Dog training is one of the most demanding and difficult aspects of welcoming any new canine to the family. Sometimes, it seems that sit and stay are the hardest tasks known to man or dog. But have you ever tried these psychological tricks to training your dog? It may just turn the whole process to become like a walk in a dog park!

Use Pavlov’s method of classical conditioning to acquire a desired response to a stimulus.

Classical conditioning, which was researched extensively by behaviorist and physiologist Ivan Pavlov, is a process by which a stimulus becomes associated with a specific response. As a result, the response will occur unconsciously any time at which the stimulus is present [1].

Give classical conditioning a try next time you take your dog for a walk. If your pet often seems to need to “go out” immediately after coming inside from a long walk, classical conditioning will encourage your dog to relieve themselves during your walk, solving the “in and out” shenanigans. In a sense, this style of conditioning is similar to that of training small children to go to the bathroom before they go to bed to avoid a bed-wetting incident. After some time, a child will be conditioned to go every night before bed. Similarly, after some time, your dog will be conditioned to go during the walk as opposed to immediately afterward.

Here’s how it works: every time your dog properly relieves themselves outside, ring a bell. After some time of conditioning, the bell will become a conditioned stimulus that will, upon ringing, cause your dog to urinate almost involuntarily. To put your training into action, ring the bell towards the end of your walk once you have conditioned your dog. This will trigger your dog to “empty the tank,” and you will no longer be faced with a constant need to let your dog in and out.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 171-173)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Fulfill one of the Maslow’s basic needs and teach your dog a new trick with primary reinforcers.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, most living beings have a hierarchy of needs, often presented in a pyramid. While these needs range from species to species, the base of the pyramid illustrates needs shared by nearly all species; they are known as basic needs [2], and they represent what is necessary for survival, such as food, water, and touch.

The satisfaction of hunger, thirst, and pleasure is a basic need in all animals. As a result, they can be harnessed in operant (voluntary) conditioning to be used as rewards for pet training.  To implement a primary enforcer, pet your dog after they do a simple trick, such as sitting down, on their own. Then, begin to pet your dog only when they sit down on command.

As you reinforce their good behavior by filling a basic need, you are conditioning your dog to enjoy the trick and the reward that they receive from it, and after repeated reinforcement, your dog will happily sit on command in order to receive the positive reinforcement of the reward!

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 181-182; 351-353)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Supplement primary reinforcement by using secondary reinforcers to see long-lasting pet training results.

While primary reinforcers, such as treats or petting your dog, may be sufficient to initially teach your pet a new trick, it may become difficult to continue the reinforcement without risking negative consequences such as weight gain (from too many treats) or begging (as a result of continuous petting and attention). In addition, there is risk of extinction of the trick if a primary reinforcer is not referenced every time.

Instead of continually offering only primary reinforcement for good behavior, begin accompanying the reinforcement with praise. Similarly to Pavlov’s method of classical conditioning, after several attempts with the new reinforcement, your dog will associate not only the food, but also the praise with performing the desired trick [3].

After a while, the implementation of this reinforcer will actually be interpreted as satisfying the same need as the primary reinforcer. Once the new reinforcer is conditioned, a simple “Good Dog!” will be all it takes to have your pup wriggling with pleasure after their good behavior.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 182)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Use negative reinforcement through removal of stimulus to encourage good behavior.

Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcement is not the addition of a negative consequence, such as pain; rather, it is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, such as cold weather. Negative reinforcement functions not by rewarding exceptional behavior, such as a trick, but rather by encouraging general good behavior. If you have a new puppy, negative reinforcement can be particularly beneficial to train them to behave well when home alone [4].

Begin to train your puppy while you are home, to prevent accidents and other puppy-related mishaps. With this method, begin by placing the puppy alone, in a safe and warm but empty room. The puppy may become lonely, which can cue barking or whining. However, do not immediately tend to the puppy when they begin to whine.

