8 Psychological Learning Principles for Dogs

Two dogs sniffing the groundThere are eight psychological learning principles that are generally applied to the human learning experience which are used to better understand and improve a student’s learning experience.  These principles, however, can also be used to improve the time we spend training our dogs. Let’s take a look at how these principles can be applied to dog training:


1) Readiness:  a state of physical, emotional, mental concentration and eagerness to learn.  In dog training, we call this drive.  A dog who is engaged, focused and motivated will absorb training far more quickly than a dog who is distracted and uninterested.  Sometimes this must be done through enticement which is accomplished by high value food or toy drive and agitation.


2) Exercise: information or behaviors most often repeated are remembered best.  You’ve heard the saying practice makes permanent?  The principle of exercise is based on consistent practice and rehearsal of the behaviors we are teaching.  A dog must practice a behavior repeatedly before it is a permanent part of the dog’s repertoire.


3) Effect: learning is strengthened by the emotional state of the student which directly effects motivation and learning success.  Happiness or satisfaction experienced while learning will motivate the student, or dog in this case, to continue performing the behavior which produces the pleasant effect.  Positive reinforcement is a significant part of the effect principle of learning.  Reward based training provides dogs with a direct source of satisfaction and motivation which, in turn, strengthens the learning process.


4) Primacy: the behavior and the way it is learned the first time creates a dominant, almost unalterable impression.  This means as trainers we need to teach the fundamentals of training (“Good”, “Yes”, “No”, etc.) with as much accuracy as possible the first few times.  The principle of primacy suggests that re-training a behavior after it has been trained or learned incorrectly, is harder than teaching it the first time.


5) Recency: the behavior most recently learned is most easily recalled.  The longer you go between training sessions and practicing a behavior, the harder it will be for the dog to recall.  Therefore, it is important to maintain consistency in our training.  Train frequently, even if it isn’t for long periods of time.


6) Intensity: the more intense the learning experience of particular material, the more likely the material will be retained.  As trainers, then, it is incumbent upon us to make the learning experience, fun, engaging and highly rewarding.


7) Freedom: Behaviors learned absent of coercion and compulsion are more easily and readily recalled.  When we allow our dogs to actively learn what is expected through the freedoms of choice, action, and consequence the more impactful the learning experience will be.


8) Requirement: the student, or dog in this case, must have a starting point or foundation from which to learn the next behavior.  This principle of learning underlines the importance of the fundamentals. You and your dog must share a relationship conducive to training.  Then, your dog must also understand and consistently react to your basic commands (“Yes”, “No”, “Good”, and “Stop”.).  This will not only provide a solid base from which to start the learning process but also a path to success.


As you can see, the principles of learning, developed to explain human learning, still provide a good explanation of the dog’s learning experience.  More importantly, as owners and trainers we can use these psychological learning principles for dogs to better understand how they learn and how to assist them in the process.

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