Training Your Dog to Learn

An excerpt from Beyond the Back Yard


Editor’s note: Denise Fenzi is the founder and head trainer at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Denise has competed in a wide range of dog sports, titling dogs in obedience (AKC and UKC), tracking (AKC and schutzhund), schutzhund (USA), mondioring (MRSA), herding (AKC), conformation (AKC), and agility (AKC). Although Denise has found success as a competitor, her real passion lies in training dogs – and teaching people how to train their dogs. To that end, she’s written a number of books on dog training, including a series on dog sports skills (co-authored by Deborah Jones, PhD, and previously warmly reviewed in WDJ). The book we have excerpted here is Fenzi’s first title aimed exclusively at pet dog owners and pet dog trainers. We are grateful for the opportunity to share its first chapter here. – Nancy Kerns

While dog training does not require a degree in animal behavior, it is useful to understand how dogs learn. If you understand how your dog learns, you will be able to teach her more than what’s presented in this or any book, magazine, or class. You’ll also be better able to solve problems that arise. All animals, including humans, will maximize their well-being in the process of learning – which is just a fancy way of saying that animals do what works best for them. This includes getting things like food or desired objects as well as a sense of emotional well-being, such as feeling safe, happy, or engaged. Animals avoid things that make them uncomfortable and seek out things that they like, want, or need. So if you want an animal to do something for you (called a behavior), then either provide a pleasant consequence when she cooperates, or an unpleasant consequence when she doesn’t. Sometimes an animal is consciously thinking about what is happening around her. At other times, she is learning without any thought at all. In both cases, the animal is learning. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these scenarios, because they are important to understand.

When your dog is making choices and is aware of what she is learning, you are using operant conditioning. Although you probably didn’t realize it at the time, you were using operant conditioning when you taught your dog to perform some basic behaviors. Operant conditioning simply means that your dog makes an association between doing something and the resulting consequence. Nothing more, nothing less.

Each time you give dogs a cue, they weigh the possible benefits of the act with the negative consequences they are aware of, and choose whether or not to comply – just like people do! If working with you is likely to be rewarding to them in some way, they will likely comply.

There are three basic ways you can use operant conditioning:

1. Your dog learns that when she does something you want, something awesome happens. For example, you may have taught your dog to sit by using a cookie.

2. Your dog learns that if she doesn’t do what you want, something unpleasant happens. Some people teach their dogs to sit by pulling up on the collar.

3. Your dog learns through a combination of each of the above. Cookies when she sits, and receiving a collar correction when she doesn’t.

Each time you give your dog a cue to do something, she makes a choice. She can calculate the sum of the possible motivators with the possible punishers and choose whether or not to comply. If complying with you works in her favor, she’ll likely obey. Same as with people.

There’s another form of learning, and this one is a bit more subtle. It’s called classical conditioning. Unlike operant conditioning, where the animal is making choices, classical conditioning doesn’t require any conscious effort at all to learn. It just happens. Animals are learning all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. When you were teaching your dog to sit – no matter how you did it – she was learning more than just how to sit. She was learning about training in general; is it fun and something to look forward to, or something unpleasant and best avoided? She learned how much she enjoys (or doesn’t enjoy) your company. She learned if the world is a safe, predictable place, or if it’s unsafe and anxiety-provoking. As you may have already guessed, people have the same experiences with classical conditioning. If you’re ever had a really super teacher who was patient, kind, and consistent, yet held you to high expectations, you know how hard you worked to learn and to please her, and how much you wanted to be in her company. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had a teacher or an employer who was grumpy, demanding, unreasonable, or unpredictable, you know how anxious you felt in her presence. You may have even discovered that under her supervision, you were unable to do even simple tasks because your nervousness blocked your ability to learn or to perform correctly. That is because fear overwhelms rational thought. Again, this is true in all animals, including dogs and humans.

Operant conditioning has been used to teach these dogs to perform an extended down/stay behavior. A t the same time, classical conditioning is always at work! Happily, they all appear relaxed and comfortable as they comply with the cues they were given.

Since classical conditioning isn’t conscious, you might find yourself feeling anxiety and unpleasantness well after the event that caused those reactions in the first place. Many parents who did not enjoy their school years have reported feeling upset or anxious when they first walked into their child’s school classroom, even twenty years later! Long after they have forgotten exactly what it was about school that was unpleasant, they still harbor the negative feelings. That’s classical conditioning at work. Just as the dog was learning without realizing it, it is quite likely that you were teaching these lessons without realizing it either. It is critically important for your dog to learn that training time is pleasant, because fear and anxiety block effective and efficient learning. The more your dog is able to relax and look forward to her lessons, the more quickly she will master them and work to please you. If you want your dog to be an engaged learner, then make it a priority to set up training sessions that are short, positive, and rewarding for your dog. In contrast, if you express disappointment in her work or use physical manipulation to get the desired responses, you’ll erode your working relationship by creating unpleasant classically conditioned responses to training.

I teach and use positive training methods for several reasons:

1. We want to condition our dogs to enjoy working with us so that they can learn more quickly.

2. We want our dogs to respond even when they are out of our physical reach. Dogs are smart. If compliance is gained primarily through methods that involve corrections, they quickly learn when you can and cannot enforce your cues. If your dog complies only when he is on a leash or when he is wearing a special collar, you need to consider how this relates to your training goals. How often do you need a recall on a six-foot leash? Probably never; he’s already with you! All dogs can figure out if they are wearing a leash, but it’s a rare dog who knows if you have access to a cookie. (Note that I said “access to.” Most dogs know if you have a cookie in your hand or pocket!)

3. While residual fear and the generally easygoing nature of dogs might allow for cooperation even when enforcement is not possible, it’s not much fun to have a dog cooperate because she is afraid of you. The purpose of having a dog is to enjoy the mutually beneficial relationship that can exist across species. Why create a relationship based on fear when it’s not necessary?

Good training plans take both operant conditioning and classical conditioning into account. You and your dog should both enjoy the process! If you aren’t both having fun, go back and look at why this might be. What are you teaching your dog without meaning to? Are you doing something to scare her, even if you don’t mean to? Find ways to make the process enjoyable for you both!

You can purchase Beyond the Back Yard from the Whole Dog Journal bookstore. 


  1. Very easy to retain. Simply put positive training is guaranteed to keep you and your dog happy and teaches us patience for what they understand or need help with. Sometimes we must remember they are smarter then us in their world and need to learn ours. Thank You for the reminder we are so lucky to have them. With continuous knowledge we can help another person that is not knowingly training with this knowledge of How a dog thinks and responds.
    Carla Helfrich