Dog training is one of the most demanding and difficult aspects of welcoming any new canine to the family. Sometimes, it seems that sit and stay are the hardest tasks known to a man (or a dog). But have you tried looking into the science of dog training, and the psychology behind it? It may just turn the whole process to become a walk in a dog park!
As a student and practitioner of psychology as well as a dog owner, my curiosity of applying the science to training dogs and trying it out with my own pooches was to be expected.
I’ve been researching this field for a few years now and will share ten of the best potential dog training tricks that can be explored based on many theories coming from the science of human psychology and canine research. It’s likely you already knew some of them, but isn’t it curious to know exactly how these dog training techniques came to be?
* To make matters simpler for you, I reference primarily one source – research of Saundra K. Ciccarelle, PhD of Gulf Coast Community College and J. Noland White, PhD of Georgia College & State University – whose book and papers encompass all further studies related to the aforementioned psychology science under each subsection.
10 Psychological Dog Training Tricks
(with the Psychology behind them explained)
1 Use Pavlov’s method of classical conditioning to acquire a desired response to a stimulus.
It’s only fair that we start here. Classical conditioning of dogs, which was researched extensively by behaviorist and physiologist Ivan Pavlov, is a process by which a stimulus becomes associated with a specific response. As a result, the response will occur unconsciously any time at which the stimulus is present .
Give classical conditioning a try next time you take your dog for a walk. If your pet often seems to need to “go out” immediately after coming inside from a long walk, classical conditioning will encourage your dog to relieve themselves during your walk, solving the “in and out” shenanigans.
In a sense, this style of conditioning as applied to dog training is similar to that of training small children to go to the bathroom before they go to bed to avoid a bed-wetting incident. After some time, a child will be conditioned to go every night before bed. Similarly, after some time, your dog will be conditioned to go during the walk as opposed to immediately afterward.
Here’s how it works:
Every time your dog properly relieves themselves outside, ring a bell. After some time of conditioning, the bell will become a conditioned stimulus that will, upon ringing, cause your dog to urinate almost involuntarily.
To put your new dog training expertise into action, ring the bell towards the end of your walk once you have conditioned your dog. This will trigger your dog to “empty the tank,” and you will no longer be faced with a constant need to let your dog in and out.
(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 171-173)
2 Fulfill one of the Maslow’s basic needs and teach your dog a new trick with primary reinforcers.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, most living beings have a hierarchy of needs, often presented in a pyramid. While these needs range from species to species, the base of the pyramid illustrates needs shared by nearly all species; they are known as basic needs , and they represent what is necessary for survival, such as food, water, and touch.
The satisfaction of hunger, thirst, and pleasure is a basic need in all animals. As a result, they can be harnessed in operant conditioning (voluntary) to be used as rewards for pet training. To implement a primary enforcer, pet your dog after they do a simple trick, such as sitting down, on their own. Then, begin to pet your dog only when they sit down on command.
As you reinforce your dog’s good behavior by filling a basic need, you are conditioning your dog to enjoy the trick and the reward that they receive from it, and after repeated reinforcement, your dog will happily sit on command in order to receive the positive reinforcement of the reward!
(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 181-182; 351-353)
3 Supplement primary reinforcement with secondary reinforcers to see long-lasting dog training results.
While primary reinforcers in dog training, such as using treats or petting your dog, may be sufficient to initially teach your canine a new trick, it may become difficult to continue the reinforcement without risking negative consequences such as weight gain or begging as a result of continuous petting and attention (there’s an interesting article related to this, aptly called “Is Your Dog a Gambling Addict?“).
In addition, there is risk of extinction of the trick if a primary reinforcer is not referenced every time. This is absolutely natural not only to dogs, but to humans as well (and is the basis of how habits are created).
Here’s what you do:
Instead of continually offering only primary reinforcement for good behavior, begin accompanying the reinforcement with praise. Similarly to Pavlov’s method of classical conditioning I talked about above, after several attempts with the new reinforcement, your dog will associate not only the food, but also the praise with performing the desired trick .
After a while, the implementation of this reinforcer will actually be interpreted as satisfying the same need as the primary reinforcer. Once the new reinforcer is conditioned, a simple “Good Dog!” command will be all it takes to have your pup wriggling with pleasure after their good behavior.
(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 182)
4 Use negative reinforcement through removal of stimulus to encourage good behavior.
Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement is not necessarily (as a rule) the addition of a negative consequence, such as pain; rather, it is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, such as cold weather.
Negative reinforcement functions not by rewarding exceptional behavior, such as a trick, but rather by encouraging generally good behavior in dogs. If you have a new puppy, negative reinforcement can be particularly beneficial to train them to behave well when home alone .
If you’d like to read more on this matter, I recommend some articles from one of the best dog trainers out there, Patricial McConnell, PhD and particularly this article on the “negatives and positives”. For now, let’s get back to our negative reinforcement and how you can use it effectively in your dog training tasks.
Here’s what you can do:
Start with housebreaking your dog. Begin to train your puppy while you are home to prevent accidents and other puppy-related mishaps. With this method, you can begin by placing the puppy alone in a safe and warm but empty room. The puppy may become lonely, which may cue barking or whining. However, do not immediately tend to the puppy when he begins to whine.
Start in small increments, such as 5 to 15 minutes of “alone time” for the puppy before removing the unpleasant stimulus – loneliness – and beginning to play and interact with the puppy again. Then, start increasing the increments in which you interact with the puppy.
Over time, the puppy will learn that the schedule of alone time will vary. As a result, they will become less dependent on the reinforcement in small increments and will soon be able to stay home alone for long periods of time without whining or barking.
(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 183)
5 Try a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement to train your dog to perform complex and multi-step tricks.
In this component of operant conditioning, the reinforcement is provided based upon a certain ratio of behavior to reinforcement. On a simple level, this can be a dog treat or praise after your dog performs…