Understanding Different Types of Dog Training Terminology



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There are different types of trainers and training in the dog training world. This article hopes to highlight and explain the various terminology used, and give an understanding of how dogs communicate and learn.

Understanding Different Types of Dog Training Terminology. Luna the blind grey and white siberian husky where black and red harness on the left, with Ludo the yellow Golden Retrievers wearing a blue collar, both stood bodies facing forward and heads turned to the left on grass with green leaves in the background

Dog Communication and Humans

Modern dog training is based on scientific research and involves questioning, observations, and communication (between dogs/humans and humans/humans). It is about understanding what the dog is trying to communicate and what we are communicating to the dog.

Studies have shown that dogs have evolved to be receptive to pre-verbal infant-level understanding of our attempt to communicate with them. The study used eye-tracking technology – the same as with infants in a 2008 study – and concluded that dogs have evolved to be attuned to human communication signals.

Dogs are sensitive to our cues to communicate helpful information to them. No other species seems to have this with humans – wolves do not have this  (another nail in the wolf pack dominance theory coffin). My dog is now blind, but she will still look at us for cues or reassurance that what she’s doing is right.

Dog communication and humans. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Luna the blind grey and white siberian husky sitting on a grassy hill, body facing towards the loch and head turned towards the camera, face relaxed and smiling. Knapps Loch and trees in the background

While studying odour processing in dogs’ brains, a recent neuroimaging study by animal cognition scientists at Emory University found that the dog’s owner’s scent sparked activation in the brain’s reward centre (caudate nucleus) area. Of all the odours tested, the human scent was prioritised over all others.

This ties in with another study done at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, where researchers were studying the effect of human and dog noises on the dogs’ brains. This research showed that dogs and humans respond similarly to emotionally laden vocal sounds. Both species responded similarly to happy vocal sounds, lighting up the auditory cortex. This indicates a uniquely strong bond between the communication of human/dog relationships.

Dogs are hard-wired to pick up on our subtle mood changes and communication cues.

Observation and Communication

Observation and communication are two foundation building blocks to understanding dogs and how to train/live with them (alongside understanding how dogs learn and training methods).

By observing the dog and understanding how dogs communicate and feel, we can better help them live in our environment and behave acceptably.

Dogs communicate all the time – they also closely observe the humans around them. Dogs have taught themselves to recognise even the slightest emotional change in their human using left gaze bias (they watch the right side of the human’s face, where the initial emotional change is displayed).

Dog to Dog Communication

Observing how dogs interact with each other also allows us to see if they know how to play, have good manners and dog etiquette, and are confident. They communicate effectively with other dogs, looking at ears, eyes, body language, posture, and tails. We can also observe the dog’s comfort limits by being aware of when and if they use calming signals, such as yawing, turning away, licking nose/lips, and sniffing around.

Dog to dog communication. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Ralf the black and white siberian husky wearing a black harness on the left, Luna the grey and white siberian husky wearing a pink harness on the right, Buddy the black and white tibetan terriers standing between the huskies, body facing Ralf and happy relaxed face facing the camera on sand

Sometimes, communication between dogs can be misunderstood – a breed such as a husky has a bold posture, erect ears, and bushy tail – other breeds can view this as threatening or aggressive. Pugs have squashed faces and immobile tails, which can also cause barriers to communication. Dogs with docked tails or cropped ears (thankfully illegal in the UK now, but sadly still around) have their ability to communicate hampered.

Understanding how a dog feels is essential – a happy and relaxed dog (whole body and face are loose, possibly smiling) is much more receptive to learning new things. It is in a calm mindset, which is conducive to learning.

A stressed or uncomfortable dog (tense body and face, low tail, lip/nose licking or yawning) is not in the right mindset to learn. The dog will be too focused on the stressor and want to hide or escape; no one wants to put it in a more stressed condition.

If the dog is stressed for too long, the anxiety can escalate to fear (whale eye, foaming, hiding, barking, growling). The dog is in no condition to learn; it is heading into flight/fight mode, which will take days for the dog to recover from.

During training, it is not unusual to see a dog scratching (it can be confused or anxious); this is a delaying tactic, and the dog is buying time to determine the next step. It’s a good idea to go back a step or try again to allow the dog to figure it out – rather than being impatient and stressing it out.

If the dog is scratching around another dog, person, or stimulus, it could be anxious; it is trying to figure out what to do next or what is expected.

When observing a dog to see how it feels, taking in the whole picture is essential. A wagging tail and excited actions don’t necessarily mean that the dog is happy – the wagging tail could be a sign of anxiety, and the dog is showing appeasing behaviours to show the other dog that it’s not a threat. You need to look at the whole body, face, tail position, and posture and watch for calming signals such as panting and nose/lip licking.

