People commonly assume dogs learn just the same as we do, especially since they seem so naturally connected with humans. We share many of the same biology, facial expressions and emotions.
When it comes to learning, dogs have some distinctive differences and if we fail to acknowledge them we can run into trouble.
Dogs hear frequencies higher and lower than the human ear detects. They see less clearly at about 20/80 acuity, but see better in low light, have far wider peripheral vision and detect motion 20 times better than us.
Their greatest asset is a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than ours. This enhanced sensory input means they are easily distracted by things in the environment that we are unaware of.
The next time you think your dog is intentionally ignoring your instructions, consider how differently dogs interpret the world than we do. It must be overwhelming at times.
Dogs learn by association, and by trial-and-error. Associative learning is sometimes called Pavlovian or classical conditioning. Trial-and-error learning is known as operant conditioning.
Association is a subconscious process whereby one thing is linked to another. If you grew up with the summer sound of an ice cream truck roaming the neighborhood you may remember feeling happy and excited upon hearing the music as a child.
The music predicted the appearance of the little truck, which predicted ice cream. Children who heard the music ran home to get some money and then ran to the curb, excitedly waiting for the truck to appear.
Their association would have been different if the truck pulled up and the driver sprayed them with a water cannon. It would only take one or two such experiences before children would hear the music and run away to hide. Same stimuli, different association.
Operant conditioning is a conscious process of trying different choices. When a choice is reinforced, that strengthens the behavior. It increases the odds the next time the dog gets to choose, they will repeat the choice that was previously reinforced.
Dogs use the same process. In fact, they simply do whatever works for them. It is the consequence of their choice that drives the behavior.
If jumping on people gets the attention they seek as a little puppy, they will continue jumping as they grow up. Call it Plan A.
However, if jumping makes people go away (or makes the dog go away) they learn that Plan A no longer works. If you teach them to touch your palm, sit or lie down on cue when they approach you and reward them for doing so, they learn Plan B.
The dog soon stops trying Plan A and switches to Plan B. Dogs simply do whatever works for them.
Another difference is that dogs do not generalize easily as humans do. If I teach a dog all sorts of trained behaviors (only) in my living room and then visit my neighbor to show off, my dog might respond poorly to the same cues.
The reason is that a dog “learns” something specific to the criteria which were present at the time learning occurred. Here is a way to envision it.
Assume that a teenager is learning to drive and the instructor explains what a stop sign means. The sign has a distinctive shape and color, and the letters spell STOP. The teenager can now negotiate intersections knowing what to do upon facing any stop sign.
Now imagine teaching a dog to drive. I might say “Look at that red thing over there, Buddha. That means stop.” If Buddha had thumbs to hold the steering wheel and legs long enough to reach the brake pedal, he might stop.
Then we proceed to a different intersection and I am dismayed that Buddha runs the stop sign. If I scold him he might protest “You did not teach me what that red thing meant!”
Dogs need many repetitions in various locations in order to generalize a training cue and behavior. Then one needs to systematically expose their dog to an element of distance, distraction or duration and cue the behavior. With practice a dog can develop a reliable response in any environment.
Remember, dogs just do whatever works for them. That works for me.
Daniel H. Antolec, CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training. He has membership in Pet Professional Guild, Force-Free Trainers of Wisconsin, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Association of Professional Humane Educators and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Dogs on Call, Inc.