Review of a book on dog behaviour
Today, I’d like to share with you a book I recently read about behavioural problems in dogs: MARY R. BURCH and Jon S. Bailey (1999), How Dogs Learn. 1st ed. Howell Book House, Wiley Publishing Inc.
Dr. Burch, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, is also an award winning writer.
Dr. Bailey, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Florida State University and Co-Director of the FSU Panama City Masters Program in Applied Behavior Analysis, is also President of Behavior Management Consultants, Inc.
Between the two of them, they have published hundreds of articles and several books on dog training.
How dogs Learn treats the subject of operant conditioning in the world of dog training. It explains, clearly, with great detail and at length all the principles, techniques, resources, tools and nuances involved in operant conditioning and illustrates them with plenty of examples. In the first two chapters, the authors give a detailed account of the historic background that lead to the emergence of this training technique; the book explains how both scientists/researchers and dog trainers ended up using very similar techniques, sometimes fruit of their own experience with the animals, and sometimes taking into consideration what one another was doing.
In the main body of the book, the authors explain and review the basic principles of behavior and try to give an answer to some unsocial or undesired pet behaviours, looking deep into the possible causes for them without forgetting possible medical causes, which many times are overlooked by owners, trainers, and even veterinarians. Once possible medical causes have been discarded, many tips are provided in terms of how to readdress/modify this type of behaviour. The books goes through the different methods for teaching new behaviours (reinforcement, shaping, prompting and fading, chaining) and, perhaps more importantly, methods to get rid of unwanted behaviours such as extinction, differential reinforcement, antecedent control.
Towards the end, there is a reflection about the ethics of the use of punishment in training techniques. It is obvious that the authors prefer the use of positive reinforcers rather than negative ones ("Any decision to use punishment should be made only after trying positive alternatives"), although they think the use of punishment might be justified in certain exceptional cases (e.g., if the dogs needs to learn quickly in order to save its life). But, they add something I had never thought of and which I found very reasonable: "Try the punisher on yourself", in order to experience the level of discomfort the dog is going to experience itself.
I was pleasantly surprised because I didn't expect a book with that level of scientific and technical detail and accuracy to be, at the same time, so easy to read. Agreed, I am a vet and I am mad about the subject, so I have to admit that it might be a bit over the top for the average dog owner, but in my opinion the book almost reads like a novel and it integrates lots of concepts and data without even noticing it. The use of examples, graphics, tables, explanations and illustrations contributes to this easiness and helps to improve memorization. The design of the pages, with frequent aide memoires (the little paw prints), diagrams, etc., took me back to my days as a student, when I used to draw them all the time myself to help me remember. The book uses technical words, but at the same time it explains them using natural language. All the examples are easy to follow and explanatory, very helpful to understand some of the more difficult concepts.
I also liked the chapters headings, in italics and a smaller font, which I found both helpful (to understand what the main heading means, memorize said meaning and have an approximate idea of what the contents of the chapters are going to be), and funny. I think a bit of humour helps greatly to memorize things and makes the reading a lot more enjoyable.
I think my favourite ones probably are "You're getting warmer" for "Shaping", "Can you give me a hint?" for "Prompting and fading" and "Click here for more options" for "Using Conditioned Reinforcement".
I really appreciate the way in which the book is structured, the way in which the authors approach the subject, first with a title that goes straight to the point and uses plain language (e.g., Schedules of reinforcement: which ones and how many?). Then, an explanation follows written with clear language and easy to follow. If that's not enough, many chapters include examples from the real live and, as I mentioned before, the whole book is interspersed with graphics, tables, pictures, etc. If the concept is still too hard to grasp, a simple explanation a five-year-old can understand is given ("In other words, make it easier to be good and the dog is more likely to be goog"), which I find very helpful indeed.
In my opinion, this book is very useful for dog trainers, but also for conscious dog owners, veterinary students and even veterinarians who decide to deepen or refresh their knowledge in this field.
Many owners, who tend to humanize their pets, would benefit a great deal from reading this book, but more importantly, their pets would obtain the greatest benefit. In my professional life I have come across many owners who resented their dogs because, they said, they were doing their best to make their lives difficult, or were vengeful, or resented their owners, or were just plain difficult. Well, you're wrong, I would have liked to tell them. I tried my best to explain to them that, as How Dogs Learn explains, the animals are always right in the way they behave, i.e., they just follow their behavioural rules. If they are behaving in a way we don't like, it is us who are at fault, either because we haven't been able to provide the right environment, or reinforcement, or message, or signal, or because we are indeed reinforcing inadvertently the very same conduct we want to eliminate (like, ending up giving in to a begging dog, which constitutes intermittent reinforcement, which encourages the conduct even more!). Or like patting and consoling a scared dog when we want the dog not to fear that specific stimulus. The examples are endless.
We are the rational beings, and therefore, the responsibility is ours. I believe How Dogs Learn is successful in conveying this message and, if the book only achieved this, it would already be worth reading it.
There are many other books that treat the same subject (in its entirety or as part of a book that covers more subjects), but they are either too simple or too complex.
I personally found the book G. LANDSBERG, W. Hunthausen, L. Ackerman (2003), Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. 2nd ed. Elsevier Saunders extremely useful and a source of academical and technical knowledge, but I would never recommend it as a pleasurable reading for the average dog owner, or maybe even dog trainers. The complexity and depth with which it approaches every subject too much if you are not interested in acquiring a university-level kind of knowledge.
On the other hand, if what the reader wants is to deepen their knowledge on a certain topic, How Dogs Learn offers a long list of references to keep them busy for a long time.
The Index I found very well organized, thorough and useful. Apart from the Chapters index, the book includes an alphabetical index which was of great help to me when I had to answer the questions in this module.
The illustrations could have been better, granted, maybe clearer, bigger, in colour, with better definition... but that would have probably increased the price of the book and done nothing much to improve the quality of the text or the technical knowledge it contains.
A CD-Rom would have been a great addition to the book, since it would have helped navigate through it much more easily and the finding of information much faster and thorough. Again, that would have increased the price of the book but, in this case it would have probably been well worth it.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I learnt many things from it, not so much about the reasons for inadequate behaviour, but certainly a lot about training techniques and ways to modify behaviour. I found it extremely useful and I am sure I will refer back to it many times in the future.
And don't worry. In my next article I will go back to the translation world.
And don't worry. In my next article I will go back to the translation world.