As dog guardians who all strive to have well-behaved dogs, we undoubtedly benefit from understanding how dogs learn. Incorporating this knowledge of learning theory into our interactions with our dogs can make training more effective and fun.
When discussing how dogs learn, there are two principles that are most often referred to: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is usually associated with associative learning (see what I did there). For example, you pick up your dog’s leash, and your dog involuntarily gets excited, because he has been classically conditioned, or learned through observation, that when the leash is picked up a walk will inevitably follow. Operant conditioning is a bit more complex, containing four important quadrants, but this infographic provides a simple explanation:
If you’ve heard of the term “positive reinforcement,” the four quadrants of operant conditioning is where it comes from. But could one quadrant be more effective than the others?
Many trainers and even scientists who study dog behavior claim that positive reinforcement training is more effective, fun and more likely to create positive welfare than using punishment-based methods. Hiby et al. (2004) also found that dogs trained with punishment were more likely to have problematic behaviors than dogs trained with reward-based methods. Arhant (2010) determined that using punishment to train larger and smaller dogs resulted in increased aggression and excitability, and in smaller dogs, increased fear and anxiety. Rooney and Cowan (2011) discussed that, when compared to punishment-based training, reward-based training enhances dogs’ ability to learn and is most beneficial for their welfare (p. 176). For more information on how punishment-based training methods contribute to negative welfare, be sure to read my paper on the topic, “Differences in Dog Training Methods and the Creation of Positive or Negative Welfare.”
The type of training method can impact the human-dog bond, and the state of the human-dog relationship can impact a dog’s ability to learn. Rooney and Cowan (2011) also discuss that “the best way to build a dog–owner relationship which encourages effective learning is to adopt a reward-based, playful yet patient approach to training” (p. 176). Additionally, in “real life,” there are important aspects of learning that are outside of the four quadrants, including building trust through daily interaction. Rooney and Cowan’s emphasis on guardians being “playful yet patient” plays a role in that. Arhant (2010) determined that small dogs would benefit from regular engagement with their guardians through play and/or training. Additionally, small dog guardians should be consistent in their interactions with their dogs.
In discussions on dog training methods, we often forget the other ways that we risk damaging our dog’s trust in us, and just like with any healthy relationship, trust is essential. Simple and routine care and handling of our dogs are often events that our dogs dread, like getting their nails trimmed, being bathed and going to the vet (where all kinds of unpleasant things happen!). Thinking about how dogs learn can not only help us train our dogs to have better “manners” but also assist us in ensuring routine care is a positive experience for them. Dr. Sophia Yin has a number of videos on low stress handling, including this one on how to train a dog to enjoy nail trims (2010). Michael Baugh discusses how to make trips to the vet less stressful for dogs using reward-based training with a special guest, Laura Monaco Torelli.
For veterinarians and their staff, Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA and Ariel Stephens (2016) discusses the place learning theory has in the exam room and how it can make vet visits less stressful and safer for both the dogs and the staff. It’s important for both animal care professionals and dog guardians to ask: is the urgency of “getting it done” worth the long-term cost to the human-dog relationship?
Whether it’s training your dog to sit or teaching your dog to enjoy nail trims, reward-based training is fun and beneficial for dogs. McGowan, Rehn, Norling and Keeling (2013) found that dogs become excited when they are successful at solving a problem. Vasconcellos et al. (2016) found that even captive wolves voluntarily participate in reward-based training and experience reduced stress as a result. While reward-based training in itself may have a number of benefits, clicker training can make training even more fun. With your newfound understanding of how dogs learn, not only can you become better at teaching them, you can also build more trusting, enjoyable relationships with them.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve trained your dog to do? Tell us in the comments!
Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3–4), 131–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Berger, J., & Stephens, A. (n.d.). Pavlov—ring a bell? A little learning theory for your exam room. Retrieved February 27, 2017, from http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/pavlov-ring-bell-little-learning-theory-your-exam-room
Goldman, J. G. (2012a, January 11). What Is Classical Conditioning? (And Why Does It Matter?). Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/what-is-classical-conditioning-and-why-does-it-matter/
Goldman, J. G. (2012b, December 13). What Is Operant Conditioning? (and How Does It Explain Driving Dogs?). Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/what-is-operant-conditioning-and-how-does-it-explain-driving-dogs/
Hiby, E., Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, (13), 63–69.
McGowan, R. T. S., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. J. (2014). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition, 17(3), 577–587. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3–4), 169–177. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
Todd, Z. (2014, February 12). Dog Training, Animal Welfare, and the Human-Canine Relationship. Retrieved February 27, 2017, from http://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2014/02/dog-training-animal-welfare-and-human.html
Vasconcellos, A. da S., Virányi, Z., Range, F., Ades, C., Scheidegger, J. K., Möstl, E., & Kotrschal, K. (2016). Training Reduces Stress in Human-Socialised Wolves to the Same Degree as in Dogs. PLOS ONE, 11(9), e0162389. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162389
Yin, S. (2010, August 23). Dog Nail Trim: Training a Dog to Enjoy Toenail Trims. Retrieved February 27, 2017, from https://drsophiayin.com/videos/entry/training_a_dog_to_enjoy_toenail_trims/