Book Review: How Dogs Learn



In yesterday’s blog post I suggested that you learn something about dog behavior and how dogs learn. Today, I thought I would offer a book review of an older book that I love.  I’ve had it for a number of years, but it’s still one that I refer to from time to time. It’s called “How Dogs Learn” by Mary Burch Ph.D and Jon S. Bailey Ph.D.

It’s a wonderful, basic book, that is understandable and so very helpful!  You don’t have to be a dog trainer to understand the words on its pages.  That’s a bonus in my book, because you can enjoy what it has to offer without having to make it a “job” to understand it.  Granted, there are going to be some dog training terms that will likely be new to you, but the definitions are good, and obvious, so I think an average dog owner can read it and enjoy it.  It’s going to be a rougher read than fiction for sure, but I honestly don’t think it will be over anyone’s head as they read it.

Part I starts by offering a good review of the history of animal training.  I began training dogs in earnest in 1983, so I’ve lived through some of the more current phases in dog training, and there were so many names of famous trainers that are so very familiar to me.  You might find the history a bit boring, but it does explain how training dogs has gone from thinking that  “they’re dumb animals”  to “dogs are thinking, feeling creatures.”  The trend is definitely going in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned!

In Part II, the authors start to discuss the basic principals of behavior:

  • Reinforcement: Something we can do to increase the likelihood that a dog will repeat a given behavior.
  • Extinction:  The process of making a given behavior disappear altogether
  • Punishment:  Providing consequences for a given behavior to decrease the likelihood that a dog will repeat that same behavior.
  • Stimulus Control:  Behavior that happens when certain stimulus is present…think of a dog begging only when food is present.

This section of the book is fascinating!  This is where you’ll get an opportunity to really understand how your dog processes his environment and learns.  The authors offer really good everyday examples of life with a dog, and let you see how these principals affect your dog’s response to his world.

Part III of the book is about Behavioral Diagnostics:  Why Does the Dog Do That?

  • Respondent Conditioning:  Pavlov and his famous salivating dog!
  • Functional Analysis and Behavioral Diagnostics:  What’s causing the probem?  This is essentially what I do when I evaluate dogs that I train.  I’m finding out what the naughty stuff is, and the conditions that cause it.
  • Medical and Environmental Causes of Behavior:  Health and environment are definitely factors that determine a dog’s behavior.
  • Other Training Issues You Need to Know About:  Every dog is an individual

This section of the book will help you understand how your dog’s learning and training can impact your his behavior.  It looks at other variables that affect how a dog behaves, and you’ll likely see some things that you’re doing in your own home that are affecting what your dog does.

Part IV is dedicated to Increasing Behaviors:  Teaching Your Old Dog New Tricks

  • Shaping:  a fancy word for helping your dog change what he’s currently doing to the behavior your want.
  • Prompting and Fading:  Think of a parent reminding a child to say “Please” and “Thank You.”  Over time, that good behavior becomes habit and no prompt is needed to produce that behavior.  It’s the same type of thing for a dog.
  • Chaining:  This is simply linking several behaviors together.  Think of the game fetch where the dog chases an object, picks it up, brings it to his owner, and releases it.  Those are all different tasks that are “chained” together.
  • Using Conditioned Reinforcers:  This discusses the use of clickers or target sticks

This part gets into some nuts and bolts of training….and might possibly be more detail about training than you really wanted to know.  This is really interesting however, because when we can shape our dog’s behavior and fade the prompts that are needed as “crutches” to produce the dog’s good behavior….that’s really where you get into the good stuff as a dog owner!  This is where the new, good behavior has become habit and we can really just enjoy life with our dogs!

Part V discusses Decreasing Behaviors:  Dealing with Canine Delinquents

This section is really just dedicated to the process of how we make a dog stop a given behavior altogether.  You might think of nuisance barking for example.  There really isn’t a new behavior we want to teach him….we just want the barking to stop!!

This is one of the books that I have studied as I read, and made all kinds of notes in the margins.  I re-read this book a few times a year, skimming sections to refresh my memory banks.  It’s 168 pages from start to finish.  If you have more than a casual interest in life with your dog, I think you would enjoy discovering how your dog learns.  At the very least, it will help you to understand the knowledge and training that a professional dog trainer has in order to diagnose and create a program for changing naughty behavior.

All of the opinions in this review are strictly my own.  I was not paid or compensated in any way to produce this review.  The copy of the book that I have was purchased by me.  The authors and publishers have no knowledge of this review, so anything expressed is all on me.



  1. says

    Sounds like it is worth the read. Thanks Sally for helping us find good books. There IS a very popular book that just recently was #1 on the NYBestseller list, INSIDE OF A DOG. i'll be sending it on to you so you can add it to your library. I totally agree, make time to remind yourself tips and knowledge of how to be a best friend to your best friend!!!!

    • Sally says

      Thanks, Denise. This book may be a bit too technical for some....and I hope no one is disappointed if they decide to order it. I just think that for folks who want to understand how their dogs think and process....they'll see a light bulb come on over and over when they read it. I'm glad you're enjoying "Inside of a Dog." If it's by Alexandra Horowitz, I've already got it....just haven't read it yet! It sounds fascinating!! I like your idea of being a best friend to our best friend!! 😀


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