Dog owners often look at training as a process with a beginning, middle, and end, and that at some point they will be able to claim success: the well-behaved dog. But learning is an activity that you can enjoy throughout your dog’s life, keeping both you and your dog engaged and strengthening your bond. Training is traditionally viewed as a problem-resolution effort, but lifelong learning, through enrichment, has significant benefits to the dog’s health and quality of life.
Dogs were raised to work alongside humans with a specific job to do. They spent most of their days interacting with handlers and responding to the needs of the job. They returned to their home exhausted and fulfilled after a long day of thinking, working, and serving a purpose. In today’s urban lifestyle, most dogs have been relegated to the realm of house-pets and companions. The unfortunate effect of this shift is that many dogs are now left alone while owners are at work, at school, or running errands. The lack of stimulation and engagement leads to anxiety, impulse control issues, and boredom, which in turn leads to behavioral problems.
Learning is about more than getting your dog to obey human commands; it’s about giving your dog the mental stimulation and physical activity that they are so often missing in today’s world. As you work through exercises together, your dog learns to communicate and understand you better, to give better cues and read your body language. And it’s a two-way street; you learn to read your dog’s body language and moods as well, helping you to understand your dog’s emotional state. Strong communication and bond give you tools that you can use to redirect, interrupt, divert, and calm dogs who are exhibiting problem behaviors in the moment.
Learning, unlike training, does not need to be limited to a set period of time and a formal session each day. It should be a part of day-to-day life and activities. Skills should be continually reinforced throughout the day, from feeding time, potty breaks, walks, and playtime as well. Reward good behavior with simple praise as often as possible, and in as many environments and contexts as possible to encourage trust and effective two-way communication.
Varying routines and locations helps improve cognitive function and keep the dog stimulated and engaged, as well as ensuring consistent behavior. If your dog is only trained in your living room with no distractions, the dog will only learn to perform tasks in those specific circumstances. Changing it up ensures that the skills can be recalled and performed in any context. A dog can also become so used to a routine that it becomes agitated or upset when its expectations aren’t met. For example, if the dog has learned that he goes for a walk at precisely 7:50 AM each day, he might begin whining, digging, or pawing at the door if he isn’t taken for a walk when he expects it. By changing routines and environments, the dog learns to be confident, relaxed and in control.
Just like people, dogs never stop learning. They are constantly observing and interacting with their environment. What they will learn depends on what they are given to observe and interact with. If you want to shape specific behaviors, you will need to make sure that you are guiding those behaviors, even when you’re sitting at home enjoying a quiet afternoon. Learning is a lifelong process for your dog and keeping their brains active and engaged will help keep your dog content and satisfied throughout it’s life.