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The Role of Behaviorism in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.


The Role of Behaviorism in Dog Training

How was behaviorism born and how did it affect dog training? In order to understand the dynamics better, we must take a look back. In the early 1900's there was a great interest in studying memory, the spiritual aspects of psychology, and Sigmund Freud greatly contributed with his studies on the conscious and unconscious. These new changes weren't quite welcomed by a group of people who called themselves "behaviorists," who were hoping for changes to make psychology something that could be studied in a more scientific manner through experiments, and quantitative data. In behaviorism, behavior is believed to be an issue of stimulus-response mechanisms. Basically, from a behaviorism perspective, all behaviors are the result of conditioning through interactions with the environment without worrying about internal states of mind such as emotions or moods, which are often too subjective. So behaviorists, instead of asking what people were feeling and inquiring about their internal thoughts, were looking at what exactly was happening in their environment. Sound confusing? Let's look at an example.

In the case of a dog who growls at a person who looms over him to pet his head, behaviorism would not care much about the dog's emotions of possible fear, but would mostly focus instead on the cause and effect. What caused the dog to growl? Behaviorism would strictly look at the event. The dog growled because a person was looming over him and patting his head. So basically, we are only looking at the external, observable behaviors of cause and effect without wasting time on investigating the internal turmoil or emotions such as possible fear. Behaviorists would therefore mostly focus on what led up to that situation, the observable behavior, not the unobservable events that took place in their minds. They would focus on controlled observation, quantitative data that can be scientifically measured. Sure, the dog's emotions could matter, but how can one be sure of the exact emotions that were being felt?

Some behaviorists were more extreme and more radical than others. For instance, from Watson's perspective, emotions were meaningless. He believed the purpose of psychology is "to predict, given the stimulus, what reaction will take place; or, given the reaction, state what the situation or stimulus is that has caused the reaction.” Several psychologists and neo-behaviorists were quite influential in the development of behaviorism, and these included Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. Let's take a closer look to the beliefs of these professionals and their contributions.

"Learn the ABC of science before you try to ascend to its summit."

— Ivan Petrovich Pavlov

One of Pavlov's Dogs

Pavlov's dog. Notice the saliva catch container.

Pavlov's dog. Notice the saliva catch container.

Pavlov's Work

Pavlov's Drooling Dogs

The first theories of modern behavior began with Russian physiologist Pavlov (1849-1936). He is known as "the father of classical conditioning" since he accidentally discovered classical conditioning when he was studying the digestive process of dogs by watching them drool at the sight of food. As he conducted the studies, he incidentally stumbled on an unexpected phenomenon: the dogs he was studying started drooling at the simple sight of the lab assistants or the mere sound of the door being opened! Intrigued, Pavlov further tested this phenomenon by ringing a bell right before feeding the dogs. After some time, the simple sound of the bell was able to make the dogs drool even when no food was in sight. This phenomenon of associative learning was called "classical conditioning" but can sometimes be also called "Pavlovian conditioning" or "respondent conditioning." Another interesting discovery involved "extinction." Pavlov noticed that if he rang the bell several times without presenting the food, the drooling eventually stopped. (See video.)

What it means in dog training/behavior modification: Pavlov's theories helped us understand why dogs may react certain ways when they are exposed to certain stimuli. Through associative learning, dogs are able to pair something with another; in other words "this leads to that" and their responses involve reflexive actions of the glands and muscles. Examples of reflexes are salivation, blinking, startling, tensing the muscles, increased heart rate, increased respiration. With this knowledge in mind, we can use classical conditioning to create new positive associations that can override the negative ones and successfully treat anxiety, fears and phobias in dogs.

Law of effect- if an association is followed by a "satisfying state of affairs" it will be strengthened and if it is followed by an "annoying state of affairs " it will be weakened.

— Edward Lee Thorndike

Thorndike's Experiment

Thorndike's Cat Puzzle Boxes

While Pavlov studied reflexive responses in Russia, American researcher Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) originated "instrumental learning" where he studied how the consequences of trial and error had an effect on behaviors. He studied cats by placing them in puzzle boxes where they had to figure out how to get out. Eventually, they stumbled on something that made them get out. After studying these cats for some time, Thorndike came up with several laws that explained behaviors.

His most famous law was the "law of effect," which stated that behaviors that are reinforced increase, and behaviors that are punished decrease. The law was crafted after one study which involved placing hungry cats inside of a box that had a barrier and a dish of food waiting on the other side. Soon, he noticed how it took less time to for cats to remove the barrier as the food was acting as a strong incentive.

What this means in dog training and behavior modification: Thorndike's laws were helpful in understanding the importance of using rewards to make dogs learn faster. His studies provided the foundation for the treat training and use of rewards many dog trainers use today.

Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics.... The position is taken here that the behavior of man and the behavior of animals must be considered in the same plane.

