Dog Learning

Ever think about how your dog learns things? How the heck did he figure out so quickly the precise sound of the cabinet door that holds the dog biscuits? And how come he doesn't use that same "intelligence" to learn to come when called? It's very simple. It all boils down to consequences - good ones and bad ones. Put another way - what's in it for your dog?

Every waking moment is filled with potential learning. As a puppy explores his environment - as he sniffs, scratches, tastes and feels - he's learning. Experiences are filed away as "Feels good . . . do it again." Or "Tastes nasty . . . avoid that!" Positive outcomes will be repeated, while those that have an undesirable consequence probably won't be.

How quickly does your dog learn? That depends on the impact of the consequence. Think about this: When you open a bag of potato chips, how many times did it take for your dog to learn that the crinkly sound of cellophane means "come?"

Let's briefly explore consequences - good and bad - and how to use them to speed learning.

Rewards ("Yes")

What motivates your dog? What makes him want to perform a task, respond to a command, make an effort? What is the canine equivalent to a winning lottery ticket?

Dog rewards fall into six general categories - food (necessary for life itself), affection (including petting, praise, and attention), games (interactive), toys and possessions (chew toys and other solitary endeavors), freedom (a powerful motivator!) and engaging in instinctive behavior (digging, herding, rolling, playing with other dogs, and the like.).

Psychologist Edward Thorndike demonstrated that behaviors resulting in a satisfying consequence tend to be repeated while those that produce unsatisfying, annoying or unpleasant consequences tend not to be repeated. Called "Thorndike's Law of Effect" when a behavior is reinforced, it is likely to be repeated. In other words, rewards motivate and speed learning.

You may be thinking, "This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with getting the @%!#$* dog to stop jumping on the kids?" Simple. One of your jobs as your dog's companion and trainer is to select and control rewards that motivate and enthuse as well as to recognize an inherent reward in a behavior we don't like.

Here's an common (and obvious) example: When your dog steals food from the trash, he's receiving a reward - and a good one at that. Oh, we know, you didn't "reward" him. You don't have to provide the reward for it to be rewarding. Rewards can come from the dog's own actions. Eating tasty food - even what you call "garbage" - is certainly rewarding to a dog. And your anger at your dog for being in the trash doesn't override the payoff for having done it. So when your dog repeatedly does something you dislike, figure out what he's getting out of it.

Some people want their dogs to work solely for praise. Certainly praise is a reward, and we use it. But in the great cosmos of praise versus prime rib, praise comes in a distant second. Think about this: When your boss commends you for a job well done, you feel good, don't you? Compare that pat on the back to how you would feel if instead of praise you got a huge bonus and an all-expenses paid vacation. Hmmm . . . let's see . . . an "attaboy" versus . . . two-weeks in Tahiti . . .

Consequences ("No")

As the song says, "Life is just a bowl of cherries" - it can be sweet and delicious, and then there are the pits. Reality is that sometimes life hands us an unwanted consequence.

Dogs learn from undesirable consequences just as they do from the upside, the rewards and payoffs. The important thing to your dog's learning is his forming the association between the behavior and the consequence.

The more immediate the association, the faster your dog will learn. Picture this: Your puppy spies a cat and curiously approaches. The cat puffs up, hisses angrily and swats the puppy on the nose with his claws. How many repetitions of this immediate consequence do you think it will take for the puppy to learn a healthy respect for cats?

Just as we use a click sound to let the dog know that a reward is coming, so do we use a "no" marker, to let the dog know what behavior has earned the consequence. At the moment your dog commits an undesirable act, utter a sound such as "Unh!" We prefer to use a short, sharp sound to saying "no!" After all, we say "no" a lot - and not just to the dog.

For some, sensitive dogs, this negative sound is sufficient punishment. If, however, your dog doesn't respond to the sound alone, follow the "no marker" with the consequence - something your dog wishes wouldn't happen. This never involves pain or corporal punishment. For most dogs, the most profound punishment is to deprive him of something he wants. This can be as simple as withholding a treat, losing access to your attention, removing him from the fun, or abruptly ending a game.

For most dogs, the end of fun is a powerful punishment, so we use "time-out" a lot. No, we don't put the dog in a corner facing the wall to ponder his bad behavior. A time-out can be as simple as turning your head away to remove your attention. You can also put him out of sight in another room or in a crate, or put him on a down-stay.

For how long? The loss of attention can be as brief as a head turn for a second or two, 10 to 15 seconds in a crate - or longer if you need. The point is quickly made and sends an effective message.

Oh, we know, you were always told never to use the crate as punishment. Your dog will not develop a dislike of being crated if you occasionally physically place him in it for a brief time-out, while every other time you praise and give him a treat when he gets into it voluntarily on cue.

Here are some other examples of using a time-out consequence:
  • Your dog ignores your command to lie "down." Mark his failure with "no", turn your head away and eat his treat (this is one of the reasons we use hotdogs as treats.). The next time you say "down" your dog should jump to it.
  • Your dog runs out into the yard barking up a storm and disturbing your neighbors. Mark it with "no", bring him back inside and put him on a down-stay for 10 seconds (he loses the opportunity to be outside for the moment). Let him out again. If he barks again, repeat this until he goes outside quietly. Note: If you randomly allow him to get away with the barking, you'll lose the ability to stop this behavior.
The upside and downside

Teaching your dog civilized behavior means giving him clear choices - the desirable earns a reward, and the unwanted earns a time out. Make these choices clear to your dog and you'll have the dog of your dreams.