Dr. Ps Dog Training

Science and Dog Training
by Mark Plonsky, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1998 (originally appeared in the Malinois Handler)

In this article, the relevance of science to an understanding of dog training and behavior will be briefly outlined. Note that I view dog training as an art rather than a science. However, just as the artist must learn the mechanics of mixing paints, I believe the dog trainer would be wise to learn what science has to say about dog behavior.

Science studies phenomena (events in the world) using specific and agreed upon methods. There are many branches of science. Two that are particularly relevant to an understanding of dog behavior are biology (the study of life) and psychology (the study of behavior and mental processes in humans and other animals). Within these two major branches are still smaller branches or fields. These branches and fields lead to the formation of different perspectives or points of view within science. There are at least four major points of view that have relevance to dog behavior. These include the biological, social, behavioral, and cognitive perspectives. I will briefly discuss each in turn. Note also that these different perspectives should be viewed as complementing one another, rather than being mutually exclusive.

The Biological Prospective

The biological perspective emphasizes what is going on inside the dog. This view includes an analysis of the dog's perception of its world. Dogs and humans have different sensory apparatus and thus perceive the world quite differently. Consider the joke "the dog really nose the world, but we do not see it that way". In any event, I believe an understanding of these differences in perception is invaluable to the dog trainer.

Another relevant area within the biological perspective is called "behavioral endocrinology" and is concerned with the effects of hormones on behavior. This area is helpful in understanding gender and developmental (age) differences in behavior and may provide insight into the effects of neutering/spaying.

A third relevant area within the biological prospective is called "behavioral genetics". Most scientists today believe that behavior is a result of a complex and continuous interaction of heredity (genetics) and the environment (learning). When talking about a particular behavior, scientists speak of how much of a contribution genetics have made compared to learning. For some behaviors, genetics plays a more important role than for others (for example, herding as compared to retrieving in a Border collie). We refer to behaviors that have a strong genetic component as "instinctive". Furthermore, we can selectively breed animals based on their behavior. Those dogs that show the behavior we desire (for example, pointing or retrieving in hunting dogs), are the ones we breed. If successful, the result will be offspring that are more likely to show the behavior we desire.

The last relevant area within the biological perspective is "evolution". This idea argues that dogs evolved from wolves. If there is any truth to this view, then studying the behavior of wolves (and perhaps other, related canines) may be helpful in understanding dog behavior.

The Social Perspective

The social perspective emphasizes the behavior of more than one animal at a time. It also places emphasis upon how the behavior of one animal can influence the behavior of another. One area that falls within the social prospective is nonverbal communication of emotion. This area is concerned with body language or being able to "read" the dog. Body posture (including tail and ear positions as well as body movements in general) and vocalizations (type and quality) tell a great deal about the emotional state and intentions of the dog. In addition to understanding how dogs communicate with each other, it is important to be aware that dogs also "read" our emotional state and intentions. Thus, we must also be aware of our own postures, expressions, and movements.

Another area that can fit within the social perspective is called "ethology". This field is a branch of biology concerned with the study of animal behavior using naturalistic observation as the main research method. In fact, this method is the primary tool for studying wolves and other canines in their natural habitat.

Although not an area or field of science, a phenomena that ties in with the social point of view is "imprinting". This refers to the situation where events that occur at a specific period early in the animals life (called a "critical period") have serious and long lasting effects upon the animal's adult behavior. This phenomenon is most noted in relation to attachment (or bonding) behavior. Thus, how the puppy is treated and what types of things it is exposed to can influence it's adult behavior.

The Behavioral Perspective

The behavioral perspective is a view within psychology that emphasizes the role of the environment (that is, learning) in determining dog behavior. As far as dog training goes, this view gives the most "bang for the buck". That is, a study of this area can give the dog trainer quick results. This view provides the dog trainer with a theory of how the dog learns during training. This learning or "conditioning" is typically divided into two types: classical and operant. I should note that there exists some controversy among learning theorists about whether there really are two distinct kinds, because there is so much overlap between them and they have some properties in common. In any event, operant conditioning is perhaps more directly applicable to dog training. Briefly, proponents of operant conditioning believe that "behavior is a function of its consequences". In other words, what happens to the dog after it performs a behavior is important in determining whether the behavior will occur again in the future. For example, if the dog performs a behavior and is then given something it likes (perhaps food, play, a hug, and/or a smile), it will be more likely to do it again in the future.

Classical conditioning is concerned with the events in the world that exist prior to the occurrence of biologically important events (food, pain). It has been shown that dogs will salivate to a bell that is regularly sounded prior to giving food. In other words, the dog's body begins to respond to the sound of the bell as if it were food. This is relevant to dog training, since one could argue that the bell has become a pleasant sound and makes the dog feel good. Thus, by manipulating events in the dog's world, we can influence how it feels. An understanding of this type of conditioning has led to the development of a type of therapy called "systematic desensitization". This therapy can be used with a dog that is fearful of loud noises (or other things).

The Cognitive Perspective

The cognitive perspective is a view within psychology that sees the animal as a processor of information. Terms like prediction, control, and expectancy are important to this view. A relevant phenomenon called "learned helplessness" could easily be explained by this view. Learned helplessness refers to the fact that an animal exposed to uncontrollable unpleasant events has a hard time learning that it has control when the events are once again controllable. In other words, a dog exposed to uncontrollable unpleasant events will "shut down" and have a hard time learning anything new (except perhaps fear through classical conditioning). The cognitive perspective would argue that during exposure to uncontrollable unpleasant events, the dog learned that "nothing it does matters" and this expectancy later interfered with its ability to learn in a new situation. The cognitive view blends nicely with the behavioral view and the combination of the two views (called the cognitive-behavior view) has become quite popular in psychology.


A brief outline of the relevance of science to an understanding of dog training and behavior was presented. Although I have only presented four perspectives, I hope I have made clear that many areas of science and well-known phenomena are involved in dog learning and behavior. In future articles, I will present more details on some of the issues and phenomena noted here.

[Other articles by this author]

Contact me at mplonsky@uwsp.edu or use my email web form.