How Dogs Learn: The Secrets of Dog Psychology

how do dogs learn

So you want to start training your dog but don’t know where to start? Here’s a secret: If you win a dog’s mind, the training is easy. The good news is you can do it with a basic understanding of dog psychology and how dogs learn.

Want more good news? Not only does this work with puppies, it works with older dogs with behavior issues.

Whether it’s digging up the yard or keeping you up at night with their barking, you can solve just about any dog problem with a little knowledge of dog psychology.

Ready to learn some doggie psych? Good! Let’s get started.

Dog Psychology 101

Turns out you might be more like your dog than you think. Sure you both like walks in the park and bacon, but did you know that behavioral learning theories in human psychology can help you understand your dog?

Yup, human psychology as applied to dogs can give you some legit insight on teaching your pooch.

There are basic behavioral psychology theories that could come in handy when you start training your dog and trying to modify their behaviors. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it fun and interesting for you.

To prove it, here’s a video of a baby teaching a dog to talk. Bet you never saw that in your Psych class. Now, on to the science-y stuff!

Learning and Conditioning

How to people learn? It’s a process that involves observing, processing, and retaining new information.  

How do babies learn how to talk? They observe the grown-ups do it, they process the observation and make the connection of what the mouth sounds are for (communicating). Once they’re able to do it themselves, they retain the basics of the behavior, how it’s done and what it’s for.

What is Conditioning? No, not the stuff you use with your shampoo. This conditioning is about about stimuli and responses and how to use it with behavior.

Conditioning comes with two theories, classical and operant. I think this will really help, so let’s take a look at both.

Classical Conditioning: ‘Ding Ding’ = Drool

The main gist of this theory is that behaviors are reflexes that act as responses to certain stimuli. Probably the most famous psychologist that you’ll know with regards to classical conditioning is Ian Pavlov.

Fun fact, Pavlov’s famous experiment had to do with dogs, so you can see how this relates to dog training and behavior modification.

What Pavlov did was to condition dogs to salivate with just the sound of a bell.

I doubt your dog salivates when he hears a bell. That’s because it’s not something that dogs normally do, right?

Well, Pavlov conditioned the dogs by ringing a dinner bell just before he served the dogs their food. He did this for a certain period of time, up to the point where the dogs started to salivate just by hearing the bell, even without any food present!

By that point, the salivation was pretty much just a reflex rather than as a direct response to food.

While ringing bells to get your dog to salivate may not exactly be what you’re looking for to train your dog with, you can also apply the principle of classical conditioning with things they are apprehensive of like leashes, nail cutters, and so on. Simply expose them to the negative item before presenting them with a good thing like food, treats, or a good walk.

I observed this firsthand with one of our dogs, who hated her leash the first time we put it on her. But all it took was one enjoyable day out at the park (she hadn’t enjoyed much of the outdoors at that point), and now she absolutely loves her leash. In fact, she goes crazy when she sees it, now associating it with a good day out.

how do dogs learn their names

Operant Conditioning: Good Doggies Get Rewards

Much like its older sibling Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning operates on the idea of stimulus and response. But this time, it doesn’t view the responses as reflexes but rather as a result of either positive or negative stimuli.

Think of it as a ‘rewards’ and ‘punishment’ sort of thing.

Basically, when you do something good and get a reward, chances are you’ll want to do that good behavior again to get another reward, right?  Like when you were a kid and you got a gold star for doing well in class, you kept on aiming to get more and more gold stars.

And if you do something bad and get punished for it (like getting grounded because you took the car out for a joyride without either of your parents around), you’ll probably never want to do it again.

The same idea also works with our dogs. They behave to get rewards and avoid punishment, and if they don’t they don’t get rewarded and instead get punished for it.

Rewards can range from treats to praise, or anything else your dog enjoys. Common punishments include choke or shock collars, yelling, hitting, etc.

At Good Doggies, we like to emphasize gentle and humane teaching of your dog. At the very least, the absence of a reward is punishment enough.

Social Learning Theory: Doggie See, Doggie Do

The idea of this theory is simply that humans (and dogs) learn behaviors by observing how other humans (or dogs) behave. It says that behavior is a product of observation and imitation.

One famous study in relation to this theory is when Albert Bandura showed some kids a video of how grown-ups treated a Bobo doll. Prior to this, the children have never seen or encountered a Bobo doll. The video showed a woman punching and yelling at the doll.

Afterwards, Bandura led the kids to a room that had a Bobo doll in it and observed how they treated the doll. And guess what? Some of the kids did exactly as they saw the grown-up do in the video.

Poor Bobo.

But when Bandura brought another group of kids who did not see the video into the room with the doll, they didn’t react similarly. In fact, none of them punched or yelled at the doll unlike with the kids in the other group.

Yay for Bobo!

Similarly, the phenomenon described by the Social Learning Theory can be observed in dogs.

But here’s the catch.

We humans can’t use social learning to teach new behaviors to our dogs because they only learn socially by observing other dogs.

So that video of the dog ‘imitating’ the baby’s babble at the beginning of this post? It’s not exactly the dog copying what the kid is doing. Chances are the dog was ‘responding’ to the babble.

So no, your dog won’t learn to talk just by observing and imitating you (though we wish they could because there are times when we’d give all the pennies in the world just to know what they’re thinking).

And trust me, no matter how much effort you give into acting like how an alpha dog would, your dog will likely not respond as you’d want them to.

Dogs are smart enough to see that we aren’t like them, so we don’t have the social influence it takes for the Social Learning Theory to be applied with them.

If you have a well-mannered older dog who knows the tricks you’re trying to teach your younger dog, then you can try that. But I wouldn’t count on it as in our house it just so happened that the younger dogs taught the older ones their (bad) habits.

It’s safe to say that you should stick with the two conditioning theories when you train your dog.


While deciding how you can start training your dog to teach them some new behaviors or just wanting to modify their present misbehaviors to lose the ‘mis’ part, it can be tricky to know where to start. Luckily, human behavioral psychology has the answers on how dogs learn.

The two principles which are most often used by trainers from all over are derived from Classical and Operant conditioning, which both have something to do with stimuli and responses. Meanwhile, Social Learning is another theory that can be applied to dog training, just not by human trainers.

Want access to hundreds of dog training videos from a pro? Check out Doggy Dan’s website

how dogs learn

1 thought on “How Dogs Learn: The Secrets of Dog Psychology”

  1. I liked the simple way you talk about teaching dogs by example. I can do that but consistency is the key. If you don’t have back up you’re only getting 50% of the lesson across. Repeating the lessons is the answer.

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