How and What Dogs Think Part 2

Once we gain a general understanding of how dog’s think, it would be a good idea to use this knowledge to train the dog.  Traditional training, as we know it today, is deeply rooted in Pavlov’s theories of classical conditioning.  Pavlov was studying the digestive system of the dog in the early 1900’s.  He had a system of feeding the dogs and before their meal, he would ring a bell to signal feeding time.  He began to notice when he rang the bell, the dogs would salivate, whether he presented the food or not.  He correctly concluded that the stimulation of the dog’s salivation was the anticipation of the food, not necessarily the food itself.  Salvation was the conditioned response to the bell.  At the time, this was a novel approach to the condition response continuum.  Over the following decades, the use of classical conditioning was applied to dog training. Methods of training were formulated to train dogs based on the conditioning of the dog through use of a command followed by a leash or collar “correction” which was administered to compel or punish the dog to do the commanded behavior.  Pavlov’s theory was adapted to administer compelling jerks, pushes or “corrections” each time the command was given and/or not followed.  Eventually choke, spiked and today electric collars were and are used to correct the dog to compel behaviors or to punish unwanted ones. It is believed, and true to a certain extent, that if you continue to punish, eventually, you can lift the punishment and you will get the behavior without it.  Traditional training through punishment still thrives today as popularized by the so-called dog whisperer, Cesar Milan. Luckily there is an alternative to the shocks, hits, pulls, chokes, yells, shakes cans and all the other forms of punishment used by traditional trainers.

B. F. Skinner to the rescue.  He was a disciple of Pavlov and developed his theories in the 1930’s but took a slightly different tact.  He conditioned animals but did it with his theory of operant conditioning,  Operant conditioning was based on rewards instead of the developed punishments which followed Pavlov’s work.  Skinner experimented with the dependable lab rat and a maze.  He found that once a rat figured it’s way through a maze one time to the rewarding treat, it would learn the behavior (a path to a treat) and easily get to the reward every time. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is simply learning behaviors through rewards. Skinners theories were new and diametrically opposed to traditional training.  Therefore, operant conditioning was not widely applied to dogs until the 1980’s when a behaviorist and sea mammal trainer by the name of Karen Pryor, brought clicker training to dogs. It is worth noting that the use of positive reward based training is still not the most popular way to train dogs, but it is a more humane and loving way.

The next important and most intriguing development in understanding dog’s thinking is the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  A fMRI is an MRI used on the brain wherein we can see actual brain function through this imaging of the brain.  It was first used on dog’s brains by Dr. Gregory Berns only 6 or 7 years ago.  We have been observing live human brain function by fMRIs for just over 25 years. Dr. Berns, a neuroscientist turned to animal neuroscience in 2011 and has since pioneered and popularized the study of the fMRIs as it relates to the reward center of the dog. By concentrating the fMRI in the dog’s reward center (caudate nucleus) we see how the dog reacts and learns behavior through cognition in its reward center.  It is through his work that we can trace the effect of rewards and the anticipation of rewards.  His work gives us a vivid and qualitative analysis of how dogs learn and how they will work for rewards.  Berns covers a myriad of other topics concerning dog cognition in his two books, “How Dogs Love Us” and  “What It’s Like To Be A Dog”.

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