Dogs learn in much the same way as we do, which is basically by experimenting, remembering the results obtained and storing that information. From birth they accumulate facts, places, interactions and actions that they will classify as good, bad or neutral. Naturally, the dog will tend to repeat more behavior associated with pleasant memories and less behavior associated with unpleasant memories.
Also, every time your dog solves a problematic situation, the solution that helped to solve the problem will be added to the dog´s register. We can say that their learning is purely associative. In this way the dog will analyze everything new, process it and catalog it according to what has been learned, in order to decide what to do accordingly.
Their learning capacity is greater at early ages and less as age advances. Being able to become very depleted during old age, even regressing. For this reason, we should propose new challenges and activities to our dog throughout its life, with the only precaution being to adapt these to its abilities therefore avoiding excess frustration, stress or demand.
Unlike us, they do not have the opportunity to learn from the experience of their peers, since they lack the language which can help to transfer and translate their stories. Likewise, they cannot use collective knowledge as there is no way to share experiences. Both conditions limit them so that they can only learn in situ. Losing all the information collected, during a lifetime, from one generation to another.
Most of their memory will be associated with smell, since it is their most developed sense and it is through this that they perceive the world. Their second source of memory will be associated with everything they see, being very important to offer our dog balanced models, both human and animal, that promote the imitation of correct behavior. They will react based on what they have learned from their family, observing how they relate, act and feel with what is around them.
This is why our approval or rejection of the dog´s actions will be incorporated into its mental library. Their behavior triggers emotions and actions of different valencies in us that the dog automatically observes and associates. In this way everything that happens after something else will be matched to its valence, as long as it does not extend beyond more than a few seconds. The dog will be unable to relate a reward or punishment for something it did after a few minutes and will normally associate your reaction, to the closest event, object or any other variable that is occurring at the time, creating associations far removed from our intention.
It is worth noting the importance that the language barrier represents in the interaction, since when they only understand the words that we teach them, they are unable to decipher the meaning of complete sentences. When the meaning of the words we use with them is not explained to the dog, all communication is reduced to their ability to interpret what we want, our tone of voice and non-verbal language. Like all the information they offer us with their gestures, it usually falls on deaf ears due to the trainer´s’ ignorance and is frequently misinterpreted.
In this way, habituation, when exposed frequently and / or prolonged for a situation or stimulus, can generate an aversion or tolerance in the dog, depending on the emotion associated with it. As well as the generalization to something (an object, person or activity) they will be accepted as innocuous and harmless if they appear in different situations and places, forming their routine.
In short, everything they learn is based on direct interaction with their environment. It is for this reason that when teaching our dog to understand what we ask for it is very important to evaluate the environment and what is happening in a certain time and place.
What can we teach a dog?
Strange as it may seem, dogs learn countless things simply by watching us and guessing what we expect of them. There are two things that practically all dogs know: their name, since we normally pronounce it when we look at or interact with them and the word “take” since it precedes a food or toy. Therefore, dogs will be able to learn the meaning of the word to which we have given a meaning, consciously or unconsciously.
This is why we must pay special attention to what we teach our dog and how we do it. It is very common to say to the dog to come, tie him and go home, what do we teach the dog that means come? Clearly the fun is over and we leave, so don’t be surprised when the dog doesn’t want to come.
The time and effort devoted to instructing your dog depends on each trainer. We always recommend that the dog at least be taught the basics for a safe and enjoyable relationship for everyone. We will take care to bring clarity to learning, always using the same words and gestures.
All the dedicated effort will be welcomed by the trainer and the dog, as long as the means as well as the ends are taken into account. The emotional state of the dog is fundamental and we will discuss this in the following publications.