How Your Dog Learns
Lots of people say that their dogs are dumb, but then they never make the connection between their dog putting a paw up on your leg and getting a treat. The dog is deliberately doing something to get himself a treat, and how dumb can that make him?
Humans and dogs have a successful relationship that goes back thousands of years, and one reason why it works out so well is because we communicate in a way that they understand. Think about what they are saying when they bring you a stick. You know that they want to play fetch, don’t you?
The two above examples tell us that our dogs can learn very complex behavior and that we can teach them even more.
Just like humans do, dogs relate to each other and to us through body language and posture, but the way that we process it and the way that we do is very different.
Remember that your dog’s eyes will respond very differently to color, and they can see very well in low light. They can turn their ears around very quickly and accurately, which lets them figure out where sounds come from, and don’t forget that famous sense of smell.
These differences will equal difference in the way that their minds work. Their ability to understand cause and effect relationships is quite different from ours.
Consider classical training, where you learn to associate a stimulus with a response. This is something that humans can ignore pretty easily. For instance, we can shake off an undesired response to a car accident or a visit to a doctor much more easily than a dog can.
Operant conditioning, where positive and negative reinforcement is used, is something that dogs and humans respond very differently to.
Consider the fact that I always go out the back door with my Golden Retrievers when we are going to play fetch. Whenever we go out that door, we play fetch. On the other hand, when I let them out the side door, I don’t go with them; I just leave them for half an hour or so. Of course, they always go to the back door when they want a game or see one coming.
When I train my dogs, I use a very specific tone and hand gesture to go along with the command. This gives them all kinds of cues and I can expect them to sit, stay down, no-bite, fetch, release, come and even eliminate at a single command.
However, remember that if too much time passes between cause and effect, they are going to lose it. For instance, how many times can you tell them that eating something off the ground is bad for them? The stomachaches that result have no connection in their heads to the food because it was too long ago!
What you should take from this information is that your dog, whether he is a Shepherd, a Retriever, a Basset Hound or a Dachshund, can learn a lot, if only you remember that he is a dog and not a human!
For instance, one fairly well-known woman has taught her dogs how to dance on command for the show circuit, and rescue dogs can locate children and pull them out of dangerous situations. Service dogs are incredible when they can do things as different as opening a door, pulling a wheelchair or even fetching a container of water without spilling a bit of it.
Just keep in mind, though that they are not people, and that there are some doggy activities that you cannot train out of them!