Basic education

Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide

Ana Diaz Maqueda
By Ana Diaz Maqueda, Biologist specialized in ethology. April 16, 2019
Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide

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Dogs are not automatons, nor is their behavior completely innate. A dog's set of behaviors is learned in one form or another. While not as advanced as humans, they are conscious animals with high learning ability and emotions more complex than we often give them credit. If a dog's intelligence is not respected, whether through misunderstanding or intentional mismanagement, it is common for the dog to suffer behavioral problems.

A dog's emotional intelligence cannot be underestimated either. Before adopting a dog into your family, it is essential we inform ourselves about canine behavior. Using scientific research into the subject, we can help guide us to interacting with our dogs in a way which is respect to their sensitivity. AnimalWised brings you this guide to canine emotional cognitive training to give some practical advice in educating a dog according to their needs.

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  1. Differences between ethology, education and training
  2. Canine cognitive training
  3. Other types of dog training
  4. Factors that influence canine education and training

Differences between ethology, education and training

If we are faced with problem behavior in a dog, we should know there are different options in terms of treatment. We may be able to deal with some minor issues on our own. Unfortunately, some more advanced issues might require the intervention of a professional. There are different types of dog behaviorists, each specializing in their own specific areas. Knowing which is needed for your dog's behavioral problem will help you to best ensure a positive outcome.

Some erroneously believe canine ethologists are the answer to any behavioral issues in dogs. This is not the case as we can waste time taking the wrong approach, especially when there is often a simpler solution. The the main areas are:

  • Canine ethology: ethologists are veterinarians or behavioral biologists who study the behavior of animals, particularly in relation to their natural environment. They are responsible for understanding instinctive behaviors which can be used to treat related behavioral disorders.
  • Canine education: a canine's education begins with its mother and siblings. In the wild, this would suffice, but domestication requires the integration of the dog within human society. This relates to the basic rules of conduct dogs require to live with a human family. This benefits both canine and human, especially in terms of avoiding behavioral problems.
  • Canine training: a dog trainer teaches the animal to perform certain behaviors and adopt certain postures. They do so in response to an order given to them by a human. The dog can be taught basic rules and methodologies which allow them to take part in advanced games such as those you would see at dog trials.

Which type of behaviorist you will need to use to engage your dog will depend on the problem at hand. Your dog may not even have a behavioral problem, but you simply want to extend their training and have them perform certain tasks. The dog's ability to be successful in this regard will depend on the individual.

Canine cognitive training

There are many different types of dog training, the main variations of which we explain further on. We want to make our main focus cognitive training in dogs. This method was pioneered by the guide dog psychologist Bruce Johnston who attempted to teach dogs by making the methods more comprehensible to their learning abilities[1].

More recently, this training method has been considered not only valid for guide dogs, but any dog suitable for training. The essential drive in this type of training is to motivate the dog due to affection for their tutor rather than a reward, a favored toy or out of fear of their tutor.

Additionally, the training seeks to play up to the emotional understanding and capabilities of the dog. Dogs have a range of emotions and cognitive abilities. These all work together to form a very capable social animal, using said abilities to establish relationships, provide effective communication and understand different contexts.

This type of training begins with the use of positive reinforcement with treats until the dog can learn the intention of the commands. Once the concept behind the command has been established, this type of reinforcement is gradually replaced with displays of affection. If the dog fulfills the command correctly, they receive affection. If they do not, we must show an expression of disappointment. This should not be in anger, nor should it be accompanied by shouting, fuss or physical rebuking. The dog responds to facial expressions, so this should be sufficient.

The exercises which Johnston reports to work the best include:


When we are taking a dog for a walk, it is for their benefit and well-being. If we get something out of it too, that is a bonus. The leash should never be taught. This can cause strains on the dog's muscle. We should not use a leash which only goes round their neck, but use one attached to a harness. The length of the leash should be about 3 meters, allowing the dog a decent range of movement. However, we may need to bring it in closer depending on the safety of the environment. The dog needs to be allowed to sniff and interact with their environment. This means there may be regular stopping at lampposts, walls, etc.

It is unhelpful to think of this type of training in terms of dominance or submission. Dominance is intraspecies specific (meaning it only happens within the same species). it is rare to observe and we have very little understanding of the intricacies of canine hierarchies, so trying to ape them is not beneficial.

Scent exercises

A happy and balanced dog is one which has an attuned and active sense of smell. To keep this acute sense of smell in check, we should carry out daily tasks which help with environmental enrichment. For example, you can take some egg cartons and place their food in one of them. You can then get the dog to sit and go over to the correct one on command. You can also create scent trails with food when you are out and about, getting the dog to follow directional patterns.

This ensures your dog is using their nose to get motivated and keep their brain active. Using the dog's strengths, you can take routine tasks and sharpen their education. Feeding your dog simply in a bowl can be fine, but it misses an opportunity for improvement. Another benefit is the reduction of anxiety when it comes to food. You are able to get the dog thinking and not simply scoffing their food quickly.

Intelligence games

Playing with our dog is isn't just an enjoyable pastime, but it is essential for creating a bond between us and our dog. There are many toys we can use to play with our dog also. We should just bear in mind that each dog has their own personal interests and preferences.

Games such as ‘tug of war’ do not promote aggression or encourage a predatory instinct. Instead it is one which can help improve their confidence, but it is important we let them win the majority of the time. If not, the dog is likely to lose interest. It is particularly important for guide dogs and they learn to retrieve and release, but it is something which should be taught to any dog where possible.


The socialization stage of a dog begins when they are puppies. It allows them to learn to properly communicate with dogs, other animals and humans. Here they learn the behaviors and guidelines necessary for them to understand and be understood. This includes calming signals, play signals, presenting to a new dog and other behaviors. It is not necessary for the dog to know many different types at this stage. Even a few well-balanced dogs can help them be well-socialized.

