Pet caretakers often relate to their dogs in a manner that’s most closely akin to a parent-child relationship. However, while we may view our dogs as our “fur kids,” in day-to-day living it’s likely we’ll encounter ongoing reminders of just how much “dog” they actually are. It’s there, in the contrast of who we expect our dogs to be and who they really are, that tensions mount and frustrations build to the point of disconnection and discord.
Dr. Zazie Todd, in her research-backed book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, applies scientific and practical insights to help readers better understand dogs and use this knowledge to humanely help them fit more seamlessly and harmoniously into the largely human-shaped world in which they live. She looks at the ways dogs learn and how knowledge of them can help us better understand and communicate with our canines.
More formally known as modal action patterns, these are behaviors dogs come by naturally. In other words, dogs don’t have to be taught to do these behaviors; instead, they show up because they’re written into their doggy DNA. While these behaviors are innate, they’re also flexible and can be refined into a more polished skillset with practice over time.
Aspects of play and parts of the predatory sequence, for instance, are modal action patterns. One such modal action pattern innate to almost all dogs is the propensity to chase after furry, fast-moving objects.
The instinct to chase is why many a dog naturally takes off after a squirrel or a tossed fuzzy toy.
Recognizing and offering opportunities for our dogs to be who they inherently are improves human/canine relationships by channeling what is sometimes considered “problem behavior” in an effective, acceptable way.
While repetition assists in learning, sometimes a single experience is so emotionally charged that it changes the dog’s behavior permanently.
Experiences evoking strong emotional or physical reactions are especially likely to be remembered. In some cases, these experiences can be positive, such as the time our Labrador Sirloin flushed a scrambling bunny from beneath a particular bush, resulting in an enthralling game of chase. For the rest of his life, he always checked that same bush each time he passed in hopes that the bunny might reappear.
But the most notable emotional experiences that stand out to people in terms of how they affect their dogs are negative single-event learning experiences.
For instance, a dog who eats a particular food, like peanut butter, and soon after becomes motion sick in the car or who undergoes a stressful handling experience while eating peanut butter, may develop a sudden, lasting distaste, because it’s associated with the experience that made them sick or stressed.
Or the once social Golden Retriever who once relished walks but was forever changed after encountering an improperly leashed dog that ran out to the end of a retractable lead and attacked, biting down hard on his shoulder. From thereon out he had an anxious hypervigilance any time he ventured outside the home, requiring advanced behavior help to overcome the traumatic event.
Another way dogs learn is through habituation. This occurs when a dog gradually becomes accustomed to something that initially attracted their notice but is eventually tuned out because they’ve learned over time that it’s insignificant.
Typically, these are sounds such as city traffic, airplanes flying over, distant toots and rumblings of trains, and beeping or running of household appliances. If dogs aren’t overly upset by the sound or event and learn that they lack any real consequence, the dog no longer consciously hears or reacts to these sounds, tuning them out as neutral background noise.
Exposure alone doesn’t always work to accustom a dog to a particular experience. Instead, if overly exposed to something that is startling or upsetting, the opposite may occur, with the animal becoming progressively more distressed. Called sensitization, this is the opposite of habituation, with the animal’s distress worsening with ongoing exposure, rather than improving and eventually going away.
For instance, a dog who panics during thunderstorms may begin to react to other scenarios. Storm-phobic dogs may begin stress panting and anxious barking in response to the beeping of a smoke detector or beeping appliances because they associate the sounds with an aspect of the scary storm event, like the power going out. Sound-phobic dogs may generalize their panic to other sounds with similar qualities, such as high-intensity fight scenes on TV or the noise that occurs when driving over rumble strips on the road.
People often inadvertently sensitize their dogs to the presence of children, pushing them to “get over” their fears by promoting close encounters with children. As explained by Todd, what might actually take place is a worsening of the dog’s reaction over time, with the dog becoming even more upset and anxious around children with each uncomfortable encounter they’re forced to endure. This elevates the risk of the dog progressing to aggressive measures to send their message of needing space if more subtle signs of discomfort are overlooked or dismissed.
Animals also learn through associations, including classical conditioning, in which the animal develops an emotional association with a specific event.
Dogs may learn to anticipate something scary or upsetting, causing them to become hesitant or resistant. An example might be scrambling to get away or snapping when it’s time to be brushed if they’ve learned to equate brushing with negative outcomes like being held in place, scolded, or having their hair pulled.
Because dogs are always learning through association it’s important to proactively impart positive associations with normal life events such as grooming. For instance, brushing can be done with care in a gentle manner that minimizes pulling or prodding and progresses at a pace the dog is comfortable with and is paired with feel-good incentives like treats.
Lastly, another type of associative learning occurs when a dog connects a specific action to the consequence that follows, either reinforcing and increasing the likelihood of the behavior occurring again, or punishing and decreasing the likelihood of the animal repeating the behavior
This type of learning, in which dogs learn that their behavior makes a difference, is called operant conditioning .
The most important type of operant conditioning to know about is called positive reinforcement: adding in positives such as treats, play or other rewards the dog wants to reinforce behavior we want our dogs to repeat in the future. For instance, we can intentionally train dogs to move their body into a sitting position upon presentation of a certain hand signal, followed by a tasty treat when they do. However, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be intentional or structured. Other “training,” for instance, occurs during everyday interactions, such as the dog learning to paw at their person’s leg or whine with their head on the person’s lap because they’ve learned it gets attention and results in something they want, like getting a bite of their person’s food, being picked up, or being scratched in a favorite place.
Dogs do what works. In large part, improving their behavior involves using incentives to reinforce reward-worthy moments we want to see again, like the dog quietly settling on their bed or playing with a toy as opposed to only paying attention to them when they’re acting out.
For more insight into how dogs learn and how we can positively guide behavior while still offering ongoing opportunities to be a dog, check out Wag as well as this Happy Paws Podcast episode where we do a deep dive into canine behavior with Todd.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Mikkel Becker is a certified trainer specializing in dogs and cats, co-author of five books in the “Ultimate Pet Lover” series, and the resident trainer for Vetstreet.com. In her professional work, Becker uses positive reinforcement and non-force training strategies based in scientific learning theory. She is an honors graduate of the rigorous and prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA, a graduate of the Purdue University Dogs and Cats course, and a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy. She completed an internship at the Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic with Dr. Nicolas Dodman and Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil and is a certified professional dog trainer through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, a certified dog behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and the resident trainer for veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung.
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Published February 12, 2024