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How do dogs learn?

Dogs do what works for them
Dogs try out different things, and whatever behaviour has a positive consequence for them, is likely to be repeated. They do not do things to please us – however, we are often part of what pleases them. What dogs consider to be a positive response, is not always what we think is positive. When a puppy jumps up against us and we tell it off and shove it away, from the puppy’s prospective it is still getting attention, i.e. a positive consequence. Negative attention is still attention. Ultimately a dog is more likely to do those things which have a positive result for the dog, and less likely to do those things which have no result or a negative result.

Dogs learn by the immediate results of their actions
Dogs are only able to associate the consequence of their behaviour if that consequence is immediate – within one second! The positive consequence must be immediate for the behaviour to be associated with the consequence.

Dogs learn by the association of events that occur closely together
Dogs easily form associations e.g. when the lead is taken out of the cupboard, the dog gets excited because it knows that it will be taken for a walk. Often they make incorrect associations, e.g. “when my owner comes home I get punished” when the owner thinks he is punishing the dog for digging a hole in his absence.

Dogs learn by trial and success
As dogs try out different behaviours, they learn from the results of those actions. Whatever has a positive result for the dog (works for the dog) is likely to be repeated. This means that they are learning all the time – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! It also means that as a dog owner you have the ability to manipulate the dog’s environment so that it will be more inclined to do what you would like it to do. Ensure that good behaviour always has positive consequences, and make it difficult for bad behaviour to be successful.

Punishment is not an effective tool for teaching a dog good behaviour
Dogs usually associate punishment with the person administering the punishment, rather than with the dog’s own action that is being punished. If effective, punishment merely suppresses behaviour temporarily, so that it usually comes back later in an even worse form. Punishment also causes anxiety and inappropriate aggression in dogs.

How to deal with unwanted behaviour
Do not inadvertently reinforce unwanted behaviour (see first paragraph). Teach the dog an acceptable behaviour that is incompatible with the unwanted behaviour, e.g. sitting down rather than jumping up. Then ignore the unwanted behaviour but instead reward the good alternative behaviour. If necessary, interrupt the unwanted behaviour with a distractor like a shake can or a water pistol, but your timing has to be very accurate, and you must not frighten or hurt the dog with the distractor. After the interruption, encourage the good alternative behaviour and reward that.