At this stage, we need to be aware that some dogs will be better at communicating than others. This is often due to tail docking or ear cropping. A dog uses all of their appendages to communicate with their exterior world. A docked tail or clipped ears can make it difficult for other dogs to understand their calming signals. Facial expressions are also very important, so dogs with a lot of long fur over their eyes and snout may have difficulty in being understood. Similarly, brachycephalic dogs with a pushed in snout also have a more limited range of facial expressions to offer.

It is important to emphasize the training aspect of canine cognitive emotional training. For it to work, the dog must be properly educated or be continuing with the education process. Some of the basics include self-control. A dog which is able to wait quietly and patiently for food or leaves home in a relaxed state is going to fare better than an anxious dog with no self-control.

Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide - Canine cognitive training

Other types of dog training

Throughout history, the training methods and outcomes for dogs have varied according to need and context. As with science, psychology and other disciplines, we have believed that certain methods were correct due to limitations in our knowledge. Many of these training techniques are now obsolete.

Traditional dog training

This was a system created by Colonel Conrad Most and William R. Koehler before the first world war in 1906. The training method was developed without any scientific basis. Hanging, electrical shocks and spiked training collars were all implemented. Other types of physical punishment were also incorporated such as jerking the leash or hitting the dog in the ribs. This was, however, at a time when corporal punishment even for humans was the de facto method of instruction.

Many of the methods described in Colonel Most's book Dog Training[2] are now banned in many countries. The reason is because the result is a traumatized dog which is often emotionally unstable. There are some dog trainers which still use these methods of dog training which encourages the idea of being the ‘alpha-dig’ in the relationship you have with your canine. While there are some basic fundamentals which have been very important in getting to know how dogs respond to training, the book should be seen now as a history piece and no longer an effective practical guide.

Positive dog training

This technique is based on the studies of psychologist Edward Thorndike. This type of training involves animals (dogs and cats in particular) learning operant conditioning through positive reinforcement (a reward). While there are benefits to this technique, it does not treat animals as emotional beings. Rather, it treats them like robots which only respond mechanically to certain stimuli or directions.

Clicker dog training

This technique is combined with the use of a clicker. It is based on synchronous response, trying to ensure the dog is responding correctly to a specific command. If the dog performs the task correctly, the clicker is used and a reward is given. The rewards are eventually phased out and only the clicker is used. It serves to teach basic command such as ‘sit’ or ‘stay’.

Lure dog training

This is known as ‘luring’ because the dog is guided with a decoy (food or a toy) until the order is given. The dog should concentrate on the positive reinforcement and ignore other stimuli.

Opportunistic dog training

This method consists of rewarding the dog when by chance they perform a certain desirable behavior. For example, lying down, letting go of an object or catching. This is not a very effective method and is more time consuming than others.

Modelling dog training

This is when the dog is physically guided or modelled into completing a particular command. For example, a trainer may want a dog to lay down, so they push their body until they are in the desired position. It can be effective for some dogs, but there are much better ways to go about it.

Exclusion dog training

This consists of preventing the dog from performing undesirable behaviors. We stop reinforcing behavior by completely ignoring the dog when they do them or even by providing a simple ‘no’. This is an almost passive form of training which can be difficult to enact successfully.

Counterconditioning dog training

This technique is implemented as a means of counteracting negative emotional states caused by some past trauma. It is accompanied by a process of systemic desensitization. This is a process where you gradually approach the dog when it is in a state of anxiety and reward them when they begin to relax.

Tellington TTouch dog Training

Created and developed by Linda Tellington-Jones, it consists of a series of movements and specific touches which are believed to cause the dog to relax[3]. It fosters the bond between tutor and dog, increases the self-esteem of the dog and completely ignores ideas of dominance or the use of negative reinforcement.

Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide - Other types of dog training

Factors that influence canine education and training

All dogs can improve their behavior, some with relative ease and quickness. Others may need months and even years of therapy, support and affection to move on from negative behaviors.

Some of the factors that can influence the process are:

  • Breed: the physical characteristics of the breed can prevent the dog from communicating correctly. Something very recurrent in brachycephalic dogs.
  • Temperament and character: temperament has a strong genetic basis, but it is the character that is molded and shaped according to the dog's experiences. These are experiences which begin from the time they are a puppy, even if they don't remember them.
  • Sensory limitations: a dog with eyesight, hearing or smell problems, that does not correctly understand the emotions of its tutor or with any physical problem, will have a more difficult time than other dogs when it comes to training.
  • Sterilization: sterilization is a factor in a dog's behavior. After reaching sexual maturity, their sex-drive causes them to engage in problematic behavior. Sterilization limits hormone production and generally results in a more even temperament. Aggressiveness in dogs is also strongly related to environmental causes, trauma and poor education.

In case of any problem with education, training or behavior, we must go to the correct specialist to resolve the issue effectively.

If you want to read similar articles to Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide, we recommend you visit our Basic education category.

  • Kujala, MV (2017). Canine emotions as seen through human social cognition. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 2 (14), 1.
  • Méndez, B., & Zulim, Y. (2018). Application of protocols for canine education and training, based on behavior determined by ethological tests.
  • Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2014). Canine welfare science: an antidote to sentiment and myth. In Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior (pp. 241-274). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
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1 comment
Gabriel V
Everything was good until you said " but is important we let them win the majority of the time" GUYS DO NOT EVER LET YOUR DOG WIN IN A PLAY OF TUG, they will see you as a weak leader.
But everything else was good, really informative.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Gabriel,

Thank you for your comment, but there are many trainers who disagree. Letting them win once in a while is likely to do more good than harm.
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Cognitive Emotional Training for Dogs - A Complete Guide