"Of Mice and Mutts II: Is Behavioral Science Failing Our Dogs?"

“Bye-Bye” to Behaviorism and “Hello” Dogthropomorphism.

Originally published in slightly different from on October 29, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.

Short-Lived Happiness? There’s a growing trend in this country of moving away from using behavioral science methods in education and child-rearing, and trying a more loving and playful approach. Popular author and lecturer Alfie Kohn sums up the operant conditioning approach as, “Do this and you’ll get that.” In a September, 2009 New York Times article Kohn cites a 2004 study done by two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined by American Edward Deci, which showed that although adult children of parents who used behavioral contingencies in raising them were “somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted ... compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a ‘strong internal pressure’ than to ‘a real sense of choice.’ Moreover, their happiness after succeeding was usually short-lived and they often felt guilty or ashamed.” Kohn’s answer is pretty simple: we should love our children unconditionally. Evolutionary psychiatrist and professor of veterinary medicine Jaak Panksepp has written a number or papers and done studies showing how play is more important than structured learning. This idea was echoed recently in a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in which Paul Tough highlighted a stark contrast in two ways of teaching pre-kindergarten kids impulse control. Tough discusses a six-week-long experiment that Angela Lee Duckworth and some of her colleagues at U. Penn conducted with 40 fifth-grade students. ‘“We did everything right.” Duckworth said. She and her colleagues led the kids through self-control exercises, helped them reorganize their lockers, gave them rewards for completing their homework. And at the end of the experiment, the students dutifully reported that they now had more self-control than when they started the program. But in fact, they did not.’ “We got zero effect on everything,” Duckworth said. Tough then described how imaginative play can induce impulse control in young children naturally and automatically. “In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes.”

Pure Play and Teaching Impulse Control If these two studies are representative of anything, it seems to me that then pure play---with no strings attached---is 4 times more powerful than operant conditioning for teaching impulse control. I’m no expert in childhood development. I don’t even pretend to know everything there is to know about dogs or dog training. What I do know is that dogs are like very young kids in at least two very important ways: they’re unencumbered by layers upon layers of thought, and if two or more of them get together, they’ll invent some sort of game to pass the time. I also know it’s a good idea to question the conventional wisdom about canine behavior, take a hard look at all the myths and folklore from as many angles as possible, and try to come up with explanations that are simpler and more parsimonious. In her book, Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz says that to truly understand dogs, we need to put “our umwelt caps on,” meaning we should try to see things from the dog’s unique perspective. That’s what I try to do here, and it’s what I encourage my clients and readers to do. I’ve often said that instead of anthropomorphizing dogs, we need to dogthropomorphize ourselves. In my most recent article here at PsychologyToday.com I gave two examples of learning that can’t be explained fully through either of the two opposing theories [1] on dog training, dominance or learning theory: a) by playing a game where you roll over on your back and act “submissive” toward dogs they become more obedient [2], and b) how I taught my own dog Freddie not to scavenge by praising him while he was in the act of doing it [3]. In both examples I’m doing things backwards to the way these theories describe how and why dogs learn to obey. And the reason neither theory can explain why my methods work is that both theories are thought-centric and, therefore, not quite dogthropomorphic enough. For instance, one of the prime directives in dominance is that you should never let your dog “think” he’s alpha. Even the propositions that dogs somehow know who’s alpha and who’s not, or that they form dominance hierarchies based on rank and status, require abstract, conceptual, and symbolic thinking.

On the other side of the debate, one of the things you hear a lot from positive trainers is that their methods “make a dog think.” But if dogs can think, what are they thinking? No one seems to be able to answer that question. (And if you ask me, even the simple idea that dogs learn by cause-and-effect is flawed4.)

