A Bit About Learning Theory Will Help You Train Your Dog or Puppy

Puppies and dogs explore their world via their nose and mouth. Behaviour, which is perfectly normal for them, is often unwanted by us. Dogs bark (they don’t speak English), bite, chew, dig, run, jump, roll, shred things, avoid eye contact (it’s the polite thing to do in the canine world), sniff, guard items (a skill necessary for survival in the wild) and more.

As humans, we want to teach our dogs to sit politely, walk slowly, not bark, avoid rolling in disgusting things, be happy when we gaze lovingly in their eyes, accept being hugged, poked and prodded without question, not chew our shoes or baseboards, leave your garden intact and so much more.

You are dedicating the next 10 -16 years to this new being you have invited to share your home and life.

It’s your responsibility to understand that dogs see the world differently than we do. It’s necessary to teach yours, in a humane manner, how to live in your world, abiding by rules that most often don’t make sense.

Learning Theory and Positive Reinforcement

Whether 2-footed or 4-footed, all creatures learn the same – Behaviour that gets the desired result, gets repeated.

Putting a coin in the pop machine results in me getting a drink.  As long as the machine continues to give me what I want, I will continue to put my coins in. 

A puppy jumps on you to say hi, all wiggly and sweet. As you pat him and enjoy the wiggle, you may say “okay, that’s enough stop jumping on me.”

Dogs don’t speak English. The information you actually gave your dog is  “I like when you jump, I give you attention”. From his point of view – his behaviour worked to get a desired result – attention. 

This is true of any behaviour you see whether it’s one you like (sit) or one you don’t like (jumping).

I don’t want to get overly technical but I think it’s important to understand a bit about learning theory definitions. 

The term “positive” does not mean “good”. Nor does the term “negative” mean “bad”.

For dog training purposes, think of mathematical equations where positive means to add something and negative means to remove something.

Next are the terms reinforcement and punishment. 

Reinforcement means the likelihood of behaviour being repeated increases

Punishment means the likelihood of behaviour being repeated decreases.

It’s not uncommon to think of punishment only as something physical such as hitting or kicking. Punishment is anything your dog sees as aversive. If your dog doesn’t like belly rubs and you give him one – that’s a punishment and the likelihood of him lying on his back will decrease (to avoid the belly rub).

Now we put it all together. It’s not necessary to remember all of this but it can be helpful to understand the key points. 

In my training I focus on Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment .

  • Positive Reinforcement 

The dog’s behaviour results in something the dog wants and the likelihood of the behaviour increases.

For example:  Every time the puppy sits, you give a treat. The likelihood of the puppy sitting increases. 

  • Negative Reinforcement

The dog’s behaviour results in something the dog doesn’t like being removed and the likelihood of the behaviour increases.

For example: The pressure from a choke chain being released increases the likelihood of the dog remaining close.

  • Negative Punishment

The dog’s behaviour results in the removal of something he wants, resulting in a decrease of the behaviour.

For example: This is what we use when we leave a room if the puppy is biting hard. The puppy learns if he bites you too hard you leave.

It’s a negative punishment because you are removing something he wants (social interaction with you).

  • Positive Punishment

The dog’s behaviour results in something aversive being added resulting in the likelihood of a decrease in the behaviour.

For example: Giving a shock when the dog runs away decreases the likelihood he will run or holding your dog’s mouth shut when he bites decreases the likelihood of him biting.

Remember: rubbing your dog’s belly when he’s on his back, if he doesn’t enjoy it is a positive punishment as well. You are adding an aversive (something he doesn’t like) which decreases the likelihood of the belly up behaviour occurring in the future.

What is important for you to remember is that dogs do what works to get what they want.  If offering a sit before every meal results in the delivery of food, he will sit. There is no underlying intent to rule the home or be dominant over you.

Dogs are opportunistic. They will walk out the door before you – because it’s open and they want to pee, play or walk. They will take food off the table – because it’s there and it smells good. Neither is because your dog is dominant or trying to be.

You can read about common dog training myths here. https://apdt.com/pet-owners/choosing-a-trainer/myths/

There are so many wonderful ways to work positively with your dog. 

Learning to focus on what you do want your dog to do instead of not do, creates a partnership with happy, willing participation on both sides. Your dog is eager and willing to offer new behaviour and will be excited to see what works!