learning theory

The Science of How Dogs Learn: Learn the basic of psychology

So you want to start teaching your dog but don’t know where to start? Here’s a tip: If you understand a dog’s mind, the training is easy. The good news is you can do it with a basic understanding of dog psychology and how dogs learn.

Are Dogs Concious?

What Is Consciousness? What Self-Awareness Means in Training?

If a dog behaviorist accepts the research that dogs are conscious, how should that reflect on their learning style?  The key is to take a look at the current trend in behavior training for dogs.  Often new pet owners arrive to a puppy training class and are taught training methods that mimic programming.  If the pet parent does A, the puppy will do B.  If the puppy did not perform B, then the parent got A wrong.  This approach often ignores the puppy having motives and desires that conflict with learning the class curriculum...

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning in Daily Life

Classical conditioning is seen every day and often goes unnoticed, but it can be a powerful tool in your training repertoire.  When an owner touches a leash and Spot starts barking and jumping or someone starts to dislike sweets after a stomachache from eating too much, both are types of classical conditioning.  Classical conditioning is a type of learning style, and a major influence in how your dog reacts to their environment.

For pet owners it is easy to become frustrated with behaviors they feel came out of the blue and for no apparent reason.  By learning more about learning styles and behavioral cause and effect, the owner can begin identifying where a behavior came from and addressing it effectively.  While easily confused, classical conditioning is completely different from operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is when an unrelated stimulus is paired with a stimulus that naturally creates a response.  Through continued conditioning, your dog has the same response when only the neutral stimulus is present (Cherry & Gans, 2017).  Pet owners see this all the time, but they may not identify it correctly.  For instance; Fido’s owner lives on a very busy street with plenty of schoolchildren.  Fido has an excited response to the loud and noisy kids and will try to get through their fence whenever school lets out.  Fido’s owner would prefer the peace and quiet, so has decided to train Fido out of his barking and running whenever kids come around.  Fido’s owner turns to classical conditioning.

Fido’s owner starts waiting with Fido for when a child comes around.  Before Fido can have an emotional response when seeing children, Fido’s owner gives him a treat.  Fido is distracted from his emotional response and is more interested in food.  Fido’s owner continues giving treats whenever kids come around.  Soon, Fido begins to associate schoolchildren with delicious food, and has warm and happy feelings instead of excited whenever seeing them.  In a few weeks, Fido sees children and stops being excited, all without significant effort for his owner.

The Difference Between Operant and Classical Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning are very easy to confuse because the behaviors involved are so similar.  There is one main difference; in operant conditioning it is only after a behavior is observed from a stimulus that a reward or punishment occurs, in classical conditioning there is a stimulus immediately followed by a reward.  The end-goal in classical conditioning is only to pair the stimulus as positive.  In operant conditioning, the goal is to encourage or discourage a specific behavior in response to a stimulus.  There is also the term counterconditioning, which is used when trying to train the dog out of a fear response to a stimulus (Horwitz & Landsberg).

Classical conditioning can be overlooked because the stimulus-reward learning style is so simple, but quite effective.  When trying to train a dog out of barking at the mailman, the classic counterconditioning method is to give a treat whenever the sound of the mailman is heard.  Now the stimulus of the mailman approaching is no longer a threat to the dog’s territory, but a signal for yummy treats.  This new response can be conditioned very quickly because the behavior change is so simple.

Why Classical Conditioning is Important

Classical conditioning and counterconditioning is so useful because it forms lifelong habits that are minimal effort to maintain.  While operant conditioning is useful in training command driven behaviors, classical conditioning is used to address daily habits and behaviors that prohibit a peaceful life.  Want your dog to stop reacting to the vacuum, running when the towel comes out for bath time, or barking every time the doorbell rings?  Tackle those behaviors with a classic response-reward cycle and they will disappear in no time.

Have any readers addressed behaviors with classical conditioning training styles?  Let us know your experiences in our forums!

Cherry, K. (2017, July 14). What Are Some Examples of the Conditioned Response? (S. Gans, Ed.). Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://www.verywell.com/what-is-a-conditioned-response-2794974

Horwitz, D., & Landsberg, G. (n.d.). Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/introduction-to-desensitization-and-counterconditioning

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning: Different Learning Styles for Different Needs

Gone are the days when spiked collars were issued to all puppy school attendees and the class was based on learning when and how to jerk the leash.  Dog behaviorists are starting to focus on training styles that work based on proven learning theories, and are seeing fantastic results.  For one of these theories, experts turned to the works of Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, the researchers of operant conditioning.

By focusing on these specific learning styles, dog owners follow a formulaic training routine that results in happier and more engaging companions.  Operant conditioning eliminates the trial and error, and development of negative behaviors, that come with nonspecific training styles.  By using a specific learning style to address different problems in different dogs, training time will be less and pet parents will be happier.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, researched and made popular by B.F. Skinner, is the learning theory where punishment or reward follows a behavior to make it less or more likely (McLeod, 2015).  Trainers will use any of four different methods; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment.  For in-depth understanding, take a look at the four quadrants of operant conditioning explained further:

Learning Quadrants

Take the example of a dog reacting to the doorbell at home.  The dog knows that the doorbell sounding means an exciting visitor is at the door, so has an excited response.  This response is the result of classical conditioning, but the behavioral response can be changed with operant conditioning.

