Man with dog on a leash

Dog Training Basics

How do dogs learn?


Dogs, like most non-human animals, mainly learn through associative learning (i.e. classical and operant conditioning), which can be a combination of observations, associations, and experiences over time (see more details below). This helps them to better predict the future and make respective decisions about upcoming events and appropriately adapt to changing circumstances and/or environments. Understanding how dogs learn is fundamental to perform effective dog training and ensure a harmonious co-habitation with dogs in a human-driven environment.

Every method used in training dogs should prioritise rewards and allow for the dog's choice. When you offer your dog a reward that they genuinely enjoy—whether it is food, toys, affection, or verbal praise—upon displaying a desired behaviour, it boosts the likelihood of them repeating that behaviour more often.

Just like humans, dogs are opportunistic creatures constantly striving for the best possible outcome. Therefore, the stronger the dog's motivation to attain a specific reward, the simpler it becomes to instil desired behaviours and cultivate a positive learning environment. Hence, it is crucial to identify what your dog truly enjoys and determine their favourite rewards and preferences. Learn about dog training basics here:

Small dog with harness and leash

The basic principles of how dogs learn:

A)      Non-associative learning

  • Habituation, Desensitisation and Counterconditioning: These are techniques used to modify a dog's response to a specific stimulus. Habituation is the easiest form of the three and means the gradually getting used to a constantly repeated stimuli presence over time. Thus, the dog’s response and initially intense reaction is reduced over time. This process helps to distinguish between important, potentially dangerous, and rather unimportant stimuli. But the reaction can be intense again if the stimuli was not present for a long time (i.e. spontaneous recovery) or another one appears, so-called dishabituation.
  • Desensitisation involves the gradually increasing exposure to a stimulus starting at a low intensity level to reduce the dog’s response over time.
  • Counterconditioning involves associating the stimulus with something positive and requires a constant and immediate reward whenever the specific stimulus appears.

B)      Associative learning

  • Classical Conditioning: This type of learning involves forming associations between different stimuli. In the famous experiment by Ivan Pavlov in 1905, dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell (neutral stimulus) with the arrival of food (unconditioned stimulus). Over many repetitions and time, the sound of the bell alone became enough to elicit a salivary response (without the presence of food). In dog training, this type of conditioning is often used to associate positive experiences with certain cues or signals. This learning type is about specific stimuli-reaction-relationships which evoke and hence, always include emotions. Thus, it constantly occurs and cannot be avoided. Dogs basically learn all the time, form associations and store these experiences/memories which highly impact upcoming events or situations.
  • Operant Conditioning: This is a form of learning where the occurrence of (future) behaviours is influenced by their effect and the consequences that followed them. B.F. Skinner and E.L. Thorndike introduced this concept which is based on the principle of “trial & error” and is another key aspect of dog training. There are four different possibilities of behaviour consequences, the so-called quadrants of operant conditioning:
    • Positive Reinforcement: Adding something pleasant to increase the likelihood of a behaviour to occur again. For example, giving your dog a treat when they sit down after giving the respective signal (evoked emotion: happiness).
    • Negative Reinforcement: Removing something unpleasant to increase the likelihood of a behaviour to occur again. For instance, increasing the distance to or removing a stressor, e.g. another dog passing by, when the first dog stays calm during training (evoked emotion: relief).
    • Positive Punishment: Adding something unpleasant to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour to occur again. For instance, shouting "No!" or using any kind of force or physical violence against your dog or aversive training methods/equipment, e.g. when your dog jumps on people to greet them (evoked emotion: fear).
    • Negative Punishment: Removing something pleasant to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. For example, withdrawing attention or a toy if your dog bites you during play (evoked emotion: frustration or anger).

The terms positive and negative in this context need to be seen in a mathematical sense, meaning that something positive will be added (i.e. R+, P+) and something negative will be taken away (i.e. R-, P-).

C)      Perceptual and complex learning

This type of learning involves processes that go beyond learning of associations and consequences of the shown behaviour. It requires the capability of abstract thinking and (hypothetical) problem solving ahead to understand the causal relationships and behave and react accordingly.

