white dog playing with a brown dog

How do we become “fluent in dog?”


By Kayla Miele, MPsy and Nancy Beaurpere

Evolutionary biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff (2023), in conjunction with the findings of Dr. Ian Dunbar’s research on the science and practice of positive dog training, states that ‘early socialization in domestic animals is crucial to minimize and diminish the natural fearfulness of people’.  After being domesticated for nearly 30,000 years, most dogs have retired their innate fear of people; however, as is evidenced by our own human children, a pup’s fear of the unknown will largely be determined by their distinct genetic makeup and then reinforced by their environment.  Some dogs will remain slightly anxious no matter how they are raised, but the great majority will overcome inherent trepidation through thoughtful exposure.  

Once an animal, like a dog, has been largely domesticated, and further socialized, she will then be able to learn from humans through a rewards based system also known as positive reinforcement training.  This may sound obvious but it’s actually quite amazing.  As we’ve come to realize through both scientific and anecdotal evidence just how sentient and smart man’s best friend truly is, we’ve adopted far more humane ways to train dogs than the punishment or dominance-based systems of yore.  However, only recently have we come to realize how nuanced positive rewards based training can be.   In the past, well intentioned trainers would use the same techniques and rewards schedule repeatedly when utilizing positive reinforcement tactics to train dogs.   Beckoff, however, has found that this approach decreases the value of the reward in general and the rewards system as a whole.  Rather than repeatedly rewarding a dog in the same way and manner, Beckoff suggests varying the number, manner and time frame in which a reward is given.  This is called a variable ratio reinforcement schedule” and, per Researcher Edward Thornedike’s experiment on cats from 1917, “it’s the most powerful way to take control of an animal’s behavior short of implanting electrodes into its brain…”This is because the one impulse of many accidental ones that leads to pleasure [or a reward], becomes strengthened through repetition [think of humans playing a slot machine here]; therefore animal learning is the wearing smooth of a path in the brain, not the decisions of a rational consciousness.” (Haidt, 2024).

If you put the above into human context, think about how a bonus system in many companies works.  If the rate at which employees receive a bonus is applied uniformly throughout a company, then there is little value to continually strive for optimal performance (I can think of some large government subsidized organizations that are organized in this manner and innovation and growth has not been their strong suit.)  However, if bonuses are given based on a meritocracy, if employees are rewarded based on growth and acheivement, then most folks – at least the ones I know – tend to be more motivated to achieve the best results that they can. 

It is in this way that a positive reinforcement rewards-based training method that incrementally challenges dogs by asking for additional behaviors  also means straying away from the traditional view of dominance theories as applied to dog training.  Positive rewards-based behavior modification that focuses on the dog should highlight companionship and camaraderie.  When we strengthen the bonds with our dogs, we strengthen their ability to learn from us.  (Greenebaum, 2010).

Another important aspect of dominance vs companionship, especially in puppies and adolescents, is the aspect of play. In the book, “The Anxious Generation” by Jonathan Haidt (2024), Peter Gray, Developmental Psychologist at Boston College and a leading play researcher says, “play requires suppression of the drive to dominate and enables the formation of long lasting cooperative bonds… Play is the work of childhood. Young mammals want and need to play and will come out socially, emotionally and cognitively impaired when deprived of play. They use the skills they need to be successful as adults through repetitive activities, with feedback in a low stakes environment.” Gray goes on to say that, “True play is an activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants, and undertaken for its own sake; i.e. not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are separate from the activity itself.”  All dogs, but young dogs in particular, need to play with their conspecifics (other dogs) as well as humans.  In addition to just being fun, play teaches dogs how to interact appropriately with one another, and it strengthens the bonds they have with us, which, ultimately, will make it easier for us to train them!

In order to understand dogs and their behaviors, we have to first understand our own. As we care for, play, and work with our dogs, let’s keep in mind that our psychology and theirs are uniquely connected, and the more we can take the time to understand the way they learn in, the more we will see the behaviors we desire.

Sources: 

Bekoff , M. (2023, December). The biopsychology and practice of positive dog training. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202312/the-biopsychology-and-practice-of-positive-dog-training 

Greenebaum, J. B. (2010). Training Dogs and Training Humans: Symbolic Interaction and Dog Training, 23(2), 129–141. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303710×12682332909936

Haidt, J (2024). The Anxious GenerationThe Anxious Generation Out Now. Order the Book.

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