How dogs learn

Here's the cool thing. Dogs learn just like all animals do (including humans). And it mainly comes down to these two words...

Consequences and Associations

Though it's taken a long time and a lot of research to distill it down to these two basic concepts, I think this will make sense to most people. I'll bet you can even come up with some examples in your mind already. Let's look at each of these a little.


Have you ever had food poisoning from eating something that had gone bad? 30 years after eating bad jumbo shrimp, they sound just awful to me. I was sick for several days in a hotel on a business trip. It was awful. I've managed to eat them a few times over the years, but they just don't have the appeal they once did (I loved them). I now associate jumbo shrimp with getting sick. And that's true even though it's rather unlikely that I'd ever get sick from eating jumbo shrimp again.

A lot of our biases are based on associations. Despite the statistics, many people won't go in the ocean because of the movie Jaws. They've formed an association (in this case, a rather irrational fear) between oceans and shark attacks. I associate German Chocolate Cake with my grandmother - so it's good. I associate swimming with my dad - so it's good. I associate dentists with pain - so they're bad (that's my immediate reaction even though I have a really great dentist that I see regularly because I'm a responsible adult).

Dogs work much the same way. My dog Juno was bullied by a Husky when she was a little puppy. She's almost six years old and she still doesn't like Huskies (though she likes other large dogs). On the other hand, I made sure that she got treats from the mailman when she was little and now she gets all wiggly and excited when she sees the mail truck - even though we have a different mail carrier who hasn't given her a treat in the last four years. Associations are powerful. The good news is that we can often change an association in our dogs. So, dogs who don't like strangers can learn to love them. Dogs who growl at strange dogs can learn that strange dogs are GOOD and will then show body language that indicates they're happy when strange dogs appear. Our other dog, Joker, gets all wiggly when he sees the Dremel - because it means he's getting his nails trimmed. Yep, a dog who LOVES to get his nails trimmed. How is that possible? Because I created a positive association to the Dremel and to nail trimming. And you can too. Here's a link to a simple and inexpensive course that teaches you to train your dogs to love having their nails trimmed.


If you are "doing" something (as opposed to "feeling" something), you're doing it because of consequences. You're either trying to produce a good consequence or to avoid a bad one. Everything we do is for one of these two simple reasons.

  • We work to get paid (good consequence).
  • We slow down when we see a police officer to avoid a ticket (bad consequence).
  • We scratch an itch for relief (good).
  • We eat to relieve us of hunger (bad) and to taste something yummy and to feel full (two good consequences!).
  • We decorate our house so it looks better (good consequence) and we take out the trash to avoid bad smells (which would be a bad consequence).
  • We teach a dog to sit to get a treat (good consequence).
  • We teach dogs to keep their feet on the floor instead of jumping on visitors rather than being put outside (bad consequence if the dog likes visitors). 

Dogs do what works to produce these consequence. Dogs don't do things to "make us happy" or to "get even with us because we left them alone." Those are outdated and inaccurate concepts. When your dog doesn't come when you call, it's because they're weighing their choices and picking the one with the best consequence - sniffing the grass in the backyard might be much more rewarding than what we're offering (all too often, nothing but the end of fun). When I hear someone yelling at their dog in a stern voice to "COME!" I think to myself, "if I was the dog, I wouldn't come either." The dog is attempting to avoid a bad consequence (it sure sounds like scolding or worse is in store).

We all need to get over the idea that our dogs should do what we ask because they love us and we should generously cough up some dog treats - our dogs will behave better and everyone will be happier.

If your dog looks afraid, think "bad associations - how can we change that?"

If your dog isn't doing what you want him to do, ask yourself, "why should he do what I'm asking?"

And if you need help, get a good trainer. (Future blog post idea - why do people think they can train dogs without any education in dog training? I have had teeth most of my life, but I don't think I can perform dentistry...)

A note to ABA geeks: Yes, I realize this is a real over-simplification and I could have gone into details about extinction, resurgence, and other learning processes. I'm happy to discuss those with you. But I'm targeting most pet owners with my blog and trying to provide a sufficient level of information for people with a family dog to understand why their dogs behave the way they do and how we can modify that behavior so everyone is safe and happy. Omissions are therefore intentional. Inaccuracies aren't though - if you see something that's wrong, feel free to let me know and I'll try to fix it.


Tim Steele2 Comments