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Dog Psychology - Level 3

How Dogs Learn

Learn about the scientists who discovered how dogs think, and find out how to use canine psychology to teach your dog basic behaviors.
By Terry Long

To many people, dog training is an art. To others, it’s a science with rules to follow and jargon to master. The truth can be found in a melding of the two. When you know more about the science behind how animals learn, you will become better at the art of dog training.

Because your time is valuable, we will distill hundreds of years of history and science into information you can start using today.

Historical players and their contributions
Myriad college psychology books recount in great detail the people and events that contributed to history of the field of psychology. The people and events most relevant to us at the moment are:

Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949): An American psychologist, Thorndike established “Thorndike’s Law of Effect” in 1911, which states that behaviors with favorable consequences to the animal will be repeated; behaviors with unfavorable consequences will not be repeated (or are less likely to happen again in the future). This could also be called the effect of consequences.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect has a huge yet simple impact on our success as trainers. If you like something your dog does, provide a “favorable” consequence (attention, treats, play, etc.) and you will see more of that behavior. If you don’t like what your dog is doing, provide an unfavorable consequence (ignore him, take away something he wants), and you will see less of that behavior or even its complete elimination.

Ivan P. Pavlov (1849–1936): A Russian physiologist studying how different foods affect salivation, Pavlov stumbled upon a remarkable finding. The laboratory dogs were mucking up his study because they started salivating before the food was put in their mouths. In fact, they starting salivating before his lab assistants could even set up the contraptions to collect their saliva. Pavlov had discovered that animals learn simply by associating, or pairing, one stimulus with another. This is called classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning. With repetition, the dogs started to expect food when they saw, heard or smelled what preceded the actual delivery of food.

Try it and see how it works. Take an item that your dog has no previous association with and pair it with something really fantastic.

The order of events must occur in this sequence:

  1. Present the stimulus (e.g., your cell phone).
  2. Your dog looks at it.
  3. You reach for a yummy treat (liver, chicken, or cheese).
  4. Give the yummy thing to your dog.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 until you notice that when you present the stimulus (your phone), your dog looks for the treat. Congratulations! You have just created a positive association between one thing and another.

The important distinction to remember from other kinds of learning is that your dog is not required to do anything. He just gets to stand there, notice something and eat a treat.

Examples of classical conditioning in action are:

  • Forming a positive association between a behavioral marker like the word “Yes!” and something the dog wants (e.g., treats or toys).
  • Forming a positive association between the leash and going for a walk.
  • Forming a negative association between physical discomfort or emotional stress and working/training with you. (As your dog’s trainer, you must always be mindful of your dog’s emotional response to the training experience or you risk creating a bad association.)

B.F. Skinner (1904–1990): An American psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, established the science of operant conditioning, which says that animals will offer behavior that “operates” or has an effect on the environment. The consequences of that behavior increase or decrease the chances of that behavior being offered again. Simply put, the animal will do what works in his best self interest. Many famous studies were conducted as Skinner tested his theories. Along the way, he also discovered the utility of a behavioral marker.

Four different results can happen as a consequence of a behavior “operating” on the environment. Here we will focus on:

Positive reinforcement: The consequence of the behavior is the addition of something the dog wants (such as attention, treats, going for a walk, etc).

Negative punishment: The consequence of the behavior is the subtraction of something the dog wants (such as attention, treats, toys, etc.). This is commonly called a timeout.

The psychology of clicker training
Clicker trainers use primarily positive reinforcement with varying degrees of negative punishment. The focus on positive reinforcement is combined with the skilled use of a behavioral marker to accelerate the dogs’ learning.

Remember when we discussed classical conditioning and how the dog can associate one stimulus with another? That’s also how we teach dogs to value the click sound of the clicker or other marker. We “charge” the clicker by simply clicking it, pausing for a second, then giving the dog a treat. Then, we use the clicker to “mark” behaviors we want to see more frequently. The click tells the dog that a treat is on the way.

