The Genius of Dogs and Behaviorism

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The Genius of Dogs is intended as a fun yet comprehensive review of the published scientific literature relevant to understanding dog cognition. In the last ten years there has been an explosion of scientific research and discovery around dog cognition, and this work had not yet been reviewed in a popular book. Dognition is of course largely based on ideas and work reviewed in The Genius of Dogs.

The book explains how a cognitive approach allowed for the discovery of dog genius as well as an appreciation for the limits of dogs’ abilities. We used this new knowledge to propose a cognitive approach to training dogs

(see Chapter 10 of The Genius of Dogs). We’ve received a number of thoughtful responses to our proposal. I wanted to write this post to clarify how I think a cognitive approach to training complements the positive training techniques already in use today.

Based on our review of the published literature, we conclude that dogs are remarkable relative to other animals in terms of their ability to use information from humans in solving problems they otherwise cannot solve. In the social domain dogs have a gift. However, at the same time a cognitive approach has revealed ways in which dogs are unremarkable. In comparison with a variety of other species, it appears dogs are below average when it comes to understanding physical reasoning or learning things on their own. In our chapters on training we use this new scientific knowledge to suggest ways that trainers might harness the genius of dogs while working around a dog’s cognitive limitations. The goal of this cognitive approach would be to make current training techniques even more effective than they already are.

A number of questions have been raised about our cognitive approach to training, which I have attempted to  address below:

Why do you not discuss the work of some very accomplished trainers and scientists?
Some readers have inquired about the perceived exclusion of trainers and researchers who have written on animal learning that we do not cover in the book. One example is Dr. Karen Pryor, who has written a number of wonderful popular books about positive dog training. In the case of Dr. Pryor – for whom we have tremendous respect — we have been unable to find peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals on her work with dogs. Another example raised was Dr. Andy Lattal, who has many publications on animal learning but no peer-reviewed papers on dog learning. In making choices about the scope of the book, we decided to limit our treatment to peer-reviewed scientific literature on dog cognition. This means we did not address certain topics absent from the scientific literature, even if we have much respect for people we did not cover. Hopefully our review will inspire research into a whole host of areas where currently there are gaping holes in the scientific literature.

What are the behaviorism tenets you reject in the book?
There are several central tenets of behaviorism (based on B. F. Skinner’s work) that we reject in The Genius of Dogs. They are as follows:

  1. Behavior is dictated by nothing more than a series of stimulus-response mechanisms.
  2. In reaction to consistent stimulus, the response should become stronger over time.
  3. All animals and humans are uniform in the way they learn.
  4. All behavior can be predicted and controlled, and therefore the inner workings of the mind (thoughts, memories and emotions) are irrelevant.

We reject these because of the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that each of these tenets is false. Many readers and scientists may not agree with everything we conclude in the book. From my perspective, that’s a good thing; scientific disagreement is healthy and facilitates progress. However, with regard to rejecting the tenets above, we actually perceive little controversy in the cognitive literature on this point.

By rejecting the tenets of behaviorism, are you rejecting operant and classical conditioning?
While we reject behaviorism’s central tenets, we in no way mean to suggest that operant and classical conditioning are not well-established learning mechanisms. Learning theories integrating operant and classical conditioning are alive and well today.

The distinction we are making is that these forms of associative learning are one among dozens of types of intelligence – not the only type of intelligence that matters, as hypothesized by Skinner. A cognitive approach embraces associative learning and all other forms of intelligence including memory, communication, cunning, empathy, and inferential reasoning (to name a few).

Our assumption is that positive training techniques teach dogs new behaviors through more flexible mechanisms than operant and classical conditioning. This is not to suggest that dog trainers are not doing a great job using current training techniques — it is only to suggest that the cognitive mechanism by which dogs are learning is different than what Skinner would have predicted in his day.

Dogs are responding to current training techniques because they understand our communicative intent in some contexts, are motivated to remember what we show them, and understand how we are reacting to their behavior. Dogs are not always just learning blindly through trial and error — they are cognitive, like all other animals.

Why is a cognitive approach exciting?
This cognitive perspective helps reveal the genius of dogs and their remarkable social skills, allowing them to rapidly learn from us instead of relying solely on less flexible operant and classical conditioning mechanisms (which by definition require slow trial-and-error learning).

That is why we at Dognition are so excited about providing people with the ability to assess their dog’s cognition across these key dimensions. While Skinner argued that we could understand animal behavior without understanding the animal mind, a cognitive approach assumes we cannot understand animals without a comprehensive understanding of how their minds work.

I hope I have helped clarify some of our ideas, and that it will lead to even more constructive discussion on the subject. Thanks so much for reading.