How the Science of Behavior Found Me
I started training dogs in 1974, and, turning to the available information at the time, I learned to use compulsion to train. For 15 years, I successfully trained dogs as a hobby using these techniques. Then, in 1992, something happened that changed everything I thought I knew about animal training.
I adopted a young German Shepherd/Collie cross from an SPCA. I named her Sierra. She was sweet, gentle, beautiful, and would often completely shut down when we were training.
I was still using the same “tried and true” techniques that were considered standard in dog training: the ones that had always worked before, the ones I learned from all the popular books, at the dog clubs, and from other dog trainers. Yet I could see that my dog was distressed.
Sierra did not respond well even to the movement of the collar around her neck, let alone to a raised voice or force of any kind. If I punished her at all, she would lose all her sparkle and enthusiasm in a way no other dog I had worked with ever had. I became confused: How would I possibly be able to train my new dog?
In the early 1990s, in hopes of finding an answer, I started to educate myself a bit more about the field of animal behavior, training, and learning in general. What I discovered was a world that ignited my imagination. I was amazed at all that had been researched and understood about learning and behavior for years, and yet I had never heard about this established field of science in any training class and had never read about it in any dog book.
In my excitement, I began to share whatever information I found with everyone I met. I’d spend hours in the park each day telling my dog pals what I was learning. Even with the limited information I had to share when I took my first steps into the world of behavior, I found that people were as fascinated as I was. Soon I was teaching basic principles of learning to anyone who would listen. To this day, the science of learning continues to fascinate me, and as I continue to understand more, I continue to want to share the natural phenomenon of learning with everyone I meet.
Now, almost 30 years after I began training animals professionally, I still feel a dog owner’s frustration and confusion when they can’t get answers to questions about why their dogs don’t seem to be responding to them. Even though factual information about dogs and training is more available today than ever before, owners who are sincerely trying to get the facts still hear so much contradictory information about dogs: Either they’re fuzzy humans who “understand everything you say” or they’re trying to “dominate” humans and need to be shown “who’s boss.”
Neither of these overly simplistic explanations of dog behavior is helpful, let alone true. Thanks to exhaustive research, especially over the last 50 years, much of the information that was part of the mythology of dogs and wolves has been updated or outright disproved. The information available on packs of wolves now derives from research conducted in ways that were not possible before: Wolves are now observed in the wild, over years, without human intervention. Unfortunately, the persistence of the nonscientific idea that dog owners need to be the “pack leader” if a dog is to become “calm” and “balanced” continues to lead owners away from real science and toward unproductive storytelling.
Before two or three decades ago, formal studies on domestic dog behavior were rarely done, and they are now still only in their infancy. Today, information about behavior is coming from the behavior-science community, ethologists, biologists, neurobiologists, and others. These fields of study provide us with more than just opinions or anecdotal stories passed down from one dog trainer, or owner, to another; science gives us well-documented research that has afforded these wonderful animals the fair and objective respect they deserve.
Dogs, wolves, and all canids no longer need to be victims of the old misinformation that leads to the notion that they need to be accepted into a “human pack” to be trained and lived with. Contemporary studies are revealing to us the complexities of these feeling and thinking animals.
It is time to let go of myths and storytelling about dog behavior and to begin to question those who call themselves “science-based” and still promote outdated ideas about what dogs are and how they can be most humanely, effectively, and efficiently trained. In the 21st century, a true scientific understanding of dog behavior and training is available to all who want to learn about it.
Expanding on an Idea
Once I discovered behavior as a science, I found a very specific field of study called the experimental analysis of behavior. In fact, this area is so specific that it is considered a natural science like biology or physics and is outside of the field of psychology! It is a field dedicated specifically to understanding the process of learning and how to change behavior. To earn my doctorate in Learning Processes and Behavior Analysis, I was required to study this natural science to understand why behavior occurs. I was also required to study how to apply these universal learning principles to change behavior across all species––human and nonhuman.
When we apply the scientific principles of learning to real-world conditions, it is called applied behavior analysis. Applied science is called technology, so behavior technology is the foundation of humane teaching. Luckily, when we apply basic science to training, we can see through the conflicting information to find a clearer picture of how we can teach effectively, efficiently, and humanely. It is no surprise, then, that bridging the gap between the lab (experimental behavior analysis) and the field (applied behavior analysis) has become my life’s work.
