The belief that dogs learn by trial and error presumes they have a mental ability to link elements together through their experiences that gives logic to their behavior. Dogs are presumed to explore one way to approach a situation and then record the consequence as to whether they were successful or not.
Then it is assumed that in a similar situation they can recall their experience and opt for a different approach if they’re looking for a higher dividend. This theory presupposes that dogs, like humans, have the ability to deduce and make choices and that they can project into the future to predict a possible outcome based on a previous experience.
Dogs perceive through their prey instinct. A dog can only respond to stimuli that are of relevance to this instinct. Therefore, problem solving for him has to do with ascertaining whether something is pertinent to this means of perceiving and experiencing. This basic information is what dogs are after when they smell.
There is so much in man’s world that dogs have to deal with that is not at all straightforward in terms of the prey instinct. Trying to come to terms emotionally with these and tie them together into a unified order is the main scope of the dog’s learning process in our world. The stronger the attraction, the more direct the dog’s response is going to be, and the more relevant his response to the problem in question.
When we see a dog trying several different approaches before taking a successful one or giving up altogether, it isn’t that he’s practicing. In his first impressions of a situation, he perceives several variables that aren’t connected, and this dilutes his ability to solve the problem. If the drive gets high enough, the variables merge into one coherent entity, an order, and a reflex relevant to the prey instinct will become available to him so that he can persist.
By contrast, a dog that fails is exhibiting low drive in that moment, not being able to perceive an avenue of access. Instead of having one problem to solve, he has many problems to deal with; the variables never get tied together into one order. He tries, and then he stops, and then starts over again without making any real progress because he’s faced with a new problem on each attempt. Each time his emotional reserves are drained lower.
The dog is being informed through his nervous system whether he’s on the right track or not. He reacts based on that immediate sensation and his actions are very often effective simply because he’s responding to the way nature is organized, his instinctive reflexes mirroring this same organization. On the other hand, if the situation is completely foreign and irrelevant to the prey instinct, no amount of practice will allow the dog to benefit from his experiences.