Dog Obedience: How Dogs Learn

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Obedient Dogs Laying in Field


Having a solid understanding of how dogs learn is essential knowledge for dog obedience training. Unfortunately, because they are a different species to humans (obviously) it can be hard for us to empathize with them and so, hard to understand how best to communicate to them what we want them to learn. Fortunately, dogs learn the same way many other animals learn, including humans. So, in addition to analyzing the fundamental learning processes, we will be considering some examples of how humans learn in order to gain insight into how all animals learn.

Classical Conditioning


Does the name Ivan Pavlov ‘ring a bell’? It’s because Pavlov easily ranks among the foremost experts who shaped behavioral psychology as a field of study and his experiments helped explain the mechanism of learning; in this article we’re going to consider how fully understanding this mechanism can dramatically increase the effectiveness of your dog obedience training ambitions.

Pavlov’s early experiments brought the behaviorist school of thought to limelight (behaviorists contend that psychology is strongly underpinned by observable behaviors) and asserted the belief that it wasn’t only humans who learn.

To prove this, he conducted experiments on dogs to ascertain their drooling response to the pairing of meat powder (Unconditioned Stimulus) and a host of neutral stimuli such as sounds, touch and shining light – that usually wouldn’t cause a drooling response (Condition Stimulus). Pavlov soon noticed that, after multiple pairings, even in the absence of the meet powder, the presence of sound, light, or touch caused the dog to drool (Conditioned Response).

Thus, he reckoned that associative learning – the linking of certain stimuli, events, or behaviors together in a conditioning process – is also possible in animals. And while this learning may appear rather rudimentary for the brain, the mechanism of conditioning was never as obvious or simple. In later years, trainers were able to refine Pavlov’s discoveries for dog training.

The Process

Before the experiment, the smell of food was solely responsible for drooling, before conditioning that is. The unconditioned stimulus (US) is the smell, and the salivating was the natural, unconditioned response (UR) to the food smell. At this stage, the neutral stimulus – ringing bell sound – has no effect and wouldn’t elicit a drooling response in the dog; this is the condition stimulus (CS).

In the conditioning phase, the bell sound is paired with the food smell, causing the dog to drool. This pairing process is done many times over until the two stimuli become strongly associated, in what is called the acquisition stage. After the acquisition stage, the initially neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus as it triggers the drooling response synonymous with the unconditioned stimulus – the food smell.

One of the foundations of dog obedience is the process of Classical Conditioning, seen here in this Flow Chart

Operant Conditioning


So, that was classical conditioning. We also have operant conditioning, which, as opposed to forming stimuli-related associations (environment effecting behavior), operant conditioning has to do with behavioral response to consequences (behavior effecting environment). The student who receives applause for answering a question, or the kid who gets detention for being a bully is quintessential of operant conditioning and, in both cases, the student learns that their actions (behavior) effect how their environment interacts with them. Operant conditioning is underpinned on the fact that behaviors are repeated when a reward is associated with it, and punishment conversely decreases a particular behavior. This feedback of consequences (good or bad) from the environment is very important in all learning and dog obedience specifically.

American behaviorist B.F. Skinner is perhaps the leading campaigner of operant conditioning. Skinner is popular for designing the Skinner box – a confined space with a button that could be touched by an animal for a reward, usually food. There was also a device to monitor the animal’s responses over time.

The Process

Armed with this setup, Skinner’s reinforcement concept can be put to the test. That is, you get a snack once you push the lever, and this would give you the nod to keep pushing for more snacks. However, most rats won’t spontaneously press the leaver for no reason, which is why shaping is required to “steer” operant conditioning behavior. Getting started, you may decide to dispense only a minuscule reward to the rat as it approaches the bar, then only when touching the bar and so on until the desired behavior for which you are conditioning them is taken. Whether with negative or positive reinforcement, this concept of shaping and refining behavior is one we consciously and inadvertently practice in our daily lives and in dog obedience for increasing wanted behaviors in our dogs.

To completely balance the dog obedience training process, Operant Conditioning and the so-called Four Quadrants are essential

In the case of positive reinforcements, rewards are given when a desired action takes place, like the aforementioned lever push = snack, or receiving applause after answering a question. This strengthens responses. However, negative reinforcement is somewhat trickier. It has to do with increasing a specific behavior by removing an aversive stimulus. For example, when you don’t buckle your seatbelt and an unsavory chime or beep annoys you until you fasten your belt. Here, you are reinforced to always buckle-up to keep those pesky sounds off.

It’s also noteworthy that punishment and negative reinforcement are two different concepts. A behavior can be positively decreased by punishment by getting slammed a speeding ticket, or negatively by confiscating a driver’s license altogether.

Some types of reinforcers only become obvious when we match them with primary reinforcers. For instance, a paycheck can be regarded as a conditioned reinforcer, in that our want for money is rooted in our desire to pay our bills, which is the primary driver.

Further, reinforcement schedules are of different kinds just as we have different reinforcers. Thus, the rat got continuous reinforcement with a treat after hitting the lever every single time. But when that reinforcement gradually dwindles to a halt when snacks are no longer provided, then the behavior will dwindle and halt also – in what is called extinction. Extinction is important as it captures the dynamics of real life. On the whole, life comprises of intermittent or partial reinforcements that don’t occur every time. And while this makes for a longer learning curve, it adds up considerably over time without bordering on the possibility of that extinction. This is why intermittently treat-rewarding our dogs is the best method to get a solid dog obedience and should be supplemented with verbal praise in varying value levels (e.g. calm and cool “good girl” vs. an exuberant “Yes! Good girl”). Primed on the fact that we like some things and dislike others, we can be trained using associated impulses to behave in a particular way. While halting annoying sounds and getting applause are primary reinforcers, it’s worth reminding that there are a lot more intricacies to conditioning than the seat belt alarm and applause concepts. Moreover, while dog psychology is not as complex as human psychology, dogs are still complex animals and dog obedience is just as nuanced as human learning.

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