When I was first exposed to applying learning principles almost 30 years ago, I was working only with children and dogs. I was learning to use these new techniques with my dog Sierra, with my clients’ dogs, and with children in class settings. At this time, I had the great fortune to have as my teaching mentor a remarkable woman named Marley Willard. She was a great believer in positive reinforcement with children and with me: She was kind and patient, answering my endless questions and fueling my passion to learn more. We worked closely together for several years and I soaked up everything I could from her generous offerings. From the very beginning, I was fascinated by how universal the principles of learning were and how they translated to all species. It was only a short time before I began to expand my consulting work to many species of animals.
I continued to see places where I was convinced that the use of a scientific approach to teaching could improve the lives of whatever animal it touched: I thought about all the pushing and pulling used with the horses at the barns where I had worked. I saw people dismiss the idea of training cats, somehow believing that they couldn’t be trained. I saw zoo animals and circus animals and wondered how they were treated when no one was looking. I watched “bratty” kids in supermarkets get all the wrong messages from their well-meaning parents. I read about how animals learned behavior in the wild, and I longed to be able to work with exotic species.
Today, as I continue to work with many species, I see the brilliance of each individual organism. Every individual teaches me something about learning. Most important to me is that I help owners unravel the mystery of what is going on in a clear and understandable way. There is no blame, and no one is at fault. We put all that aside, and together we build a foundation using a great deal of positive reinforcement. It is often like lighting a candle in the darkness. Nothing delights me more than to watch an owner and their animal connect for the first time: for both human and nonhuman animal to “get it” and for the line of communication to open. Each time it is extraordinary and moving.
It took many years for me to really understand, to begin to discover how easy it is to teach any animal to joyfully do what I requested. I began to realize how unnecessary it is to use compulsion to intimidate an animal into compliance. When an animal has learned well, interaction has become connecting and communicating.
There are many ways to train an animal using compulsion; they range from the most discomfort/pain (e.g., electronic shock/stimulation collars, choking or jerking by the collar/leash, kicking, hitting, flicking, pinching, pulling the animal off the ground by a collar/leash/rope), to medium discomfort/pain (e.g., pushing, grabbing, poking, letting the dog reach the end of the leash and feel a jerk, manipulating the animal by the collar/leash into position), to mild discomfort/pain (e.g., restraining by a collar/leash, yelling, using intimidating body language, making disturbing noises, tapping on the head or other body part). The lists go on in each of these categories.
The common element among these techniques is that the animals are coerced into behaving. The animals are responding to fear, discomfort, or pain: they are avoiding something very unpleasant. Very often, an animal simply shuts down and stops doing anything at all. The animal does learn things, including to be afraid of the person doing the intimidating. Often the animal learns to stop doing things completely. This can lead to “suppression of behavior.” Sadly, people may consider an animal that remains still to be exhibiting “good behavior” rather than exhibiting fear, which might be a more accurate description of the stillness that results after coercive techniques are used.
When there is an emphasis on positive reinforcement, training becomes a shared experience that leads to a powerful bond of trust and cooperation. When teaching is done without compulsion, the animal works toward something it wants and becomes a willing and eager participant in the training process. The relationship between animal and human is not damaged but is enhanced with every lesson. It is an unspoken agreement between animals, fulfilled through action: The teacher takes on the responsibility to teach the animal what to do, and the animal learns to engage in desired behavior with minimal stress. This interaction is enjoyable for both student and teacher.
It is very popular for trainers today to say that they teach using “science-based” methods, operant conditioning, or “positive reinforcement” training. After all, these are the “politically correct” words to use today. However, many trainers are still practicing coercion and using the terms “positive” and “reward.” As caretaker of your companion animal, you want to be sure that these are not empty words that merely hide the compulsion that underlie the trainer’s techniques. A good way to be sure a trainer is teaching without compulsion is to watch what is happening! Forget about what is being said. Watch the behavior of the animal and ask yourself: Is the animal doing a behavior to get something it wants? If so, is the thing they want added to the environment after the behavior occurs? Is this what occurs most often? When taking apart the mechanisms at work in the teaching process, this is a good place to start.
Be observant of intimidating body language, yelling, disturbing sounds, using a collar to put pressure on a dog’s neck, moving the animal physically by leash or hand. If you see this often, the trainer is not focusing on using positive reinforcement to teach. If a trainer, or you, says “good dog” or gives the dog a treat after using intimidating body language, saying no, or giving a pull on a collar, then positive reinforcement is not being used to teach the dog. Instead, the dog is continually avoiding something unpleasant. The subtleties of training take decades to learn. It is what makes the study of behavior change fascinating but also what makes training complex and difficult to learn and to practice well.
