Repetition + Reinforcement = Relevance

Learned cues, situations, people, and places become relevant to a dog, depending on their exposure and experience.  Repeated experiences that are accompanied by gratifying outcomes are meaningful to the dog in a pleasant way.  Experiences work in reverse, too, with aversive outcomes.  Our dogs are learning all the time, preferably from us.


Dogs require many more repetitions of experiences than we humans do.  In teaching our dog what the cue “lie down” means, we could ask it of him 25 times per day for several days before observing a reliable response.  Should we change the context, he would lag a bit until the behavior becomes generalized.  Amidst distractions, this same dog may need many repetitions to achieve reliability.

Expectations are often unrealistic.   Dogs don’t learn as quickly as humans and need directives for a time.  Dogs must be asked to “wait” at doors and gates before they anticipate it, and the behavior becomes automatic.


No behavior – good or bad – sticks unless it is reinforced in a way that is gratifying to the dog.  Food is a primary motivator and is effective to teach new behaviors.  Reinforcement schedules are important to fade food, as appropriate, and to use secondary reinforcers.  When an undesirable behavior persists, it is reinforced by humans, the environment, or intrinsically.  It won’t cease until all reinforcement has stopped and a replacement behavior is trained in.

Reinforcement timing is important.  These errors can increase the frequency of undesirable behaviors.  Dogs sequence well!


Often people complain that the dog is responsive to some family members and not others.  People who regularly interact in a way that sets up a reinforcement history are relevant to the dog.  Paying attention to those humans usually results in a payday of food, access to the outdoors, or play.  Dogs are adept at pinpointing the human that sets the order of the environment.

Places, such as the front door, become highly relevant to the dog.  Social transitions happen there.  Counter surfaces can, unfortunately, become a bit too relevant if a feast is snagged.  Leash walking is a situation that can pose a challenge.  With all the competing elements of the outdoors, we humans must work to make ourselves at least as relevant as the squirrels and passing dogs!

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC