Flow and the Art of Dog Training

There Are at Least Three, Not Just Two Forms of Training for Pet Dogs

In the Flow

The Three Main Methods of Dog Training

Most people think there are only two types of training for pet dogs—dominance and positive reinforcement—but there is actually a third form called drive training.

In the current marketplace drive training is the least understood and the least used with pet dogs, yet it’s the most effective, and it’s the method most often used to train working dogs: drug and bomb detection dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, military working dogs, and police dogs.

So what is drive training, exactly, how does it work, and why isn’t it being more widely used for training pet dogs?

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at how all three methods evolved.

The Evolution of Dominance Training

Dominance training originated with the idea that wolves form dominance hierarchies and, that in the absence of a strong leader (or alpha), other members of the group will always try to attain a higher status and take over the pack’s leadership role. Thus, the owner has to always enforce his or her role as the pack leader or the dog will disobey.

The scientific origin of these ideas is a bit sketchy to say the least. Austrian biologist Konrad Lorenz wrote about them in a non-science book, written for a general audience titled Man Meets Dog (1950). There is little or no scientific basis for most of Lorenz’ explanations on dog training. In fact, toward the end of his life—when biologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger asked Lorenz if they could interview him for their book Dogs; A Startling New Understanding—he confessed that everything he had ever said about dogs was wrong.

Also, although Lorenz is seen as the father of dominance theory in dog training, his primary area of research was not canine behavior and learning, but how instincts and imprinting shape behavior, primarily in geese.

Dominance training gained a great deal of popularity in the 1970s with the publication of How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete (members of the Orthodox Church in America). Here's a bit of training advice found in the original edition of that book, which should give you an idea on how the monks train dogs: “How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.”


The Evolution of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement was developed in 1930s by B. F. Skinner, based on the work of two other American behaviorists Edward L. Thorndike and John Watson, and, of course, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Thorndike proposed that behavioral responses to stimuli that result in a satisfying result for an organism are more likely to be repeated than those that result in an unpleasant effect. He called this the “Law of Effect,” which he based, in part, on the way hungry cats he put inside puzzle boxes supposedly used trial-and-error to find a means of escape. Once the cats found a technique that worked, they had a strong tendency to repeat it.

At roughly the same time that Thorndike proposed “The Law of Effect,” Sigmund Freud—a Viennese neurologist who had turned his attention to psychology—proposed “The Pleasure Principle,” which looked at behavior from a slightly different perspective. Freud defined pleasure as the sudden reduction of internal tension, pressure, or stress, an idea that was directly influenced by the work of German physiologist von Brucke and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. Von Helmholtz had been instrumental in developing the first law of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy). Thus, pleasure, according to Freud, was the sudden reduction of internal tension, based on the principles of thermodynamics.

Though Skinner was primarily influenced by Thorndike and Pavlov, Sigmund Freud had a tremendous influence on him as well. But unlike Freud—and even Thorndike—Skinner believed that behavior should be defined without reference to an organism’s internal states. So Thorndike’s idea that behaviors had a “satisfying result” or Freud’s proposal that organisms experience pleasure as a sudden reduction of internal tension, pressure or stress, were off the table for Skinner and played no part in the development of his theories.

The Evolution of Drive Training

Drive training’s origins are much older than either the dominance or positive reinforcement models. Some would say it got its start in the early 1900s with the advent of SchutzHund trials, created by Max Von Stephanitz and his like-minded colleagues. (Von Stephanitz also helped develop the German shepherd breed). Technically, ShutzHund is a sport, not a form of training; these days, people training dogs for SchutzHund trials are welcome to use any training technique they choose. But the techniques Max Von Stephanitz and his colleagues used clearly involved stimulating a dog's prey drive as a means of teaching obedience. Since then, drive training has been used as the gold standard for training police dogs, military dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, and most other types of working dogs.

In 1992 a new form of drive training was developed based on the laws of physics rather than the unscientific concepts of dominance or the somewhat semi-science of operant conditioning. This new method was created by former police and drug-enforcement dog trainer Kevin Behan. His model—which he called Natural Dog Training—is based on the principles of flow and thermodynamics (among other things). In other words, it’s based on physics.