A mature trainer that understands the principles of learning and has the mechanical skills necessary to work hands-on with the student, knows how to get an animal to offer the desired behaviors without compulsion. Training and maintaining behavior using reinforcement is not the same as consistently presenting aversives to the animal. An “aversive” is defined as anything an animal will work to escape or avoid. If one has never seen the power of putting an emphasis on positive reinforcement while training, it can be hard to believe that you can teach an animal to consistently offer behavior, without relying on aversives. But it does work, and it works with accuracy and reliability.
Today, some working animals are trained using a comprehensive understanding of the science of behavior: search & rescue dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, service animals (including dogs, parrots, ferrets, and miniature horses), seizure alert dogs, cancer-sniffing dogs, mine-sniffing dogs, and more. This is not to say that compulsion is no longer used in training many working dogs, but happily, more and more trainers are turning to more humane approaches and this is encouraging.
A rare few have taken the most rigorous route: working with animals using a systematic behavior-analysis approach that leads to maximally effective and minimally restrictive training programs. They collect data and use behavior analysis to constantly improve their own skills and procedures. These dedicated trainers have reached levels of reliability and performance with working animals beyond what most people have ever imagined, and they continuously raise the bar. Scarce few reach this level of high-performance training, not because the science is unavailable, but because the time and resources necessary to advance any technology takes enormous commitment. This inspires me and reminds me that under the most demanding and difficult situations, great trainers have the data to prove that behavioral technology can be used to teach remarkable behavior with the greatest degree of precision, while at the same time maintaining the greatest level of humane interaction. We have only begun to discover what the expert application of behavioral technology can achieve!
Although typical companion animal owners are not necessarily going to regularly encounter life-and-death situations that depend on how reliably their animal has been trained, they do have a companion animal that they want to enjoy living with. One of the greatest benefits of using a comprehensive science-based approach to training that emphasizes positive reinforcement is the “side effects.” Behavior science is continually providing evidence that when you learn how to apply learning principles well, you develop a relationship with an animal that is founded in trust, cooperation, low stress, and a long history of pleasant experiences. The outcome of your hard work is returned to you in kind; the animal wants to be around you more, offers desirable behavior more frequently, and enjoys being asked to do things.
The choice of training techniques lies squarely in the hands of the teacher. Animal learners, human and nonhuman, don’t get to choose how they are taught. Keep in mind that science has also shown the side effects of the continual use of aversives: increased anxiety, attempts at avoidance or escape from the teacher, aggression toward the teacher, and even a fear of things that are associated with the aversives, such as the person presenting them, the room they’re in, and anything or anybody the animal sees or hears during the unpleasant events. The continual presentation of aversives results in an animal that responds out of fear of those aversives.
It is this focus on the comprehensive understanding of learning processes and behavior change that drew me to the field of experimental behavior analysis and its application, and why when I work to build and change behavior in any species, I teach my students using the highest, most humane standards set by the field. There are many ways to get any animal to “do things.” However, research had made it reasonable to infer that animals who are regular presented with aversives or the threat of aversives enjoy the learning process less than those taught with techniques emphasizing positive reinforcement. The teacher who concentrates on teaching well, with an emphasis on positive reinforcement instead of on the use of aversives or punishing undesired behavior, creates an environment in which the student enjoys participating and engaging themselves in what they are doing. Animals trained with an emphasis on positive reinforcement have a chance to give it all they’ve got—and what’s better than animals living up to their potential?
Ask yourself: if you were being taught something new, what kind of teacher would you rather have? Would you want a teacher who is patient, understanding, and teaches at a pace you could follow with no sudden punishment for mistakes? This teacher would give lots of instructive encouragement and help you to succeed at every step.
Or would you want a teacher who berated you for every mistake you made, no matter how hard you were trying? This teacher would expect you to understand all the time, and when you didn’t, you would be punished, often without warning. This teacher would give you little helpful instruction, and even when you got things right, there would be little encouragement. Add to all this that you and your teacher do not share a common language, and you would have to constantly try to figure out what your teacher wanted while under this constant stress? It’s always interesting to look at it this way and try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or paws, hooves, claws, fins…
An understanding of behavior as a science can bring to anyone who decides to explore its riches the tools to teach or change any behavior. Any behavior. Anything an animal can learn can be trained using a comprehensive, scientific approach to learning—anything that they’re physically and mentally capable of, that is: You can’t teach a pig to fly!. The beauty of a basic science of behavior and its application as a technology of behavior is that it belongs to everyone, and anyone can learn how to use it. With patience and good instruction, you can be the best teacher for your companion animal, or any animal, as well as his or her best friend.
A great pioneer of animal training, Marian Breland, would often remind her students to “Believe.” Believe that it can be. Believe that with modern behavior technology, all species of animal, human and nonhuman, can learn quickly, effectively, and with minimal restriction or stress.