What is Canine Learning Theory and Why is it Important?
It is important because the better you understand how your dog learns, the more effective your training. From birth canines learn by association. Experiences they encounter cause a set of associations to form. These associations are stored in the memory to tell it whether something is good or bad. Then the dog will engage in behaviors that have positive associations and produce a benefit to the dog.
This learning process is most rapid in the first four months of life. However, it can continue the rest of the dog’s life albeit at a slower rate.
Canine Learning Theory is summarized as follows. Positive experiences are the key to producing the desired results from the dog. To train the dog to produce the desired behavior, you need reinforcement and punishment. Both reinforcement and punishment have positive and negative options.
Positive reinforcement is giving something desirable to the dog, in response to the dog performing a desired behavior.
Negative reinforcement is taking something undesirable away from the dog, in response to the dog performing a desired behavior. For example, Your dog is on a lead and you want it to come to you. It refuses to do so. You give a sharp tug on the lead and force the dog to come. When the dog is where you want it you release the pressure on the lead. This releases the pressure on the collar and discomfort is removed from the dog’s neck. Negative reinforcement consists of forcing a desired behavior, then removing the force.
Positive punishment occurs when correction of any kind is given to a dog for an incorrect action or undesirable behavior. An example would be grabbing the dog by the scruff and shaking it for getting into the trash.
Negative punishment is the removal of something desirable to the dog, for an incorrect action or undesirable behavior. An example of negative punishment would be a dog who refuses to give up an object it is carrying in its mouth while fetching. You could force the dog to give up the object and stop playing fetch with the dog.
Positive reinforcement and negative punishment seem to be the two most effective tools to train canines. By rewarding the dog for desired behaviors he forms positive associations for that behavior. Desired action equals reward! Motivation to follow commands for certain behavior actions is increased as positive associations are formed. The stronger the association the more likely the dog will comply in obeying the command.
Withholding rewards (negative punishment) for incorrect actions discourages unwelcome associations.
There are two types of behavior reinforcer. They are the conditional and the unconditional. An unconditional behavior reinforcer is something the dog will find inherently rewarding. Examples such as food, treats, attention, chews are common things dog find rewarding.
A conditioned reinforcer represents something the dog finds rewarding. Reinforcement words like good dog, treat, biscuit, or a clicker sound represent a reward that’s coming soon. By using a conditioned reinforcer immediately before producing the reward, the dog makes a positive association between the reinforcer and the reward.
Trainers using canine learning theory place the emphasis on positive reinforcement in the early stages of training. When first teaching the desired behavior (with an associated command) positive reinforcement is the fasted way to create positive associations. Negative punishment is introduced after the dog understands the command.
Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are used when the dog knows the command well and chooses to disobey. Punishment needs to be used carefully so that incorrect associations are not formed. An example would be punishing a retriever for dropping a dummy could cause the retriever to associate the dummy with the punishment. The potential result could be the dog refusing to retrieve the dummy.
Training Hunting Dogs and Canine Learning Theory:
Based on some 20 years of training experience it is my belief that Canine Learning Theory based methods of training are useful. At least for the early stages of training a particular skill or command. It is especially important to use positive associations to bring out the maximum potential of the dog.
The well breed hunter can be ruined by the heavy-handed use of positive punishment. At the very least there is risk the dog would become a fearful and half-hearted hunter lacking style.
While I use negative punishment (the taking away of something) I find it has very little value in altering a canines future behavior. The only positive value it has that I can see is that it stops the dog from continuing its current behavior. For example your dog has found your shoe and is busy chewing it into pieces. You find him chewing away and take the shoe from him. He enjoys the shoe and you take it away. As soon as he finds another shoe he will repeat the behavior. Because nothing has changed the fact he enjoys chewing on shoes.
They only way to make a lasting impact on the dogs behavior is to make chewing shoes an unpleasant experience. Positive punishment is the most successful way to make something unpleasant. This statement is not going to be very popular with the “Dog Whisperer Crowd” . As they seem to prefer offering an unconditional behavior reinforcer to motivate behavior.
In the obedience training book by William R. Koehler, the ‘Koehler Method of Dog Training: Certified Techniques by Movie-land’s Most Experienced Dog Trainer’, Koehler illustrates the old school of training thought. He relies heavily on Positive punishment to make a lasting impact on a dogs behavior. For example say your dog chews up a shoe, he would have you put pieces of the shoe in the dog’s mouth, The dog would have to keep the shoe in its mouth until it was revolted by the taste.
At this point you may be asking what is this guy talking about? He earlier said that positive punishment could ruin a hunting dog. Now he’s advocating its use. Let’s clear this up. What I believe is that positive reinforcement is essential in the stages of training a new behavior skill. Once the dog has proven consistently he knows the command for that skill, then the judicious use of Positive punishment is absolutely necessary.
Why is punishment necessary? Because what Canine Learning Theory fails to address is the tendency of hunting canines to disobedience. Why do hunting canines tend to disobedience? For any canine impulse control can be very iffy. For the hunting canine the very genetics that humans have bred into the dog, can cause disobedience. Hunters are prey driven. Hunters can be very independent minded. Hunters are often focused on whats out there to be found, and not on the handler. Hunters can be wound tight with the need to do what the genes are telling them to do.
All these things can cause problems for the handler and the dog. In the Hunters case a lack of discipline could result in its death. Many hunting dogs have been killed or injured by cars because they failed to heed their master. At the very least these issues can make training more difficult.
The judicious use of positive punishment forces the hunting canine to make a choice. Does the dog give in to its impulses and risk punishment or does it associate impulse control with some form of reward. In other words is the threat of punishment strong enough in the dogs mind to overcome the genetic drive that compels it to action.
Of course we want the hunting canine to use its genetic drive to produce game for us. That requires the dog to be under the handlers control at all times. The hunter that only had positive reinforcement while training, when tempted in the field with a new exciting situation, will give in to that temptation. If that temptation is chasing a deer across a road heedless to its master it just might cost the dog its life.
Forcing discipline into a canine is one of the kindest things you can do for it.
Judicious use of Positive Punishment defined: I would define the term as the minimum amount of correction necessary to discourage a given behavior. Timed appropriately so that the dog understands the relationship between the behavior and the correction. And proper for the age and temperament of the dog.