Ah, the age old question “Which has more influence over our behavior? Nature or nurture?” And, of course the answer has gone back and forth like a ping pong ball for decades. Fortunately, today there are enough good courses for dog trainers which address this question so that we don’t have to continue to debate the issue. The real answer is that the two are inseparable.
What it really boils down to is, you can’t do something if you are not genetically capable of doing it – i.e., pigs can’t fly – and you won’t do something you’re genetically capable of doing unless there’s an environmental stimulus – i.e., blink your eyes. Of course there are various bodily functions such as heart beats, that don’t need a stimulus in the way we think of them, and there are others, such as pupil dilation, that do need an environmental stimulus. But for most behavior – particularly the behavior professional dog trainers deal with – we need some kind of a stimulus and that stimulus usually comes from the environment.
In developing effective courses for dog trainers, an important question needs to be answered. How do nature and nurture affect us as professionals, particularly when using positive dog training techniques where you don’t just force the dog to do what you want? This is a very important concept for those just learning to become a professional dog trainer, as well as those who have been at it for a while. So let’s explore the question in more depth.
(I want to preface this section by saying that there is a lot of new understanding about genetics and heritability which may refute some of what I’m about to say. I am not a geneticist, so my knowledge is pretty basic.)
The ability to learn is genetic. But what we learn is not heritable. So we can be born with an ability to learn certain things, and every species is more susceptible to learning certain types of things. For instance, a horse is more likely to learn to be afraid of a snake than of a boulder – because a snake is more dangerous to the horse. A grizzly bear is likely to take to the water and learn to fish more easily than a camel – because a good portion of a grizzly’s diet is fish, and none of a camel’s diet is fish (not to mention there’s not a whole lot of water in camel territory).
So, as animal trainers, we need to take into account what the animal is designed to do – and this is a function of nature. Dogs, in particular, have been bred for certain traits which do affect their behavior. For instance, Corgis tend to nip at people’s heels, herd children, and bark, because this is what they were bred to do. Corgis were bred to herd cattle and sheep by nipping at their legs. Their barking probably helped herd the animals and also alerted shepherds to potential problems.
Not all breeds act like Corgis – for instance, most terriers love to dig, grab, and shake. For the most part, terriers were used to keep the vermin population down. Many vermin live in the earth, so terriers became diggers – in fact, the word “terrier” derives from the Greek work “terra” which means earth. Also, their job was to catch and kill said vermin, so they love to grab and shake.
And even other herding dogs don’t act exactly like Corgis. Although there will be some overlap in behavioral motor patterns between all herding dogs, such as controlling others’ movement, each breed has a specialty, almost always based on the terrain in which they work. For instance, Border Collies are famous for their “eye,” which helps to control the sheep they are herding.
These examples illustrate the great behavioral differences between dogs, brought about by selective breeding. Although most other animals are not as selectively bred as dogs, there are some domestic animals that are – such as horses. If you’re a horse person, you’ll be aware of behavioral differences between horse breeds.
But even with all this genetic influence, nurture still plays a big role in behavior. Corgi’s need something to bark at – even if it’s just a leaf falling from a tree. And terriers need something to grab and shake – which is why they love squeaky toys!
We can certainly teach Corgis not to bark, and terriers not to shake. The question is, should we? These are natural behaviors that need an outlet and these behaviors can be quite problematic for dogs living with humans. In fact, if there is no outlet for these behaviors, you may see behavioral problems develop in other areas, such as obsessive compulsive disorders.
With the advent of positive dog training methods and the many courses for dog trainers now available, we’re learning how to provide our dogs with an outlet for these normal behaviors without disrupting our human households. There are toys and activities to address almost every natural need of our domesticated dogs.
So, to put it all in a nutshell, nature is what allows a species to survive. A species adapts to their environment through natural selection and/or mutation. These adaptations should help them find a niche within their environment that hasn’t yet been filled by another species, or is plentiful enough that it can be shared. If the adaptation benefits the species, those individuals who have adapted the best will live to produce offspring with that beneficial adaptation, and those who have not adapted will either die off or find a different niche to adapt to. In other words, natural selection.
Nurture, on the other hand, is how an individual survives. Nurture is the environment we live in, and we all have to learn to survive within our environment. This type of learning is not passed on to our offspring through genetics; however, assuming the parents survive, they can then pass this knowledge on to their offspring through teaching. We’ve all seen animals teaching their young – any species that stays with their young for any length of time will help the offspring to survive, thus giving them the ability to procreate and pass their knowledge to their offspring. And so on.
For those animals who do not stay with their parents once born, it’s probably a bit of a crap shoot, but the ones with the best genetics for the environment – which includes the ability to learn – will survive.
