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There are many types of learning when it comes to dogs. Trainers often talk of Classical and Operant Conditioning as the two main ways dogs learn, but it can get a bit more complicated than that when you start to dig below the surface. There are several other things that may come into play when analyzing your dog's behaviour.
Training is all about repetition. The purpose of training repetition is to create more desirable habits with your dog. For example, dogs are generally inclined to jump up on people. Without intervention, a natural memory chain will develop that will create habit in the dog. Picture it: You're walking your dog down the street, you spot a person rounding the corner (so does your dog ;o), they fixate, get excited, pull towards the person and when they are within reach, they jump on the person. After several repetitions of this scene, you'll notice your dog start to get excited at earlier points as they establish the chain. Eventually, the second your dog sees a person, they will likely start to pull and vocalize until they reach them since eventually, the appearance of the person will become an early predictor of getting to greet. Stimulation will build from the earliest behaviour in the chain as your dog has learns what works! They want to get to the person to say hello, they do that by pulling and leaping to try to get there as fast as possible.
In order to replace this behaviour, you might teach your dog not to jump up by using training tools and alternative skills, like sit, to create a new habit. Through good training repetition, we can adjust the dog's response to this event to something more desirable and give them an alternative behaviour chain to their end goal of saying hello. Picture this same scenario with a dog who has learned that they have to sit in order to greet a person. A dog who loves greeting people who has had this kind of training may start to sit as soon as they round the corner and spot the person. Behaviour chains are very powerful things!
Dogs Do What Works
As humans, it's hard for us to distance our emotions from things and that is very evident when it comes to our dogs. We anthropomorphize our pets and often, it is to an extreme. Dog chewed your shoes? They must have been angry with you for leaving. Dog snarling at you over their food bowl? They must be mean.... etc. The list goes on and on when it comes to putting human emotions and reasons on dog actions.
The truth is dogs do what's rewarding and what works! That's it - it's really that simple. There is usually a logical explanation behind a dog's actions, but as humans - we often see only what's logical to us. To understand and change a dog's behaviour, you truly need to think from a dog's perspective.
So, the above examples from a dog's perspective would be something like:
Dog chewed your shoes? They must have been bored, lonely or perhaps a bit stressed by your absence. The familiar smell of you in your shoe brought comfort or intrigue. Chewing relieves stress and boredom and gives them something fun to do. But why do they only do it in your absence? Doesn't that stand to reason that they are angry with you for leaving them alone? This is where the shady areas get shadier.
People are always in a hurry to move away from the dog crate and leave them loose in the house. Often, they jump the gun and afford the dog freedom long before the dog is actually ready. Imagining life from their perspective, it's hard to understand the rules in a situation where you don't understand the language. It takes time, patience and consistency. If you're left to your own devices before you're clear on the rules, you may very well make the wrong choices. This is what happens with dogs. If you are diligent about management with your dog before giving them freedom and they are clear on the house rules, they won't get into mischief at all - regardless of whether you are present or not. If, on the other hand, they're handed freedom before they are ready, they will likely explore and make choices on their own. This is where they learn that there are two sets of rules in life. When you're there, they shouldn't, but when you're gone, there's nobody there to say 'don't', so it must be okay.
If we talk about resource guarding. This is something that also has an instinctual component that is nurtured in early development. In 'dog law,' every dog is entitled to possession. When you have a litter of puppies, they are constantly learning. They'll play fight with each other, which on the surface looks like all fun, but it's actually practise and rehearsal of life saving wrestling and fighting skills that instinct tells them they may need in their lives. They often learn that they can growl off other puppies when they have something of value. This instinct may or may not carry over into a relationship that includes a human. We have preventative exercises (read about them in this previous post) to work on in order to teach our dogs that resource guarding is not necessary with us. The problem is when these exercises are skipped, there's a potential for instinct to kick in. Your dog may try to growl in order to remove you from their space when they have something of value. If your reaction is to avoid the confrontation by leaving, your dog will have learned that growling works. Now you're creating behaviour chains that feed into that feeling of needing to guard.
Any dog can show possession. It doesn't make them mean at all, it simply reinforces what works for the dog. That is why we can take charge of the 'what works' factor and teach our dogs to be tolerant and not threatened by us when they have valuable resources.
Another important thing to discuss when it comes to learning is emotional response. Typically, what your dog practises is what will feed their emotional response and habituate their behaviour, however there are always external factors that will influence the situation. For example, your dog may be 100% proficient in responding to a 'sit' cue in 99% of situations where their emotional response is stable. There are factors though that could still derail your dog's ability to respond to 'sit'. These factors can be anything that takes your dog out of a stable emotional state. It may be noise, it may be a scent, it may be the presence of other dogs or humans. If you have a dog who is afraid of thunder storms, even though they may be bang on with the sit cue in every other situation, they may not be able to respond well when there is a storm brewing.
The next time you find yourself wondering, why does my dog ALWAYS do that. Take a moment to consider the habits that are in place, the dog's perspective and their emotional state and you may be able to find the perfect solution to solve your problem.
As always, Happy Training!