There are 3 main models for training pet dogs: 1) The dominance (or pack leader) model, 2) The operant conditioning (or positive reinforcement) model,
3) and drive training(using a dog’s prey drive as the focal point of learning).
The pack leader model is based primarily on stress-related behaviors found in captive wolves, and sometimes in wild wolves, but not in domesticated dogs (who don’t form packs). The positive reinforcement model originated with the ways rats and pigeons were taught to press or peck levers in a research laboratory. Natural Dog Training is based on the behaviors of a) wolves who work in harmony while hunting as a group, and b) dogs who, for thousands of years, have been trained to find and retrieve game, and to herd and guard our sheep and cattle, etc.
What’s My Motivation? The motivation for learning via the dominance model comes from an instinct dogs supposedly have to submit to the authority of their “pack leader.” In operant conditioning the motive for learning is to garner “positive reinforcements” associated with obedience behaviors. Natural Dog Training describes behavior as an emotional flow system rather than as a binary, stop-and-start dynamic (dominance), or as points on a graph (positive reinforcements).
If we look at this from the dog’s point of view we can see that being dominated is not necessarily a pleasurable experience, though it might be for some dogs I suppose. Getting a reward is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes not, like when a dog is deeply involved in something that satisfies his instincts and emotions. For instance, you may be able to lure some dogs away from a squirrel using a favorite treat, but others will ignore you. Meanwhile, being in a state of flow—as happens during play—is always pleasurable.
There are other fundamental problems with both models because dominance, and reinforcers are 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 aren’t actual, physical things. As mentioned before, they’re points on a graph. If they appear with enough regularity, then they qualify as reinforcements. We all know that dominance is about having a superior rank or higher status, etc., over someone else. But rank and status aren’t visceral and concrete; they’re conceptual in nature. And you can’t chase, bite or pee on a concept. That’s one problem. Another is that it’s impossible to make comparisons or to put things into categories without the ability to use and understand language. (It’s true dogs recognize verbal cues but that’s not the same thing as understanding concepts and categories.)
Each method works, or is said to work, around certain principles. Pack leader methods work via dominance and submission. Behavioral science works via punishment and reward. But drive training works via the physical properties of tension, release, and flow, meaning that dogs are motivated by a pleasurable release from internal tension or stress, thereby attaining a state of flow. It’s true that acting “submissive” or working to attain rewards may sometimes provide those feelings, which may be one reason why most trainers using these methods find that they work just fine. But only drive training is specifically designed to motivate learning in ways that dogs innately understand: “My energy was blocked but now it’s flowing!”
“My energy is flowing?” I don’t mean to offend you, but that’s utterly ridiculous!!
Your Dog, Sigmund Freud & Flow Dynamics
I’m not offended.
The truth is that dogs trained the natural way are very obedient and responsive, and are very focused on their owner’s commands, as if obeying their “pack leader.” We also use a lot of food and praise. So if either a dominance trainer or a reward-based trainer were to watch one of us working he or she would have one of three possible reactions, depending on what we were working on at the time: “This is pure dominance,” they might say, or “It looks like positive reinforcement to me.” The third response would be something like: “What did you just do? How does that work?” or “I've never seen anything like that before.”
And the thing is, when we talk about flow, we’re not being whimsical or speaking in a figurative manner. Flow is a very real and very important part of all natural systems, from tectonic plates, to ocean currents, to the way bees, butterflies and eagles ride air currents, to the way jellyfish capture prey, to the way an audience at a movie or concert are swept up in the emotions of the moment, even to the way dogs play together in the park.
Let’s look at our own bodies. There are numerous flow systems in operation: the bloodstream, the lungs, the digestive system, the renal system, the endocrine system, even the movement of electrical impulses passing between neurons in the brain can be described as a flow system. And whenever any of these systems is obstructed in some way, it creates very real feelings of tension, pressure and stress (except in the brain, which doesn’t feel anything), and can even cause the system to shut down completely.
In nature, whenever a flow system meets an obstruction it puts pressure on the system, causing stress. In a river an obstruction might be a boulder. The increase in water pressure causes a smooth flow to become turbulent. If the river is obstructed by a dam, on the other hand, the water behind the dam may seem very quiet and serene; and it is. But it’s also putting a tremendous amount of pressure, structurally-speaking, on the dam. It’s only when the dam fails that you’d actually see the effects of that pressure.
In a like manner, when you become cognizant of how stress operates and exerts its influence on canine behavior, you can see the cracks begin to form before the problem has fully developed. And it’s always best to catch such problems sooner than later, if you can.
All that aside, just being alive causes emotional pressure and stress. 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 caffeine or nicotine as a way of further motivating ourselves to go to work, etc. And when cortisol levels go up, so does our blood pressure. Cortisol is also directly associated with learning.
Cortisol was discovered in 1937. But Sigmund Freud described the way inner tension and pressure motivate behavior 17 years earlier in his treatise, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” He 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.]
Freud rightly thought of the body and mind as a flow system. Internal pressures brought on by unresolved emotions or repressed instincts increase our blood pressure, just as cortisol, nicotine and caffeine do. This motivates us to behave in ways we hope might minimize those feelings. On a certain level, the same is true for dogs; they too behave in ways that they hope or have found by experience will minimize tension and stress, creating a pleasurable release.
I know it seems odd to talk about teaching a puppy to sit or heel and bring this stuff about Freud and stress hormones into the discussion. But remember, we’re discussing the differences between the ways dominance, positive reinforcement, and drive training all motivate learning. And only drive training operates specifically via the reduction of internal tension and stress.
