How Science Has Restructured the World of Dog Training

April 22, 2022

Is there science behind dog training? If we liken basic training commands to the beginning stages of teaching a child right from wrong, then it can be hard to say that there is an exact science. Each child is different, just as each dog is. What works with one dog may not work with another, and they all exhibit different behaviors.

There are books to buy promising to make training easier, and professional trainers and animal behaviorists also possess varying tactics and opinions. So, what do we believe?

How Dogs Learn - The Learning Theory

Dogs are quite simple creatures, and it may not be too difficult to decipher what they’re thinking and how they think. We can divide dog conditioning into 2 categories: classical and operant.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is the association between one thing and another that happens naturally; it does with humans as well. An example of this is feeding your dog and using a clicker. If you click the clicker every time before feeding, your dog will soon associate the sound with the action. This is involuntary, and the association is not made by choice. In this case, this association is considered positive.

Positive association is a form of classical conditioning and is a very effective way to train dogs, especially young puppies.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning can include positive associations, but it can also include negative ones as well. It’s basically the association between an action and the consequence. For example, teaching your dog to sit and giving him a treat after each successful performance. Before long, your dog will start associating sitting or obeying whichever command with a yummy treat.

The command is the action, and the consequence is a treat. We are influencing the dogs to follow our commands because the dog wants the treat. This is another example of positive reinforcement, but of course, the consequence can be negative as well.

Yelling at or ignoring your dog when he does something wrong is an example of negative reinforcement. The effect of this is third-party conditioning that forms lasting behaviors (positive or negative).


It may sound a little manipulative, but understanding this has catapulted the dog training world forward. Many behaviorists and trainers tailor their tactics in accordance with this knowledge.

Operant conditioning can also be highly beneficial for your dog. We see operant conditioning in humans all the time. In our case, if we get burned by the stove once, we will know to stay away from it because it can hurt us. The same goes for dogs. If we accidentally step on their paws because they always follow us too closely, they will hopefully know to keep a distance in the future.

Conditioning is always a two-sided coin. It can be used for good and bad. Operant conditioning also can happen via animal abuse. If dogs learn that this one human is harmful, it will erode their trust in humans in general, which is why we see a lot of traumatized canines in shelters and in general due to poor operant conditioning.

Training According to Canine Class

There are working-class dogs, hunting dogs, and companion dogs to name a few. The temperaments of each that are passed down by their ancestors linger to this day. For example, working dogs love to have tasks to do and can get restless when they’re bored. Don’t get us wrong, most dogs can get a little antsy when they’re bored, but working dogs find their purpose in performing tasks.

Companion dogs love being around their humans. These are also the type of dogs that may suffer more from separation anxiety, although hunting and working-class dogs can too, simply because of their history of being “‘man’s best friend.” They need to be around us and work with us as part of a pack.

In order to be effective in your training, you have to understand your dog’s temperament to find the best method. Much of your dog’s personality is tied to its breed and class. Scientific conditioning is an umbrella term that encompasses other more specific methods of training, which include:

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement training involves giving something your dog likes after each command. When there is undesirable behavior, there is no punishment involved. Dog owners and trainers would show their displeasure by removing the reward. It’s a popular training method now that has been popularized by many dog trainers and is considered evidence-based training.

Electronic Training

Electronic training involves using dog training devices such as an invisible fence for dogs that outline their roaming space, or electric collars. We wouldn’t recommend this method as a first choice because it is a form of negative reinforcement.

Although many training tools say that they are humane, such as vibration collars that only vibrate and citronella collars that spray an unlikeable scent, it still reinforces negativity. There is also a chance that this type of training can breed depression and aggression.

Rival Training

Rival training is a great way to train dogs in a multi-dog household. Each dog will want to outdo each other in order to gain the treat. It speaks to the competitive nature of some canines, but it may not always work. If your dog has more of a laid-back personality, there is a chance that he won’t care if his brother or sister gets the reward.

Rival training is also good because some dogs are slower learners than others. Just like humans, some of us learn by example. If your dog sees what the other dog is doing to earn treats, he will be inclined to follow suit.

Dominance Training

Dominance training is a more old-school form of training that suggests one should be the leader of the pack and assert their dominance over their pet to get them to listen. With alpha dog training, it’s a lifestyle you have to adopt rather than just a role you play when you’re training.

If you are going for this method, there is a very clear hierarchy you have to set. You are the master and your dog is a pet. They do not get to eat before you, sleep in bed with you, or even be on the same level as you and be allowed on the furniture.

Some research has shown that not all dogs have a pack mentality and that it is seen more in working dogs such as the Siberian Husky. Many trainers believe this method is also since dogs are domesticated and may no longer possess a strong pack mentality as they did before.

Dominance training can work at times if appropriate and your dog is receptive, but if not done right and used in tandem with other training techniques, your dog could be in perpetual competition with you to be the leader (especially guard dogs).

Relationship-Based Training

Relationship-based training is also only effective for a certain type of dog. It’s the dog who loves you so much and does not want to disappoint. Their aim is to please you and make you happy, which is a trait of many working-class dogs. Your relationship with your canine companion drives everything, so you have to make sure it’s strong. The training will be a way to further strengthen that bond over time.

This method also requires a thorough understanding of your dog’s body language, knowing what motivates him, and incorporating other training techniques to reinforce what’s right and wrong.

Final Takeaway

The science behind dog training is ever-changing and evolving. All dog owners can do is learn about the latest developments, understand their dog, and try to tailor their methods to the best of their abilities to address the canine behavior. Science has shown that positive reinforcement is the most effective form of training to this day, so make sure to implement it somehow into other training methods.


This guest post has been provided by Dog Nerdz. Brad is someone who cannot remember life without dogs around, he simply can’t live without them! He created Dog Nerdz to provide owners with crucial tips and essential info in order to be the best dog owner they can be. He has learned so much over the years about how to look after his precious pup Boogie!