Two Ways a Dog Learns Training With Consequences and Associations

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Two Ways a Dog Learns Training With Consequences and Associations

by Aidan Bindoff

If we expect our dogs to understand us, surely, we must first attempt to understand our dogs!

Dogs learn by the consequences of their actions. "If I drop that ball at his feet, he will often throw it for me" or "Last time I stole a sausage from the barbecue, I burnt my tongue. Better not do that again."

Dogs also have emotions. "Those fireworks scare me!" or "Someone is at the door, YIPEEE!!!"

Both of those concepts, learning by consequences and the experience of emotion, are something we can relate to. We might learn as children that eating all our vegetables gets us dessert, leaving them on the plate means missing out! We might associate a certain song with a special time in our lives, bringing back good feelings.

Learning by consequences

Learning by the consequences of our actions is called "Operant Conditioning". When something has a rewarding consequence, we learn to repeat it. When something doesn't have any rewarding consequences, we tend not to repeat it. When something has a punishing consequence, we learn to avoid the situation, possibly altogether.

Learning by association

This is called "Classical Conditioning" or "Pavlovian Conditioning" after Ivan Pavlov who discovered that when a stimulus (such as a ringing bell) is paired with an event (such as food being given), an association is made. For a dog, the ringing bell would have a pleasant association, the dog has learned that food will follow. Here we are getting into the realms of emotion!

Things that you associate with good things will also tend to give you good feelings. Things that you associate with bad things will tend to give you bad feelings.

Operant and Classical conditioning describe different mechanisms for learning, but the two go hand in hand.

How Strong Emotions Affect Learning

It has been observed that when an animal - dog, human or otherwise, is affected by strong emotions, rational learning can be affected. Imagine the ridiculous and terrifying scenario of trying to learn how to program your VCR while a crazed murderer is smashing your door down with an axe. You just want to get out of there, you don't care if you miss the final episode of 'Inspector Rex'! (Ok, you still care...)

Imagine teaching a class full of excited kids their 'multiplication tables' while they are running around playing with each other, laughing and joking. Hopeless, no good teacher would try to do that without settling them down first, even if it meant doing something different first.

It is the same with dogs. There is no point trying to get rational learning from a frightened, anxious, or just plain over-the-top excitable dog without addressing the underlying issues first.

Emotional issues must be addressed before most consequences even matter.

There is a very good reason for this, and it has to do with the way the brain works. To ensure survival, both human and dog brains have a simple rule - "do what you have to do to survive". When a dog perceives a threat, the part of the brain responsible for survival takes precedence over the part of the brain responsible for rational learning.

As an example, imagine you have a dog who is aggressing towards another dog. Using the consequence of punishment (collar correction, verbal etc) will have very little effect in actually punishing (reducing) the behaviour. It may, however, contribute to the cause of that dog's aggression by reinforcing his unpleasant association with other dogs!

Let's use the same example but this time we 'reward' the dog with food when he shows aggression towards another dog. The act of aggression is unlikely to be reinforced in this case, because that part of the brain is taking a back-seat. The 'learning by association' part of the brain, however, is getting a dose of something pleasant in the presence of the other dog. It is starting to make a 'good' association with the other dog, instead of a 'fearful' association.

It is hard to guess how much "Classical Conditioning" and how much "Operant Conditioning" is taking place until after the event.

It all seems rather paradoxical at first, but hopefully I have explained it well enough that it makes sense! Of course, in the above example it would be far better to give the dog food before he aggresses and try and stay far enough away to avoid a rehearsal of aggression altogether. Then you can reward the dog for non-aggressive behaviour too. You get the benefit of reinforcing good behaviour, and making a positive association all at once - what a great deal!

What happens next?

At some point, if we have been successful, the dog will be in a more suitable frame of mind for rational learning. The dog who is nervous around other dogs will not be so nervous any more, and will be able to complete a short 'sit-stay' in the obedience class. Eventually he will be able to complete a long 'drop-stay' with handler out of sight. The dog who 'doesn't like men' will be able to accept a brief and heavily rewarded 'stand for exam' from a man, and eventually, the full examination from teeth to tail!

(C) Aidan Bindoff 2004

Aidan Bindoff is Editor of, a free ezine for people training their own dogs. Each edition has easy to use training advice based on positive reinforcement methods. Subscribers have access to a large archive of back-issues they can consult for just about any behavior or behavior problem.

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