How Dogs Learn

 In blog

Dogs don’t arrive on this planet knowing any human words, lets alone basic training commands. I am always perplexed by people that bring home an 8 week old puppy then start shouting “sit, sit sit” at it expecting it to sit on command, or worse they start pushing down on it’s hips or yanking  it up by  its collar. Most dogs DO want to do the right thing if they understand what the right thing is. We should always help them get it right, use lavish, meaningful praise until they have guessed at what we want. Then add the verbal command. Dogs understand our body language much better than voice commands. This is why in agility you must be careful to point your feet in the direction you want your dog to travel. They watch all our body language and take their cues much more from the body language and posture than our voice.

For a puppy, I start with a piece of hotdog or cheese in my closed right hand. I lift my hand straight over the pups nose. When the pups nose rises, his weight is shifted back and he sits down as his behind lowers, that my friend is just physics, not dog training. (Although we trainers call it luring)  The important part here is immediate praise, both verbal (I always say “good” as a marker for desired behavior ) and also I turn my hand over immediately and feed a treat off of my palm. Some dogs get it immediately and some dogs take a few goes or even try to figure out different ways of getting the treat, jumping, pawing or even barking. That’s OK, they are just trying to figure it out on their own. Dogs learn better when they figure it out by themselves than us forcing them to do the desired behavior. After that first lured sit, any time the puppy sits even if I don’t tell him to, I verbally praise the pup. Sitting is incompatible with jumping!

The next step is naming the behavior. If we are shouting “sit,sit,sit” and the puppy is chewing a stick or watching a bird then the puppy  will associate that with the command to sit, not the desired action. Don’t name the behavior until you get it. So now when the puppy offers me the sit I will actually say ”sit” just as his behind hits the ground. We are now giving the action a vocabulary word. Depending on how fast your dog learns and your own practice with the pup, you will gradually start to use the hand signal and say “sit” at the same time. Use lots and lots of praise when your pup gets it right.

Once your pup starts to come skidding up to and sits very quickly with that look in their eye that says “look how clever I am” then you start to give the tidbits less often and randomly. When teaching a new behavior or tidying up a known behavior that has gone lax, you use Continuous Reinforcement, meaning a treat every time, when the dog clearly understands and does the command quickly, then you switch to Random Reinforce with the treats, but use plenty of verbal praise. Your dog will work harder to please you. This is the difference between a vending machine and a slot machine!

Now you have it, the secret of how a dog learns. This can be used to teach really anything to your dogs.

Happy training!

Explain in a way they understand

Reward (C)

Reward (Variable) then proof

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