Lots of people say that their dogs are dumb, but then they never make the connection between their dog putting a paw up on your leg and getting a treat. The dog is deliberately doing something to get himself a treat, and how dumb can that make him?
Humans and dogs have a successful relationship that goes back thousands of years, and one reason why it works out so well is because we communicate in a way that they understand. Think about what they are saying when they bring you a stick. You know that they want to play fetch, don’t you?
These are just two examples of the way that your dog tells you what is going on in his mind, and you’ll find that they are not the only way that they engage in complex behavior.
Remember that just like we do, dog can see and remember a lot of language and posture, but they process it very differently from the way that we do.
Their eyes will take in light and color differently than we do, and they can see in low light much more easily. Thanks to the muscles on their head, they can rotate their ears to figure out where the sounds are coming from, and let’s not forget that great sense of smell.
These differences will equal difference in the way that their minds work. Their ability to understand cause and effect relationships is quite different from ours.
First, look at classical conditioning, where a stimulus is associated with a response. We can get over stimulus like going to the doctor or getting in a wreck, but associations like this are much more powerful for a dog and can take a while to train out.
Operant conditioning is where we learn about cause and effect through positive and negative reinforcement and is something that is even more different between humans and dogs.
Consider the fact that I always go out the back door with my Golden Retrievers when we are going to play fetch. Whenever we go out that door, we play fetch. On the other hand, when I let them out the side door, I don’t go with them; I just leave them for half an hour or so. Of course, they always go to the back door when they want a game or see one coming.
With every command that I give them, I always use a very specific tone and hand gesture. This helps them learn a lot of desirable behaviors, which means that they can sit, stay, lie down, come, roll over, let go of something, fetch and release, even eliminate at my say so.
However, remember that if too much time passes between cause and effect, they are going to lose it. For instance, how many times can you tell them that eating something off the ground is bad for them? The stomachaches that result have no connection in their heads to the food because it was too long ago!
What you need learn from this is that your pet dog, whether he is a Husky, a Retriever, a Shepherd, a Chihuahua, or a Beagle, is still a dog. He can learn all sorts of things as long as you are patient, but don’t ever expect him to understand things the way that you do.
For instance, look at dogs that can dance on command on the show circuit, or search and rescue dogs that can locate small children and pull them from swollen rivers and bad avalanches. Service dogs can do everything from opening a door to pulling a wheelchair to guiding a blind person.
Dogs are very trainable; just don’t expect them to act like people. Whether we like it or not, they are still dogs and they are still going to do things like sniff other dog’s posteriors!