Thursday, February 24, 2011

Learning Theory 101: What is Learning Theory?

Professor Maisy says "Class is in session!"

Have you ever run across dog trainers who babble on in psychological jargon? Since you’re reading this blog, the answer is probably yes- I’m guilty of it myself. I’ve made references to things like operant conditioning, the quadrant, extinction, classical conditioning, and desensitization. If you’ve ever wondered what these things mean, and how they apply to living with dogs, you’re in luck! This post is the first in a series about the various concepts collectively referred to as learning theory.

Let’s start with the obvious: just what is learning theory, anyway?

Technically speaking, a learning theory is a way of describing how living beings learn, and there are quite a few different theories. This website identifies five broad theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, design-based, and humanism. It’s kind of like religion; each faith is a different take on how people can connect with God, just as each theory has its own unique spin on how we learn.

When dog training enthusiasts say “learning theory,” what we’re really referring to is the specific branch of behaviorism. Although it was primarily developed by B.F. Skinner, it has its roots with Edward Thorndike’s work, and I would argue that the Brelands and Baileys have contributed a great deal, as well.

There are three basic assumptions behind behaviorism. First, learning is demonstrated by a change in behavior. Second, the environment shapes the behavior. And third, reinforcement is a key component to explaining how the learning occurred.

So what does that mean in plain English? In the words of Jean Donaldson, dogs do what works. Behaviorism would expand this to other animals and to humans as well, but the basic concept is that we learn to do things that have good consequences, and avoid the things that have bad ones.This means that everything your dog does, whether you find it adorable or annoying, is happening because he's learned that behavior pays off in some way. It's important to understand the principles behind the learning theory of behaviorism, because they allow you to change your dog's behavior in ways you like.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the two main ways this happens: through classical and operant conditioning. I’ll talk about counter-conditioning, which is the mainstay of many behavior modification plans, as well as the concepts of desensitization and extinction. I hope you’ll learn something in the process. If not, well, at least I’ll have had a chance to indulge in my geeky nature.


Catalina said...

oh my! Maisy with glasses is too precious!

Ettel, Charlie Poodle, and Emma Pitty said...

Can't wait for you to get to quadrants. The negatives make me squirm.

Raegan said...

I love the learning theories website! I started reading Alex and Me, about Alex the African Grey, today, and Irene mentions the behaviorist/Skinner model. Although Learning Theory dog trainers owe him a great deal, we're really going in a different direction.

Crystal said...

ETTEL- what about the negatives make you squirm?

RAEGAN- Did you see Patricia McConnell's blog post a few weeks ago about using the model-rival technique with her dog Willie?