How Dogs Learn: Can Dogs Understand Humans?

can dogs learn -- training techniques for dogs

Curious as to how much your dog really understands you when you speak to him? Sometimes feel like you and your dog are on the same page … other times, it’s like you’re not even in the same book. As pet parents, we relish the idea that our dogs understand what we are saying, especially when they easily sit, stay, and come when asked. But dogs’ brains are different. Yes, dogs can understand us, but how dogs learn differs from how people learn.

How Do Dogs Understand Humans? Do They Understand Language?

We know that our dogs learn to understand us as we speak to them. Research seems to back this theory up. One such study suggests our canine companions not only hear the words we say but also how we say them. MRIs performed during the study showed a dog’s brain processes speech like that of humans. Canines use their left brain hemisphere to process words and the right hemisphere to process intonation (tone). Humans are opposite: We use the right side of our brains for the word and the left for tone. 

how dogs learn
Although some breeds tend to be more easily trained than others, every dog is unique and responds to training in their own individual ways.

Other research across 36 breeds conducted by Duke University, suggests that communication is about 50% inheritable, while memory and physical reasoning about 20%. Of course, the environment and how a dog was handled as a puppy can influence these traits. Breeds show variations, too. The authors caution that every dog is unique, and their results do not support breed stereotypes or restrictions. 

Two well-known studies that animal behaviorists often cite involve Ricoh, a Yorkshire terrier, and Chaser, a border collie

Ricoh the Yorkie uses deductive reasoning

Ricoh’s intelligence suggests that not only can dogs associate words with objects, but they can deductively reason. Researchers put six objects in a pile and asked Ricoh to fetch a “framis,” a word he’d never heard. Of the six objects, Ricoh knew five of them. He deductively associated the “framis” with the single object he didn’t know. Later, when his trainers told him to fetch the “framis,” Ricoh went right to it. 

Chaser the border collie learns 1,000+ words  

In another case study, Chaser, a border collie from South Carolina, demonstrated that she knew 1,022 objects including 800 cloth animals. Researchers suggest that some dogs can recognize two words — command plus object — such as “fetch ball.” They know that “fetch a ball” is not as a single word, “fetchball,”  but something you want them to do. 

How Do Dogs Learn?

Dogs learn by immediate consequences of their actions, through punishment and reinforcement, and by associations between a stimulus and response in classical conditioning. Understanding how dogs learn gives you the ability to teach your dog basic commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it.” Knowing the learning process for canine cognition can also help them overcome stressful things like noise from the vacuum cleaner or the stress of vet and groomer visits. 

A Rottweiler asks to play with a blue ball
How do dogs learn? Through trial and error, just like us.

Operant conditioning dog training

Developed by American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning relies on reinforcement and punishment to teach an animal (or human) that their behavior has a consequence. 

  • Positive reinforcement: Positive means to add something, whereas reinforcement means the behavior is likely to repeat or strengthen. So, positive reinforcement in dog training implies you, the trainer, will offer something positive like praise followed by a reward (treat, toy, game, or your attention) when your dog does something you want like “sit” or “stay.” Once your pet learns that he gets a reward when he follows your command, he or she is more likely to do what you say. This is also how dogs learn their names.
  • Negative reinforcement: The term “negative” in operant conditioning means something is being taken away to stop negative behavior and it’s stopped when the desired behavior is achieved. This is the theory behind ultrasonic dog trainers. When your dog barks, press the button. When he stops barking, release the button. 
  • Positive punishment: Positive punishment in dog training implies something bad is added to decrease a behavior, as in the way a shock collar delivers an electric pulse to a dog when they bark. Adding the punishment (shock) will reduce a dog’s tendency to bark (behavior) when he has the collar on. 
  • Negative punishment: In dog training, negative punishment is delaying or withholding something good until a behavior stops. If your dog barks for attention and you ignore him (no looking, touching, speaking to him), he will quiet down to get your focus on him. 
A yellow Labrador jumps over agility trainers.
Positive reinforcement can be used for agility training. Offer rewards and praise when your dog does what you say.

Classical conditioning dog training

Classical conditioning, also known as respondent conditioning, is about the association between an involuntary response and a stimulus. Ivan Pavlov, the father of classical conditioning, found he could train dogs to salivate by ringing a bell. Dogs naturally salivate at the sight or smell of food. He rang a bell when the dogs saw food. Soon, the dogs became conditioned to salivate when he rang a bell with and without food being present. 

What does this mean for you and your dog? The classical conditioning training process involves teaching your dog to develop a positive, negative, or neutral association with the stimuli in his environment. During training, the stimulus is typically something you say or do. Chances are you have unknowingly already applied classical conditioning fundamentals to your pet. Here are a few examples of this type of training at work:

  • Your dog loves his snacks and gets excited when he hears you rustle the packaging from another room. He has associated that sound with getting something delicious.
  • You pick up your keys to leave for work in the morning, and your dog shows anxiety because he knows you’re leaving him alone. 
  • Does your dog shake in fear when you take him to the vet? He has associated the vet with stress and discomfort.

Observation training 

Training your dog without direction is possible through observation, learning, or modeling. This is the “learn by example” method of training. Your dog can learn how to mimic behavior from watching the behavior of a model dog. For example, the model dog performs a task to earn a reward can encourage your dog to follow suit without any direction on your part.

Relationship-based dog training

Relationship-based dog training combines several training methods. The approach is individualized and focused on the relationship between the dog and his human. This method looks to meet the needs of the dog and trainer, strengthening their bond, and encouraging communication. Here are a few basics:

  • Use positive reinforcement.
  • Avoid punishment.
  • Read your dog’s body language.
  • Know what motivates your dog.
  • Understand how to meet your pet’s basic needs.

Training/learning environment must be controlled (to limit possible unwanted behaviors). For example, teach your pet how to sit and stay in a quiet room in your home before trying the command in an outdoor environment with distractions. 

Clicker training

Clicker training is based on operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. The dog trainer uses a hand-held clicking device to make a quick, sharp noise (click) when your dog performs the desired behavior. For clicker training to work, you must first teach your pet to associate the clicking sound with receiving a reward. This type of training is best for learning new behaviors, not necessarily to curb undesired ones. 

Collar training

Some pet parents turn to a training collar or e-collar to reinforce commands and stop unwanted behaviors. Today’s remote-controlled collars can prove helpful in off-leash training by using some form of stimulation like a vibration, noise, or static pulse to get a dog’s attention, even if your pet is a reasonable distance from you.

Train, treat, repeat

BarxBuddy’s preferred approach to dog training involves “train, treat, repeat,” where you use the ultrasonic trainer to stop unwanted behaviors, issue a command to reinforce positive behavior, and reward your dog with a treat.

Regardless of what method or combination you use to train, remember every dog is different; what may work for one may not for another. Patience and practice are key components to training success.