How Dogs Learn by Trial and Error

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Trial and Error

Dogs are intelligent animals. They will try and try again, particularly if they encounter a problem that they want solved. Anyone who has seen a dog get to the biscuits in the cupboard or escape out of the kennel knows this.

A dog that wants out of a secure fenced yard will make several different attempts at escape. First he may run around the perimeter, looking for a hole in the fence. He may try to dig under or even climb on his doghouse in an attempt to jump over. Each unsuccessful endeavor is abandoned for a new solution. This trial and error method helps Fido learn.

A dog will not repeat behaviors that are unrewarded. So if the dog is unable to jump over the fence and cannot dig beneath the fence, he will soon abandon these behaviors for something new. He may jump at the gate of the fence, having seen people enter and exit the yard through it. This random trial might produce results – even though by accident initially. However, since the desired result was achieved, the dog now repeats this behavior, becoming more and more conscious of exactly what he did each time he opens the gate. Soon he is able to purposefully approach the fence and open the gate. He has learned a new skill, because he was faced with a problem and systematically ruled out the wrong behavior until he found the correct solution.

Understanding your dog’s method of learning can help you train him to respond to simple obedience commands. The main reason for failed training sessions is that the owner expects his pet to think and respond like humans do. If you keep in mind this trial and error method, you will save both yourself and your dog a lot of stress.

Another key to successful obedience training is location. It is best to begin the process in an established place with minimal distractions. Once you both feel comfortable with the commands, it is time to begin training outside of this familiar zone. Expect setbacks. Dogs are situational by nature, so a command that is followed without fail at home may be ignored in the park (or anywhere else). You should expect to retrain commands in new settings, although learning should come much quicker this time around.

Gwen Bohenkamp points out in “Obedience Training Your Dog or Puppy: How and Why” that while it may seem like a step backwards to add distractions to your training sessions, it is pointless to have a dog who sits on command only when no one is there. A well-behaved dog is only advantageous if he sits and stays when company’s at the door. Distractions are a predictable part of life; your dog should be prepared to obey you in spite of the knock at the door, the poodle in the park, or any other interruption.

Obedience training should not be monotonous to you or your dog. Practice daily, but let the lessons permeate into everyday activities until they become second nature.