How did we get here?


Dog training, of all kinds, seems to be top-of-mind these days. Great strides are being made in researching how dogs learn and how best to teach them, and the tide has finally turned away from traditional punishment techniques to using more humane, science-based methods to train them.

In the last ten years, brain research coming out of the University of Minnesota, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and The Canine Cognition Center, at Duke University has given us insight into how dogs perceive sights, sounds and smells, and their sense of memory; of their environment and people in their lives. All that new information has influenced the field of positive reinforcement training and improved the lives of dogs and owners here in the U.S., and probably abroad too!

While our modern training methods date from the 1940’s to the late 1980’s, from pioneers Marion and Keller Breland, Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor, what you may NOT know is that the true roots of positive reinforcement training go back much further.

Just like today, truffles were a prized ingredient in French cooking in the 1700’s, but the pigs used for truffle hunting ate a lot of what they found! Since dogs were cheaper to keep than pigs and didn’t eat the truffles, the hunters starting searching for truffles with their dogs (Poodles, mostly!) and rewarding the dogs with bread. The use of pigs for truffle hunting soon declined.

In 1885, S.P. Hammond, a writer for Forest and Stream Magazine (now Field and Stream), advocated praising dogs and rewarding them with meat when they did something right. Teddy Roosevelt’s friend, New Mexico bear hunter Montague Stevens then began training his hunting dogs with bread rewards, instead of punishing them for failures.

The next big breakthrough came in 1886, with the publication of Edward Thorndike’s theory of learning, based on the presentation of a stimulus and the reinforcement of a specific response. Thorndike’s Law of Effect was the big game changer. In layman’s terms, Thorndike showed that “Practice makes perfect” and that if reinforced repeatedly with positive rewards, animals learn very quickly. If those behaviors are not reinforced in a positive manner, no learning occurs and the desired behaviors disappear.

During the 1890s Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was looking at salivation in dogs in response to being fed, when he noticed that his dogs would begin to salivate whenever he entered the room, even if he wasn’t bringing them food. He started with the idea that there are some things that a dog does not need to learn. For example, dogs don’t learn to salivate whenever they see food. This reflex is ‘hard wired’ into the dog’s genetics; it’s an unconditioned response (i.e. a stimulus-response connection that required no learning).

Pavlov showed the existence of the unconditioned response by presenting a dog with a bowl of food and the measuring its salivary secretions However, when Pavlov discovered that any object or event which the dogs learnt to associate with food (such as the lab assistant) would trigger the same response, he realized that he had made an important scientific discovery. Accordingly, he devoted the rest of his career to studying this type of learning, called “Classical Conditioning”.*

In 1915, Edwin Richardson began training dogs for the military in World War I. The dogs he trained using rewards far out performed the ones trained traditionally (with punishment), and were instrumental in the war effort, for troop communication behind enemy lines and guard duty. Their success changed the minds of many trainers, who then adopted his method.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner was responsible for the big leap forward, in 1938. Working with pigeons, he stepped away from Classical Conditioning, to begin the discipline of “Operant Conditioning”, as a new and effective method of teaching both humans and animals. Through Skinner’s research and published work, we learned the equation that made positive reinforcement training what it is today: A “Antecedent” (something is presented), B “Behavior” occurs (the person/dog/pigeon does something) resulting in C “Consequences”; the subject learns if he made the right choice, by whether a reward or the absence of a reward is given. If he gets rewarded, the behavior is likely to re-occur. If not, he learns he made the wrong choice and tries again.

Along with the production of commercial dog food, after World War II, Skinner’s students, Marion and Keller Breland, began training dogs for shows and commercial clients, like General Mills. The Brelands pioneered the use of a “clicker” to better teach their animals at a distance, and to improve the timing for affirmations and delayed rewards. They were the first trainers in the world to train dolphins and birds, using Operant Conditioning. In the 1960’s they partnered with Bob Bailey, the U.S Navy’s first Director of Animal Training, to train dolphins for harbor patrol and guiding bombs, saving sailor’s lives.

Marine mammal scientist and dolphin trainer, Karen Pryor, came to work with Bailey and interpreted his work for use with domestic animals. She promoted the use of clicker training to improve timing and showed how trainers could improve communication with their clients and reward them from a distance. She published her landmark book “Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training” in 1985, and the revolution had begun.

So here we are in 2017, and look how far we’ve come! As loving owners and dedicated (even-part-time) trainers, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. How will you work with YOUR dog today?