In education, as in rehabilitation, it is important to know and understand the different learning techniques in dogs.
But first, what is learning?
According to the definition, learning is “the result of the reception, integration and storage in the memory of information that the individual will be able to call upon in order to perform an adapted behavior”.
When it comes to educating a dog, it will be necessary to teach him indications that will be recorded in his memory and that he will be able to use according to a precise situation. Concerning re-education, this consists of going back to a learning process to replace it to modify the response, in other words, the dog’s behaviour at a given moment.
Let’s move on to the different types of learning in dogs:
Classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian conditioning
Classical conditioning was discovered by the physician and physiologist Yvan Pavlov at the end of the 19th century. This discovery, which earned him the Nobel Prize, began with studies on digestion.
Classical conditioning, which consists of provoking reflexive conditioning, was discovered in an experimental device carried out with dogs.
The first step of his experiment was to simply give pieces of meat to a dog, and he called it the unconditional stimulus. This stimulus causes the dog to salivate, and this consequence is called the automatic reflex response.
The second step of his experiment consisted of associating the sound of a bell with the presentation of meat and repeating this process several times.
The third and last step was then to offer the dog only the sound of the bell without giving any meat. The repetition of the second step was that the simple sound of the bell provoked the dog the same automatic reflex response as in the first step, namely salvation. This consequence is called conditioning learning.
From this observation, Pavlov drew several conclusions, namely:
Repetition of the procedure is mandatory to obtain the reflex response,
The sound of the bell, which is the conditional stimulus, must be presented at a time not too far from the unconditional stimulus, namely the piece of meat,
On the other hand, if the sound of the bell is proposed many times without presenting the meat, the reflex response will be diminished. This is known as the extinction principle,
Similarly, if the exercise is not proposed for a certain period, the same consequence for the extinction principle is observed. This is called recovery.
Operant conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning
Operant conditioning, unlike classical conditioning, produces voluntary behaviour. There are four types of variables that can cause operant conditioning:
With these four variables, it is possible to either increase or decrease a behaviour. To do this, we can either present a positive or negative stimulus to the dog or remove it.
So, here is how it works in practice:
1- For positive reinforcement, we will propose a positive stimulus for the dog that will increase the desired behaviour and this voluntarily. For example, give a dog a treat after he sits.
2- For positive punishment, it will present a negative stimulus for the dog to decrease a behaviour. For example, punishing a dog for an unwanted behaviour will cause the behaviour to decrease voluntarily.
3- Regarding negative reinforcement, you will need to remove a negative stimulus for the dog to increase the likelihood of performing a behaviour. For example, pulling on the dog’s leash and stopping pulling when the dog is sitting.
4- Finally, negative punishment consists of removing a positive stimulus for the dog to decrease an unwanted behaviour, for example, removing a treat from your dog because he is jumping, which will cause him to calm down to get his treat. Removing the treatment decreases the jumping behaviour.
The principle of habituation training is simply to repeatedly offer an association to create or modify behaviour in the dog. So, for example, if you want to teach a dog to sit on a cue, you will have to create many repetitions of this exercise to acquire it.
Similarly, if a dog is fearful in the presence of a vacuum cleaner, for example, changing its associations by repeatedly offering positive stimuli near the vacuum cleaner will change the dog’s association with that item.
Learning by imitation
The dog can imitate and therefore learn or change its behaviour by observing other individuals of its species. In this logic, it is no longer the stimulus but the response of another individual that triggers the behaviour change. Once again, to speak of learning, the principle of repetition is important. In the same logic, we can also talk about social facilitation, which corresponds to the principle of group effect without this necessarily being linked to learning.
Learning by observation
In contrast to learning by imitation (where the individual learns by imitating only his model without considering the elements that led the model to choose this behaviour), learning by observation consists of learning behaviour by observing all the elements that led the model to choose a behaviour.
Latent learning occurs without any positive or negative stimulus and will be used later. For example, a dog discovers a new area with a shelter but is not positively reinforced to go there. With latent learning, if the weather is bad, the dog will have the behaviour to shelter there.
Here are the main types of learning that exist in dogs. Their application will depend on the needs, the context and the cause of the behaviour to be reinforced, modified or suppressed.