Want to subscribe to our blog?

Happy Dog Expert: Understanding How Dogs Learn

Written by Chloe Fesch, published on April 18, 2023

Share on:

"Learning is simple, but not easy". These words from Bob Bailey sum up the situation perfectly. As dogs need to adapt to each situation, this can sometimes make training and learning complicated to implement!

According to the definition, learning is "the result of receiving, integrating and storing in the memory, information that the individual can call upon in order to perform an adapted behaviour".

dog giving paw to owner

When it comes to educating your dog, it will be necessary to teach them things that will be stored in their memory, ready for use when they come across appropriate situations. Re-education is the process of going back to something that has already been learnt, and modifying the response, for example what your dog does in response to a certain cue word.

Let's explore the different types of learning in dogs, concentrating on associative learning:

Associative learning in dogs

Dogs are opportunists. This means that they will be drawn to what gives them the most pleasure and satisfaction. However, if some things are pleasant and motivating for your dog, it means that others are unpleasant and your dog will logically try to avoid them.

Learning by association, also known as conditioning, is based on the idea of associating something pleasant for your dog with a behaviour you want to see repeated, and associating something unpleasant to your dog with a behaviour you do not want to see repeated.

But there is more to it than that.

Classical conditioning in dogs

This involves associating a reflex response with an external stimulus. The best known example is from the founder of the approach, Ivan Pavlov, who, by associating the sound of a bell with the distribution of food, succeeded in provoking salivation (which is a reflex response) in a dog.

black dog in training

There are 5 variables in classical conditioning

1. SN is the neutral stimulus. In the example of Pavlov's experiment, it is the bell which the dog previously did not associate with the arrival of food.

2. SI is the unconditional stimulus. In the example of Pavlov's experiment, it is the food.

3. RI is the unconditional response. In the example of Pavlov's experiment, it is salivation.

4. SC is the conditional stimulus. In the example of Pavlov's experiment, it is the bell when it was associated with the arrival of the food

5. CR is the conditional response. In the example of Pavlov's experiment, it is the salivation after the sound of the bell.

Here is a story to help you understand these variables

Pavlov was a doctor who studied digestion studies which earned him the Nobel Prize! His experiment, which consisted in provoking salivation, was the following and was carried out with a dog:

He began by introducing an initial learning sequence:

  • Sound of a bell (NS = neutral stimulus)
  • Presentation of food (SI = unconditional stimulus)
  • At the sight of the food, the dog started to salivate (IR = unconditional response).

dog playing shell game

Without this first step, what triggers the dog to salivate is not the sound of the bell, but the sight of the food. He thus repeated this sequence many times and then moved on to the next step by allowing the sound of the bell to become SC (conditional stimulus).

In response to this sound, the dog began to salivate (conditional response), thus Pavlov had highlighted classical conditioning associating a stimulus with a reflex response.

However, that's not all! As he continued his research, he came to the following conclusions:

  • The repetition of the sequence is mandatory to obtain the reflex response.

  • SN (the bell) must not be presented too long before SI (the food) for it to work this is called temporal continuity.

  • If SN (the bell) is presented many times, without SI (the food) being presented, the reflex response will be diminished this is called the extinction phenomenon.

  • Finally, following the same logic, if the sequence is no longer proposed for a certain period of time, the reflex response will also be diminished.

Operant conditioning in dogs

Skinner's operant conditioning allows an external stimulus to be associated with a voluntary response. When you teach your dog that saying the word "sit" has a positive consequence, such as a treat, you are using operant conditioning. Sitting is a voluntary response from your dog.

Operant conditioning is often explained in this way:

R + : positive reinforcement

R - : negative reinforcement

P - : negative punishment.

P + : positive punishment

To understand this table, we must first remove all notions of good and bad. In other words, we must not understand that positive means pleasant for the dog and vice versa. In reality, we need to understand that by reinforcement we mean wanting a behaviour to be repeated, while punishment means we want the behaviour to decrease or even disappear. Positive means we are adding a stimulus, and negative means we are removing a stimulus.

