How Dog's Learn

Puppies are born with their eye closed, they don’t ask question, and they don’t get lessons from private tutors. They have to figure out the world the minute they take their first breaths.

Using their super – sleuth noses, puppies soon sniff out where mom keeps the food. All it takes is practice. Puppies are awkward and clumsy at first, but through trial and error, they pick up speed and sharpen their style. They get better each time they receive the goodies.

”When it comes to learning, if it feels good, dogs will do it,” says John C. Wright, Ph. D., an animal behaviorist, professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine in Atlanta. “If there’s no payoff, they’ll try something else.”

How Dogs Learn:
“Once their eyes are open, dogs learn in many ways,” says Carol Lea Benjamin, a professional obedience trainer in New York City, and author of mother knows best: The natural way to train your dog and dog training in minutes. “They learn much as people do.” Give your dog positive reinforcement, says Benjamin. “Most dogs want to make their owners happy.” A reward helps them know that they’ve done the right thing, and you’re pleased.

Dogs also learn to associate something they like with a particular object or behavior, says Benjamin. They do it naturally, without any formal training. For example, maybe you always feed your dog at the same time you run the vacuum cleaner. Try vacuuming when you’re not going to feed him. He’ll be drooling the minute the motor revs, and won’t stop the fuss until he’s fed. You’ve conditioned him to expect food as soon as the vacuum plug goes into the wall.

It’s hard to believe that dogs notice these small details, but they’re always watching what goes on around them. “Like their wolf ancestors who followed the leader of the pack, dogs pay attention to what there owners or the more aggressive pups in the litter are doing to pick up their cues” says Benjamin. So, if you dig in the garden, your dog will want to dig right beside you...Only he’ll be faster and messier.

There’s yet another way that dogs unearth new knowledge. “Accidents happen,” explains Benjamin. If your dog rubs up against the gate and it suddenly pops open, he’s learned that the can get out of the yard. When you’ve got him back inside again, he’ll remember the amazing great escape, where he’ll likely get pushy again.

It’s not just the good times that your dog is going to store away for future reference. Unpleasant experiences have consequences too, says Deena Case-Pall, Ph, D., a psychologist and animal behaviorist in Camarillo, California. “Dogs remember the pain or displeasure they felt and avoid repeating the behavior.”
This begins in puppyhood when a pup learns that mom’s growl means “Keep your distance.” If he ignores her warning, she’ll give him a louder, meaner growl and snap at him for good measure, which usually works. Touching something hot, for example, will also be burned into his memory.

Reading Your Moods:
If you train your dog when you’re upset about something, he may not be as willing to work for you. “Often, dogs are reacting to our moods,” says Dr. Case-Pall. “Some are more tuned in to us than others, which can affect their behavior.”

In fact, owners often find that their dog’s behavior – or misbehavior – mirrors their own moods. Have you been irritable? Very excited? Relaxed? A little down? Take a look at your dog. Is he running through the yard barking at everything that moves? Pacing back and forth in the house? Standing with his tail between his legs? You’ll often find that your dog’s behavior is an accurate barometer of how you’re feeling that day. And since training works best when you’re relaxed and confident, choose a time when you are not feeling stressed to work with him.

Different Breeds, Different Needs:
Every characteristic of a breed, from the length of the coat to the width of the feet, is designed to help the dogs of that breed perform the task they were originally bred to do. So, different breeds have different personalities. A Miniature Dachshund doesn’t look anything like a Poodle, nor does he react or learn in the same way.

When it comes to training, says Steve Aiken, the “Pet Shrink” on America Online and the owner of animal behavior Consultants in Wichita, Kansa, it helps to match your techniques and rewards to the natural passions and behavior of your dog’s breed. “Since terriers were bred to dig out and kill underground rodents, it’s natural that they will want to go excavating in your backyard,” he says.

You don’t have to like that instinct, he adds, but you can use his itch for a ditch as a reward after he’s put in training session with you. Set aside a special area in the yard and hide something there in dirt, then let him dig to his paws’ content. Soon your eager beaver will be dragging you out to the yard so he can practice his heeling – and get the fun reward afterward.

To the terrier, dirt is a reward. But digging isn’t as fun for a Portuguese water dog, bred to spend his life in the water. However, splashing in a creek or a wading pool is. Find out about the breed history of your dog and what his relatives did for a living. Match his rewards to this.

“If you have a mixed breed, look at the dog’s body type for hints on what he might enjoy,” says Dr. Case Pall. If he resembles a Greyhound reward him by letting him race around the house. Make a game out of it.

Consistency Counts:
Dogs do their best learning when they know exactly what to expect. When you’re teaching your dog the rules, you can’t be wishy-washy.

“The most common problem new owners have is not being consistent with either their training schedule or with telling their dog loud and clear what they expect him to do,” says Tony Bugarin, an obedience instructor in Los Angeles.

