How Dogs Learn

A common misconception is that a dog behaves badly because it is mad at us or getting back at us.

We think this is so because it looks guilty when we come home and discover the mess.

Unfortunately, the dog is punished for this act of 'revenge' for leaving it at home alone.

What has actually happened is that we have misread the animal's behaviour and body language entirely and we have compounded the problem by punishing the animal for something it doesn't know it has done.

Dogs don't actually have the capacity for complex human emotions such as guilt and revenge. Anthropomorphising (ascribing human characteristics and behaviour to animals) is a hindrance to understanding animal behaviour and is deleterious to the human-animal bond. Many dogs are relinquished because of their supposed bad behaviour, when in fact the problem is the owner's lack of understanding of the dog's normal behaviour.

Body language

When you come home to find the lounge trashed or furniture chewed you are understandably upset. The dog has its tail between its legs, eyes and head lowered and looking away from you because it is adopting submissive postures to appease you, not because it is feeling guilty, but because it is feeling anxious. It is trying to defuse the anger it is reading in your body language or expecting from you based on previous experience.

Signs of anxiety in dogs include:

  • Yawning, scratching or sniffing
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Looking away
  • Pulling the corners of the mouth back (may look like a smile)
  • Salivating
  • Pulling ears back
  • Creeping around in slow motion
  • Standing with tail tucked under

Sometimes this looks funny but in reality the dog is not feeling very happy at all, it is feeling anxious and predicting a bad outcome from the owner.

Destructive behaviours

Dogs perform destructive behaviours such as digging, chewing, pulling the clothes off the line and knocking over garbage bins mostly because they are bored. These are normal dog behaviours - dogs love to dig and chew as part of play as well as investigating their environment - but may peform these behaviours to excess when left alone all day without sufficient exercise, human interaction and mental stimulation. This is particularly so in puppies and highly energetic dogs.

Destructive behaviour can also be a sign of stress. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety become extremely anxious when separated from their owners, and show the anxiety by barking, howling, panting, house-soiling, destructiveness, drooling, attempts at escape, or even vomiting, diarrheoa, or refusing to eat when the owner is gone. The signs begin as soon as the owners prepare to leave and most destructive behaviours occur within the first 20 minutes.

So, when destructive behaviour occurs the first thing that needs to be done is to look for the reason for the behaviour, not punish the dog. Your vet can help you here by asking you detailed questions about the dog's environment and history of the behaviour. Even better is to set up a video camera and record exactly what the dog is doing after you leave. The results can be very illuminating to both the owner and the vet when they see how distressed the dog actually is.

Learning behaviour

Dogs primarily learn by making associations between events that consistently occur in association with each other. For example, Pavlov's famous experiment was designed to measure dogs' salivation response to food. He also found, quite by accident, that they also began to salivate in response to a light that was turned on immediately before the food appeared. The light predicted that the food was coming so it became associated with the food and evoked salivation by itself.

This is known as 'classical conditioning', where the animal learned an association between two stumuli. You probably see examples of this type of learning everyday, such as your dog getting just as excited about you picking up the lead or putting on your shoes as the walk itself or your cat running into the kitchen at the sound of a can opener.

Dogs also learn by 'operant conditioning' whereby behaviours that result in positive outcomes will be more likely to occur in the future. Training using 'positive reinforcement' is an example of this.

Positive reinforcement

Presentation of a reward, such as food, to your dog immediately following a behaviour, such as sitting, will make that behaviour more likely to occur in the future.

For positive reinforcement to be effective the reward must immediately follow the response. Delays of a even a few seconds can dramatically decrease the reinforcing effect of the food - in this time another behaviour may have occured and the dog doesn't learn to associate the reward with the correct response.

A dog will also perform a behaviour to obtain secondary rewards consistently presented with the primary reward or reinforcer. For example a pat on the head or the words 'good dog' can be paired with the food presentation. Once the association between the two stimuli or reinforcers have been made, then the dog will perform the command for just the pat or words on their own from time to time but if it done too frequently, the association will be lost.

Another misconception is that reassuring a dog that is anxious or fearful e.g. when it is shaking or hiding during a thunderstorm is rewarding it. A dog that is in a fearful state is acting on reflex to protect itself from a real or perceived threat and is not using the thinking part of its brain. Reassuring the dog in a soothing voice can help to calm the dog down, but this is not going to encourage it to be afraid in similar situations in the future. 

A fearful dog is not in a learning state, which is why dogs with anxiety disorders often need anti-anxiety medication. The medication helps calm the dog enough so that behavioural modification techniques can be implemented, such as teaching the dog a new behaviour (such as sit and look at the owner) in the presence of the fear-causing stimulus to replace the destructive or undesired behaviour.


Punishment is not an effective means of learning. Consider the dog that has made a mess in the house while you've been away all day.

For punishment to be effective it must be:

  • applied within one or two seconds of the inappropriate behaviour;
  • applied every single time the behaviour is performed; and
  • potent enough that the dog will seek to avoid it in the future but not be so aversive as to frighten the dog.

In reality this is not possible so punishment will only end up causing more harm than good in most cases. Dogs may react to punishment by becoming fearful and anxious in their owner's presence, unwilling to learn, or even aggressive. When a person punishes a dog it can seriously affect the human-animal bond.

AVA position on reward-based training*

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) believes use of positive reinforcement (reward-based training) is the most humane and effective training method as it avoids undesirable behavioural side effects, such as increased anxiety, escape and avoidance, defensive aggression, fear conditioning and learned helplessness. Positive reinforcement also makes training more enjoyable and helps to improve the bond between the trainer and the pet.

For example:

  1. Sassy jumps up to greet people: her owners have tried pushing her down and kneeing her to knock her off balance when she jumps. This has not worked, in fact she now jumps from further away to avoid the knee. Sassy should be ignored if she jumps and only receive attention (including eye contact) when she has four paws on the ground. Only when she is standing or sitting should she be rewarded with attention and treats.
  2. Fred likes to sit on the kids' artwork when they have it sprawled on the floor for colouring in, and often chews on the textas. They have tried pushing him away, saying 'no' and chasing him when he chews on their textas. Instead, Fred can be lured onto a special mat or cushion with food and rewarded when he gets on the mat. When he takes a texta they can ask him to come to them, sit and then swap the texta for a tasty treat or chew toy. Ultimately they can treat him to 'go to bed' and to 'give'. Fred can be trained to go to his mat and stay there using lure and reward methods that will gradually build the duration he can remain settled there.
  3. Pumpkin growls and bites her owner's hand when she has her harness put on. The owner has tried pulling her hand away, saying 'no' and smacking Pumpkin. The problem is getting worse and Pumpkin is biting sooner and harder. The owner should consider trying a collar instead of a harness, to remove the source of the problem and start a program of counterconditioning and desensitisation to the harness. This involves giving Pumpkin treats whenever she sees the harness (a distance away from her that does not cause her to growl). Gradually the harness can be brought closer, with treats given for calm, non-fearful behaviour from Pumpkin. With correct timing and much repetition, Pumpkin will associate the harness with treats and be happy to see the harness. In tiny increments, the harness is brought closer and closer and eventually placed on Pumpkin. Pumpkin can also be taught with treats to enjoy being handled.

In conclusion, consider your dog's motivations for doing what it does, and remember that dogs rely primarily on non-verbal communciation, such as reading our body language. To effectively train your dog it is much easier, more effective and more humane to teach it what to do by rewarding it for appropriate behaviour than it is to teach it what not to do by punishing it.

* Information from 'Reward-based training: a guide for dog trainers' published by the Australian Veterinary Association.

- Last updated 18 February 2014

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