Start in small increments, such as 5 to 15 minutes of “alone time” for the puppy before removing the unpleasant stimulus – loneliness – and beginning to play and interact with the puppy again. Then, start increasing the increments in which you interact with the puppy. Over time, the puppy will learn that the schedule of alone time will vary. As a result, they will become less dependent on the reinforcement in small increments and will soon be able to stay home alone for long periods of time without whining or barking.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 183)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Try a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement to train your dog to perform complex and multi-step tricks.

In this component of operant conditioning, the reinforcement is provided based upon a certain ratio of behavior to reinforcement. On a simple level, this can be a treat or praise after your dog performs the desired behavior every three times [5]. For advanced training, however, the reinforcement is offered every time your dog performs a desired sequence of tricks.

To establish the fixed-ratio, you must establish a base. In this case, your dog should know every trick within the sequence before they can perform the sequence. Then, begin establishing the ratio by only rewarding your dog after the entire trick sequence is performed. The best and simplest sequence to begin with just two tricks: sit and stay.

Only reward your dog when they sit and stay, for if you reward them after only one of the actions in the sequence is performed, it is possible that the association between the reward and the sequence will dwindle. Keep in mind that the most important component of this style of conditioning is repetition on a schedule [6], which enforces the continuation of the behavior.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 184-185)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Utilize successive approximation and shaping to accomplish a more difficult specific goal behavior.

Similarly to a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement, successive approximation and shaping are designed to condition more complex tricks and behaviors. However, whereas a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement rewards your pet only after the entire sequence is performed from start to finish, successive approximation progressively rewards your pet after each portion of the sequence.

To use successive approximation, you first need to decide what the desired behavior is [7]. This behavior can be complex, but it must be tied to an action that is already easily performed – such as walking through a hoop placed at ground level. The desired trick, however, can be more difficult, such as jumping through a hoop one foot above ground level. As you begin training, reward your puppy every time they successfully walk through the hoop at ground level. Once this trick is performed correctly, raise the hoop so that it is slightly above ground level. Now, reward your puppy every time they successfully pass through the raised hoop.

Through the principles of successive approximation, which state that the goal should be altered after each successful attempt at the trick, continue to raise the hoop as you reward your puppy until they can successfully jump through a hoop that is raised one or more feet above ground level. This training technique is extremely beneficial in that it has a low likelihood of extinction; since the reward and desired behavior are frequently modified, the occasional lack of reinforcement after the trick will not cause your dog to stop performing the trick.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 192)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Avoid negative punishment to prevent learned helplessness in your dog.

While it may appear to be a temporarily effective solution, negative punishment can be problematic in long-term situations due to its tendency to lead to abuse as well as the likelihood of learned helplessness in the animal.

Initially, negative punishment can cause your animal to fear the punishment and avoid it as a result. Whereas your dog may have shown poor behavior without shame, following negative punishment your dog is likely to display the bad behavior and then run and hide. This provides no solution to ending the behavior. Instead, it causes anxiety in your dog.

Furthermore, this anxiety could lead to learned helplessness, in which, following a persistent failure to succeed due to anxiety from the punishment, your pet may develop a sense of powerlessness that can cause depression and further poor behavior. Essentially, your dog will not even bother to alter the behavior to avoid punishment because it appears that punishment is inevitable. By avoiding negative punishment, you can successfully avoid further poor behavior while properly and safely training your dog [8].

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 188-190; 199-200)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Take advantage of Tolman’s theory of latent learning to train your dog without reinforcers.

In one of the most well-known psychological experiments in learning, psychologist Edward Tolman placed several groups of rats in a maze. With the first group, the rats received reinforcement in the form of food after every correct attempt from the beginning of the experiment to its termination more sixteen days later.

The second group of mice received no reinforcement for nine days and were forced to navigate the maze without any reward. Then, on the tenth day, a reinforcement was added, and the mice, having already learned the majority of the maze, were able to complete it almost immediately. The mice demonstrated latent learning [9], in which the effects of the learning remain hidden until reinforcement is implemented.

To train your dog using the techniques of latent learning, attempt to teach them to perform a trick, such as weaving throughout several obstacles without reinforcement. While it may take the same amount of time for your dog to perform the trick without reinforcement, the effects of latent learning will soon become apparent.

