In a previous blog, I mentioned a site that allows you to test your dog’s intelligence, called Dognition.com. It is a reflection of the expanding field of study in the last two decades. Advances in brain imaging and remote monitoring, along with some serious scientific studies reveal an expanse of thoughts, feeling and memories inside their heads. So here’s a summary:
Pet education 101
A quick review is necessary, on the two principal methods of animal training: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning, developed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, involves placing a neutral signal before a reflex or automatic response. Most often those signals are a sound or a visual cue. In the classic example, (Pavlov’s dog), rings a bell at mealtime, resulting in him salivating in anticipation of food.
Operant conditioning, developed by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, relies on reinforcement after a voluntary behavior. A dog receiving a reward after retrieving a ball is an example. In the clicker training version, the click becomes the reward. The main difference between the two methods is that classical conditioning involves an involuntary response to a stimulus, while operant conditioning connects a voluntary behavior and consequence.
Most pet parents use operant conditioning to shape puppies and kittens from an early age. We are trying to elicit a response, such as sit, stay, come or fetch. Historically, negative reinforcement was used to train,which was fear based and has largely been replaced by positive reinforcement, or reward-based operant training. Your dog or cat comes to associate you with good things. You are rewarding the behaviors you want and ignoring those you don’t. It has proven to be a more effective way to train.
Neurologic meat and potatoes
Operant conditioning has also been used successfully to train nearly every animal species, including humans. It works especially well in dogs and cats because it taps into higher brain functions, not primitive fear-based reactions. It turns out that our pets’ brains are remarkably similar to our own. Cat brains have folds similar to ours, and have 300 million neurons, compared to our 100 billion, and dog’s 160 million. Complexity of thought is believed to be associated with number of neurons, not simply brain size.
Having more neurons may also help explain the differences in short-term memory between dogs and cats. Cats have been shown to remember up to 16 hours, while dogs struggle to recall beyond 5 minutes. Thus, if you come home and find poop on the rug, yelling and rubbing their nose in it will not help at all in training. He will only remember that you are home and upset, not that he pooped on the rug. Your cat, though, may hold a grudge a lot longer. This ability also allows them to remember affection and love, and may reward you later with nuzzles and cuddles. These extra synapses also provide felines with excellent digital dexterity to climb, hold, dig and pluck. And they learn by observance, needing only to watch you open the door a few times to figure out how to do it themselves.
Still, don’t discount the amazing dog brain. It has evolved to excel at navigational tasks, tracking subtle movements, sounds and smells, and following gestures. In a maze, have them follow a point or gaze, or offer them the choice between bigger and smaller portions of peanut butter, and they will be the star of the show. And, significantly and obvious to dog lovers, they appear to use a large number of neurons detecting our moods and offering just the right nudge or lick when we most need it. Science call it “interspecies empathy”, but many might call it genius, or at least a very high EQ.
If you could remember 3 things…
Understanding you pets learn may help you train.
- Timing is everything. Offer the reward the INSTANT your pet does something good. This way they can draw the association between the command or cue (“Sit!”), the action (Rear end on ground), and the reward (yum!).
- OOPS, I did it again. Not understanding how your pet forms associations may actually cause you to condition bad behavior! If your dog barks like mad when your doorbell rings, you may try to distract him with a command he knows such as “sit” and a treat. In fact, he is learning that the doorbell, combined with a quiet sit will get him a treat. To get him to stop barking you’ll need to ignore his bad behavior and offer a reward only when he has completely calmed down and focuses.
- Remember, you dog is like a 3 year old. Back to my human baby analogy, don’t expect him to infer one lesson from another. He is not an adult. Being in the right place at the right time is key to catching the correct behavior when it happens, rewarding immediately and cementing the association in his brain. If you miss the magical instant of the action you are trying to train, your opportunity has passed. This takes time and patience, but the rewards are great and lifelong. Encouraging and lovingly teaching is not just a compassionate way to teach, but an effective one.