Today in Companion Dog Psychology, an article was released that claimed to unveil the latest in cutting-edge, modern, scientific, evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral training ever developed in the universe. The piece opens with:
"The one thing every dog owner should know about how to train a dog."
And was titled: The Ultimate Training Tip.
That is rather alluring. What is it?
Ladies and gentlemen, behold, the ultimate training tip: give 'em a biscuit.
Yes, that is the grand revelation; a training regimen known by humans for tens of thousands of years -- that many dogs will do stuff for food. And that food can be used to teach (some) dogs to accomplish mechanical tasks. Awesome.
The article goes on to shame anyone who does not strictly adhere to this "all positive" zealotry as "dominance trainers." A classic false dilemma fallacy and a gross exaggeration of reality.
So, what is the problem with the "all positive" training fad? After-all, many dogs do enjoy food rewards.
One problem is the ideology stands in contradiction to itself. The 'never punish' theory holds that operant theory is king. This is the belief that dogs "operate" much like machines and must, therefore, be conditioned into operating differently using food as a motivator.
This theory holds that all of a dog's behaviors are the result of various mental associations. And that any and all emotional disorders can, therefore, be rehabilitated using counter conditioning protocols via food. If canine rehabilitation were that easy, no one would need professionals such as myself.
Outside of this mechanistic world-view of dog behavior, any mention of creativity and complexity in canine cognition are to be avoided altogether.
Herein lies the next mistake. Cognitive behavior in dogs is far more complex than simple associations. Operant theory only describes a small part of a dog's overall cognitive reasoning abilities. To say their behavior is only the result of their training is to argue that dogs are machines. This culture has given rise to the most popular word in the industry, training.
Operant theory does not describe this dog parent's concern for the well-being of this puppy.
True modern cognitive theory holds that dogs are creative, intellectual creatures with the ability to reason and use highly advanced manipulation strategies to shape human behavior. Yes, they train us too. They are capable of open-ended problem solving, innovation, and the use of tools. I have even witnessed dogs engage as therapists for other dogs to help resolve their social disorders. Further, dogs are known to be capable of empathy, love, and a wide range of other emotions. They can also extrapolate intentions of others via the context of situations.
These minor details blow the roof off the overly-simplistic and outmoded realm of operant conditioning theory. As such, dogs should be viewed as having many of the same mental capabilities as 3-year-old human children. When viewed in this manner, proper discipline can be seen as highly necessary. How else are we to address our dog's behavior when they are perfectly well-trained but make awful decisions on purpose; not because they didn't know right from wrong, but because they did not care.
Problems with the "all positive" approach are further compounded when it is revealed that 50% of operant theory dictates the use punishment. So, while exalting operant theory, "all-positive" parenting adherents deny the very foundations of operant theory itself. This is a contradiction of monumental proportions.
The author even goes as far as to omit critical details in the scientific studies. They fail to mention that researchers do not fully discount the use of positive punishment, only that it should be minimized. I know very few dog trainers who are unaware of this fact. It is widely understood that positive reinforcement is more motivating than positive punishment. However, this DOES NOT mean that positive punishment should be avoided altogether. Discipline (i.e punishment) is critical for dogs to learn impulse control and for the development of attentive focus skills.
At this point, it is necessary to insert a caveat, lest I be thrown into the other extremist camp. These facts do not mean it is acceptable, nor effective, to hit, yell, or force dogs into submission. No amount of intimidation will rehabilitate a dog's emotional disorder. In fact, it will likely make it worse.
In summary, critically question everything you read in regards to dog training. It is a minefield of contradiction, rhetoric, and misinformation. Many of the empirical research studies lack an appropriate lexicon for discussion, and the field of canine behavior is an ideological battleground where ideas are still competing for prevalence on social media. Tread carefully.
If you would like a resource that untangles the disparities and outlines a consistent, integrated cognitive theory, pick up a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior.
Explore the mind and intelligence of your dog with Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior. Learn to see dog behavior in a new way.
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Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached via www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com.