Can dogs learn?

April 13, 2012

Long before scientists have discovered that canine possesses cognitive abilities, dog owners are already aware of the pet’s learning abilities. Dogs are intelligent animals. Because of the long association with humans, people are often accused of anthropomorphism. Dog owners have the tendency to give the pet human characteristics. Dog lover or not, people will certainly agree to the theory that dogs have the ability to learn. Puppies were not born toilet trained. Breeds of retrievers, pointers or herding dogs may inherently possess the working capability the breed is supposed to have. These dogs though would still need training to be able to efficiently perform the work they were specifically bred to do. Dogs were able to do tricks, to excel in competitions because they have responded to training… because they have the ability to learn.

Dogs are one of the most intelligent animals. The idea that old dogs cannot be taught new tricks is a fallacy. Dogs continuously learn throughout their lifetime. Dog trainers believe that the optimum age to start dog training is between 8 to 12 weeks when dogs have not yet formed hard to break undesirable habits. However, unlike us humans, dog’s learning is not achieved in orderly or organized fashion. Some dogs would learn very quickly while others would have no response to training at all. Don’t lose hope if the pooch you are training belongs to the second category. Your dog is not dimwitted; it simply means that your dog would need lots of patience from you and of course, more repetitions. Be wise to the fact that training would always have “coffee breaks”. A dog that usually learns very quickly can be “off duty” on the next training session.

So how does human’s best friend learn? Studies and experiments have confirmed that dogs use mental images and associate them with the utterances of humans. This is how dogs understand commands. Basically, dogs learn through imitation. Puppies would imitate the mother, other adult dogs and even humans. Some herding breeds are professed to have slipped the herding boots even without training. These dogs though have imitated older dogs. Often times, the learning is based on the consequences of the dog’s actions. Puppies learned that biting the littermates too hard at play or biting the nipples of the dam while nursing would also earn them a painful bite from the mama dog as well.

Dogs learn through association. However, for an association to be meaningful, it has to be done right after the action (good or bad) was done. Bad behavior must be ignored and good ones should earn the dog rewards and praise. Digging and chewing are dog things. A dog owner would come home and find couch stuffing littered all over the carpet. A dog owner will be exasperated to find that the dog has decided to help momma by redoing the landscape. Owners would commonly punish the dog for the destructive behavior. The dog will be chained and banished outdoors. The consequences of these actions would affect the future behavior of the pet. The dog must be corrected only when it was caught doing the act. Otherwise the dog will think that what it has done is not wrong. A behavior that has a pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated. A dog excitedly jumping and barking to get the attention of the master is best ignored. Once the dog has settled down, a reward in the form of a treat, a hug or praise will be associated by the pet to the desirable behavior. As the reward is something pleasant, the behavior will likely be repeated.

Dogs are touted as man’s best friends because no animal can better understand the behavior of humans than dogs. In spite of the limited language skills, dogs can acquire knowledge through association, imitation and perception. Something is definitely going on inside the dog’s brain… more than just eating, playing and sleeping.

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