Chad can train!

Chad can train!

Welcome to Chad Mackin, our Guest Blogger today. Chad is perceptive and ready to tackle the deeper implications of the ideas and principles of our work. Here he explores training beyond operant conditioning – and why it is worth going there. Enjoy! Kayce

The statement: All operant conditioning requires participation.


That is a true statement to an extent and I have no problem with it on it’s face. However, I don’t think we mean the same thing when we say “participation”.

But we may not be using the same words the same way. When I speak of operant conditioning vs cognitive learning I am using (to the best of my understanding) in the sense Skinner meant operant conditioning. I am aware that the principles of operant conditioning work absent of Skinner’s beliefs regarding thought and cognition, but the fact remains the process was designed to demonstrate learning absent thought. Using Skinner’s model I must accept a few concepts at the start.

thought does not affect behavior, but rather is a behavior
Learning = equals a behavior change
Learning is an event not a process
These are all assumptions made by Skinner or those who closely followed him in his work. They are foundational precepts of the “science” of behaviorism.

Under these precepts and animal who learns via operant conditioning is participating, but not in the full sense I mean.

Without thought, the animal begins by repeating an instinct driven behavior which has resulted in a drive related consequence. On a subconscious level, learning has occurred, but the animal may repeat the behavior frequently without being aware of his actions or the cause and effect relationship. It is unnecessary to ask (or answer) whether or not the animal understands the nature of the cause and effect relationship. It is enough that the two events are paired together. One precedes the other, causality doesn’t (enter) in to it. So while we may produce the reward, the process does not create a communicative dynamic. A trainer need have no more connection with the dog than a Skinner box. The dog is not “working” he’s seeking. He is not participating in a cooperative process; a partnership. He is simply manipulating the environment to give him what he has come to expect.

That process works. It’s been proven to work. That is, as far as I can tell, the purest form of operant conditioning.

What I seek is a different process. And I believe most trainers who use Skinner’s principles do too. But when you discount the dog’s native intelligence, or insist that thought does not influence behavior you reduce the complexity to a series of “if/then” statements and in my opinion do the dog and the trainer a great disservice.

But even more problematic for me is the notion that learning equals a behavior change. I get the basis for it. If we are going to measure success we need to have a measurable outcome. And so Skinner decided (probably wisely) that a change in behavior would be a pretty good yardstick for a discipline called “behaviorism”. But such a choice ignores the reality that we actually can’t measure “learning”. Certainly a change in behavior can signify learning, but to say learning can’t occur without a change in behavior is problematic. (I agree)

Because Skinner has removed the mind from the process, he has ignored the space between conceptual understanding and practical application. In this matter he really has no choice if he is to maintain his theory that thought doesn’t affect behavior. This requires him to view learning as an event, not a process. There can be no process if there is no piecing together of information. In fact, there can be no “information” as such. Only new patterns to recognize; effective or ineffective behavior.

This model of learning is so very far removed from the way I see myself and my role as a trainer.

I begin with the following assumptions:

The dog in front of me has a functioning brain and knows how to use it.
The dog has been genetically programmed to seek and process information from humans (more so than a our closest animal relatives)
The dog wants to communicate on a substantial level
So from the very first step, my world view creates a substantially different dynamic than the strict behaviorist. A Skinner box cannot do what I do, no matter who well programmed.

I desire the dog to seek my help in problem solving. I desire the dog to see me as a partner, teacher, and guide. Dr. Daniel Tortora once said “I just want the dog to see me as the kind of guy who gives good advice” I love that. That’s what I spend my day every doing. I don’t see dogs as “lemon brains” ala Jean Donaldson. I see them as sovereign creatures with complex minds and motivations. They are friends, companions and partners. I do not program them like computers and I do not “dominate” them. I converse with them. I speak. They speak. I change. They change.

They are not merely trying to find the best way to get what they want out of the environment. They are seeking to understand what I am trying to show them. Understanding and cooperation is it’s own reward. They are built for partnership.

Chad Mackin

*Chad, thank you for letting us share this article here. I appreciate your cogent assessment and astute observations. Best wishes, Kayce