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Dogs Learn

For years dog trainers and behaviorists have tried to convince us that there is more to the dog than meetsts the eye. They would like to convince us that the average owner or dog lover could never understand what professionals know. I am convinced, happily, that this is just not so.

The ancestor of the domesticated dog is the wolf
Science has recently discovered that domestication of canines possibly began as early as one hundred thousand years ago, when they most likely closely resembled wolves. Fossil records indicate that approximately 14,000 years ago man, through breeding selection, started to change the conformation of canines at which time they began to look more like the modern dog.

Once only a hunting partner, the dog quickly assumed the additional roles of guard dog and working partner. Finally, within the last 500 years or so, the dog became man’s friend, companion and family pet.
The cooperative, loving nature of the canine and the similar social structures of humans and dogs form a foundation for the unique and enduring connection of two very separate species.

Pack animals, den animals, hierarchal social structure, opportunistic omnivores - all these terms apply to both wolf and dog. Domestication is the key difference between wolf and dog. Therefore, one we must thoroughly examine domestication, when it comes to understanding how dogs learn.

Social Structure
In the litter there is mom and pups - that's it. Mom feeds the pups at regular intervals, and the pups sleep, snuggle with littermates to stay warm and eliminate with the help of mom. Once the pups are able to see and move about freely, there is non-stop play between feedings and naps. This whole process evolves very quickly - within the first 6 to 12 weeks of a pup’s life.

Socialization occurs every day of this period in a pup’s life. Personalities form. Dominance and submissiveness come into play. Survival of the fittest becomes the most prevalent instinct. At this stage of a pup’s life, he is more similar to a wolf pup than he will ever be again. The only difference between the wolf and the pup’s lives at this stage is the human (breeder’s or owner’s) daily interaction with the bitch and her pups. To further explain the domestication process, it is important to know what is occurring during each of the pup’s developmental stages.

Operant Conditioning Explained
Since dog trainers and behaviorists will attempt to explain the correctness of their training methods by using the terms “operant conditioning,” especially when they oppose the methods used by others, I have included this information.

Operant conditioning is rooted in human psychology and was named by psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior brought about over time by the consequences of said behavior. Distinguished from Pavlovian conditioning, operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behavior explained by its consequences, while Pavlovian conditioning focuses on involuntary behavior triggered by antecedents (something that happens or exists before something else.)

According to Skinner "The innate behavior studied by ethologists is shaped and maintained by its contribution to the survival of the individual and species. Operant behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences for the individual."

There are four situations of operant conditioning. Here the terms "positive" and "negative" are not used in their popular sense. Rather, "positive" refers to addition (+) and "negative" refers to subtraction (-). Also, reinforcers always strengthen behavior; that is what "reinforced" means. Punishment is used to suppress behavior.

1. Positive Reinforcement takes place when a behavior (response) is followed by an appetitive (pleasant) response. Most dog trainers/behaviorist take this literally to mean only food. I have supplied the definition of appetitive below.
ap·pe·tite (plural ap·pe·tites)noun Definitions:1. desire for food: a natural desire for food 2. strong desire: a strong desire or craving for something[14th century. Via French < Latin appetitus "desire" < appetere "seek after" < petere "seek" (see petition)]ap·pe·ti·tive adj

As you can see it can mean anything that is strongly desired; a toy, love and affection, a trip to the Bahamas - name your desire.

2. Negative Reinforcement takes place when a behavior is followed by the removal of an adverse (unpleasant) stimulus thereby increasing that behavior - a negative "reinforcer" reinforces when it is withdrawn. Negative reinforcement is not punishment. An example would be the Skinner box experiment where a loud noise continued inside the rats cage until a lever was pressed which caused the noise to cease.

3. Positive Punishment takes place when a behavior (response) is followed by an adverse (unpleasant) stimulus such as a shock or loud noise which results in a decrease in that behavior.

4. Negative Punishment takes place when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a appetitive stimulus, such as taking away a toy, which results in a decrease in that behavior.

