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Science and Animal Training #2: Do I have to be a science geek to train my dog?

You can be whomever you want!  There’s an advantage to enjoying reading about the topic of behavior science.  You don’t have to read the cold, dry language of scientific studies, but it’s helpful to choose books and articles that include references you can check.  You have to be objective and you have to ask questions, but you don’t have to be a science geek. 

You need to know the basics of how operant and classical conditioning work – and those are pretty easy:  Pairing something good with something new to a dog makes the new thing “good”, and the animal “happy” when that thing comes along.  That’s classical conditioning, association, Pavlovian conditioning – all names for the same thing.  It’s when you smell your favorite food and suddenly realize you’re hungry and anticipate eating that wonderful food.  Following a behavior with a reinforcer (think “treat” for the sake of simplicity) builds that behavior.  That’s operant conditioning, a.k.a. “Catch them getting it right,” and it’s powerful.  It’s helpful to understand the implications of using punishment, because you don’t need it.  That’s right: though punishment is a behavior principle, Skinner saw the problems with using it to teach animals and humans.  The animal trainers who followed him learned that punishment creates an environment of avoidance, sometimes fear or aggression, resulting in decreased learning of the task we’re trying to teach due to emotional impacts.  Hey, here we are back with association or classical conditioning, which works in creating bad associations too.  All the more reason to practice your reinforcement skills and get good at applying the principle of positive reinforcement to develop the behaviors you want! 

At first, you have to trust your teacher, because you may have limited knowledge of the behavior principles used in training.  But you have to choose a teacher worth trusting, one who can answer your questions.  Go ahead and ask:  “What do you suggest I do if the dog does the wrong thing?”  (Dogs make mistakes, just like people.)* 

Once you’ve delved into becoming as much or as little of a “science geek” as you want to, and you’ve chosen someone you can trust to work with you to train your dog, you start with that and develop your skills so you are conducting great conversations about your training goals with your teacher, who should take on your goals as her/his own and help you accomplish them, using behavior science.  

*Oh, and the answer to that question?  (What should I do if the dog does the wrong thing?)  Well, you try again, using a different way of getting him to do the behavior; do what it takes to get what you want from the dog.  A good teacher can help you with ideas, but you can think of them, too.  Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Acknowledge that you and your dog are likely to make mistakes.  Stop training, re-group, and make a new plan.  It’s not your fault, nor the dog’s – but you have the power to set things up so you get the behavior you need to achieve your goal.  Your dog is just trying to figure out what works, and you can learn to communicate with him quickly and effectively.  That’s science-based training.    

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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