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Science and Animal Training #3: What is Behavior Science?

Here are the basic principles of behavior science:  Stimulation, Reinforcement, Extinction, Punishment, and Generalization.  Stimulation is a cue; it’s whatever causes the animal to do a particular behavior.  You may be thinking about saying “sit” and the dog sits; that’s one, but you’ll learn to observe that there are so many more stimuli that are in the picture!  For instance, your position is part of the cue – maybe your dog only sits if you’re standing in front of him when you say it. Give it a try while sitting in a chair. (If your dog doesn’t sit the first time you try this, it’s not because he’s wrong – it’s because you’ve never taught him that particular cue, in that position. We call this a “stimulus picture.”)

If you and your dog are at home with your family, the familiar environment is part of the stimulus picture in which you say “sit” and your dog sits.  If you’re at the park and there are lots of people, dogs, nature smells, and more, you may say “sit” and your dog may act like he has no idea you’re there.  He may be overwhelmed by the number of stimuli around him and unable to respond to the specific verbal cue you gave him, until you have gone through a teaching process to train him to respond the way you want in that particular situation.  This is similar to changing the stimulus picture, as we talked about in the previous paragraph. But the principle of Generalization is what’s going on here, as it means the dog can learn to generalize his response in a variety of different situations; thus, he can “sit” on different surfaces, when different people say the cue, and with different distracting stimuli going on around him.  He can learn to do the behavior in any situation, but you have to go through a teaching process to help him learn in each of those settings so it’s easy for him to get it right.

When the dog gets the behavior right, we reinforce. Reinforcement is perhaps the most fun, because it’s where you get to give your dog a treat or allow him some privilege he enjoys after he does a behavior you like, planning for that behavior to show up more often and become stronger.  This is the Positive Reinforcement upon which all our training is founded, and that you hear so much about in the dog training world these days.

Extinction is figuring out what reinforcement a dog may be getting for a behavior you don’t like, and taking control to stop that from happening.  Why does he jump up on people?  To get attention?  Removing all instances of the dog getting attention by jumping up on people allows that behavior to extinguish.  (Even yelling and pushing a dog off of you may be reinforcing the behavior of jumping up; even telling the dog to get “down” or “off” may be reinforcing it. Take a look at what’s really going on – analyze it with an open mind and change something.) It works, though it usually requires the help of prevention tactics by the dog’s owner.  Extinction is a challenge to use, because we humans have a lot going on and we find it challenging to be observant of our dogs at all times in order to accomplish extinction.  But we find it useful in training, nonetheless – especially when accompanied by teaching the dog another behavior, like automatically sitting when he greets someone in this case – if he’s sitting, he’s not jumping up, and you have a behavior you can reinforce and build.

Punishment is often given by the environment, in the form of a wasp sting after a dog noses around a nest. Sometimes being sprayed by a skunk after a dog attempts to prey on one is a punishment, though some dogs seem to get sprayed by skunks repeatedly, meaning the punishment isn’t working very well.  That’s one problem with using punishment:  the definition is “something given after a behavior that diminishes (hopefully eliminates) that behavior in the future.”  Often, people apply something they think is a punisher for a behavior and find that behavior still occurs, but now their dog is afraid of them, or afraid of the room where they did whatever they did, and now they have to focus their training on building the dog’s confidence and helping him get over his fear.  The good news is that management of the dog, prevention of behaviors you don’t want, and reinforcement of behaviors you like is better for training than using punishment is, even for high level behaviors like service dog work, operative and working dogs, performance training, and more.

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

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