When you offer the reinforcer after several days, your dog will be able to quickly and efficiently perform the desired task. Latent learning is especially valuable when the reinforcer is food; it prevents your pet from overeating and gaining weight from the reward, making for an efficient and effective training method.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 197-198)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can encourage that old dog to train your new pet through observational learning.

Pioneered by Albert Bandura, who studied the effects of observation on conditioning, observational learning occurs when a behavior is learned by watching a model perform the desired behavior. This technique can be applied to dogs as well as people, and is especially useful if you have two or more dogs.

The tactics of observational learning are simple. When you have both dogs in the same area, ask the older, well-trained dog to perform an already known trick, and reward them when they perform correctly. Continue this technique every time both dogs are near each other. Based on the principles of this psychological trick, your new, younger dog will soon be able to perform the behavior on command – even without ever performing it before – because they have observes that a reward will follow.

There are four key elements to keep in mind in observational learning: attention, memory, imitation, and motivation. Based on these key elements, there are a few “dos and don’ts” of observational learning [10]. Do not attempt to train your dog in a busy or distracting area. Do make sure that your has the memory capacity to recall the benefits of performing the behavior. Do not expect a new puppy to be able to perform an entire trick sequence while they are still developing.

Finally, do not provide secondary reinforcers when they have not been established in the new dog. So long as these four elements are acknowledged and applied to your training, the effective and nearly effortless benefits of observational learning will be highly advantageous in training your dog.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 201-203)

Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Train Your Dog

Use applied behavior analysis to address poor social behavior with your dog.

It can be fairly easy to train your pet to sit, stay, and rollover, especially of you have applied any of the past nine training techniques. However, it can be incredibly difficult to train a dog to demonstrate positive social behavior, especially if your pet has experienced other owners or has an unknown past.

Applied behavior analysis – which is the modern term for a form of functional analysis and behavior modification that uses a variety of behavioral techniques to achieve a desired behavior – takes advantage of a wide range of techniques for modification, including shaping, successive approximation, and analysis [11]. In humans, this psychological technique is often applied in people with autism and similar behavioral issues [12]. In dogs, this technique can be used to address pets that demonstrate aggression and poor social behavior among other dogs and people. In applied behavior analysis, skills are broken down into the simplest steps, and reward is provided with each correct action.

To take advantage of this technique and address aggression among other dogs, for example, begin by taking your dog to a quiet and relatively empty dog park, or to a friend or family member’s home in which there are two or less dogs. Allow the animals to interact on leash for extremely brief periods of time, and only reward your pet after a positive interaction. Do not punish your dog for aggression, but withhold a positive reinforcer until the desired behavior is achieved.

As you continue to train your dog to interact well with others, allow for longer periods of time of interaction, followed by reward. If you notice that a particular pet reward does not enforce positive behavior, or that a particular stimulus triggers the aggression, make sure that you record it for later analysis. The key to this technique is analysis; as you continue to train your pet, you will notice patterns and can adjust accordingly. Applied behavior analysis is the final step to successful pet training. Once conquered, it provides phenomenal results in the training of any dog at any age.

(Ciccarelli and White, 2006, 195-196)


  1. Ciccarelli, Saundra K., and J. Noland White. Psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2006. Print.

References and further reading

  1. Stimulus Generalization: Definition & Explanation
  2. Reinforcement Theory of Motivation
  3. Pavlov’s Dogs
  4. What Type of Training Schedule Works Best for Dogs?
  5. What Is Operant Conditioning? (and How Does It Explain Driving Dogs?)
  6. Reward Training vs. Discipline-Based Dog Training
  7. Successive Approximation: Steps Toward Behavioral Change
  8. And Your Little Dog Too
  9. Behaviorism, Latent Learning, and Cognitive Maps: Needed Revisions in Introductory Psychology Textbooks
  10. Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach
  11. Applied Behavior Analysis Is Ideal for the Development of a Land Mine Detection Technology Using Animals
  12. Children with autism show increased positive social behaviors when animals are present