How do Dogs Learn? Inside The Mind of Dog

In this article I would like to delve into the principles behind dog training, and how do Dogs Learn things; so these can be applied in a practical sense to train a dog in the quickest, easiest, and most effective manner.

The harder the dog is to handle the more important it is to follow these principles, and the greater the consequences are for breaking them.

Simply put, a dog does something for one of three reasons:

  • to gain something it wants
  • to avoid something it doesn’t want, or
  • out of habit.




How to Get Your Desired Behaviour

puppy dog

The most effective training utilizes all three factors and creates an obvious distinction between the first two points. If you desire to change a dog’s habit you must work in these three areas.

You do this either by making something else more desirable so that the dog wants to do that more than the bad habit, or by making the bad habit less desirable, and/or by creating an incompatible habit to take the other habit’s place.

So to teach a dog to “go back” and stay on the other side of the mob, you make it undesirable for the dog to be on your side by growling at it and chasing it every time it comes around your side.

Once it is around the far side you leave it alone and it gets to work the sheep, so it likes that. And then you repeat this process until it becomes a habit.

understand the dog’s motivations

understand the dog’s motivations

What you must realize is that there are many factors that come into play, and that influence these three areas. It is the handler’s art to be able to read and understand and use these to their advantage – you have to be able to understand the dog’s motivations.

In a controlled situation, such as when teaching a dog to sit, it is fairly simple, but out in the real world of stockwork, the dog’s motivations become much more complex, with many more variables.

The simple rule is to make what we want to benefit the dog and to make what we do not want to disadvantage the dog. When teaching something, the clearer we can make the distinction between what we want, and what we do not want, the quicker the dog will learn. And aside from these things, we must also utilize habit strongly, by repetition, to fix the desired response.

Dogs learn by Associations

the wait command

Dogs, and animals in general, and people create associations in their minds all the time. For example, in people, certain sounds or smells can bring memories to mind years after the actual event took place. The sound of a brass band may evoke memories of country shows, and so on.

Another important example is in the recognition of faces. Often if we have only met someone in a certain setting, and later see them in an unrelated setting, we recognize their face but we can’t think who they are.

This is a case of our mind having associated their face with the environment in which we saw them, and we have trouble placing them in a different environment.

Dogs are no exception, and they create associations all the time to all manner of things. To achieve good results the handler must be aware of this because all learning is about creating associations.




The vocal command

How do Dogs Learn

For example, when teaching “sit down” you may think that you are teaching the vocal command, but the dog will also associate the tone of your voice, your raised hand, your position standing close by, the lead rope, and the location.

And, in fact, some of these other factors will assume much more importance in the dog’s mind than the vocal command, in particular, the lead, your position standing over the dog, and your raised hand. You will have made a start in teaching the vocal command, but that is all.

So if you then try to get the dog to “sit down” using a different tone of voice, or without being close by, or in a different location, and so on, it has no idea what you are talking about, just as when you don’t recognize a familiar face in a different setting.

funny puppy

Over time the dog gradually sorts out these factors, and narrows them down to those that occur at all times, and disregards those that don’t.

For example, as you give it lessons in different places it will start to disregard location as one of the cues. And as you use various tones of voice it will start to disregard tone as a cue, and learn to obey the words more or less regardless of the way they are spoken.

This is why it is important, particularly in gaining control at a distance, to make sure that the dog understands and obeys the vocal or whistled command on its own, without any influence from your proximity or body language or arm signals or anything else.

Correction and Punishment

how do dog learn dog training
How do Dogs Learn

The dog will also learn to associate a growled command with correction, and a friendly voice with praise. This is not something that they know instinctively, although the bitch can teach pups to respect a growl when they are young, you can see from watching pups that they don’t know this instinctively. They learn to associate their mother’s growl with being bitten, often fairly hard.

An interesting aside (for those who don’t believe in punishment or correction) is that animals don’t make much use of positive reinforcement to train their young. They use correction and punishment. The reward comes from being left alone.




Correction and punishment are important factors in how animals learn in the real world, in their natural environment, as is the reward. Some people claim that “positive reinforcement” methods are “natural“, and that correction or punishment is not, but you can make up your own mind about that.

The good handler makes use of all three (reward, correction, and punishment), but the less punishment the better.

For more training tips and How do dogs Learn things? check out this article: Puppy Training Tips