Skinners experiments did not involve reflexive, impulsive or instinctive behaviors, as he believed these behaviors existed outside the parameters of operant conditioning.

Many trainers, experts and owners misinterpret the words "negative" and "positive" as they relate to operant conditioning. The easiest explanation is that positive means to add or give and negative means to remove or take away.

Negative and Positive Reinforcement Explained
  • Something good can start or be presented, so behavior increases = Positive Reinforcement
  • Positive reinforcement means starting or adding Something Good
  • Something good can end or be taken away, so behavior decreases = Negative Punishment
  • Negative punishment is reducing behavior by taking away Something Good.
  • Something bad can start or be presented, so behavior decreases = Positive Punishment
  • Positive punishment is something that is applied to reduce a behavior.
  • Something bad can end or be taken away, so behavior increases = Negative Reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement increases a behavior by ending or taking away something bad or aversive.

The dog gets praise and petting when it comes when called - Praise and petting = Positive Reinforcement

The dog has it's beloved bone taken away for growling at its owner when he attempted to move it - Throw the bone away = Negative Punishment

The dog barks and the citronella collar sprays in his face - Citronella Spray = Positive Punishment

The shock stops when the dog sits - No more shock = Negative Reinforcement

There are many things to consider when training a dog while implementing any of the above described methodologies.

Positive Reinforcement
Many owners and trainers often unknowingly reinforce behavior they want to eliminate. A common thing that many owners do is pet their barking dogs in an attempt to calm them down. And I almost always see owners and inexperienced trainers, in an attempt to reassure, talk "sweetly" to dogs that are timid, shy or fearful. A very common thing for owners to do is the give treats to their food-obsessed, begging dogs. These all are examples of positively reinforcing unwanted behavior.
Negative Punishment

Both words are falsely interpreted by many in the dog world as being a bad thing - which they are not necessarily. However, many owners actually negatively punish their dogs and they do not even realize they are doing it. For example: You and your dog are at dog beach and you are ready to go but he's having fun playing chase with the other dogs. But you keep trying to get him to go, "Come Fido!" Come Fido!! - he looks at you but keeps playing. You yell louder "Come Fido!!!" This has now been going on for 5, 10 minutes and you are tired, hungry and getting cold. "COME FIDO!!!!!. He finally gets your message and comes happily running to you. When he gets to you, you grab his collar, connect the leash and promptly leave. You are taking him from a place where he was having fun - something good, and he did something good by coming when called - and not only did you not praise or reward him for coming to you, you removed him from the good thing. You are punishing good behavior. However, negative punishment can be an effective way to correct unwanted behavior - especially when food or toys are involved. For the dog who loves to eat poop, keeping your yard poop-free is a great example of negative punishment. (Conversely, for the dog that likes to dig, filling the hole with your dog's poop can help curb that behavior - an example of positive punishment.)

Positive Punishment
This is the least understood method applied by some trainers and highly and disapprovingly criticized by others. However, it is the most effective way to stop unwanted behavior. The reason being is that dogs easily and quickly make the connection between action and consequences. (For example; if I bark the collar will squirt that strong unpleasant smelling spray.) However, the use of positive punishment must be implemented with accurate timing. The dog must not be punished; rather the behavior must be punished. If your dog peed in the house while you were away at work, and hours after you come home you rub his nose in it, you are punishing the dog and not the behavior. Your dog cannot make the connection hours later. Most importantly, your dog cannot make the connection unless caught in the act of the actual unwanted behavior. And the most important aspect of implementing this method - the dog must always receive positive reinforcement for ceasing the unwanted behavior. Again the timing of the punishment (correction) as well as the timing of the positive reinforcement (reward) is essential.

