photo courtesy of D. Hutchison Photography

How Dogs Learn


BayBriar Kennel
Uniting Dog And Owner Through Education
Jeannette Hutchison
31834 Geib Rd. Cordova, Md. 21625


      Dogs repeat the behaviors that pay off. They learn through consistent repetition. In day-to-day life, with our busy schedules, we have a tendency to ignore our furry friends when they are being good and don’t reward them for appropriate behavior. The dog soon learns that barking, jumping, stealing things, counter surfing, raiding the trash, and pestering you pays off, because those behaviors get you to pay attention to them. How you respond may reinforce them to repeat the behavior again. You either want a behavior, or you don’t. If you give attention to a behavior you do not want, you have just reinforced the dog to repeat it. Behaviors you want need to be positively reinforced or rewarded. Some behaviors are self rewarding like getting in the trash and counter surfing, just to mention a few. Behaviors you do not want need to be ignored or disciplined. I determine whether to ignore or discipline a behavior by considering the age of the dog, and the attitude with which the offence is committed.
      Dogs don’t generalize. They need to learn to behave in different places with many different distractions. When you have the behavior on a command, you need to teach the dog to perform the command, for duration with distractions and from a distance.  Every thing is a distraction: people, other dogs, birds, bugs, cars, etc. Dogs need to have duration to behaviors. They need to be able to stay for a period of time, heel at your side for more then 10 feet and come from a distance. If your dog cannot heel on a 6’ leash with distractions you know he will not come reliably off leash. When you give commands that you cannot reinforce you are teaching the dog you don’t mean what you say. Giving multiple commands teaches the dog you don’t mean what you say as well. Teach the dog that every word you say counts. Keep your commands short and sweet. Each command should have one meaning. I hear owners tell the dog to get down when he jumps up and later they tell him to down wanting him to lie on the ground. That is confusing to the dog. Keep it simple and set the dog up for success.

Teaching the dog to respond to commands

1. Mark a behavior with a clicker. Reward the behavior often.

2. Get the behavior on a command. Only reward the behavior when you ask for it.

3. Get the behavior on ONE command. Don’t give multiple commands.

4. Proof the behavior by adding the three D’s: duration, distractions and distance.
Dogs do not generalize. Take the show on the road. The dog needs to learn the rules are the same everywhere.

5. Make sure the dog is learning what you think you are teaching.



Rewards come in many different forms: food, toys, play, affection and attention just to mention a few. Food is a huge motivator to dogs.  There are many different kinds of food, your dog’s dinner, treats, hot dogs, cheese, chicken, etc. Learn what motivates your dog. The harder a behavior is for your dog to perform the better the pay off or reward should be. Dogs repeat the behaviors that pay off.


I use a clicker to shape behaviors. I do not like to lure or bribe behaviors. If you use a bribe or lure to get the dog to perform a behavior you need a plan to get the behavior to happen without the bribe. Luring and bribing your dog teaches them not to offer behaviors. The food comes out when your dog is not doing what you want so he learns to repeat that behavior, (doing nothing).  Dogs soon learn to only work when the lure or bribe is present.



© 2008 CDog Run Agility