Survival Feelings Aren't the Best Way to Promote Learning
Originally published in slightly different form on March 18, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
Pent Up Energy
I previously discussed what I’ve called the 4 Quadrants of Drive Training, which are similar to the quadrants of learning theory (+ and - reinforcement, and + and - punishment) in that they also come in pairs of opposites: Attraction & Resistance and Tension & Release.
Unlike the quadrants of learning theory—which are statistical probabilities that can only be measured after the fact—attraction & resistance, and tension & release are properties of energy, all of which can be measured physiologically (i.e., in the brain and body), in real time.
I also discussed some old and some new ways of giving a dog a release for pent-up energy. These include playing tug-of-war, which taps into a dog’s primary tension-release mechanism (the kill bite), and which use up more energy in less time than taking a dog on long walks, running her on a treadmill, or other “energy-draining” exercises.
Now let’s look at the properties of tension, and how they’re used in drive training to both teach obedience skills, and to solve behavioral problems.
In simplest terms, drive training uses a prey object of some sort—usually a ball or tug toy—as the focal point of learning behaviors such as heeling, the down/stay, or coming when called. The trainer begins a session by teasing the dog with a toy, building his or her desire to bite the object. When the dog’s drive is at its height, the trainer induces the desired behavior. Then, once the dog obeys the command, he or she gets to bite the toy.
“So what? You’re just using play as a reward. It’s no different than food or any other reinforcer.”
Believe me, when you’re in a crunch situation with a dog who has a strong desire to chase a car, for instance, and his motivation for turning around while running full speed toward the highway, and running back to you instead, is either based on previous experiences where he got a liver treat or where he got a chance to chase you or bite a tug toy, I’d hate to be in a position where I had to bet such a dog’s life on that liver treat.
There Is a Difference
“That’s still just a stronger form of positive reinforcement. And it only works with dogs who have a high prey drive.”
I’ve used both drive training and operant conditioning and, believe me, there is a difference, one that those of who use drive training have seen first hand, over and over. And while it may be easier to accomplish with dogs who have a strong prey drive, it works with all dogs. You just have to know how to stimulate their desire to bite the toy.
Meanwhile, survival feelings like fear and hunger—which are the bread and butter of both dominance training and operant conditioning—aren’t necessarily the most effective means to create learning in animals, particularly not with an animal who is a de facto family member and life partner, the way dogs are for many of us. Yes, there are things in the environment—such as food and water—that provide advantages for animals, while others—such as predators and dominance trainers—pose a possible danger. But we don’t manipulate our friends and loved ones into doing what we want by stimulating their survival instincts, withholding food and water unless they obey, or threatening them with physical harm. Most of us naturally tune in to our loved one’s desires and try to help fulfill them. I think that’s the way dog training should operate as well.
Forget about Skinner’s obsession with survival needs. The idea that operant conditioning is superior to dominance training doesn’t hold up here because both systems work by stimulating survival needs rather than by tuning into a dog’s emotions and desires.
Relieving Internal Tension and Pressure
But let’s leave all that aside for a moment. From Freud on it’s been known that any internal or external stimulus, by definition, increases the energy level in an organism’s system, which would then increase the organism’s internal tension, creating pressure on the organism to act, if for no other reason than to relieve that pressure.
So on the most basic level, a dog’s response to any obedience cue—whether learned through reward-based training, dominance, or drive training—would not necessarily be done in an attempt to get a reward or to avoid a punishment. The dog would simply be acting to relieve his own feelings of internal pressure. The stronger the pressure, the deeper the subsequent relief, and the deeper and more long-lasting the learning. And remember, learning doesn’t take place because of external rewards. External rewards only work when they coincide with the reduction of a dog’s internal tension or stress. That’s the real cornerstone of learning.
Let’s also be clear about tension: it’s not something we want to impose unnecessarily on a dog. It’s a by-product of being alive. Just breathing is a matter of constant tension and release. The same goes for the blood coursing through our veins. In fact, when you first wake up in the morning, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol immediately go up.
So even when teaching a young puppy to sit for a treat, we can see that before the pattern of < sitting + hearing an audio cue = a treat > is fully formed, a moderate amount of tension has to build up in the pup’s mind and body. (This would be true to a slightly lesser extent during the initial stages of free-shaping.) Then, once the dog detects the pattern, and it becomes locked in place, that internal tension is released.
This bedrock mental ability to recognize patterns not only accounts for how learning takes place in the dog’s mind, it also explains the “ah-hah!” look a dog gets in his eyes when he finally detects a pattern, and wags his tail.
Unsticking Stuck Feelings
When it comes to solving behavioral problems, no matter what kind, the primary cause is always internal tension or stress that hasn’t been given a satisfying form of release. So the question I always ask is “How can I help the dog release his stuck or unresolved emotions?” Once the dog learns to bite a toy, with all his might, those stuck feelings, generally speaking, start to go away, on their own.
I’m well aware that reward-based training works just fine for most of the simple things dog owners need to learn in order to keep their animals happy and under control. In fact, I use and recommend some +R techniques myself, all the time. But please keep in mind, this series started as an answer to some complaints made by the main figurehead of the positive training movement, Dr. Ian Dunbar, when he said that behavioral science has become unnecessarily complicated, and that dog training is not working as well as it used to.
So how can we make it work better?
The Power of Play
The primary rationale for this series is to provide thoughtful trainers and owners information about alternative methods that may operate along different principles than what they’re used to or feel comfortable with, even though such methods—in this case, drive training—, are being used successfully every day when training working dogs.
Max Von Stephanitz, who more-or-less invented the idea of obedience training, was very clear: “Before we teach a dog to obey,” he wrote, “we must teach him how to play.” That’s because play is one of Nature’s primary mechanisms for learning. Why? Because it operates via building internal tension then releasing it.
That’s the key to drive training, which I would argue again, is not just another form of positive reinforcement. Play contains within its parameters a perfect model of learning that encapsulates how tension builds and gets released, and how behaviors are not only learned, but can sometimes be retained for the lifetime of the dog, all within a single play session.
Yes! Believe it or not, when you use drive training, and the power of play, a dog can learn a new behavior once and he’ll never forget it.
To me, that’s where the real pleasure of dog training lies: in playing with your dog. It’s the ultimate release of tension for dogs and their owners.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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