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How dogs learn

I remember growing up in a time when most of the information you could find about animals indicated that they weren't as smart as us humans; and that it was up to us humans to direct all the animals in the world in order for those animals to survive.


I know now that those were pretty archaic thoughts and looking back at some writings you can see that they were people out there that didn't share those thoughts, but at the time there wasn't much research done, however as we are able to explore more about our world from the comforts of our home through the internet; perhaps more people have had a chance to question the thoughts that are out there. Research has been done and published about these subjects more so than ever.


We now know that all animals learn; many will learn enough in order to survive whilst others learn not only to survive but to grow their species. The brain is a wondrous tool, if you continue to feed it well in it's formative growth period then it will continue to expand (not in size but in capacity). This concept works for all animals that have brains whether they are mammals, birds, reptiles or insects. I guess each species has the basic brain functions and innate learning that keeps them alive but I am talking more about when we apply new functions which will stimulate growth in the brain.


So if we remember that concept when we first bring our dog's into our world then we can also learn ourselves how to manipulate a situation to our desired outcome.


Without going into the workings of the brain, a simple way to look at how dogs learn is in the following:

Action = Reaction (Behaviour)

  • My current thinking is that most dogs live in the now, they don't live in the past and they don't live in the future. Learning in their past may give them some of the behaviour they exhibit (auto response to stimulus) but most dogs can also learn new behaviour to replace that initial learning. This probably comes down to whether the dog wants to change the behaviour (Motivation).

  • The more times a dog repeats behaviour the stronger that behaviour becomes. (Reinforcement)

Behaviour is governed by motivation and reinforcement.


So when we want to teach our dog to do something what we are doing is changing behaviour. If we reinforce the wanted behaviour with something that motivates the dog then the dog will more than likely start doing that wanted behaviour.


Motivators come in all shapes and sizes and unfortunately not all reinforcements for motivation are pleasant; think of putting your hand on a hot stove and getting burnt - the motivator there is to keep safe but the reinforcement was probably painful. It was a quick lesson and seems to work but it makes us fearful of the stove. What if we had shielded the stove in the first place and then were taught to observe and explore carefully first then we could still learn that the stove top was hot without getting burned and therefore fearful.


This learning also applies to the way dogs learn.

If they do an action and get something pleasant for it then they are more likely to repeat that action and therefore learn it successfully; they will still have confidence to continue doing things we ask of them, both old and new.


However if a dog does an action and receives something painful or displeasing to them then they are less likely to repeat that action. Sounds simple enough but we need to think of the effect that learning has on future learning - from what I have seen and experienced myself if I am hurt in some way when I am learning about something then I start to mistrust my teacher. I end up withdrawing from that person/thing and not complying with anything they/it asks of me.


When I worked in an office we had performance reviews every 6 months - I guess it was so that everyone could tick the box that they had discussed an employee's capabilities and future. I don't want to wait 6 months to find out if I had done well or made mistakes - I want to know straight away (finding out 6 months later made the task outcome irrelevant to me). I had a boss (I will call him a mentor though) who was able to both celebrate small successes but also understand why I made an error and then guide me through to success when most people would call it a mistake and condemn for it. Why I'm referring to this is that around the same time I had decided that I wanted to find a way to train a new pup without force or fear (unfortunately we were taught to train and command sometimes using force and I must admit I was pretty useless at it as my heart was not in it to be like that). This new pup Connor, was taught by redirecting any unwanted behaviour into something I liked and he still enjoyed, two years into his training we discovered clicker training which is about marking behaviour you like and reinforcing it. It was and still is about observing how what you do affects others and how what they do affects you. And then working out how to get to a result that everyone is not only happy about but actually excels in and loves.


As a result of this type of teaching/training, Connor went on to become the first dog in New Zealand to attain a Canine Good Citizen award, he went on to gain Gold; he was a breed champion and competed successfully in obedience, agility and heelwork to music/freestyle adding titles to his name where he could. He competed at the highest level in coming to the UK as he represented New Zealand four times at Crufts (twice in agility and twice in freestyle) - I didn't know at the time but the last time he competed he did so with 2 huge cancerous tumours on his liver and he passed away from this 4 months later at the age of 10 & 3/4 - I never knew as his desire to work was second to none; I put this down to he was never criticised for his behaviour; he was taught how to learn and success at every step.


He had cancer a few years earlier and his trust in me meant that he could be scanned and x-rayed without sedation - that alone totally convinced me that the training path I had taken was the best it could be for welfare of a companion. By the way Connor was a Gordon Setter.


My example with Connor was just to show you that if you teach without fear then your student will be more willing to follow you, to trust in your guidance.


If your student learns without fear they will be willing participants and that goes on to make you a better teacher - it's a wonderful feeling enjoying the company of others and sharing a commonality.


I am not saying that participation should be rewarded in the same way you reward the winner; or that everyone should be successful all of the time; we need failure in order to move towards success. But failure doesn't need to be a punishment; failure can be enlightening and therefore a learning tool. If you learn with the knowledge that failure eventually leads to growth and success rather than punishment, then you won't be scared to try whatever is asked of you.


If we decide to have dogs close in our lives then do we not owe it to both them and ourselves to enjoy the participation and get the best we can for both species?

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