If you’re training your dog to heel, it’s best to take him out every day for at least a half hour of practice, says Bugarin. “Don’t go out three times the first week, skip the second week, then work only one time the third week.” There are other ways of keeping things consistent.
Says the same thing. Your dog will learn faster when you’re consistent with your commands. Give them in the same order when he’s just starting out, and always use the same firm tone of voice. If you say “Stay here” one day and “Right here stay” the next, he’ll be confused. Make a habit of calling his name first, then the command – it’s a good way to grab his attention.

Set firm rules. Always be clear about what is and isn’t allowed. If you let him get up on the couch one day and yell at him for doing the same thing the next, he won’t know what to do the day after that. Dogs are not mind readers.

“Your dog will behave better if he can predict what can happen day in and day out,” says Wayne Hunthausen, D.V.M., an animal behaviorist in Westwood, Kansas, and co-author of Practitioner’s Guide to pet Behavior problems. You’ll get the best results that way.”

Form a united front. Get everyone in the household to be consistent. “He’ll feel more secure and apt to try new things if everyone follows the same plan,” says Dr. Hunthausen.

Linking Actions to Commands:
Imagine visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and asking for street directions. If you thought the translation for “Turn right just before the bridge” really meant “Keep going straight over the bridge” you’d continue on ahead and never get to where you wanted to go.

Your dog can find himself just as lost and confused. You come home from work and he’s jumping up all over you. You say “Sit!” but you don’t make sure that he responds to your command. He then thinks the word “sit” means “jump all over me when I come home from work.” He’ll miss the correct meaning of the command altogether.

To make sure your dog does exactly what you want him to do, correct or reward him according to his response. “This shows your dog that his response matters,” says Dr. Case-pall. “He’ll be more open to what is going on and the next time will be even easier.” Of course it’s going to take practice if you’re a beginner.

Timing is Everything:
A dog can connect a word or reprimand only to what is happening at that moment. If your hesitate for even a few seconds, he’ll get interested in other sights and smells and your window of correction opportunity has gone. Here’s how to do it.

Match the word to the moment. Timing is really all about using the right word at the right time in response to your dog’s action. He has to understand what he’s done wrong – what you’re correcting him about – and what you want him to do. If he’s got that information, he can follow the directions correctly. It takes some practice, but if you act quickly, he’ll learn almost instantly.

Read his mind. If you can be a few steps ahead of your dog and catch him before he misbehaves, you’re really ahead of the game. Turn his potential error into his positive action in such a way that he thinks it was all his idea.

If you see your dog eyeing a piece of chicken sitting on the kitchen counter, anticipate one of two thing happening. Either he’ll try one giant leap for lean cuisine or he’ll look around to see if you’re watching. Be ready to reprimand him if he goes for the jump shot, or quickly reward him for not crossing the foul line. Dog training at its finest involves a little bit of reading and predicting the canine mind.

Correct Corrections:
The best way to keep your dog on the straight and narrow is to correct him using praise, not punishment. You walk into the kitchen to find him moseying over to the garbage. Before he even has time to realize you’re there, say his name. Then “Sit!” He does. What a good dog. Then say “Come!” and he runs over. Praise him lavishly. What a cute, clever, well behaved dog. Pat him and play with him. He deserves it. He could take it all day. And he’s learned that doing what you want him to do is where the good times are at – forget the trash.

Pile on the praise. “When your pup does what you want him to do, praise him immediately using your happy tone of voice,” says Dr. Hunthausen. “Using positive reinforcement will let your dog recognize he did the right thing, and build trust between you and him.”

“Find out what turns your dog on or off – a rope toy, treats, a tennis ball, a hug, even dinner,” says Dr. Case Pall. “Use it to your advantage.”

Don’t be a pushover. When your dog does the wrong thing, just saying “No” works wonders, says Benjamin. “Many people are hesitant to tell their dog “No,” but it has to be a small part of any dog training program.”

Catch him in the act. If he’s in the middle of making a mistake, you can use something noisy to stop him in the act. Blow an air horn, use a motion activated alarm, that makes a loud sound or put some pennies in an empty soda can and rattle them near the culprit the second he goofs. “The loud stimulus interrupts his behavior and gives him a chance to stop,” says Dr. Hunthausen. Calling him to come to you in a happy, upbeat tone will also distract him from what he is doing. Remember to praise him lavishly for coming when you called.

Know when to ignore him. Another easy way to extinguish bad behavior while he’s at it is simply to ignore it. If your dog steals your shoe and you chase him, he’ll learn that it’s a great way to attract your attention – not to mention lots of fun with you chasing him round the house – and keep doing it. If you don’t react, he’ll get bored and drop the shoe.

Respect his limitations. If you come home and discover the shoe in a million little leathery pieces, don’t get mad. There isn’t anything you can do after the fact, because he won’t understand why you are angry. Just make sure your other possessions are out of reach next time.

Avoid the harsh correction. Physical punishment to “teach him a lesson” will only break the bond you have worked so hard to create with your dog. Hitting with either an object or your hand, chasing, yelling or rubbing his nose in unpleasant substances will only erode his confidence and may even change his personality for the worse.

Harsh correction may scare a dog so badly that he will become anxious and afraid. There are far better ways to correct him. And remember, you can never praise him enough for a job well done.