Updated: Jan 23
Understanding how dogs learn is critical to making informed choices about managing them. When people think of “management,” they often think of “training”, but before training can happen, some understanding of the personality traits of the dog in front of you is necessary. Is the dog friendly with people, or does he avoid them when possible? Is he confident in his environment, or is he easily frightened by sounds and changes in that environment? Knowing how the dog experiences his world will help you make appropriate training choices for that particular dog, so we are talking about what goes on in that dog’s brain…..let’s talk about brains.
Biochemistry – yep, this is where it starts because regardless of people’s opinions about training methodologies and how to assess temperament, there is the science of the brain – this is the part you can trust as your true guide to advocating for your dog.
Very often, people will present a dog with a problem to a trainer and ask for assistance with that problem. That is like looking at a full sentence and asking for an explanation about only the last word in the sentence, because the foundation for that “problem” started way, way back in that dog’s life, quite possibly before he was six weeks old.
Dogs are born with a genetic blueprint - you can’t change that blueprint. What you CAN change, and in fact have great influence over, is the development of the neurons in the dog’s brain that you feel will be most useful to your dog. The first BIG opportunity you have for this is when the pup is about five weeks old. A five-week-old puppy’s brain is programmed to accept that just about everything he sees, hears, and experiences are normal and appropriate in his life; puppies are babies, so everything is new. By about six weeks of age, the pup begins to make some decisions about what is normal and what is new; new experiences may now be questioned. Realize that I am making broad generalizations here. It is completely possible (and inappropriate) to really scare a five-week-old pup, and a six-week-old pup may still be open to new experiences easily, but for my purposes here, let’s keep this simple.
By the time a puppy is eight weeks old, his brain is the size of an adult dog’s brain, and he has the learning potential of an adult, but because he is a puppy, he learns things differently. A five-year-old child and a fifteen-year-old child can be exposed to the same event and will experience that event differently because of their ages. This is one of the reasons “puppy socialization” is such a big topic. It is important to the healthy and optimal development of the pup to be exposed to the right things at the right age to help him navigate well through the rest of his life. Most people look forward to this time with their pup. They accept that pups do silly things and such and are generally tolerant. But with adolescence, not so much…..even though this is ALSO an appropriate time for a pup to do silly things, but for reasons less often understood.
Most dogs that are surrendered to rescue situations are adolescents - most Maremmas are in the 12-18 months of age range. This is typically when people discover they have a problem, something has gone wrong along the way that has led them to this point. Other than the influence of genetics, what went wrong was biochemistry.
Adolescence is your second opportunity to influence change to improve the life of your dog and your happiness with him! This is an exciting time in a dog’s life – it is my personal favorite time in a dog’s life because it is so dynamic. A 6-12 month-old pup is capable of doing so many more things than a five-week-old pup is, and I can be out there with him, molding and shaping his experiences – and building the neurons I want. Now we need to go back to biochemistry for a minute.
Puppies are born with lots and lots of neurons; I think of them as potential neurons because they are not fully formed at this point. A puppy neuron has a beginning – a middle – and an end; these are not yet connected. When an experience happens, the neuron synapses (the beginning and the end) fire, and that connects them to the middle. NOW we have a connected neuron, but still not a fully formed one. When this connection happens, the brain accepts this neuron as important to the pup and protects it through a process known as myelination.
“Myelination is an important developmental process that begins during the fifth fetal month (in humans) with myelination of the cranial nerves and continues throughout life. The major changes in myelination occur from 3 weeks to 1 year for all brain regions. Myelination is the process by which an electrically insulating layer known as a myelin sheath develops over neurons, the nerve cells responsible for transmitting electrical signals throughout the body.” Source: www.sciencetopics.com
This sheath protects the neuron forever. By the way, this process also increases the physical size of the dog’s brain because myelinated neurons take up more space than the neurons that are not fully formed, and this increases his potential intelligence because now the pup has more fully formed neurons that he can use throughout the rest of his life. Powerful stuff.
What happens to the non-fully formed neurons at about one year of age? Many of these specialized neurons for early development begin to diminish; what happens in early life is more important than what happens later!
Here is a quote from Ray Coppinger that I have found helpful:
“The problem with my story is that there are many adult behaviors that can be modified but only by modifying the puppy’s environment. This is why raising puppies is so important. You can make the adult dog you want by molding the puppy. That is why the puppy and understanding the puppy is so important. The adult dog you eventually get is a product of puppy development, of the environment interacting with all those coded programs.”
Note: The “coded programs” he refers to are neurons working together, with the genetic blueprint, in a certain way. This is a topic for another time.
So, if I haven’t lost you by now, this is where you come in as the owner of an adolescent dog. You now know that every experience has the potential to create a fully formed neuron-specific to that task/trait/etc. This becomes a numbers game. What if you build LOTS AND LOTS of neurons that have to do with calm, nurturing behavior around livestock and VERY FEW neurons that were formed due to experienced chase behavior? Can you see how this can influence many of the choices the adult dog will make throughout his life?
Every time you allow a neuron to fully form, that has to do with an aspect of behavior you don’t want, it works against you. This is where training comes in; it attempts to modify the behavior of the dog, but this happens because of the neurons that are now fully formed that are causing you problems: this is why training is the end of the sentence, and the neurons are the beginning.
Adolescent dogs have many dopamine receptors and limited reasoning capabilities; this is true of humans too! Anyone who has raised children remembers those difficult teenage years when you wondered why, oh why this child made such a risky decision. Dopamine is a thrill! Chasing sheep generates lots of dopamine! The experience of chasing sheep builds fully formed sheep-chasing neurons, so to speak. Disciplining the dog is not the answer. Again, think of your human teenager – did grounding him really work, or was preventing him from being in the situation in the first place more effective? Discipline, punishment, correction, whatever you want to call it, comes with a whole host of new problems because they form neurons too; neurons about fear of humans, resistance to direction from humans, fear of the environment the unpleasant thing happened in, etc.
In guiding your dog through adolescence, use management of the environment the dog lives in to create the likelihood that he will behave in a way that builds the neurons you know are most valuable to both of you. This training has nothing to do with rewards or punishment coming from a human; the lessons the dog learns are a natural, and predictable, result of his living situation. There are many working examples of this type of training to be found in the training blogs here on my website.
I believe 90% of the successful training of an LGD comes from managing the environment he lives in, rather than input from a human.
On the other side of adolescence comes adulthood; this is when reasoning shows up, thankfully! And it is when the sum total of the genetic blueprint, all the fully formed neurons, and reasoning come together to give you the dog he will be for the rest of his life. Learning happens over a lifetime. Many new experiences will happen, but it all is built on this foundation – foundation is everything!
My resources for this blog:
www.suzanneclothier.com Dogs – A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger