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Your dog's experience and education. Education is the things we teach intentionally, like Sit, Down, and Come. Experience is what your dog learns as life happens and the associations they form. 

- Kelly Whittington

Learning from Teaching

Intentional learning comes from "classroom" teaching. We learn to add and subtract; dogs learn to Sit, Down, and Stay on cue. ("Operant Conditioning")

This type of Learning happens in 4 stages:

  1. Acquisition
    A new skill is taught at the most basic level in a controlled environment. We learn how to add in a classroom and not in Disneyland. Dogs learn Sit, Down, etc. in a classroom or den and not in the dog park.

  2. Fluency
    The learner has an understanding of the skill and is able to do it well. The "aha!" moment has been achieved!

  3. Generalization
    The learner can use the skill in lots of different places under lots of different circumstances. Sit still means Sit when we're in the pet store instead of the den.

  4. Maintenance
    The learner uses the skill in their everyday life.

Skipping one or more of the stages of learning is a common mistake in training. 

  • The Acquisition Stage is often skipped in leash training - trying to teach leash skills on an actual walk instead of in a classroom or the den. It's like learning to drive a car by going straight to the Interstate instead of starting in a parking lot.

  • The Fluency Stage is often skipped in housetraining. The dog using the bathroom outside a couple of times doesn't mean they are now housetrained. They are not fluently housetrained until they consistently and automatically ask to go out when they have the urge to go.

  • The Generalization Stage is often skipped completely. Learning how to play an instrument in the band room is a lot different than playing it on the field in front of people, which is a lot different from playing it in an orchestra with a large audience. Learning how to lay down on cue in the classroom is a lot different than laying down on cue in a pet store, vet clinic, etc.

  • The Maintenance Stage is forever - use it or lose it! 

Dog Life Hack #1: You're training your dog, whether you mean to or not. Be mindful that you're not accidentally teaching them the wrong thing!

Quick Summary
  • Dogs, like us, learn from life - not just from "formal" training.

  • "Formal" training (Sit, Down, Stay, etc.) won't "fix" or change behavior that is learned from associations or the dog trying things out.

  • We can arrange things to make it more likely they learn behavior we want and don't learn behavior we don't want.

  • We can reward bad behavior without meaning to and let good behavior slip by because we don't reward it.

Learning from Experience

All animals, including humans, learn the same way. Experience is the best teacher, and every moment is a potential for learning something new about the world.

By forming associations…

Making mental connections between things happens all the time, from birth. It's how we learn to make predictions about our world (if x happens, I can predict that y will follow). This is the Pavlovian learning we all learned about in school ("Classical Conditioning").


It can be an association about a person, whether they make you feel good or bad, whether or not they are trustworthy (and dogs quickly learn which people lie to them), the bringer of food, the giver of scratches, or the angry yeller! Or an association about a place (kitchen = food), a thing (leash = walk), a smell (dirty t-shirt smells like my favorite human), or a sound (does Pavlov ring a bell?).

By trying new things…

What happens if I do this? If something good happens, I'll want to do it again. If I touch a hot stove, I'm going to try real hard not to do that again!

Dogs start trying LOTS of new things when they hit adolescence at around 8 months old (some earlier, some later). Like children who start grabbing everything they can reach and tasting it at around 2-3 years old, dogs become more interested in novel things than they were as young puppies. It's why adolescence in dogs, like the "terrible twos" in children, can be a trying time!

The Secret Sauce

The trick to simplifying your dog's training is to take control of BOTH types of learning - formal and experiential. Guide the dog's experiences, as much as is possible, in a way that helps them learn good behavior and NOT learn bad behavior. After all, preventing bad habits is a LOT easier than breaking them!


What associations do you want your dog to have or NOT have with the things they encounter in their daily lives? Arrange things (as much as is possible) to make those associations more likely. Some examples are...

  • Going to the Vet 
    Pack your dog's favorite treats for every visit and be extra generous after each time they are touched by a tech or veterinarian so they form a positive association with vet visits.

  • Riding in the car
    Put them in a covered crate and drive like you are pulling a trailer so they are less likely to get sick or overly excited. Don't allow them to run from window to window in the backseat if you don't want them to associate car rides with excitement and barking at everything that passes.

  • Going for a walk, getting the leash put on, etc.
    If you don't want your dog to associate the leash going on AND the walk that follows with high excitement, don't put the leash on until they sit calmly, and don't let them burst out the door.

  • Formal Training
    When I (Kelly) started training years ago, I was taught to use leash jerks to correct my dog. One day, I picked up her leash to do a training session, and she started to shake all over. She associated the leash and training with painful neck jerks. I hung the leash back up and said I'd have an untrained dog before I make her feel that way again. Fortunately, positive training makes dogs associate training with food. They are happy when the leash comes out for training because they associate training (and the trainer) with good things! Luckily, it didn't take my dog long to change her association from fear to happiness :) 

  • Being left home alone
    Leave them with plenty of (safe) toys and treats, and don't make a big deal out of leaving and coming home so they don't associate separation from you with fear and anxiety. 