For on-demand courses for dog trainers on this topic, go to the following links: Understanding Learning Theory or Motor Patterns, Drives, Instincts, & Fixed Action Patterns: Important considerations when choosing and training a dog
Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, (www.raisingcanine.com), which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year.Posted by Susan Smith on May 7, 2019
As positive dog training experts, when we get called in to help owners with their dogs, it’s almost always to get rid of behavior that has already been happening and is now a big enough problem they’ve decided to call for help. This can include anything from jumping up to aggression. Of course, the problem with behaviors that have been happening for a while is that they’ve got a solid history of reinforcement behind them, making them much harder to deal with.
Many trainers recommend extinction for annoying behaviors that require reinforcement from the owners, such as jumping up and barking. But just how effective is extinction? Theoretically, it works great. Simply withhold the reinforcement that has previously maintained the behavior. Simple, right?
Not so much, in practice. Owners have to be “on guard” at all times to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behavior. If they accidentally reinforce the behavior, it’ll come back stronger than ever, which often makes them think the behavior is getting worse. It’s very hard to ignore an annoying behavior—and I speak from experience!
I once tried to extinguish my dog’s scratching-at-the-door-to-be-let-in behavior. What a disaster. I’d do really well for a while, then something would happen—I’d be on the phone, talking to someone, doing something—and I’d end up letting him in. And most importantly, I totally understood the science behind extinction—I knew about extinction bursts, spontaneous recovery, resurgence, the importance of consistency, and on, and on, and on. I knew what I needed to know and I still couldn’t do it.
That experience made me start thinking about owners trying to extinguish behavior. If it was that hard for me, how hard must it be for an owner who doesn’t have the depth of knowledge I have, or even just the normal desire to modify behavior that most positive dog training experts have? Probably close to impossible for them. So, that was my turning point in moving from using extinction to straight differential reinforcement with great timing.
Now, having said all that, it’s still very important for trainers to understand extinction because extinction affects behavior in more subtle ways – such as when we raise criteria. So, extinction isn’t all bad – just not a great way for owners to modify behavior.Posted by Susan Smith on March 11, 2019
A functional assessment is a positive reinforcement dog training method for systematically assessing behavior when trying to determine what is setting up the environment to make it easy for the behavior to happen and what is maintaining the behavior. Once we have those two pieces of the puzzle, it makes our job much easier.
It’s important to always remember that behavior has function. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what that function is, but it’s there and we need to suss it out. There are functional relationships between an antecedent and a behavior, and between a behavior and its consequence. Bringing it down to its simplest form, a functional assessment is designed to determine those functional relationships and get to the heart of positive reinforcement dog training.
Too often we assume we know what’s going on – and probably the majority of the time, we’re right. When a client calls me and says his seven-month-old Belgian Malinois is out of control and never settles down, I have pretty good idea of what’s going on. Lack of training, lack of parameters, lack of consistency.
When someone calls and tells me their eight-month-old English Springer Spaniel is eliminating in the house when the owners are not home, my first assumption will be that the dog is not properly house trained, yet. And this is a reasonable assumption because of the age of the dog. But, what if it’s actually separation anxiety? That’s also very possible.
Let’s go back just a bit and talk about the principle of parsimony. In psychology, the principle of parsimony states that when there are two or more possible explanations using and accounting for the same set of facts, we should first test the simplest, briefest explanation before moving on to a more complex explanation. (You may have heard of this concept under the name Occam’s Razor.)
In addition to the principle of parsimony, those of us belonging to a professional organization will usually have some kind of guide for behavioral intervention and dog training techniques. For the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDTO, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), we have the LIMA principle – “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” At the very top of this hierarchy of interventions is physical and mental well-being.
So, utilizing the LIMA hierarchy and the principle of parsimony, the proper path of intervention would be:
Now, basic house training and separation anxiety checks can be done at the same time. There’s no logical reason to go through an extended period of time working on house training if, in fact, the problem is separation anxiety. However, we should never jump straight to separation anxiety without first or coincidentally working on the housetraining issues.
Back to the functional assessment. Again, most of us are doing a mini-FA in our heads as the client is explaining the problem. And, it’s absolutely true that once you’ve been in the business for a while, you’ll have seen the same problems over and over. And that’s fine – we just don’t want to become so sure our hypothesis is correct, that we overlook important information.
When applying positive reinforcement dog training techniques, if the owner is compliant and works on the problem as agreed, execution is good (meaning they understand how to do the training), and the hypothesis is correct, you should see behavioral change in a fairly short period of time – three-to-five days in most situations. This does not mean the problem is resolved, but that you are seeing progress. House training may take a little longer, but if the criteria is raised systematically and everything is in place, that should also happen pretty quickly.
