Myth: All Dogs Learn Differently
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Truth: Dogs all learn the same way. However, what they find reinforcing varies.
How many times have you heard some variation of these statements?
"All dogs learn differently."
"Some dogs require a firmer hand."
"Not all dogs learn the same?"
"One training technique may work for some dogs and not for others." Guess what. These statements are false. I don't mean that it's my opinion that these statements are false. I mean, learning is a scientific process, and scientists know how all organisms capable of learning do it. And it's the same. Not only is it the same across all dogs of all breeds, but it's also the same across all species. Here's the simplified version of it: Dogs learn primarily through two ways: Association and consequence.
Learning through association isn't really something a dog has control over. It's kind of like the body's auto-pilot response to stuff. Remember Pavlov and his dog? That's a great example of learning through association. Dogs salivate when presented with food. However, when Pavlov rang a bell before presenting food repeatedly, the dog began to salivate upon hearing the bell even when no food was presented. Similarly, if we put a piece of training equipment on our dogs that causes our dog pain, our dogs will soon have the same physiological response that the pain causes just upon having that equipment placed upon them. Their heart rate and blood pressure will increase. Their eyes will dilate. They will experience adrenaline and cortisol spikes, and they will have all the associated biological responses caused by those stress hormones. It works the other way, too, though. If your training tools predict yummy treats and the opportunity to play fun games, your dog will have all the physiological responses that we label "happiness," "excitement," or "fun." Scientists and behavior geeks call this kind of learning Classical Conditioning, and the applications for dog training are enormous. We can utilize classical conditioning to teach a puppy that their environment is safe and fun. We can use it to help dogs overcome fears. It's how we bond with our dogs. And the really important thing to remember about learning through association is that it's always happening, whether you are intending to use it in training or not. Your dog can't stop learning through association. Dogs make associations about everything, including but not limited to the cues you use ("sit," "down," "stay," "roll over," "spin," "heel," etc.), your training tools, the places your dog goes, strangers, other dogs, certain clothing items, your car keys, doorbells and other sounds, and any combination of environmental cues. So, if you care about your dog's emotional well-being (and, of course, you do; you love your dog!), in every moment of training, ask yourself, "Is my dog making good associations with the training or bad associations?" In fact, even when you think you aren't training, periodically check in with your dog. Look at their body language. What are they telling you about the associations they are making in that moment?
The second way that all dogs learn is via consequences. These include good consequences and bad consequences. We call this Operant Conditioning. If every time a dog puts their bottom on the ground they get a tasty morsel, there is a very high probability that your dog will become a sitting machine. Similarly, if your dog has jumped up on the counter and found a plate full of wonderful, yummy goodness, you can be pretty confident that your intelligent learner will be checking out those counter tops with frequency!
It works the other way, too. If a dog jumps up on you for attention but instead receives a smack in the face, most dogs will find that punishing enough to reduce their jumping. However, remember what we said about Classical Conditioning always happening all the time? Your dog may stop jumping on you, but what feelings do you think they will begin to associate with you or your hands? How might their behavior start to change if they begin to associate you with fear and pain? How do you think that will affect your relationship or future training? Perhaps we could instead give them a happy reason to put their bottom on the ground instead of a scary reason to avoid lifting up their feet.
Using Punishment in Training
Does punishment work? Well, of course it does! The scientific definition of punishment involves something added or removed that reduces future behavior, so if it's not working, it's actually not punishment. However, punishment works because the dog wants to avoid it. If the dog wants to avoid it, they have some negative emotions associated with it. BUT those associations don't begin with the behavior. They begin with whatever they perceive predicted The Bad Thing. Was it the word "sit"? Was it the collar you put on your dog? Was it your training environment? Was it your tone of voice? Was it you? Most creatures learn new skills more quickly when they don't feel fear, anxiety, or pain while they are learning. And even if they learned at the same speed, I think we can all agree that we'd like to avoid needless suffering for our beloved dogs.
Teach Your Dog What To Do
You may have heard a trainer say, "Don't try to teach them what not to do, but rather teach them what to do." This is because, if you focus on what behaviors you want to see from your dog and reinforce those, you keep learning fun, and your dog gets to feel safe with you all the time. It's also a whole lot easier to communicate with a dog the exact behavior they got right versus the nebulous "no" behavior. We all want to be the person that makes our dogs feel safest, and we want dogs that eagerly engage in training exercises, right? So figure out what behavior you'd like to see your dog doing instead of the one that's driving you bonkers, and start paying your dog every time they do that preferred behavior.
An Element of Truth to the Myth
There is something that varies between dogs (and other species), and that is what they find punishing and what they find reinforcing. For example, if one of my dogs rescued from the S. Korean meat trade jumped on me and I shoved her off, she would probably not jump on me ever again. She also might not ever let me touch her again because that forceful shove would be so punishing and so scary, and she would associate that fear with my presence. She may or may not perceive it as a consequence of the jump right away. On the other hand, if my Cane Corso jumped on me and I gave him a huge shove, he'd jump right back up with more force and probably add some hard mouthing because he thinks body slamming and wrestling games are great fun! These are extreme examples with extreme dogs, but you can see how in one case the same action is punishing while in the other it is reinforcing. Some dogs love nearly all food. Some are more particular and only like certain foods. Contrary to popular belief, all healthy dogs are food motivated to some degree. Otherwise, they'd starve to death. But some certainly find food more reinforcing than others. Some will do anything for a game of tug or the opportunity to chase a ball. Some need you to build positive associations with food or a toy before they can be used as reinforcement. Some dogs are delicate and find things punishing that we don't usually think about, like eye contact, physical touch of any kind (or just over the head or just hugs), too many repetitions of a training exercise, our body language or voice when we become impatient or frustrated.
So yes, all dogs are different. The learning mechanisms are precisely the same, but you might have to get a little creative with some dogs to find (or create) a few different reinforcers. And to avoid building negative associations or even mixed associations, you will want to pay really close attention to what the dog finds punishing, even if we don't think something should be or intend for it to be.
The Three Q's
No matter what dog you are training here are three important questions to ask before and during every training session: 1. What do I want my dog to do? 2. What can I give to or do with my dog that my dog thinks is worth working for in this environment (and if there's nothing; can I change the environment to increase the value of the reinforcer)? 3. How does my dog feel right now, and what can I change to make sure all my dog's associations are positive?