7.) How dogs learn

Dogs change their behavior due to experience. What this essentially means is that dogs repeat behaviors that are pleasant or rewarding while avoiding behaviors that are unpleasant or painful. Studies with dogs in controlled environments have shown that it takes approximately 20 to 25 repetitions until a dog consistently remembered a trained behavior.

The number of repetitions needed by dogs that are a lot more emotionally involved usually is substantially lower. This suggests that emotional involvement of a dog in any given training exercise is a lot more important than the number of repetitions. However, unlike humans who have the ability of logical thinking, dogs can only associate their immediate action with a consequence. If the time window between action and consequence exceeds just a few seconds, your dog is unlikely to make a connection.

There are two commonly accepted theories that describe the learning or “conditioning” process of dogs. One is Classical Conditioning and the other one is Operant Conditioning.


Classical Conditioning (or Pavlovian Conditioning) was first demonstrated by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Pavlov describes how the introduction of two different stimuli to a dog over a period of time (one with significance to the dog and another one without), can condition the dog to develop a response to the stimulus without significance even if presented alone at a later time. In Pavlov’s classic example, he demonstrated how his dogs already started to salivate whenever he rang a bell. In the months leading up to this experiment, he used to ring the bell at the same time he fed his dogs. Many traditional dog training methods are based on the classical conditioning principal. A jerk on the dogs leash towards the ground that immediately follows the verbal “down” cue is still a common method to teach a dog to lie down on command. In this scenario, the meaningful stimuli is the jerk on the leash and the otherwise meaningless one is the verbal cue. Dogs that learn this way will obey the down cue only to try to avoid the unpleasant jerk on the leash. For further reading on classical conditioning, visit Wikipedia.


Operant Conditioning. Most modern-day dog trainers (should) have switched to training techniques that are based on learning principals developed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990). His theory of Operant Conditioning explains how a subject can learn that voluntarily provided behaviors enable it to “operate” (or modify) its environment to achieve a certain result. For a dog, this means that it can accomplish both good and bad things simply by choosing behaviors that are either rewarding or penalizing. At the heart of Skinner’s work are four different consequences which are grouped in tools of reinforcement and tools of punishment (with the addition of a fifth procedure known as extinction).

Reinforcement is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency.
Punishment is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with less frequency.
Extinction is the lack of any consequence following a meaningless behavior.

The four procedures are:

Positive reinforcement. Your dog’s action results in a pleasant experience. Example: You call your dog by his name and he comes running to you right away. You say “Awesome!” and feed him a treat. Since this was a positive experience for your dog, it is very likely that he will come again next time you call him.

Negative reinforcement. Your dog’s action eliminates something unpleasant. Example: You are walking your dog and he is pulling on his leash until his choke chain tightens around his neck. This causes your dog discomfort. Your dog stops pulling and the discomfort goes away. Unless his desire to drag you somewhere else at his choosing outweighs his desire to make the discomfort go away, he is likely to stop pulling on his leash.

Positive punishment. Your dog’s action results in an unpleasant experience. Example: You catch your dog trying to steel a cookie from the kitchen counter. At the moment he launches for it, you drop a metal serving tray on the ground and support the loud noise with a firm “Nooo!”. Your dog jumps away from the counter and crouches towards you to appease you. Since this was a negative experience for your dog, he will probably not try to steal from the kitchen counter again.

Negative punishment. Your dog’s action eliminates something pleasant. Example: You tell your dog to “Sit” and move a treat slowly from above his muzzle towards his neck. Your dog tries to launch for the treat but does not sit down. You take the treat and put it back in your pocket. Since your dog did not get rewarded for its behavior there is a good chance that he will try something different next time.


Avoidance learning is a type of learning in which a certain behavior results in the cessation of an aversive stimulus. For example, performing the behavior of shielding one’s eyes when in the sunlight (or going indoors) will help avoid the aversive stimulation of having light in one’s eyes.

Extinction occurs when a behavior that had previously been reinforced is no longer effective. In the Skinner box experiment,[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning_chamber] this is the rat pushing the lever and being rewarded with a food pellet several times, and then pushing the lever again and never receiving a food pellet again. Eventually the rat would cease pushing the lever.

Non-contingent reinforcement refers to delivery of reinforcing stimuli regardless of the organism’s (aberrant) behavior. The idea is that the target behavior decreases because it is no longer necessary to receive the reinforcement. This typically entails time-based delivery of stimuli identified as maintaining aberrant behavior, which serves to decrease the rate of the target behavior. As no measured behavior is identified as being strengthened, there is controversy surrounding the use of the term non-contingent “reinforcement”.

Even though all of the above outlined procedures of conditioning can help you train your dog, I want to focus on just two of them: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment. I am not claiming that I am only sticking to those 2 procedures with Andy, but there is a considerable risk that something goes wrong if you are new to training dogs and start out with positive punishment. Positive punishment is a very common method to stop undesired behavior. The downside of it is that your dog learns only what was wrong and not what is expected from him. In addition, positive punishment that is not proportionate to the offence can be outright abuse. It takes a lot of experience to evaluate your dog’s behavior, choose the right method and dosage of punishment and then act on it almost within a blink on an eye – because if you are too late your dog probably does not even remember what he was punished for.

Operant Conditioning is not only a better way to teach your dog, it is the only way to teach your dog how to use his brain to solve “problems” by himself. Once he has learned that he can “operate” his environment to achieve a certain result, you will be surprised how quickly he learns new things. More about this in chapter 10.

(Note: This post belongs to a series of multiple articles about the fundamentals of positive dog training.
Click here to go to the overview page that allows you to easily navigate to each article in this series.)

Back to OverviewReturn to Chapter 6Go to Chapter 8


Leave a reply