How Dogs Learn

Similar to humans, dogs learn in a variety of ways.  Dogs do not speak in words. So, we must find other ways to communicate with them.

How exactly do dogs learn?

Trial and Error 

A dog learns from being successful and from failing. Dogs are always learning; they are always paying attention.  If they try jumping up and it gets them the attention they want (petting, rubbing, etc.), they learn that jumping works.  If, however, the result of the jump is a knee bump in the chest or a pop on the leash, they learn that jumping is not the best way to get your attention.


Showing a dog what is required in small steps. Linking these small steps together gives the dog a mental map or sequence of what is required for any given command or task.  This behavior pattern comes from the practice and repetition of a particular routine regularly.

Behavior Modeling 

Dogs can also learn from other dogs. Dogs can learn a lot by watching other dogs and by being encouraged to join in.  Dogs can learn certain obedience commands, tricks, and even how to swim simply by watching others.  However, this can be a double-edged sword as dogs can also learn bad habits by watching others.


Many trainers end their training sessions on a high note and then allow the dog some time to rest and process the information. This gives the dog a good association with training and makes it more desirable for the dog to repeat the last task.  Giving a dog time to process and reflect on what just happened can work with both obedience commands and with bad habits.  Reprimanding a dog for a bad habit (if caught in the act) works the same way as praising good behavior.

Willingness to Learn

For your dog to learn, he has to want to learn.  In most cases, all dogs can be motivated and encouraged to learn; however, it is up to the trainer to discover what will motivate each particular dog.  Several things have to be taken into consideration when deciding on what type of reward to use:


Is the dog outgoing, shy, fearful, or aggressive? Each type of personality will need different types and amounts of reward.  The manner, frequency, and intensity of reward will vary based on the personality as well.


How much energy does the dog have? Does the dog have any natural drives or abilities?  The reward will need to appeal to the dog.  Chasing a ball may not be much of a reward to a Mastiff with lower energy, just as a couple of pats on the head may not motivate a high-energy Labrador retriever.


Knowing the breed history and what it was originally bred for can help determine the type of reward needed.

The particular task being taught 

Are you trying to develop hunting or herding skills? Are you teaching basic obedience or retrieval?  The reward should fit the task.  Allowing your dog to shake or “kill” an object may not be best suited to obedience but may make sense for a hunting dog.

Types of Reward

There are many types of rewards that can be given to a dog for a job well done.  Again, it is important to reward appropriately for the task you are teaching and use something that really motivates your dog.  While food is a requirement for all creatures, it may not be the best reward you can give your dog.  If your dog is working for food, you may find that his motivation is gone just as soon as the treat is.  Food can be a good way to introduce and encourage desired behaviors, but as your dog leaves the puppy stage, it is important to use a reward that can help develop a bond between dog and owner. Rewards can take the form of:


Both verbal and physical – great for teaching obedience commands and general good behavior


Chasing a ball or retrieving an object – great for retrieval hunting, or dogs with high retrieval drive


Finding hidden objects – can be very rewarding for dogs that love to use their nose (hunting, tracking)

“Killing” or Shaking 

This method can use it for hunting dogs or where a high prey drive is being established.


It can be useful for puppies or even trick training but should not be relied upon for serious obedience or advanced training.

A good rule of thumb for any reward:  Your dog’s tail should be wagging after being rewarded.  If it is not, then you may need to find another reward.

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