In order to communicate with dogs we have to understand them as dogs. We have to look at the species as the amazing animals that they are. One human trait that will make this difficult is our tendency to anthropomorphize, or to give human form or attributes to an animal, plant, material object, etc.

We will combat our natural tendency to anthropomorphize dogs by looking in a matter-of-fact way at some things that we know about dogs. By looking at what we know as facts about dogs it will enable us to use those facts to aid in our interspecies communication skills.

This blog entry will focus on the fourth thing that we know about dogs; Dogs learn through association. We know dogs can learn through making associations as this was proven in the famous experiment done by Pavlov where he rings a bell and the dogs start to drool. I’m sure you see your own dog demonstrating his learned associations every day. Maybe you pick up your leash and your dog runs excitedly to the front door because he associates his leash with going for a walk. Your dog probably hears the garage door opener at the same time every day and he runs suddenly gets very excited because he associates the sound of the garage door opening at that time of day to mean “Dad’s home!”

One way that we use associations in dog training is with conditioning and counter-conditioning. In the first months of a dog’s life most owners spend a lot of time socializing their puppies to new people, places, other dogs and animals, experiences, etc. to ensure their puppy grows up to be a happy-go-lucky adult dog. This socialization process is done through creating positive associations with these new experiences. If by accident a young puppy has a negative experience with something during this socialization period, i.e. a dog attacks your young puppy, and creates a negative association with dogs, you then have to spend time counter-conditioning your puppy so they are not afraid or reactive towards other dogs later on in life. However, the good news is that most negative associations can become a positive association with time and patience.

Often times, because dogs are so perceptive and aware of human body language and habits, people can create accidental associations. An example of this would be a dog that has separation anxiety when their owner leaves the house. The dog has probably created associations with their owner’s morning routine, i.e. putting on their shoes, grabbing their keys and purse or briefcase and then leaving for work. Separation anxiety is such a difficult issue to resolve because it takes much longer to counter-condition those associations the dog has made and has had reinforced on a daily basis. Frequently we hear from clients that are concerned because their dogs bark and cry in their crates and when we ask for more details we find that the only time they put their dog in the crate is right before they leave for work or other long period of time when they are out of the house. Their dog has then created a negative association with the crate, because whenever they are in the crate their family leaves. So to the dog the association is: crate = separation and/or abandonment.

In the previous blog, we talked about dogs doing what is efficient for them. Dogs learn what the efficient way is through trial and error and ultimately, association. Every interaction you have with your dog is training. He is learning something. Whether it’s learning how to get his way through good behavior or bad behavior, your dog is learning through association.

The goal in dog training is to improve our ability to effectively communicate ideas to our dogs and one way to do this is with association. One of the most important associations many owners want their dogs to make is the difference between “Yes! What you’re doing right now is exactly what I wanted, I like it, keep doing that” and “No. Stop doing what you’re doing now and pay attention to me.” By teaching our dogs commands we have the opportunity to help our dogs make those associations and understand the difference between yes and no. If your dog understands yes and no then there is nothing you can’t teach them and no situation in which you will feel unprepared.

So keep training and Enjoy Your Dog!!!