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Dog Learning Theory

Posted: 7/1/2011 | Updated: 7/1/2011

Dog Learning Theory

Dogs learn by association. They learn to associate one event to another event based on the timing between the two events. This is how dog training can be so effective. If you remember Pavlov’s study of dogs back in the 1920s, he would ring a bell and present the dogs with food. After several repetitions the dogs would begin salivating based on just the ringing of the bell because they had associated the bell ring to the coming of the food.

This type of learning is referred to as Classical Conditioning and it happens with our dogs every day. One of the best (or worst) examples depending on how your dog reacts is the doorbell. The doorbell rings and your dog anticipates visitors and does whatever they have been trained (or not trained) to do. Your dog’s response to the doorbell has been classically conditioned by them associating the ringing of the doorbell to people being outside the door.

Dogs also learn through Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning is similar to Classical Conditioning except that Operant Conditioning deals with voluntary behaviors where as Classical Conditioning deals with behaviors that are reflexive in nature. There are four types or quadrants of Operant Conditioning. These are based on the following ideas:

  • Reinforcement – makes the behavior increase
  • Punishment – makes the behavior decrease
  • Positive – something is added
  • Negative – something is taken away

Positive Reinforcement

This is probably the most commonly known of the four. Positive Reinforcement means the adding (positive) of something that the dog likes (reinforcement). Positive Reinforcement works by increasing the likelihood that the dog will do the specific behavior again. Example: The dog sits. The dog gets a treat. The dog will probably try sitting again to see if it gets a reward.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement refers to the removal (negative) of something that the dog dislikes (reinforcement). The removal of the aversive stimulus reinforces the dog so they are more likely to do that again in the future. Example: Teaching a dog to sit by pulling upward on the leash until the dog sits. The leash is loose when the dog sits. As a result, the dog will sit to avoid-escape the leash tension.

Positive Punishment

Positive Punishment refers to the addition (positive) of something that the dog does not like (punishment). The addition of something aversive will decrease the likelihood that the dog will offer that behavior in the future. Example: The dog barks, he receives a shock from the collar. As a result, the dog is less likely to bark again.

Negative Punishment

Negative Punishment refers to the removal (negative) of something that the dog likes (punishment). By removing something the dog likes you are decreasing the likelihood that the dog will offer that behavior again in the future. Example: The dog jumps on you; you turn your back and remove your attention. As a result, the dog gains your attention by not jumping.

** Please note we do not condone any of the examples of Negative Reinforcement or Positive Punishment listed above.


Counter-Conditioning is based on the learning theories above. Counter-Conditioning is really just Classical Conditioning except that the dog has already built an association between two events and we are trying to change (counter) that association.

In the above example about the doorbell you could use counter conditioning to change your dog’s response to the doorbell being rung. For example you can teach the dog to go to their crate, find a toy, go lie down in their bed or any other behavior you want to teach them when the doorbell rings. Counter-Conditioning is simply teaching a new response to a specific stimulus. That being said Counter-Conditioning is not a simple process because you are breaking an engrained habit in the dog’s mind and we all know how hard it can be to change our own bad habits.


Desensitization works by reducing the strength of the dog’s response to a specific stimulus. Again using the doorbell example you could have someone ring the doorbell and then walk away and never come in. By the doorbell ringing and no one being at the door your dog’s response will gradually lessen because the doorbell is no longer a solid predictor of someone being at the door. Again since we are working to change an existing pattern of response the process will take some time.

Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization are often combined in a training regimen. For example if your dog reacts to the sight of other dogs, you would use both to change their response when they see another dog. The process is started by exposing your dog to other dogs a distance great enough that they do not react (Desensitization). While they are looking at the other dog calmly you are feeding them tasty treats and praising them (Counter-Conditioning). The combination of these two techniques, with patience, consistency and time will help your dog learn to accept the sight of other dogs, at least at a distance.

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