How Do Dogs Learn?
Dogs learn by associating an action with a consequence. If the consequence is pleasurable (reward), the dog will tend to repeat the behavior. If the consequence is unpleasant (penalize), he will tend not to repeat the behavior.

In training you show your dog the action you wish and help him to perform it by luring him with food or a toy or by collar pressures. When your dog performs the action, you immediately provide a pleasant consequence or reward. A reward can be a special praise word and giving him a small treat. This is called "positive reinforcement," and will cause your dog, after several repetitions, to repeat the desired action.

If you give your dog a command word at the same time that he performs the behavior, he will learn to associate the behavior with the command. For example, in order to teach your dog to sit, say the command "SIT" as you help him to do it.

You can help your dog by:

  • luring his head up with food or a toy held in your hand, which will cause his rear to sink into a sit
  • using collar pressure coupled with the pressure of your hand on his rear

The instant your dog sits, say the special praise word and offer a tiny treat. After many repetitions of this your dog will make the association between the command word SIT and the act of sitting. He will learn to obey the command by being positively reinforced by your praise word and a treat.

Using A Special Word to Speed Learning

You can speed up your dog's learning a lot by using a very special praise word reserved for the purpose of telling him that the action he is performing is correct and that he will be reinforced for it. You can also use a "clicker" instead of a special word. We suggest using a single word such as "great" or "yes" or "wow" that is different from general praise words like "good boy."

You dog will first need to learn that this special sound, called a "conditioned reinforcer" means something. Teach this at home by saying the word (or clicking the clicker) and immediately giving the dog a treat. The order is critical. First the word or the click. Second the treat. Your dog shouldn't be doing anything special, just say the word and toss the treat. After several repetitions of this you will see your dog startle and look at you when you say the word. That means that he has learned that it means "a goodie is coming." Now you can use your conditioned reinforcer to clearly tell him he has performed an action correctly and will be reinforced for it, with food, a toy, praise, play, or all three.

For the treat, we suggest tiny pieces of hot dog, cheese, soft-moist cat food, lunch meat or treats available at your local pet store. Buy a cheap belt pack to carry the food in when you are training and at class. Once your dog has learned commands, you will not need to carry food, and can reinforce with praise, petting and play, but using food initially will help him learn faster.

Remember that your conditioned reinforcer must be given the instant the dog obeys your command and while he is still performing the behavior, and not several seconds later. You will need to train him daily in order for commands to become part of his long-term memory. He needs to be quiet and controlled while you are teaching him. He can't learn if he is wildly excited or not paying attention to you. Therefore, begin his training in quiet, familiar places, and add distractions later as he becomes proficient in his commands.

And remember these three things that form the cornerstone of dog training:


It should take a while to teach your dog all this stuff. Don't panic if the dog doesn't seem to be catching on in one week. Training takes time. If you doubt that the dog is making any progress, keep a training diary. This will help you see just how often you are training (once a week won't work) and you will be able to see that you ARE getting somewhere.


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