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Science Based Dog Training: How Research Influenced Our Approach to Training Dogs

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Since the late Mesolithic period when humans first began to domesticate wolves, canines have been an integral part of our lives. We are linked to them in so many ways, from using them as working dogs, to competing, breeding and, of course, as companions. And, since the time man has domesticated dogs and cats (Driscoll et al. 2009), we’ve discovered some science based dog training methods that have proven to be effective.

Science Based Dog TrainingAnthropomorphism is when we attribute human emotions or behaviors to animals, something that so many of us are guilty of. I’m sure at some point we’ve all thought that our dog was upset with us for leaving them on their own, or looked guilty after destroying our favorite slippers.

A study by Alexandra Horowitz, PhD in 2009 found that the ‘guilty look’ appears to be more associated with the owner’s body language and tone of voice, rather than being a display of remorse. Anthropomorphism is a difficult thing to avoid as we have only ever seen the world from a human perspective, and it isn’t easy to put ourselves in their shoes.

There is nothing wrong with adoring our pets and treating them as one of the family, but it is only by learning to think like a dog that we can truly understand these animals whose lives are so inextricably linked with ours. This mindset also aids us in training our dogs and communicating with them effectively. In fact, many science based dog training methods are based on this theory of thinking like a dog.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how science based dog training methods have progressed over the last century – what we’ve learned, which methods have been discounted and which ones we still use today as the most effective approach to training dogs. I’ll discuss the following:

  • The Alpha Dog Theory
  • Classical Conditioning (Pavlov’s Dogs)
  • Operant Conditioning
  • Punishment/Reward/Clicker Training

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Science Based Dog Training

How research influenced our approach to training dogs.

Science Based Dog Training

Over the years an enormous amount of research has been carried out to gain a deeper understanding of canine behavior and psychology, and with this our approach to dog training has changed a great deal. We have learned to adapt to new findings and a have gained a greater appreciation of their mindset. However, opinions vary greatly, and there is still a fair amount of disagreement about how best to get them to perform the behaviors we want.

The Alpha Dog Theory of Training

One of the most debated topics to this day, despite a good amount of evidence, is that of the ‘alpha dog’ or dominance theory. This theory refers to the need for an owner to assert their place as the leader of the pack in order to remain in control of their dog’s behavior.

The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered SpeciesThe original source of this theory was research carried out by Rudolph Schenkel in the 1930’s and 1940’s. His studies were conducted (PDF) on captive American Timber wolves, who displayed a clear social structure and violent rivalries.

Later studies by other researchers and canine experts produced similar findings, and the publication of The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by L. David Mech in 1970 brought the term ‘alpha wolf’ to the forefront.

L. David Mech has since carried out a vast amount of research on wild wolves. He has now rejected this commonly held belief, as it has become clear that there are enormous differences between the behavior of wild and captive animals. He also talked about how “alpha” and “beta” wolves scientifically inaccurate terms today.

In this short video, Mech also expands a little more on the terminology of “alpha” as applied to wolves:

More scientists chipped in. A prominent anthrozoologist (read: a clever person who studies human-animal interactions) John Bradshaw points out other flaws in relating this early research to the behavior of domestic dogs. The ancestors of our modern day canines were Eurasian Grey wolves, which are only distantly related to the American Timber wolves used in the studies. Several thousands of years of evolution and interaction with humans has changed our pet dogs into a species far removed from their wild ancestors, to a point where their behavior cannot be compared to their wild counterparts.

The differences between wolves and dogs was further demonstrated in a series of studies carried out at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest at the beginning of this century. Groups of wolf and canine pups were hand-reared under the same conditions, and a number of experiments were conducted to determine differences in behavior between the two species.

When faced with an impossible task, such as trying to obtain food from a bin that was sealed shut, the dogs would look to their owner for help, whereas the wolves would attempt to get to it themselves. They also found that dogs quickly learned to make eye contact with humans for a food reward, while wolves did not.

These studies revealed that dogs were more responsive to their owner than a human stranger, but wolves showed no difference in their behavior between the two. The researchers concluded that “selective processes took place in the course of domestication.”

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Classical Conditioning: The Pavlov’s Dogs

No discussion on the history of science based dog training would be complete without a mention of Ivan Pavlov, the king of classical conditioning. In his well-known experiments in the 1890’s, he found that if a bell was rung at the same time as food was presented, over a period of time the dogs began to salivate in response to the sound of the bell alone.

This was a revelation at the time, and something that has a lot of significance in canine training. Dogs are constantly making these types of associations on a daily basis, with both positive and negative consequences. For instance, if a dog has a bad experience with a man who has a beard, they might develop a fear of all men with beards, which can cause a problem when your bearded friend comes round for dinner.

With an understanding of this process, classical conditioning can be used to our advantage in science based dog training. We may also be able to limit its adverse influences.

 

Operant Conditioning

There is little documentation on dog training before WW1, and methods used throughout the first half of the 19th century are viewed as heavy-handed from today’s standpoint. The book Training Dogs: A Manual by Colonel Konrad Most was published in 1910 and used techniques such as collar corrections and physical punishment of dogs.

Training Dogs: A ManualDespite this, Most’s approach showed an understanding of operant conditioning many years before the famous studies by B. F. Skinner (see below). The book has remained hugely influential in the training of dogs in the military, police and services.

