Learning principles and communication: A positive and scientific approach (Proceedings)


Many pet owners are misinformed or naive when it comes to understanding canine behavior and training.

Many pet owners are misinformed or naive when it comes to understanding canine behavior and training. Most pets relinquished at shelters are because of a poor pet-owner bond due to undesirable behavior. In addition a poor bond will have a negative impact on the level and amount of veterinary services that the owners are willing to provide. Since the highest relinquishment of dogs and the second highest in cats is between the ages of 6 to 24 months, the initial few puppy and kitten visits provide the best opportunity to provide preventive counseling and training advice. Yet only about 25% of veterinarians routinely inquire about behavior. Many owners continue to inadvertently reinforce undesirable behavior. Alternately they may resort to isolation, yelling at their pets or pulling on choke collars and almost 50% of pet owners still think that pet's nose in a mess might be effective.4 Moreover trainers that advocate dominance and confrontation and that dogs should work to please since food is a bribe are setting back the veterinary behavioral and training communities which have worked to promote and validate the use of learning principles and positive training and the pitfalls of confrontation.

There are many unsubstantiated, illogical and potentially abusive and dangerous approaches to dog training. Most of these are trying to place the dog-human relationship into a pack structure, based on extrapolations from captive wolf behavior, despite the fact recent studies have modified our understanding of behavior in the wild wolf. Numerous recent studies of wild wolves have concluded that the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group with female primarily responsible for pup care and defense and the male for foraging, food-provisioning and the traveling associated with them. (Also see wolf.org) Not only is the wolf hierarchal model invalid, domestication and selective breeding of dogs for over 15,000 years has led to wide variations in morphology and behavior from the wolf model. Breeds have been selected for distinct behaviors (such as guarding, agility, herding, hunting, retrieving, pointing, and companionship) including many behaviors not seen in wolves including a) puppy attachment to owners b) the ability of dogs to read human communicative gestures c) barking as a form of communication (alerting, hunting, fear) and d) looking at the human face as an affiliative and communication gesture (i.e. to recognize emotional state) rather than evoking aggression or fear. Individual breeds can now be genetically identified and classified into at least 4 different clusters (mastiff, herding, ancient and modern European). In addition, there are genetic differences between dogs, wolves and coyotes in the hypothalamus which may be a result of domestication. With domestication and increased retention of juvenile characteristics, elements of lupine "body language" have been lost. The diversity of physical and behavioral traits may further compromise the ability of different breeds to communicate. Human provisioning and intervention has further reduced the need for visual signals especially submission. Although agonistic interactions may arise over resources, hierarchy is determined separately for each resource. Dog-dog relationships are defined by resource holding potential and learned strategies. Treatment of aggression between dogs in the home is not a matter of supporting a fixed hierarchy, but an ability to identify and prevent problems and the use operant and respondent conditioning to resolve the issues.

When humans communicate with dogs, we do not utilize canine signaling (body postures, facial expressions, tail carriage, piloerection) nor any of the vocal, pheromone or scent communication of dogs. With domestication dogs are increasingly better equipped to react to our signals and emotions. Therefore while a dogs genetic composition and its early development influence learning, dogs communicate with humans using sensory input (auditory, visual, olfactory, and touch), by observing the emotional state of humans and through the same learning principles that apply to all species. Despite this new understanding of canine communication, there has been a recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs into submission as a means of preventing and correcting canine behavior problems. Confrontation and punishment may evoke a flight, fight or freeze response, which is potentially dangerous and counterproductive to a positive relationship. If leash corrections are unsuccessful some trainers escalate to choke, prong or shock devices. The problem with this approach is that even if the undesirable behavior is suppressed the pet may only stop when the devices are used, while further conditioning the fearful association with the stimulus (e.g. dog, person). Punishment including alpha rolls and pinning may lead to fear, escape attempts, and defensive aggression, with compliance most likely a result of fear. Dogs and wolves do not use pinning or force to communicate with other members of the species; they use postures, facial expressions, posturing and physical interactions primarily in play and as appeasement postures to avoid confrontations.

