t get their attention.



We can use these theories to understand how our dogs learn. We can use them to teach new skills and behaviors, to understand why dogs do certain things we find annoying, and ultimately how to help them live peacefully in our homes together. Our ultimate goal is always to live the best life possible together, and this happens when we understand each other.

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