The science of canine behavior trickles down to pet dogs in new book for dog trainers

By: Mary R. Burch, PhD  Date: 04/20/2001 Category: | Book Reviews | Canine Issues |

how dogs learnHow Dogs Learn by Mary R. Burch PhD and Jon S. Bailey PhD; 1999 Howell Book House; 175 pages; $19.95 in hardcover

Odd as it may seem to many pet owners, there is heated controversy in the US over methods of dog training. The battle is framed as a conflict between traditional methods that punish the dog for misbehaving (often referred to in derogatory tones as the 'pop and jerk' method) and the 'new, humane method' of rewarding good behavior with praise and treats.

In their excellent book How Dogs Learn, Mary Burch PhD and Jon Bailey PhD debunk the black-and-white perception perpetuated by these new age trainers with a 100-year history of dog training, a look at learning theories, and a detailed explanation of how the various tools and methods work. Theirs is an integrated approach from a scientific point of view in a book for dog trainers and training instructors that is unlikely to appeal to John Q. Public Petowner. (No matter; pet owners will definitely benefit as more and more trainers read the book and learn to adapt its lessons to individual dogs.)

History of dog training

Some of the current proponents of reward-based training, operant conditioning, and clickers would have dog owners believe that they are the mid-1990s departure from harsh training methods of the past, but they overstate their case. Part One of How Dogs Learn presents the history of training methods through brief descriptions of scientific research and the methods used by well-known trainers. From Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning1 and Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect2 to Skinner's work on operant conditioning and the commercial application of the theories by Keller Breland, Marian Breland Bailey, and Bob Bailey, they skim through the highlights of scientific discoveries about animal behavior and its application to dog training. It is interesting to note that, while some trainers hail operant conditioning in general and clickers in particular as the 'new wave' of dog training, B.F. Skinner popularized operant conditioning in his 1938 book The Behavior of Organisms and in 1951 described the use of a 'cricket' to train animals in a paper titled "How to Train Animals." By that time, the cricket - today's clicker - had been in use for several years.

In 1910, years before Skinner's published work, German dog trainer Colonel Conrad Most wrote Training Dogs, a manual that showed an understanding of operant conditioning. Most began training police dogs and eventually trained guide dogs for blind owners. William Koehler, the dog trainer who is most denigrated by the proponents of operant conditioning, began training military dogs, then segued into training performance dogs in Hollywood and popularizing dog training for the general public after World War II. Although Koehler introduced many training principles that are in use today in modified form, his harsh methods for resolving behavior problems overshadow his positive contributions in the minds of many trainers.

Some trainers who followed Koehler adapted his negative-reinforcement methods to their own style; over the years negative reinforcement evolved into emphasis on positive reinforcement, and more gentle training methods emerged through the work of Clarence Pfaffenberger, William Campbell, Ian Dunbar, and Karen Pryor

Behavior principles

Thus the stage is set by the authors for a discussion of operant conditioning, a pattern of learning that involves rewarding desired behavior, ignoring or punishing undesired behavior, analysis of the causes of specific behaviors, and ultimate understanding of the scientific application of behavior principles to dog training. In part two of How Dogs Learn, Burch and Bailey cover the basic principles of behavior in discussions about reinforcement (the reward for an action), extinction (withholding reinforcement to extinguish a behavior), punishment (providing negative consequences or eliminating positive consequences of behavior), and antecedent control (identifying and managing the stimuli that cause a behavior).

Dogs are motivated to perform by the promise of rewards. For some dogs, the reward is the work; for others, food, play, and praise provide the reinforcement

Behaviors tend to decrease in frequency and eventually stop when rewards are withheld.

Punishment involves the use of consequences to behavior that are intended to eliminate the behavior. Punishment must be an immediate consequence of the unwanted behavior if it is to be effective.

Antecedents are the stimuli that precede the occurrence of the behavior. When owners put on a jacket, gather car keys, and pick up a leash, Fido wiggles for joy because he recognizes the preparation for taking a ride.

Part three of the book delves into the diagnosis of behavior. It covers respondent conditioning (involuntary behaviors related to reflexes and biology such as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of the bell); analysis of canine behavior problems; medical and environmental causes of behavior; and additional considerations for trainers from breed differences to individual dog character traits.

Part four involves teaching old dogs new tricks by using the principles of operant conditioning, including shaping to establish new behavior; prompting to set the stage for the behavior; fading to reduce the use of the prompt; chaining to build behavior sequences; conditioned reinforcement for desired behaviors; and the use of clickers and target sticks as training aids. The description of clicker training is easier to understand than most, and the endorsement of clickers as conditioned reinforcers is not unequivocal. The writers acknowledge that there are some situations in which clicker training may not be the best method. Along with noting that some trainers simply prefer traditional methods of reinforcing desireable behaviors, especially in large group classes, Burch and Bailey recognize that use of the clicker involves coordination and precision that many owners find cumbersome.

"Timing is extremely important in clicker training. Trainers who use clickers incorrectly and make reinforcement errors sometimes shape strange behaviors and quickly abandon the clicker."

They also note that: "Clicker training is an excellent method for shaping new behaviors or improving proficiency. However, it is not the best choice to reinforce skills the dog has already learned. When the dog has acquired the desired behavior, trainers are probably better off moving to less intrusive forms of conditioned reinforcement, such as praise and petting."

Part five of How Dogs Learn is devoted to decreasing unwanted behaviors through techniques such as extinction, differential reinforcment, antecedent control, and punishment. The section on punishment describes several alternatives and delves into the ethical as well as behavioral consequences of each. The guidelines for using punishment bear repeating over and over and over:

  1. Couple punishment for undesireable behaviors with positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors.
  2. Begin with the least aversive method; "If 'no' corrects the problem, it is not ethical to use anything more intense."5
  3. If using a punisher such as a shock collar, try it on first.
  4. Deliver punishment immediately after the infraction.
  5. Be consistent.
  6. Teach new behavior to replace the unwanted behavior.

The aim of How Dogs Learn is to make dog training fun for dog and owner and to minimize the development of unwanted behaviors. We know from studies that many animals are surrendered to shelters because owners failed to build or maintain a bond with their pets. An understanding of how dogs learn can make dog training fun instead of tedious for dog owners. How Dogs Learn will help dog trainers to help pet owners to build the bond and increase the joy through methods that make training a partnership.


  1. Pavlov’s well-known experiments that conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell linked a stimulus to an involuntary physical response, not a voluntary behavior. His work is known as classical or Pavlovian conditioning. Page 3, How Dogs Learn
  2. Thorndike’s Law of Effect shows that behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase in frequency. Page 4, How Dogs Learn
  3. Page 145, How Dogs Learn
  4. ibid.
  5. Page 163, How Dogs Learn. This numbered list is a summary of the points made in this section.

About The Author

Mary R. Burch, PhD's photo
Mary R. Burch, PhD -
Mary is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. She is an award-winning writer and a media spokesperson for the American Kennel Club. She has published over 200 articles and eight books including "Volunteering with Your Pet", "How Dogs Learn," and "Ethics for Behavior Analysts".She has also appeared on "Martha Stewart Living TV" and "Animal…

All Authors Of This Article: | Mary R. Burch, PhD |
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