If the owner wanted to stop the excited response when the doorbell sounds, they have four different choices in learning style as listed above.  An example of positive reinforcement is when the owner does not open the door until the dog is calm after the doorbell rings.  The visitor is the reward, which is only given when the dog is behaving the way the owner wants.  With this learning style the calm behavior is more likely achieved the next time.

Law of Effect

Edward Thorndike, another researcher of operant conditioning, found that behavior was more likely to be repeated when the outcome was pleasant, as opposed to unpleasant (McLeod, 2007).  He called this the law of effect.  Thorndike essentially announced positive reinforcement as the most effective way to train a dog to repeat desired behavior over those involving spiked collars, which are forms of positive punishment.

This is an important take home for all pet behaviorists looking for enthusiastic partners and quick results; focus on training with positive reinforcement.  Avoiding negative stimulus while in dog training, such as punishment style behaviors and controlling tools like choke and shock collars, can contribute to a better working relationship with your dog as well.  Research has proven that these styles make training go more slowly, and often negative behaviors evolve from these methods (McLeod, 2015).

The Clicker: A Conditioned Reinforcement

As pet behaviorists developed their training methods, the use of operant conditioning became more complex.  Enter the conditioned punisher, or a stimulus that starts off as neutral to a dog but is conditioned to be a negative experience (D’Abruzzo, 2016).  An example of this is a verbal, “No” to a dog not heeling correctly.  The opposite of this would be the conditioned reinforcement, such as a gentle, “Good” or clicker signal.  The dog has learned that a conditioned punisher means a correction if they don’t fix their behavior, and a conditioned reinforcement means they are doing a good job.

The clicker was introduced once operant conditioning became popular with dog trainers, and was used to signal the dog was doing a good job in place of a verbal or food reward (Pryor, 2013).  Once the clicking sound was associated with positive reinforcement, it was useful as it provided instant feedback in training.  Owners looking to train their dogs found quick results and clearly understood the process of operant conditioning when working with a pet behaviorist who integrated the clicker.

All versions of training will involve operant or classical conditioning because it is the most effective.  Identifying where one type of conditioning will be most useful and how to use each type is important to building a friendly relationship with any pet.  Knowing the most effective training method is through positive reinforcement can save you time and frustration when training.  Keep in mind that making training the most enjoyable and fun it can be for your dog will be key in developing a strong bond, and will make your dog have less behavioral problems to begin with.

READ MORE: "What is Clicker Training"

D'Abruzzo, M. (2016, June 17). Conditioned Punishers vs Unconditioned Punishers in Dog Training. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://www.dogtraining.world/knowledge-base/conditioned-punishers-vs-unconditioned-punishers-dog-training/

McLeod, S. (2007). Edward Thorndike. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html

McLeod, S. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Pryor, K. (2013, September 24). History of Clicker Training I. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from https://clickertraining.com/node/153

Why Classical Conditioning Matters:

Making associations is what classical conditioning is all about, therefore it:

  • It gives us a technique to attach CUEs (words) with behaviors
  • It gives us a technique to help dogs make new, positive associations with things and change emotional responses to potential scary things (e.g. dogs, humans, vacuums)
  • It gives us techniques to pair a "markers", words or sounds that lets a dog know what it just did in that moment go them the reinforcer. (clicker training)
  • It is how dogs associate things in their everyday life with emotional responses (e.g. leash=happy, treat bag=happy, vet=scary)

Why Operant Conditioning Matters

In operant conditioning it is only after a behavior is observed from a stimulus that a reward or punishment occurs:

  • Reward behaviors we want to see makes it easy to train what is expected of the animal
  • Makes us aware of any undesired behaviors that might be getting reinforced knowingly or unknowingly either by environmental context or humans
  • Allows us to look at all consequences form the environment and humans. We can see how behaviors are being reinforced or punished allowing us to adjust our teaching and learning experiences. (e.g.If a dog is getting food of a counter top we know that iis very reinforcing and most likely behvaior will repeat and get stronger over time)

Tip: Great trainers set up their environment so they can control the consequences as much as possible (Antecedent Arrangements)


Social Learning Theory

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory came after classical and operant conditioning were publicized, and is the most commonly used method of learning for both humans and dogs (McLeod, 2016).  A researcher named Albert Bandura was observing learning through conditioning in 1977.  He realized that learning often occurs through observation of conditioning, and that the behavior observed was more likely to be...


Desensitizing and Counterconditioning

Both of these techniques are used every day during interactions with our pets, usually without us realizing. When we ask visitors to give our dog a treat when coming in, we are counter-conditioning our dog to like visitors. By leaving the harness on a dog that hates collars, we are desensitizing them to the feeling of pressure around their neck. Essentially, it is a way to work with a dog to change how they feel about a stimulus by appealing to normal behavioral patterns.

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