The Principles of Learning and Behavior-Part 1

The Principles of Learning and Behavior-Part 1

Learning Theory

Learning theory is a psychological field that is of tremendous importance to anyone who is involved regularly with canines.  Learning theory is comprised of a vast array of behavioral concepts and principles that have been derived from experimental studies of behavior.  The men and women that were discussed in the previous sections of this chapter conducted some of the most important studies that led to the principles and assumptions accepted by most learning theorists today.

Learning theory refers to information that has been gathered about the way living organisms adjust to their environments.  Various laws also govern it, and/or assumptions that dictate the way an organism, in this case canines, changes its behavior as a result of experiences.

When researching learning in canines, there are four questions the researcher is trying to answer.

  1. What do canines learn?
  2. How does the learning take place?
  3. What conditions are necessary for learning to occur?
  4. How is learning related to behavior?

If a dog’s behavior is to be changed, one must understand how a dog learns, and more importantly, how the learning relates to the canine’s behavior.

There is not a clear-cut definition of learning; in general, learning is something that cannot be seen directly.  The results of learning can be seen however, through changes in behavior.  For the purpose of this dissertation learning will be defined as a “relatively permanent change in behavior that results from training or interaction with the environment.”


In a laboratory setting learning is studied by conducting tightly controlled experiments.  Variables in experiments are defined as “…any factor that changes, or can be changed.” There are three primary types of variables:

  1. Dependent
  2. Independent
  3. Intervening

Dependent Variables are the variables that researchers are likely to be most interested in; often these variables represent a behavior that the researcher is trying to explain.  Dependent variables, as the name suggests, are dependent upon some other variable, usually the independent variable.

The independent variable is a factor or stimuli that the researcher introduces into the experiment to see what affect it does or does not have on the dependent variable.   Usually the primary goal of an experiment is to see if the independent variable indeed affects the dependent variable.  In other words, the independent variable is the cause and the dependent variable is the effect.

Intervening variables are not as clear-cut as the other types of variables.  They are not something that can be seen or heard but one can assume they are there because of the effects they have on the dependent variable.  Intervening variables are used primarily to help explain and/or predict a relationship between an independent variable and a dependent variable.

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