The science behind dog training

If you know anything about Psychology you'll know that dog training and behavioural training comes from studies in Psychology looking at learning theory and behaviour in a whole host of animals and humans. Having studied psychology myself for over two years I was surprised how much cross over there was from human psychology and dog psychology and that the psychological and scientific studies I studied on human behaviour and learning theory are also what are used in dog learning and behavioural training. I'm going to mainly focus on the fundamental law of learning theory which is the initial studies that were carried out that became the foundation which all learning and behavioural theory has been built upon.

If you don't want to read it all feel free to jump to the bottom and just read the practical applications from the studies reports and the section on how this is all relevant to dog training today.

Lets start with one of the original studies carried out by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian Physiologist in 1902. Pavlov carried out studies on dogs teaching them the association of a bell being rung meaning that food was going to be presented. At the end of the study, Pavlov had created a physical response in the dog (salivating) when the bell was rung meaning that the dog had learnt an association between the two variables. This was called Classical Conditioning, simply meaning when two stimuli are linked together to produce a learned response in a person or animal. Pavlov's study concluded that you could shape a dogs behaviour using classical conditioning to create a required response.




So for example, if you are teaching your dog how to sit you use a treat, get them into the required position and then mark the behaviour with 'sit' and a treat as a reward. The dog then learns that the position of sitting when given the command 'sit' means they are rewarded.

Classical conditioning emphasises the importance of learning from the environment and supports nature over nurture. Classical conditioning is also scientific as it is based on empirical evidence carried out by controlled experiments that undeniably prove it's existence.

Now we come to the more complex part. In 1938 a Psychologist called B.F.Skinner started to do some further experiments as he believed that Classical conditioning was far too simplistic to be a complete explanation of complex human behaviour. He started to look at understanding behaviour by looking at the causes of an action and it's consequences. This was named Operant Conditioning.


Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. Skinners research was based on and build upon Thorndike's law of effect in 1898 which said:

Behaviour that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated and behaviour that is followed by an unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated.

Now i'm not going to go into huge amounts of detail on Skinners experiments and just summarise but I have put in at the bottom links to a more detailed write up on all of the studies mentioned if you would like to read up on them more yourself.


So Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect - Reinforcement. Behaviour which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened) and behaviour which is not reinforced tends to die out (i.e. weakened). Skinner studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a 'Skinner box'. (You can read about the full study in the link below)