I talk and write often about association; when you understand how dogs learn you cannot skip association.
Associate: to connect or bring into relation, as thought, feeling, memory, etc.:
Dogs associate; they associate often and quickly. Yesterday I had a plumber at my house; we had a backed up kitchen drain, charming. His work involved going outside; the dogs were outside. It was very clear by his body language that he was not okay with the dogs being outside. He hovered around the back door without actually opening it. I took that as my cue to get the dogs into the house and into the family room; nice and secure. My body language immediately caused concern amongst the pack; I was rushing. Tilley wondered what was up; poor Jessie stood at the wrong door convinced that is where I was calling her from and Luke stressed. As soon as I got them in the house; Luke was out of the house again. (I forgot to close the dog door; duh!!)
I went out with a more serious tone; the guy was waiting to get outside and unblock my drain. I asked him to come in; he ignored me, he was stressed. I knew right away that he was associating my behavior with my recent bath time behavior. He assumed that this serious behavior meant that he was having a bath; he's had several in the last couple of weeks so when I got serious, he thought I had my shower face on. I smiled; told him he was a huge goof and to sit stay, which is what he did. Once I get behind him he rushed back into the dog door with his ears flat back in worry. I told him he was a major goof; roughed up his coat and he was wagging again. He had jump to conclusions that something was up immediately; and the location of entry made him think "bath."
Luke is a worrier; he is also a reactive dog so if there is going to be a reaction in my house, it's likely going to be Luke. Once I let the plumber know that the coast was clear I went back downstairs to talk to the dogs. Luke was wagging his speedy stress wag; then seeing that there was no bathing equipment in my hands he relaxed as he figured that there was no looming bathtime. He then quickly lightened up and laughed it off. Association is huge for dogs; often we cannot figure out an association. But many times you can put the puzzle together piece by piece if you just sit and think for a while.
Odd behaviors can arise from an unknown association; a dog can associate something without us even knowing about it. Jessie has created an association to dinner time. She associates going out the kitchen door to getting her food somehow, someway. For the life of me I cannot figure it out. If I go into the kitchen to make dinner; only dinner she will stand at the kitchen door wanting out. When I let her out she quickly turns around and stares in the door. She will stand there a minute or two and then go down the stairs and in the dog door; into the kitchen and wait to be let out again. At first I thought that this was caused by her age; perhaps loosing a few marbles, but it is like clockwork.
Running shoes are a very common learned association. Put on your runners and your dog comes unglued; pull on your work boots or dress shoes and they lay there, nothing. But they pick up even smaller things; shorts vs. work out pants, grabbing a work out towel or not. When I walk my guys I often toss their harnesses to the front door; each dog knows immediately if their harness is there or not and they usually go lay down knowing they are not going anywhere. They are amazing; and the art of association is amazing, you can teach dogs unlimited behaviors by applying it correctly. Timing is essential with association; one missed moment and you may teach a completely different association.
It can be a challenge to be faster than your dog; they're quick learners.