Surprising to many, there is much scientific study dedicated to canine, development, behavior and how puppies and adult dogs learn. Much study is done here in the USA, and around the world, focusing on how dogs learn, how they develop behavior concerns, and more importantly, how best to resolve these behavior concerns.
I am a behavior and training geek, and the study of this science has fascinated me my whole life long. I love sharing this knowledge with my clients as it helps them develop a better understanding of their dog’s behavior, and how to best guide it (train) in a manner that builds ability, trust and confidence.
Behavior can be respondent or operant, which basically corresponds to involuntary /innate behavior vs. voluntary/learned behavior. We will come back to respondent, or innate, behavior in a future article. First, as we are discussing learning and training, I would like to look at operant learning. How behaviors are learned, maintained, or eliminated.
Just as there are natural, unchanging and unbreakable “laws” that govern our physical world (physics), there are also natural, unchanging and unbreakable “laws” that govern how we (and other animals) learn. Those who are empowered with the knowledge of, and the ability to apply these laws within their training programs are not only capable of quickly and accurately teaching and shaping of behavior, but also emotions, as well as an eager engagement from their canine companion.
Learning can be defined as the change in behavior do to the consequences of experiences. Edward L. Thorndike, an American researcher, explains this in the “Law of Effects”, as any behavior followed by a gainful or pleasing response will likely be repeated in the future. Any behavior followed by a neutral or aversive response will likely not be repeated. In other words, any continued behavior must have a gain to the individual or it would not be repeatedly displayed. This is a very important reality to acknowledge. No animal, including humans, waists energy on behaviors that do not benefit it in some way. This does not mean that it has to be the million dollar payoff, but the behavior must aid the individual in some way or it would not be present. That’s the law.
The scientific field of Applied Animal Behavior Analysis focuses on the cause and effect of how behaviors are learned, maintained or eliminated. Applied Animal Behavior Analysis looks at behavior from a simple, but not always easy, formula. I use this formula when meeting with clients to assess behavior concerns my clients wish to address, or to plan a training program to build behaviors my clients wish their dogs to learn, such as sit calmly as they answer the door for guests to come in.
This formula is the most simplistic way to look at behavior.
A + B + C (= P)
A Stands for Antecedent. These are the events, action, or circumstances that occur before a behavior.
(Antecedents can be either immediate or distant. We will address this more in a future article.)
B Stands for Behavior- The behavior that the dog exhibits.
C Stands for Consequences- The action or response that follows the behavior.
(=P) Stands for Predictable Future Behavior.
Let’s look at an example of this formula in a real life situation.
A – You are talking on the phone.
B – Your dog barks at you.
C – You interrupt your conversation to yell at your dog to stop.
(=P) It can be predicted that since your dog gained the attention he/she was seeking, he/she will continue to bark at you as you are talking on the phone in the future.
Let’s look at this from another angle.
Whenever you are on the phone your dog barks at you for attention. You yell at your dog to stop. You give him/her a bone to chew to try to calm him/her. But each time you talk on the phone your dog continues to bark at you.
A – You are talking on the phone.
B – Your dog barks at you.
C – Your dog gained the attention he/she was seeking, and/or a chew treat.
It must be acknowledged that as your dog continues to bark at you when on the phone that yelling and the giving of a chew are actually reinforcing your dogs barking behavior. (=P) It can be predicted that since your dog gained the attention he/she was seeking, and/or a chew treat, he/she will continue to bark at you as you are talking on the phone in the future.
Let’s look at another example.
You are playing fetch with your dog. Your dog brings the toy back and drops it in your hand. You throw the toy again.
A – Your extended hand.
B – Your dog drops the toy in your hand
C – You throw the toy again.
As your dog willingly drops the toy in your hand it must be acknowledged that you throwing the toy is a reinforcement for dropping the toy. (=P) It can be predicted that your dog will continue to drop the ball in the future when playing fetch.
Let’s take a look at this scenario from a different perspective.
A – You throw the toy for your dog to fetch. Your dog runs after the toy and picks it up. Your dog runs back to you and then runs by, teasing you to chase him/her. You grab at the toy and engage in a bit of tug before your dog lets the toy go. You throw the toy again.
A – Your dog runs about teasing you with the toy.
B – You grab at the toy and engage in a tug o war to get it back.
C – Your dog tugs back then releases the toy.
As your dog runs about and teases you with the toy it must be acknowledged that you grabbing at and tugging for the position of the toy is reinforcing your dog’s running by and tugging behavior. (=P) It can be predicted that your dog will continue to tease you with the toy and tug as you grab it.
Any behavior, no matter how concerning or insignificant can be evaluated using the A+B+C (=P) formula. This formula is always at the forefront of my mind when evaluating a dog (or other animals) behavior.
As we can see by this formula behavior is a function of its consequences. It truly is consequences that drive behavior. Consequences are not good or bad, they are simply a function of the results they support within the individual receiving them. We will discuss consequences more in the next article.