Dogs learn in two ways: by trial and error, and by association. I recently saw the speed and power of the associative process in a fashion I would happily have avoided.

Learning by association means making connections between events; perhaps the sound of a large truck shifting gears alerts a dog to the arrival of FedEx or UPS and the imminent assault by package at the entrance to the dog’s den.

As many of you realize, dogs hear much more acutely than we do. Acute hearing permits your dog to distinguish your Camry from the hundreds of others that may venture down the street. Thus it is no surprise that many dogs feel stressed by thunderstorms or fireworks.

Our household suffered a most unfortunate coincidence this past July 4th. A cell phone was losing battery power at the height of the celebration. It emitted its warning bleat, which went unnoticed by the humans present. Only when the fireworks had abated and the cell phone’s bleat produced a fireworks-worthy canine panic response did I realize what had ocurred. The dog had never loved the cell phone warning, but the warning had never before produced full-blown panic. It was obvious that now the bleat triggered a level of panic previously produced only by fireworks.

When a dying battery produced the same response a week later, kindness required desensitizing the dog to that stimulus. While we’ve made progress, I will avoid the telltale bleat in the dark of night until it is clear that the panic association no longer persists.

By reading your dog’s feedback and opening your senses to seemingly innocent and unrelated triggers, you too may recognize associations that motivate positive or negative responses from your dog. Managing canine behaviors starts with a better comprehension of what your dog is thinking and feeling.