The science in dog training is simply, how dogs learn. My hope is to unravel any misunderstandings about the terminology used within this science, for everyone who love dogs.
There is a science to training dogs and it’s called the learning theory. This is not only how dogs learn, but how all animals learn; that is humans, dogs, dolphins, chickens, cats, etc. This theory is simply; the process of how learning actually happens. Of course, in this blog, I’ll discuss learning in relation to dogs.
Since this learning is how all animals learn, anyone can google the Learning Theory and learn for themselves how to train dogs using this theory.
Learning happens all the time, even when we are not consciously trying to train a dog. Life itself offers opportunity for dogs to learn. If we feed them from the table when we eat, we have taught them, that hanging around the table, means they will get food. It also happens when we consciously teach a behavior like Sit, but make no mistake, dogs are watching our every move and are learning every waking minute, whether we are consciously training or not.
The science is not new. Back in the early 1900’s behaviorists, Watson, Thorndike, Skinner and Pavlov studied behavior in animals, offering terms like classical and operant conditioning via reward and punishment. So, when you hear about the science in dog training, some think it’s made up by positive reinforcement trainers trying to disqualify punishment trainers. Unfortunately, this is completely absurd and serves only to divide and confuse trainers and the public.
Here’s the science of how ALL animals learn! The Learning Theory
Classical conditioning is associative learning and happens involuntarily or automatically and is predictable. Example is when Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist fed dogs meat they began to salivate in anticipation of being fed. He then rang a bell before he fed the dogs and they soon learned that ringing the bell would produce food. So, classical conditioning, in this example, is that the dogs associated the bell with food. This would be a positive association. Classical conditioning helps dogs form positive associations with all sorts of stimuli. To take this a bit further; when raising a puppy, you can use classical conditioning when socializing the pup to; skateboards, noises, greetings, vacuum cleaners, etc. by offering treats or playing their favorite game, as rewards. The treats or games form a positive association with any stimuli.
Operant conditioning is the association between an action and its consequence and is voluntary. The consequence can be negative or positive. We are influencing their behavior by asking for an action and offering a reward as a consequence for performing the action. When we teach sit and the dog sits, we reward for them. The action is SIT and the consequence is a reward with praise, a game and/or a treat. If the dog likes the consequence, chances are he’s likely to repeat the behavior in the future. This is called reinforcement.
There is another aspect to the association of action and consequence. For example if a dog gets stepped on because he’s under foot, he’ll learn to stay away from our feet. In this case, the consequence was bad, making the behavior, being under foot, less likely to happen again in the future. When we teach a dog to Sit instead of jumping as a greeting, we are punishing the dog for jumping, by positively teaching and reinforcing the dog for sitting during greetings.
Reward vs. Punishment: No Such Thing
Here’s where it gets tricky and where the confusion lies. In reality, given the process whereby animals learn; there is no positive reinforcement only, learning. So, this means that if you call yourself or hear of a trainer calling themselves positive reinforcement only, trainers, there is no such thing. It’s an impossible claim to make. In operant conditioning, you can’t reinforce behaviors without negatively punishing others. You may not be using tools that harm dogs but you are by definition using, punishment when teaching an alternative cue to stop an unwanted behavior, again, the example of teaching Sit as an alternative behavior to a jumping dog during greetings.
So what?! If dogs learn by association, be it positive or negative, let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend or flaunt that we are positive trainers, using only positive methods, when the science we are touting as ‘the way’ to train dogs, uses negative and positive punishment by it’s own scientifically studied design. The critical distinguishing factor to impart is that the philosophy positive reinforcement trainers are using, doesn’t involve pain or discomfort during training, whereas positive punishment training does. Positive punishment training is uses force and pain to stop an unwanted behavior. Examples of this kind of training are: hitting dogs, using electric shock collars, prong collars, correcting dogs using pain, emotional and or physical. Ever wonder what a dog thinks when the person she loves attacks her?
So, this science in dog training isn’t new. It’s been around for over a hundred years. I know that if I wasn’t paid for my work, I would be less likely to want to work again, tomorrow. My reward is money. Dogs’ reward is food, play and praise. This isn’t rocket science. It is the science of learning and if it applies to all animals, then why wouldn’t we want to lavishly reward dogs for all that we ask them to do in our human dominated world. When we bring a dog into our world, we must not expect them to be robots or to know that a shoe left on the floor, isn’t a play toy or the leg of the chair is different than the branch outside. Therefore, it’s our responsibility, as their guardians, to teach them what we want and how to behave in our world and none of this teaching needs to cause them harm.
Bottom line. If we can teach dogs to do what we want and what we don’t want, without causing pain or discomfort, why in the world would we choose to do so? If we understand this proven scientific theory of learning, we can help dogs live long lives, free of stress and anxiety? The benefits of this kind of teaching will greatly improve and strengthen the bond between humans and dogs while helping to decrease the amount of dogs who end up in shelters. Behavior is the number one reason dogs end up in shelters. We can do something about that. After all, if dogs are truly our best friend, don’t we owe it to them to teach them the way they learn?
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer, award winning author, writing articles for Dogster, The Whole Dog Journal, Animal Wellness and her own blog. She is also a dog body language expert, loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill, is Fear Free Certified and has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients dogs for 40 years. She helps you to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page