Recent studies have validated that training with positive techniques, consistency and rule structure lead to a significantly higher level of obedience, less training problems and fewer behavior problems, while punishment led to a significantly higher level of training problems and lower obedience scores. Reinforcement training had the lowest avoidance, aggression and attention seeking while punishment training was associated with increased aggression toward unfamiliar people and other dogs and avoidance behaviors. Owners that used confrontational techniques such as hitting, alpha rolls, growling, and grabbing jowls elicited aggression in about 1/4 of dogs. Dogs that were aggressive to people were more likely to show aggression if challenged by an alpha roll or yelling "no".

Veterinarians should therefore identify and utilize trainers who understand and utilize learning theory for training, rather than dominance and confrontational training. (See reading list below) Veterinarians and staff members should offer preventive advice as well as advice on emerging behavior problems. This can be complemented by handouts, pamphlets, DVDs and by providing a list of recommended reading. One important and valuable resource is to have a clinic website that links to those groups, position statements, handouts and support material that guide owners to the best available resources on the net. The AAHA behavior pamphlets and the Lifelearn® handouts (lifelearncliented.com) have been designed for veterinarians to be able to provide quality behavioral education. Additional handouts can be found in the CD's that accompany the in the Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, and Blackwell's Five Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion Canine & Feline Behavior.

Classical conditioning

Is the pairing of an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral stimulus that results in a conditioned stimulus and a conditioned response. Classical conditioning can occur in both positive and negative ways. Examples of a positive conditioned emotional response are the pairing of a clicker with favored treats (for clicker training) or where a doorbell becomes predictive of visitors (for pets that are enthused about meeting new people). Problems arise when a fearful conditioned emotional response is established toward a previously neutral stimulus (visual, odor, auditory, animate, inanimate) by repeatedly pairing it with a fear-producing stimulus. Once this occurs, the stimulus itself will elicit the fear response. Some examples would be a doorbell that becomes paired with the visit of unfamiliar people (for pets that are fearful of visitors), or the pairing of the doorbell with verbal or physical discipline applied by the owner for barking or jumping up (pinning, leash corrections). Similarly when a pet lunges or jumps up to greet new people (which might initially be a neutral or even positive stimulus), the pairing of punishment (such as choke collars, prong collars, shock, pinning, verbal corrections) may lead to a conditioned fearful response toward new people. If the owner is nervous or fearful about the situation this further enhances the pet's fearful emotional state. A visit to the veterinary clinic which may begin as a neutral situation may quickly become fear evoking if it is associated with unpleasant outcomes or is further enhanced by owner anxiety. A conditioned fearful response is difficult to extinguish. Treatment is with counterconditioning where the conditioned fear evoking stimulus is consistently paired only with something highly positive until a positive association is made. To be successful the intensity of the stimulus should be minimized to a level that does not incite the fear response (desensitization) such as by reducing volume, increasing distance, changing the environment or modifying the stimulus until a positive association with the stimulus can be made. After multiple associations the stimulus intensity can be gradually increased.

Operant conditioning

Is how ones actions result in consequences. The results either increase or decrease the likelihood of future responses. There are four types of behavior-consequence relations.

First, behavior can result in positive consequences. This is positive reinforcement which will produce an increase in the behavior. During training a reward will need to be given immediately and consistently until the reinforcement is achieved. Once learned, behavior can be reinforced on a variable schedule, so that the period of time or number of responses before the reward is given is varied. A reward is not synonymous with positive reinforcement. A reward can be anything that is desirable to the pet from an activity such as petting walk or play to an item such a toy, food, chew or treat. However, unless there is a clear relationship between the behavior and the reward (timing, consistency) then positive reinforcement and an increase in behavior will not be achieved.

