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Cognitive Dog Training

Jana chooses her "tug" card from several options. This means she would like to play tug. Jana looks at several cards with words and pictures before selecting one.








I first started teaching about what I called cognitive dog training several years ago. I didn’t invent it; I simply named what a lot of positive, forward-thinking dog trainers were already doing. Cognitive dog training enlists the dog as a partner in learning; it is not about training so much as it is is about teaching. It’s also about redefining human-dog relationships.

How does it differ from other approaches to dog training?

  • It encourages dogs to think and solve problems. Often, there is not a single correct response to a cue. Dogs can learn a basic cue and match it with a concept, say, retrieve. Then the cognitive dog will learn to retrieve a large variety of items. She’ll learn to find them and retrieve them from lots of places — on a table or counter, under a sofa, from a backpack or refrigerator, etc. She’ll learn to get items by name — a pen, a medicine bottle, a beer. She’ll learn to follow verbal cues, a laser pointer, or a hand signal. But it’s all based on the concept of getting an item and bringing it to the human.
  • It’s (duh) positive. Mistakes are not punished. Success is amply rewarded with things that she finds rewarding. It’s fun. The dog gets to stop when she’s tired or it’s no longer fun for her.
  • It’s not about doing what the human tells the dog to do. That is, it is not about obedience. It is about shared goals. The dog has to buy into the goal. If not, she’s not having fun.

I started thinking about this when I was training service dog puppies. My goal was for the dogs to want to help the person they’d be partnered with; I wanted to avoid coercion at all costs. I figured that if a dog doesn’t buy into the goals, she should not be a service dog. Plenty of dogs love being with their humans 24×7, helping them out and being a necessary and beloved life partner. For dogs who just want to chase tennis balls or who are better suited for different careers, well, we shouldn’t force them into a life of service.

I’ve written before about giving dogs choices (here, for example). That is a key element in treating dogs as partners and students, rather than as automatons who must obey. Teaching dogs in this way does require being less ego-involved than many dog owners and old-style trainers. It absolutely requires letting go of ideas like dogs have to do what people say because we’re in charge, or that humans have to be the “alpha” — or even that dogs serve us out of unconditional love. That insults their intelligence and independence.

Cognitive dog training values dogs’ intelligence, problem-solving ability, and the many unique abilities that they bring to the table; it does not assume that the human knows everything or knows what’s best. It takes each individual dog’s needs and preferences into account, and it allows the dog to use her abilities to contribute to the partnership. It requires mutual trust and respect; the dog must feel safe enough to make choices, which might mean making mistakes. The human has to be willing to provide the dog that freedom and safety.

A blog post that a friend forwarded to me brought this concept to mind again. The author, Jennifer Arnold, runs one of the best (probably the best) service dog organization I know of, Canine Assistants. She doesn’t call it cognitive training, but her post is a great description of what I was aiming for. Read her post, Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No  if you’d like to learn more.

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