If you are not seeing progress and you are comfortable that the client is doing their tasks properly, then it might be time to do a functional assessment. It’s possible something is going on that you are unaware – and the owner may be unaware of. Here are two examples of situations where something happened to the dog that the owners were not aware that had a great influence on the dog’s behavior.
Example 1 – A dog that had previously had no issues at all suddenly refused to go out into the yard. To the owner’s knowledge, nothing had changed. A trainer was called in and a program of systematic desensitization was implemented. It worked, and everything was fine. Weeks later, the owner found out from a neighbor that the dog had been harassed with a BB gun.
Example 2 – Again, a dog that had no previous problems began having severe panic attacks. All of a sudden he would jump into the owners lap (and this was a big dog!) and begin shivering so hard his teeth rattled. A trainer was called in and the first thought was that perhaps the dog was having seizures. He was about six-to-eight months old and this was a typical age for the onset of some types of seizures. It’s difficult to rule out seizures, because there are so many different things that could be happening. However, the owner was able to get the dog into the vet’s office within an hour of the onset of the attack and the vet was able to do a blood draw and rule out certain things.
Since no one knew what was causing the panic attacks, it was difficult to implement a systematic desensitization program, because they didn’t know what to desensitize the dog to. The only thing that had changed was they had very recently moved into a new house (within weeks of the onset of the attacks). Of course, this was a huge red flag, but it was still difficult to pinpoint exactly what the antecedent was for the attacks.
Eventually, the owners remembered that they had left the dog alone one day while they ran errands. They had just have Venetian blinds installed, had left the windows open, and it was a windy day. The dog had never been around Venetian blinds before and here he is in a brand new environment, alone, and the wind starts rattling the blinds. Taking that information, the owners started paying more attention, and sure enough, it was the wind. The dog was fine outdoors, but in the house, if the wind was blowing he was a nervous wreck. With that information, They were able to institute a systematic desensitization program.
So, these examples show that sometimes it’s very difficult to know what do address. In example #1, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know about the BB gun – they were able to systematically desensitize the dog to the yard without that knowledge. But in example #2, it was more difficult because they didn’t know what the problem was. They could have done straight counter-conditioning, but that’s a much tougher prospect.
In both of these cases, it was a more in-depth analysis of the events surrounding the behavior that led to the solution. And that in-depth analysis is a functional assessment of the effectiveness of any positive reinforcement dog training technique.
For more information on this course, go to A Simple Functional Assessment. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link: https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.Posted by Susan Smith on February 13, 2019
What exactly is learning theory and why does someone who wants to learn dog training techniques care? Most people start out loving dogs, perhaps taking a basic obedience class, or dabbling in dog sports. Often they have a dog that has serious behavioral problems and through working with a professional dog trainer, they develop an interest in behavior and training. Sometimes people have been training their own dogs forever and their friends start asking them for advice. But almost always, when you get down to the nitty gritty, they think it’s fun and easy. Well, sometimes it’s fun, more often it’s hard work, and it’s never easy.
The traditional way to become a dog trainer is through mentoring under a professional and watching lots and lots of dog training videos. You can certainly become an adequate dog trainer, and learn important dog training techniques, through this method; and, the better your mentor, the better you’ll be. But you’re also limited by your mentor’s limitations. Apprentice trainers also spend an inordinate amount of time doing non-training work such as cleaning kennels, feeding and grooming.
But, through understanding learning theory combined with working under a knowledgeable mentor, you’ll have the best toolbox possible. You’ll understand the basics of how animals learn and how evolution, genetics, and survival have a huge influence on behavior. You’ll be able to move away from simple rote dog training techniques and actually analyze a situation and be able to figure out why the animal isn’t learning what you’re trying to teach.
When you understand the phases of learning a new behavior and the things that need to be in place for a new behavior to be learned, not to mention the most efficient way to train (which most trainers don’t know), you have less frustration, you satisfy your client’s needs more efficiently (saving them frustration and money), and you develop good word-of-mouth.
Learning and behavior is an established area of study that has been around for a very long time. It’s called psychology. We’ve been studying and practicing human psychology for decades – actually, longer than that as clinical depression was mentioned on a 1550 BCE ancient Egyptian manuscript known as the Ebers Papyruss. In the mid-1800s, psychology became its own field of study, separate from psychiatry, and by the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists were figuring how to actually measure behavior.
Around the turn of the century, Ivan Pavlov published his findings on what we now call classical conditioning, and B.F. Skinner followed that up with his work in operant conditioning in the mid-1900s. Skinner also made the concepts he studied part of popular culture. He made appearances on popular television shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and Firing Line, as well as documentaries for television. In the 1960s and 1970s, experimental parenting techniques were in full force and much of what had been discovered in psychology was now being practiced in the schoolroom.
