The psychology behind training dogs and their owners

Understanding the psychology involved when it comes to training dogs is a huge advantage for owners. 

Dogs have been dubbed “man’s best friend” for their loyalty, eagerness, and ability to learn. However, training these furry companions isn’t always a walk in the park. Whether it’s house training, obedience, or specific tasks, dog owners are on a continuous journey to support their pet’s development. Yet, there is often a missing factor that could aid in this process- understanding the psychology that drives our dog’s behavior. Translating scientific research in psychology into practical tools, this blog will take a deep dive into the science behind training dogs and their owners. We’ll explore the underlying motivators of canine behavior, how to apply training techniques effectively, and the benefits of this journey for both you and your furry friend. Let’s unleash the science of dog training! 

Working with visual and scent cues to increase results

Experts will tell you to incorporate visual and scent cues, such as hand gestures and body language, along with verbal commands, to rapidly increase your canine’s learning rate during training. For instance, instead of relying only on verbal commands, it is more effective to combine these with visual cues like hand gestures and a particular body language to help your puppy distinguish between commands more quickly. 

Another tip experts will advise is to make use of an animal’s natural instincts. Four-legged friends, and humans for that matter, need to control their instincts through training, discipline, and experience. 

If an owner takes the time and effort to understand the instincts behind their puppy’s behavior, they can adjust their methods and activities during training to better suit the dog’s personality and needs. 

Olivier Zoppi, Founder of Pawsychology, is an expert in positive reinforcement training with a master’s degree in animal science and behavior and over 10 years of experience in the field. His specialty lies in rehabilitating dogs and creating a healthy connection between canines and their humans across the UAE. 

Our program aims to bring out the best in the dog and coach the owner to become a responsible pet parent. We use all kinds of commands in training, including verbal and hand gestures.

I prefer to not use an animal’s prey drive, which is its instinct to chase, kill or bite. I want domestic animals to be quiet and follow people around, so I don’t encourage them to bite, run or chase toys to do something. I don’t use their natural instincts, although we do use all the other instincts that each individual breed displays. Every dog is different. Using the prey drive is the easiest way for trainers to get their animals to do what they want but for me, it is all about teaching them how to be obedient.

When it comes to the psychology behind training animals there are two methods – classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical is when you use an animal’s involuntary responses to condition them to anything they don’t like. Operant conditioning is using treats as a positive or smacks as a negative stimulus for reinforcement. 

Olivier uses operant conditioning mostly but reckons every situation is unique.

Classical conditioning, I call active training and passive training. Passive is when the dog does something naturally, you reinforce the behavior, and it receives a reward even though it didn’t do anything you asked.

We mostly use operant conditioning because we actively ask the dog to do something but, in most cases, we are just making sure it knows how to behave around stimuli. A good example is when you don’t ask your dog to stop when walking on the lease – you walk normally and expect the dog to stop when you do. This is operant conditioning or active training, as I refer to it.

Olivier favors a well-behaved dog over a naturally trained one.

I don’t want a well-trained dog – I want a polite one that follows and knows how to behave.

If you opt to use treats for positive reinforcement, make sure you don’t overdo it. If your furry friend gets a treat every time it does anything, it won’t take them long to stop responding or behaving unless they get a reward first. 

A final theory when it comes to the psychology behind training dogs is to establish yourself as the alpha as soon as possible. Alpha is the most dominant member of a pack and the leader, and the idea is dogs still have a ‘pack mentality’ even though they have been domesticated for thousands of years. 

Owners establish and reinforce their dominance in the relationship with their dogs by the way they conduct and control training and discipline. If they don’t, they may have to deal with their pet exhibiting later issues such as aggression, indiscipline, and disobedience. 

Olivier disagrees with the alpha theory.

I teach the whole family, together, how to engage and communicate with the animal in the best possible way. The idea that domesticated dogs will react to the alpha situation is an outdated notion. I don’t believe a dog should have only one master and, therefore, one alpha. I prefer it when pets are polite, calm, and responsive to every person in the family.

He believes that can only be achieved by operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and active training with all members of the family.

The problem is the dog will always choose someone they want to respect more. Often the husband is number one, followed by the wife and lastly the children because they are usually not actively engaged with the training.

Asked if he has experienced a wide range of personality traits and instincts from breed to breed and individual dogs, Olivier replied:

Dogs are dogs, and they will always be dogs. It doesn’t matter what breed you have or how big or small your dog is, if it is raised in the proper way, you will be rewarded with a sweet-natured and loving companion. Of course, some dogs are prone to become more aggressive or destructive and the approach to deal with that should be slightly different.  

What is important and what people need to understand is that there are so many different breeds to choose from, but personality traits and instincts will always be a result of what kind of life the dog has lived up to then. Just like humans, dogs are a product of everything they have lived so far.

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