How dogs learn
The main difference between how we learn and how dogs learn is that dogs don't understand things "in theory". They can't think through a problem without it being presented to them in real life. They must do, or experience it in real life in order to learn it. This means that we cannot say our dog "knows" something until they can prove to us that they know it through their actions.
Dogs seem to recall pictures. We can teach them concepts that they can fall back on, so long as the “picture” of the situation looks similar enough to what they have encountered in the past. When the picture changes too much, we have to teach them again. We often hear that our clients’ dogs are obedient in the house, but not outside. This is not the dog being stubborn, just very literal. This is the dog not recognizing that though the picture has changed, the behavior we ask of them has not.
Overwhelmingly, dogs learn through the discovery of patterns in the world around them. They connect actions to consequences and recognize the connections between events if those connections are consistent. If there is a knock at the door, your dog knows a person is on the other side of the door because they have experienced that enough times to recognize the pattern. If you generally feed your dog shortly after you come home from work, your dog might behave in ways that show you they are anticipating being fed, again because of their ability to pick up on the pattern that you come home and then they get to eat.
In addition to associating behaviors with their consequences, dogs also associate certain activities with their feelings while engaged with those activities. If a dog feels good, relative to a situation going on around them, they will tend to proactively feel that way in that situation in the future. If a dog feels bad, relative to a situation going on around them, they will tend to proactively feel that way in that situation in the future. It’s important to know that this “emotional conditioning” is involuntary to the dog. It just happens. And that can be a powerful tool to help the dog, or to harm them.
Your dog’s learning process
Action >>> Result >>> Memory
Any action that your dog takes, which creates a favorable result, will form a memory for them that they should repeat that action when presented with a similar scenario in the future.
Any action that your dog takes, which creates an unfavorable result, will form a memory for them that they should avoid that action when presented with a similar scenario in the future.
And don’t forget that all three things are happening at the same time, all the time: pictures, patterns, feelings. Your dog is ALWAYS learning, whether you intend to be teaching or not.