I've discussed association a lot in past blogs; but I cannot talk about it enough as it is the whole art of teaching our dogs. Association - to connect or bring into relation, as thought, feeling, memory, etc. Dogs learn through association; you can watch it in the making if you are paying close attention. Many behavior issues that I deal with in my training work can all be explained by association.
I had the girls at one of our parks yesterday; the park was filled with tiny soccer players and their parents. As we made our way around we passed alot of people; mostly men. As we walked by each man Tilley pulled out; lowering her head in an "is this my Dad?" position. Tilley has now associated this park to meeting up with Dad; it has happened about 5 or 6 times now so that is what she hopes for each time we come.
No one can explain to their dog that when food is put into a certain bowl; this means that they can eat what is put down. But all of our dogs know that when they hear the tell tale sounds of certain bowls in the kitchen; it's chow time. Good comes from using positive associations and bad things can happen with negative associations as well. Often accidental associations occur and unless you know what has happened it can be difficult to figure out a behavior issue.
Ah; let's take the vets office. Once left there each of my dogs has a very negative association to the vets office. And even offices that are not vets may seem like a vets to your dog. Tilley is one who completely hates the vets office; as I lift the back hatch of the car she is shaking in her boots. She only started this behavior once she was left at the vets once.
Luke has learned the association to waving; waving = treats, even when no one asks him to wave. Of course this is our fault because we think his waving is so darned cute. Luke also has a bad association to doors moving in the wind; he once had a seizure because he was awakened abruptly from a door slamming. Doors blowing in the wind freak him out now; and heaven forbid they slam.
Negative associations can happen anytime, anywhere so you must be very aware to your dogs surroundings. If something negative happens you must quickly kick into gear and undo it. Counter conditioning should start immediately; getting back on the horse so to speak. So if you are walking along the street and a car backfires freaking the heck out of you and your dog; get out on that street again. Remain as calm as a cucumber and bring a ton of treats. Your dog is watching you; how you react will be how your dog perceives the situation. Cool is the rule.