Another military man who became well-known for his dog training skills is William Koehler. Working at the War Dog Training Centre during WW2, he then became famous for training dogs for movies and his book The Koehler Method of Dog Training (1962). Koehler also employed forceful techniques such as pulling hard on choke chains, throwing chains at dogs from a distance, and the ‘alpha roll’: rolling the dog over and pinning it down to show dominance.

Believing that classical conditioning was not a complex enough explanation for human and animal behavior, in the 1940’s B. F. Skinner embarked on a series of animal studies, coining the phrases ‘operant conditioning’ and ‘reinforcement’. Using animals such as rats and pigeons, and a questionable attitude towards welfare, his experiments proved (PDF) that behaviors could be strengthened by reinforcing them with a reward, or weakened through the use of punishment.

However, Skinner can’t take all the credit for this theory of how effective operant conditioning became as a dog training method, as his work was based on Edward L. Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’ from 1905. Using hungry cats, boxes and a similarly debatable approach to animal well-being, Thorndike found that behaviors followed by desirable consequences are more likely to be repeated, with the opposite also being true.

 

Punishment, Reward Based Training and Clicker Training

In the world of behavioral training, the term ‘punishment’ refers merely to something which reduces the likelihood of an action being repeated. However, this term can cause confusion and make it sound like bad behavior needs to be corrected with chastisement or even abuse of the dog.

When it comes to dog training, punishment can be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, which can also be misleading. These expressions mean only whether something is added or taken away, not whether they are ’good’ or ‘bad’. For example, positive punishment could be a verbal scolding, and negative punishment can mean removing your attention by ignoring your dog for a short time.

The same terms are used with reinforcement. For instance, positive reinforcement might be the addition of a food reward, and negative reinforcement can mean the removal of pressure on the lead once your dog is walking nicely by your side.

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Heavily influenced by Pavlov and Skinners research, clicker training came about in the 1940’s thanks to Keller Breland and Marion and Bob Bailey. This science based dog training method is built upon the combination of both classical and operant conditioning. (I recommend you read this interview with the pair on how it all got started – it’s fascinating.)

To start with, the pairing of the clicker with positive reinforcement is classical conditioning, but when the dog learns to perform the desired behavior to receive the ‘click’ alone, operant conditioning is at work. This form of training has proved highly effective with many animal species including dogs and marine mammals.

Don’t Shoot the DogA proponent of the technique, Karen Pryor, brought it to the masses through her 1984 book Don’t Shoot the Dog, along with seminars conducted with Gary Wilkes. Initially scorned by believers in dominance and punishment based approaches, clicker training has more than proven its worth, and is now a widely used method of training.

Dominance and punishment were common means of science based dog training until the 1970’s when more humane techniques were popularized by people such as Barbara Woodhouse. Although she was an advocate of the dominance theory and the use of choke chains, her techniques were a lot less harsh than those of her predecessors, and the tide began to turn towards less forceful methods of dog training, such as using positive reinforcement.

However, it was also around this time that the Monks of New Skete appeared on the scene. At first they seemed to promote a positive philosophy of understanding, compassion and communication, but they were also responsible for popularizing the alpha roll.

Based on a misinterpretation of the way subordinate wolves roll on their backs to appease more dominant members of the pack, it was not realized that this was a voluntary action, not forced by the higher-ranking animal. The monks also supported other forms of physical punishment such as shaking dogs by the scruff of their neck and hitting them under the chin. Thankfully it appears that they have changed their tune somewhat as they no longer promote the use of the alpha roll.

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Despite proof of the success of operant conditioning back in the early 1900’s, it took until the 1980’s for it to become a widespread technique for shaping a dog’s behavior. Once dogs trained using positive methods such as clicker training began to do well in obedience and sports, people started to sit up and take notice.

Realizing that most dog owners were averse to using harsh, traditional techniques to train their pet, animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar began to conduct seminars and release videos encouraging everyday dog owners to train their pets. He promoted the use friendly, science based dog training methods such as food rewards as positive reinforcement.

 

Modern Science Based Dog Training Methods

Over 100 years after Thorndikes research, and in light of so much scientific and anecdotal evidence, it is surprising that the dominance method is still used. According to dog trainer Prescott Breedon it may be because of “the very normal human phenomenon of dismissing new information that does not conform to a pre-existing understanding because it is threatening to their world-view.”

Dog training TV personalities have the ability to be extremely influential, and the danger comes when people take their advice at face value without considering other options or the credentials of the person in question. Just because someone has managed to get a TV show (and you know to whom I’m referring) doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about when it comes to science based dog training. People have caused more harm than good attempting to use techniques at home that they don’t fully understand or know how to use correctly.

Thankfully animal welfare is now extremely important to people, and most owners know that they will form a far more fulfilling and loving bond with their pets through mutual respect and an understanding of animal psychology. We don’t want our dogs to associate us with the fear, mistrust and pain that can be associated with traditional methods, ones which science have proved to be flawed and often dangerous or ineffective.

For all of us out there embarking on a dog training journey, it’s always best to research and read as much as we can, and learn from the experts about science based dog training; not unsupported claims and opinions of celebrities.

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