It is interesting to note that these two men whose research had a great impact on our understanding of dog learning and behavior were actually human doctors.
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose main area of study was digestion. Part of his research involved measuring saliva production under various conditions, and part of his experiments involved dogs.
As his research progressed, he started to notice that dogs salivated before they were actually given any food, and he decided to investigate this phenomenon. He worked out that the dogs were fed by laboratory assistants wearing white lab coats, and they responded to these lab assistants even when they didn’t have their dinner bowls in their hands.
Pavlov then started connecting food with other signals. For example, he would ring a bell then feed the dogs. Before too long, the dogs would drool at the sound of the bell, anticipating a meal.
A learned response (for example salivation) to a particular trigger (a white coat or the sound of a bell) is known as a conditioned reflex. The process by which dogs make the connection between the stimulus and the reflex is called conditioning. Dog trainers who use clicker training methods will use this phenomenon when they condition their dog to the clicker. They will click, then give their dog a treat over and over again, until the dog links the click with being given a treat.
B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist who studied at Harvard University. His early work was with rats and some apparatus that he constructed. The rats were taught to press a bar, but what happened after they pressed it strongly influenced how often they did so. If pressing on a bar resulted in a treat being dispensed, the rats pressed the bar more and more. He called this behavior “operant conditioning” because it operated under the effects of the environment the rats were in.
Skinner used his newly discovered theories of behavior modification during World War II, when he trained pigeons to keep pecking on a target which kept missiles on track. He then applied them to teaching mathematics to children. At the time, children were asked to complete a whole page of maths problems before being given any feedback, and learning if they had answered them correctly. Skinner invented a “curriculum machine” which delivered questions to a student, assessed their answers and rewarded them for being right. He then spent about 10 years working with students and teachers using operant conditioning to improve learning performance.
Skinner’s discoveries are used regularly in dog training, whether it is deliberate or not. Any behavior that is rewarded, is likely to be repeated. So, if you are teaching a dog to sit and give him a treat every time his bottom hits the ground, he is much more likely to sit again, and again. Similarly, if your dog manages to steal a treat when he jumps onto the kitchen table, he has been rewarded for this behavior, and will probably do it again. Whenever you are interacting with your dog, keep a close eye on what you are rewarding.