Think Outside the Skinner Box

When you search for information on how to train your dog, do you consistently find references to B.F. Skinner and the learning theory he proposed known as operant conditioning? Understanding operant conditioning and properly applying the concepts to dog training can be a daunting task, but is necessary for achieving success in dog training. This is where our new book series, The Dog’s Perspective: How to Train a Dog by Thinking Like a Dog, will be very handy. Not only is operant conditioning fully explained and applied to dog training in Volume 1: Philosophy Primer, but it also explores how operant conditioning from the Human’s Perspective, does not coincide with the dog’s point of view (The Dog’s Perspective). These differences in approaches is explained in how to “Think Outside the Skinner Box”.

The purpose of the Philosophy Primer is two-fold. First, two basic training philosophies, based on positive and aversive training, are presented and evaluated from a scientific viewpoint. Second, an alternative training philosophy, the Dog’s Perspective, is presented that is based not only on behavioral psychology, but equally important on other sciences, especially the biology of dogs. Below is a brief excerpt from the book. We look forward to having the complete book available very soon. Until then, we will be sharing some sneak peeks. Hope you enjoy!

Dog Training Asheville - Dog's Perspective 7

Think Outside the Skinner Box

The foundational research of operant conditioning involved the use a Skinner Box. Pigeons and rats were isolated in a Skinner Box under laboratory conditions and their behavioral responses to different stimuli (food and electric shocks) were observed. Operant conditioning has been applied to both human and animal behavior, with particular attention to dog training.

As with all psychological research conducted in sterile, laboratory conditions, extreme caution must be taken when applying results of laboratory studies to real world scenarios. There are logical reasons why we must think outside the Skinner Box in dog training. First, all psychological research is subject to interpretation from the human’s perspective; psychology is a subjective science, not an objective science. In addition, dogs living in our homes differ in many significant ways from the rats and pigeons living in laboratory cages. In the real world, dogs are not isolated in Skinner Boxes (thank goodness), but instead live and interact socially with humans and other creatures. In addition, the stimuli used in the Skinner experiments were either edible food or punishing electric shock, with nothing in between. Although food should be in everyone’s dog training toolbox, electric shock collars are not one of these tools, from the Dog’s Perspective. There are so many better training options other than electric shocking devices.

Operant conditioning can be complex to the casual observer. The problem is, many of these observers have dogs who need training, but are overwhelmed by the complexity inherent in current dog training approaches. The scientific jargon is confusing, especially when it comes to the two quadrants that represent punishment. Below, the four quadrants of operant conditioning are re-visited, but this time, thinking outside the Skinner Box.

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is an evolutionary biologist, college biology instructor, former zookeeper and certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA) with Lucky Dog Training Asheville and has over 30 years of training experience. The Dog’s Perspective is a training philosophy based on how dogs think.

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