Part Science, Part Art

Behavioral science is something I definitely talk a lot about on this blog and also when talking to my training students. I am a quite the behavior nerd and quite the science nerd (I may have concentrated in psychology and physics for my undergrad degree). It’s really comforting for me to know there is a rhyme and reason that things work and that they are replicable/predictable (to some extent)–it’s not just random happenings that have no predictability (and thus no way to avoid aversive situation).

There are many things about dog training that is strictly science, absolutely. Classical conditioning, counter conditioning, and operant conditioning are all at the heart of behavioral science. These have been studied and written about extensively by accredited scientists and researchers across the globe.

There is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of doing things when we talk about the science-y parts of dog training. Classical conditioning, counter conditioning, and using operant conditioning all have right and wrong ways of doing them. If you are trying to counter condition a new response to a stimulus that currently triggers unwanted behaviors (doorbell for example), it is absolutely critical that when doing training sessions that the stimulus/trigger appears before the food happens. This means that if you put your hand in your pouch, over your pouch, or otherwise hint to the treats before the stimulus is noticed you could be teaching something completely backwards. If you are not careful about this, what happens is the dog starts seeing the presence of the hotdog as a predictor of bad things (the doorbell going off)–so you’ll actually make hot dogs no longer reinforcing since they predict bad things.

For as much as training is a science, there is also a large piece of training that is an art. It’s about intuition, feel, creativity, and trial and error (which is actually sort of science-y but also a bit artsy).

I was really reminded of this while attending a seminar put on by Grisha Stewart this weekend. Her seminar was on her BAT protocol (Behavior Adjustment Training) which I use with many of my private students but particularly my reactive and fearful dog students. The protocol itself is rooted in various learning theories and the science of behavior but in practice there is a lot more ‘art’ involved.

If something isn’t working… TRY SOMETHING ELSE. It’s not about pushing and pushing and pushing when something is either not working or is making things worse. It’s okay to reevaluate and try something new. Dogs cannot verbally tell us what they want, or how to make them understand why we are doing something so sometimes we have to make educated guesses based off their body language but sometimes we get it wrong. Maybe the dog we thought was mostly fear motivated was actually a mix of a ‘frustrated greeter’ and fearful. So for this dog, walking away is actually aversive at times, though he may find comfort in walking away at other times. When our protocol is ONLY walking away, we may start seeing breakdown in the effectiveness because walking away is aversive sometimes. Instead of just continuing, we’ve got to take the feedback we are getting (effectiveness) from the dog and make changes as necessary. We may not know WHY something is happening, but try something new and see if the change in process gets better results.

We’ve got to be creative, flexible and willing to try different things based on the feedback we are getting from the dog. So yes, training is a lot of science… but there is a lot of art involved as well.

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