Dog Training, Part 1
Most dog training deals with behavior that is a result of the individual’s history of consequence. If a dog sits, and that behavior is reinforced with the consequence of a delicious morsel, she is more likely to sit again. If she jumps on a person, and that behavior is punished by the person leaving the room, she is less likely to jump again. Sit, down, wait, stay… these are all based on a history of consequence, or what Behaviorists refer to as “operant conditioning.” For most of us, this is what we call dog training.
It is also essential to consider that many behaviors are attached to physiological responses to stimulus. They are only barely voluntary, and the involuntary responses will occur even if the (barely) voluntary responses are punished. The involuntary behaviors are not a result of consequences; they are a result of involuntary reflexes, reactions, or conditioning in response to a stimulus, often called a “trigger”. Panicked barking at the sound of thunder or fireworks is an example of (somewhat, barely) voluntary respondent behavior. Another example is barking or cringing out of fear when a motorcycle passes. In these instances, however, there are many involuntary responses which are completely out of the dog’s control. These may include pupil dilation, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, change in salivation (wet or dry mouth), and many others. Some reactive/aggressive behavior toward other dogs is respondent behavior as well. To affect these, our best approach is usually to change the animal’s association with the trigger through a process which Ivan Pavlov called “respondent conditioning,” and which many people now call “Pavlovian conditioning”, or “classical conditioning.” Addressing only the barking when a dog is afraid can do serious harm to the subject. Much better to address the fear itself, and reduce all the responses, while improving the dog’s feelings about the trigger.
When hiring a dog trainer, it is important to be sure she or he understands the difference between the two types of behavior (voluntary vs. involuntary, or operant vs. respondent) in the preceding paragraphs, and has good strategies for producing desirable effects in either of them. Knowing they are called operant and respondent is not necessary — many dog trainers refer to them as choice-based and reflexive, for instance. Others may call them action behaviors and emotion behaviors. While not technically accurate, these terms do suggest folks recognize there is a difference. Vocabulary is not the most important part of being a good trainer. It is very important, though, to have the concepts separated in one’s behavioral modification plan. For most beginning dog training, like keeping dogs off counters, and basic tricks such as sit, down, etc., thorough understanding of behavioral science really isn’t necessary (though the more one knows, the better!). The two types of behavior listed above, however, must be understood to be an effective, and humane, dog trainer of any caliber.
For a more technical and detailed explanation of these two basic dog training concepts, please see the following post by guest blogger Randi Rossman, of Canine Behavior Science: