Dogs are problem solving creatures. They use these skills in order to break down their environment into a few key components. Simply put, they look at their own behavior and what the consequences of that behavior are. From these things, a dog will attempt to put the pieces together, almost like a puzzle, until they learn a pattern.
Pattern based learning isn’t unique to dogs alone. In fact, we all do it. It’s just easier for us as humans to learn a pattern since we have language. Dogs have to work harder to figure out a pattern, but basically the dog is looking for two types of consequences: good outcomes and bad outcomes. Good outcomes are simply those things the dog enjoyed and would like to repeat. This may include treats, receiving a back scratch, getting dinner, etc. Bad outcomes are those things that a dog would very much like to avoid occurring in the future. These can be painful, scary, irritating, etc. in nature.
It takes a number of repetitions for a dog to learn a pattern. Simple tasks take fewer repetitions, and for more complicated skills, it takes many repetitions. This is why working dogs like service dogs practice their learned skills everyday so that the task remains fresh in the dog’s brain.
Dogs always look at the behavior that was occurring at the time of the outcome or consequence. They do not look very far back in time, perhaps a few mere seconds. This is why when training a dog one must be very careful about the timing of rewards. For the highest level of success, you should make sure the reward is given when the dog is actively doing the behavior such as giving the dog a treat for a Sit command when his bottom is still on the floor. Sounds can be used to mark when the dog is correct in a behavior, and this can often help a dog learn a pattern faster.
It is possible for a dog to include too much information in forming a pattern, and this is why a trainer needs to be careful about being consistent. A dog may look at a handler’s body language (not intentional cues but accidental cues), the location for training, positioning, etc. For example, a dog that only learns skills in one location may think that the location is important to the task. This means you should limit peripheral information for the dog and be as consistent as possible when training to avoid mistakes in learning.
The dog is forming patterns in his head and learning all of the time. We often think the dog is only learning when we are actively training him when in fact some of the most important information is being learned when we aren’t trying to teach him anything at all! Remember, he is forming patterns based on good and bad outcomes for his behavior. If coming near you at the dinner table and sniffing around gets him a scrap or two from the table, this behavior will happen again and again.
Good outcomes always encourage the dog to repeat his behavior in an attempt to get it again. This is useful in training as it gives us a way to use positive occurrences to reward the dog. The main thing to remember in training is that it has to be a good thing for your individual dog. For example, if your dog isn’t motivated by toys and doesn’t play with them, attempting to reward your dog with a toy won’t be useful at all. He won’t attempt to try a behavior again for something that has no value for him.
You also have to be very careful about bad outcomes. These can be exceptionally powerful for a dog as they are rooted in survival instincts. If a dog has a very scary experience, it can be very difficult to undo. Whereas it may take quite a few repetitions of a positive consequence to help a dog learn a pattern, it may only take one very scary experience to imprint a pattern on a dog.
Sometimes this pattern is formed by dogs that display dog-to-dog aggression while on a leash on a walk. For example, let’s say we have a dog that was walking on leash one day when all of the sudden a dog comes along and attacks him. This is a traumatic experience. It is possible that this dog will then bark, growl, and pull on a walk when he next sees a dog. He is attempting, through his display, to keep any dog at bay so that he can avoid the scary experience from ever happening again. Simple as that: one bad experience can shape a new behavioral issue that lasts far longer.
It is very useful to know that dogs learn in patterns because that can help you teach them a great number of things, but it can also help you realize how a bad or annoying behavior may have developed. Of course, it’s better to not form a “bad” pattern in the first place, but you can always working on undoing it if you know how it formed in the first place. So the next time you look at your dog and wonder how he learned something, you’ll know it was all a pattern or one big puzzle he put together.