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How Dogs Learn

Author: Greg Raub | Date: April 26, 2013

A new session of classes is starting this week, and once again, I find myself talking a lot about “how dogs learn.” It is a topic we cover in the first week of almost every class we offer.

Like other trainers, I’ve developed my own little standard talk about the three keys to learning:

  • Motivation.  To help our dogs learn more quickly, we use food… because nothing motivates a dog quite like food.
  • Timing.  It’s critical because you only have 1.3 seconds for your dog to make an association between what he just did and the food reinforcement you are giving him.
  • Consistency.  You have to be consistent. Dogs don’t have the ability to understand that it’s okay to jump on some people but not on others.

As important as those things are, I’ve been thinking this week that I’ve been missing another important point about how dog’s (and for that matter, people) learn.

The other thing that always happens during the first week of class is that I hear all of the challenges people are having with their dogs.  In fact, we ask people to tell us about those challenges.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming, and I feel like I need to give them immediate help.  Then I stop and remind myself that just like us, our dogs have to learn in steps.  They need to get the basics first.  There usually are just no quick fixes.

If you think about it, it’s not much different with us.  We didn’t start out in first grade working on a math problem like this: x/7 = 2*y + 3.429.  Instead, those first grade problems were more like 2 + 2 = 4. But it was those simple arithmetic lessons that enabled us to later study geometry, algebra and calculus… not to mention pay our bills, maintain our checking accounts and count our change.

The equivalent of 2 + 2 for dogs is teaching them Touch, Watch Me and the Name Game.

Those are the building blocks, the simple arithmetic lessons that ultimately make it possible to teach our dogs Sit, Down, Stay… and much more.  And I know in my own case, with my own dog, teaching him Touch years ago was the start of everything he has learned.  And I look back on it as one of the best things I ever taught him.  So if you’re facing what seem like overwhelming issues with your dog, remember that the answer may start with some pretty basic building blocks.

Oh, and by the way, my dog also learned a little math when he learned Touch.  I remember the trainer telling us to ask our dogs “What’s one plus one?” and then to wait for two Touches!


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