Associative Learning

Studies of canine intelligence are ever present.

Yale cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom believes that we are entering the age of the dog: “for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees.”

When it comes to communicating with dogs, there are many “open windows.” However, the window that is open the widest is opera20161016_085901-01nt conditioning, to which positive reinforcement resides along side of positive punishment. The proof of positive reinforcements efficiency and ability to minimize any sort of wear and tear on the dog-human relationship has long been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet, it often remains outside of the average dog owner’s toolbox for dog training.

Associative learning, which houses operant conditioning and classical conditioning, is how dogs, and all animals, learn. The use of pain and intimidation on dogs can yield training results but not without harming the dog-human relationship. When dog owners choose to mix corrections and rewards when training their dogs, it can create mistrust. The main association that dogs then have with the punishment is the presence of their owners, and potentially other humans. Though we are often well meaning and trying to teach our dog how we want them to behave, we often give them painful associations that are simply not necessary in dog training.

When we start to ask questions more and learn more about what our dogs are communicating to us, when we start to ask why the dog does what he does, we can then begin the journey to becoming better companions to our dogs.

Actions versus Words

Are your words and actions communicating what you really intend to your dog?

We are told to always reward a dog when they come when called, and to never scold them if they failed to come the first few attempts. This is very true. Now, if you don’t have treats with you and your dog comes when called, you might excitedly exclaim, “Good dog! Good dog!” and immediately bend over your dog to pat them on the head and ruffle their ears as we express to them our excitement that they listened. When you do this, what does your dog’s body language tell you? Does the dog flinch? Does she keep low to the ground? Is his body hunched a bit? Do their eyes look away?20161011_110927-01
To your dog, your excited shouts might not be the calm, soft praise they are looking for. And being reached over makes dogs uncomfortable.

People are often convinced their dogs like the rough pats to the head because they have not yet learned how subtle dogs’ expressions are and how different they are from our own. We are guilty of projecting our own understanding onto the blank screen before us. Our primate body language is something a dog tolerates but doesn’t necessarily enjoy. This can all lead to unknowingly discouraging the behaviour we think we are encouraging.

Remember, when we say “Good dog” but our actions are saying “Bad dog,” we need to keep in mind that we already know what they say about which speaks louder than which.

Mind Your Tone

Your tone of voice matters when communicating to your dog.

There are three main voice tones that we can use to clearly communicate what we want from our dogs. If we want the dog to calm down, we should use low, long and slow tones, such as, “Gooood doooog,” spoken in a low, calm and steady voice. This has been shown to help pacify a dog.

The opposite of that are higher pitched, short words that can be used to generate excitement in our dogs. If we want to help motivate our dogs, get them moving or engage them in play, we could excitedly shout about, “Puppy! Puppy!” in high pitched voices to get the dogs interested and excited. 20160912_132241-01

The third tone is one we give off when we are frustrated or angry at our dogs, and our dogs know it. Dogs are sensitive to our emotional state and the moment our frustrations leech into our voices and our body language, dogs will start to response less to us and hesitate more. If you are trying to effectively communicate with your dog, frustration is a sure way to halt all effective communication between you.

If we want to communicate better with our dogs, we need to ensure that we are using the right tone of voice, one that fosters listening and not avoidance.


Are you working “under threshold” with your dog?

If we are trying to teach our dog something, we have to ensure that the dog is far enough away from anything that may cause the dog to be fearful or anxious. A dog that is fearful or anxious has had the access to the processing parts of his brain closed. You could say that the over reactive amygdala (structure in the brain linked to fear) hogs all the brain’s bandwidth!

Effective training starts with keeping your dog “under threshold” by putting distance between you and any major distractions or fear/anxiety triggers. First, you have to be able to recognize the signs of stress in a dog and then insert enough distance between you and the source so your dog is be able to think again.14206218_1057164741063061_597876748515568182_o

Dog owners often demand actions from their dogs when the dogs are not neurologically capable of doing them. We then brand these dogs as “stubborn” for not complying and then punishment them after we failed to understand what they were communicating to us. This is like being slapped every time you failed to answer a trivia question while you were, at the same time, trying to escape a burning building. You cannot accomplish what is being asked of you, and neither can your dog.

“Flooding” is an unsound behaviour-modification practice in which we force a dog to tolerate the very thing she cannot tolerate. To work and communicate effectively with your dog during training, learn the signs of stress of dogs and always work under threshold.