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1 November 2023 in Tips & Advice

Understanding How Dogs Learn: Conditioning Principles and the importance of ‘Clarity’ for your dog


Dogs are remarkable creatures, known for their loyalty and intelligence. Understanding how they learn is crucial for effective training and building a strong connection with your canine companion. Three fundamental principles of learning are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. In this blog, we’ll delve deeper into these principles and explore how they contribute to shaping your dog’s behaviour.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, often referred to as Pavlovian conditioning, plays a crucial role in shaping your dog’s emotional responses and associations. It involves the process of pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response.

Here’s how classical conditioning can change your dog’s perspective:

  1. Conditioned Emotional Response Training for Reactivity:Reactivity in dogs, such as barking or aggression towards other dogs or strangers, can be challenging to manage. Classical conditioning is a key tool in reactivity training.For example, if your dog exhibits reactive behavior when encountering other dogs, you can use classical conditioning to change their emotional response. Every time they see another dog, you can pair the presence of the dog (the neutral stimulus) with something highly rewarding, like treats or playtime (the unconditioned stimulus). Over time, your dog will start associating the presence of other dogs with positive experiences, gradually reducing reactivity.
  2. Conditioned Response to the Clicker:Clicker training is a popular method for teaching dogs new behaviors and communicating with them effectively. The clicker is a perfect example of classical conditioning in action.Here’s how it works: You begin by introducing the clicker, which is initially a neutral stimulus. Each time you click the device, you follow it immediately with a treat (the unconditioned stimulus) that your dog loves. Over time, your dog learns that the sound of the clicker predicts a treat, and the clicker becomes a conditioned stimulus.

    Once the clicker is associated with a reward, you can use it to mark desired behaviors precisely. This precise communication makes it easier for your dog to understand what you want.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is another essential learning principle in dog training. It involves the consequences of behavior – reinforcements and rewards for desired behaviours and what is commonly referred to as “punishment” – to increase or decrease the likelihood of a particular behaviour. Operant conditioning makes use of the terms positive and negative which do not indicate good or bad. Positive refers to adding something, and negative refers to taking something away.

There are four quadrants of operant conditioning:

  1. Positive Reinforcement: This involves adding something desirable (e.g., treats or praise) to reinforce a behavior, making it more likely to occur in the future. For instance, rewarding your dog for sitting on command.
  2. Negative Reinforcement: Here, you remove something uncomforatble  to reinforce a behaviour. For example, releasing pressure on a leash when your dog stops pulling.
  3. Positive Punishment: This adds something uncomfortable to decrease a behaviour. An example could be a water spray bottle at your dog for chewing on furniture.
  4. Negative Punishment: In this case, something desirable is taken away to decrease a behaviour. For example if your dog does not sit when asked, and you take the reward away, you are using negative punishment.

It is important to clarify the concept of “punishment” in the context of dog training. Dogs don’t understand right from wrong like humans do. When we talk about “punishment” in dog training, it doesn’t imply causing pain or fear or punishing the dog because they should have known better. Instead, it indicates a firm, consistent and predictable consequence for a behaviour to provide clarity and  learning, allowing your dog to understand boundaries and structure. This helps create a safe and predictable environment, which is essential for your dog’s mental well-being.

Effective communication through operant conditioning requires consistency and timing. Reward the desired behavior promptly and apply the consequences immediately after unwanted behavior. This approach ensures that your dog associates each consequence with their actions and provides you with a simple communication system to help guide their behaviour and provide them clarity on your expectations.

Observational Learning

Observational learning is another essential aspect of how dogs learn. Dogs can learn by watching and imitating the behavior of other dogs or even humans. This is particularly important in social and pack situations.

For example, if you have a well-behaved older dog in your household, a younger dog may observe and mimic their good behavior, such as sitting calmly or responding to commands. Likewise, if your older dog exhibits signs of fear or anxiety in specific situations, a younger dog may pick up on these cues, and their behaviour might be influenced.

Clarity and Expectations

Approximately 95% of your dog’s development and training should be fun and engaging, with positive reinforcement as the main ingredient. However, it’s equally important to be firm when necessary to ensure that your dog understands boundaries and structure.

Effective dog training is about providing clear expectations. When dogs understand what is expected of them, they can relax and feel secure because they comprehend your signals. Inconsistency in your responses can lead to confusion and anxiety instead of clarity and calm.

In conclusion, understanding how dogs learn through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning is essential for effective training and behaviour modification. By consistently pairing neutral stimuli with positive outcomes, using rewards and consequences for clarity, and allowing for observational learning, you can guide your dog’s behaviour effectively and provide a sense of security.