How Dogs Learn and How We Teach

Dogs learn in two ways—by association/emotion and by consequence/doing.

By association (emotion)

The amazing thing is that we can manipulate dogs’ associations to things. For example, new puppies generally find leashes inconsequential; when first shown a 6-foot length of nylon with a clip at the end they have a neutral association to it. But find a way to make a dog associate anything with something he loves and you can teach him to love that, too. How? Clip on the leash and give him treats or take him for a walk (if your pup likes that sort of thing!). Every time you leash him, either take him for a walk or give him treats until you take the leash back off. Pretty soon the puppy figures out that the leash means fun and, bingo. You have a dog that loves leashes.

The frightening thing is that learning by association also works in reverse. You can teach a dog to hate or fear leashes by repeatedly using them to give corrections or tie him up outside on his own.

This is the main drawback of using punishment—it has unintended side effects. For example, it builds a negative association with the punisher, affecting the bond between person and dog. It is not that punishment doesn’t work—it is that learning by association or emotion always comes along for the ride.

By consequence (doing)

Human example: I can tell a school-age child that I will take him out for ice cream when I see him next week to celebrate his good report card. When he eats the ice cream, he understands he’s being rewarded for grades he got a week ago, and he got those grades for work he did over several months.

Human-dog comparison: A dog could never understand this—it is way beyond his ability to connect events. Dogs learn by consequence like we do, but for dogs the consequence has to be immediate.

Dog example: Say I lure a dog into a sit with my hand. Then I rummage around for the treat. By the time I deliver the treat five seconds later, the impact is lost because in those five seconds, the dog sneezed, sniffed the ground, and looked left. All of a sudden a treat appeared. As far as the dog is concerned, he got it for looking left. You will eventually teach that dog to sit, but it will take a while. Or you might end up with a dog that sits and looks left as a matter of course.

What does this mean to us?

That we need precision and immediacy to train dogs. This is why we use markers (the clicker or a marker word)—it tells the dog the precise moment he won the treat. The clicker marks the moment. Once we have clicked, it doesn’t matter if it takes us a few seconds to deliver the treat because the dog knows what he is getting the treat for. To teach the dog that the click means a treat is coming, we use learning by association—we pair the clicks with treats. Every time the dog hears the click he gets a treat. Pretty soon the dog understands that the click predicts a treat.

So, dogs learn in two ways—by association/emotion and by consequence/doing. And because of these two ways of learning, dogs see the world in two ways: What is safe/good for me vs. what is dangerous/bad and what works vs. what doesn’t.

Safe vs. Dangerous

This outlook on life comes from learning by association. When dogs gets punished for peeing on the carpet in front of you, they don’t learn inside/outside—they learn that it is not safe to pee in front of you, but it is safe to pee when you are not there.

Works vs. doesn't work

This outlook on life comes from learning by consequence. All dogs try staring at the refrigerator as a strategy to get it to open. After a time they give up because it doesn’t work; the fridge never opens. They also try staring at their people at the dinner table. Every once in a while someone gives in and shares a bite. Staring at people while they eat often works, so dogs continue to do it.

Dogs don’t do things we dislike to get back at us or to be stubborn or naughty. This is a myth. To dogs the world is either safe or dangerous and things either work or they don’t.  Dogs do what is safe and what works. It’s that simple!

How we teach

We focus on teaching dogs what TO DO in a safe learning space. Whenever you are thinking about what skills you want your dog to know, make sure it’s an action your dog can DO, rather than a DON’T (aka absence of behavior).  

Example: Your dog jumps on guests entering your home. You decide you don’t want your dog jumping on guests anymore. In order to work on this through training, you have to choose an action that you want your dog TO DO instead, like the following: sit quietly and keep four paws on the floor. Now you have something to train! 

We also strive to build solid and safe relationships between owners and their dogs, where dogs are free to make mistakes during the learning process and have fun while they learn.  Punishment has been proven to harm the relationship between humans and their dogs and hinder learning – if anyone is in the wrong when training, it’s the human for failing to set appropriate goals and provide clear information.  

We understand this may require you to adjust your perspective. If you find yourself unsure of how to handle a situation without using punishment, reach out to us so we can help you troubleshoot the situation!