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Book Review
How Dogs Learn
by Mary R. Burch & Jon S. Bailey

Review by: Kate Connick, July 2003

Mary Burch & Jon Bailey's How Dogs Learn is a very well done, basic guide to learning theory as applied to dogs. Perhaps too academic to appeal to the average dog owner, this is an excellent book for aspiring dog trainers or pet owners who possess a greater than casual interest in the mechanics of canine learning.

The authors begin by briefly examining the parallel and then intersecting histories of both behaviorism and dog training. They point out several amusing yet often-overlooked facts, among them the reality that one doesn't have to know behaviorist jargon or have a PhD in order to train a dog.

German Colonel, Conrad Most, wrote an early book about dog training in 1910. The authors credit Most with, "demonstrat(ing) an understanding of operant conditioning concepts such as primary and secondary reinforcement, shaping, fading and chaining 28 years before the publication of B.F. Skinner's The Behavior of Organisms."

To their credit, the authors respectfully acknowledge the contributions of such pioneer trainers as William Koehler, Blanche Saunders, Milo Pearsall, and Winifred Strickland, even though the authors would not recommend their traditional philosophies and methods to today's dog trainers. Burch and Bailey clearly embrace an approach that seeks to minimize aversives, yet not to the extent that their attitude mars the book's content. It is refreshing to read proponents of primarily positive methods who are not arrogant and self-righteous. Their professionalism in this regard is laudable.

Just as they give credit to heavier-handed methods styles of training than they themselves are comfortable with, they temper their praise of ultra-positive methods. For example, they suggest that Ian Dunbar's brilliance is less in creating a more effective method than in promoting a more pet-owner, user-friendly, palatable one. He "developed a positive, motivational training method using food rewards that unskilled trainers could learn to use effectively."

The authors present a balanced picture and imply that the best option may be, "trainers who adopt a moderate approach... use positive methods, such as food reinforcement and conditioned reinforcers, to teach new skills... also use mild punishers, such as leash corrections, in order to speed up the training process."

Although the authors clearly have a distaste for force-based, traditional methods, they give an amusing example of the ineffectiveness of an all-positive approach when faced with a dog that, "just didn't want to do it." Rather than forcing her dog, the owner simply stopped trying to train the behavior. Obviously that's not always a practical option.

The bulk of the book presents behaviorist concepts and vocabulary in simple but accurate terms. The authors define reinforcement, punishment, stimulus control, and related items. Simple chapter titles capture the essence of the concepts, as well - e.g., "Shaping: You're getting warmer," or "Extinction: If I ignore it, it will go away."

Although grounded in learning theory, the authors attempt to be practical and realistic. They sensibly note that:

"Good trainers understand the whole dog. Although we can make some generalizations about learning theory and what happens when an animal is reinforced or punished, we cannot deny the role that genetics and breed or species differences play when we are trying to change and animal's behavior."

In other words, a dog is not a dolphin.

A good example of their common sense is found in the chapter about extinction, which notes not only potential applications but also limitations. The authors highlight a typical example of something that should be obvious, "For extinction to work, the true reinforcer for the behavior must be identified... a dog that is barking in the backyard will not stop barking when you ignore it if the reinforcer is the dog in the yard next door or the squirrels running along the fence."

They also are blunt that not all problems are training issues. Physical discomfort, breed predisposition, and unmet basic needs are commonly found at the root of behavior problems. None of these can be fixed via training, per se.

The authors tackle ethics, specifically regarding the use of punishment. Although they don't appear squeamish about "mild forms of punishment, such as withholding attention for misbehavior, verbal reprimands, and leash corrections," it is stronger forms of punishment such as striking a dog or using shock or pinch collars to which they object. Their contention that dogs should be treated "the same way we'd like to be treated" is poorly conceived and unconvincing. Nevertheless, it would be hard to disagree with their general rule that "the least aversive method that will be effective should be used." The authors don't contend that punishment is wrong; merely that it should be withheld as a last resort after more positive methods have failed.

Ultimately this is a very good book, in no small measure due to its overall balance and factual accuracy. It is readable and easy to understand, but it is a book about theory and not a how-to book. The reader seeking specific instruction on how to train their dog will be disappointed with this well-referenced, vocabulary-laden, behaviorist handbook. Also disappointed will be the reader seeking insight into how dogs as a species think, learn, and relate to the world. This book is more about learning theory, per se, than it is about dogs themselves. That being said, it covers its topic extremely well.

How Dogs Learn, by Mary R. Burch & Jon S. Bailey.
Published by Howell Book House, 1999. ISBN: 0876053711

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