Thursday, October 20, 2011

Honking Dog Trains Man

On Sunday, my wife and I were awakened because of a car horn sounding in the driveway next to our house.  Initially, in my groggy state, I thought it might be a car alarm. Then I considered that it might be the friends of one of the teenagers who are our neighbors.  Just as I thought about getting up to see "what was the matter," as the classical Christmas story says, the honking stopped.

A few seconds later the honking began again and stopped with a man's voice yelling, "Cut that out!"  However, the honking started again.  At this point I decided that I needed to look out the window and offer some neighborly advice to the horn honker.  I was surprised to see a small dog with his hind legs on the driver's seat and his front paws on the middle of the steering wheel.

I observed as the older gentleman walked away from the car.  I realized that my neighbors were out of town and that this man was mostly likely feeding their black lab, Sophie, who did not travel with the family.  As the man walked away, the small dog inside the car began honking the horn!  Immediately the man yelled out to the dog and walked back to the car.

In the classic book, Science and Human Behavior, B. F. Skinner describes the behavioral principles that govern much of human (and animal) behavior. The premise of the book is that behavior is influenced by the consequence of the behavior.

If a behavior receives a positive reinforcement (for example, you give your dog a treat when he obeys a command) that behavior is more likely to be repeated.  However, if you are punished when engaging in a certain behavior, theoretically, you may be less likely to repeat it.  Research and history have both shown that punishment is largely ineffective in the long-term.  Short-term, it may be some immediate effects, but usually those effects are brief.  The table below depicts the conditions under which behavior is influenced.

Karen Pryor is an animal trainer and has worked with large marine mammals such as dolphins and orcas.  In her book, Don't Shoot the Dog, she discusses the fact that whales do not accept punishment.  If the mammal misses a trick and is given a punishment, the whale will no longer respond to the trainer. 

In the case of the dog and man I described earlier, the dog was positively reinforced because when he honked the horn, the man gave attention to the dog.  The man was negatively reinforced because he increased his behavior of providing attention to the dog in order to have the negative event (honking horn) stopped.

It is possible to have our behavior influenced, without our knowledge, by the animals and people around us.  By becoming more aware of what influences our behavior, we can take an active role in what occurs in our lives.  Additionally, a knowledge of behavioral principles will help influence others.  I encourage you to read either Science and Human Behavior (challenging read) or Don't Shoot the Dog (fast and easy read).

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