Basic canine learning methods can be broken down into four distinct categories. While some have similarities and others great differences, they are all of great value and offer insight into how your dog thinks. Quite a few of these psychological theories are recent developments, many of which came about in the mid-20th century. To learn more about the fascinating history behind these theories, BestBullySticks suggests you check out last week’s post — A History of Dog Training.
Classical Conditioning: Just like the training methods of yesteryear, classical conditioning plays upon the same ideas used by Pavlov and Bailey. In its most basic form, this method of learning is based around the idea that a stimulus received over time will eventually become associated with another yet totally unrelated response.
For instance, a dog may be afraid of rain because of an association with thunderstorms. The same logic applies for when you get your dog riled up by looking their way and asking, “Walk?”
Over time, these associations can wear out if the motivating reward — such as a real walk! — is removed. Classical conditioning might also help build new associations as demonstrated by Bailey’s clicker method as well as overcome negative associations helping animals cope with new people and situations.
Operant Conditioning: Originally developed by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, this behavioral function was re-geared for dogs by Konrad Most. In it’s most basic form, operant conditioning is a progressive modification of behavior by way of a recurring effect produced by said behavior. This method is separated into four distinct conditions:
Positive Reinforcement – The addition of something “good”
Negative Reinforcement – The removal of something “bad”
Positive Punishment – The addition of something “bad”
Negative Punishment – The removal of something “good”
This is different from classical conditioning as operant conditioning chooses to reinforce — positively or negatively — based on voluntary behaviors. For example, if you were to start ring a bell before feeding your dog, your dog will eventually come running whenever the bell rings. By playing on natural and internal responses instead of artificial external stimuli, this method is according to Skinner, “shaped and maintained by its consequences for the individual.”
Social Learning: Simply described as observational learning, social learning is any form of learning that does not require reinforcement. Dogs are social creatures and take notice of the actions taken by human and other dogs. Social learning usually follows the same four-step process — observation, retention, motivation and production. Ever wonder how your dog learned to open the cabinet where the food is stored? Chances are he/she took notes!
Non-Associative Learning: This one’s a bit stranger. If you’re teaching your dog how to sit and he/she doesn’t respond to you repeating “sit” time and time again, and there is no response for inaction, your dog will simply learn to ignore the command.
Conventionally, this type of learning is described as a change in response to a stimulus unrelated to that stimulus and with another stimulus or event such as reinforcement or punishment. Did we lose you there? It’s okay, took us a while too! This non-associative learning, or habituation, is a form of sensitization. For instance, consistent exposure to a feared object or situation along with a reward will gradually desensitize the fearful response.
Now that we’ve learned a bit about the different ways dogs learn, and how these theories came to be, take some time with your dog and become familiar with how these learning systems work. On our next installment, we’ll build on this information and begin discussing specific training methods.