Anything the dog can see or hear can be used as a behavioral marker. You must always follow whichever marker you choose with a reward. You can use a word, such as “Yes!” A commercially available clicker works extremely well due to its unique and consistent sound, speed of delivery (you press the clicker pretty fast) and its non-emotional sound. Trainers of deaf dogs use a thumbs-up sign or the flash of a penlight.

The importance of rewards
How you reinforce behavior is an important component in how dogs learn. If your dog does not place value on the reinforcer, your job is made much more difficult. Find something that motivates your dog. Select your rewards with the following criteria in mind:

  • Does your dog really, really like it? If not, find one he does.
  • Can you deliver the reward efficiently? Throwing a ball that the dog won’t bring back will not help your training efforts.
  • Can you deliver the food reward without it crumbling (causing excessive sniffing between each repetition of a behavior)?
  • Is it small enough to be consumed with minimal chewing? Less chewing means more efficient training, allowing you to move on to the next repetition sooner.

Get that behavior!
Now that you understand the power of a behavioral marker, let’s do a quick review of the most common ways clicker trainers get the behavior ball rolling.

Capturing or catching: Every time your dog naturally rests his bum on the floor you have the opportunity to convince him that sitting is a great behavior. Whenever your dog just happens to sit, click (or say “Yes!”), and give him a treat. Once your dog realizes that sitting earns him a click, he’ll offer the behavior more often, and you can add a verbal cue or a hand signal just as he starts to sit.

Shaping: You can also use the clicker to mark successive approximations of the goal behavior. Let’s say your goal behavior is Chin, a cute trick in which your dog puts his chin on his paws. With your dog in a down position, watch for any head movement — up, down or to the side. Click and treat, delivering the treat low to the floor since that’s where you want his chin to be.

A common mistake is to wait for too much behavior when you are shaping. Any movement gets those first clicks and treats. Then, look for those successive approximations toward the goal behavior. That could mean his chin moves just 1/16 inch lower. Click! Treat! Gradually shape head movement until his chin is resting on his paws.

Targeting: Target, or touch, sticks are available commercially, but you can make your own by using a 3-foot length of wooden dowel. With a clicker and treats ready, show your dog the stick (don’t poke it in his face). When he looks at it, click and treat.

By using successive approximations, click and treat when he leans toward it, sniffs it, etc. Your goal behavior is for him to use his nose to touch the end of the stick with confidence. When he does that, you can move the stick an inch or so farther away, gradually increasing the distance and speed that he moves to touch the stick.

As he starts to follow the stick in different directions, use it to teach him to complete a 360-degree turn to follow it. You are training him to spin, another trick.

As you get more comfortable with each of these techniques, you can start combining them. Capture the initial part of a behavior, then use shaping to polish it to it final goal behavior. Training takes a lot of practice, much like practicing a musical instrument or learning to drive a car.

Is it art? Is it science?
Is your appetite whetted for more science or more art? If you said, “Both!” you have passed my definition of the real test of learning: The more you know, the more you want to know.

Terry Long, CPDT-KA, an award-winning writer, is the founder of DogPACT, a training and behavior consultation service in Long Beach, Calif., where she helps people understand why their dogs do what they do and how to use positive reinforcement to change behavior.

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4 of 4 Comments View All 4 Comments

Give us your opinion Give us your opinion on Dog Psychology 301 Reading Material

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2/8/2011 7:06:01 PM


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ce   austin, TX

1/11/2011 12:54:56 PM

trying the stick trick today

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Kiki   Naperville, IL

1/4/2011 6:51:01 PM

Ideas for Interested

The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller is a book which builds on these ideas of positive training with specfic commands and ideas for how to work with your dog to his or her best advantage. Moreover, it even includes a sample training schedule, making it a positive training course in a

(although signing up for positive training courses with trainers is wonderful for helping one learn to work with his or her individual

Best wishes to all!

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Deborah   Reno, NV

1/2/2011 9:01:40 PM

This was wonderful! I love training dogs, and I believe all animals are smart and could learn this way! This was a great article and I am thinking about using it sometime. thank you for this good dog training info.

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