Association - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Association - the connection of relation of ideas, feelings, sensations, etc.;correlation of elements of perception, reasoning or the like.

In our human world, association has many meanings but in the canine world the term association is at the very heart of it all.  I have written about association often but when something is as paramount as this single connection, it is important that all of those who deal with dogs clearly understand the full magnitude of it.  It is how dogs learn, but that does not mean that everyone uses it in a positive manner, many use it's negative attributes as well.  My dogs learn that if they quietly walk past another dog and mind their own business that they will be praised or perhaps get a treat.  Other dogs may learn that if they walk past another dog quietly they will not feel the pain of a collar correction.  Both association but used exclusively different.

Association is amazing in the world of dogs.  They associate things that we may try very hard to figure out how the association was ever made.  I have been called out on many 'behavior' sessions when a dog is displaying odd conduct.  I often have to sit and think for sometime before I can figure it out.  Then there are times when no explanation can be found and we simply need to deal with what is presented before us.

Pulling up to the Veterinarians office I can already see the dread in Tilley's eyes.  With a nose far beyond what we could ever hope for she associates a very negative experience.  Being left, each one of my dogs have had a negative association with the Vet after being left.  It is not that they hate them there, it is because at one point I left them.  Tilley's was probably the worst reaction as she was such a sensitive girl.  Her response was immediate and intense and no matter how much I ignored the behavior or how many 'good' trips we made there was still the lingering negative attached to the Vet.

Have you ever been out at a park when you hear someone calling to their dog and clearly see that the dog is not coming at all?  The owner then resorts to "cookie" and the dog comes flying in.  This always makes me laugh because the owner just doesn't get how easy it is to train dogs.  They never trained their dog that coming was a good thing but the dog has a clear understanding of what "cookie" means.  Although say it enough times with no cookie afterwards and it too will lose it's luster.

Association is the pairing of a similar response to an action.  Some dogs associate very quickly, Elsa for one.  She learns amazingly fast and I find myself often having to unteach something that she has picked up too quickly.  I watch dogs, I love their behavior and I could watch it all day long.  But our dogs watch us much more than we watch them.  Associations can be caused by our own behavior.  It is very important to watch our own responses to situations because when we react, our dogs learn from us.

Elsa has learned that when I say 'stop' she is to stop doing whatever she is doing.  But if her Dad says 'stop' accompanied with laughter, then 'stop' means nothing.   She will continue to rough house until he stops laughing.  She's a smart cookie.  Luke has an intense fear of slamming doors.  Many years ago a slamming door awoke him from a deep sleep causing him to slip into a fairly bad seizure.  This only happened once but has remained a strong association.  This is the reason that we prop all possible slamming doors with something heavy, especially on windy days.

Teaching dogs new behaviors via positive reinforcement is elementary my dear friends if you associate correctly.  Timing is everything, association happens rapidly and instantly connects action/reaction.  You must associate a behavior with a correct response or reward.  This is why clicker training works so well; when you have your timing down you can pinpoint correct behaviors.  The click sound marks the correct behavior and the treat follows.  The click has great power if it has been primed correctly.  Before clicker training you teach the dog that the sound of the click means a treat will follow.  So even if a dog is across a room you can still mark an appropriate behavior.

So what about the ugly part of association?  Physical responses delivered in a negative manner are the ugly.  A dog that grows accustom to being hit, yanked or pushed when they exhibit certain behaviors.  Perhaps a puppy that nips is slapped in the face each time.  They will soon duck after they nip, fully expecting a hit.  That same dog may eventually bite the hand of a unsuspecting stranger when they go to pet it.  A hand coming towards them takes on a different meaning and a negative association is created.  The dog habituates the act of a hand approaching their face and may bite the hand before it can hit.  

This is the same reason that alpha rolling is such a dangerous act.  Many of the old time trainers use it in their everyday repertoire of tricks.  Alpha roll your dog for everything.  But what if your dog fights you?  What if your dog will not submit?  Where do you go from there?  It's like skipping ahead to the worst punishment before trying anything else.  A dog who is alpha rolled as a disciplinary action often becomes a very insecure dog.  They never learn the appropriate behavior, they are always simply flung over and pushed to the ground until they submit.  The association caused by alpha rolling can quickly turn very ugly with a dog who goes on the defense.  An aggressive response is common in dogs who are rolled regularly.

Association is a very cool thing if handled positively.  The tiniest of actions from us can have our dogs responding, so use it correctly and grow that amazing connection we have with our dogs in a positive manner.