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Can dogs learn?

Updated on February 18, 2012

Studies and experiments made on canine behavior have confirmed what experienced dog owners knew all along…that dogs can learn. Dogs are intelligent animals that possess cognitive abilities. Human’s best friends may not be able to vocalize their thoughts but something is definitely cooking inside the dog’s brain to enable them to use perception and reasoning to learn and to understand humans. How do dogs learn?

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A dog’s behavior

Canines have two types of basic behaviors – the innate behavior and the learned behavior. Barking is an innate behavior, one that the dog already has from birth. What scientists (and dog owners) are most interested in is the learned behavior of the dog. Whether the pet will be the pride or the liability of the family will depend on the dog’s learned behavior. Fortunately, dogs have cognitive abilities. With effective training tools and with the patience of trainers and dog owners, the learned behavior can be manipulated to make the dog learn desirable habits that will turn it into a good canine citizen.


Dogs learn by imitation. Dogs imitate other dogs and humans. During the early days in a dog’s life, the puppy learns to be a dog by imitating the parent dogs and other older dogs. The puppy would understand and use dog communication signals. A young dog would imitate what older dogs are doing and once favorable results are achieved, the behavior will be repeated and will be fixed in the memory of the dog. Beware of opening the oven in the presence of the dog. Dogs, apart from being intelligent are resourceful as well. It would be an easy task for the dog to imitate what the master has done…open the oven and devour the cooling family dinner.


Dogs don’t reason the way humans do. Although dogs are known to inherently posses the desire to please the master, dogs will not know that the master will be pleased if it does not use the carpet as its bathroom. The dog will not know that if it obeys the sit command of the master, the master will be proud of his training accomplishment. Dogs think in concrete terms and they will learn on the basis of the consequence of a certain action. For a dog the equation will be: action = consequence = reward. The dog will learn that by sitting when the sit command is given, a treat is forthcoming. The consequence of the behavior is the reward. Timing is critical establishing association. The reward must be given seconds after the dog has shown the desired behavior. Otherwise, the dog will not make the connection that will be an encouragement to do the action again. This order of learning by association is known as operant conditioning. Another way dogs learn by association is through classical conditioning. This form of associative learning is demonstrated when a dog barks at the ringing of the doorbell. Barking is done instinctively as it is an innate behavior and the dog’s reflexive response to a situation in the environment. Another example of a classic conditioning response is when the dog starts to bark when the sound of silverware against the china is heard. The dog has learned that when these tinkling sounds are heard, dinner is not too far away.

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