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  • Writer's pictureMecca Curtice, CCDT, CTDI

How Do Dogs Learn?

Dogs learn by association. Have you ever been around a dog that is scared of a trash truck or maybe even afraid of thunderstorms. They learn by attaching meaning to sights and sounds. Dogs can have a negative experience or a positive experience and learn from it.

For dogs that become scared because of a negative experience, we want to help change the emotional response. This could be something in sight or a sound. As I have worked with dogs in the past, they were very clear in what they did not like, by barking or running to hide. Some dogs with unknown past and all I had was the dog in front of me.

Changing the emotional response by associating the dog with something that is more positive in the dog's view or that sound. You may ask, is that really possible? Yes, it is, and it does take time and being consistent to help the dog.

People can have fears also and I can talk about the fear of spiders. Imagine this person sitting in a room filled with spiders and how terrifying this would be. Yelling and screaming at them is not going to help make that emotional response change. It most likely will make things worse, so no they are not just going to suck it up. But let's change the set up to me placing a picture of spiders in front of them from a distance. Now each time they look at it the person finds money dropping from above. The set up has changed and the yelling has stopped. It's a better set up and a more positive experience.

Dogs are masters at building associations. They do it every day. Think about what happens when you open the refrigerator or a place where treats are kept. The dog is excited because they have built a positive association. Think about the leash when the dog hears that, they know they are going for a walk.

How do you help your dog? Low sound and low exposure, using counterconditioning and desensitization. Counterconditioning is changing the emotional response, feelings, or attitude towards a stimulus. Some good examples, I hear often, or I have observed, is a dog lunging at the window when a delivery person walks by. The dog is displaying the emotional response of fear or anxiety. They do this because it works!! Look I made the stimulus go away. If your dog is doing this, please get help from a professional certified dog trainer or behavior consultant. How exhausting and frustrating this must be.

With desensitization we gradually expose the dog to the sound or whatever the cause of the anxiety which starts with manage to help prevent, reduce or eliminate the undesirable behavior. This begins first by exposing the dog to a stimulus at a very low level of intensity.

Distance is a good example for dogs that are afraid other dogs.

Mecca Curtice, CDBC, CCDT, CTDI

© 2023 Mecca's All Breed Dog Training, LLC.


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