There are 3 basic forms of dog training, each with its own version of what motivates dogs to obey: 1) the dominance (or pack leader) model, which is based on behaviors found mostly in captive wolves, not domesticated dogs or wild wolves, 2) the operant conditioning (or positive reinforcement) model, which is based primarily on the ways that rats and pigeons learn new behaviors in a laboratory, and 3) drive training, which is based on the behaviors of a) wolves living in nature and b) dogs who’ve been trained to hunt and retrieve game, guard and herd flocks, etc., etc., for thousands of years. Drive training is also the method of choice for the way most working dogs are trained: police dogs, protection dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, drug and bomb-detection dogs, military-working dogs, etc., etc. These are among the best-trained dogs on the planet.
The motivation for learning via the dominance model reportedly comes from a hypothetical instinct dogs have to submit to the authority of their “pack leader.” The motivation for learning via operant conditioning is to garner “rewards” associated with obedience behaviors. There are fundamental problems with both because authority, dominance, and rewards are all concepts or generalized categories of things, and dogs don’t think conceptually or place things into categories. For instance, from a technical standpoint positive reinforcements or rewards aren’t actual, physical things. They’re data points on a graph. If they appear on the graph with enough regularity, then they qualify as rewards. Plus something that acts as a reward in one context with one dog might not have the same effect in other contexts with another dog. This basically means that if a dog doesn’t find a reward pleasurable in a specific context then it’s not really a reward.
To summarize, pack leader methods work via the concepts of dominanceand submission. Behavioral science methods work via the concepts of punishment and reward. But drive training works via the physical properties of tensionand release, meaning that a dog’s motivation for learning is to attain a pleasurable release from feelings of internal tension, pressure or stress. It’s true that acting “submissive” or working to attain rewards may sometimes provide a feeling of release for dogs. This is why trainers who use these methods find that they work just fine for them. But only drive training is specifically designed to motivate learning in ways that dogs innately understand: “I felt stressed before but now I feel better!” But why would a dog feel stressed about anything?
Think of it this way: puppies are not genetically designed to live in a modern human household. For one thing, they go through a fairly long oral phase where their developmental instincts tell them to bite, chew, tug at, and rip up almost anything they come across. This generally—though not always—generates a certain amount of tension, pressure, and stress between the pup and its owner, particularly if the owner is fond of his or her shoes, rugs, etc. Of course many people forgo the pleasures and headaches of raising a puppy and adopt a rescue dog instead. Yet many rescue dogs retain deep emotional stress from being lost, abandoned or mistreated, feelings that don’t just disappear overnight. All that aside, just being alive is stressful. The minute you wake up in the morning your adrenal glands increase production of a stress hormone called cortisol. The same is true for dogs. And research has shown that normal levels of cortisol motivate us to do things. In fact many of us elevate our own levels of cortisol artificially each morning with substances like caffeine or nicotine, as a way of further motivating ourselves to get up, go to work and get things done. (Cortisol is also directly associated with learning and decision-making.)
Cortisol was discovered in 1937. But Sigmund Freud had already described the way inner tension and pressure motivate behavior. In his 1920 treatise, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud said that “the course taken by mental events … is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and that it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension” resulting in “a production of pleasure.” [The Freud Reader, 594, 595.] He also talked about the “pressure [caused] by unsatisfied instincts” , which brings us back to the reason puppies seem driven to find out how nearly everything around them feels when they grab, bite or gnaw on it with their teeth.
I know it may seem odd to be talking about how to teach a puppy to sit or heel and bring Freud and hormones into the discussion. But remember, we’re talking about the differences between the ways dominance, positive reinforcement, and drive training motivate dogs to learn and obey. And of the three, only drive training operates specifically via the reduction of internal tension and stress.
Still, isn’t it simpler to just reward a dog for obeying? I mean isn’t that what training and learning are all about? The dog associates good behavior with some sort of reward and that’s how he learns, right?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Behavior modification via positive reinforcement doesn’t work—at least not for very long—unless you constantly change the pattern of reinforcement by using one of a number of complicated reinforcement schedules, which if mistimed or misapplied can backfire. Karen Pryor, a figurehead of the positive training movement, wrote on her blog in 2006: “Reinforcement may go from predictable to a little unpredictable back to predictable, as you climb, step by step, toward your ultimate goal. Sometimes a novice animal may find this very disconcerting. If two or three expected reinforcers fail to materialize, the animal may simply give up and quit on you.” This accidentally proves (or at least strongly suggests) that behavior is not learned through positive reinforcers but through the reduction of internal tension or stress: the more stressed a dog is (up to a point)—as with the uncertainty that comes when you correctly change the pattern of reinforcement—the deeper the behavior is learned once the pattern is recognized. In fact new research shows that animals don’t learn via reinforcements or rewards at all. They learn through pattern recognition, and that dopamine—a neurotransmitter that’s long been thought of as the brain’s “reward” chemical—is actually released when animals detect changing patterns in the environment, both pleasant and unpleasant.