— John B. Watson

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The Little Albert Experiment

Watson's Little Albert Study

It was John. B Watson (1878-1958) who founded the behaviorism school of psychology and is therefore often referred to as the poster child for behaviorism or even the "father of behaviorism." Watson's belief was that behaviors can be measured, trained, and changed and that any person regardless of background or internal thoughts could be trained to act in a certain manner if given the right conditioning. He thought the environment played such a big role in how one acted that by controlling the environment, one can also cause another person to become anything he or she wanted them to become.

Watson believed this so much that he stated: "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." His theory as you can see was quite manipulative, considering he had such power to make a person anything he wanted.

His most famous study involved Little Albert. In this study he selected an 8-month-old baby who showed little fear and he decided to involve him in his experiment. He first started by showing the baby various stimuli such as a rat, a rabbit, masks, etc. and assessed how Albert reacted to them. The baby showed no fear towards them. This proved to Watson, and his assistant Rosalie Rayner, that Albert had no fear towards those stimuli. They soon started exposing Albert to a white rat. Right when the baby would interact with it, Watson would make a loud sound behind the baby's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer. This loud sound would make Little Albert cry. After several repetitions of interacting with the rat and hearing the loud sound, Baby Albert soon starting associating the rat with the loud noise. Soon, only looking at the rat made him cry and be in distress. Not only, the fear also generalized to any furry animal.

What this means in dog training and behavior modification: Watson's studies, even though unethical, help dog trainers grasp the dynamics in the making of a fearful dog through classical conditioning. In this case, it involves negative associations and the startling reflex. Watson's studies also showed how easy is was for a dog to generalize his fear to other things. Many good reasons to understand the impact fear can have on dogs and why it's important to avoid harsh methods based on aversion.

The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.

— B. F. Skinner

Did You Know?

Classical conditioning encompasses the reactions of the smooth muscles and glands that trigger involuntary physiological, reflexive reactions such as drooling, startling, shaking, increased heart or respiratory rates. Operant behavior instead encompasses the striated muscular system, which consists of muscles under voluntary control, that trigger behaviors such as, walking, sitting and problem-solving.

Skinner's Experiments

Skinner's Boxes

Skinner (1904-1990) was influenced by Pavlov and Watson, and he expanded on their studies and discovered how he could systematically change behavior. He created Skinner boxes, where he watched mice solve puzzles and noticed how their behavior could be changed by the application of consequences. He coined the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment and for this reason he's often referred to as "the father of operant conditioning." In operant conditioning, behaviors, that is, voluntary movements, rather than involuntary physiological reflexes are involved. Animals learn to behave in certain ways to gain rewards and avoid punishment.

What it means in dog training and behavior modification: Skinner's studies brought a whole lot to the table. Reinforcement, extinction, punishment, stimulus control. It's through operant conditioning that dogs are taught new skills. When a trainer provides a treat to reward a dog for sitting, he or she is manipulating antecedents and consequences to make behavior happen. What started as a science, became both a science and a technology to change dog behavior. Skinner's studies not only had an impact in the field of training animals but also in education, business and rehabilitation.

A Brief History of Behaviorism

  • In 1897, Pavlov published his findings on classical conditioning after studying digestion in dogs.
  • In 1905, Thorndike developed his "law of effect."
  • In 1913, Watson launched the behavioral school of psychology based on classical conditioning; in 1920 he conducted the Little Albert experiments.
  • In 1936, Skinner wrote "The Behavior of Organisms" and introduced operant conditioning.

Behaviorism: Subject of Controversy

While behaviorism had many followers in the past and continues to have many followers at present time, there are several critics who disagree with behaviorism. Here's a few insights as to why:

  • Behaviorism only looks at observable behaviors and doesn't take into account the influences of mood, thoughts, memories and feelings. The brain only responds to external stimuli with no soul or mind.
  • Behaviorism believes all behavior is predictable and controlled and doesn't take in account other types of learning that doesn't comprise reinforcement or punishment.
  • Behaviorism believes that animals learn in a uniform, uni-dimensional way.
  • Behaviorisms claims that people are born as a blank state (tabula rasa).

While behaviorism was very popular through the 1930s and '40s, around the 1970s and '80s the "cognitive revolution" started taking over. The role of memory, thinking, and problem-solving were taken into account. However, nowadays many dog trainers still use basic behavioral principles for the purpose of training new behaviors and discouraging unwanted ones. Operant and classical conditioning remain well-established scientific models. This is not a dead science. While behaviorism may be frowned upon by those who see it as as merely stimulus-response mechanism, one cannot ignore the impact behaviorism has had on our learning of human and animal behavior.


How Dogs Learn, Mary R. Burch, John S. Bailey

The Dog Trainer's Resource The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection, Mychelle E. Blake, Editor

Simply Psychology, Behaviorist Approach

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Mary Craig from New York on August 17, 2015:

A thorough and interesting history. Some names I knew and some I didn't. It's funny how man uses his mind to influence others or to figure out what influences others.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Kevin Goodwin on August 14, 2015:

Behavior is the classic learning process of if I do this then this will happen.

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