Why is it so hard to teach my dog the basic commands? Understanding how dogs learn.

Dogs learn by positive and negative associations, routines, and things they can predict. They will repeat the behavior with positive outcomes and avoid behaviors with adverse effects. The challenge is understanding how they communicate with us and knowing what our dogs perceive as positive and negative.

Your dog is barking, and you yell at him to stop. We assume that yelling at him would be perceived as a negative outcome of his behavior. However, he was barking to get your attention, and you gave him that attention by barking back at him. He did not perceive the yelling as a negative response but rather a positive one.

Instead of yelling, you could call him to you, ask him to sit, and give him a treat. You would be rewarding him for coming and sitting. You have also started teaching him how to ask for attention without barking.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning happens without us even realizing it. It is a dog’s learned response to

sights, sounds, and environmental stimuli. A few examples would be a dog’s reaction to

skateboards, the mailman, or another dog. When their response to a stimulus is undesirable or disruptive, we need to counter-condition their response. You can Counter conditioning your dog by giving them a new association with the stimuli. We do this by giving them a treat when the trigger is present. For example – when they see another dog, you give them treats before they react and continue to provide them with treats while the dog is in view. You will be associating the sight of another dog with getting a favorite treat, and in no time, your dog will look to you when they see a dog instead of the previous behavior of being reactive.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the process of pairing positive and negative reinforcement with behaviors. When a dog shows a behavior we like, it receives a positive reinforcement like a

treat. If the dog does not follow a command, it gets a negative reinforcement which is no treat. For a dog to associate a behavior with a reward or punishment, the reward or punishment must come immediately after the behavior. In general, within 2 seconds after the behavior is shown. If you wait 5 seconds, the dog won’t know what it is being rewarded or punished for. Since it is nearly impossible to reward or punish a dog within 2 seconds, we use verbal markers or a clicker. A marker is a word or sound that marks the behavior and tells our dogs whether what they did was correct or incorrect. By using verbal markers, we can extend the 2

seconds allowing us time to get to the dog and provide more feedback. Marker words can be “Yes” or a click from a clicker as a reward marker and “No” or “Nope” as a punishment marker. Punishment is not physical. It is only a verbal “NO” and no treat.

Dogs that are trained with markers become great problem solvers. This system allows dogs to make mistakes and learn from them. It also allows the trainer to train the dog accurately and from a distance.

The three stages of learning

Stage one is teaching- In this stage, your dog learns a new skill. You should use lots of treats and keep training sessions short. There is no punishment, and you do not use verbal commands.

The second stage is training- In this stage, your dog has a general idea of the new skill, and you start using a command word. they also learn there are punishment markers when he does not complete the commands. You will add distractions, and once your dog follows commands consistently, you will want to phase out treats.

The third stage is proofing- In this stage, your dog knows the command and release words. You start using the new command in different environments with more distractions. This is a critical stage that is often forgotten. Just because your dog will sit and stay in your home does not mean he will do it at a park. If your dog struggles, you will need to go back to stage one until he improves.

Luring, Capturing, and Guiding

Luring is done by putting a treat in your hand, waving it in front of your dog’s nose, and moving it around as the dog follows the scent. You can use luring to move the dog into a sit, down, or heel position.

Capturing is done by waiting for your dog to show the desired behavior on its own and then marking and rewarding that behavior.

Guiding is done by physically putting your dog into the position you want, then marking and rewarding.

When to add a command

Commands are not added till your dog is consistently performing the desired behavior. Dogs only understand words that they can attach to a behavior. If you use a command before they know the behavior, they will not understand, and it will be another meaningless human sound. It will also make teaching the verbal command more challenging as he has already learned that it has no meaning. So, only add verbal commands once your dog reliably performs the behavior.

Release words

When you are teaching a new command, you will want to train for duration and teach your dog the command doesn’t end till he’s given a release word. Chose a word you do not use every day, such as “okay.” Two good words to use are “free” and “play.” Once he knows the meaning of the release word, he will get excited when he hears it, and it will become a reward. When you say the release word, be sure to say it with enthusiasm. Think of it as being a celebration of a job well done.

Choosing the right reward

Rewards are food, treats, and toys your dog likes, and each has its level of value. For example, kibble vs. a Milk Bone, Milk-Bone Vs. Liver Treat or a tennis ball Vs. a Tug Toy. It all depends on your dog and what he considers high, medium and low value.

You will want two levels of reward when you are training. High-value treats are good when teaching a new skill and conditioning behaviors. They are highly motivating and will keep your dog engaged in the training. However, if your dog is overly excited over the treat and has difficulty focusing, you will need to switch to a lower-value treat.

Phasing out the lure

Once your dog is consistent with your lure training, you will want to stop using it slowly. So your dog does not become too reliant. To do this, use an empty closed hand to lure and treat with your opposite hand. If your dog is responding to the empty lure hand, you can move on to opening your lure hand and continue to reward with your opposite hand. The next step is to use a verbal command only. If your dog fails to do the command, use an open lure hand to guide it. Us the command and open lure hand a few times then try to us just the command again.

Phasing out the reward

You will want to phase out treat rewards once your dog consistently completes commands. You should not stop treating abruptly. You should do it gradually. During your training. After giving five treats, skip the sixth treat, give two, then skip the ninth. When cutting a treat, you will replace it with verbal praise, “Good Dog!” over the subsequent three to four training sessions; skip treats until you are only treating at random.

You should now have a good understanding of how dogs learn and the process of teaching new skills. If you are unsure what training gear and treats to buy, check out our product recommendations at

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