Dogs learn by association and there are two types of associative learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning. I use these methods because they are scientifically valid, are easy for dog owners to learn, and they make it easy for dogs to learn new skills. The process is fun and rewarding for dogs and people alike.
Classical conditioning, formerly known as Pavlovian conditioning, is based on experiments by Nobel prize winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He presented neutral stimuli (ringing bell) to a dog, followed by
offering food. The dog salivated when the food was offered to it. After numerous repetitions Pavlov removed the food and rang the bell, observing the dog still salivated. He concluded the dog had learned to associate the stimuli with the reward and so the previously neutral stimuli acquired new meaning and informed the dog about what was going to happen next.
A practical example in obedience training is teaching a dog to sit on cue by presenting a previously neutral stimuli (hand gesture) luring the dog into a sitting position, followed by offering food. After numerous repetitions the dog associates the hand signal as a predictor that sitting down will gain a reward. Once the behavior is established another previously neutral stimulus (saying “Sit”) precedes the behavior and so the dog learns to associate a human word with the act of sitting down and getting a reward.
Operant conditioning is gracefully described in “Dog Insight” by Pamela Reid, Ph.D. when she writes that
is follows “a specific sequence: Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence. Esteemed psychologist B.F. Skinner is credited with development of operant conditioning as a way of shaping behavior. It consists of positive and negative aspects, and reward and punishment aspects. To understand what positive and negative mean in the context of dog training, think about their meaning in a math equation. Positive means to add something; negative means to take somethingaway. Reinforcement and punishment have specific meanings too.
To reinforce is to do something designed to prompt the dog to repeat the behavior; to punish is to do something designed to inhibit repetition of the behavior. It is a beautiful process to witness and allows the dog to choose behaviors, while the trainer applies positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative
reinforcement or negative punishment to shape the dog’s behavior.
I apply operant conditioning in puppy and adult training and obedience/manners training. Dogs often learn more quickly and effectively because they choose behaviors rather than passively wait to be told what to do in every situation. Teaching default behaviors meeting approval of dog owners is easy and lasting. Such methods are an excellent way to shape the emotional behavior of a shy or impulsive dogs and help them gain confidence and stability, because they learn how to behave in a human-dominated culture in order to fulfill their needs, in ways that are pre-approved by humans.
I can describe the process as it applies to obedience and manners training relative to a common dog behavior: excitedly jumping up on and nipping people. Let us pretend that I am going to visit you four days in a row to see how you and your dog are doing with your training.
Day 1 – I knock at your dog, you open it, and your happy excited dog and I are standing face-to-face at the threshold. I love dogs so I am not bothered that your dog is jumping up on me, licking and nipping me. As it does so I continue to pet your dog and laugh playfully. Whether I realize it or not, I am giving your dog positive reinforcement and it is learning that jumping and nipping are the ways to get the affection and attention it desires. The behavior is likely to continue.
Day 2 – I visit on the way to a business meeting and am wearing my new suit. When you open the door your happy and excited dog jumps up on me and nips at my clothes, because that is what the dog has learned “works” for it. I worry that my suit will be ruined and drive my knee into your dog’s chest, yelling “Get down!” Upset with your dog’s behavior, I depart. I have just given your dog positive punishment and the dog may learn that jumping on people is scary and painful, though it may also adapt to the higher cost of getting what it wants and continue the behavior. The behavior may diminish, or may continue.
Day 3 – Having learned to wear old clothes when I visit, I greet your dog at the door and am eager to play with your happy excited dog. In fact, I play roughly and frighten your dog, making it yelp in distress. Your dog goes stiff, pins its ears back, raising its tail high, displays its upper teeth and growls. I feel afraid and quickly go away. Your dog feels relieved and learns that threatening a visitor is a way to stay safe and avoid fear and pain. Negative reinforcement teaches your dog how to behave the next time a person arrives at the door or reaches for its head. "I will bark and snap at the scary person!"
Day 4 – After reviewing my numerous dog training resources I finally understand how to appropriately interact with you dog and return for a final visit. When your dog happily and excitedly jumps up on me I raise my arms above my waist, turn away, look up and away from your dog, and ignore it until the behavior
stops. I actively apply negative punishment and your dog learns that jumping up on people is no longer
rewarding, so the behavior is likely to diminish. Your dog learns "Gee, that doesn't work any more."
I understand how dogs learn and how to coach dog owners so common everyday behavioral problems can be resolved. The application of positive reinforcement and negative punishment work best with the vast majority of dogs because they simply do whatever works for them. This combination of classical and operant conditioning is also called dog-friendly training. It is my job to show them what works best for both of us, relieving stress and anxiety for people and dogs alike.
By contrast, the other main camp in dog training is based on compulsion or dominance theory.
Such methods rely heavily upon positive punishment and negative reinforcement. As eminent
British biologist John Bradshaw writes in “Dog Sense”, European research on such harsh methods shows that about 75% of dogs develop insecurity and emotional instability, while the remaining 25% become “aggressive.” In truth, those dogs are merely trying to protect themselves and it has nothing to do with “dominance” or “challenging”human primacy. There is no scientific evidence in support of dominance theory and we only use methods that have been proven to be humane, ethical and effective. Now you know why I only use dog-friendly training methods.