  • Observational Learning and Imitation: Dogs can also learn by observing other dogs or even humans. This is a form of social learning where behaviours are acquired by observing and imitating others. For example, the Do-as-I-do training approach involves demonstrating specific behaviours to the dog, which it then mimics afterwards. For instance, this training method is highly effective for tasks like assistance dog training and daily routines such as opening doors or operating the washing machine. Naturally, the tasks assigned must be within the dog's physical capabilities. It is important to note that there is ongoing research in dog cognition which aims to explore the extent to which dogs can comprehend causal relationships and imitate irrelevant behaviours, similar to children.

How to train dogs successfully:

Consistency and Timing:

One of the most critical factors in dog training is consistency. Dogs learn best when they receive clear and consistent cues, rewards, and experience positive consequences, especially after performing correct behaviours. Timing is also crucial; rewards must be administered or occur promptly after the desired behaviour is exhibited. It is important to reinforce the correct behaviour before the dog begins to exhibit different or undesirable behaviours. If that happens it is helpful to train alternative behaviours that replace or are incompatible to the unwanted behaviour. For example, teaching a dog to sit down when greeting people instead of jumping on them.

Repetition, Practice and Generalisation

Dogs, like humans, benefit from repetition and practice. Consistently reinforcing desired behaviours helps strengthening them over time. Another important aspect is generalisation; all trained behaviours and exercises need to be repeatedly practiced in different environments and under various circumstances to make sure that they can be reliably performed at any time later on. Therefore, it is helpful to start the training of new behaviours in low-stimulus environments and then gradually increase the distraction level and change the environment. 

Motivation and Engagement

Dogs learn faster when they are highly motivated and engaged and if the exercises are divided in small, feasible steps to avoid frustration or mental overload. Finding out which kind of rewards, games, or activities your dog enjoys can significantly enhance the training process. Ensuring that dog training is enjoyable and straightforward for both parties, makes it more pleasant and effective.

Remember that every dog is unique and learns at its own pace. In addition, breed differences may impact a dog’s preferences and learning abilities based on various breed-specific selection factors, such as the inclination towards cooperation or independence, physical abilities etc.

Positive reinforcement and choice-based dog training methods are typically advised as they create a pleasant learning experience and contribute to establishing a strong bond between the dog and its owner.

FOUR PAWS strongly opposes 

All forms of aversive dog training methods or equipment which cause fear, stress, pain or suffering as they detrimentally affect the relationship between dogs and humans. Moreover, repeated negative experiences in dog training and their daily life can lead dogs to enter states known as learned helplessness or depression.

If you are new to dog training or have any questions about it, please consider seeking guidance from a professional dog trainer to get started on the right foot.

You can read our guide on how to find the right dog trainer or dog school here.

Find good dog trainers and dog schools

Some recommendations of helpful basic signals and exercises:


One of the first training exercises is teaching your dog to sit. To start, just simply hold a treat above your dog’s nose and slowly move it toward the back of their head. When the dog follows the movement of the treat and sits down, give them the treat. Repeat this exercise several times to help the dog understand that they get the treat whenever their bottom touches the ground. When the dog reliably knows how to perform the desired behaviour, you can start to establish a certain hand, e.g. lifted index finger, or vocal cue like “Sit”. From an ethical and learning theory perspective, it is important that you do not manipulate your dog in any way, i.e. pushing the dog’s bottom towards the ground. How would you feel if someone pushed you in a chair to make you sit down? Always strive to train your dog in a gentle and fair manner.


The recall is one of the most important exercises and should be acknowledged and rewarded regularly. This ensures that your dog comes back whenever called. Initially, the easiest is to call the dog whenever you are preparing its food and use this as the main and high-value reward. 

As usual, start the training in a low-distraction environment, e.g. at home, and call your dog from a small distance and praise and reward them intensely for coming to you. When starting to train the dog outside, hook up a non-retractable leash (at least six feet or 2m long) to your dog in the “Sit” position and attach it to your hip to have your hands free. Then kindly invite your dog to come to you while saying “Come” or “Here” and if you want to add the dog’s name while using an excited, happy, rather high-pitched voice. 

When the dog comes to you, shower them with praise and give them a high value treat. If the recall works out very well after several repetitions (over time) and if you wish that the dog sits in front of you, begin by rewarding them for coming to you, then ask them to sit and provide a second treat. By consistently following this sequence, the dog will start to sit down automatically when they reach you, allowing you to reward him for both behaviours at once.


