Dog psychology and how they learn

By Thomas A. Beitz

There are several similarities between humans and dogs in terms of they way we learn things. There are some distinct differences as well. If we fail to recognize these differences, we will find ourselves in a training conflict with ongoing problems which seem to never get resolved.

Unresolved problems generally always can be attributed to lack of effective communication. Although we may think we are communicating with our dog, if he or she isnt getting it, then we need to consider our approach may be part of the problem. The solution is always to be found in the scientific foundation of learning model. Dont let the fact that I mentioned “science” scare you off. Learning models are rooted in science, but its not rocket science. Its actually quite simple.

Essentially, there are two main streams of thought which are recognized by behaviorist and dog trainers alike. They are Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning, and although newer and inexperienced trainers may not realize it, they are using these theories to train. Unfortunately, many trainers emphasize one or more aspects of these learning models while ignoring other parts. Even if you have been to a trainer and havent gotten the results you were expecting, it may be because your trainer is only using a couple of the tools in their training box.

In a nutshell, Classical Conditioning experiments made two significant observations. When understood properly, these observations will contribute to helping your dog to understand what you want. First, it was observed that dogs like food. You remember Pavlovs experiment. After conditioning the dogs with a bell and piece of food, Pavlov withheld the food and the dogs began to salivate. The dogs associated the food with the bell. More importantly than the food association was the second critical observation which was that the dogs associated the bell with the food in about one and a half seconds. The timing of the association was the take away from the experiment. If you are going to reward a dog for doing something right or correct a dog for an inappropriate behavior, you need to do it within one and a half seconds. 

Did I say correct the dog for doing something wrong? You bet I did. That brings us the the second major learning theory know Operant Conditioning developed by B. F. Skinner. Skinner had a four-part learning model that includes both positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. Reinforcement means to strengthen a behavior or making it more likely to occur be it positive or negative reinforcement. And punishment, positive or negative, is meant to inhibit or extinguish a behavior. 

Seventy-five years ago most trainers emphasized punishment which yielded well-behaved dogs, but the dogs werent too happy because positive reinforcement was neglected. Contemporary training methods emphasize positive reinforcement while neglecting discipline, which generally yields very happy dogs that are not very well behaved or obedient. If you think you may have a challenging dog that isnt catching on the way youd like, consider adding a balanced training approach for more effective results. Each trainer defines dog psychology a little differently based on the method they use. 

Tom Beitz is a Canine Behavior Specialist and the owner of Smart Dog Solutions. He can be found on the web at or reached on his cell at 628-0651.