Dog trainer and behavioral expert Patricia McConnell wrote in Bark Magazine not too long ago, "The process of learning is pretty much the same whether you're a pigeon, a planarian [flatworm] or, come to think of it, a philosophy professor."
Of course what McConnell means is that when an animal of any kind finds that a behavior produces positive results, it will have a tendency to choose that behavior over and over again. And that's true. But the implication is that there is only one type of training that works for all dogs (i.e., the "cookie-cutter" approach), and that all training should be based strictly on giving a dog rewards for good behavior.
What's wrong with using rewards?
Nothing. But for most behavioral science-oriented trainers that usually means food, partially because the foundation of behavioral science is built almost exclusively on the behaviors of albino rats locked inside Skinner boxes, and partially because food is usually the easiest and quickest way to get a dog's attention. As for Skinner's rats, their only motivation for learning to press a lever was supposedly to get a food pellet. But dogs aren't rats. Plus we don't train them inside boxes in a research lab.
"Yes," positive trainers would argue, "But whether the incentive in dog training is a treat or being given a ball to chase, it still boils down to one thing: positive reinforcement. The dog learns through positive consequences: "If I obey a command I get something I want." That's the law of effect.
But that's not necessarily true. New research shows that learning is a feedforward process -- based on pattern recognition -- rather than a feedback system -- based on understanding the causal connections between behaviors and their consequences. Dopamine, part of the brain's "reward system," isn't released when there's a predictable pattern of reward, but when there's a change in the pattern, either positive or negative. This is why true behavioral scientists use a number of different -- and often difficult -- reinforcement schedules that most dog trainers know nothing about.
Besides, as soon as we get locked-in to the idea that the linear, cut-and-dried precepts of behavioral science can show us all the answers, we don't keep our minds open to other possibilities. And far too many trainers these days consider food to be a universal reward. And that tiny little flaw in thinking keeps some dogs from ever being fully trained. If you're a dog owner who's been to a +R trainer and you tried to follow the protocols they gave you but found they didn't work, what was the first thing they said in reply? Probably: "Up the value of your treats!" (I had a client who complained, "What am I supposed to do, slaughter a cow and take the carcass with me on our walks?")
It's also instructive to understand that behavioral science techniques are notoriously ineffective when it comes to curing serious behavioral problems. The best proof of this is The Dog Who Loved too Much by Nicholas Dodman, even though Dodman didn't consciously write the book as a critique of behavioral science, but as a justification for using drugs to solve behavioral problems in dogs. But if behavioral science techniques were really effective we wouldn't need to use drugs except where there's a definite physiological cause of a behavioral disorder.
Going back to Skinner, I think we need to consider that when he proposed his theories it was widely believed that animals didn't haveemotional lives. With some of the recent advances in neuroscience, and the discovery of the same emotional circuits that exist in both the non-human and human brain, we now know that animals can be very emotional. This is especially true of dogs. Yet the behavioral science approach is based almost exclusively on changing a dog's behavior with little or no thought given to the underlying emotional cause of that behavior.
Some in the field would disagree. They would say that they're very conscious of how emotions affect behavior. I have no doubt that that's true. But their techniques are still based on a clinical, unemotional, Skinnerian foundation, one that's simply not geared to change a dog's emotions as much as it is to change his behavior. That kind of thinking is built in to the system despite the fact that all behavior, learned or instinctive, is the end product of emotion. In fact without emotion there would be no such thing as positive reinforcement. This is not something that factored in to Skinner's equations at the time he made them.
Meanwhile in Natural Dog Training our focus is always on changing the dog's emotional state first because we know once we do that and bring the dog's emotions back into balance, the right behavior will always follow.
It was also believed during Skinner's time that the foundation of all animal behavior was geared around the survival instinct, so when his rats pressed the lever and "learned" to make food appear, it made sense that their only impetus for doing so was based on their own survival: food is necessary for survival, therefore food is a primary reinforcer. But with the current trend in science to find and understand the roots of "biological altruism," the tendency in social animals (and even in some non-social species) to give up what's in one's own "self" interest in order to help another animal in need, the primacy of the survival instinct is starting to seem a bit mothworn if not badly outdated. Biological altruism is a huge puzzle because it implies that a very important aspect of Darwinism (and one that has a domino effect on behaviorism as well), may not, in fact, be what it seems.