B. F. Skinner formed the concepts of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning partly because he felt it was unscientific of Freud to describe behavior in terms of a person’s thoughts and feelings. How can we know with any certainty what another person or organism is thinking or feeling? Besides, even though Skinner was heavily influenced by Freud's work, quoted him extensively, and even agreed wholeheartedly with some of his major concepts, Skinner believed that all behavior was the product of conditioning, and that thoughts and feelings were irrelevant (In fact Skinner said that if thoughts and feelings existed they too were products of conditioning.) So Skinner set out to create a means of showing how conditioning takes place based on pure mathematics. However, to make certain that his theory worked he fasted the animals in his research laboratory to two-thirds of their normal body weight, then placed them inside locked boxes. He did this to make sure they would only respond to environmental cues that he created, such as food suddenly appearing whenever the animal accidentally pressed a lever at the exact same moment that a light flashed. And sure enough the animals learned to press the lever when the light flashed (among many other things). But since these animals had been subjected to physiological and psychological stress from being hungry and locked in boxes, Skinner also proved—though quite accidentally—that stress-reduction is the real mechanism behind all learning and behavior. (Skinner would probably say that the mechanism is irrelevant; the fact that they exhibited conditioned responses was all that mattered.) Going back to dopamine—the supposed “reward chemical” in the brain? Freud predicted its discovery in his 1930 book, Civilization and Its Discontents. Yet his views of psychology were deemed outmoded by many until about 15 years ago. Now, thanks to advances in neuroscience, Skinner's theories have fallen apart while Freud’s are stronger than ever. In a 2004 article for Scientific American Mind, Mark Solms writes: “Freud’s broad brushstroke organization of the mind is destined to play a role similar to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution served for molecular genetics—a template on which emerging details can be coherently arranged.” And: “At the deep level of mental organization that Freud called the Id, the functional anatomy and chemistry of our brains is not much different from that of our favorite barnyard animals and household pets.” Okay, enough about Freud. What about “pack leader” training? That seems to work just fine without all this mumbo-jumbo about hormones, etc.
The main problem with the “pack leader” model is that from a scientific point of view, dominance and submission can only take place between two animals of the same species who are also members of the same social group. For instance, a wolf may be said to “dominate” other members of his pack, but not wolves from other packs, and definitely not geese, elk or human beings. By the same token, a human being can’t possibly be “dominant” over a dog—except in a somewhat fanciful way—because we’re members of two different species. Another wrinkle is that pack formation is always a function of prey size, meaning canines only form packs when they need to hunt large prey such as moose, elk or bison. For instance, wolves who live near garbage dumps don’t need to hunt large prey, so they don’t form packs. Meanwhile coyotes, who are normally solitary hunters, form packs in the winter when their usual provender, small prey, is scarce. And to top it off, domesticated dogs don’t form packs at all, ever, not even when living a feral existence. Pack formation is always about hunting large prey, and feral dogs lack that ability. So without the capacity to form a pack how could dogs be motivated by a supposed human “pack leader?” Mind you, I’m not saying that such techniques don't work, just that they don’t work because your dog thinks of you as his “pack leader.” Still another problem is that not all packs have clearly visible dominance hierarchies. (Some scientists skirt this issue by saying these are just “latent” hierarchies.) Dr. David Mech, the world’s leading expert on wolves, wrote in 1999 that “Dominance contests are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.” (“Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.”) The packs Mech studied at that time were small, mom-and-pop units (which eventually gave rise to an alternative term for the “pack leader,” the current, politically-correct term, “pack parent”). So it certainly seems to be the case that when wolves are kept in captivity, or when a pack has grown beyond the optimal size necessary for successful hunting (which peaks at around 4-5 wolves) that social friction starts to become more and more readily apparent. And, logically speaking, that’s likely to be the case because being held in captivity, or living in a pack that’s too large to hunt successfully, would cause an increase in stress across the pack as a whole, bringing us back to—you guessed it—cortisol! In fact, the most “dominant” member of any animal group—including a wolf pack—generally produces the highest amount of cortisol! (Remember, cortisol doesn’t cause stress, it’s just one canary in the coal mine telling us that stress is present.) So while dominance techniques may work with some dogs in some situations, they don’t work for the reasons “pack leader” trainers say they do.
This is why I think it’s important for trainers and owners to understand how and why stress reduction is the primary mechanism for motivating all behaviors, good and bad. And that by becoming your dog’s stress-relief mechanism, via drive training, you’re more likely to get better results.