How Dogs Learn

Dogs learn by association, linking a series of actions, sounds or observations with a particular outcome. Dogs don’t really know what we’re thinking – though they might sometimes look as though they do!

While many dog owners have a balanced and harmonious relationship with their pets, many others are beset with behavioural problems in their dog. Each year, hundreds of such owners bring their dogs to my practice and, as part of my work, I show them what makes their particular dog tick and, during my consultation, give them an insight into their dog’s mind.

I explain that dog ownership is largely about rules, consequences and relationships not too dissimilar to those between people, which is why canines have made such a successful transition from the wild to the domestic environment.

Dogs have the ability to learn, and are highly adaptable. They are omnivorous not only in the nutritional sense, but also in terms of taking everything in and using whatever information is available to them.

Trouble Brewing

Unfortunately, some relationships between dog and owner can become very mixed up, resulting in the owner’s belief system conflicting with the dog’s behaviour. If the owner has certain beliefs concerning his dog and how to control him but, at the same time, lacks true understanding of the dog’s actual instincts and capabilities, then there’s a high chance there’s going to be trouble ahead.

It is of great concern to me that owners have difficulty getting solid advice; often they rely on the Internet which exposes them to a jumble of mixed-up and often fanatical belief systems that tells them they are wrong, or a bad owner, if they don’t do what a particular armchair hobbyist says (despite that person being no wiser than anyone else).

Experienced dog owners tend to accumulate knowledge by trial and error and in time the relationship forms into equilibrium, with give and take on both sides. Not very different from the way we interact socially with other people.

Little Humans

I accept that it is often difficult not to see our dogs as little humans; they frequently seem to understand our lives and problems, and to provide comfort when we need it. It’s all too easy to imagine that they feel in the same way that we do, and think and reason just like us.

I, too, talk to my dogs, explaining my feelings or delivering a diatribe about the day’s events. They listen, look at me and wag their tails as if in understanding. In fact they are simply reacting to my body language and direct attention to them. From the dog’s point of view, if they keep watching, something more exciting might happen, other than me babbling on about the traffic queues today.

Many of us talk to our pets like this and it can be beneficial and therapeutic. The problem is when we stop viewing it merely as a form of release and start to believe that our dog really understands what we’re saying. When owners cannot discern their dog’s limits of reasoning then they can become frustrated or feel let down by their furry friend when the dog appears to be difficult in other circumstances.

Many of my clients relate stories of their dog’s amazing abilities and tell me the dog seems to know their mind, or intentions, before they do. But, since all dog training is basically link learning, let’s explore how dogs learn – and understand how they add more links with each accumulative experience, or interaction between themselves and their owner, to form a chain.

How Dogs Learn

Dogs learn by association: that’s why they react to the sound of the lead being taken from its peg, or the rattle of the car keys, and really spring to attention when the tin opener appears. They don’t, however, relate back or forwards in time to a particular behaviour in the way we do, or apply reasoning or rational thought. A dog that chewed your best shoes 10 minutes ago won’t understand if you now show him the shoes and rant on about it. Dogs’ minds simply don’t function that way. If you catch your dog in the act then he may associate your displeasure with the business of chewing, but he might equally associate chewing shoes as being wrong only if it’s done in front of you; after all, if he chews them when you’re not around he doesn’t get reprimanded. Alternatively, he may feel you want to possess the shoes so you can have a good chew yourself! The dog decides what he has learned from the incident, no matter what we might want or presume to impose.

This is why the most effective training methods work by teaching dogs what we wish them to learn, as opposed to waiting for them to develop bad habits that we then need to try to break.

Basic Instinct

A dog’s behaviour is basically governed by his instinctive survival drives for living in the wild, like his cousin the grey wolf. These inherited modes of behaviour regulate how a dog will relate to both humans and other dogs. It doesn’t usually take long for dogs and owners to come to an amicable arrangement for a peaceful coexistence. But this process is very much ongoing. It’s up to us – as the supposedly more intelligent species – to try to understand the dog’s mind. That is, how it functions and what we can do to accommodate the dog’s natural needs and produce a relationship that is straightforward, harmonious and mutually enjoyable.

Whatever you do, though, don’t stop talking to your dog. They love it and we love it –just remember to bear in mind that we are different species with limits of communication!

Body talk

My dog Dieter, a German Shepherd Dog, has learned an array of body language communications from me, some from formal dog training and others from observational signals I may unwittingly convey. For example, I have taught him that if I get down on all-fours in my attempt to be doggy my physical nudges for play and games are the trigger – the link –for this particular type of play that only happens when I get down on the floor. No verbal commands are needed.

Dieter has also learned, like most dogs, that the Kong on a rope is for play retrieve, scent search and investigative games, which he really enjoys because it’s fun time. Dogs, like toddlers, don’t get bored with repetitive entertainment. Also, as the pack leader, my spending time with him is a big plus for Dieter too. This conditioning to a very high degree is not simply for play but to help me focus his mind on what I want him to learn through the medium of a toy. Conditioning responses are a powerful vehicle of learning. I will use that same toy as a focus for teaching tracking (scent work), recall and basic obedience commands too. It becomes a primary motivator.

However the dog is also able to learn from his own volition. In the evening, when I switch off the TV by remote control, Dieter reacts to the electronic sound as a prelude for a quick tickle – link one. This he has learned by initial sound association and the remaining links in this particular chain are link two, me rising from the chair; link three, opening a specific door to the garden; and then the final link, his freedom to roam in the garden before bedtime.

