Association Of Ideas In Dog Training

The first essential to success in training is to get rid of any ideas you may have about dogs being ‘almost human’. Thank heaven they are not! The main difference lies in the fact that dogs do not reason as we do. There is some difference of opinion as to whether dogs work anything out in their minds at all. Whatever views one holds about this, all training must be based on the assumption that dogs do not reason.


Dogs, like all other animals, learn by association of ideas. This simply means that if the dog does something (accidentally or intentionally) and finds that it provides pleasure he will associate the action with the pleasure and tend to repeat it. Likewise, if he does something which results in an unpleasant experience he won’t be so keen on doing it again. It is up to you to see that the things you want the dog to do provide him with pleasure and that the things you don’t want him to do provide the opposite.

For the purpose of training we provide the displeasure or pleasure by what are known as correction and reward. We therefore train a dog by using correction and reward to build up the associations of ideas that we want. Which simply means that if the dog does wrong we correct him and if he does right we reward him. And it must be done at the time. There is no good in telling a dog that he was very naughty this morning and therefore must go to bed without any supper tonight. One must scold him when he is naughty — not afterwards.

You must also take great care not to create wrong associations, which is much easier than people expect. There is, for example, the owner who, when a dog goes off rabbidng, waits till it comes home and then gives it ‘a jolly good hiding’. He believes that he is punishing it for running away — whereas in the dog’s mind it is being punished for coming home, the worst possible association to create.

One should praise the dog for coming back (though, speaking personally, there is no time when I feel less like praising the brute). I have yet to hear of anyone who has ever cured a dog of rabbiting by punishing it after it has come home. I’m afraid, too, that this kind of owner often goes on nagging at the miserable dog long after the latter has forgotten the crime — if, in fact, there was one.

As a further aid to training we can and should make use of the submissive instinct. It is now generally realized that even wild animals such as ‘big cats’ in circuses will accept a human master as their ‘boss animal’. This is much easier to achieve with a dog than with any other animal. Although dogs are not almost human, we are in many ways almost canine, and it is easy to take on the role of leader — provided, that is, we have a dog that wants to be led. In a pack of twenty-six, A will be the leader who bosses everyone. B will boss everyone except A and so on until we come down to poor Z, who bosses no one and is bossed by everyone. It is not quite as simple as that but that is the principle.

Exactly the same thing takes place in many other social orders, including the human one. The result is that, while practically anyone can make a ‘Z dog’ obey, only those with A-plus will-power can succeed with an ‘A dog’. This brings us back to what I said about getting a dog with a temperament to suit your own. Lack of compatibility is the cause of far more failures than is generally realized.

I am frequently asked for advice on disobedient family dogs. Many of these will obey ‘Dad’ but refuse to obey ‘Mum’. Occasionally, however, I meet one which obeys the wife but pays not the slightest attention to the husband. In the cases I have been able to observe closely I have unvariably found that the husband obeys the wife too!

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