Second, behavior resulting in a negative consequence is punishment, which should decrease behavior. If behavior does not diminish after the first few applications, then the punishment is not being appropriately timed or the behavior is too strongly motivated to be deterred by the level of punishment. Punishment by a person (owner, trainer) may cause fear, anxiety and defensive aggression to the person or avoidance of the behavior but only when the person is present. Another concern is that punishment may lead to a conditioned fear response to the stimulus (discussed above). Even when punishment is successful at reducing the behavior (avoidance), a conditioned fear response with the stimulus may be established. Therefore punishment should not be used for training or changing behavior. Punishment is more likely to be effective if environmental or remote techniques are used to reduce the behavior (e.g. garbage raiding, counter surfing, chewing, soiling) or to deter entry to the area where the behavior occurs. Pet activated devices such as motion detector alarms or compressed air, unpleasant substrates (double sided tape), aversive tastes, or remote activated devices (compressed air) can be effective deterrents without any association with the owner or his or her presence. However, to be effective the motivation to repeat the behavior should be reduced by first giving appropriate outlets for these behaviors.

Third, if the behavior results in the removal of something unpleasant, this is negative reinforcement and will increase the likelihood that the preceding behavior will occur again. One example is escape behavior. If an animal is anticipating an aversive outcome, such as a reprimand from the owner, if the pet can escape the aversive outcome will not occur. Similarly if the owner puts pressure on a head halter until the desired behavior is achieved, the release of tension is negative reinforcement. One potentially serious consequence of negative reinforcement is that if a pet's threats or aggression leads to removal of something fear evoking or threatening (unfamiliar dog, delivery person, owner punishment), the behavior will be reinforced and increased by the retreat of the stimulus.

Lastly, a behavior that results in the elimination of something pleasant is called negative punishment so that the behavior is likely to be reduced.. For example if the pet is receiving affection or play when an undesirable behavior begins (e.g. play biting, mouthing, mounting) the immediate removal of the play or affection will negatively punish the pet. Unless the pet can determine what behavior leads to the removal of play, the behavior may actually intensify due to frustration at not receiving its reward.


Occurs and the behavior will eventually cease if all reinforcement is removed. However, it is common, especially if the behavior has been maintained with variable reinforcement, for the behavior to temporarily increase and this is called an extinction burst.


Is a process by which a stimulus no longer evokes a response. Usually this occurs with repeated presentation of a stimulus and the animal learning that it does not signal anything important.


Is used to treat fears of harmless stimuli by forcing the animal to stay in the presence of the stimuli until the fear is extinguished. This procedure is seldom effective in dogs since it initially enhances fear and cannot be stopped until all physiologic and emotional signs of fear are gone. If done improperly, flooding may therefore increase problem behaviors.

Response substitution

If a behavior has been learned through reinforcement (especially if the ratio is variable) it can be difficult to extinguish. In addition if the behavior is part of the pet's natural repertoire (e.g. greeting, barking) it can be difficult to train alternate behaviors. Response substitution is when an undesirable response is replaced with one that is desirable. The process would be to use high value rewards to train desirable target behaviors that have been selected as an acceptable and practical alternative to the undesirable behavior. Some examples of response substitution would be to train sit, down or mat as an alternative to jumping up, mounting or play biting, and sit, walk on loose leash or back up for dogs that are forging ahead or running out the door. Training should begin in a variety of environments where success can be most readily achieved. Training should then move to environments with increasing distractions and to where the problem is most likely to arise. To insure multiple training opportunities and repetitions each day, any time owner is going to give the dog anything of value whether a treat, toy, food or chew, or an activity in which the dog wants to engage such as walks, petting or play, the owners should use the reward to reinforce a desired target behavior. Finally the owner should set up exposures to low enough levels of the stimuli (desensitization) that the desired behaviors can be achieved and reinforced (set up to succeed), before moving on to gradually more intense levels of exposure.

