Shaping Temperament: How Dogs Learn

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© By Linda J. Brodzik, Dog Trainer & Behavior SpecialistThe next area that we are going to look at in our discussion of temperament is how dogs learn. Surprising to many, there is a science to behavior and learning. Just as there are natural, unchanging, unbreakable “laws” that govern our physical world (i.e. physics), there are also natural, unchanging, unbreakable “laws” that govern how we – and other animals – learn. Those who are empowered with the knowledge of these laws and the ability to apply them within their training programs are not only capable of quickly and accurately altering behaviors, but also shaping attitude!

Dogs are constantly learning, thereby changing their behaviors in accordance with the consequences of those experiences. Puppies are capable of learning simple associations as early as 2 ½ weeks old. This process of learning continues throughout their lives. Every moment, every action, reaction, interaction – in short, every experience – has a cumulative effect on an individual dog’s current and future emotional, mental and behavioral being.

Learning can be defined as a change in behavior due to the consequences of experience. Edward L. Thorndike, an American researcher, explained this in his “Law of Effects” as any behavior that is followed by a pleasing or gainful response will likely be repeated in the future. Any behavior followed by a neutral or aversive response will likely not be repeated. In other words, any continued behavior must have a gain for the individual or it would not be repeatedly displayed. No animal (including humans) wastes energy on behaviors that do not benefit it in some way. This does not mean that it has to be a metaphorical million-dollar payoff, but the behavior must aid the individual in some way, or else it would not be present. That is the law. Dogs, like humans, move towards the greatest “paycheck” they perceive located at the shortest route they perceive.

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We Belong to These Associations