How Dogs Learn

A dog learns from the consequences of his actions. Whether the action pays off for the dog or whether it doesn’t, something will still be learned. This education will occur regardless of our involvement!

Left to their own devices, dogs can learn a great deal of things that would not allow them to live harmoniously in human society. Ultimate Puppy puts a strong emphasis on being involved in what the puppy learns so that you end up with the dog you dreamed of living with!

Left to their own devices, dogs can learn a great deal of things that would not allow them to live harmoniously in human society.

Several factors can affect the dog’s ability to learn, such as the environment, the stress level of the puppy, and the pup’s relationship with the person who is teaching him.

A Puppy Learns With Our Input

A new puppy comes into a home. The person that lives with this dog decides to only call the pup to come for a treat, for a game, for a walk, or for anything that the dog would consider good. This person does this consistently and repeatedly, making it a habit. In addition, they also make a point never to call the dog to have his nails clipped, to leave the park and go home, or anything the dog would perceive as unpleasant.

This is a great example of how to condition a valuable behavior in your dog. The pup learns that it pays to come quickly when called. It is rewarding and nothing bad ever happens.

First-time dog people often bring their new puppy home and give the dog free rein in the house. During the first year of the puppy’s life, he is allowed to do whatever he wants. He can sleep on the bed. He can sleep on the couch. He is able to chew anything that crosses his path (socks, shoes, table legs, etc.). These kind of people are very forgiving. He is, after all, only a puppy. They take away the sock that was destroyed and supply him with a new one.

It is critical, however, that your dog does not feel the need to guard. Your input is the key.

In this scenario the puppy learns that there are no boundaries. Your dog may consider certain things and places in the home to be of great value and it is not inconceivable that he may become anxious and defensive if he feels he has to compete over these.

There is nothing wrong with having a dog that is allowed to sleep in the bed or on the furniture. This is a personal choice. It is critical, however, that your dog does not feel the need to guard. Your input is the key.

Please refer to On And Off and Trade You in Prevention.

A Puppy Learns Without Our Input: Ham Sandwiches and the Laundry

You sit down on the couch with a delicious ham sandwich and are about to watch your favorite TV show when you remember that you need to put your clothes in the dryer. You get up and leave the sandwich on the coffee table.

As soon as you leave, the pup gets up, smells the sandwich, jumps up on the coffee table, and chows your sandwich down. Yum, yum.

The pup just learned that it pays to jump up on the coffee table and that he can take whatever food is lying about.

Think 100% management. If you cannot supervise what your puppy is doing, put him in his crate. In this case, you might just take the puppy with you to the laundry room.

Having a puppy that thinks he can jump up on furniture and take food whenever he wants will be a huge headache later in life. Ensure that your puppy does not have the opportunity to learn this habit.

This example illustrates how the consequences of the dog’s actions can affect his future behavior. They are all examples of a dog learning without our input or direction.

Cats and Dogs

If a new puppy approaches a cat in an offensive manner, one of two things may happen. The lesson depends on the cat’s reaction to the puppy. The cat might run or it might stick around and teach that puppy some manners.

If the cat decides to run, there is a big payoff for the puppy. He will thoroughly enjoy being in hot pursuit of that cat.

He has quickly learned that it pays to chase the cat. Dogs love to chase!

animal behavior illustration

If you have a cat that runs from your puppy it is very important that you intercept this. The puppy should not be permitted to chase the cat and should not have an opportunity to chase the cat. This is your responsibility. If you witness your puppy harassing the cat, are you able to call him away from her? If not, a quick time out where you pick the puppy up just as you see him about to pursue the cat will do the trick. It is important that you ‘time out’ the puppy as soon as you see his intention to chase the cat, not once he has pounced on her.

On the other hand, say a puppy is overly boisterous and approaches a cat. The puppy bounds over to kitty to get a game going. The kitty does not like the idea of wrestling and tells him so with a good right hook to the nose!

The puppy learns to mind his manners around Ms. Kitty. He may try a few more times to encourage kitty to wrestle but after a few BAMS to the snout, presto, the puppy learns his manners.

It is important that you do not interrupt a learning session like this unless the cat or puppy is in danger. It is important that the cat has an escape route (employ the use of a baby gate) for when the puppy gets too rowdy. Providing both are safe, the puppy will learn from the cat what is an acceptable way to play.

Impact of the Environment

There are things in the environment that you have control over and things that you do not. Like it or not, the environment will play a role in your dog’s life.

You are teaching your puppy to sit in the front yard and there is construction going on just down the street and the noise is distracting and scary to the pup. This is not a good place to start the training. The objective is to build your puppy’s confidence slowly. If your puppy is distracted and can not concentrate on sitting when asked, it sets your dog up to fail.

If you have been working on teaching your pup to sit on cue and he has mastered it in an area with minimal distraction, then it is time to take the show on the road and head out to work in an area with more distractions.

Where you work and the amount of distractions may need to be altered here and there depending on the pup and what is going on. It is important for you to be aware that not all locations and situations are created equal in the eyes of your dog. Be aware of this so that you can make the necessary adjustments as you work with your puppy.

Covering All Your Bases

Just because your puppy has good bathroom habits at your house (because you trained him to) doesn’t mean he’ll have the same habits at your parents’ or friend’s house. Teach your pup house training in all locations.

It is also important to remember that if you are going to be taking your dog out into public situations and expect him to listen to you, you have to train in these areas. Visit places such as the local shops, the vet, the groomer, and the car. Even the changing dynamic in the home when there are guests or repair people can effect your puppy’s behavior.

Consistency

Speaking of family, it is important that everyone handles the pup consistently and responsibly. Often one family member can be the weak link in a pup’s training, perhaps unknowingly undermining work that others are doing. Bring everyone into the picture.

It is up to us to keep them safe and successful and for us to have realistic goals and expectations.
Ingredients For Success (Structure and Boundaries)

Another important factor to be aware of is the ease at which your puppy will take his cues from you. The fact that dogs are social creatures works to our advantage. This is one of the reasons that we develop such strong bonds with our canine friends. However, this does not mean we will get it for nothing; you must work at developing this relationship with your new pup. Two of the key elements to consider are structure and boundaries. With these in place, building this focus in our puppies is made easier. Remember, at this point, nothing is the puppy’s responsibility. If we expect our puppies to rise to the occasion, simply because we want them to, we are going to be sadly disappointed. It is up to us to keep them safe and successful and for us to have realistic goals and expectations.

A Brief History of the Study of Animal Behavior and Its effect on Dog Training

Over the past fifty years or so, certain concepts have been developed through systematic research, observation, and experimentation in animal behavior that we find useful in training our dogs. These concepts belong to a teaching discipline generally referred to as the behavioral sciences or behavioral psychology, and for our purposes begin with a psychologist named B.F. Skinner. Skinner described a training method he termed “operant conditioning.” Much of his training was performed on pigeons and rats, although his ideas are perfectly applicable to dogs and even people. The present generation of ‘behaviorists’ who would probably say that their approaches to dog training owe something to B.F. Skinner, include such people as Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, and John Fisher.

Characteristic of B.F. Skinner and his followers is that there is an emphasis in their training methods on teaching animals to perform by a strong focus on reward for the desired behavior and a de-emphasis on any type of punishment for the undesired behavior. This will also characterize the approach to training used on this site. If you find you would like to know more about the people who have developed these concepts over the years, we have made a few reading and website recommendations in our Resources section.