The Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider is not a dog training book but serious dog trainers should consider it. It’s easier to read than Alfie Kohn’s and packed with relevant science and animal examples. The author delves into assumptions we’ve made for years about why consequences work, assumptions that have led to failure in applying them. For example, charging parents a fee for being late to pick up their children from daycare did not decrease the late pickups. On the contrary, when parents paid for the service they felt less guilty about being late and late pick ups increased over all.
This is common in dog training when we choose a consequence that is not understood by our dogs as a bad thing. Case in point, pushing dogs away when they jump up. We try to figure out why the push doesn’t work and make it more harsh but it doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t work. Stop.
Sway by Ori and Rom Brafman is another book geared at a wider audience but important for those who want to understand how training works. We’ve heard about the fall out of coercion, but it turns out offering the possibility of a reward up front works the same way. Once the pleasure center of our brain is engaged, our choices change dramatically. Case in point, residents of a neighborhood were polled on their objection to a nuclear waste facility needed to increase nuclear energy options. Half of the residents accepted the proposal for the good of all. But when the government offered to compensate the residents for supporting the dump, only 25% continued to support the project. Once a reward was offered in advance of the project, the reward had to be “worth it” to succeed. When neighbors were originally polled they were accessing other brain power that resulted in more altruistic risk/benefit analysis. This is the very reason that clipping a dog’s nail, then popping a treat in his mouth is completely different than jiggling the treat bag and heading toward your pup with the clippers. It’s just not worth it for the dog.
And now I’ve just begun The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow and in the first chapters he exposes why we believe punishment works even though science says it doesn’t. It’s so simple. All behavior tends toward a mid level of performance. The good old bell curve. Most of your dog’s recalls are going to be okay. Some will be stellar and some non existent. But most will be acceptable. So if your dog performs a beautiful recall and you profusely praise him, his next recall is likely to be okay. This frustrates you as a trainer because it seems praise or rewards did not serve you well. However, when he doesn’t come at all and you harshly reprimand him, it’s very likely his next recall will be back in the mediocre range. But voila! That leads you to believe that punishment worked because….things seem better now. Our finite brains are not very good at accepting probability and random occurrences but if we don’t identify our bias away from fact and reportable data, we will by chance keep reaching the mediocre ourselves.
Books like these are popular press but the science behind their messages is what is important for dog trainers to understand. Biases we use to decipher the world as well as biological and genetic influences on our behavior and the behavior of our dogs is impossible to escape. Understanding them is our only hope to be better dog trainers but also to better interpret the world around us.
Next up, the Philosopher and the Wolf.….a book by a man who successfully lived with a wolf for his lifetime and his reflections on dog training and how humans understand the world. Perfect.