THE PROVERB SAYS: "You’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar." But the truth is, you'll catch more flies with a dead squirrel than with honey or vinegar. It's not pleasant, but it's a fact of nature.
Similarly there are two popular training methods. Dominance is a bit like vinegar while positive reinforcement is more like honey. But now there’s a remarkable new approach called Natural Dog Training that's closer to the way dogs actually learn.
What is the scientific basis for the two most common approaches to dog training? And how is Natural Dog Training different?
VINEGAR The idea behind dominance training is that dogs learn to obey based on how they view their owner as the alpha dog or pack leader, an instinct they've supposedly inherited from wolves. The problem is, wolf packs don't really have pack leaders. David Mech, the world's leading expert on wild wolves, doesn't like to use the word alpha anymore because he says it "falsely implies a hierarchical system." (Mech, L. David, Canadian Journal of Zoology 2002.)
The old studies showing that the pack is a dominance hierarchy were done on captive wolves culled from various sources. These weren't real packs: the wolves didn't know one another and weren't able to hunt together, so the behaviors they exhibited were caused by stress not by a wolf's true instincts for group harmony and cooperation. The only reason wolves form packs in the first place is that it enables them to hunt large prey animals by working as a cohesive social unit.
So while there may be some merit to using dominance techniques, the idea of showing a dog that you're his pack leader is based on a simple misunderstanding of the facts of nature.
HONEY Modern trainers base their methods on research done by B.F. Skinner who placed some lab rats inside special boxes. The rats were bored and hungry, but soon found out that if they "played" with a lever, food appeared. Then they learned that the treats only came if a light flashed, so they only pressed the lever while it was flashing, Skinner called this operant conditioning and said it was the basis for all learning.
Keller Breland (who studied with Skinner and later invented clicker training) once conditioned a group of animals who were kept in a barn, not a box, to press a button in order to obtain their daily meals. They learned this very quickly, but after a few days something odd happened: the chickens started pecking the floor instead of the button, the raccoons simply "washed their hands," and the study on pigs had to be stopped or they would've kept rooting around in the dirt and starved to death!
NATURE On the most basic level, all canine behavior operates on the principles of attraction and resistance, tension and release. This shouldn't be too surprising. These laws also govern how tides ebb and flow, how seeds open and reach up to the sun, how bees swarm, how birds migrate, how prey and predator perform their ancient choreography, down to the way cells know how to divide and develop into complex organisms. Everything in nature has to obey these laws of energy.
Why does a puppy, out for his first walk, chase a leaf that blows by? The kinetic energy in the breeze—how it sends the leaf dancing into the puppy's path—ignites a sudden, though seemingly inconsequential spark of playfulness in the pup. He becomes energetically attracted to the leaf, so he gives chase just because it feels good. But why does it feel good?
Attraction and resistance? Tension and release?
Could this also be why dominance training is sometimes effective? The dog learns that when he focuses on his handler (or is energetically attracted to him) he can avoid being punished. So through a slow and perhaps painful process he finds that obeying his trainer is less stressful than not doing so.
Is it that simple? Just tension and release?
Yes. When Skinner's lab rats "played" with that lever it didn't just release a food pellet; it also released some of their internal stress. Sure, food was part of the equation, but the reduction of stress may have been even more important. After all, if learning were just about being fed why would Breland's pigs have nearly starved to death when plenty of food was ready and waiting at the push of a button?
These behaviors—the puppy chasing the leaf, the dog avoiding punishment, the rats pressing the lever, the pigs playing in the dirt—they all have one thing in common: they all reduced internal tension or stress.