Stress Reduction & the Conservation of Energy

So that’s the basic history of these three models. And although there are major differences in how each one is applied, they all have two things in common: they’re all based on the idea of the conservation of energy, and they all work by using stress reduction as the primary motivation for learning.

You may be scratching your head a little over that, so let me explain.

The dominance model is based primarily on stress-related behaviors found mostly in captive wolves and sometimes in wild wolves, depending on the size and composition of the pack. The idea here is that when a dog or wolf recognizes his subordinate position in the pack’s pecking order, he or she will feel more relaxed and less stressed because there’s no longer any need to expend unnecessary energy by trying to take over the pack’s leadership role. And, since the human owner is supposedly seen as the dog’s pack leader, the same thing would theoretically apply to the dog/owner relationship.

Believe it or not, operant conditioning is also based on stress reduction. Remember the cats that Thorndike locked inside his puzzle boxes? Can we say with any certainty that their learning wasn’t based on the feeling of release from the tension and stress they felt when they found an escape mechanism?

Skinner, working from Thorndike’s model, also fasted his test subjects, rats and pigeons, to two-thirds of their normal body weight, then locked them inside specially-designed boxes that provided food pellets when the animals accidentally pressed or pecked levers or keys, particularly in association with a flashing light or other neutral stimulus. Skinner didn’t believe it was necessary to know anything about a subject’s internal states, yet his research methods clearly worked via stress-reduction: the more stressed the animals were, the more quickly they learned how to attain food rewards.

Another stressor in Skinner’s model comes through the use of variable reinforcement schedules. It's well known that operant condiitoning doesn’t hold, at least not for very long, unless such schedules are applied. “Reinforcement may go from predictable to a little unpredictable back to predictable,” writes Karen Pryor, a figurehead of the positive training movement. “Sometimes a novice animal may find this very disconcerting. If two or three expected reinforcers fail to materialize, the animal may simply give up and quit on you.” This again shows that behaviors are not necessarily learned through the addition of positive reinforcers but through the reduction of internal tension or stress: the more stressed a dog is—as with the uncertainty that comes when you correctly change the pattern of reinforcement—the deeper the behavior is learned once the pattern is recognized. Of course, behaviorists would disagree that stress-reduction, or any other explanation for learning, is strictly necessary. All that's technically necessary is for there to be a temporal connection between a reinforcer and a behavior. (In the 1980s Temple Grandin asked B. F. Skinner if he thought it would be helpful to know more about how the brain works. “We don't need to know how the brain works,” he replied. “We have conditioning!“

Meanwhile, the drive training model—traditionally used only to train working dogs like police dogs, herding dogs, etc.—is based on the idea that an adult dog’s prey drive is always present, causing some form of internal tension and stress, which motivates the dog to find ways to relieve those feelings. The dog may relieve them, on his own, through play with his owner or with other dogs, or through various unwanted behaviors like chasing squirrels, cars and skateboarders. Drive training uses prey objects such as tennis balls, Frisbees and tug toys as a focal point for teaching obedience because biting such objects provides the optimal release of internal tension, pressure and stress.

What Are the Advantages of Drive Training? The motivation for learning via the dominance model comes from an instinct dogs supposedly have to submit to the authority of their “pack leader.” If we look at this from the dog’s point of view we can see that being dominated is not necessarily a pleasurable experience. For treat-trained or clicker-trained dogs, getting a reward is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes not. For instance, when a dog is deeply involved in something that satisfies his instincts and emotions he has less of a tendency to be swayed by treats or praise. So while you may be able to lure some dogs away from stalking a squirrel by using a favorite treat, others will ignore you. In that instance, the stalking behavior (a manifestation of the dog's prey drive) is more pleasurable to the dog than anything you can offer. Meanwhile, being in a state of flow—as happens during play—is always pleasurable.

Each training method works, or is said to work, around certain principles. Pack leader methods work via dominance and submission. Behavioral science works via punishment and reward. But drive training works via the physical properties of tension, release, and flow, meaning that dogs are motivated by a pleasurable release from internal tension, pressure or stress, thereby attaining a state of flow. It’s true that acting “submissive” or working to attain rewards may sometimes provide those feelings, which may be one reason why most trainers using these methods find that they work just fine. But only drive training is specifically designed to motivate learning in ways that dogs innately understand: “My energy was blocked but now it’s flowing!”

