The nature of how dogs learn must be considered when training

Dogs learn by trial and error. In the wild or in people’s homes, they are motivated by figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Contrary to what some people say, they don’t feel guilt the way humans do. Rather, dogs carefully watch situations (and their owners) for cues and clues that tell them what is going to happen next. Grab the leash on your way towards the door and most dogs get excited thinking they are going outside. Dogs quickly learn to get excited when their owner puts on running shoes, but know to stay in their warm bed when mom puts on high heels on her way out the door to go to work. We discuss this topic in the Zen Dog Training Podcast.

The reality is dogs do not pay attention to word or commands, they figure out the rules based on what they can get away with! Learn quickly who follows through and who doesn’t.

Truly understanding your dog’s nature is the essence of dog training. In many ways, dogs are opportunists, always looking for the fastest way to get what they want: food, treats, attention, touch, couch time, or human interaction. Dogs also know to avoid anything they find unpleasant, uncomfortable, or fear inducing. Indeed, acknowledging this “dogs do what works” aspect of dog learning leads to important takeaways.

Understanding how dogs learn and perceive the world is the key to successful dog training and the focus of Zen Dog Training. (What is Zen Dog Training?).

The Secrets to Successful Dog Training

Since dogs live in the moment, learning words and commands is not natural for them, in order for training to be successful, people must use clear signals given at exactly the right time, and follow through with consistent outcomes. In addition, the secret to training starts with managing the environment by focusing on creating situations where people can control outcomes. Once people have the upper hand they have more training options and can design teaching moments.

The other important lesson is to not always giving into your dog’s needs/desires. By not giving dogs what they want on their terms you create a relationship where you dog is in the habit or listening to you.

At Zen Dog Training we focus on helping people train proactively. Instead of training reactively, while or after the dog has done something wrong, people are encouraged to structure teaching situations by using the best tools and equipment to guarantee dogs learn the right lessons. For example, a 6-foot leash, long enough to be stepped on while still being held, is essential for teaching dogs not to jump up on people, and makes meeting people on walks, waiting to cross the street, or introducing puppies to young children, a teachable moment.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

The biggest issue for dog owners is loving their dog so much that they never say “no.” If dogs learn that people can be manipulated—say by barking at the door to be let outside—the relationship gets turned upside down, with the dog learning to become more demanding and the humans acting like servants. Since most people love their dogs very much, spoiling a dog with love and attention may not sound too bad, but it is the root of many problem behaviors.

Most dogs with separation anxiety, demanding dogs who bark and whine for attention, and so called “disobedient” dogs who don’t listen to their owners, are the products of their environment and a direct reflection of what people have allowed them to get away with. Training can be as simple as getting a new puppy used to the crate. Teaching a puppy to get accustomed to the crate while people are home, can help dogs learn in a peaceful way, to be calm and settled when left alone.

Solving Separation Anxiety

Dog trainers know how sad it is for dogs who feel separation anxiety when left alone; the cruel reality is that this suffering could have been avoided with good training.

Many separation anxiety cases are made worse when people take a week or two off work without practicing leaving the puppy alone. Often, new dog owners spend all day and night with their dog and put their social/work life on hold. When they finally leave the house to go shopping, to the gym, the movies, or work, their dog is shocked by their absence because they were not prepared for the reality of daily life.

Mastering home alone training with a puppy can help them develop an important sense of independence and avoid future problems by teaching them you are in control. At Zen Dog Training, our puppy training includes getting dogs used to being left alone. Using a confinement area, exercise pen, crate, or just baby gates you can help build independence and ensure your dog learns to be calm and comfortable being alone.

Independence training a puppy is a foundational way to practice something that is counter-intuitive and difficult for most dog owners – dogs cannot always  get what they want. Teaching them to be comfortable alone reinforces the idea that you make the rules. It also helps people learn to set healthy boundaries when it comes to teaching dogs to not act demanding or be the center of attention all the time.

Who’s Training Whom?

Many owners tell dog trainers that their dog is “dumb” because they don’t listen to commands. Instead, these free-spirited dogs are often the most intelligent ones, who quickly learned how to get what they want from their owners. Unlike children, who have the ability to learn what is morally right from wrong, dogs are opportunists constantly testing the rules. Although many parents might say it is the same with children, dogs do not have the capacity to reason like humans, they cannot reflect on their actions as being good, bad, or hurtful.

The greatest difficulty in dog training is getting people to enforce rules and practice setting boundaries in low-stress situations when their dogs are not acting out. Well-trained dogs have been taught to be patient in everyday situations, for example, by asking for permission before getting up on the couch, or learning to wait before being let outside. Because obedience has become a habit, these dogs are more likely to listen and come when called, even if they are running into the street and chasing a squirrel!

Ultimately, with people and dogs, learning boils down to knowing there will be consequences for actions taken. Humans must establish that they are the ones in control. People must realize it is in everyone’s best interest to not allow dogs to demand attention, food, or play on their terms. The more dogs learn patience and how to control their impulses the better trained they become.

Dog training is less about fixing problems in the moment, it is about getting people to create teachable moments and establish a habit of listening with daily practice. Finally, as dogs are not verbal creatures by nature, using clear signals and associating them with predictable outcomes will help dogs understand commands and actually listen in difficult situations.

Happiness is a Warm Dog

In many ways, the happiness dogs bring to our lives is what people like the best about them. Dogs’ carefree attitudes, boundless desire, and limitless optimism, are part of the joy of sharing one’s life with them. Dogs seem to love unconditionally, want to play, frolic, and explore the world without worry or concern. However, if dogs are not taught boundaries and rules, they will be confused and frustrated, in many cases to the point of actual anxiety. When trained proactively with teachable moments and consistent outcomes, they will grow up to be Zen Dogs!

Visit the Zen Dog Training Shop for a complete list of online training resources including: eBooks, Training Comics, the Puppy Boot Camp, and Video Solution Center.