Strangely enough, the clearest window into this puzzle (or perhaps not so strangely) is the domesticated dog. No species is more famous for its ability, let alone its outright unstoppable zeal, for putting its own survival on the line in order to help those it loves. In the past few months alone (I'm writing this in July of 2009), there have been two videotaped incidents of dogs dashing into traffic in order to rescue a fallen comrade, one was on a freeway in Chile and other on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx.
This brings up another point about the difference between Pavlov's and Skinner's era and ours (i.e., the early 20th Century v. the early 21st Century). Back in Skinner's day it was believed that all animals were vying for dominance within their own habitats as well as within their own social groups. And just like the beliefs about the survival instinct which accompanied and most probably engendered this Darwinian idea, the underlying principle was that animals always put their own "self" interest above all else. And that's simply not true. It's especially not true in dogs, and it turns out that it's not even true in wolves. And yet every single dog trainer who espouses behavioral science as the bedrock of all animal learning is still operating under this false premise. They don't accept the fact that sometimes the survival instinct simply isn't operational, which means that sometimes a primary reinforcer is not only not primary it's not a reinforcer. And yet we're told time and again: "Up the value of your treats!"
One of the clearest examples we see of a dog's ability to routinely override its own survival instinct is in dogs who do search-and-rescue work. With the recent explosion of interest in behavioral science some search-and-rescue dogs have been trained exclusively with food and clickers. There was great hope in certain quarters that this would be the dawn of a new age of perfectly conditioned working dogs. But in the end most of these dogs have proven unreliable, especially when forced to work for long hours, because they'll often indicate a false positive just to get a treat.
"Dogs want rewards," says Dr. Lawrence J. Myers of Auburn University, "So they will give false alerts to get them."
Giving a false alert is something a dog trained through his prey drive would never do; he wouldn't know how. He'll work for hours and hours, and he won't quit until he finds exactly what he's looking for. Why? Because he's focused on hunting, not on getting an external reward. The only problem they had with the search-and-rescue dogs at Ground Zero was making them stop to rest. Those amazing animals would have kept working until they found a survivor or a body or just dropped dead themselves. Is that courage? Is that altruism? Or is that just the way dogs are?
Kevin Behan made a very insightful comment on his blog recently. (If you don't know this, Kevin spent a major portion of his career training police dogs and detection dogs, using their prey drive -- not food rewards -- as the focal point of learning.)
"Search-and-rescue dogs can search disaster sites whereas no other animal can be conditioned to do so, which is especially revealing since cats and monkeys are far better adapted, physically speaking, for such work. One can acclimate a police dog to love running up a metal fire escape with someone throwing metal pots and pans down at it. All these so-called negatives ... arouse [the dog's] prey-making urge to an even greater pitch."
Can you imagine what those pots and pans would do to cats and monkeys? Is it even remotely possible that they could be trained to run up a fire escape while you're throwing loud, clattering objects at them? Even if they did make it to the top, my bet is that their first priority after getting there would be to find a safe place to hide and not come out for days.
Monkeys clearly have more mental agility than dogs. And to a large extent, so do cats. And Kevin's insight is, as usual, dead-on; both species are also more physically agile when put in the kinds of situations that most search-and-rescue dogs find themselves in. So if learning is only about reinforcing the behaviors you want from an animal, and monkeys and cats are smarter and more physically capable of working in and around disaster sites, why can't they be conditioned to do it?
Because they don't want to. Dogs, on the other hand, live for this kind of stuff. Talk about treats, they eat this stuff up. When dogs are trained properly, through their prey drive, they're absolutely driven to find survivors at a disaster site, or to sit and stay and come when called, or to do whatever else you want them to. They'll do it: no questions asked, no treats expected. You can't condition that kind of willingness into a cat or monkey just as you can't condition it out of a dog.
If we apply this lesson to flatworms and philosophy professors we can see that Patricia McConnell's idea really is off, particularly since she's a dog trainer herself, and particularly since the quote in question came from a piece she wrote for a magazine devoted exclusively to canines.
Again, I'm not saying that conditioning isn't a valid form of learning. It is. It has its place; there's no question about that. But in some cases, at least where dogs are concerned, there may be a much better alternative. You simply have to open your mind a little to see it.
And no, all animals don't learn the same way. Dogs are different. And it's their very difference that can help us see some of the cracks in the foundations of behavioral science.