Social Attraction vs. Social Resistance Meanwhile, when you boil down my two examples to their barest essentials, they have nothing to do with a mental thought process going on inside the dog’s head. Each exercise simply changes the energetic dynamic taking place between me and the dog. That’s why they work. For example, if a dog’s obedience is in any way related to his social instincts, then by rolling over my back I increased each dog’s social attraction (which could be rightly called a property of energy), and reduced his social resistance (the opposite energetic polarity). That in turn reduced whatever resistance the dogs might have had to obeying my commands. In the second case, when my dog was going after sidewalk snacks it wasn’t because he was hungry, at least not in the physical sense; no well-fed dog would scavenge for that reason [5]. He did it because of an internal feeling of pressure, coming from millions of years of evolution, pushing him to try to connect to something in the environment through his prey drive [6]. (This is the same primordial pressure that motivates dogs to herd our sheep, guard our cattle, fetch our slippers, and sit, and stay, and come when called.) Then, when I praised him while he was scavenging, that need was satisfied by connecting to me emotionally. And since that feeling was, thankfully (and a bit serendipitously), stronger than the feeling he got from scavenging, he gave up the behavior. Former police dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan writes, “There are only two ways to interpret the behavior of things ... either we interpret complex behavior in terms of energy or in terms of thoughts.” (Behan has actually created a fully-realized energy theory of canine behavior that informs my personal training techniques and philosophy.) Immanuel Kant said something similar, that the human mind is endowed with the ability to reason, which contains within it categories of judgment, cause and effect, time and space and so on. As a result humans automatically project “reasons” onto things in the natural world, including animate and inanimate objects. (New research shows that there’s actually a neurological basis for this tendency, as reported here by Marc Bekoff). [7]

A Simple Energy Exchange We’re all susceptible to anthropomorphizing dogs. We all do it. However, if we put on our umwelt caps and begin to look at canine behavior as part of a simple energy exchange between the dog and his environment—with stimuli as energy-in and behavior as energy-out—then both of my backwards examples make perfect sense. In fact, I think all canine behavior, learned or instinctive, can be described as a flow of energy, directed towards the dog’s immediate, in-the-moment goal of reducing his feelings of internal tension or emotional pressure. And this model not only works on its own, it also encompasses both dominance training and operant conditioning, explaining why they work when they do and why they don’t when they don’t. We might say, for instance, that dogs and wolves are naturally drawn toward those beings, canine or human, who have more emotional gravitas than they do themselves. This would explain why wolf packs seem to have pack leaders (when they really don’t, at least not in the traditional use of that phrase [8]), and why pack leader training techniques are sometimes effective. We could also say that dogs gravitate toward the kinds of behaviors that create pleasurable changes in their internal energy states and veer away from those that don’t. This would explain why positive reinforcement works better than positive punishment. On the other hand, by expecting dogs to learn through the thought-centric polarities of dominance and submission, trainers using the pack leader model may be unwittingly blocking a dog’s natural flow of emotion, which can either backfire (that energy has to flow somewhere), or impose a strict requirement that the owner or trainer has to constantly remind the dog who’s alpha in order to keep that dog’s energy under control.

