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Learning About Dog Training: How Do Dogs Learn?

November 4, 2015 Hastings and Hastings

News flash, Everyone loves dogs! Pet ownership is at an all-time high. It is estimated that over 43 million American homes currently own at least 1 dog. The total number of dogs in the United States is close to 70 million! That is almost 1 dog for every three people. Owning a dog is a responsibility, one that needs to be taken seriously. Training a dog is one of the most important aspects of that responsibility. So how exactly do dogs learn?

Instrumental Conditioning

A key aspect in a dog’s learning process is instrumental conditioning. Instrumental conditioning is a form of learning that occurs when behaviors are modified by inflicting consequences. These can be positive or negative consequences. Positive reinforcement occurs when behavior is rewarded with positive consequences. For dogs, this might mean they are praised, given a treat, or given extra attention. Negative reinforcement is often applied when bad behaviors are exhibited. Scolding is a form of negative reinforcement.

Social Learning

Social learning occurs when a dog observes the behavior of another individual. This learning is strongest when a dog can observe the actions of another dog, although they can learn from humans or other animals as well. If a dog observes a behavior that has positive results, it will try to mimic that behavior. If the mimicked action has positive results, the dog will be more likely to take up that behavior.


Repetition is one of the strongest tools when it comes to training a dog. If you are attempting to teach a dog a behavior, it will likely take time. Whether using instrumental conditioning, social learning, or another technique, patience is going to be required. Even the quickest learner is going to have to see a behavior a couple of times before it totally gets the hang of things.