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How Dogs Learn - Pt 1

Have you ever wondered why your dog jumps up when someone comes in the house despite being constantly told off and pushed away? This is an extremely common problem with dogs that many owners struggle to get to grasps with, but to understand why dogs continue to do this and many other things, we need to first look at how they learn.

Dogs learn when they receive attention or reward for an action or behaviour, so for the above example, that hand pushing the dog down and talking to the dog is exactly the attention and interaction the dog wanted, therefore the dog will continue to do this.

But how can we use this to our advantage? Well, using the example of a dog jumping up, instead of talking to the dog and using our hands to push the dog away, we can turn our backs and show the dog that we will not be interacting with him until he sits, or at least has all 4 paws on the ground, as soon as he does, we can praise him, give him a lot of attention and treats, or click if he is clicker trained, if those paws come of the ground again, we stand back up and put our back to the dog.

This behaviour is not a behaviour that can be changed overnight, especially if this has become a habit for the dog, however if you are consistent with this, and time your interaction correctly, then the dog will eventually learn.

Dogs (like a lot of us) have short attention spans, if you are training on a specific thing such as sit or down for an extended period of time, the dog will get bored and distracted. Try training your dog in short bursts, maybe 5 minutes at a time or 5 minutes per exercise, end that exercise on a good note with them getting the behaviour correct or as close to it as they can, then move on to the next one, or let them have some play time before going back to the same exercise.

(For the example of jumping up at someone that comes through the door, if you have a big dog, you may wish to put the dog on a lead to prevent him touching the person when he jumps up to avoid injury or scaring the person.)

There is, however, and issue with dogs learning by association, and that is that any association can cause fear or anxiety for the dog. An example of this would be that a dog suddenly becomes scared of getting in the car, it could be that when the car door shuts it is hitting the dog or the wind has blown the door shut and gave the dog a fright. Usually, we can spot fearful behaviours or anxiety by the dogs body language. The dog could possible start licking his lips, couching his body, may drool or in extreme cases vomit. If anxiety is reinforced, it will work exactly the same as reinforcing good behaviours, these can take a long time to then slowly introduce them as pleasant experiences again.

As this is the way our dogs learn, we should try our best to train them little and often to secure their new behaviours that we want them to repeat. The only way that they will continue with these behaviours is if our training is consistent. Learning what motivates the dog will make our training much more successful and will make the dog have the most benefit. Rewards could be food, toys and some dogs love nothing more than attention and praise both verbally and physically.

It is also worth noting that because you have trained a dog to sit in one room within your house, does not then mean that the dog will sit while on a walk outside. Each area presents new surroundings and distractions, so vary where you are training your dog and do each training exercise in each area where it will be needed.

My final point on this (for now), is that dogs learn by copying other dogs. If a dog sees one dog within your household performing a certain action, such as jumping up at people, and that dog then gets attention for it, the other dog will minic this.

#HowDogsLearn #PositiveReinforcement #RewardingActions #JumpingUp #Fear #Anxiety

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