Position the dog at knee level on your left side with the leash in hand. Start walking with your left foot first as you give the “Heel” vocal cue, using the dog’s name. Dispense treats and positive reinforcement when the dog walks correctly. If the dog struggles to grasp the concept initially, recall the dog and if needed gently tug on the leash to bring them back to position and restart the exercise. To simplify the exercise for the dog you can also use target training, e.g. letting the dog look at your hand (i.e. target) above his head while walking next to you.

Stay & Rest

Start to train the “Stay”-exercise with your dog either in the sitting or lying position. Standing in front of them, say “Stay”, and if you want, add their name. At the beginning, do not move, keep eye contact, and leave them in the stay position for 10 seconds, then either click to mark the correct behaviour or release them with the word, “Okay” or “Free” and reward the dog, e.g. with a treat. Then repeat the same exercise and gradually increase the time of staying in the same position to up to 1 min. 

Once the dog has learned what the signal “Stay” means and stays still until the respective exercise (or training step) is finished, you can slowly increase the distance to your dog while you practice and have the dog stay for longer periods as you stand farther and farther away from them. Always reward the dog when they show the correct/desired behaviour to keep up the motivation.

Especially within the first year, it is important to train your dog to rest enough in-between your trainings, daily routine, activities etc. Yes, it is good to stimulate your dog in a mental and physical way, but they also need time to recover and to process the learned experiences. Remember that dogs need to sleep 16-18 hours a day – young and old dogs even more. 

In addition, they should learn that there are certain times during the day where the owner is not available or able “to entertain” them or deal with the dog. Here also impulse control and frustration tolerance come into play. In small steps and gradually over time, dogs can learn that sometimes human attention or attractive resources are not immediately available or will be delayed.

Walk on a loose leash

Of course, the outside world is very interesting for dogs, e.g. many interesting spots to sniff, dog friends to meet, people walking around etc. Therefore, it is helpful to train your dog to walk on a loose leash instead of pulling you to the attractive places he/she wants to go to. Try to reinforce and reward your dog whenever the leash is loose before he/she starts pulling it. 

You can also establish a vocal signal like “Slowly”. Again, it is important that you say the signal before the dog pulls on the leash and you reinforce the correct behaviour. Instead of pulling the leash yourself to get your dog closer to you, invite him/her to come towards you and reinforce him/her for walking on a loose leash next to you. Repeat that exercise several times but let the dog walk on a long leash and sniff etc. in-between to make the exercise also fun for him/her. 

Walking all the time as slowly as we humans do, can be frustrating for the dog. In general, FOUR PAWS recommends using a harness instead of a collar since it is healthier for the dog since then any pressure of the tensed leash is not so punctual on the dog’s neck. Using a wide collar after the dog has learned how to walk on a loose leash is possible.     

Vet visits

Since you have to visit the vet on a regular basis to make sure that your dog stays healthy, it is helpful to create a positive connection and learning experience with your vet and the ordination. Therefore, visit your vet as soon as possible and make it a fun experience for your dog, e.g. make an appointment and walk around the waiting area, meet the vet who gives some tasty treats to the dog and then leave again. 

Repeat that exercise a few times before you have a real vet appointment which might involve some unpleasant treatments or procedures such as vaccinations. Additional helpful advice here is to start so-called medical training with your dog as soon as possible. But please try to not overload your dog with new exercises, environments, people etc. especially if it is still a puppy.

One step at a time and in small doses.

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Dog training tips in short:

  • “Baby steps” (divide the training task into small, achievable steps)
  • Positive learning atmosphere (stay calm, friendly, and motivating; avoid frustration)
  • Training criteria (always only change one criterion at a time)
  • Be patient (give time to process and react to the given signal)
  • Step back (if a training criterion is too difficult, go back and make it feasible)
  • Reward (use appropriate rewards for the dog and according to the exercise)
  • Choice (make sure that the dog always has a choice)
  • Be predictable (stay fair and avoid disappointment/frustration)
  • Motivation (keep up the motivation and performance level)
  • Variable reinforcement (get away from luring over time)
  • Rituals (fixed start and end training rituals give focus and a feeling of safety)
  • Stress signals (make sure to properly read your dog’s body language, e.g. stress signals, to avoid exhaustion, overload etc.)
  • Training time (better have many short than too long training sessions per day)
  • Training session end (always finish at the best point of performance)
  • Fun (dog training should be fun for both sides)
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