Ever watched that t.v. show "The Dog Whisperer" and wonder how he does that? Well, that’s what I am going to tell you in this series of blog entries. It takes an extreme amount of patience, will power, determination, and leadership skills. It also takes an understanding of what makes dogs tick.  So first, I’ll explain that.

Disclaimer: This series of blog entries is only basic information on how to become a dog whisperer and should not be thought of as a course or qualification. Becoming an occupational dog whisperer takes years of practice and education. Please leave the serious issues of your dog to the professionals.

What Makes A Dog Tick? 

Vol 1. Learning

 In order to be a dog whisperer, you’ll need to know what makes a dog tick. How they precieve the world around them, and most importantly, how they react to it and learn. In the wild, dogs and wolves are not natural thinkers or planners in the same sense that we are. They do not plan attacks, or defense. They simply react to the situation according to what their instincts tell them. Now, don’t let that statement confuse you, because they do cooperate in attacks and in defense, but they do not plan and stratagize as we do. The same can be said for our beloved pooches. They do not plan out their day, they just react to it. For example, the mail man comes, the dog reacts by barking, and the mail man goes away, and then the dog is satisfied with making the mail man go away. In that scenario, the dog is just reacting. The mail man is sensed by the dog as a threat to territory, so the dog reacts by barking, and the mail man goes on with his route, ignoring the dog. However, the dog sees it as a victory for himself and learns that barking works to get rid of the mail man.

The big difference between wolves and dogs in the wild and pet dogs is that pet dogs are taught to think. Sometimes on purpose, and other times by accident. We all know there are those pet dogs out there that wait for their owner to leave and then they go digging through the trash for some yummies, or get into the fridge for a midnight snack. These dogs have learned to do this behavior, not for survival, but for the shear fun and reward of it. They have taught themselves or have even been taught by their owners how to do this. If they learned it on purpose from the owner, then it has become a behavior that is more rewarding than whatever the owner had done to reinforce learning it.

Dogs learn by a process called Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning is also one of the ways we learn, as a matter of fact, it is the most used way we learn new things on our own. Basically, operant conditioning is a name for learning by trail and error. In other words, the subject repeatedly tries new behaviors to reach a certain goal until that goal is achieved and is reinforced. Example, say a dog is placed inside a metal box and the only way out is by pressing a small button on the side of the box which would open a door and free the dog. The dog will use operant conditioning to get out. First he may try to whine, howl, or bark for someone to let him out. When that fails, he may begin to pant. When that fails, he may circle and pace around the box. When that fails, he may give up and sit down, but when he does, he inadvertanly presses the button by leaning on it. The door opens and the dog is freed. The "goal" is to get out of the box, the "reinforcement" is being freed from the box. So, in this example, the goal and the reinforcement are actually one in the same. The dog tried multiple things to get out of the box, but only one of them worked, and it wasn’t the first behavior he tried, and as a matter of fact, it was an accident. But he learned from it. If you continued to place the dog in the box, you would find that the dog would get out of the box faster and faster each time. Why? Because the dog has learned that pushing the button is reinforced with freedom. Therefor, the dog thinks about his plan of action inorder to get out of the box. Wild dogs and wolves also learn by this process, but not to the extent of our pet dogs. Actually, a wolf’s brain is 20% larger than a dog’s, but like I’ve mentioned, the majority of their behavior is reaction, not thinking. Probably because they don’t need to think as much in the wild as they would have to in civilization. It is important that the reinforcement is something that the subject wants and will work for. Freedom is certainly what motivated us to work to become a country, and to stay a country, as it would be for a dog in a pitch black, totally enclosed box. If the reinforcement makes no difference to the subject, he will not work for it and thus will not be motivated to learn.

Operant Conditioning is how dogs learn, but we teach them to think. For example, the dog in the last scenario learned how to get out of the box by operant conditioning. But by repeatedly placing the dog back into the box, the dog learns to think, which inturn helps him decide how to react rather than simply reacting. Make sense? In other words, because we continue to place him in the box, he has to remember how to get out. The second or third time he goes into the box he actually has to think about what he did in order to get out. Here’s what he may be thinking (put into human context) when placed back into the box: "Ok, whining and howling didn’t work, neither did panting or pacing. As soon as I leaned on that button the door opened, so I wonder what would happen if I push it with my nose?" So we actually teach dogs to think by continuing to place them in certain situations for reinforcement.

Try this with your dog at home: You’ll need an object that the dog will have to touch some how, a quiet room, and plenty of treats. First, place a treat on the object (while your dog watches) and let your dog get it. When he touches the object, make a clicking sound with your tongue or mouth. (This clicking sound marks the behavior you want to reinforce). Make sure the dog knows you have more treats. Now stand completely still and don’t talk. It’s especially important to not move the hand with the treats in it because it would be distracting to the dog. Ok, so now that your dog has eaten a treat, he should want another one (if they are good treats) so he will need to figure out how to get it. If your dog already knows some tricks, you may witness your dog go through his entire trick routine to get that treat, but don’t move or say a word, not even to correct him. Next your dog may give up and go back to the object to see if he missed any crumbs. The moment he touches the object again (nose, foot, ect) make the clicking noise and give a treat to him. Repeat this until he is reliably going back to the object and looking at you for a treat. You have just taught your dog to problem solve or, in other words, think!

In the above excersize, your dog has to think in order to get another treat. He has to figure out how to make you give him that treat. Operant conditioning takes place when he begins trying different behaviors to get the treat. The "goal" is touching the object and the "reinforcement" is the treat. So in this case, the dog has to figure out what the goal is in order to get the reinforcement. The clicking sound you make is a marker signal to tell the dog that he has preformed the desired behavior and will get the reinforcement. Kinda like playing the hot and cold game. If you’d like to experience how dogs learn yourself, you can play a game called "The Training Game." This game takes two people, one to be the trainer, and one to be the dog. The trainer will come up with a simple behavior for the dog to preform. The trainer can not talk to the dog at all and must stand still. The dog will go around the room and preform various behaviors. If the behavior is close to the desired behavior, then the trainer will make a clicking sound, if not, the trainer is quiet. So if the trainer wanted the dog to touch a wall, he’d click when the dog got close to the wall. That tells the dog that he’s close to preforming the desired behavior. When the desired behavior is accomplished, the dog is rewarded with applause. Have the dog be the dog again, and see what happens. Did the dog try touching the wall again for a click? This is operant conditioning at work. The previous behavior is tried again because it achieved a reward before.

You now have a basic understanding of how dogs learn and learn to think.. but what else makes a dog tick? Find out in Vol 2. 

Next entry: "What makes a dog tick? Vol. 2 Pack Structure"