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Dog Learning 101

 by zack on 12 Apr 2013 |
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Man’s best friend is often a lovable dolt. Dogs are as cute as they are dumb, but they do show occasional flashes of brilliance. There are numerous parodies of dogs being able to speak and what they might say, but the stark reality is that they have a very limited concept of language. People think symbolically, dogs think in a rather concrete sort of way. This begs the question: how do dog’s think and learn? As it turns out there are two different ways that dogs learn. One is through social interaction. Dogs will watch people and each other to pick up body language, actions, hunting techniques, all sorts of nuanced little actions. The other way, is much ­better documented and will be the main focus of this article: Behavioral Conditioning.

Behavioral Conditioning was theorized, discovered, and popularized through the work of Ivan Pavlov. Any grade schooler has heard of Pavlov’s dogs, and his famous experiment that conditioned them to salivate at the sound of a bell. But Pavlov’s experiments went a lot deeper than that. He proved that there are several effective methods of teaching a dog, and all of them are still popular today.

First there’s Operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is defined as training dogs through the use of rewards. That means using positive reinforcement, the process by which a trainer would give the dog something it likes when it performs the desired behavior, and negative punishment, where the trainer would take away something it likes. This is the preferred method for most family dogs, as it’s not stressful for the dog, and it’s fairly easy to get them to respond to a positive stimulus.  The positive stimulus could be anything the dog likes, usually food, affection, or a toy.

 Next there is Aversive conditioning. This is like operant conditioning’s mean cousin. Aversive conditioning means using positive punishment. Positive punishment is a pit paradoxically named, but it means to give the dog something it doesn’t want, usually pain or a threat. This pain could be a smack on the muzzle, a bop with a newspaper, or Cesar Milan’s famous pinch on the neck. You can also use shock collars, or a loud unpleasant sound. All of these negative stimuli or positive punishments will usually quickly cause unwanted dog behavior to cease. Once the bad attitude has stopped the aversive trainer will commence negative reinforcement, which is simply the removal of the positive punishment.

It’s important to note that frequency of rewards an punishments are the pivotal factor in dog training. If you are rewarding or punishing your dog too often then the law of diminishing returns will inevitably take effect. Too many positive reinforcements acclimate the dog to always receiving rewards. That means you’ll have a spoiled dog, which is almost as bad as a spoiled teenager.  Too many positive punishments will result in a stressed or aggressive dog, and then you’ll really have your hands full.

Keep these basic dog learning principles in mind whenever you’re training your dog, and you should have a pretty easy time of it, and as always keep checking back at the Petbucket blog to learn more about your favorite furry pals!

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