He Only Knows What He Knows

A dog, with the exception of things he inherently knows through instinct, learns through experience.  The tools he uses include trial & error (trying options), observation and association.

Dogs certainly think but I don’t believe they reason like we do. Put a ten foot long fence in front of a dog, between him and something he wants. He will have a hard time understanding the “go around” concept if he has not already experienced it. Show him once, and he’ll repeat it easily. The same thing happens with obedience commands. Teach him a “whoa” or “here” command in the yard. When you take him to the field (a new place where he has no experience with the command) and give him the command. He may not understand what you want. He knows the commands in your yard but he has not experienced the commands in the field. Distance is the same thing. Teach him a “here” command from 10 feet away. Now move 50 feet away and give a “here” command. In most cases, he won’t know what you want. This is where some obedience trainers make a major mistake. They believe that because they taught him a “here” command at 10 feet, he should know it at any distance. They electrocute him for disobeying.

A dog needs to gain knowledge through personal experience. If he has no experience with something new, he does not know before he tries, what the outcome of his actions will be. Instinct (drive and desire) will push him into trying different options to be successful (trial & error).

The Higgins Method takes advantage of how dogs learn naturally. Instead of relying so heavily on obedience and repetition, I encourage the dogs to build on what they know, build on their personal experiences.

Brad Higgins

About the author
Brad Higgins, professional dog trainer and creator of the unique Higgins Method of dog/handler training.

3 Comments on "He Only Knows What He Knows"

  1. The hardest thing for humans, I think, is to figure out exactly what the dog is learning. Too often, it’s not what we think we’re teaching the dog. The trained retrieve is a perfect example.

    I’ve learned three ways, the last being Brad’s. Brad’s method of teaching “fetch” is the only one that really addresses what the dog perceives, and trains accordingly. Other methods tend to just apply more force, while the dog gets more confused.

  2. Thanks for sharing! I agree with Christina – they will learn through trial and error but still need proper guidance


  3. Experience matters in more places than just the field. When faced with a new scenario, dogs like humans have some capacity to problem solve. Each individual has a different level of capacity; some have no capacity at all. A common problem solving technique is trial and error. Through trial and error, one might happen upon success. But no one wants to see a surgeon learn by trial and error in the operating room. Likewise, letting a dog learn by trial and error in the field can be fraught with errors, bad habits, and undesirable outcomes. In order to ensure successful outcomes, proper guidance is needed to show the inexperienced what he does not know and expand upon what he does know. Experience matters so much more with proper guidance.

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