Negative Reinforcement
Again, often misunderstood by humans but thoroughly understood by dogs. However, this is understood by dogs mostly as relief from the bad thing rather than actual reinforcement as many trainers would like to believe. And it requires that the bad thing that is being removed must often be controlled by the handler or trainer. I found an excellent example on a website for retriever training: "Hold the dummy in front of the dog's mouth. Say "fetch" while pressing the dummy against its lips and pinching its ear. If the dog opens its mouth, roll the dummy in and quickly let off the ear pressure as you do. Praise it. You want it to get the idea that the ear-pinch means, "get that dummy in your mouth!"

Food For Thought
Many trainers only use food as a reward and food deprivation as punishment. Or they use food as a reward and withhold affection as punishment. Yet, they believe and market this as strictly positive reinforcement which it is not. The problem with using food as a reward and depriving it as punishment is that not all dogs are food motivated. Also, you might give your dog treats just for walking in the kitchen or only when he begs. Also, if your dog learns it will get a treat reward whenever you are around, he might not be motivated to respond to others who do not give him treats.

They also use time-outs as a way to stop bad behavior by believing that dogs behave certain ways to get attention. One site I read even stated that mounting, whining/crying, food stealing and mouthing/nipping were a dogs way of seeking attention. Their theory is that if you take your attention away, the behaviors will stop. Is the dog that is sent outdoors as punishment connecting the behavior with the punishment? Will the whining actually stop and will he come back in the house and not jump on you?

Classical Conditioning
Clicker/Food training for dogs really came about because of research being done in the early part of the 20th century involving digestion which ended up becoming a study by Ivan Pavlov regarding Classical Conditioning. I am sure you have heard the saying "bell rings, dog salivates". Pavlov's experiment proved that all animals could be trained or conditioned to expect a consequence on the results of previous experience.

Pavlov began pairing the sound of a bell with giving dogs meat powder. He found that even when the meat powder was not presented, the dog would eventually salivate after hearing the bell. Since the meat powder naturally results in salivation, these two variables are called the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus. The bell and the salivation are not naturally occurring (the dog was conditioned to respond to the bell.) Therefore, the bell is considered the conditioned stimulus and the salivation in response to the bell is the conditioned response.

Finally, the excessive, overuse or exclusive use of any one method can eventually fail to improve and progress a particular desired response. The reward can stop being a motivator. The dog might eventually become adjusted to the punishment and increasing it might not garner any better result.
Using the Developmental Stages in the Training Process

Utilizing your dog’s inherent characteristics and natural instincts are the simplest way to teach your dog to live respectfully with you. If you read the article on Developmental Stages, you can see from the different stages of your dog’s development that Mother Nature dictates his physical, mental, emotional and social growth. No where will you find during development the offer of food as a reward or the withholding of food as punishment from your pups first teacher - mom. Neither does she make a clicking sound or shake a can of coins to teach, reward or punish. You will find that she has without a doubt, gently provided affection and praise, as well as a firm correction when warranted. And, her timing is perfect.

How affection, praise and correction truly come into play is when we introduce the canine into our homes. We cannot grab our pups around the neck with our mouths nor should we want to. We are humans. Our dogs know we are not dogs. By attempting to correct our dogs in the same manner another dog would only causes anxiety and fear. This is where leash and collar training becomes such a vital part of the teaching process.

Alpha Dog Myth
A huge misconception in dog training today is the "alpha-dog" theory and that this somehow can be assigned to the human owner in order to gain respect from the dog. Dogs are indeed pack animals. If you have more than one dog, you will certainly see a pecking order - there will be an alpha dog, and subordinate (s). But in wild wolf or dog packs this really only applies to the breeding pair and not in terms of a "leadership" role as we humans would interpret it. And, most importantly, humans are not dogs. Dogs know we are not dogs, and that is that. We do not smell, move, sound or, even remotely look like a dog. So there is no sound reason I have ever been given to believe that any dog views me the way they view an alpha dog.

We humans have never compared ourselves to the alphas of any other species in order to train them. For example, here are other alphas in their species social structures – stallion/horse, bull/elephant, buck/deer. I often use the horse as an example when talking about this concept with my clients. I ask them to imagine what their stable of horses would think if they stepped into the pasture and attempted to behave like a stallion. But, make no mistake about it - dogs quickly figure humans out. Dogs are scientists of human behavior. Their survival depends upon their keen perception.

