October 29th, 2018


Understanding how dogs learn: a glimpse into association vs. consequence with Beau


Beau is a 1-and-a-half-year-old chocolate labrador retriever pup who is extremely shy and skittish. He is fearful of sounds – especially cars passing by. Although he is very friendly and approachable, he is timid when people try to pet or touch him. At the dog park, Beau is cautious and happy playing by himself, without much interaction from others. When another dog comes close he ducks and hides behind the legs of his owner.  Have you ever wondered why your dog reacts or behaves the way he does? What influences his decision for fight or flight?


Understanding the capacity, emotions and intelligence of your dog will allow it so that you can train him. First you must understand how he sees the world, before you can modify his vision and interpretation. Generally, dogs learn by either association or consequence.


Learning by association


We as humans learn by association. When we first meet someone we automatically create an association of that person – whether it be positive, negative or indifferent. This is how we, as humans, “socialize” (not in terms of being social but being comfortable around other humans) with other people.  For example, if you enjoyed the company of that person then you are more likely to want to see that person again. If you found the time difficult or stressful, you may be reluctant to want to spend more time with that person. Dogs, just like humans, experience the world this way too. The difference is that dogs rely more on this learning than we do. As dogs navigate the world they are constantly forming associations that will dictate how they will react in each situation.


A great example of a formed association is as simple as a dog’s leash. How many times have you pulled out your dog’s leash and he jumped for joy, wagging his tail and sometimes barking with excitement? This is because he has created a positive association with his leash. He knows that his leash signifies going for a walk and walks are fun – so he loves his leash!


Unfortunately, there are negative associations as well. What happens if your dog is having a negative reaction to another dog – growling and lunging at them? This is a behavior that I am sure you will want to reverse. To desensitize the behavior, focus on distance, duration and distraction. Move the dog farther away from what is upsetting him, make sure the situation or encounter is brief, and distract him with a cheerful voice and/or treats.


Learning by consequence – by doing


Just like humans, dogs learn lessons by experimenting or by doing. The difference is that for dogs, the consequences must be immediate for him to associate the consequence.


A good example of understanding how a dog learns through consequence is the process to learn a training cue. For instance, if you I lure my dog into the “down” position, with his belly on the ground, and then rummage around looking for a treat to give him, he will not understand that he is being rewarded for lying down. Instead in that 10 seconds it took for me to give him the treat, he will have moved, sniffed and even looked around – causing him to forget that he was put in the down position. He will not associate the reward with his good behavior. Although he will eventually learn the down cue this way, he may think he needs to incorporate other actions before receiving the reward.


As you can see, your dog learns just like humans do. The safe/dangerous (fight or flight) comes from learning by association. If a dog gets scolded for taking food from your plate – they learn that that behavior is unacceptable and will only eat when food is given. The what works/what doesn’t work is learned by consequence. Your dog could spend hours looking at the refrigerator, but the door will never open on its own. He learns that standing there is not working. He also stares at people at a dinner table. Occasionally someone will give in and give him a piece of food. Your dog quickly learns that staring at you while you eat works, so he will continue to do it.


Congratulations, you now know how to understand how your dog interprets the world around him.









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