Sitting for a Cookie As for positive trainers, by not factoring in how a dog’s psyche is weighted, energetically-speaking, more toward chasing squirrels or skateboarders, for example, than to sitting for a cookie, they run the risk that sooner or later the dog won’t respond to commands or cookies because those things have a low energy payoff, and the bigger energy payoff the dog sees in squirrels and skateboarders means that sooner or later, those squirrels and skateboarders had better watch out. But by training a dog through playful exercises like hide-and-seek, keep away, chase me, and tug [9], we’re giving our pups a big enough payoff to make squirrels and golf carts and even other dogs start to pale in comparison. Remember, that’s how Freddie was taught not to scavenge. Once he experienced the person praising him (me) as the optimal release point for his internal emotional pressure—a release that was more pleasurable (at least for him, in that context) than eating sidewalk snacks—he no longer needed to find satisfaction from those external variables because he had a constant source of satisfaction (me again) right there at his side. Following this model, you become the reinforcer for good behavior because you’re the primary release point for your dog’s energy. You also become his “pack leader” because you exert more “gravitational pull” on him than anything else in his environment. And it’s not because you’re the one controlling the goodies, it’s because you are the goodies. And whether you’re a follower of Cesar Millan or Jean Donaldson, that’s a good thing. However, if you think the idea of a dog’s internal emotional energy needing a release is just a bunch of new-age hooey, watch dogs play. Take a step back. Don’t look at their behavior; try to see the shifts in their energy. You’ll see that when dogs are enjoying themselves the most, it’s because they’re taking turns being the release point for each other’s energy. It’s only when the flow of energy gets blocked that tension results. Remember, dogs love us unconditionally. They also pay close attention to the shifts in our energy. So let’s do the same for them. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Join the Rescue Dog Owners Support Group! Footnotes: 1) In reality, these are not opposing but dual theories, in that they’re isomorphic in certain key ways. First, while dominance is weighted more toward positive punishment, and operant conditioning toward positive reinforcement, they’re both using learning theory whether they’re aware of it or not. Secondly, both systems are based on fear. Granted, +R trainers aren’t aware of how much fear is incorporated into their training systems, but it’s there. It’s a fear that if you don’t control a dog’s behavior, chaos will ensue. Ian Dunbar, one of the key figures in the positive training movement has written a guide to puppy training that seems designed more to scare people out of even thinking about getting a puppy than teaching them how to train one. Here’s a key passage: “From the first day you get your puppy, the clock is ticking ...there is so much to teach and nearly everything needs to be taught right away.” The book is also peppered with small sub-sections labeled for their levels of “importance” or “urgency.” And out of 11 chapter titles, there are 7 with the word “deadline” somewhere in the heading! So in my view, on a certain level both dominance trainers and +R trainers operate on an irrational fear that nature is random and chaotic, and that dogs are inherently bad. 2) Dogs don’t learn through cause and effect; they learn through the ebb and flow of their own internal energy. I say this because while cause and effect are things that happen to the dog, if they don’t actually play any part in how he experiences what’s happening to him, they can’t rightly be said to play any real part in learning. People say that dogs live totally in the moment, and if that’s true (which I think it is) then dogs wouldn’t be able to perceive one thing happening before or after another, let alone in consequence of another. In a dog’s mind events wouldn’t happen sequentially; they’d all happen in the now moment, so any sequential connection we’d see, when looking at behavior from the outside-in, couldn’t reverberate or be able to attain any purchase within the dog’s own consciousness. On the other hand, if the principles of cause and effect can be explained as part of an energetic dynamic—where the dog is only required to experience pleasant or unpleasant shifts in the flow of his own emotional states and adjust his behavior accordingly—then I think we’ll be much closer to understanding how dogs really learn, in the moment. 3) Scavenging is a normal behavior in young puppies, not in adult dogs. 4) Despite the fact that the ancestors of our modern pet dogs may have become dogs by scavenging at human encampments, they still have hunting instincts. Ray Coppinger, who first popularized the scavenging theory of domestication, has often talked about how there are some predatory behaviors that can’t be trained into a dog, and can’t be trained out of them. (The most recent research shows that dogs and humans hunted mammoths together at least 44,000 years ago.) 5) Dr. Marc Bekoff writes: “Recent research by Andrea Heberlein and Ralph Adolphs shows that a part of the brain called the amygdala is used when we impart intention and emotions to inanimate objects or events...Their research suggests that the human capacity for anthropomorphizing draws on some of the same neural systems as do basic emotional responses. My reading of this research and my own experience with a wide variety of animals is that 'We feel, therefore we anthropomorphize.' And we’re programmed to see humanlike mentality in events where it cannot possibly be involved.” 6) http://leecharleskelleysblog.blogspot.com/2009/05/cesar-millan-pack-leader-or-predator_22.html 7) In each of these games the owner or trainer acts like prey, and allows, or rather, encourages the dog to chase and bite him or her (through a toy) in play. +R trainers will tell you that they also use play as part of their training system, and they do. But there’s a substantial difference, and it goes back to the problem with how operant conditioning is used to teach impulse control in children: “Do this and you’ll get that.” In other words it isn’t play itself that +R trainers use, it’s “access to play.” The trainer controls access to toys, etc., until the dog “behaves himself.” But since play inherently teaches dogs how to “behave themselves,” the +R view has it backwards. (I’m simplifying the +R view, but the underlying principle still holds.) Dogs are like an extension of our unconscious selves. Sometimes we treat them the way we feel we should’ve been treated when we were small, helpless children. Sometimes we treat them the way our parents treated us and probably shouldn’t have. It’s hard for us not to do that, and the great thing about dogs is that they want so badly just to be in harmony with us that they’ll pretty much go along with all our crap until it becomes too much and they have to say, “Arf! Treat me like a dog, not an unruly child! Play with me! Let me kill something!” Anyway, that’s how I see it.

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