Dog psychology tries to understand bad dog behavior from a canine perspective rather than from a human perspective.
Because dogs are such close companions to us, it is easy to humanize them. Many dog movies and television shows including Lassie, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Bolt, and others have encouraged this view.
However, dogs are not humans, and humans are not dogs.
Humanizing a dog causes miscommunication between human and canine, which can result in a variety of dog behavioral issues.
For example, many dog owners attribute their dog pooping on their favorite carpet or eating poop, when they are not home, as an act of vengeance. In actuality, it is just a symptom of stress from having an unexpected change in their routine (separation anxiety).
Dog Psychology vs. Dog Training
Skinner and Behavioral Psychology
Some trainers claim that dog psychology involves pack theory and acting like a dog. According to them, obedience training is not dog psychology but simply teaching a dog tricks.
In particular, a dog who has undergone obedience training may understand training commands such as Sit, Down, and Heel, but may still engage in destructive and aggressive behaviors, such as chewing our designer shoes, or digging up our prize roses.
Is this true?
- Is there a big difference between dog psychology and dog obedience training?
- What about dog behavior modification?
- How do dogs really learn?
In fact, this separation of terms is unnecessary and only creates confusion.
Dog behavior modification, dog training, and dog tricks are ALL based on operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning forms a big part of what we understand of dog psychology and animal psychology. Therefore, dog behavior modification, dog training, and dog tricks are ALL based on dog psychology.
Based on these dog psychology principles, we know that dogs learn by repeating behaviors with good results, and stopping behaviors with bad results.
Operant conditioning consists of aversive methods and reward methods. Both aversive and reward methods, can be used to modify dog behavior, train a dog to follow commands, and teach a dog new tricks.
Misunderstanding of Dog Psychology
- The claim that dog obedience training, and dog tricks are somehow not based on dog psychology is false.
- The claim that food only works for obedience training and dog tricks is false.
- The claim that using food in dog training is bribery, and somehow ineffective is false.
- The claim that using food is humanizing the dog and therefore inappropriate is false.
- The claim that reward dog training is only based on food is false.
- The claim that aversive dog training, particularly physical force training is more effective at behavior modification than reward training is false.
- The claim that physical force is required to modify dog behavior is false.
- The claim that physical force is an integral part of dog psychology is false.
Both aversive and reward techniques, can be used to “train” our dog to sit on command, to sit instead of dig on command, to drop whatever he is chewing, to chew his toy instead of our shoes, and to dig in the sand pit instead of in the rose-bed.
The divide between dog psychology, dog behavior modification, and dog training simply does not exist.
Many of these supposed behavior modification techniques, including leash jerks, alpha rolls, and finger pokes, are aversive conditioning techniques.
Dog Psychology and Dominance/Pack Theory
Dominance theory is based on the observation that wolf packs and wild dog packs are ruled by an alpha male and an alpha female. This alpha pair controls all of the pack’s resources and sets all of the pack rules. There are also rituals that pack members must follow including letting the alpha pair have access to the best food,best sleeping area, and best resources.
The theory is that when dogs come to live with us, we become part of their pack and must assume the alpha male and alpha female positions. Part of assuming this position, is to follow similar pack rituals including eating before our followers, not letting our followers have access to beds and couches, always walking in front of our followers, and using physical force to establish and maintain our pack leadership position.
However, recent studies have shown that wolf packs and also wild dog packs are a lot more complex than this simple alpha-pair model. Leadership tends to be more dynamic in nature, and the alpha dogs rule through the control of resources rather than through physical force.
Therefore, even dominance theory cannot be used to support the false claim that physical force is a necessary, or even an effective part of dog behavior modification.
While dominance theory and dog pack dynamics are interesting areas of study, the argument of whether they apply to us and our domesticated dogs, is actually a moot point.
Just as dogs are not humans, humans are not dogs.
Contrary to common belief, dogs know that they are dogs and not human. They also know that we are human and not dogs. It is us humans who frequently get confused on these matters.
Since we are human, we are not expected by our dogs to act like dogs. We must communicate with them in a way that they can understand, but that does not mean that we should try to act like them. Not only would we be poor imitators, but however well we pretend, we would still be human, and our dogs will always know what we are.
Because our dogs live in our very complex human world, it is necessary for us to assume leadership and teach them our rules. We must provide for them not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of their health and safety.
To properly manage the safety of a dog (to himself, to other dogs, and to the people around him) it is necessary to institute certain human rules, and to train him to follow those rules. Training of these rules can be achieved through aversive methods or reward methods.
It is as simple as that. No dominance theory required.
Dog Behaviorist vs. Dog Trainer
By using operant conditioning techniques, we can shape behavior to prepare our dog for obedience trials, or agility competitions. We can also modify behavior to make our dog into a good citizen at home.
A good dog trainer or dog behaviorist is someone who –
- Understands classical and operant conditioning theories,
- Has good technique (i.e. good timing, execution, redirection);
- Can quickly and accurately read a dog’s body language; and
- Is a good and patient teacher.
There are dog trainers, like Cesar Millan, who mostly use aversive training. There are dog trainers, like Victoria Stillwell, who mostly use reward training. And there are dog trainers who use both.
Reward dog training and aversive dog training have their own advantages and disadvantages, so make sure to pick a dog trainer that uses the style of training or behavior modification that you feel is most appropriate for you and your dog.
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a great resource for finding professional dog training help in your area.
Which is Better, Which is Right, and Which is Dog Psychology?
Many arguments arise in the dog behavior modification or dog training arena because many want to claim that their way is better or that their way is right.
To do this, they must first differentiate their way from all other ways. That is why there are so many terms, including dog psychology, dog behavior modification, dog training, dog tricks, and many more, describing essentially the same thing.
Moral judgements such as dog cruelty, dog bribery, evilness and goodness get thrown into the same pot and what results is a whole lot of smoke and not much else.
When we boil dog training or dog behavior modification down to its basics, we are always left with conditioning. And all of us use either aversive operant conditioning methods or reward operant conditioning methods to shape our dog’s behavior.
Both are dog psychology. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages.
I cannot say that one is absolutely better than the other, or that one is absolutely right. I can only say that I personally use reward dog training because it is more effective and less risky than the aversive methods I have tried.