When we talk about canine learning theory, what we are really talking about is how a dogs mind works in order for it to learn, and how we use this information as handlers to develop an efficient way of communicating with our dogs based on mutual understanding.
Dogs are born with a variety of innate behaviours which can be modified to suit our needs and we can even use those natural instincts to devise ways to motivate a dog to perform a certain task. Such as the desire to find food can be used to train a search and rescue exercise. The techniques used for this are known as classical and operant conditioning, made famous by an experiment by Pavlov and behaviourists such as BF Skinner. These scientists have helped us gain significant knowledge on how many animals learn. There is also the natural form of social learning.
What is Classical conditioning?
This is about making associations between stimuli, as Pavlov demonstrated by ringing a bell each time a group of dogs received their dinner. Eventually just ringing the bell made the dogs salivate expectantly for their dinner. This similar technique is utilised during clicker training where the clicker is associated with food and eventually the food can be phased out and the clicker used as a replacement.
What is Operant conditioning?
This is repeating an action or behaviour which consistently receives a reward. This is often used to create a ‘chaining’ effect where multiple behaviours are successively joined together to perform a complicated task, such as teaching a retrieve. The dog is rewarded for getting the toy. The dog is rewarded for returning with the toy. The dog is rewarded for giving the toy back. Eventually the entire chain can become self-rewarding or if it is rewarded with some form of praise or treat from a handler for performing the task successfully. This is also known as ‘shaping’.
What is Social learning?
This is learning from other dogs, handlers and other animals in the dog’s environment. A common example is bite inhibition and appropriate greeting and play behaviours. These are learnt through play as a young pup and via the young dog’s mother. Most of the typical canine behaviour we see is primarily learnt through time spent with mum and litter mates hence why this time is so important. It is further reinforced through social interaction with other dogs in the new environment.
What is positive reinforcement?
This is using a reward for performing an action, thus further encouraging the action to be performed again. It can be self-reinforcing or we can reinforce a desired behaviour as handlers. Though this form of learning is the most effective when dealing in behaviour modification, it can also backfire. Examples of positive reinforcement are a dog receiving praise reward from a handler for performing a ‘down’ or a dog gaining food for each time it counter surfs.
What is Extinction?
This is a behaviour ceasing to be performed due to it no longer being rewarding. For example, when a handler fails to reward a ‘sit’ even infrequently, the dog sees no reason to continue to perform the action. Or as with the counter surfing example before, if the food is removed, eventually the behaviour is no longer self-rewarding and will extinguish.
Dog Trainer, animal lover, artist and photographer