Dominance Theory and Dominance Training

The wolf pack theory for dominance dog training was based on a flawed study on unrelated, captive wolves. The wolves were studied, and it was observed that they lived within a rigid hierarchy, and the leader/alpha had priority over resources and aggressively maintained the group structure.

The first flaw is that wolves don’t naturally live this way – wolves live in a family unit, with the mother and father and cubs, sometimes with some older cubs still in the family. Aggression is not often present within wolves living naturally.

The second major flaw with dominance theory, based on the wolf pack theory, is that dogs are like wolves; therefore, these flawed theories can relate to them. Dog evolution has not been taken into consideration at all. Under this theory, a dog is seen to be trying to take over the home and be the ‘alpha’, which is not the case at all.

Feral dogs living in a group don’t display aggressive behaviour towards each other to be the alpha. Therefore, the family dog isn’t trying to be the leader; it has had some behaviours inadvertently reinforced by the humans, or simply hasn’t been taught which behaviours are acceptable.

The dog isn’t trying to be the boss of the home by lying on the sofa; it is simply resting in a comfortable spot surrounded by the comforting scents of its humans.

Dominance Theory. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Luna the grey and white siberian husky lying on a brown sofa head on a cream pillow sleeping

Unfortunately, the media took hold of the alpha/dominance theory and continues to perpetuate this because it makes for good television, much to the detriment of our dogs and the relationship between them and humans.

How Dogs Learn

Dogs learn things at different speeds and will learn some things quicker than others. Something learned through shock or pain will be learned quicker (this is not advocating aversion training methods, which are unethical and cruel). Something learned via shock or pain connects in the dog’s brain as a subconscious survival instinct rather than a reinforced learning experience.

For example, if a dog picks up something hot or sharp, it will hurt and drop it; it will learn that the hot or sharp object is dangerous.

Conversely, wearing and walking on a collar and lead is not a natural behaviour for a dog, so it will take time for the dog to become accustomed to wearing a collar and lead, and longer still to learn to walk without pulling on the collar and lead.

Learning Styles

There are also various learning styles; these can help us understand where the behaviours stem from and help us understand the most effective methods and strategies to help train the dog in a kind and cruel-free way.

Training is also known as ‘conditioning’; dog training is operant conditioning, as we teach the dog the desired behaviours.

Classical conditioning (Pavlov)

Classical conditioning is a behaviour or reflex action prompted by a contributing factor. For instance, a dog hears the click (neutral stimulus) and sees a treat/food (unconditioned stimulus). By combining the click and the treat simultaneously, the dog will associate the click with the treat, and eventually, the click will have the same effect on the dog as the treat.


Reinforcement is the process of making behaviour more embedded (stronger). Reinforcement is positive and negative; however, the positive and negative phrases are maths-related.

Negative reinforcement takes something away to strengthen the behaviour; for example, a prong collar tightens when the dog pulls; however, the pain goes away when the dog walks slowly next to the person. Negative reinforcement = something bad stops.

Positive reinforcement adds something to encourage the desired behaviour; for example, the dog gets rewarded for displaying the desired behaviour. Positive reinforcement = something good added/starts.

Positive Reinforcement. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Meg little brown dog wearing red harness on left, Scotty the mini yorkshire terrier in the middle standing on hind legs front legs on blue denim leg, and Buddy the black and white Tibetan Terrier sat on the right, all dogs looking upwards, relaxed happy faces, on sand


Punishment is also positive and negative and maths-related.

Positive punishment is when something bad is added (a yank on the collar to stop pulling).

Negative punishment is when something good (a favourite toy) is removed.

Positive punishment is counter-productive to training; the dog only learns to be afraid of the human.

On the other hand, negative punishment teaches the dog that actions have consequences.

It is more effective to teach a dog the behaviours you want by rewarding and reinforcing the desired behaviours than by punishing unwanted behaviours after the act.

Maladaptive learning

Maladaptive learning describes a behaviour or problematic learning issue. For example, a dog may not have learned that fireworks hurt them; however, they are anxious by the noise of fireworks – the anxiety escalates to fear, no matter how safe they are in the home.


Counter-conditioning is when you teach a dog to associate a conditioned stimulus with something new. For example, teaching a dog to associate the sound of fireworks with a rewarding and positive experience.

Counter-conditioning can take time and must be done gradually. Exposing the dog to a very low volume noise of fireworks while enjoying a Kong in a relaxed state and progressively increasing the noise, while ensuring that the dog remains relaxed while enjoying the Kong. In this way, the dog will eventually associate the noise of fireworks with enjoying a Kong.

Vicarious learning

Vicarious learning is when a dog learns behaviour from another dog. Science has only accepted vicarious learning as valid in the last few decades. However, dogs can learn good manners and etiquette from other dogs; they can also learn other behaviours from dogs they spend a lot of time with.