Chauffeur service

Another combination of sounds and observations – putting on my shoes, then a coat and, finally, collecting my car keys –is the prelude to an adventure. Dieter himself has placed these sounds and actions into a chronological order that signals an exciting walk yet, as a puppy, all these actions were unknown to him.

When Dieter was about a year old, I decided to alter the order of the sound and observational links and examine how he would cope. I now put on my coat first, but it only took a few days’ practice before Dieter reassembled the links and he now reacts excitedly to the coat first. Whichever order I follow, and providing I am consistent for about seven lessons, he learns that the new order of links equals his walk via the car –the highlight of his day.

This example also shows how and why retraining can change a dog’s bad behaviours to good behaviours. It’s simply a matter of providing the motivation, which has to be more potent than the links to the bad behaviours that the dog has already learned and established.
Greeting visitors

Like most dogs and, I am sure, your own dogs too, Dieter has also made links concerning the arrival of visitors and what that means for him.

Some visitors greet him more enthusiastically than others and Dieter has decided which guests are close pack members and which are more remote. They each receive relevant doggy greetings and vocal responses, which are generally reciprocated by those visitors who enjoy a 90lb dog saying hello!

Many clients complain about their dog’s over-effusive greeting of visitors, whether reciprocated or not. Often, the dog’s behaviour is simply a learned result of the visitors’ responses; if you can control your visitors’ responses then the over-friendly dog’s behaviour is easily modified. The obvious first link the dog learned here was the sound of the doorbell or knocker.

Dinner is served

Food delivery is probably the most powerful learned link and you will know which particular chain of actions sets off your dog’s excitability at dinner time. Talking of time, I always feed at different times but dogs do have an inbuilt clock and if you feed at a certain time each day they will begin to become active then, or give you that look or nudge of anticipation – especially if you dare to go past the regular time for food delivery. Yes, they truly enjoy reminding us of what they want!

Walking in my local woods, which contain about 1,000 deer, I often see people struggling with their dog’s predatory chase behaviours. One day I was walking alongside an owner and his dog, who was firmly on the lead. When, as happens on most walks, a herd of deer suddenly rushed by at top speed, the dog began to yap and wanted to give chase while Dieter, who was off-lead and nearer to the deer, immediately looked at them, then turned on cue and looked straight at me. This happened twice more on the same walk.

The man naturally asked how I achieved this control. I explained that it was through consistent training but importantly, that Dieter had learned at 12 weeks old while being walked on a long line, that running off was not what I wanted and that looking at me was more rewarding. This was embedded through training and an occasional tug on the line produced a well-trained dog at the critical learning point in the development of the dog’s mind.

In essence I had trained Dieter to ignore his natural – and quite normal – innate behaviour to chase prey and instead respond to the alien abnormal behaviour we call recall training. I replaced his natural chase link reward with my reward; and maybe a throw of a Kong to run after, rather than the deer. He was still chasing but rubber was his focus, not fur.

Clever clogs dogs

I have had only one dog in my kennels that could unbolt a gate and knock the bolt to the left side with his nose, then pull the gate back towards him to escape the kennels and, bingo, get his reward by entering my office looking for company. All my staff were amazed by his intelligence.

Unfortunately, I had to point out to them that out of perhaps 10,000 dogs we had kept there over the years, he was the only one who had managed it, so was this really about dogs’ intelligence? Of course was being mischievous in one sense, but I wanted them to critically examine this dog’s action, cleverness and what he had learned. Moreover, why was he the only one? Many dogs had tried.

The first time I saw the dog do this he approached the locked gate with learned specific intention, not puzzlement. He executed a number of tried-and-tested actions with his nose and paws on the lock and gate that indicated previous experience.

In other words, past links to success had already been learned. However, the difficulty with our gate was that once the dog had knocked the bolt to the left with his nose, the gate opened inwards, towards him. This was not a learned link in his mind and so initially he failed. He was puzzled by this. A gate he had previously conquered must have opened away from him because once he’d unbolted our gate, he tried to push the gate away by jumping up on it– of course, this didn’t work; a link was missing from the canine enigma of link learning.

This dog never approached the gate like other dogs, just jumping up and yapping. He went through a set of tried and-tested actions that had clearly produced results in the past, but he was defeated by the gate opening towards him. Eventually he mastered it and this new link was added to the sequence. Once he’d learned this final link we couldn’t keep him in, as success gave him the freedom to come and find us, which was his intention. For his own safety – but unfortunately for him – I simply added another security device to the gate that he couldn’t master. Didn’t stop him trying though.

I’ve also dealt with dogs that have learned how to open fridge doors, after which the owners have added more complex locking features only for the dogs to master those too. In fact, if the reward is sufficient, clever dogs can work out all sorts of complex solutions in the home, such as opening boxes with food in them, otherwise known as bins…
Just rewards

In the wild, of course, this adaptable link-learning behaviour is of great benefit to wolves who, apparently, are much superior to domestic dogs at problem solving.

Pet dogs, living with their humans, simply use that wolf intelligence to their own ends in order to gain the benefits they want. Not all of these may be what we want, of course – for example, scaling a 6ft garden fence and running off – but that’s just a dog being a dog.


  • Dogs learn by association, linking a series of actions, sounds or observations with a particular outcome.
  • Learning through play is fun for both dog and owner.
  • If escape is what’s on the mind of a determined and inquisitive dog, he will try, try and try again to achieve his goal.
  • Dogs don’t really know what we’re thinking – though they might sometimes look as though they do!

Colin Tennant MA Canine Behaviour & Psychology