The nuance will be in the addition or removal of the stimulus whether the stimulus is pleasant or unpleasant for the dog.

So here's how to understand this operant conditioning table:

shepherd type dog in training

Positive reinforcement

Here, we want to reinforce a behaviour we want to see it repeated by adding a stimulus. In this case, the stimulus will be pleasant for the dog in order to see the behaviour repeated. For example, when your dog returns to you (the desire to reinforce the recall), you give them a treat.

Negative reinforcement

Here, we want a behaviour to be repeated by removing a stimulus. In this case, we will remove a stimulus that the dog does not like. They will therefore tend to reproduce the behaviour that got them to stop the discomfort. For example, if the leash is tight, which makes your dog uncomfortable, you relax the leash only when your dog sits. The action of sitting will then be reinforced, as it will have stopped the discomfort. However, as we will cover later, it is not advisable to implement this technique.

Positive punishment

In the case of positive punishment, we will look for a behaviour to stop and add an uncomfortable stimulus for the dog in order to achieve this. Electric collars are an example of positive punishment when your dog behaves in an undesired way, this leads to an electric shock. This is positive punishment in the sense that we add a stimulus the dog does not like in order to see the behaviour decrease. Once again, as we will see later, this example is not recommended at all.

Negative punishment

In this last case, we are going to seek to have a withdrawal behaviour by removing a stimulus that the dog was enjoying. For example, you have treats in your hand that your dog wants they jump on you so you remove the treats from your dog. Your dog will tend to stop the behaviour that resulted in you taking away what they wanted.

Emotions accompany your dog’s learning

As noted, classical conditioning and operant conditioning work together. In other words, when you teach your dog a voluntary behaviour you also condition an involuntary emotion in your pet. Thus, with positive reinforcement, you will condition pleasurable emotions because your dog gets a stimulus that they like.

With negative reinforcement, you are conditioning an emotion close to relief because your dog will experience discomfort ceasing (this assumes that the dog is stressed beforehand in order to obtain this relief).

As for positive punishment, stress and even pain will be associated with this so negative emotions will be present in the learning process when it is used. Finally, frustration will be induced with negative punishment the dog not being able to access what they want.

collie dog in training outsideHelping our dogs to learn

You will now begin to understand that we can't really put learning into a box because everything is connected!

The important thing is to adapt training and learning to your dog. Then apply this understanding by finding the right balance, and always be attentive to your dog's emotions as they learn.


Following our expert tips will help to ensure your bond with your dog goes from strength to strength.

Make sure to join our community for weekly advice from our dog behaviour experts as well as product offers and competitions. 

Related Posts

19 Ways to Comfort Your Dog in Stressful Situations

19 Ways to Comfort Your Dog in Stressful Situations

Helping your dog cope with stressful situations is key to forming a strong relationship...
Read More
Dog Anxiety – 4 Things Every Owner Should Know

Dog Anxiety – 4 Things Every Owner Should Know

New puppy owner or long-term pet parent? There are 4 things all owners should...
Read More
Happy Dog Expert: Help A Dog With Grief

Happy Dog Expert: Help A Dog With Grief

Dogs can grieve, though not always in the ways we expect. Here we explain...
Read More
Traveling With A Puppy In A Car

Traveling With A Puppy In A Car

At some point in their life, you're puppy will have to jump in your...
Read More

Subscribe to our blog to benefit from our tips and tricks

Legal notice The information collected is intended for Ceva Santé Animale and the group in order to manage your requests. This information can be shared with service providers in order to organize their management. In accordance with the General Data Protection Regulations, you have the right to access, rectify and limit the processing of your data. You can also, in certain cases, object to the processing, withdraw your consent and request the deletion and portability of your data. For any request in relation to your personal data, please visit this page.