These two concepts, classical and operant conditioning – particularly operant conditioning – are what the new school of animal trainers are using. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to take these concepts and put them to work and apply effective dog training techniques. However, you do need to invest some time into learning the concepts and practicing your new skills –setting good criteria, observing behavior, analyzing behavior, and so on. If you have only a cursory understanding of how animals learn you’ll do okay, but if you have a good understanding of these concepts, you’ll do a lot better!
For more information on this course, go to Understanding Learning Theory. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link: https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.Posted by Susan Smith on January 19, 2019
I recently wrote a blog on Dog Obedience Training – Four Key Elements, which discusses one of the most basic principles anyone who wants to know how to become a dog trainer must know. However, within those four elements, there are two that are most often misunderstood by professional dog trainers – criteria and rate of reinforcement.
To learn what each of the four elements are, check out the blog Dog Obedience Training – Four Key Elements. In this blog post, I’m going to relay some of my experiences in observing many many trainers. Most of the old-timers understand these concepts, but even they get stuck on criteria once in a while. For newer trainers, I’d say criteria is the biggest single problem they have.
So, some real-life situations and what I see as the problem:
Scenario: A professional dog trainer has been working with a German Shepherd Dog for several months. He’s a one-year-old rescue and the trainer did well on most of his issues, but he barks when he’s in the car with his owners. For about a month the trainer and her partner drove around with the dog in the car. However, he rarely barked when in the car with them, but barks incessantly when in the car with his owners.
Assessment: There are specific triggers (the owners), so a thorough history might help – when did it start, where were they going, etc. But ultimately, that’s just background info, and we still need to set achievable criteria. There are a couple of ways to approach this, but they are both criteria-based solutions (as all solutions in the process of discovering how to become a dog trainer are).
Solution one – it’s highly unlikely he’s really barking non-stop for a long distance. So, they need to set a criteria of no-barking for . . . maybe 1 second, and reinforce every time he stops barking for 1 second. Once you’ve achieved your desired rate of reinforcement (ROR) (maybe 10 reinforcements in 1 minute), raise the criteria to no barking for 2 seconds. Etc. Gradually increase the time between reinforcements, adjusting your desired ROR as you go.
Solution two – under safe conditions, put the dog in the car alone and move away (perhaps out of sight). Wait for the dog to stop barking, then start walking toward the car. If the dog starts barking, go back to where you were. Eventually, the dog will learn that when he barks, you go away, and he will stop barking. This is less desirable than solution one because it’s negative reinforcement, but it can be very effective.
Scenario: A woman has a dog that chases and bites her tail when the woman and her boyfriend are present. The dog is uninterested in redirection, toys, etc. Clapping and walking away works; however the woman has times where that’s not convenient.
Assessment: Again, there are specific triggers, so that actually makes it easier to work with the dog. There’s probably a level of excitement or perhaps stress for the dog in this particular situation.
Management – unfortunately for the owner (and the consulting trainer), learning doesn’t necessarily take place only when it’s convenient, so we need to deal with the times it does not happen. This is called “management.” Because the triggers are specific (the woman and her boyfriend together), when they aren’t able to train, they can make sure the three of them aren’t together at those times. Put the dog in another room or a crate, have the boyfriend go out and run an errand or just sit in the car with a good book, etc.
Solution – there are several things that need to be done, but from a criteria standpoint, the woman needs to do set ups with the boyfriend and the dog, measuring the intensity and the rate of tail chasing/biting. She also needs to assess various situations: For instance, is the behavior stronger when she and her boyfriend are right next to each other (vs. him being in another room or 10 feet away); can she use a recording of his voice and get the behavior, and if so, is the behavior the same or weaker? All these things will help give them a starting point. We already know that clapping works, so if she precedes the clap with a cue, eventually she’ll be able to cue the dog to stop with a word.
Caveat – this could be an obsessive-compulsive behavior, so may require the intervention of a vet behaviorist.
So, there are a couple of scenarios where criteria is not being used to maximum effect in the process of learning how to become a dog trainer. These scenarios make me wish I’d taken some dog training videos of some of my clients to show you!
I feel so strongly about criteria and rate of reinforcement that I’m doing a webinar on that exact topic! You can access more information on this topic by attending the upcoming webinar, Criteria and Rate of Reinforcement: The most misunderstood piece of the puzzle.
For more information on this course, go to Criteria & Rate of Reinforcement: The most misunderstood piece of the puzzle. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link: https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.Posted by Susan Smith on January 8, 2019
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