Dogs, Pavlov, and Skinner

What are we, as dog owners and trainers, to make of the mechanistic learning science doctrines of Pavlov, Skinner, and others? The troublesome outcome of their work in animal and human experiments is that their concepts were sterile and inadequate, and forced to explain all behavior as combinations and sequences of exact, independent, reflexive actions. 

Such thinking blinded, and still affects, many scientific fields regarding animal psychology, physiology, and trait inheritances. It also still hampers how we think of, and train, dogs.

Pavlov and Skinner were not experts regarding dog behavior, and their goal was not to understand dog behavior. Animals were housed in highly controlled environments and not allowed to display any normal responses to the stimuli presented, and many of the responses were purposely ignored. They looked for what they wanted and saw what they wanted to see.

To these experimenters, living organisms are biological machines. As a result, Pavlov couldn’t figure out why his subjects went catatonic during repeated experiments. Regarding Skinner, it is hard to read his writing because he, too, was so locked into his views of learning. Both saw feelings as frivolous byproducts which were irrelevant to the results. These researchers condemned the study of ideas, emotions, and drives. Current brain research has proven there is more to actions and behaviors than classical and instrumental conditioning.

Beyond simple reflexes, such as blinking if a puff of air is directed at an eyeball, we now know that internally and externally stimulated emotional states increase the likelihood an animal displays related predictable sets of behavioral responses that have potential survival benefits. The mechanistic experiments had it all backwards.

Thus, when I read “the science”, I must work these things out in reverse. The old studies were wrong in many ways, and their interpretations must be considered suspect. That means a lot of what you read regarding the use of clickers or electric collars is ultimately wrong. I have in my files an old newsletter claiming you can train an animal to do anything you wish with a clicker. I have a similar document which implies the same regarding the use of electric collars. The old idea that animal (and human) brains are tabula rasa was wrong. Dogs, and dog breeds, are not just a social construct. Biology matters. 

Instead, learn a lot about biologically significant dog behavior, and its limitations, before attempting to force a dog to do something according to these theories and methods. Pay attention to how the dog is feeling since those feelings will box in what kinds of responses you can get and train while those animals are in those emotional states. Don’t force a dog to do something it can’t do, otherwise you might end up with an emotionally damaged pet.

Intro Video