Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reality & Seductions

- by Roger Hild

When it comes to training dogs, the reality is there are many techniques which can be employed. This fact becomes readily apparent when you do a little research. Such research will also reveal some fairly entrenched views about the moral/ethical superiority of one’s preferred approach over that of their competitors. Some approaches, you will note, have been around for quite awhile and will have withstood the test of time while other approaches will be relatively new and not as well proven.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the approaches per se, there is often a seductive quality to the marketing pitch advocates of various approaches use to gain converts to their cause. The seductiveness is to be found in the assurances that, whatever the desired results, they can be had with very little investment of oneself outside their comfort zone. This means for the person with very little patience, the promise would be for immediate results; for the individual that sees themself as too busy, the promise would be accomplishment with no additional effort and for the individual that hates having to set limits or engage in any sort of confrontation, the promise is never having to correct your dog or say “no.” Also, in addition to the marketing of their chosen approach, there is often an attempt to discredit and even demonize others who utilize different, and ofttimes more effective, training approaches. A wise dog owner will watch for traps that play to or attempt to exploit vague moral or ethical ideals. Other trainers (that use more traditional approaches) may be labeled as less humane, less “enlightened,” old-school, less scientific etc in an attempt to avoid objectively looking at the facts as they relate to effectiveness.

The type of learning we are primarily concerned with, when it comes to training dogs, is experiential i.e. learning from experiences. We provide and repeat the experiences from which we want the dog to learn. As we do this, we set up and manipulate cues, consequences and behaviour so that the dog will learn the lesson we are trying to teach. Regardless of the type of training techniques, all training approaches will be fundamentally based on this concept. Those experiences are then organized in such a way so as to teach more complex lessons.

Those advocating for the new will often make reference to words like “latest” and “scientific” with the desire to link the two terms wherever possible. However, the fact is that when it comes to how dogs learn, there is really nothing new - dogs really haven’t changed much since we began keeping them as companions and neither has the way they learn.

In recent years many dog trainers have jumped on an “Operant Conditioning” bandwagon. The practitioners of this variety of “OC” are quick to make claims about how dogs learn and declare them to be based on the latest scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing new nor scientific in their assertions or methods. It is also noteworthy that more efficient and effective training alternatives are available.

True Operant Conditioning is a reasonably balanced learning theory. It is a four-quadrant model that attempts to explain learning in terms of the consequences related to an action. Within that 4Q model are the different contingencies of positive and negative reinforcement as well as positive and negative punishment. Those who claim to subscribe to Operant Conditioning theory but who only are willing to work with the “reward” side of the equation are in reality practitioners of a bandwagon variety of OC that might more properly be called “PROC” or Positive Reinforcement Operant Conditioning. Where true OC offers a reasonable chance of success through balance, “PROC” is a very protracted and unrealistic method for attempting to train. The results are mediocre at best and more often simply disappointing. The motivation for “PROC” is not better training but a seductive philosophy (sometimes pursued with almost religious zeal) of abolishing all painful life lessons. It is indeed unfortunate that this almost narcissistic need (for a “warm and fuzzy,” feel good above all else approach to life) gets packaged and marketed as “animal-friendly” or “more humane.” It is a selfish approach designed to place the trainer's need to feel good above the learning needs of his student.

In psychological terms, conditioning means, “causing an organism to exhibit a specific response to a stimulus.” The conditioned response must be specific, reliable, highly predictable and reproducible. Any response (other than the “conditioned” response), any randomness or any failure to respond correctly, must be accounted for and explained. As I said earlier, there are several ways to cause the sought after response, using positive and negative consequences. By definition conditioning, particularly Skinners Operant Conditioning model, does not acknowledge or take into account any internal events such as thoughts, feelings, or motivations and therein lies its weakness. If these internal events are not acknowledged as contributing to the conditioning of the behavior, they cannot then be used to explain any “conditioning failures.” Conditioned performances, (particularly utilizing only positive reinforcement) while often improved, are often not the best that one would hope for or expect. When performance falters (as it frequently does) more conditioning will not solve the problem whereas addressing some of the internal factors (excluded by OC) or looking at relationship related issues, very often does.

The main problem with the theory of conditioning (and particularly with Operant Conditioning) is in the understanding and application of the learning process. Operant Conditioning is simply one kind of conditioning (made famous by B F Skinner) which seeks to explain all behavior and learning in terms of the associations made between responses to stimuli and the resulting consequences. Although behaviorists believe all thought processes can be accounted for through associations of stimuli and responses, other psychologists strongly reject such an approach as inadequate to explain many kinds of behavior.

A good training program, on the other hand, addresses the whole dog and not just the behavior. Along with utilizing all four quadrants found in the Operant Conditioning model, it also seeks to deal in those areas that behaviorists refuse to acknowledge (such as choice, motivation, drive, and various mental/emotional processes). It would flow from a philosophy which acknowledges that, in addition to (or regardless of) any conditioning, dogs make decisions and sometimes become contentious. Real training is about working with the dog to teach him what is expected – what choices to make and how to behave. It holds him accountable for the choices he makes. It acknowledges there is a difference between knowing and doing and that difference can sometimes represent a point of contention, rather than a lack of conditioning.

Training (for me) is as much about the interactive dynamics between student and teacher as about what is being taught. In the learning process (some of which will be a conditioning process) the student also learns about the teacher. Often the emerging interpersonal dynamics will influence subsequent behavior far more than any single training or conditioning sequence. At some point, tasks will be performed as taught because a choice has been made to do so - not simply as the result of some stimulus-response reflex (read conditioning) action.

On the other hand, behaviorism and its tool (Operant Conditioning) is, “neglected by cognitive etiologists and ecological psychologists convinced that its methods are irrelevant to studying how animals and persons behave in their natural and social environment,” according to a recent article on behaviorism published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Also of note in the same article: “The deepest and most complex reason for behaviorism's demise is its commitment to the thesis that behavior can be explained without reference to mental activity. Many philosophers and psychologists find this thesis hopelessly restrictive. They reject behaviorism because of it....”


  1. At one point in time (and this is all hearsay for me, as I was not yet around to see it...perhaps you can clarify?), I heard that people with dog problems went to trainers to fix them, as well as for general obedience training.

    Now we have a flux of "behaviorists" who recommend happy thoughts, headcollars, treats and medication for various single behavioral problems, among other things, for results that are questionable, take an unreasonably long time to achieve (and that's a big IF), and just in general seem to act morally superior because, well, they are a BEHAVIORIST...who needs those TRAINERS, especially the cruel ones. I was actually offended for once when I was told that dogs with aggression problems, excessive chewing issues, separation anxiety or the like went to a behaviorist, because "trainers just did the stuff like sit, down and heel." I thought behavior was directly related to training, or is this just a fact that is not publicized to the majority of the pet-owning public?

  2. You are essentially correct in your understanding - and it's quite unfortunate indeed...the way things have been going.