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Dog Psychology and Canine Cognition: An Introductory Guide

Haley photo


May 29, 2023

Dog Training

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Dog psychology is a popular field, and for good reason: Almost half of all households in the United States share life with a four-legged companion! It's no wonder we want to know what's going on in that canine mind.

Domestic dog psychology discussions can also be messy, though. The internet is full of conflicting statements, professional dog trainers often disagree, and a lot of canine cognition research is still in the early stages — and still riddled with old-school myths about pack mentality that can confuse even the most dedicated pet owner.

We're here to help. Our blog is full of specific articles about a range of domestic dog behavior topics, including problematic behaviors like aggression and reactivity — and this piece summarizes some key things to know about your dog’s psychology (how they experience the world, think, and learn) to understand their behavior patterns at a deeper level.

Myth busting: Dogs are not miniature wolves

While dogs share a common ancestry with today's wolves and belong to the same biological family (Canidae), they have undergone significant changes through domestication. Our pets are technically considered pack animals in the sense that they naturally live in social groups and the official term for a family of canines is "pack" — but misconceptions about wild wolf packs, and their relevance to our domestic dogs, abound.

Domestic dogs have been selectively bred for tameness

Dogs have been selectively bred over thousands of years for specific traits, such as temperament, appearance, and working abilities, through a domestication process involving both natural and artificial selection. Wolves, on the other hand, have remained primarily wild animals without significant human influence. This means that modern wolves and modern dogs are more different from each other than they were when the species first branched off from their shared ancestor thousands of years ago!

Wolf behavior experts believe that wolves are highly social animals with a complex social hierarchy. While domestic dogs retain strong social instincts — giving them the strong ability to form close bonds with both humans and other animals (more on that later) they do not naturally exhibit the same pack structure as wolves. This is not to mention that wolf pack structure has turned out to be far more flexible than researchers initially thought, too, in part because initial studies were conducted on captive wolves — and captive animals often don't accurately represent their wild counterparts wide range of behaviors.

Alpha dog training techniques are outdated

In general, dog training techniques that stress pack mentality and asserting dominance over our pets through harsh firm boundaries or physical force, like those popularized by TV-famous trainer Cesar Millan, are not recommended. These outdated methods will hurt your relationship with your dog rather than help it, possibly resulting in aggressive behavior.

Domestic dogs do share traits with their canine ancestors, though!

While a domestic dog’s natural habitat is living around people, it’s also true that we’ve come a long way from the early days of the canine-human partnership where our companions could more freely move about their environments.

This is why canine enrichment has become more important than ever. Common enrichment activities usually give our dogs the chance to safely dig, sniff, and emulate their predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) without causing harm to or disrupting the communities we live in. Your dog isn't exactly a wild animal... but they definitely aren't a furry little human, either.

A great dane sits near a park bench in front of its owner

Dogs primarily learn through associations

Dogs primarily learn through association. They don’t think about the world the same way we humans do. Researchers don’t believe they have episodic memories or are able to recall exact past events quite like we can (though the accuracy of our human episodic memories is also up for debate). Domestic dogs also have poorer short term memories that might prevent them from clearly remembering even what happened just a few minutes ago. This is one reason timing in dog training is so important to be fair and clear with our pets! (More details in the next section.)

Instead, our canine companions develop new behaviors and form habits through the principles of both operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Almost all dog training is based on these two common learning theories.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning theory developed by B.F. Skinner. It’s sometimes called “trial and error” or “consequence” learning. At its simplest, operant conditioning is what happens when our dogs learn to associate their behavior with certain consequences.

If a behavior leads to good things? Dogs will perform it more frequently. If a behavior leads to something unpleasant (aversive)? Dogs will perform it less often (and perhaps develop fearful emotions — more on that in the classical conditioning section below).

There are four quadrants of operant conditioning, divided up on two dimensions:

  • Whether the consequence is the addition of something (like giving a treat or toy) or the removal of something (like taking away your attention)
  • Whether the behavior increases or decreases

If you add something, that’s called “positive”. If you remove something, that’s called “negative”. We know this can be confusing! Try not to think of it in terms of “positive being good” and “negative being bad”. Instead think of it like math class — positive means addition, and negative means subtraction.

If the behavior increases, that’s called reinforcement. If the behavior decreases, that’s called punishment. Again, try not to think in terms of good and bad. Reinforcement and punishment, in an operant conditioning sense, simply describe whether the behavior has gotten more or less frequent.

Positive reinforcement

The positive reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to increase a behavior.

This is where you should focus most of your training! Reward-based or force-free dog training tries to use as much positive reinforcement as possible to show our dogs what we want them to do. This way we can increase behavior we like without ever creating unpleasant emotions. It’s a highly motivating, low conflict way to train.

Negative punishment

The negative punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to decrease a behavior.

Most good trainers try to avoid the use of punishment. After all, it’s better to teach our dogs what to do instead of what not to do! That said, negative punishment can be unavoidable in our lives with dogs — and it can also be an effective part of training, when paired with positive reinforcement for the behavior we do like. Here’s an example:

  • If your dog jumps on you to be pet, you might turn away to remove (negative) your attention in hopes that they jump on you less frequently (punishment).
  • Then you might ask your dog to sit instead of jumping, at which point you give (positive) them affection in hopes that they sit more often to greet you (reinforcement).

Negative reinforcement

The negative reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to increase a behavior.

This might seem confusing — but you’re probably pretty familiar with negative reinforcement in your own life, even if you’ve never heard the scientific terms before. If you buckle your seatbelt so that your car stops beeping at you? That’s negative reinforcement. The removal (negative) of the annoying seatbelt alarm sound increases (reinforcement) the behavior of you buckling up.

