How dogs learn – and how they cannot learn

How dogs learn – and how they cannot learn

Link learning

Dogs learn by linking events that occur almost simultaneously (within a second!). They link all sensory impressions in the situation with: what they hear, see, feel, smell … and also how they feel at that moment. It is therefore important that they can experience a positive learning atmosphere and generalize what they have learned, i.e. that they can filter out that, for example, a visual or audible signal always remains the same (and is therefore relevant) and all other impressions change again and again. This means that it takes a few thousand (!) Repetitions at different locations with different degrees of distraction until what you have learned fits well.

Worthwhile and not worthwhile behaviors

Dogs also learn through linkage that a certain reaction of their human follows a shown behavior. Either there is a pleasant reaction (reward) to a desired behavior or an unpleasant reaction to an undesirable behavior (punishment). No reaction on our part can cause the dog to classify the behavior shown as not worthwhile and not to show it in the future. So we can influence whether the dog classifies behavior as promising or unsuccessful. As mentioned above, we have less than a second to react so that our dog can relate the reaction to its behavior.
Dogs live in a world free of values ​​and morals. The dog must therefore be given the chance to learn which behaviors are desired by us and which are not. Too often we assume that our dog knows exactly that behavior is undesirable. We forget that the dog also has to generalize such learning sequences as described above.

Alternative behavior instead of constant punishment

Dogs have motivations that do not always coincide with ours. We should redirect the dog’s motivation towards worthwhile behavior instead of constantly punishing him for behaviors that are desirable for dogs but that bother us. On the one hand, the dog’s motivation remains (he wants to go to the other dog, hunt a deer, eat something off the ground, …), on the other hand, stopping and being calm alone in the excitement is often no alternative. Better, the dog was allowed to learn a worthwhile behavior (seat, eye contact, go into its place, …) that it can show at this moment. Experience shows that this alternative behavior is rewarded and cannot be shown at the same time as the unwanted behavior (pulling the leash, barking at visitors, …).

Punishment – stress – learning blockade

Punishment always causes stress. The emotions associated with learning are stored in the memory and influence future learning. Strong stress even makes learning completely impossible. After a punishment from the stress, the dog is hormonally in an increased activity level, which lowers the stimulus threshold and allows the dog to react more quickly to all stimuli. He is more nervous and may show even more undesirable behavior: a real vicious cycle. In addition, education with punishments permanently disrupts trust and ties to the dog owner. For fear of punishment, the dog prefers to learn nothing more to avoid the punishment (avoidance behavior). Our relationship with the dog is characterized by stress, pain and fear instead of joy and trust. Just because dealing in human society is characterized by prohibitions, penalties and laws does not mean that this is generally the right way to deal with it. And because something seems to be working, it still doesn’t legitimize the method, especially when there are other, nicer methods.

Punishment – general conditions

In order for punishment to be applied correctly in terms of learning biology, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The punishment must be so strong that the behavior is interrupted on the spot, but not so much that the dog collapses.
  2. The punishment must be immediate (within a second) that it is linked to the unwanted behavior.
  3. The punishment must be linked to the unwanted behavior (not to the owner, the other dog or any other stimulus present).
  4. The undesirable behavior must be punished every time.

It is virtually impossible to always correctly follow even one of the points mentioned above!

Leash pulling example

The leash pulling has its pitfalls. Used as a punishment for pulling the leash, it causes the dog to stop tugging for a short time (at least apparently quicker than if one teaches the dog correctly in terms of learning biology that beautiful leash walking is worthwhile). However, Leash pulling has the following side effects, especially if (as in most cases) it is not used correctly (see above, conditions for punishment):

  • Pain: blood vessels to the brain, trachea, larynx, thyroid and intervertebral discs can be injured or impaired.
  • Fear: great risk of connection with the owner, other dogs, …
  • Shortness of breath: attempt to escape the punishment (and thus pull even more)
  • Fear is reinforced by punishment (even stronger linen aggression)
  • Torture: man satisfies his sadistic streak
  • Helplessness learned: rather do nothing more than something that will be punished anyway
  • Stress: increased stress level lowers reaction threshold for aggression (in humans and dogs)
  • Stress: causes an increased arousal and blocks learning
  • Wrong moment: shortly before the line is pulled, the line is left loose for a short time (desired behavior!) To get momentum for the jerk.

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