How dogs learn – building associations (positive and negative)

December 08, 2020

One of the main ways dogs learn is by forming associations – and this can be positive or negative associations. When you have a puppy and are working on “socialisation”, it is important to build positive associations with a variety of people, dogs, environments, sounds, surfaces etc, so that the puppy is comfortable with these moving forward. If you have an adult dog who is scared of other dogs and barks at them to try and keep them away, the way to start changing this behaviour is to change the association and emotional response that dog has with other dogs.

Negative associations can be formed very quickly

This blog post was prompted by something that happened to me recently, which shows just how quickly dogs can build associations (in this case a negative association) and how it takes much longer to replace that negative association.

My dog Dylan has always loved going in the car – he literally gets so excited to go anywhere in the car. I have had him 11 years and he has always been that way. I have used a car ramp for many years to avoid strain and impact on his joints by jumping in and out of the car, and as anyone who knows him and me will confirm, Dylan tends to almost run up the ramp – that’s how much he loves the car!

A couple of months ago, I did something stupid (unknowingly!). Dylan comes in the car with me to my outdoor dog training classes in East Horsley – he likes the road trip and I can walk him inbetween classes. As he is now older and cant do much physical exercise, it is nice for him to be out for longer. When i leave him in the car I leave water for him, and I found a soft collapsible water bowl I had forgotten I had, so instead of his normal car bowl I decided it would be good to use that.

I noticed that it seemed as if Dylan was drinking more water than usual while in the car between classes (he doesn’t normally drink much in the car), but as he was not drinking more at any other time and showing no other clinical signs to cause me concern, I dismissed it. I do remember thinking maybe the bowl is leaking slightly and that I must take his foam out of the car to check its not damp (he has memory foam in the car), but I left it for a few weeks longer! So when I did eventually take the bedding out of the boot to check, I found the bedding was soaking on the base, the base of the boot was soaking wet (so that it was dripping!), and when that was removed there was water in the very base of the car! So it took a lot of effort to soak up the water and to dry the boot, and the bedding and boot base spent a lot of time in my house next to a radiator to dry!

So…to my point….

Little things can have a big impact

…My car has a removeable ‘fake floor’ in the boot….I had removed this to put the memory foam in because it was quite thick. So the way Dylan travelling in the car was on memory foam, and because he has elbow dysplasia and elbow arthritis I also had placed extra pieces of foam around the boot for him to lean on to provide stabilisation, which is important for older dogs. When the boot got flooded, I put the fake floor back in….and little did I know what would ensue!!

With the fake floor in the base of the boot is higher up, but there is actually more floor space, so I put a crate mat and some vet bed in the boot and thought Dylan would be ok with this new set up because there is a bit more floor space. He could still sit up but there wasnt as much space between his head and the ceiling as there usually is with my ‘normal’ boot set up, but he seemed fine.  So we kept that set up for a few days….and then ‘it’ happened.

He stopped wanting to go up the ramp into the car. At all. In fact he hung back when we even approached the car.  It was taking a good 10 mins or so for him to go up the ramp into the car. I would never force him to go in, and it was very important to me that he had choice….he was never lifted in or out of the car at this point, as to take the element of choice away from him could well have contributed to the already negative association he had built up of the car.  Instead I was either luring him up with cheese, or I was shaping him by clicking and treating him for any tiny interaction with the ramp….or a hand target sometimes worked.

Rule out other reasons for the change of behaviour

The fact that this coincided with the new boot set up led me to instinctively believe that was the cause of his reluctance, but due to his age, and the fact he has existing health conditions and this was a change of behaviour, I had to rule out that he wasnt wanting to go up the ramp due to pain. So I tried my ramp with my parents cars, so that everything was the same apart from the actual vehicle, and sure enough, he ran up the ramp into both of those cars with no problems. My dad’s car is a big higher than mine too, so if pain was an issue it would have been more exacerbated with that vehicle.

So now i was certain that a few days travelling in the car with the boot set up in a new, different way, was the problem – Dylan had built up a negative association with the car as a result. Now that could have been for a number of reasons – it could have been because he maybe didnt feel as comfortable being higher up and closer to the ceiling…..he could have found it harder to travel without the extra bits of foam padding the sides of the boot being there for him to lean on (because he does lean on these foam pieces)…it could potentially also have been the smell in the boot, as when I removed the bedding there was a very distinct damp, mouldy smell which hung around for ages (we had to spend a fair bit of time drying the edges with a hairdryer!). Either way, the goal was now to change the way he felt about the car so he went back to loving going in there again.

So straight away I changed the boot back to how it was before – exactly the same. That was not enough, but I knew it wouldn’t be….dogs form associations really easily, often even after a single experience, but it takes much longer to turn that around and build a new positive association again. So I knew I had to make sure every journey he had was positive, and set up the same as before, and also i needed to try and actively build a really positive association with the car again. So I started doing little sessions where he went into the car using the ramp (when I had plenty of time so it didnt matter how long it took) and he had a lickimat in there, or I made it a game so he went up the ramp and got cheese in the car, came down the ramp, went back up the ramp and got more cheese in the car, and repeated that until he was going up happily.

Patience is key

I knew this would be a waiting game – knowing how dogs learn I knew that I just had to keep persevering building a more positive association and that I would need to be patient. Which I am! I am very patient with dogs. There is no rushing anything with dog training or behaviour, and if anyone tells you otherwise or assures you a change within a specified timeframe, please run a mile…..had I rushed him, got annoyed or frustrated, that would have made the issue much worse. Dylan needed to get there in his own time.  This is the same with anything that you are trying to teach your dog, or any behaviour you are trying to change – you have to be patient! And it paid off. It has now been about 7 or 8 weeks and the last few days Dylan has been happily going up the ramp at his usual happy speed and being happy in the car once again! Normality resumes!

So my point is, dogs are always building associations. Even adult dogs. Dylan is more sensitive than some dogs, so he will build negative associations more easily than some, but all dogs will build negative associations – their genetic make up will determine how they react to that association.

If you are having any problems like this, or would like help in changing your dog’s emotional response or an association they have built up, please get in touch –


By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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