“My energy is flowing? What is this, dog training for hippies?” I don’t mean to offend you, but that’s utterly ridiculous!! The Nature of Flow

I’m not offended. The truth is that dogs trained the natural way are very obedient and responsive, and are very focused on their owner’s commands, as if obeying their “pack leader.” We also use a lot of food and praise. So if either a dominance trainer or a reward-based trainer saw one of us working he or she would have one of three possible reactions, depending on what we were doing at the time: “This is pure dominance,” they might say, or “It looks like positive reinforcement to me.” The third response would be something along the lines of: “Wait, what did you just do? How does that work?” or “I've never seen anything like that before.” And the thing is, when we talk about flow, we’re not being whimsical or speaking in a figurative manner. Flow is a very real and very important part of all natural systems, from tectonic plates, to ocean currents, to the way bees, butterflies and eagles ride air currents, to the way jellyfish capture prey, to the way an audience at a movie or concert are swept up in the emotions of the moment, even to the way dogs play together. It's all flow. Let’s look at our own bodies. There are numerous flow systems in operation: the bloodstream, the lungs, the digestive system, the renal system, the endocrine system, even the movement of electrical impulses passing between neurons in the brain are part of a flow system. And whenever any of these systems is obstructed in some way, it creates very real feelings of tension, pressure and stress. In nature, whenever a flow system meets an obstruction it puts pressure on the system, causing stress. In a river an obstruction might be a boulder. The increase in water pressure causes a smooth flow to become turbulent. If the river is obstructed by a dam, on the other hand, the water behind the dam may seem very quiet and serene; and it is. But it’s also putting a tremendous amount of pressure, structurally-speaking, on the dam. It’s only when the dam fails that you’d actually see the effects of that pressure. In a like manner, when you become cognizant of how stress operates and exerts its influence on canine behavior, you can see the cracks begin to form before the problem has fully developed. And it’s always best to catch such problems sooner than later, if you can. All that aside, just being alive causes stress. The minute you wake up in the morning your adrenal glands increase production of a stress hormone called cortisol. The same is true for dogs. And research has shown that normal levels of cortisol motivate us to do things. In fact many of us elevate our own levels of cortisol artificially each morning with caffeine or nicotine, as a way of further motivating ourselves. And when cortisol levels go up, so does our blood pressure. (Cortisol is also directly associated with learning.) Cortisol was discovered in 1937. But Freud described the way tension motivates behavior 17 years earlier in his treatise, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” He said that “the course taken by mental events … is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and that it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension” resulting in “a production of pleasure.” [The Freud Reader, 594, 595.] Freud rightly thought of the body and mind as a flow system. Internal pressures brought on by unresolved emotions or repressed instincts increase our blood pressure, just as cortisol, nicotine and caffeine do. This motivates us to behave in ways we hope might minimize those feelings. On a certain level, the same is true for dogs; they too behave in ways that they hope or have found by experience will minimize tension, pressure and stress, creating a pleasurable release. I know it seems odd to talk about teaching a puppy to sit or heel and bring this stuff about Freud and stress hormones into the discussion. But remember, we’re discussing the differences between the ways dominance, positive reinforcement, and drive training all motivate learning. And only drive training operates specifically via the reduction of internal feelings of tension, pressure and stress. Still, isn’t it simpler to just reward a dog? Why complicate things with all this talk about flow? The dog associates good behavior with a reward and that’s how he learns, right? The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Behavior modification via positive reinforcement doesn’t work—at least not for very long—unless you constantly change the pattern of reinforcement by using one of a number of very complicated reinforcement schedules and contingencies, which if mistimed or misapplied can backfire. B. F. Skinner formed the concepts of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning partly because he felt it was unscientific of Freud to describe behavior in terms of a person’s thoughts and feelings. How can we know with any certainty what another person or organism is thinking or feeling? Besides, even though Skinner was heavily influenced by Freud's work, quoted him extensively, and even agreed wholeheartedly with some of his major concepts, Skinner believed that all behavior was the product of conditioning, and that thoughts and feelings were irrelevant (In fact Skinner said that thoughts and feelings were the products of conditioning.) So Skinner set out to create a means of showing how conditioning takes place based on pure mathematics. But since his rats and pigeons were subjected to physiological and psychological stress from being hungry and locked in boxes, Skinner also proved that stress-reduction is the real mechanism behind all learning. (Skinner would say the mechanism is irrelevant; the fact that they exhibited conditioned responses in a temporal relationship with an external reinforcer was all that mattered.) Going back to dopamine, remember? The “reward” chemical in the brain? How do dopamine and other neurotransmitters and hormones find their way to the parts of the body and brain that need them?

