How Dogs Really Learn

There are many mistaken assumptions about how dogs really learn: It’s all in the voice (usually, deep, loud, and booming); you need to show them who’s the boss (by rolling them on their back to make them submit); endless repetitions (often with “corrections” for wrong behavior); old dogs can’t learn new tricks; and so on.

The truth is, dogs learn just like all other mammals. There’s no magic involved, and it doesn’t require any whispering. Anyone can learn the basic principles, and use them to affect their Chihuahua’s behavior. The basic principles include classical conditioning, sometimes called Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, and operant conditioning.

Briefly, classical conditioning is the pairing of a neutral stimulus in the environment with an unconscious response. The important part is that it occurs without the animal knowing.

The classic example is Pavlov’s dogs drooling, the unconscious response, being paired with the bell, the neutral stimulus. Nobody trained the dogs’ response, but when the kennel attendant opened the door, ringing the attached bell, the event was always immediately followed with food. Pairing occurred, and quickly the bell meant food was coming, leading to the hungry dogs drooling.

Classical conditioning regularly happens in your Chihuahua’s environment, and affects the resulting behavior. The leash, previously a neutral stimulus, is quickly associated with walk time. Soon, just picking up the leash will elicit running to the door, tail wagging, and barking. The sound of the car in the driveway means Mom is home, so your Chihuahua waits at the door. The word “cookie” signals a tasty treat is coming, resulting in a happy Chihuahua racing to the kitchen ahead of you.

Operant conditioning is at work when the dog offers a conscious behavior, and learns from the consequences, either positive or negative. An everyday illustration of operant conditioning involves training your Chihuahua to “shake” on command.

When your Chihuahua picks up one of his forepaws a bit (operant response), give your Chihuahua a tasty treat (positive reinforcer). That reward will increase the probability that the operant behavior will occur again. If you pinched his paw to punish him for raising it, it would decrease the probability that he would repeat that behavior. Of course, there’s quite a few reasons you should not punish him for offering behavior.

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