From Rachel Jones. Email her at rjones[AT]borderstan.com. A professional dog trainer, she is the owner of K-9 Divine.
It can be very frustrating to train a dog, especially when an owner is dealing with a serious problem like aggression or fear. Having a proper understanding of learning theory and the way dogs learn can help a person have realistic expectations and a successful plan.
Humans have much higher powers of cognition than dogs. We have critical reasoning, which allows us to process concepts such as right and wrong, and draw conclusions based on observations. Dogs do not have this ability. Dogs learn by repetition. That is the only way they learn both behaviors and emotions.
Therefore, it is important for humans to set aside both the idea of morality and our common teaching style of lecturing and explaining when working with dogs.
Successful Repetition: 200 Times
In order for a dog to learn anything, he must engage in the same behavior successfully at least 200 times. For example, a dog must hear the word “sit” in conjunction with putting her rear on the ground 200 times before she links the command with the behavior. Similarly, if she jumps on your visitors 200 times and gets attention she will have learned to jump on people.
Therefore, in order to have a well-behaved dog, you must set them up to engage in many repetitions of good behavior, and few repetitions of bad behavior. If you don’t want your dog to do things like knock over the garbage can or jump on the furniture, you need to organize his time so that he can’t possibly engage in those behaviors. Allowing him to do it and then trying to punish him for it is not very successful, since he does not grasp the concept of right vs. wrong.
Once a dog has engaged in hundreds of repetitions of a certain emotion, such as fear, it takes a lot of work to change how she feels. For example, if a dog has been barking and growling at strangers for three years, it will take at least a few months to change the behavior. Beware of television shows where the trainer works with the dog for one hour and “cures” it of fear or aggression. In reality, training programs for emotional issues take months of tedious repetitions on the part of the dog and the owner.
Whether you are teaching your dog to sit or working on an aggression problem, you will have a much greater chance of success if you understand the way your dog’s mind works and commit to a realistic amount of time to train.