How a Dog Learns

Dogs are instinctual and are influenced by patterned behavior.

  • Trial and error is the most common way that they learn.
    •  Example: A dog that is investigating a porcupine might not get hurt the first couple of times. However, the time they get hurt by a quill they will learn not to bother the porcupine again.
  • Dogs will continue behaviors that offer reward or favorable outcome.
    • Example: A puppy that investigates the counter-top because it can smell something good jumps up and steals the food. They are more likely to counter surf again in search of a reward for their behavior.
  • Any behavior that is met with praise and reward teaches the dog to repeat the behavior.
    • Example: Your puppy is barking in their crate out of boredom and you continue to ignore them. Then, they choose to be quiet and you let them out of the crate. You just showed them they have to be quiet to be let out. 
    • Example: When you call your puppy’s name from across the room they come over and will receive a food reward. Your puppy gets out of the house later that day, but you are able to safely recall them by calling their name and they respond expecting a reward that you give them the moment they return to you.
  • Dogs learn to avoid behaviors that have negative outcomes or correction.
    • Example: Our trial-and-error friend sees a porcupine again and chooses to move out of its way.
    • Example: Your puppy lunges at another pup while walking to class and causes uncomfortable tension on the leash. He continues pulling several times and continues to cause tension each time he lunges. After several times he chooses to stand relaxed on your left side.
  • Dogs learn by rewards and corrections. They adjust their behavior accordingly.
    • Example: A dog rewards itself by sniffing and scavenging the ground when walking if they are not redirected by their handler. They will continue to do so because they might find food or objects when scavenging.
    • Example: Your puppy eagerly lets you slide the puppy coat over their head at an early age because you praise and reward them every time you place it over their head.
  • Always correct or reward behavior as soon as they occur. Remember that correction and reward affect the outcome of later behaviors.
    • You cannot correct a dog that got into the trash 10 minutes ago when you just discovered the trash on the floor. They will not understand why they are being corrected.
    • Your puppy bites another puppy too hard when they are playing and the other pup snaps their teeth quickly in your pup’s face as a warning. The correction was timed well so your pup understand that the other pup doesn’t want to play roughly.
  • Never correct behaviors like housebreaking accidents, counter surfing, getting into the trash, or destructive chewing if you did not see them do it.