How dogs learn

Why Learning is Critical

Why is it critical that a dog learns? Quite simply it is a matter of life and death, learning is about survival or evolutionary fitness.

It is through learning that the puppy finds the source of mother’s milk and how to get their share. It is through learning that the dog adapts to their new home and routine. It is through learning that the dog figures out what gives them pleasure – even if you don’t agree! Learning how to refine an innate motor pattern is essential for survival, a dog that cannot hunt, chase or kill will starve. Our pet dogs no longer need to hunt for their food, but these instincts and patterns are still present.

Learning Processes

For simplicity we will focus on two types of learning – passive and active.

Passive Learning – classical conditioning, Pavlovian, associative

This is the simplest form of learning for any dog, the dog does not need to consciously act to experience passive learning. Dogs are expert at learning patterns and then associating words, sounds, smells even our clothing to these patterns. When you bring a new dog into your home, they quickly learn patterns that lead to activities and experiences they find rewarding.

You may know this as Pavlovian, from the experiments conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Conditioning simply means learning. Classical means non-observable, automatic, reflexive, or associative learning, we will refer to it as passive learning.

Primitive areas of the brain are involved in passive learning, the parts that control survival. This area remembers which substances a dog needs to eat and drink and where to find them. It is this system that allows us to learn the labels for food, the places where food is available and how to access food quickly and safely.

Eating is a survival behaviour and dogs will quickly learn where the food comes from. Once they have figured out the final behaviour – food arriving in front of them to eat, they will begin to learn the ‘pre-cues’. Pre-cues are the patterns and events that predict the arrival of food.

Passive learning happens without the dog needing to do anything, and for that reason we may not be aware of what they are learning until we see how they behave. Passive learning will always be happening, whether your dog is at home with you, at the park, visiting the vet, or in a training session. It is for this reason that we stress the importance of planning and preparation in all areas of your dog’s life.

Active Learning - Operant Conditioning

Getting rewards for nothing is one way to learn, but dogs can also learn how to do something to get their reward. You may have heard of this type of learning in connection with American psychologist B.F. Skinner and his studies on positive and negative reinforcement.

At first the reward appears to come from nowhere to the dog, but it actually came from their action.

We are giving the dog information about the consequences of behaving in a certain way. The consequences of the dog’s choice reinforce their behaviour. The dog is starting to learn that their behaviour affects what they get, and this gives them a sense of control.

Active learning takes some planning to be highly effective. If the dog sometimes gets food for standing in a tub, but sometimes get food for not standing in the tub, the behaviour of standing in a tub may not be learnt to a high level. However, the dog may learn in a passive manner that being around you when you are in training mode or being in the training hall is likely to result in food and a comfortable place to be.

Neither form of learning is ‘better’ than the other, what is important to remember is that a dog is learning all the time. Dogs can’t not learn. Being aware of what dogs are learning and providing information to them relieves frustration, prevents confusion, and reduces conflict.

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