To The Dogs—Canine Advice Column

Brain-Behavior Balance

Understand the canine learning process and behavior loops to reinforce desired behaviors.

By Hilton Butler

Every mammal—people, dogs and horses included—are motivated to do something for one of two reasons. The first is because they want to do it. The second is because there is a consequence if you do not do it. You want to binge watching a series on Netflix, but you have to pay taxes. This is not rocket science. Humans, of course, come with a larger capacity to reason—this is not always a good thing, though, as we can reason ourselves into believing just about anything.

The Canine Brain

Dogs learn by analyzing variables and then eliminating them through repetition. In psychology, it is referred to as a behavior loop or habit loop. These loops have three specific parts: the trigger, the behavior and the reinforcement. The trigger can be a word or tone (audio input), a touch or physical interaction (kinesthetic input), or something seen (visual input). Almost anything can serve as a trigger, and they cause a behavior to begin. The effect of the behavior is reinforcement, either positive or negative. This goes back to what I referenced at the beginning: a dog will do something because they want to (positive reinforcement), or because there is a consequence if they don’t (negative reinforcement).

A perfect behavior loop example occurs while we drive a vehicle. If you are driving down the highway, minding your own business with your cruise control set, and you see a police car sitting on the side of the road, you most likely will immediately apply the brake and look at the speedometer to see how fast you’re traveling.

The visual input of seeing the police vehicle (visual trigger) causes us to step on the break pedal (behavior) and is then positively reinforced by us not receiving a citation. Almost every driver does the same thing; it is a very predictable behavior loop. I even did this while driving my own police vehicle.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2024 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.