They flow. Okay, enough about Freud and flow and orcas and positive reinforcement. What about “pack leader” training? That seems to work just fine without all this mumbo-jumbo. Dominance and Submission The main problem with the “pack leader” model is that, from a scientific point of view, dominance and submission can only take place between two animals of the same species who are also members of the same social group. For instance, a wolf may be said to “dominate” other members of his pack, but not wolves from other packs, and definitely not a duck, a dog or a dingo. By the same token, a human can’t “dominate” a dog—except in a somewhat fanciful way—because we’re members of two different species. Another wrinkle is that pack formation is always a function of prey size, meaning canines only form packs when they need to hunt large prey such as elk or bison. For instance, wolves who live near garbage dumps don’t need to hunt large prey, so they don’t form packs. And coyotes, who are normally solitary hunters, form packs in the winter when their usual provender, small prey, is scarce. And domesticated dogs don’t form packs at all, ever, not even when living a feral existence. Pack formation is always about hunting large prey, and feral dogs lack that ability. So without the capacity to form a pack how could dogs be motivated by a supposed human “pack leader?” Mind you, I’m not saying these techniques don't work, just that they don’t work because your dog thinks you’re his “pack leader.” Still another problem is that not all packs have clearly visible dominance hierarchies. Dr. David Mech, the world’s leading expert on wolves, once wrote that “Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.” (“Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs,” Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999.) The packs Mech studied at that time were small, mom-and-pop units, which eventually gave rise to an alternative term for the “pack leader,” the current, politically-correct term, “pack parent.” In other packs, dominant behaviors are more prevalent, probably because of changes in pack structure related to an increase in the number of members in the pack. So it certainly seems to be the case that when wolves are kept in captivity, or when a pack has grown beyond the optimal size necessary for successful hunting (which peaks at around 4-5 wolves) that social friction starts to become more and more readily apparent than it is in smaller, wild packs. And, logically speaking, that’s likely to be the case because being held in captivity, or living in a pack that’s too large to sustain itself, would cause an increase in stress across the pack as a whole, bringing us back to—you guessed it—cortisol! In fact, the most “dominant” member of any animal group generally produces the highest amount of cortisol! (Remember, cortisol doesn’t cause stress, it’s just a canary in the coal mine telling us that stress is present.) And unlike positive reinforcement techniques, whose scientific provenance is impeccable (if a bit out-of-date), not only is there no real scientific basis for the idea that a dogs see us as their pack leaders, there are also no scientific studies showing that dominance techniques are effective. In fact there are several showing the exact opposite. So while dominance techniques may work with some dogs in some situations, they don’t work for the reasons “pack leader” trainers say they do. This is why I think it’s important to understand how and why stress reduction and attaining a pleasurable state of emotional flow are the primary mechanisms for motivating all behaviors in dogs. And it’s very easy to tell when your dog is in a state of flow. He’ll have a relaxed yet dynamic demeanor, much like an athlete who’s having a good day on the ball field. But if your dog is too needy of attention, for example, it means things aren’t flowing properly. And, if he’s acting aggressive then things are flowing, but in a turbulent rather than a smooth manner. Knowing these dynamics exist, and having the ability to see them as they play out in your dog’s daily behavior, will enable you to become your dog’s stress-relief mechanism, putting both of you into a pleasurable state of flow, which will also put you in total control of every aspect of your dog’s behavior, but in a really cool, really fun way for both of you. By the way, flow is the reason most dogs love to swim, chase Frisbees and tennis balls, run agility courses, go for car rides, etc. And it’s the real reason wolves “follow the pack leader.” He’s able to generate more flow than they do, and they’re simply caught in his wake.

LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?"

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.