The beauty of dogs is that they are totally honest, not burdened with “oughts” or “shoulds”. Their behavior is unaffected by concerns over their owner’s feelings, nor do they have a complicated history of family dynamics adding opaque layers of behavioral patterns to sort through.
My husband and I have two Llewellin setters… with issues. Yes, we raised them both from pups and did not do a perfect job, (empathy with parents of teenagers… check!). The male named Josey is timid, dog aggressive and scared of new people. The female, named Tessa is more stable, but gets so excited at times she loses control of both her mind and her body, and may end up, much to her own surprise as well as ours, levitated onto my dresser at the mention of the word “walk.” These are not the first dogs we’ve had or puppies we’ve raised, but they are indeed the first ones who have forced us to educate ourselves about dogs and animal behavior. We suspect the genetics of these dogs is at the root of their sensitivity. Bird dogs must be hyper alert, energetic, and ready to respond to the slightest scent or whisper of prey, but of course we also made our share of mistakes when raising them, chiefly not enough socializing.
So what have we learned in an attempt to help our dogs better navigate their world? Well, loads of things, and I do plan to write about this in bits and pieces in the future, because nearly everything our dogs have taught us is directly applicable to my work as a high school science teacher! Now please don’t be insulted! I know dogs are not humans, even if they do share our couch, but indeed dogs and humans both have mammal brains, and therefore have much in common in how they learn.
One of the first books I read that helped me to better understand dogs, and also people, is called “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. Now in her seventies, she is a renowned animal behaviorist and pioneer in the field of animal training. This book introduces us to the four quadrants of operant conditioning: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment.
Rather than discuss those quadrants at length right now, let me just mention that Karen Pryor cut her teeth as a trainer and behaviorist by working with marine mammals. How does one train a dolphin to go where one wants it to go or do what one wants it to do? Of course not with a leash and collar. The main method is through Positive Reinforcement, or “PR”. It turns out that Positive Reinforcement works for all organisms with a brain, from hermit crabs to humans. We all are motivated to perform behaviors that have been reinforced (rewarded) in the past. And the best part about this is that learning through PR releases rewarding chemicals in our brains, making all of us, dolphins, dogs, and kids, happy. What could be better?
What do you think? Do you find insights into human learning and behavior by observing dogs or other animals? Please share your thoughts!