The scientific study of behavior has led to some very useful ideas and insights about how dogs learn, really about how all animals learn. All organisms—dogs, cats, parrots, alligators, or humans—learn pretty much the same way. We each find different things reinforcing or punishing, of course, and we experience sensory perceptions differently. Some species or individuals are more tenacious, others more sanguine, some sleep most of the day, some are capable of learning more complex skills. Our unique environments play a large part in shaping us. But whether we live under the sea or in the desert, spend most of our lives perched on a tree branch, eat grass or hunt large prey, there are over-arching principles that govern how we learn. Karen Pryor’s new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, explores the science of communicating and learning. To learn more, click here.
Operant conditioning has to do with how the environment acts upon the organism. If you stand behind a horse, you might get kicked; if you eat your vegetables, you get ice cream. If you fail to put on a seatbelt, an alarm sounds repeatedly; if you remember your PIN, you can buy a new pair of shoes.
Not every consequence provided by the environment has to come directly from another conscious living creature. The seatbelt alarm comes from the car. The PIN attached to the bank account card is approved by a computer. If you don't look where you are going, you might trip and hurt your knee on a rock.
You don't always need a teacher to learn. Behavior is not always governed by decisions made by another person—and behavior is not always governed by decisions made by ourselves either!
Chances are, if a dog were left stranded on an island with access to food and water, he would survive just fine. He wouldn't become too lazy to get out of bed, he wouldn't go picking fights with animals he didn't plan to eat for survival, he wouldn't spend all day barking at nothing, he wouldn't dig holes that served no purpose—and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't gamble all his money away or take to the bottle!
Continuing with this hypothetical scenario, if there were other dogs on the island, the evidence from stray and feral populations of domestic dogs suggests that they might form a group and work together, or they might not. Most of them would get along just fine either way. They would figure out what worked for them and how to survive.
Observations of stray dogs in Moscow suggest that dogs have even figured out how to ride the subway and when to cross the road according to traffic signals! Even in an almost completely man-made environment, the city, the dogs survive without human leadership—some even thrive.
Why does a “good home” introduce difficulty?
So what happens to create "dog behavior problems" when humans open the door and invite dogs into their homes? What is it about this particular environment that encourages dogs to become unruly, boisterous, noisy, destructive, dangerous, stubborn, or any of the other words that dog trainers routinely hear from their clients? Is it a lack of leadership—or something else?
Whether it's out on the savannah, on the streets of Moscow, or in the suburban family home, the environment is always providing consequences. Behaviors that bring favorable consequences are those that the dog will tend to repeat; behaviors that do not result in favorable consequences diminish over time.
The difference between life on the savannah and life in the family home is that the people in the home provide most of the environmental feedback. But, regardless of what the dog does, those people will still put the food in the bowl and keep him safe from predators. For the most part, it is a blessed life. Survival comes easily under human care.
The flip side of this environment is that dog no longer needs to hunt or forage. Those skills, as well as the ability to keep an ear out for danger, are not required as often as some dogs seem to think. This leaves dog with a surplus of untapped potential, in some cases dogs are overflowing with potential.
There are two problems here: 1) a dog's primary survival requirements are being met regardless of his behavior, but 2) he still wants to use his energy and instinct to do something, even if that something is really annoying! Add to this the communications barriers between two vastly different species, and decades of misinformation about how to bridge this communication gap (the erroneously named "alpha roll") and you start to wonder how it is that dogs ever managed to find their place in front of our hearths. (Thankfully dogs do love to sleep!)
Making it work
Leaders control the resources and make the rules. In the modern home, humans control the resources, or at least have the capacity to control them. They also make the rules, or at least have that capacity, too. The humans who care for them are a huge part of a dog's environment. This puts humans in the position where some degree of leadership is not just advantageous, but appropriate.
Attention, affection, play, shelter, safety, and food are some of the resources humans must provide to dogs. Rules about how to greet others, how to enter or leave the house, how to walk on a leash, where to sleep, where to toilet, how to play are all open to interpretation if the human doesn't lead the way effectively.
To take responsibility, as leaders should, for not only a dog's behavior, but also for his physical and emotional well-being, then leaders should consider appropriate outlets for energy and the expression of instinct or drive. At the very least, food should be earned in some capacity.
What a dog was bred to do should be taken into consideration, of course. All dogs have certain traits in common, though, and most are happy with any activity chosen for them as long as how the behavior associated with the activity is taught thoughtfully.
Communication—the click can be the key
There are many ways to communicate with dogs. The clicker is one tool that makes communication easier by providing a means of communicating precisely which responses are being reinforced. Clicker training communicates clearly, at the same time giving dogs an outlet for their energy and instincts that in turn leads to resource acquisition via the trainer. Clicker training takes advantage of a very natural and meaningful process in a way that tailors the outcome to suit modern life for pet dogs.
Leadership is about taking responsibility. Good leaders are clear and effective communicators who provide for the needs of those they lead. Leaders allocate resources effectively and appropriately. In the New Year, take some time to understand your dog, see his role in your life, take stock of the resources available to you, and experience the benefits that come with being a good leader. Your dog will thank you and reward you for this effort.