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Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers!) for Pet Parents: Part One – Animal Learning Theory

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I’ve often said that understanding the basics of animal learning theory can help pet parents learn more about their own dogs. The science of animal behavior can help answer questions as to why dogs do what they do- and this knowledge can help you problem solve. You can figure out not only how to get more of the behaviors you want- or less of what you don’t want- but also better understand what your dog wants and needs too! So, let’s take a closer look at some frequently asked questions about how dogs (and other animals) learn. 

Golden retriever puppy

Q. What does it mean to use positive reinforcement in dog training?

A. Behavior experts have discovered that companion dogs learn from the consequences of their actions — from their own behavior. They “operate” on their environment, controlling reinforcers and punishers, learning how to get more of what they want or less of something they want to avoid. 

An example of using positive reinforcement in dog training is when dogs learn to sit to get something they want — praise, petting, treats, the toss of a ball, access to something (such as a door being opened). As you can see, reinforcers are more than just food. They include anything your dog wants: attention, toys, access to someone or to an activity. 

The fact that dogs need to eat to survive allows trainers and pet parents to use food as a motivator for teaching or as enrichment. However, fading out food rewards to help prevent dependency is important. The usual steps for training involve using higher rates of reinforcement with treats during the beginning stages of training and fading out food rewards over time once your dog is proficient in the skill. But keep in mind that even for those highly skilled, experienced dogs, you’ll still want to reinforce with food on occasion, to help keep up the motivation. 

Q. Is it necessary to use corrections to train dogs successfully?

A. When we talk about what is necessary for training dogs, the more contemporary focus is on using methods that reward behaviors that are wanted and more desirable. We can reinforce an animal for these behaviors using motivators that encourage the desire to want to learn and to participate in training games. 

For training using other methods, that usually means something aversive, or fear-causing, is involved. 

Black shepherd mix lying down in bed

Q. Do aversive training methods work to change behavior?

A. Choke chains, shock collars (aka training collars), squirt bottles (some dogs like to play with these though), loud shaker cans (pennies or rocks), alpha rolling, pinching, kicking, Citronella® collars etc., fall into this category. Sure, they can work sometimes to increase or decrease (suppress) a behavior. But they are definitely not necessary for training and the side-effects and fallout can harm your dog and your relationship. There is plenty of research that explains the reasons why using aversives in training can lead to unwanted health and behavioral outcomes, including high cortisol levels, stress, fear, and aggression. 

In fact, the way to help prevent aggression in dogs is to be kind, caring, and ethical. In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” After all, we know, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Violence begets violence.” 

Q. What does the term “balanced” mean in dog training?

A: The term “balanced” can be misleading. If dog handlers are intentionally using both positive reinforcement mixed with aversive techniques that could harm or scare a dog, then it might well lead to an outlook of confusion and distrust. From the dog’s point of view: When will they be praised and spoken to with a loving voice? When will they feel pain and be fearful of offering up any behavior? 

Life is messy and filled with aversives, whether we have control or not. Humans get headaches, stub our toes, undergo medical procedures, and experience “accidents.” Dogs too. They eat something they shouldn’t have and throw up (usually on our carpet), get a burr in their paw while exploring, or hear a startling noise that scares them. These situations are examples of living life. 

Q. Every dog is an individual; so how can force-free training work for every dog?

A. Yes, it’s important to treat each dog as an individual. When it comes to training, we need to understand that each dog learns at a different pace and has different likes and dislikes. What motivates one dog might not motivate another. Additionally, each dog has their own lifestyle and a homelife with different variables too. One dog might live in the city whereas the other in the countryside, and so on.

Yet, a humane approach can work with any dog! You just need to find out what motivates your dog to want to participate in learning with you. 

Terrier mix standing

Q. Does force-free training work for any other animals?

A. Humane training has been around for decades and used with a variety of non-human animals, not just dogs. Lions, tigers, bears (oh my!), dolphins, whales and many other animals found in zoos and marine mammal parks; big or small, winged, feathered, or furry… positive reinforcement works to teach animals behaviors that us humans want, and the science proves it (see Resources below).

PS: Positive reinforcement works with humans too! 

To sum up this exploration of animal learning theory, humane, reward-based trainers aren’t making up these techniques. We understand how animals learn and rely on the research that helps everyone reach their goals in a productive and enjoyable way — for everyone, both dogs and humans.

Part Two will cover: Important Questions (and Answers!) for Pet Parents about Regulations in the Pet Care Industry.

Thank you for being an inquisitive dog guardian!


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