While it’s true that dogs differ in their natural skills and preferences, all organisms share one important thing: they learn (change their behaviour) in two basic ways.
Learning by Consequences (Operant Conditioning)
From single-celled organisms to humans, we all change our actions in order to get the results that benefit us most, or hurt us the least. We learn to stop by the reception desk to get a candy, or to be careful on ice after we slip and hurt ourselves. We go to work because we get paid, which allows us to get the things we need to survive. When something works, we do it more, and when it doesn’t work, we try something new. This is operant conditioning. Without this process, animals don’t survive, so it’s hard-wired into all of them.
Learning by Association (Classical Conditioning)
When two events consistently occur close together, we start to anticipate the second event, and often make a choice about what to do based on that anticipation. This process is classical conditioning, and is often occurring without us realizing it. We smell dinner cooking and come to the kitchen to get some. We pick up the dog’s leash and take them for a walk, and before long they’re beating us to the door at the first sign of the leash. We pick up the nail clippers to trim the dog’s nails, and soon they’re disappearing as soon as they see you searching for them. Classical conditioning creates strong, involuntary responses that affect an animal’s behaviour.