Generally, good dog trainers avoid negative reinforcement in their training because it requires an aversive stimulus (like leash pressure) to be present at the start of a behavior. We want to minimize our dogs’ unpleasant emotions as much as possible.

Positive punishment

The positive punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to decrease a behavior.

This is punishment in the most familiar sense that we think of. (Though try to remember to keep your personal associations out of it at this point — again, we’re simply focusing on a decrease in behavior when we talk in an operant conditioning sense — and we’ll talk more about emotions in classical conditioning below). In positive punishment, you add something that your dog finds aversive in that moment to decrease the behavior they performed right before the consequence.

It’s important to remember that if we aren’t thoughtful, even things we want to be reinforcing can inadvertently be punishing! A great example of this is a dog who doesn’t enjoy being patted directly on top of the head. An owner might think they’re rewarding their pet for coming when called when they pet them between the ears — but the dog might actually dislike the sensation and decrease the desired behavior moving forward.

Generally, the use of aversives in dog training has fallout. This is because the dog often starts to associate the unpleasant consequences with their owner, trainer, or the environment itself. This process is called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Pretty much everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dogs. The scientist taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that always predicted food — although technically, “taught” isn’t quite the right word.

While operant conditioning deals with behavior (things your dog is aware of and actively chooses to do) classical conditioning deals with reflexes and emotions (things your dog can’t control). Pavlov’s dogs didn’t drool on purpose. They had just come to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food — their bodies essentially began to treat the unrelated stimulus (the bell) as a biologically relevant one (food) and have the same response to it.

Classical conditioning happens all the time with our dogs. We can never just “turn it off”! This means it’s important to be aware of what emotions we’re creating in our pets as we train them.

One common classical conditioning example is dogs getting excited when they hear the doorbell ring. They’ve come to associate the noise of the bell with the arrival of guests who give them affection, which increases their arousal in anticipation. They aren’t thinking about their behavior at this moment — they know the doorbell predicts visitors regardless of what they do, making it a conditioned reflex.

A dog sits with its owner in the park

Dogs are social animals

Dogs are highly social by nature and have a long history of living and working closely with humans.

Our pets have an inherent need for social interaction and companionship. They thrive when they have opportunities for socialization with other dogs and humans! Lack of socialization can lead to behavioral issues and adversely affect their well-being, while positive interaction from humans can help them feel secure.

Dogs experience the world differently than humans do

Dogs are highly social by nature and have a long history of living and working closely with humans.

Our pets have an inherent need for social interaction and companionship. They thrive when they have opportunities for socialization with other dogs and humans! Lack of socialization can lead to behavioral issues and adversely affect their well-being, while positive interaction from humans can help them feel secure.

In fact, research is showing that dogs care so much about engaging with us that they're able to interpret human body language from a very young age. Scientists like Brian Hare and Clive Wynne have been on the forefront of figuring out how puppies know to follow cues from humans, like pointing or directing attention with our eyes — sometimes even if they haven't had much exposure to humans yet.

It's important to note that this does not mean your canine companion is a mind reader. The next section talks about some of the ways dogs experience the world differently from us and the confusion that can create on both ends of the leash!

Dogs have extremely sensitive noses and ears

Canines have highly developed senses of smell. It’s natural for them to want to experience the world through sniffing — especially in environments that have seen lots of other dogs or people (like public parks). Think about the way you can’t help but visually look at interesting things around you. That’s what it might be like for your pet with their nose!

Dogs also have a broader hearing range than humans, both in terms of frequency and volume. This can help explain some confusing canine behavior, like when our pets bark at "nothing" or show reluctance to enter a loud environment.

Dogs might have an episodic memory but are believed to live more in the moment than people

Episodic memory refers to the ability to remember specific events and experiences. While dogs may not have the same level of episodic memory as humans, some studies suggest that they can remember and recall certain events, especially if they were emotionally significant or involved a strong sensory experience.

Dogs have a relatively short-term memory compared to humans. They can remember recent events or commands for a short duration, typically ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Practical applications of dog psychology knowledge to training your own pet

  • Your dog likely pays more attention to your body language than the sounds you make. If you accidentally move your hand a certain way while giving a verbal cue, they might become confused. This is especially important if you notice them struggling to differentiate behaviors as you train!
  • Your dog also pays more attention to the tone of your voice and any intense moments of inflection (think about the “t” sound at the end of “sit”) than the entire word you say. Remember this when deciding what cues to use for different behaviors. If you pick too many that sound similar, your dog might struggle simply because they’re confused. It’s our job to be clear with them!
  • It’s easier to train your dog to perform behaviors that are already natural to them (like picking up things in their mouth, sitting, moving their bodies in normal ways, and so on) than to teach skills that go against their typical tendencies (like walking on their hind legs or balancing things on their sensitive facial tissues). Keep this in mind as you decide what to prioritize, and always make sure you reward your dog generously!
  • When you're feeling conflict in your relationship with your dog, consider how differently they experience the world from you — remember not to expect them to show all of our own human behavior traits and primate behavior patterns.

We are still learning more about how our canine companions think

We are always learning more about how dogs think and perceive the world. While dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and are one of the most extensively studied animal species, our understanding of their cognitive abilities and inner experiences continues to evolve!

Ongoing scientific research and studies dedicated to canine cognition contribute to our knowledge of how dogs think, learn, problem-solve, and communicate. A reputable force free trainer can be a great resource to stay up to date on new developments with the domestic dog species!

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Marnie Montgomery, PMCT4, CPDT-KA
Joyful Dog LLC
Tellington TTouch® Practitioner
Fear-Free Certified Professional

Haley photo


May 29, 2023

Dog Training

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