You got a new dog, he’s very smart. So you decided to call him Brain. You love Brain, he’s your best friend now, and you always do things together. Everything would be perfect if Brain didn’t have this little problem; He gets distracted very easily, and when you go out for a walk, he pulls you around. No matter how tight you hold the leash, he always wins. It doesn’t stop there, and most often you find yourself following Brain rather than the other way around.
You are so frustrated, you can’t get anything done. Brain always wants to eat, play, or go outside to chase squirrels. You had enough, it’s time to train Brain, take control, and show him who is in charge!
The first step to changing Brain’s behavior is understanding why the behavior is happening.
Training dogs is all about teaching them that you are the Alpha, and then using psychological techniques to reinforce their learning around key behaviors. The three different types of learning I’ll address here are called classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning.
Classical conditioning was first studied in detail by Ivan Pavlov, through experiments with dogs and published in 1897. In one of his most famous experiments, Pavlov offered food to dogs and rang a bell at the same time. Over time, the dogs began to salivate (an unconscious response to food) not only when food was offered, but also when the bell was rung.
In this way, a dog can be taught to associate a certain event (positive or negative) with another stimulus. This model explains why some dogs can recognize the word “walk” and will grab their leash or get excited if someone says the word.
Operant conditioning is based more on voluntary behavior. And It’s done by reinforcement or punishment. This theory was first elaborated by B.F. Skinner, who conducted experiments using rats and pigeons to assess learning based on stimuli. In this model, punishment doesn’t mean abuse or even physical force; it could simply be the removal of something positive, such as attention if a dog engages in bad behavior. Operant conditioning has four quadrants and they are:
1. Positive-reinforcement: This is when you reward your dog for performing a behavior that you would like your dog to repeat.
2. Negative-reinforcement: This is when pressure is applied, and it is only turned off when your dog complies.
3. Positive-punishment: This is when you use a physical correction (such as popping on the leash) to reduce the occurrence of a behavior.
4. Negative-punishment: This is when you withhold a reward from your dog. For example, your dog wants a treat, so you tell him to sit, he decides not to sit, so he doesn't receive the reward.
Social learning is whereby an animal learns by copying or mimicking the behavior of others. This can be a powerful tool to use when training a dog, especially if you have access to a very well-behaved dog that can act as a model.
The problem you have with Brain that I’ve mentioned earlier is a combination of two sub-problems. (1) Obedience: how to get Brain to listen to you and do what you ask. (2) Focus: once you get Brain’s attention, and he starts doing what you have asked, how to make sure he won’t quit after 8 seconds or whenever a random thing tries to get his attention.
If you want to sit to do some work, Brain won’t naturally sit quietly and let you do it. Brain wants to check social media, watch Youtube videos, and keep refreshing your email inbox in case you get a new email so he can rip it up.
You could try to talk some sense to him and convince him to let you work, but good luck with that. Instead, as Pavlov’s experiment suggests, you could train Brain by combining a natural stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus, and associate it to an unconditioned response.
For example, Brain loves coffee, when you offer him coffee (unconditioned stimulus), Brain gets excited (unconditioned response). Let’s say you want Brain to get excited when you sit down to write your morning pages or your daily todo list (which usually he doesn't like doing). In this case, the natural stimulus could be something like sitting down on your desk and saying: “Hey Brain, let’s sit down for 20 minutes and do XYZ”. You would say that while sipping your brewed delicious coffee to create the connection between enjoying coffee and getting something done.
To compare this to Pavlov’s experiment, saying “Hey Brain, let’s do XYZ” is like ringing the bell, the coffee is the treat, and the excitement that follows is the desired response. Eventually, If you repeat this enough times, “Let’s do XYZ” will become the conditioned stimulus and you will get the same excitement as the conditioned response even without having the coffee treat!
Of course, things may not go as smoothly as you hope. Making Brain give you the chance to be productive is just the first step and that doesn’t mean you will actually get the work done. To make sure that happens, we need to use the other training method to deal with the focus problem.
By now, you have Brain listening to what you say and let you start working on that important task you have to finish. However, Brain’s attention span is as short as 8 seconds as some studies suggest. How do you keep Brain engaged? Since you know Brain very well, you know how much he loves chocolate and to play PUBG on the phone. So you decided to take advantage of that, by using the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning, to maximize the possibility of getting Brain to perform with reliable obedience.
To use positive reinforcement you could tell Brain something like: “If we work on this task for 25 minutes without interruption you can have a piece of chocolate”. You want to reinforce the good behavior of focus by rewarding it with chocolate.
Don’t confuse this with negative reinforcement. If Brain wants to play PUBG, and you say: “you can play PUBG but we have to finish today’s blog post first”. Here you are turning pressure on, and when Brains complies your turn it off.
There are two very important things to remember when using negative reinforcement: (1) once the pressure is turned on, it can’t be turned off until Brain complies. If you told Brain that he can play after you finish the blog post, but you don’t finish it and you let him play, it defeats the entire purpose. (2) Once Brain complies, the pressure must immediately be turned off. If you finished your blog post don’t ask Brain for more work, doing so will make this method less effective later on.
For positive punishment, you may need the help of other people. For example, if you notice that Brain is spending a lot of time playing video games, you could ask your friend or partner to help you “punish” Brain, and force you to do more cleaning duties like doing the dishes. And if they catch you playing, you have to do 50 jumping jacks. The point is that an unpleasant consequence is introduced to the subject to discourage this behavior.
If after all of that Brain still didn’t comply, you can delete the game from your phone, or ask a friend to change your account password. That would be an example of negative punishment, you are taking something of value away.
Finally, to strengthen all the new behaviors you could use Social Learning. Take Brain and hang out with other people who have trained “Brains”. Either it’s a local group of friends or an online community. Interacting with other well-behaving “Brains” will help your Brain to do less of the bad behaviors and more of the good ones.
We want to believe so bad that we are rational beings, but that simply is not true. The same way a dog’s decisions are driven by impulse, most of your decisions are too as well. If you want to control your actions you need to control the impulses behind them. And the same way you can train a dog to do progressively more complex behaviors and tasks, so too can you train your brain to take on more and more disciplined activities.
Hopefully, by using the brain-dog analogy, you can see that there is progress to be made and it will take time and patience. As you don’t expect your dog to know how to spin or wave on day one, you shouldn’t expect your brain to be super focused and productive without training. So don’t forget to be nice to yourself and your inner-dog.