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Unit Eight: Training Methods
Lesson Overview

 

In the 1960's behaviorism and the work of BF Skinner reigned and dominated the field of psychology and understanding of animals.  In simple terms, animals were thought to just be stimulus-response machines, with little or no emotions or intelligence and certainly no consciousness. 

 

Behaviorists believed that studying lab rats was all that was necessary to understand any behavior because it was all the same.  Because they focused on lab rats, they were not studying animals in their natural environments, as ethologists did.  The belief in behaviorism was that if you rewarded an animal with something they desired, such as food, that animal would become conditioned to repeat the behavior that preceded the treat. 

 

So, if a dog sits and you give him a treat, the animal learns that sitting results in a treat.  If you punish a dog, the behaviorists believe, you will reduce the likelihood of that behavior.  This is called operant conditioning.  Behaviorism only focuses on what an animal does in response to events in the environment.  Thus they used electric shocks to deter certain behaviors.

 

Behaviorism is looking at the outside result, the final behavior and not considering other factors, such as animal instinct, temperament, animal emotion, or animal intelligence. 

While behaviorism still offers benefits to understanding training, it falls short when it comes to the humane understanding of the true needs and desires of animals – in short, their inner lives.  Recent research has gone way beyond this mechanistic view.  The work of many researchers on our reading list expands and explores the true potential of animals for profound experiences such as emotions, empathy, compassion, curiosity, inventiveness, creativity, and love. 

The Major Training Perspectives:

Some training methods use negative methods of punishment, coercion, and fear to change animal behavior.  The concept here is that the human must dominate the animal in order to show him who is the boss.   This was very much the style in the 1950s and is still practiced today by some trainers, especially in law enforcement and with military working dogs. 

 

Although these methods create compliance, in many cases they disrupt the true potential for the human-animal bond which is based on mutual respect, two-way communication, and trust.

Positive Training Methods seek to use only positive reinforcement, meaning an animal is rewarded for good behavior (the dog sits, she gets a treat.)  Bad behavior is redirected (the dog chews on something she is not supposed to, and she is handed a toy she is allowed to chew.) 

 

Some trainers will use a combination of positive and corrective training.  For example, some may use positive training methods for 90% of situations but will consider a variety of harsher methods for serious behavioral challenges, such as leash corrections or other dominance methods.

 

Today, there is mounting evidence for the use of at least 90% positive training.  While this may require more patience and perseverance than methods that override an animal’s will, they result in better physical and emotional health for the animal.  Methods that take into consideration the animal’s needs and wishes are based on greater respect for the animal’s spirit.

 

B.F. Skinner - the father of Behaviorism.

In the Skinner Box animals were given a treat for pushing a lever -- and in some experiments electric shocks for "wrong" behavior.

"I've trained you so well to give me treats."

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