How do dogs learn?

Posted 12 Nov 2021

Animals, just like people, learn by association. An example you may notice is when your dog comes running after you open the pantry door. Your dog has learnt that the sound of the door opening means food is on the way! You may also notice that your dog runs to the front door when you pick up their lead.

You can use these positive connections to teach your dog to associate an enjoyable reward with a task they may otherwise dislike. For example if your dog loves chicken but does not like being brushed, you can give your dog a piece of chicken every time the brush comes out.

Soon they’ll associate the brush with chicken and over time your dog will start to view being groomed as a good experience, rather than a negative one.

Negative associations can form in the same way. For example your dog could learn to associate the vet clinic with a bad experience after a vaccination. For this reason many vet clinics encourage their clients to stop by every now and again for nothing more than treats and a fuss.

Following a bad or scary experience it can take time for your dog to feel comfortable again. If your dog has a bad experience with another dog for example, the way they feel about dogs might change. You may find that your dog starts to bark whenever they’re near other dogs or becomes too overwhelmed to eat their favourite treat.

It’s important to take it slowly; start to offer treats as soon as you see the other dog approaching in the distance, while your dog is still relaxed and comfortable.

Over time you’ll be able to reduce the distance between the dogs without your dog feeling stressed or reacting.

RSPCA School for Dogs offers one-on-one training sessions to help pets and their families live happily together.

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