Dog Training Techniques: Understanding the Theory Behind Learning & Behavior

What exactly is learning theory and why does someone who wants to learn dog training techniques care? Most people start out loving dogs, perhaps taking a basic obedience class, or dabbling in dog sports. Often they have a dog that has serious behavioral problems and through working with a professional dog trainer, they develop an interest in behavior and training. Sometimes people have been training their own dogs forever and their friends start asking them for advice. But almost always, when you get down to the nitty gritty, they think it’s fun and easy. Well, sometimes it’s fun, more often it’s hard work, and it’s never easy.

The traditional way to become a dog trainer is through mentoring under a professional and watching lots and lots of dog training videos. You can certainly become an adequate dog trainer, and learn important dog training techniques, through this method; and, the better your mentor, the better you’ll be. But you’re also limited by your mentor’s limitations. Apprentice trainers also spend an inordinate amount of time doing non-training work such as cleaning kennels, feeding and grooming.

But, through understanding learning theory combined with working under a knowledgeable mentor, you’ll have the best toolbox possible. You’ll understand the basics of how animals learn and how evolution, genetics, and survival have a huge influence on behavior. You’ll be able to move away from simple rote dog training techniques and actually analyze a situation and be able to figure out why the animal isn’t learning what you’re trying to teach.

When you understand the phases of learning a new behavior and the things that need to be in place for a new behavior to be learned, not to mention the most efficient way to train (which most trainers don’t know), you have less frustration, you satisfy your client’s needs more efficiently (saving them frustration and money), and you develop good word-of-mouth.

Learning and behavior is an established area of study that has been around for a very long time. It’s called psychology. We’ve been studying and practicing human psychology for decades – actually, longer than that as clinical depression was mentioned on a 1550 BCE ancient Egyptian manuscript known as the Ebers Papyruss.  In the mid-1800s, psychology became its own field of study, separate from psychiatry, and by the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists were figuring how to actually measure behavior.

Around the turn of the century, Ivan Pavlov published his findings on what we now call classical conditioning, and B.F. Skinner followed that up with his work in operant conditioning in the mid-1900s. Skinner also made the concepts he studied part of popular culture. He made appearances on popular television shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and Firing Line, as well as documentaries for television. In the 1960s and 1970s, experimental parenting techniques were in full force and much of what had been discovered in psychology was now being practiced in the schoolroom.

These two concepts, classical and operant conditioning – particularly operant conditioning – are what the new school of animal trainers are using. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to take these concepts and put them to work and apply effective dog training techniques. However, you do need to invest some time into learning the concepts and practicing your new skills –setting good criteria, observing behavior, analyzing behavior, and so on. If you have only a cursory understanding of how animals learn you’ll do okay, but if you have a good understanding of these concepts, you’ll do a lot better!

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