A canine’s sharp ability to read our body language, interpret our vocal intonations, and sense our mood at any given moment - in a split-second actually - is remarkable and without dispute. They do not need to be trained to be "submissive" to us. As we provide everything for them, dogs really assume this role quite naturally. A dog’s “natural drives" is something that should be examined if you are experiencing difficulties with a dog’s behavior.

I will concede that a dog views its owner, once this is established through bonding and training, in a leadership role - a human leader. No longer needing to hunt for its own food or search for shelter, the companion dog relies upon us for survival. As the survival instinct is hard-wired into the psychology of the dog, and due to its cooperative nature, a dog willingly accepts humans as leader. Where this relationship often goes awry is when well-intentioned owners attempt to obtain leadership or control over the dog using fear, intimidation or by infusing human psychology or reasoning during the developmental stages when imprinting takes place.

I have read on more than one website, and in many books, advice on how to be "alpha" in your dog’s eyes. It is quite possible that this is why so many dogs exhibit aggressive behaviors these days. The advice given usually includes: a) pin your dog down, b) stare your dog in the eyes and growl, c) shake your dog by the neck, d) grab its muzzle, etc. I could go on and on.

There is usually a disclaimer that states, "if while doing these exercises your dog or puppy snaps or growls at you, stop what you are doing and seek professional help immediately." My guess would be you will need to also seek medical attention if you choose to use these techniques on the wrong dog. You will have most likely permanently limited your ability to establish confidence and trust in your dog as well. The relationship between humans and dogs is truly unique and without comparison. Warning: To use any of the methods described above during the first fear impact stage will, in most instances, permanently and negatively alter your dog’s personality.

To my amazement a well-known "dog whisperer" appeared on television the other day demonstrating a technique associated with alpha-dominance theory - often referred to as the "alpha roll". He demonstrated how to deal with an aggressive dog by picking it up by the scruff and pinning it down. I was blown away. Shouldn't a “dog whisperer” know better? Many of my clients were in disbelief as I received numerous phone calls. Not only do I know that this type of training/behavior management is counterproductive, what really concerned me was a call from a new client whose husband decided to give it a try. He almost had his face mangled when the dog, obviously frightened, tried to bite him.

Behaviorists and so-called experts use the alpha dominance aspect of the canine social structure to try to convince us that this is how we can best bond with our dog. To refute this notion, I would use the example of how dogs evolved from wild wolves to domesticated pets. They did this by being able to adapt to our social structure and not the other way around. While still remaining dogs, they have fit into our human environment beautifully. And, while the roles are not equal, the relationship is mutually beneficial. You receive unconditional love and companionship from your dog, and your dog receives care, nourishment and shelter, and yes love, from you.

The leash and collar attaches us to, yet separates us from, our dogs. It allows for clear communication without creating fear or uncertainty. At the same time it allows us to teach and correct, without getting mean, mad, yelling or hitting. You don’t need to chase your dog down and grab him in order to tower over him with a stern look. On a leash, your dog is a captive student and will respond positively to your neutral corrections combined with generous verbal and physical praise. Quite simply put, your dog can stand near you or roam the distance of the leash. The leash will provide you the ability to take the time to teach, before asking your dog to do something he has not yet learned.

There is also a leash law for dogs. That being said, once a dog is truly trained on-leash, progression to off-leash work could commence. Off-leash dog parks or beaches are wonderful environments for dogs to play and socially interact with one another. But I caution: Allowing an ill-mannered dog to bully the other visitors is unfair and unkind. Using these facilities is a huge responsibility for an owner, and one should be mindful of this when attempting to take an aggressive or overly dominant dog into an off-leash area. Dogs that are in the first fear-impact stage, or pups that are not trained, or are shy or uncertain, are not good candidates for dog park visits. Seek the advice of a trainer or behaviorist first.