Positive training

Focuses on reinforcing those behaviors that we want and to ignore or prevent those that we don't want. The owner will need to determine what items and what interactions are most motivating to the pet so that these can be used to train and shape new behaviors. Owners should avoid casual interactions so that each possible reward (social interaction, toy, treat, chew or food) is consciously saved only to reinforce those behaviors that the owner wants the pet to learn. This is not a means of achieving dominance but rather a way to make rewards predictable so that the pet knows what behaviors are reinforced, which in turn gives the pet control over how to get rewards. Food, treats, chews and toys should be used to train and mark desirable behaviors or as lures to achieve desirable outcomes. In addition, each activity in which the pet wishes to engage (e.g. play, affection, walks) can also serve as a reward to train target behaviors (Premack principle). The biggest challenge is to be able to get the target behaviors so that they can be reinforced and placed on cue. This can be accomplished by watching, waiting and immediately reinforcing when the behavior is observed and gradually shaping more accurate (or longer or more relaxed) responses. To insure reward immediacy clicker training is highly effective (www.clickertraining.com). However, to more quickly achieve desired behavior, food or a toy can be used to lure the pet into the behavior (come, sit, down). Similarly a pet can be trained to follow or touch a target for food rewards such as a stick, wand, wooden spoon or closed hand. Dogs that require a more immediate or physical means of control can be trained with a leash and head halter so that a gentle pull can prompt what is desirable and the release of tension serves as negative reinforcement.

Setting up to succeed

Many normal behaviors of young pets (e.g. elimination, scavenging, chewing) can be problematic for owners if not channeled into appropriate outlets. However, many owners focus on discouraging what is unacceptable rather than reinforcing and encouraging behaviors that are acceptable. To insure success the environment and daily routine should be designed to meet the pets needs while preventing undesirable behaviors. Providing both social / attention times including exercise, play, training and an opportunity to eliminate, as well as inattention times where the pet can engage in object play or rest, insures both enrichment and predictability for the pet. When the owner can supervise a leash is a good preventive. However, when the owner cannot supervise, pet proofing or crate training is required.


1. Scarlett JM et al The role of veterinary practitioners in reducing dog and cat relinquishments and euthanasia JAVMA 2002;220,306-311

2. Hetts S et al. Behavior wellness concepts in general practice. JAVMA 2004; 225: 506-513

3. Ryan T. Assessing the alpha roll. APDT newsletter, July/August 2001, pp. 1,6

4. Blackwell EJ et al. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. J Vet Behav 2008;3,207-217

5. Eskeland GE et al. The importance of consistency in the training of dogs, the effect of punishment, rewards, control and attitude on obedience and problem behaviours in dogs. In Landsberg et al. Proc 6th IVBM/ECVBM-CA. Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootechniche. Brescia, IT, 2007,179-180

6 Herron ME et al. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2009: 117, 47–54

7. Mech D. Whatever happened to the term alpha wolf? International Wolf Magazine, Winter 2008, 4-8

8. Miklosi A, Kubinyi E, Topal J et al. A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Current Biology 2003; 13, 763-766

9. Morisaki A et al. Are dogs sensitive to the emotional state of humans? J Vet Behav 2009; 4, 49

1. Wayne R, Ostrander E. Lessons learned from the dog genome. Trends in Genetics 2007;23,557-567

11. Saetre P, Lindberg J, Leonard JA et al. From wild wolf to domestic dog: gene expression changes in the brain. Molecular brain research. 2004; 126, 198-206

12. Goodwin D et al. Paedomorphosis affects agonistic visual signals of domestic dogs. Anim Behav 1997, 53, 297-304

13. Bradshaw J. Dominance in domestic dogs: useful construct or bad habit. J Vet Behav 2008; 3,176-78

Other reading and resources – see our website at northtorontovets.com for other useful web links

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists: dacvb.org

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior – avsabonline.org See position statements and links to Dog Whisperer Controversy and Wolf behavior

Good trainers: how to identify one and why it is important to your practice of veterinary medicine. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2006; 1, 47-52

Landsberg G, Shaw J, Donaldson J. Handling behavior problems in a veterinary clinic setting. Vet Clin N Am 2008; 38, 951-969

Society of Veterinary Behavioral Technicians: svbt.org

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