Learned Behavior of Dogs

Any unnatural behavior is learned. If wild dogs don't do it, it's unnatural.
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Without humans in charge, dogs would rely on their instincts much more. Their instincts aren’t geared toward domestic living, they’re for survival in the wild. Much of what you expect from your dog at home isn't just something they have to learn; it goes counter to the dog's instincts.


It’s rare for wild dogs to sit at all. It places them in a vulnerable position, as predators are able to approach them from behind without being spotted. They typically pace in a pack or find a place to hide out. However, because you gave him a treat every time he sat down, he learned that the positives of sitting outweighed the negatives and overcame his instincts.

Drooling When You’re Eating

Drooling is the behavior that enabled psychologist Ivan Pavlov to properly understand how dogs learn and think. In his experiment, Pavlov figured out that dogs’ mouths watered before they ate food. This is the digestive system warming itself up and producing digestive enzymes. But Pavlov noticed that the dogs would salivate even when they thought they were about to be fed, so it wasn’t the presence of the food that made them drool, it was thinking about food coming that made them drool. So if you’ve fed your dog a piece of your food and you spot him drooling as you eat, it’s because he’s learned to associate your eating with his own.

Being Quiet

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Your dog barks, you say “quiet," and when he stops you give him a treat as a reward. Over time, your dog has figured out that not barking when he hears a noise or sees a stranger approaching is preferable to acting on instinct and warning you of danger. The instinct to warn off intruders is very strong. This is why it takes a long time to teach a dog not to bark every time he hears the doorbell.

Secret Learning

As well as picking up the things you teach, dogs do a lot of learning of their own. For example, a dog that has separation anxiety will whine when he sees his master putting on his jacket and getting his keys. The dog has learned to associate the human's reaching for a jacket and keys with the master leaving. So he whines, the master says “there, there, boy,” and gives him a little fuss. The dog learns that whining results in fuss, so next time he wants some attention, he knows what to do.

How Dogs Learn

Dogs learn by association. If an action has a positive outcome, they repeat it; if it has a negative outcome, they avoid doing it. This process is at play whether you’re teaching or not. For example, a dog puts his head inside a bin to steal food but gets a nasty cut on his nose from a discarded can. He associates his action of looking in the bin with pain and never repeats the action. However, if he gets away with a piece of food and doesn’t hurt himself, he’ll repeat the behavior because the outcome was positive.

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