Behavioural Science has been around for a long time. Studies of behaviour and learning in animals date back to Edward Thorndike in the late 1800′s. And yet, even with a tremendous body of research behind it, there is still fierce criticism of both Classical and Operant Conditioning. The major criticism of the Behaviourist approach is that it seems to remove “free will” from the equation. The suggestion that behaviour can be manipulated through reinforcement and punishment seems to upset many people.
This reluctance to accept the validity of Behaviourism is understandable when we are talking about humans who might be offended at the suggestion that their behaviour can be controlled. But why are we reluctant to see the clear evidence of Operant and Classical Conditioning in our dogs? After all, our dogs are far less sophisticated than humans in their cognitive abilties. There is some question as to whether our dogs even conceive of “free will” in the same way we do.
We are robots
For more than 50 years, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner developed a theory of behaviour that said that the consequence of a behaviour would determine whether or not the organism would be more or less likely to perform that behaviour again. It is a theory that, on its face, seems like a pretty mechanistic description of behaviour and the motivation behind it. It would seem that all one has to do to get someone to do something (or not do something) would be to provide the right consequence in order to get the behaviour they wanted. In other words, push the right button and you get the right result.
While it might seem offensive to think that humans might be so easily manipulated, consider that the entire industries of advertising and marketing are based on the central premise of Skinner’s work! Is our behaviour being manipulated by advertising and marketing every day? Those who think so are spending a lot of money trying to influence our behaviour. There is a lot of experimental evidence from the behaviour of many species, including humans, to suggest that behavioural modification works as Skinner claimed.
We are NOT robots
But advertisers and marketers haven’t figured it all out yet. No one has found that perfect combination to get everyone to buy the same idea or product at the same time and to the same degree. So it’s not a perfect science, right? Well, that depends on how you look at it. Behavioural science never intended to treat us all as machines. There is a very important aspect to Behavioural Science that somehow gets missed in most casual discussions. In order to provide a rewarding or punishing consequence, you need to know what the subject you are working with does and doesn’t like.
What might be considered a reward or a punishment can vary widely from one individual to the next. A bit of fried octopus might be terribly unappetising to one person and be considered a delicious delicacy by another person. And that is where the magic of Behavioural Science really lies. Our individuality or “free will” is not defined by what we choose to do or not do. It is instead defined by what we like and don’t like.
Getting to know you
To me, the laws of behaviour as defined by Skinner, Pavlov, and others are as simple and easily accepted as Newton’s laws of motion. They just work. We have evidence of their operation around us all day, every day, on any of tens of thousands of species. I don’t think that diminishes us either as individuals or as a species. What makes us all unique is the incredible variety of what a person might find pleasant (reinforcing) or unpleasant (aversive). That constellation of our literally thousands of preferences is what makes each of us unique and different.
It is the same with our dogs. Working with my 10 week old dog Tiramisu many years ago, I had to discover what would motivate her if I was going to use positive reinforcement in her training. I found very quickly that she LOVED food. Seemingly she loved all kinds of food but she showed a distinct preference for moist treats that had a smoky aroma. She also liked cheese. Dry treats were not her preference. And play or physical interaction were not as motivating to her as food. I also found how long she liked to work, what she preferred to do when I gave her a break from training, how she valued free time to roam around and just discover, and how much she liked to be out in our back yard. All of these things and much more made up the personality of Tiramisu – a unique dog unlike any other.
My ability to use moist, smoky flavoured treats in training to get her to learn certain behaviours did not take away her free will or ability to choose. It was up to her to choose if working with me was worth the reward I was offering. All I was really doing was stacking the odds in my favour. This is hardly like the push-button world that we are warned about by critics of Behavioural Science.
We have owned dogs for more than 20 years now. Not until I trained Tiramisu did I ever have the understanding of my dogs the way I understand them now. I believe that it is Behavioural Science and using positive reinforcement training that has allowed me to develop such a deep understanding and rapport with my dogs. The very nature of positive reinforcement training requires me to learn as much as I can about what my dog finds rewarding so that I can use those things to reinforce the behaviours I want.
Similarly, I am also encouraged to watch for signs of what my dog might find unpleasant. Knowing what my dog would prefer to avoid is important for two reasons. First, I can use those unpleasant consequences to decrease behaviours I don’t want to see in my dog. But perhaps more importantly, I can learn to avoid those things in my training process so that my dog’s experience in working with me is as enjoyable for her as possible. I want my dog to work with me because it’s fun, rewarding, and mostly free of unpleasant consequences. She works with me because she wants to, it’s her choice. She does it of her own free will.
By the time Tiramisu was one year old, I had learned to observe her closely and learn her likes and dislikes. It was the first time in my life I had ever developed that kind of close relationship with a dog. And it was amazing. To know when your dog is frustrated, tired, exhilarated, silly, sad, or content goes so much deeper than just being able to see if she is in pain or not getting into trouble. What a blessing to know another being so well and to feel so connected.
Something that has always struck me about critics of Behavioural Science is that many of them have never actually used it or learned all that much about it. They read the papers and the text books and they critique in excruciating detail the problems with Behavioural Science and the dangerous moral ground that they believe it stands on. I have seen very few negative responses to Behavioural training from people who learned to use it well and found it lacking. (Note: Any form of training, if done badly, will produce bad results and can be criticised.)
I think it’s easy to dismiss Behavioural Science by oversimplifying it. If we focus on the main attribute of changing behaviour through prescribed methodology, it can be easy to say we are ruling out the element of choice and finding it to be an incomplete solution. But if we look at the whole of Behavioural Science, we soon realize that one cannot leave out consideration of the kaleidoscope of preferences that makes up our subject- our trainee. If we focus instead on a deep understanding of the likes and dislikes of the dog who’s behaviour we are trying to change, the experience immediately becomes intensely personal.
The beauty of training using Behavioural Science is not in the fact that it works. Newton’s laws of motion just “work” too. The beauty lies in our ability to get to know each dog as an individual. We get to work with them as individuals. Each dog is different and unique and we get to see and appreciate all of their wonderful qualities. Every time I get to work with a dog, I get to learn about that dog’s personality. I get to see who they are and see what they will choose. And I have never found anything as satisfying and uniquely “human” as that.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits -
Did you enjoy this article?
Please let the author know by leaving them a comment below!
And, subscribe to our free weekly digest!
Simply add your email below. A confirmation email will be sent to you.