A couple of weeks ago, as we watched the commemoration of the September 11 events, some people posted comments on Facebook that they could not remember what they did the week before but could vividly remember where they were and what they were doing ten years ago on 9/11. There’s a very good reason for that – association and emotion. The more intense the feeling we have with an event, the better we remember it.

As I explained to the audience at Groom Expo recently, dogs learn the same way that people do. We form associations using our feelings. Because September 11 was such an intensely emotional event as we watched the tragedies unfold, our brains developed deep pathways that help us better remember the details of that day. We effortlessly resurrected the same feelings as we watched again.

Dogs have feelings too. They feel joy, pain, pleasure, and fear just as we do. If a dog strongly feels one of these emotions while in a certain situation, a deep association will be built into their memories. Think: A visit to the veterinarian where a painful shot was administered, a trip to the groomer when nails were quicked, an attack by a neighbor’s dog as he walked past their yard. All of these fearful situations will form fear associations for dogs that they will remember and feel again when they revisit these locations.

Pleasant experiences and associations are what we aim for – dogs and humans. And happiness forms neural pathways that are just as deep and enduring in our memories. We all remember the fun events just as vividly as tragic events like 9/11. Our birthdays, wedding days, graduations, the day we met our sweethearts, etc.  The happiest days of my life were the days I adopted my dogs! Boy, do I remember them.

In my teachings about dogs, I strive to communicate that we want dogs to feel strong emotions of pleasure and happiness when doing training and behavior modification. When dogs associate good feelings with what they are learning, they will be more likely to remember it. Using high-value foods that dogs rarely eat helps to form very deep, happy associations. If you only got to eat your favorite food once a year, you’re sure to remember where you had it and what you were doing, right?

When dog owners or trainers use fear or punishment, the wrong associations may form. The dog may learn not to pull on the leash when the trainer yanks the choke chain, for example, but the dog also may form a fear association as well which may be deeper-rooted than the learning. I frequently see a woman walking her yellow Lab in my neighborhood. I saw her training this dog as a pup – with scary leash pops. Now, as an adult, the dog walks behind the woman with his ears pinned back, anticipating the next pop. Walks have an association of fear for this poor pup; instead, walks should have formed fun, pleasurable associations. His owner deprived him of this should-be-happy experience because she failed to understand the principles of learning and association.

So the next time you remember an event and feel the emotions that accompany it, realize association is at work here and your dog’s mind operates just the same way.

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