The Theory and Practice of Learning




My name is Anette Bach Vinter, and I am a resident in Denmark. During the last 15 years I have worked with dogs in different areas and at the present I am a student at Etologisk Institute (Roger Abrantes) as an animal behaviour therapist (for more information please go to and in June 2007 I will defend my final project. Further more I am a dog instructor at DDI which is an institute that offers dog training all over in Denmark. In 2001-2003 I was in Greece where I trained with different dogs. During my stay in Greece I met Yiannis Arahowits who has now asked me to write some articles in his dog magazine about my daily work with dogs and clients in Denmark. During the summer 2007 I will visit Greece and give a lecture about my final project. The project entails a study of the possible connections between stressed behaviour in dogs and a number of everyday situations and activities, and the general conditions under which the dogs are kept.





In this article I will discuss different aspects of learning and the techniques I use when I start a new dog training class. I believe that it is optimal to tell the dog owners why and how I teach the different exercises. I will also briefly define the mentioned concepts and the article will contain footnotes for this theoretical definitions. I will indicate signals and reinforcement in SMAF. SMAF is a system invented by Roger Abrantes used to indicate signals, reinforcement and punishment in a learning context[1]. In the next article (part 2), I will discuss other concepts of learning with special focus on basic dog training.



The first exercise I always present for new dog owners is the contact exercise. Contact between dog and owner is one of the most important steps in dog training. Subsequent learning will otherwise be very difficult to obtain if the contact is not established. The fundamental training also includes the yes/no exercise and handling of the dog. This I will discuss later in the article. Before training of the contact exercise, it will be necessary to condition ”!good”. The dog will learn to associate ”!good” with ”!treat”. In this way, the owner will always be able to use ”!good” to reinforce any given behaviour. In this context the owner should not make demands on the dog as learning is not yet happening at the current time. The owner simply presents the two stimuli repeatedly in the order ”!good” – “!treat”. The dog will quickly associate ”!good” with ”!treat” and the owner can begin to train the contact exercise. Initially, the dog owner remains passive. At the moment when the dog gives the owner eye contact, the owner reinforces the dog with ”!good”. At the same time or immediately after, the owner gives the dog a ”!treat”. When the owner presents the treat, it is a positive reinforcement[2] (Chance.1999:454). ”!good” will in this situation be a conditioned reinforcer[3] (Chance.1999:455) because ”!good” through earlier learning is associated with the treat. “!treat” will be an unconditioned reinforcement[4] (Chance.1999:454) because food is a basic need for the dog. It is necessary to use more than one repetition. When the dog has shown a wanted behaviour in at least 8 out of 10 repetitions through several training sessions, I believe that the dog has learned the exercise. Subsequently, the owner moves on to the next step of the contact exercise which is to present the name of the dog. The owner gives the signal Bongo(look at me until the next signal is presented)sound(King). King is the name of the owners dog. This normally requires that the exercise is under stimulus control. At that moment when the dog looks at the owner, the owner reinforces the behaviour with ”!good” and ”!treat”. The dog will soon associate its name, Bongo,sound(King), with the treat and the dog will respond at its name the next time the owner present it.



The handling of the dog is as important as the contact exercise. That is why handling will be the next step in training and the owners will be familiar with the concept of leadership. The owner is supposed to be able to touch the dog everywhere, shown the dog’s teeth and to lift tail and paws. The owner starts to touch the dog with calm firm movements. In the beginning the owner starts to touch the dog on its back because most dogs are used to that. Little by little the owner proceeds to the more sensitive places on the dog. In this exercise it is important that the owner continues to hold on to the dog even though the dog tries to move. The owner does not necessarily handle the dog all over in the first training session. The owner maintains the “?pressure”[5] on the dog it is calm. At the moment when the dog is calm the owner takes off the pressure to reinforce the calm and cooperative behaviour (Chance.1999:453) and gives positive reinforcement “!good” and “!treat”. The dog will soon learn that the owner removes the pressure when it is calm. When the owner removes the pressure which is reinforcing and afterwards gives reinforcement the procedure increases the frequency of the dog’s calm behaviour when the owner removes the pressure. The owner should practice this exercise and every day. At the same time it is very important that everyone in the family can do handling with the dog. If the handling is good, the future training and everyday life with the dog will be a pleasure. The vet will also be grateful if the dog is used to handling. It will be much easier for the vet to perform his job and the dog’s level of stress will be decrease considerably. I have been working at a vet so I know the advantage when dogs are used to handling.



The yes–no exercise also has great priority. This exercise is an important tool for the dog owner because the owner in every given situation can stop a given behaviour in the dog that is unwanted. In theory the yes-no exercise is a simple exercise but the owner has to become aware of precision and reinforcement that has to come at the right time. This, by the way, applies to all forms of learning. In the beginning of the yes-no exercise it is important that the owner carry out the exercise at gravel or asphalt because it would be difficult for the dog to see the treats if they disappear into grass. It would also be an advantage if the dog owner squats down because it will be easier to stop the dog when it wants to eat the treat and at the same time the owner will be at same level as the dog which is more comfortable for the dog. The owner has contact with the dog and puts down 3-4 free treats on the ground. When treat number 5 falls to the ground and the dog is trying to get the treat the owner puts the hand on the treat and says No (stop what you are doing) with a very firm voice. The owner can see when the dog accepts not to eat the treat when the dog turns the head away or if the dog steps back. The owner reinforces with “!good”, takes the hand away from the treat, turns the head to the side and says Yes (continued what you intended to do). In some cases the owner has to turn around or go away before the dog will eat the treat because the dog can think that there is competition for the treat. When the dog has eaten the treat, it is very important that the owner subsequently puts down 2-3 free treats. The dog will otherwise think that all treat are No-treats. Yes and no will in the future become to signals that would be indispensable for the owner.









[1] You can read more about SMAF in Abrantes. R. 2001 ”The Morphology and Syntax of SMAF” http//

[2] Positive reinforcement is something that increases the frequency of a certain behaviour when it is presented

[3] Conditioned reinforcer became establish during associations with other reinforcers


[4] Unconditioned reinforcement has a reinforcing effect without previously learning


[5] Negative reinforcement is something that increases the frequency of certain behaviour when it is removed.






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