Teaching or Training?

A young Kong addict
A very young Jana figures out how to get food out of a Kong

Puppies, like babies, are born with the potential to learn and problem solve and think. They are innately curious and begin investigating their world even before they open their eyes.
Our job is to develop these skills in our puppies and dogs by providing opportunities for them to learn and develop their conceptual thinking abilities. We can expose them to lots of novel items and situations and provide encouragement and motivation. We can also be on the lookout — especially with puppies — for opportunities to turn potential problem behaviors into desirable, adorable, and even helpful skills!
Dogs who are taught, especially by handlers who use methods that encourage problem-solving, become better problem-solvers. A study called “Does training make you smarter?” compared dogs who had received training with dogs who had not. Dogs who had received training solved a problem — opening a box that had a pad that could be pressed by the dog’s paw — spent more time trying to open the box (and were less likely to seek help from their owners) than dogs who had no formal education. The study’s authors speculate that trained dogs have “learned to learn” in a way that unschooled dogs have not.
But, and this is a big but — not all education is equal. There are many approaches to teaching or training, and the methods you choose will affect more than just how fast your dog learns — it can affect the bond between you and your dog, and it can shape or reflect your attitudes toward dogs. And it’s not just the method. The words matter, too.
I make a distinction between training dogs and teaching them because I think the word choice reflects a difference in attitude and goals.
Training dogs is what I call educational approaches that are narrowly focused on eliciting specific reactions to cues or commands. The trainer has a clear end result in mind for each command. The trainer says, “sit;” the dog sits. Practice emphasizes precision of the dog’s response, speed of the response, and the dog’s ability to respond quickly and precisely even when distractions are present.
When I refer to teaching, on the other hand, I am referring to a process that develops the dog’s thinking and problem-solving abilities. The teacher’s goal is to give his or her students the tools and the confidence to figure out what to do in a variety of situations. Sometimes, a teacher might seek a precise response, like the sit; other times, the teacher makes a request that requires the dog to figure out what to do. “Find a pen” gives the dog a goal but no precise instructions for reaching that goal.
Teaching brings the dog to a level of independent thought and problem solving that enables him to respond to a command or cue that is as vaguely defined as “find a pen;” training does not.
Any approach to training or teaching is based on an underlying mindset or set of assumptions: assumptions about what dogs are capable of learning; assumptions about how dogs learn and how much of what we say and do they actually understand; and assumptions about what the dog-person relationship should be.
Trainers who do not believe that dogs are capable or reasoning or problem-solving are unlikely to put any effort into developing these skills in the dogs they train. Trainers or handlers who believe the dog’s “job” is to be obedient and submissive are unlikely to tolerate a free-thinking dog. Some trainers talk about “getting dominance” or “being the alpha” as ways to ensure that dogs remain obedient and submissive.
Methods of dog “training” or education can be placed on a continuum that ranges from those that do not encourage the dog to think at all to those that practically make the dog do all of the thinking. The Thinking Dog blog will teach you to recognize various approaches and their goals — and encourage and equip you to explore methods that help your dog become the best thinking dog he or she can be.

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