The Awesome Power of Associations in Dog Training

Puppy sniffing owner's hand

The Awesome Power of Associations in Dog Training

There are a lot of fancy concepts in dog training. Ultimately, they all boil down to the manipulation of associations. If you know how a dog forms associations, you know how to confuse associations. You also know how to modify dog behavior and reshape how a dog sees the world.

What are Associations?

Associations are the mental connections between things or ideas. It is the link between one thing and another, and many animals have shown the ability to make and understand associations. To completely understand this definition, we must agree on the meaning of “things.” Things, as used here, mean anything and everything, including but not limited to the environment, people, small and large animals, distractions, sounds, lights, smells, tastes, tactile feelings, emotional states, conditions, time, and the behavior of others.  

My first dog training teacher told me twelve years ago, “Dogs learn through associations.” I have spent 12 years thinking about that as I helped people with their dogs and have learned many things about that simple truth. 

For me, “Dogs learn through associations” means that if we can influence a dog’s mental connection between things or ideas, we can teach the dog how to behave in particular situations. It means we can change a dog’s state of mind and behavior by manipulating their mental connections to the thing and influencing their perceptions of the real and physical world. In other words, we can teach a dog that hates physical affection to love being petted.  

Associations in Relation to Behavior

Let us look at how associations can affect a dog’s behavior. The doorbell is a sound. What is that sound mentally connected to? 

  1. Someone entering the house
    1. The door 
      1. Opening the door
      2. Things that you do before opening the door
      3. Your emotional state and behavior when you hear the doorbell
      4. Your dog’s emotional state and behavior when she hears the doorbell
      5. The emotional state and behavior that the ringer has after right the doorbell
      6. The behavior of everyone (you, the ringer, the dog, etc.) once the bell rings and the ringer enters the space. 
      7. The time it takes to return to normal behavior

A Simple Hypothetical example: 

The doorbell rings, and your dog hears the bell, gets excited, and runs to the door. She jumps up and around at the door and barks. You go to the door. You tell your dog to calm down, and your dog stays excited and does not calm down. You open the door; your dog jumps on the person as they enter. 

The association with this situation starts as soon as the bell rings. The bell ringing is a cue to the dog that now is the time to get excited and jump up on the person coming through the door.  

There is a clear connection between the sound of the bell and the dog’s behavior, but other associations also exist—for example, the association between you and your dog. There is even an association between your dog and the leash hanging next to the door. 

How did your dog form those associations? By doing it. When your dog was a puppy, the doorbell rang. Your dog did not react because it was the first time she heard the doorbell. You got up, walked to the door, and let a person into your house. The person gives your puppy attention, affection, and maybe some food. That may have happened a few times.

As your dog aged, she started going to the door and was excited as she anticipated the attention, affection, and possible food. You did not notice because she was not too excited. The guest entered, ignored her, and spoke with you. She saw what was going on, and she started to bark. The barking got her some attention but not as much as when she jumped on the person. So she learned that when the bell rings, she needs to get excited, bark, and jump to get the attention that she likes. So she hears the bell, gets excited, barks and jumps, and is rewarded with attention. Just like that, an association is formed. 

How to Change Associations

Now that the dog has an association, how do you change that association? How do you change the mental connection to the bell and the behavior? Create confusion, stop enabling unwanted behaviors, or change your behavior when the bell rings. We must disrupt the predictable course of events to create confusion in an association. 

  1. Bell rings
  2. Dog gets excited 
  3. Dog does to door
  4. Dog remains excited 
  5. Door opens
  6. Ringer enters
  7. Dog jumps and barks.

We can create confusion in the association by interrupting or preventing the sequence of events. For example, the person enters without ringing the bell, the bell rings, and the dog is prevented from getting excited, going to the door, remaining excited, the door does not open, no one enters, or the dog is prevented from jumping and barking when the person enters. There are many ways to prevent the sequence from happening. 

We can change the association by ensuring that something altogether different happens. The bell rings, and you tell your dog to enter the crate. If you do that repeatedly, you will create a new association. Bell means enter crate. The dog cannot run to the door if he goes into the crate after the bell. If the dog is not at the door when the guest enters, she can not jump on the guest. 

By changing the sequence, we interrupt the associated behavior, modify the dog’s behavior, and reshape how the dog sees or perceives the world. Changing this associated behavior might require you to change other associated behaviors, like your dog’s behavior, while in the crate. If you fully grasp these ideas, you understand how to change the associated behavior that your dog does while in the crate. 

Enjoy Your Dog!!!

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