  • Members of the household
    Studies show that dogs don't listen to liars! (I wish it was my job to do these experiments.) Be a person of your word. The fake-out ball toss isn't funny to the dog. If you tell your dog they'll get a treat if they come to you, and you don't give them one, they'll stop coming to you. Studies also show that dogs look at their owners less often than other dogs do when their owner uses aversive (unpleasant) training techniques (like the leash jerking mentioned earlier). 

  • Strangers
    Don't force your dog to interact with strangers, and Do pair yummy treats with them (that they don't have to take from the stranger's hand) to make a positive association with strangers.

  • Dogs outside the home
    Make it the Default that you don't greet another dog when walking on leash. If they don't form the association that seeing another dog means interacting with the other dog, they are much less likely to become leash-reactive or frustrated when they can't greet. 

  • Rooms in the house
    If you don't want your dog scavenging in the kitchen, don't let them learn that food sometimes falls on the floor. Lock them out of the kitchen while you're cooking or eating.


There are tons more examples. Think about the emotional state your dog associates with different things, and if it's not the one you want, how you can change that association. Food, toys, and play are the top ways to change negative associations to positive ones.

Trying new things

You can't become a heroin addict if you never try heroin! An extreme example, but it makes the point. A behavior won't become a habit if it's never done in the first place. Arrange your dog's environment so that they don't have a chance to try something you don't want to become a habit. Some examples...

  • Housetraining
    Your dog won't develop a habit of peeing on the carpet if they don't have access to the carpet. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate)

  • Counter Surfing 
    Your dog won't develop a habit of jumping on the kitchen counter if they don't have access to the kitchen. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate)

  • Jumping on house guests
    Your dog won't develop a habit of jumping on house guests if they can't jump on them when they first come in the door. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate, leash, tether)

  • Barking out the window
    Your dog won't develop a habit of barking at every falling leaf if they can't see out the window. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate, window film)

  • Fence fighting with neighbor dogs
    Your dog won't develop a habit of fence fighting if they can't see the dogs next door. (visual barrier)

  • Door bolting
    Your dog won't develop a habit of pushing through an open door if they don't get a chance to do it. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate)

  • Car chasing
    Your dog won't develop a habit of chasing cars if they don't have an opportunity to chase them. (gate lock, visual barrier, leash)

  • Trash diving
    Your dog won't develop a habit of digging through the trash if they can't reach the trash can. (cabinet lock, locking lid, behind a door)

  • Chewing shoes, etc.
    Your dog won't eat your favorite shoes if the shoes are in the closet. (Crate, x-pen, baby gate, closed closet door)

Controlling the consequence of a Behavior is Re-active. The behavior has already happened.

The shoe is already chewed up. The white pants are already muddy, or the child has already been knocked down.

Controlling the cause of a Behavior is Pro-active. It stops the behavior from happening in the first place.
The shoe doesn't get chewed, the pants don't get muddy, and the child stays on their feet.

Do you know what you are teaching your dog?

“If your dog can see, smell, or hear you, you are training them.” – Lara Joseph, Animal Behavior Center

If you don't like it, don't reward it. 

Sound simple? Not so much. You might be rewarding your dog's bad behavior without even knowing it. "Rewarding" is what the DOG likes, not what we THINK our dog likes. Dogs may even misbehave on purpose because they know it gets your attention, and they LIKE your attention. Ever seen a little kid keep throwing things, even after mom or dad has scolded them? It's because they LIKE the attention, even if it's negative attention. Dogs, too! Some examples...

  • Jumping on you
    Dogs LOVE it when you push them off and say NO! Bad dog! He finally got you to PLAY with him.

  • Pulling on leash 
    Pulling feels good to many dogs. There are weight-pulling competitions for dogs who delight in dragging the heaviest weight they can manage. If you keep walking forward with your dog straining at the end of the leash, you are rewarding them for leash pulling.

  • Barking  
    If you yell SHUT UP! QUIET! SHUT UP!, guess what? You're barking right along with them. ;) 

If you DO like it, DO reward it. 

Dogs crave attention. If they only get attention when they do the things you don't like, they will do those things more often to get your attention. Even negative attention is still attention!

Start looking for all the good things your dog does. Even if you think your dog is The Worst, they do good things sometimes. Give them attention and praise when you like what you see. You will start to see more good things about your dog. Your dog will do those things more often because it means they get attention from you.

At the same time, there will be less behavior you don't like because your dog is building good habits doing the things you DO like. That's most of your dog's training right there.

The 5 Freedoms
of Animal Welfare

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

  2. Freedom from Discomfort

  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

  4. Freedom to express Normal Behavior

  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Brambell's five freedoms have been adopted as the basic standard in zoos, farms, and animal shelters.

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