Still, isn’t it simpler to just reward a dog? Why complicate things with all this talk about flow? The dog associates good behavior with a reward and that’s how he learns, right?
The Negative Effects of Positive Reinforcement 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 very complicated reinforcement schedules and contingencies, 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 shows that behavior is not learned through positive reinforcers but through the reduction of internal tension or stress: adding stress—as happens with the uncertainty that comes from correctly changing the pattern of reinforcement—the deeper the behavior is learned once the pattern is recognized. In fact new research shows that animals may not learn via association. They learn through pattern recognition. It’s also now known that dopamine—a neurotransmitter long 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 (Skinner also said that thoughts and feelings 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 sure 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 same moment that a light flashed. And sure enough the animals learned to press the lever when the light flashed, etc. But since they were subjected to physiological and psychological stress from being hungry and locked in boxes, Skinner also proved—albeit accidentally—that stress-reduction is the real mechanism behind all learning. (Skinner would say the mechanism is irrelevant; the fact that they exhibited conditioned responses was all that mattered.)
Going back to dopamine, remember the “reward” chemical in the brain? Freud predicted its discovery—as well as the discovery of endorphins and other, natural “feel-good” chemicals found in all mammals—in his 1930 book, Civilization and Its Discontents. Yet for years his views of psychology were deemed outmoded by many. Now, thanks to advances in neuroscience, Skinner's theories have fallen apart while Freud’s are more relevant than ever. (As one example see: “The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas,” Carhart-Harris & Friston, Feb. 28, 2010, Brain: Oxford Journals.)
And how do dopamine and other neurotransmitters and hormones to find their way to the parts of the body and brain to create behavior and facilitate learning? They flow.
In a 2004 article for Scientific American Mind, Dr. Mark Solms wrote: “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 barnyard animals and household pets.”
Meanwhile operant conditioning seems destined for the scientific dustbin, if it’s not there already. The only area where it’s still considered the “gold standard” is in animal training: dogs, helper monkeys, as well as training dolphins and killer whales to do tricks in tanks at water parks, training that can unfortunately backfire with disastrous results, as happened at Sea World in April of 2010 when an orca killed his trainer.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University wrote recently, “The orca was trained to do tricks, such as nodding his head in imitation of the trainer nodding her head, or waving his fin in imitation of the trainer waving her hand. The orca dutifully produced the behaviors to get the rewards (food) but, over the years in captivity, he was involved in the deaths of 3 people. It has never been documented that orcas have killed a human in the wild, so this may have been a reaction to the behaviorists who were training the orca to show new behaviors, whilst ignoring millions of years of evolved social and emotional neurocognitive circuitry in the animal’s brain, circuitry that does not just vanish in captivity.”
One has to wonder if this tragedy could have been averted if the orca had been trained with the concept of flow, rather than positive reinforcement, in mind.
Okay, enough about Freud and flow and orcas and positive reinforcement. What about “pack leader” training? That seems to work just fine without all this mumbo-jumbo.
Dominance and Submission 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 can’t “dominate” 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 elk or bison. Wolves who live near garbage dumps, for example, don’t need to hunt large prey, so they don’t form packs. And coyotes, who are normally solitary hunters, form packs in the winter when their usual provender, small prey, is scarce. And finally, 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 these techniques don't work, just that they don’t work because your dog thinks you’re his “pack leader.”
Still another problem is that not all packs have clearly visible dominance hierarchies. (Some scientists say these are just “latent” hierarchies.) Dr. David Mech, who many think is the world’s leading expert on wolves, once wrote 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,” Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999.)
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”). In other packs Mech studied, dominant behaviors were more prevalent, typically because of changes in pack structure usually related to an increase in pack size, which at certain point reduces their hunting success.
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, that social friction starts to become more and more readily apparent than it is in smaller, wild packs. And, logically speaking, that’s likely to be the case because being kept in captivity, or living in a pack that’s too large to sustain itself, 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 wolf packs—generally produces the highest amount of cortisol! (Remember, cortisol doesn’t cause stress, it’s just a canary in the coal mine.)
Another aspect is that, unlike with positive reinforcement techniques whose scientific provenance is impeccable (if a bit creaky), not only is there no real scientific basis for the idea that a dogs see us as their pack leaders, there are also no scientific studies showing that dominance techniques are effective. In fact there are several showing the exact opposite.
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 to understand how and why stress reduction and attaining a pleasurable state of emotional flow are the primary mechanisms for motivating all behaviors in dogs. And it’s very easy to tell when your dog is in a state of flow. He’ll have a relaxed yet dynamic demeanor, much like an athlete who’s having a good day on the ball field. But if your dog is too needy of attention, for example, it means things aren’t flowing properly. And, if he’s acting aggressive then things are flowing, but in a turbulent rather than a smooth manner.
Knowing these dynamics exist, and having the ability to see them as they play out in your dog’s daily behavior, will enable you to become your dog’s stress-relief mechanism, putting both of you into a wonderfully pleasurable state of flow, which will also put you in total control of every aspect of your dog’s behavior, but in a really cool, really fun way for both of you.
By the way, flow is the reason most dogs love to swim, chase Frisbees and tennis balls, run agility courses, go for car rides, etc. And it’s the real reason wolves “follow the pack leader.” He’s able to generate more flow than they do, and they’re simply caught in his wake.