Editors NOTE: The following article in 2 parts discusses the 2 sciences that make up what we need to understand animals: One is Ethology and the other is what Karen calls Behaviourism and includes Operant Conditioning and how animals learn.
Opposite ends of a bridge
In the years during and since my dolphin training days I have been a participant in both scientific fields. I belong to both societies (the Animal Behavior Society and the Association for Behavior Analysis). I publish scientific papers in both kinds of journals. Its not common; I personally know only three other people who belong to both ABS and ABA. Both branches of science have a lot to tell us; but the people engaged in them almost never mix.
I used to think of myself as standing perpetually on a bridge, with a foot in each camp. I used to expend a lot of time trying to talk psychologists into understanding or at least coming to watch what we were learning about the animals with their science. No luck. No luck in the other direction, either: the behavioural biologists were not much interested in training or reinforcement. I once participated in a Navy-sponsored conference on dolphin cognition, consisting of about twenty hand-picked famous scientists and me. After we had listened to one long story after another about how some dolphin had done some amazing thing that demonstrated cognition I finally spoke up and described how one trains that kind of behavior. The ability to problem-solve is an outcome of the reinforcement contingencies used in dolphin training, I pointed out. Instead of everyone saying, Oh! Right! Of course! Now how can we use that, there was a long silence, and then a famous brain scientist said That is Skinner stuff, that is so out of date, you will never get a grant with that! Of course I did not need or want grants, so it was an ineffective threat; but I got the message: shut up, Karen.
Both branches of science have a lot to tell us; but the people engaged in them almost never mix.
In any case, marine mammal trainers often speak about the work and the animals in ways that ruffle the feathers of academicians. Once at Sea-World the head trainer and I were watching a junior trainer working with a killer whale. The killer whale was lolling sidewise some distance away, keeping one eye on the inexperienced trainer as he tried to make the whale jump. The head trainer laughed, and spoke for the whale: You and what army?
Putting words in an animals mouth like this is often labeled anthropomorphism; it is not. The trainer is illustrating a behavioural event, often but not always in a training interaction, by using the language a human might use if the human were in that particular situation and emotional state. I call it trainer metaphor and to me it is an indication that the speaker is using both sciences.
The science that pervades the dog world these days is ethology: the genetic or biological approach to behavior. Applied animal behaviourists, trained in ethology, use this science therapeutically. One might correctly identify, let us say, submissive urination in a pet, and suggest ways the owner can behave to mitigate the fearfulness. Many dog trainers and instructors have incorporated concepts from ethology into their practices or writing. Pet owners often have at least a loose acquaintance with ethological terms such as alpha animal, dominance, territory, and aggression.
But a general awareness of animal behavior does not mean people read the animals accurately. I am amazed at how often people fail to recognize canine signals of simple fatigue, much less signs of real stress. Pet owners interpret threats as play and play as threats. Traditional trainers and dog sports competitors ignore that chronically worried expression -Oh dear, now what am I supposed to do? - that I call the crossover look. Charismatic dog trainers on television borrow phrases such as dominance theory to justify terrorizing someones yappy Yorkie into never barking again. As the cowed dogs expression of bewilderment turns rapidly into misery or even terror, its owners, the audience, and the TV producers who created the show unquestioningly accept the trainers methods and explanations. And when some once-overly bouncy dog is now hiding under the furniture with its tail between its legs, thats seen as an improvement. Clicker trainers can not bear to watch.
Using both sciences
You do not need two Ph.D.s to utilize both sciences; that ability seems to be a natural outcome of the clicker experience. At our first Clicker Expo of this season, in Minneapolis in November, we introduced a new feature, Learning Labs. These were sessions in which people with dogs could try out what they had just learned in a lecture about some aspect of operant conditioning, and other people could watch. I taught two Learning Labs and visited several others. I was thrilled to see that many of the spectators were visibly relishing both the operant conditioning procedures they were watching, and the animal behavior they were seeing.
During an exercise on transferring a cue from the voice to an object, a trainer was timing her cues wrong, so they did not make sense. The dog began to bark at her. In trainers metaphor the dog was saying, Tell me what you mean, darn it, I do not understand! And several spectators smiled kindly. They were not frowning, thinking That dog is barking, what a nuisance, it should not be allowed. They understood what generated the protest, and they were both sympathetic and amused.
In a shaping exercise, I chose three people and their dogs to develop a behavior involving a box. One dog leaped over its box; another quickly learned to step up with its front paws on the box. The third owner was shaping her golden retriever to put both front paws inside the box. Now the first two teams sat down. The room fell silent while we all watched the dog figure it out. There were gasps, laughter, and nods, not when the trainer made a smart move, but when the dog did. When the dogs tail started to swing (Yeah, I think Iíve got it!), applause pattered around the room - not for the finished behavior, but for the dogs awareness of progress. People were truly seeing what was going on with the dog. I was watching people exhibiting dual perceptual skills. Seeing the animal whole. Enjoying the view from the bridge.
I am beginning to think the clicker training movement might, in coming years, make a real difference to both of the mother sciences. And I can tell you, my fellow trainers, it feels great not to be out on that bridge all alone! I can not WAIT to see what happens in my Learning Labs at the next two Clicker Expos.
Written by Karen Pryor: Many more wonderful articles can be found at www.clickertraining.com