Unit One – How Dogs Learn

Learning Theory

There are two main ways that we learn. These are called operant and classical conditioning.

Operant Conditioning is based on behaviours and consequences. This will increase or decrease behaviour.

Classical Conditioning is like Pavlov’s dog, where the behaviour automatically happens in a specific situation due to pairing and associations.

The outcome will dictate what power is at work, rather than it being based on you deciding which one you are going to use.

For example you may set out to use operant conditioning but classical conditioning may take over, especially if emotions and arousal are high.

Extinction is another part of learning theory that is significant to dog training. This is where an expected reward is removed. As a standalone solution it can cause more problems, but works well mixed with proactive training.

Operant Conditioning

There are four quadrants to operant conditioning

Think of the positive and negative as addition and subtraction.

Positive Reinforcement is the addition of something the dog likes – This increases behaviour

Negative Punishment is the removal of something the dog likes – This decreases behaviour

Positive Punishment is the addition of something the dog doesn’t like – This decreases behaviour

Negative Punishment is the removal of something the dog doesn’t like – This increases behaviours

So for example, giving the dog a treat for sitting will increase sitting.

Not giving a treat for not sitting will decrease not sitting

Adding a yank of a lead for pulling will decrease pulling

Not yanking for not pulling will increase not pulling

Positive Trainers mostly use Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment (Adding and Removing Good Stuff). This is what we will be doing mostly through the courses. We must remember that Negative Punishment can be very frustrating to some dogs and this will cause a fallout in your training if it is.There may be instances where mild Positive Punishment might be more appropriate on an emotional level, than a severe Negative Punishment. This will be individual to the dog and it’s experience, frustration tolerance and confidence.

Correction Trainers mostly use Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement (Adding and Removing Unpleasant stuff).

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning is where a new behaviour is learned by association. Pavlov rang a bell just before he fed his dog. The dog started to salivate when it heard the bell ring. Salivation was not a choice based behaviour. The association caused it to happen.

In dog training we use this to make positive emotional associations. Dogs like to feel good!

So we can pair treats with muzzles or headcollars, play with toys, handling and health checks with treats.

Here is an example of classical conditioning in marketing. Coca Cola classically conditioned their product with Christmas!



Extinction is also important in dog training because it is used a lot and often misunderstood. Not understood properly and not in conjunction with proactive training it can create new problems!

Extinction is the removal of an expected reward, the most common being advised to ignore jumping up. You are removing attention and the dog has in past probably got attention at some point.

It is important that you understand when using extinction, the behaviour will get worse and more intense before it gets better and can cause massive amounts of frustration which can lead to anger.

Now I’m going to explain why this happens.

Imagine that you went to one of those machines that you get chocolate from.  You put your money in and press the button but nothing happens – expected chocolate did not happen. That is extinction!

So what would you do?  I’m quite a patient person so the first thing I would do is to try and get my money back.  If I could get my money back I would probably keep trying.  Eventually, as there is no reward, you are going to start to feel frustrated and you will quit pressing the button.

Before you quit pressing the button you will have probably pressed the button harder or even banged on it with your fist.  In the same way your dog might jump higher or more forcefully.

Once you quit, the next behaviour you try as a solution to your problem will be driven out of frustration.  People usually shout, swear or even punch, shake or kick the machine.

So what do dogs do when they’re frustrated?  They bark, they lunge, they grab, and they nip, and this is where the problem is!  Although the jumping up may disappear it may potentially create another inappropriate behaviour.

The reason for this is that the dog still has a problem – so what is the dog’s problem?  Yes that’s right; the dog doesn’t know how to get attention.

So it is ok to ignore jumping up, and if you ignore it the behaviour will go away, but what is really important and the main part of the solution is that we show and teach puppies how to get our attention by offering appropriate responses such as sitting gets attention.  This is being proactive instead of reactive.  Teach the puppy what you expect from it in a situation instead of letting it get it wrong and then trying to fix it or correct it.


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