Vicarious Learning. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Luna the grey and white siberian husky, wearing a pink harness on the left, Ralf the black and white siberian husky wearing a black harness on the right, both stood on a cliff path, with hills and the sea in the background

I taught my dog left and right, and when I walked her brother regularly, he also learned left and right by following her when I gave her directional cues off-lead.

Latent learning

Latent learning is when a dog displays a learned behaviour after some time when the behaviour was not asked for. For example, I taught my dog to give a left and right paw. Sometimes, if we are lying on the sofa, and Luna feels like she wants a treat, she will offer her paw, and if a treat isn’t offered instantly, Luna will then offer her other paw.

Escape and Avoidance Learning (aversion training tools)

Unethical trainers use escape and avoidance learning, which is cruel and harmful to the dog.

An example of escape is a choke/check collar (aversion tools) to ‘teach’ the dog to walk nicely or on a loose lead. The dog learns that it stands still or very close to the person when walking with the choke/check collar on to escape the pain.

The dog doesn’t go to the end of the lead when it hears the choke/check collar moving – this is avoidance learning – the dog learns the sound of the choke/check collar going on – it knows that it will experience pain if it does.

The dog hasn’t actually learned to walk nicely on the lead – it has learned to expect pain if it goes too far and cannot trust the human.


Generalisation is when a dog responds to a similar stimulus, usually at the beginning of a new routine.

For example – a dog left alone in a new home might investigate every person or vehicle approaching the house to see if it’s his human. Eventually, over time, the dog will discriminate and only respond to the sound of its human or human’s vehicle coming home.

Hearing dogs also learn to discriminate certain sounds for their human, like the sound of their particular mobile phone alerts.


Extinction is when a new-learned behaviour replaces a behaviour, and the dog no longer displays the original behaviour – it has become extinct.

It is common for an extinction burst before the dog stops displaying the old behaviour. This is when the dog tries to elicit the usual response for the behaviour multiple times before it accepts that the behaviour no longer gets the desired result.

Biological Factors That Can Affect Training

Biological factors affecting how a dog learns relate to the breed traits. Breed traits are common behaviours that members of the same breed display; they are innate and not learned behaviours.

For example, terriers like to dig, and huskies love to run and pull. Many husky owners complain about their husky pulling on the lead.

Biologica Factors Can Affect Training. Understanding different types of dog training terminology. Huskies are bred to run and pull, but can be trained to loose lead walk. Image on the right, woman wearing grey fleece and blue jeans holding a pink double looped lead, attached to Luna the grey and white siberian husky wearing a pink harness walking up a path with a wall on the right.

Chaining – how dogs learn

Chaining (forward and backward chaining) is how a dog learns; it can learn this naturally or be taught specific small steps to achieve an end result.

An example of a naturally learned forward chaining is my dog has learned that the alarm goes off in the morning, my husband gets up and goes for a shower, he has a cup of tea, and then she goes out for a walk (she will sit at the door and wait for her harness to go on).

At the weekend, no alarm goes off, and we have breakfast. Then, Luna goes to the car and goes on a hike (she walks towards the car in anticipation of a car ride).

Backward chaining is when the dog learns the end goal and then the steps leading up to the end result. For example, a hearing dog learns to wake the human by responding to the alarm, jumping onto the bed, and pawing the human to wake them up.

  1. The dog learns to jump onto the bed and paw the trainer for a reward.
  2. The dog learns to jump onto the bed with vocal encouragement.
  3. The dog learns to respond to the sound of the alarm and then jumps onto the bed still with vocal encouragement and paw the human.
  4. A time delay is added, and the dog learns to respond to the sound of the alarm with no vocal encouragement.
  5. The dog learns that the alarm sound is the cue to jump onto the bed and paw the human awake.

Final Thoughts on Dog Training

Once we understand how dogs communicate with us, and how they learn, we can utilise this information to help our dogs learn. Making it easier for them to develop appropriate behaviours in order to live in our world.

Changing our language can often shift our mindset about things. This is especially true in dog training and behaviour.

For example, rather than submission a more accurate term is appeasement – because the dog is trying to show you that it’s not a threat and doesn’t want to be hurt. Whereas the word submission has dominance/submission connotations.

Likewise, rather than using the word obedience training, I prefer cooperative training, with the idea that you want the dog to cooperate with you. I also prefer cues rather than commands, as commands seem rather no-brain, just do connotations. We know that dogs are living, thinking beings and will live more harmoniously in our human world by cooperating. Allow the dog to learn to make the right choices!

Rather than cause pain or fear to get a dog to do what we want, we can build a positive relationship with them. Simultaneously, teaching them the acceptable behaviours that we require of them.

You may find these articles helpful:

Steps To Help Your Dog Settle

Dog Breed Traits and How It Affects Training

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