Do All Dogs Learn Differently?

All animals learn the same way. And by extension, all dogs learn the same way. There, I’ve said it.

Sure, some dogs learn more quickly than others but the only “customizing” a dog trainer should be doing is figuring out what behaviors the dog’s owners want. From a dog’s perspective, the learning is all the same.

The question we must ask is this: is the dog behaving in a certain because he is upset or is the dog simply lacking some manners? The answer to this question will guide us in the right direction. If a dog is upset about the mailman leaving scary items in the mailbox, we must change his association of the mailman. If a dog doesn’t know how to sit instead of jump when greeting someone, we must manipulate consequences to teach him this behavior.

Dogs learn one of two ways: by association and by the immediate consequences of their behavior.

Remember Pavlov? He taught dogs to associate food with the sound of a bell. He accomplished this by ringing a bell before feeding the dogs over and over, until the dogs salivated when they heard the bell ring. This happened because the dogs started to associate the bell ringing with food, and look forward to the sound. This is the same as when your doorbell rings­—your dog knows that doorbells equal visitors and that is either really exciting or very stressful for your dog. When we are trying to change your dog’s emotional response to a situation, we change his associations.

We can also train by changing the consequences of a dog’s behavior. When I teach dogs, I use food reinforcements. Why? Because all dogs are food motivated (they need to eat, after all). So, when teaching a dog to stay on a mat while I prepare dinner, I reinforce the behavior I am looking for at the current place of my training plan. If I continuously reinforce a desired behavior, the dog will continue to perform that behavior. If the dog doesn’t follow through with his end of the bargain, I am going to withhold the reinforcement. He will remember the lack of chicken, which will get him thinking about what he can do to change the outcome. It really is as simple as that.

By the way, this is why prong, shock and choke collars work so well. The dog gets punished (tightening of the collar or shocking sensation, which does hurt or cause discomfort no matter what anyone tells you) for pulling on his leash. The dog learns that pulling results in pain and discomfort, so he walks slower. ***I am in no way promoting the use of these collars, just illustrating how animals learn***

Flash back to my first sentence here: All animals learn the same way. When I say “all animals” what I’m really saying is that learning is not breed-specific OR species-specific. Take a look at the videos at the end of this blog for proof. These people are training cats, stingrays, cheetahs and orangutans the same exact way as I train dogs. If learning is the same across species – heck, across mammals, birds and fish - then why do some dog trainers claim that all dogs learn differently? Is it because they were once taught this? Do they really mean they weren’t successful with the methods I am referring to? I don’t know. All I know is that you should run fast and far away from someone who makes this claim.

When looking for a dog trainer, ask how they train- they should be able to tell you exactly what will happen if the dog gets it right and what will happen when the dog gets it wrong. If the trainer cannot give you a straight answer or if the answer is really complicated, it is time to move on to someone else. The fate of your dog is oftentimes in the hand of your trainer so I recommend choosing one who truly understands the science behind animal learning.

Let Dogs be Dogs!

I can’t help but wonder why we set expectations so high for our dogs. They’re not allowed bark, bite, growl, jump, chew on certain objects – the list goes on. The focus of many people has been to eliminate these undesired behaviors. I have two problems with this.

First off, we are talking about dogs here. Dogs chew on things. They jump on us when we arrive home because they want to greet us. It’s what they do. If we don’t like the behaviors that come with a dog, then why do we love dogs so much? Sure, some behaviors need to be modified for the safety of other dogs and people but I can’t imagine demanding my dogs go their whole lives without barking once.

 Dogs like to be comfortable, too.

Dogs like to be comfortable, too.

Secondly, this approach is so negative! It really bums me out when I focus on all the things I don’t want my own dogs to be doing. I don’t know about you but I get excited when I think about new behaviors to teach my dogs- even simple manners and impulse control. Changing our viewpoints can positively impact our own state of mind when it comes to training our dogs. Don’t want your dog barking at the mailman? Teach him to lay on his mat in the mudroom when the mailman comes. Is your yard torn up from a dog who loves to dig? Build him a sandbox to dig in. It really isn’t fair to constantly say “no” if we haven’t taught our dogs what the correct behavior is.

 Auggie, here, is demonstrating his impulse control while I lay pieces of roast beef on the floor.

Auggie, here, is demonstrating his impulse control while I lay pieces of roast beef on the floor.

My dogs are not what's considered to be “perfect.” They bark at people who walk by our house, jump with excitement when we come home, argue with each other - but they’re dogs. I don’t have kids or many house guests so it doesn’t bother me when they jump. There are several dogs in our neighborhood so barking is commonly heard whether from my house or another house. Sure, my boys know some great behaviors but as long as they are happy and healthy, I don’t expect them to be angels. Now, things may be different if they were eating household objects or aggressive to people- but they’re not. Does this mean dogs don’t need training? Far from it. But instead of saying “no,” teach them what you would like them to do instead.

No matter the age, every dog can benefit from learning some great life skills. Not only will it allow them to be a dog but it will give us some relief from those behaviors we don’t want them to be doing. We all want our dogs to behave in a certain way so my challenge to you is to list the behaviors you would like to eliminate and come up with alternative behaviors you can teach them. Then, begin training! You and your dog may even have some fun learning these new behaviors. 

 Dogs will be dogs. 

Dogs will be dogs.