Willingness to Please
Dogs learn when the advantages and the disadvantage of their actions are spelled out in black and white. When we do not clearly communicate to our dog where their advantage lies, stress and confusion sets in and learning does not take place. If a dog is allowed to make its own choice, with no guidance from us, the possibility is 50/50 that he will make a correct one. For example, if we allow our dogs to decide where they want to go potty - they will usually choose inside our houses.

Setting up your dog to succeed builds confidence, and a confident dog is a stable companion. It is the trainer’s or handler’s responsibility to provide, during the training/teaching process, a stimulus that is sufficient and clear enough so that the dog understands where the advantage lies. But first we must always take the time to teach. I cannot stress this enough.

Because dogs have an inherent willingness to please, the process of teaching is easily accomplished without the use of food as a bribe, or pain to induce or eliminate a behavior. Patience and consistency are far better tools than the gimmicks and tricks being pushed by today's dog trainers and manufacturers of training aids. A quickly-trained dog is not necessarily a well-trained dog. Nor should it be considered a well-bonded companion. The teaching/training process presents to us the unique and special opportunity to develop a very deep, mutually respectful relationship with our canine companion.

All Dogs Have a Purpose
From the largest to the smallest, all dogs have a purpose. More importantly, dogs need a purpose. For some it might simply be to sit by your side or on your lap as you type away at your computer. Others feel it necessary to keep watch over your children as they play in your yard. And then there is the true working dog that really shows its personality once it has run the agility course, killed the rat in your garage or brought you the morning paper. This sense of purpose is a natural instinct rarely used by today's trainers. In fact, it is often ignored and perhaps even purposefully trained out of the dog. Sad but true.

So many owners desire a "mellow" dog, but choose a breed that has a strong working or herding drive. Then they wonder why the dog trashes their condo while they are at work. The owner seeks the services of a trainer who simply provides methods or techniques that suppress the dog’s inherent talents and skills. I cannot tell you how many vets are prescribing sedatives and anti-depressants for dogs that are exhibiting these anxieties. While it is too late to choose another dog, other options do exist including day care, dog walkers, obedience classes, flyball, agility and other terrific activities. These classes help to shape behavior, as well as allow dogs to expend pent up energy.

The Natural Dog
My Natural Training Method couples positive reinforcement for teaching obedience coupled with positive punishment for correcting unwanted behavior. For example, in order to correct inappropriate behaviors like jumping, nipping, and lunging, I use the leash and collar. (positive punishment.) In addition, I use praise, petting, toys, etc. to reinforce good behavior (positive reinforcement.) However, in my experience, these are not the only training methods that get results. Situationally, I use a variety of other methods and techniques geared toward the individual dog and its owner.

I never use food as a bribe, although I often use it as a lure, (such as when a dog exhibits food aggression) and sometimes as an occasional reward for absolutely no reason. Never have I used pain-compliance or alpha-dominance. In my opinion, it is only used by trainers who think it will result in a quick response or who simply do not understand the psychology of canines.

Quick responses are not an indication that the dog understands. As I see it, because of the strong instinctual "drives" present in all dogs, there are limitations to applying only Operant Conditioning theories or only Classical Conditioning theories with regard to dog training. A drive is an internal mechanism that pushes the dog into taking action. All dogs have certain basic drives. The only real difference among dogs is a matter of degree.

The basic drives are: Prey/Predator, Pack Social, Defense (Fight or Flight). All are deeply situated in the natural survival instincts of the canine. There are other very strong drives that can be detected and developed. According to the laws of operant conditioning, "any behavior that is consistently rewarded every single time will be produced only intermittently and will therefore not be reliable." Using a dog’s "drive" along with operant conditioning can produce much more consistent results. Allowing for these instincts enhances the learning process and using them can strengthen the bond between owner and dog.

Give your dog a job, activity or purpose every day. Make time for play, rest and work and your dog will thrive.
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