What Dog Training Really Taught Me

Mar 9, 2015 | Learning Theory, Training

Poster shows a dog stretching out, pulling a leash taut, in order to sniff a fire hydrant. Text says, "All problem behaviors are reinforced. Somewhere...somehow.

Image credit: Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs. Please see full credit and sharing info at the bottom of the post.

One of Many Examples

This reinforcement/punishment combo is very common and easy to fall into, because of ignorance about how learning works, but also because of the unwillingness of humans to change their own behavior even when they might know better. It becomes the norm in many dogs’ lives. Here is but one example.

It is a standard recommendation in traditional obedience training that when your dog pulls out of position and tightens the leash, you give a “correction” in the form of a quick jerk on the leash. This translated to the dog’s collar and from there to the neck. This is a movement that humans quickly get very good at. And even if the dog is wearing a flat nylon or leather collar (i.e., not a prong or choke collar), getting a correction has got to be at least jarring, and probably in many cases painful. The most extreme form could cause injury.

But many say this is necessary. We are told anything from “you need to be the boss” to “that’s the only way the dog will learn what not to do.”

OK, so that’s half of the story. Now forget about the corrections and the rhetoric for a moment and visualize this. You are walking along with your dog on leash.  The dog sees her best buddy and pulls you in that direction. Or you are walking along with your dog and there is evidently something just out of reach that smells wonderful, because your dog changes her course and goes over to smell it, tightening the leash momentarily on the way. Or you have just let your dog out of the car, on leash, and while you get your gear, she is walking the circumference that the leash allows, sniffing around and exploring, and tugging a little when there is something good just out of reach.

Now let’s think how positive reinforcement works. The dog does a behavior, receives something she really likes, and the behavior increases in the future. That means that in the case of each of those three examples, pulling on the leash (the behavior) probably got reinforced (access to the goodies). The dog pulled and got something she wanted. It’s as if she pulled on leash and you handed her a treat. She will likely pull again.

Keep in mind you are also probably having training sessions where you hand her a treat for the opposite behavior: staying by your side. And jerking on her for pulling. Again, the situation for the dog is that the same behavior gets reinforced sometimes and punished sometimes.

Dogs are good discriminators, so they can learn after a while which are the situations in which you are more likely to let them pull vs. when they will get the collar pop. This is one reason you will see plenty of dogs trained in competitive obedience who drag their owners to the training building (and again I will confess that I have been in this group).

But it’s just not fair. So many dogs live in this chaotic and ever-changing combination of punishment and reinforcement, yet we are encouraged to believe that the problems that arise are because we haven’t “taught them their place.”

Are We Just Robots, Then?

There are still a good many people who have a gut-level rejection of behaviorism, even when applied to animals. When presented with my epiphany, or particularly my vision of the “map of reinforcement,” some may have a negative response. It’s reductionist, they might say. It seems to represent our animals and ourselves as little machines, we don’t live in Skinner boxes, its too specific or not specific enough, it leaves out emotions, not everything fits in “quadrants,” ad infinitum.

For what it’s worth, everything I have learned in my very beginner-level studies of behavior analysis has showed me what amazing creatures our dogs are, what amazing creatures we are, and how varied and subtle the processes of learning can be. How do we interact with our environment? What effects do environmental stimuli have on us? It’s more like a wonderful, fractal dance than the cold, clinical image many people still have in their minds.

(Besides, it’s the new, sexy field of neuroscience that is presenting evidence that humans may not have free will, not the applied behaviorists!)

The tiny bit of the great field of behavior analysis that I have learned has taught me how to enhance my dogs’ happiness and fun in the world, and taught me to at least start to play fair.


Anybody feel like sharing a story about behaviors that you have (or have been tempted to) both reinforce and punish? Or any behaviors that continue even though you can’t figure out what the reinforcer is?

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Thank you Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs for the graphic. It is an Awesome Dogs Shareable! It may be shared following these guidelines.

Note: My text in the graphic strongly resembles a sentence in Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash, page 158: “If a certain behavior is occurring in the first place, it is, by definition, being reinforced somewhere, somehow….” This was not deliberate on my part. I love that book and it’s possible that that sentence sank into my psyche, or it could be a coincidence.  Anyway, a nod to Jean Donaldson for saying it first and best! 

To learn more about canine behavior, dog training and so much more, head to Tampa, Florida on November 11-13, 2015 for the Pet Professional Guild’s inaugural educational convention, the Force-Free Summit – Reaching for a Higher Standard.