Some dogs know 200 toys by name, others can identify the smallest traces of a smell. Our dogs have many talents when they are encouraged. It is clearly that creatively promoted dogs can learn a large spectrum of things, because they have an enormous learning ability. But how does this work with dogs? How do our beloved friends learn? And are dogs happier if they are taught many tricks?
Definition of learning
Basically, learning is a process of acquiring new skills. The aim of learning is to optimise the current state of a living being and to adapt it better to its environment. Learning is not only a lot of fun for our dogs, it is also important for their survival. For example a badly socialized dog. If this has a deficit in the conversion of social dog behavior rules, it can come fast to misunderstandings and end for instance in a “conflict”. In nature an injury would be life-threatening, therefore your dog must learn early which behavior is right.
Different types of learning
There are many forms of learning in the literature. One of the best known is so-called conditioning. A distinction is made between classical and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning: This form of learning happens unconsciously and automatically. The experiment of the physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is known here. A dog has learned that the sound of a bell is followed by food. After a few repetitions, the sound of the bell is sufficient for the dog to produce saliva in anticipation of its food. We use this form of learning among other things for clicker training.
Operant/instrumental conditioning:This form of learning is conscious. Behaviour is followed by consequence. If the consequence is pleasant for the dog, he will show the behaviour more often. If the consequence is negative for him, he will show the behavior less or not at all. Positive reinforcement means that a desired behaviour of the dog will be rewarded. Reward can mean a piece of treat, but also a game or what the dog likes. Thus the dog makes the experience that learning is fun. To punish certain behaviour (aversive training methods), i.e. to work with the so-called positive punishment, is neither target-oriented nor species-appropriate and the fun falls by the wayside. Because the dog is permanently afraid to do something wrong and to be punished for it. Fear means stress and under this you can not remember anything. There is also learning through imitation, your dog watches someone else digging and suddenly develops a lot of fun digging up your garden.
Learning has to be learned!
When dogs regularly learn new things, they also have a wider range of interaction with objects and situations. A dog promoted in this area will nudge a (new) object with his nose, touch it with his paw, put it in his mouth or push it around. The more possibilities he practices, the more specific he can be his reactions to the environment and the more connections are made in the brain.
It is difficult to teach a new trick to a dog which has not learned something new in a short time. He will also behave differently when it encounters a (new) object. Possibly he will approach the thing, look at it, nudge it or something similar. But never to the extent that a dog who regularly learns new things would.
Many dogs are also completely overwhelmed by this “do something with it” and react with insecure behaviour. They simply have too little experience in solving “problems” and therefore have no idea how to react.
Dogs learn in connections, the more “paths” the brain forms, the more flexible your darling is. They can also generalize. They mainly learn in pictures and context-related. If an apple falls on the dog’s head and he sees a rabbit running across the field, he may avoid all rabbits in the future.
The right conditions
A stressed and tired dog will have less pleasure in learning new tricks than a relaxed and balanced dog. What else to consider?
- The mood (including yours) should be relaxed and your dog should feel “safe”.
- A dog that is too full will hardly be motivated with treats, a dog that is too hungry will hardly be able to concentrate.
- Playful learning is more fun.
- Motivation. Your dog should always be in training with enthusiasm and positive expectations. Too many distractions (optical or acoustical stimuli) can distract your dog.
- A sick or injured dog should first heal himself.
- It depends on the repetitions. It takes a few hundreds in different situations to safely consolidate a dog’s behaviour.
- And the length of the training session. Better several times a day for a few minutes.
- Timing. About one second you have time to reward, then the dog doesn’t link it anymore with the behaviour you wanted to reward.
- Just like the voluntariness to do things. With coercion you achieves only little.
- Regular breaks.
- Small steps lead to success.
- Rewards in any form are the be-all and end-all.
- Stop when it is most exciting. Always finish a training with a positive experience. Do not end it suddenly, build in a signal for “end”.
- Much patience.
A dog that has been taught very little so far will not become a trick professional within a day. You may not demand from a dog, which otherwise never has to solve any problem or show alternative behaviors, that it learns various tricks at the speed of light. Therefore we have to approach this topic slowly, because also we humans have to get used to many new behaviors, if we want to train successfully with our dogs. For newcomers it means to start small, to be patient with the four-legged friend and yourself. It is best to start with a trainer who supports you. Because especially in the first time mistakes creep in.
Are dogs happier if they learn new things regularly?
As mentioned above, dogs who often learn new things are usually more creative in solving new tasks. But are they also happier? Are dogs more unhappy if they are not offered search games or wooden intelligence toys, or if they are not allowed to learn new tricks regularly? When the everyday dog life consists of a little walk, a little dog zone, cuddling and throwing balls? What is the best for our best friends can never be generalized. Dogs that do not receive any creative support are therefore not automatically unhappy. Some dogs are rather lazy and live a comfortable dog life. Another has energy without end and wants to be challenged. It is important that your darling gets the workload he needs. If behavioural changes show up, it could be that your darling is possibly underchallenged or also overchallenged. However, every dog that lives with us humans should learn a few basics in order not to stand out badly in the community and not to endanger himself and others. This includes among other things the safe recall.
Learning can be enormous fun for our intelligent friends. But it depends on when, where and how. A dog that regularly learns new tricks is usually more experienced and creative in dealing with new tasks, but not automatically happier. The motto is therefore: Each dog is an individual, which must be dealt with individually. Each dog should be supported according to his needs, so that he and you can live a balanced life.