How a Dog Learns
This will probably be the one section where I use some of those big words, but I will try and limit them as much as possible. Operant conditioning is one of those words and is the cornerstone of how dogs learn. It is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence of a particular behavior. It sounds simple and to the point, however, there is so much more. Dogs learn by approximations, simply put we start at the beginning and add behaviors and technique as we go through the training process. There is an art and science of course on how we get there. Technique is not only something we want from our dogs but we must also demand it from ourselves. Technique on our part includes coordination, timing of corrections and praise as well as mental awareness of our dog’s world. What do I mean by that? The dog’s world is much simpler than ours, they live for the moment. We live for so much more, which at times can complicate our learning. If you keep each task simple and teach them patiently, in a step by step approach, than the dog will learn. As he progresses he will chain other tasks and behaviors together for our desired result.
Your dog must also understand that everything comes through you. Food, praise, reward, shelter and so on. Once he understands this concept he will look to you and only you for satisfaction, he will learn to please you to gain this satisfaction, and it is our job to teach him how to do this. Dogs exist with an innate desire to satisfy their drives. For example the drive to catch prey. This drive is a primordial one and was placed in your dog long ago. It has of course been diminished through domestication but it is still there. So what’s the big deal about prey drive, everything. Say your dog likes the ball, in fact he is crazy for it or he likes his chew toy. These are both forms of a prey object. We can very effectively manipulate a dog’s behavior by utilizing prey objects. We can allow the dog to learn and work for his prey item as a reward given by you, with much enthusiasm.
Something I will say over and over again is the word “timing”. Timing is everything to a dog; it cuts through conflict and confusion and allows the dog to learn. Remember he lives for the moment and that moment must be correct in his mind when you are teaching a behavior. Say your dog likes to chase cats and you want to stop the behavior. Many people would chase their dog and maybe catch him the first time and then punish and scold him. That might work once but the next time he chases the cat and sees you running after him; well it is not going to be so easy to catch him the next time. You inadvertently taught him not to get caught. The behavior of you chasing him ends with punishment and he does not want that. So guess what the next time he gets away and he will eventually, he has just learned something very important, don’t get caught, and guess what he will still be chasing cats. A better way would be to set the dog up with a light long line. Present the cat in the distance and as he bolts out, recall him before the line runs out. The line will stop him abruptly and he learns not to do that. There are other better ways to fix problems like this and we will learn them later. My point is that timing and the ability to correct the unwanted behavior is crucial to a dogs learning. Never give a command you cannot reinforce