PART 2... HOW DOGS LEARN AND THE MISTAKES WE MAKE
In Part 1 of 'Understanding Dog Behaviour' we focused on how dogs see the world.
Today we look at how dogs learn, and the early mistakes we make.
The Imprinting Stage
When our dogs are pups they display certain behaviours. How we respond to those behaviours will be a direct reflection on what habits and behaviours that our dog will habitually develop.
A good example (and only one of very many) is the 'jump up'.
Let’s use a Staffy pup as our example today. A loving loyal breed and an enthusiastic strong little body. He is all of 8wks old and is an adorable little hair bubble. He is right in the middle of his biggest imprinting stage. What he learns in the first 12 weeks will stay with him for life.
So tiny and close to the ground. How can you not want to snuggle and pat that sweet little face, and he of course wants your attention too. His curiosity is at its highest level.
You're sitting on the lounge, or at a table and you feel these little paws reach up on your shin. You reach down and give him a little scratch on the head. Maybe a little of your food that you’re eating. What's the harm, right?
This happens let's say 10 times a day. And every time, he is given a sweet greeting from you. Perhaps a smile, or kind word and a little pat. Two weeks later, pup can reach those paws up to your knee.
You have visitors and the gorgeous pup rushes to the door to greet them. "Oh, what a gorgeous baby” they say. Pup has jumped up to their knee for a pat and hello. And your visitor obliges and reaches down and pats that little head. They may even kneel down and be covered in licks to the face, while pup hears your friends high-pitched sounds of happiness for this reaction, which makes him even happier, and you too apparently.
Hmmmm so very harmless, right??
Ok. Let's fast forward to the same Staffy 6mths later. From the time he became your new Furbaby, till around 6 months of age, this is the response he received every time he jumped on you.
But NOW at 8 months he is stronger and the behaviour is becoming more difficult to deal with. He bowls you over if you bend down and keeps scratching your arms and legs. He leaves dirt all over your clothes, and wow it hurts when he jumps up so enthusiastically to the groin or belly. Not to mention the kids. They can't even go out to the back yard without being pushed to the ground.
You automatically put your hands out to push him down and yell at him. Which makes him more excitable. This confuses you as why would being yelled at make your dog more excitable. In fact, why is he jumping higher and higher the older he gets. Rebounding off your chest.
Ahhhh "Someone deal with this bloody dog would you".
Visitors arrive. Same dog gets thrown out side. Why? because he jumps all over everyone. And people don't like that.
Oh really?? Can't imagine how all that unruly behaviour started. He must be just a naughty dog, right?
Very much nope. YOU taught him well. He responded exactly as you taught. You really should congratulate yourself for teaching him and him responding precisely as intended.
But that’s not what you wanted from an adult dog I hear you say. Ok then, well lets keep reading
So How Do Dogs Learn?
....If I do something and I get an immediate feel good response (e.g. treat, pat or positive voice), I'll do it again and again, to reap the same response.
....If I do something and I get an immediate bad response that causes me feelings of discomfort I will be wary to want to do it again.
The reactions to my behaviours need to be short and quick and I have 1.8 secs to associate the behaviour with either a good or bad reaction.
For the past 6mths every time I jumped on your leg I was greeted within 1.8seconds, with a positive reinforcement of some sort. So I figured I must be doing the right thing. And nothing like repetition to instill a behaviour.
So thats 10 times a day for 6-8months. Ummmm...oh I dunno, you do the maths. I'm a dog. But whatever the figure, its a whole lot of positive reinforcement.
I don’t understand smacking or hitting as a learning reaction to my behaviour. Whilst this is a negative feeling for me, it isn’t the appropriate learning tool that gives me an immediate association. Physical pain puts my mind into flight or fight mode and so I immediately forget the details of what I was even doing that got me into this situation to start with.
Plus, along with all that yelling and flapping of hands, I have no idea what you’re on about. Too much emotion.
Remember those visitors (and probably the family too) who gave me lots of squeally cuddles? Lots of arms and hands and pats and mouths and tummy scratches? So much fun.
Why Has My Dog Become So Naughty?!
Puppy is now reacting that after learning this same behaviour for months on end and then suddenly the response changes.
...I need to work harder to gain the positive reaction I was getting before. The flustered angry voices don't deter me as they aid in my excitement.
I’m doing what you positively taught me to do since I was a baby. Now I’m very confused what’s happening.
Also, previously you would kneel down so that I may greet you with doggy licks around your mouth. (An innate instinctual behaviour a pup does to the parent on their return from a hunting trip away. To hopefully help you vomit that meal you last ate so I can have some dinner…mmmmm regurgitated meat). Or at the very least a sign of friendliness and submission.
So, if you aren’t going to come and kneel down to me anymore then I’m going to have to jump up and try and get to your mouth all the way up there. Sheesh you like to make a dog work for their hellos.
It's Not You It's Me
So, in a nut shell. We need to look at the general principles of how dogs learn and respond to direction. Combined with the behaviours we displayed when they were babies.
The other mistake we commonly make is thinking our dog can change their behaviours dependant on the situation.
No. If it was ok by you to do it when you came home and walked in the door, then clearly, you’re ok with me jumping all over you to say hi while you’re trying to watch the news. Its either on or its off.
It’s no wonder a hyperactive jumpy dog eventuated, and this is only ONE behaviour that we incorrectly teach our dogs. There are many many more.
SO, before we immediately jump to blaming our naughty dog, lets first look at ourselves.
Can you think of other ways you are accidentally ‘teaching’ your puppy right now? Or behaviours your adult dog does that annoy you that you inadvertently taught him yourself?
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Next part in the series; What do good strong leaders do?