What Learning Really Is, and How Dogs Learn

You have just adopted Farley, a one-year-old mixed-breed dog, and you would like to be sure he fits well in your active household. You have received many suggestions for where you can go to get training for Farley, but they all seem to have different views on how to train a dog. How do you choose which is the best approach for Farley? Most people would like to have the smartest dog on the block—a Mensa dog. Mensa is an association of people who have scored very high on intelligence tests. So would you like Farley to be a Mensa dog? Are you sure? Some of the most unhappy dog owners are those with very smart dogs who are underemployed. Do you really want a dog who can open any door, knows what taking out the suitcases means, buries the nail clipper, and remembers the weak spot in the fence? For most people, the perfect dog comes when called, drops even the most delicious food when asked, never jumps up on anyone, stays when told, and does a few tricks to amuse your guests. And you know what? He doesn’t need a PhD to learn these things, and you don’t need one to teach him. In this chapter you’ll learn how to teach your dog tasks that can make your life and his easier. And you’ll come to see the difference between what you think you’re teaching and what the dog thinks you’re teaching.

Facts, Not Fiction

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That is definitely fiction. Snowy was a ten-year-old Westie who learned to sit at ten years of age. Up until that time, for what his owners needed, he was the perfect dog. He never really had to be taught anything. He lived in the country and could roam in the yard that he never left. He jumped in greeting, but jumped in the air, not on people. He taught himself to sit up and beg. The only reason he needed to learn to sit at age ten is that this is when his life circumstances changed. And guess what? He did learn to sit when asked, demonstrating that, in fact, you can teach an old dog new tricks. What is true is that dogs learn more slowly in old age, just as humans do. The decline in learning ability (and cognitive function) can be slowed to a great extent in dogs, as in humans, with the right diet and environmental enrichment, especially social enrichment—increased opportunities for interactions with other dogs and people.

The Smartest Dogs

All dogs are smart enough to teach us to provide them with food, water, shelter, and, usually, exercise and veterinary care. Which dogs are the smartest? It depends on how you define smart. At the moment, the dog with the best memory for words is a Border Collie, who can retrieve more than four hundred different objects by name. This is a form of associative learning: the dog learns to associate words with objects. It is a prodigious feat. But what may be more impressive is insightful behavior. We all know that dogs can be sneaky, and recently this was proven in an experiment in which a dog could take a treat from either a dish that made noise when he touched it or from a silent container. If a person was not watching, the dog chose the silent container, thus not alerting the owner. He was being insightful. Border Collies have a reputation for being brilliant. And, in fact, the breeds that are rated as the most trainable are Poodles and Border Collies. Those rated least trainable are Beagles and Basset Hounds. However, when a series of learning tests was given to five breeds, the differences within breed (individual dogs of the same breed) were greater than the variations between dogs of different breeds. In other words, a dog’s breed is not the last word on his trainability. It’s important to remember that trainability is not necessarily intelligence, and that certain breeds have been genetically selected over time to be more easily trained for a specific task, such as to herd sheep, leap into the water after objects, run after rabbits, or attack other dogs or people. The features of each breed are not inherited as a package but rather as separate traits, probably on separate chromosomes. So if a Newfoundland is crossed with a Border Collie, some of the descendants will love water like a Newfoundland and stare at sheep like a Border Collie; others will show one or the other of those traits. So what are the mental abilities of dogs? They can certainly learn to associate objects and also tasks with words. They can match to sample—a task in which the dog is shown one object and then must choose between that object and a novel one; choosing the familiar object is rewarded. For example, if you show a dog a red rubber squirrel and then show him a pile of toys, picking out the red rubber squirrel from the pile is matching to sample. Dogs do not do as well at matching toys with photographs of toys, though. While it is unlikely that dogs understand geometry, they can make mental maps. If you walk a dog on a leash in an L-shaped path away from a goal (food), when released he will take a shortcut (the hypotenuse of the triangle) to make his way back to the food. These mental maps persist too. Hide a toy or treat, and he can remember where it was hidden for half an hour. However, dogs are not so good at barrier problems. If they are inside of a Vshaped barrier, they can figure out how to run around the barrier to get a reward on the outside of the V. But if they are outside the V, they have trouble understanding that they must run around the barrier to get the reward inside the V.

What Is Learning?

Learning is defined as acquiring knowledge by instruction. At its most basic, it’s a multistep physical process involving electrical impulses, release of chemicals, and formation of proteins. Information is received by nerve cells that send an electrical impulse to the end of the nerve, where neurochemicals are released and stimulate the next nerve. When this process is repeated enough times, the nerve will form new proteins and eventually grow new pathways. In other words, your dog’s brain actually changes as he learns. The more often a given combination of nerves is stimulated, the more likely the behavior will occur in response to that specific stimulus. The next time you say “sit” and your dog sits, think about all the processes that were involved in forming that memory. In fact, your dog is learning all the time—when you specifically teach him and when you don’t. Remember when, as a puppy, he stuck his nose in a candle flame? He learned to avoid fire with no assistance from you. Similarly, he learned on his own that there really wasn’t another dog in the mirror. Every day, every walk you take your dog on, he is constantly learning. It doesn’t matter how young or old he is.


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