Trainers Corner

Seek Truth, Avoid Stories


By: Jack Steffans

We often speak about behavior but what is behavior and why does it occur? While the
answer to this question is still evolving the science of behaviorism founded in the work of
Pavlov, Wattson, Thorndyke, Skinner  and many others has laid a foundation upon which we
can build an understanding of the truth of why we, dogs, cats and all animals behave as they
do.

Behavior is everything that an organism does, including covert actions like thinking (Pierce,
2008).  Here we encounter our first problem when we try to explain behavior. Often people
will try to explain the behavior of their pets, family and even themselves by using the
approach of psychologist and talk about what the animal is thinking and feeling. Thoughts
and feelings are a covert secret place which cannot be seen, measured, weighed, or even
located.  It is as if they do not exist except in our explanation. Every explanation ever given by
anyone to explain them from Whichdoctors, philosophers, religious leaders and to the most
highly educated leaders in the field psychology have no way to prove their explanations.
Skinner claims that when we try to explain something we cannot directly observe and
measure what we do is create a story, which he refers to as a hypothetical construct and then
start making up stories to support these made up explanation. We do this mostly because we
have been taught to do this based on our culture.  

To understand behavior it is imperative that we do not rely on things we have no access to
such as the internal thought and emotions and instead pay attention to the observable action
of the animal.

Since the beginning of life there has been one consistent theme, survival. Survival is an
inseparable relationship of life and its environment. This survival interaction of the organism
with its environment is the bases of all behavior. The saying is “change the environment and
change the behavior”.  Organisms live in an external environment through which they move
and seek sustenance. They also contain an internal environment which maintains their health
and ability to function in the external environment. When assessing the behavior of an animal
both external and internal environment need to be considered. For an animal to function well
both the internal and external environment need to promote the health and survival of the
animal.

Let’s be clear, no movement no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may appear
occurs without a need for that movement.  Every blink of an eye, every breath, every
heartbeat, every wiggle of a toe is behaviors that promote survival.

When seeking the cause of behavioral problems it is necessary that we observe the behavior
and not try to describe it based on stories. Never accept advice from someone who gives you
advice without observing the behavior first hand.  And never expect that the advice given is
correct. The path to improving behavior is a trial and error method. We need to manipulate
the environment and watch the animals’ reaction. If the changes lead to improvement then we
are moving in the right direction if not then we need to reassess and try other changes to the
environment. It is a hit or miss proposition but it works very well. When the correct thing is
done the animal will respond and you will see it. The animal will provide you the feedback
needed to help you on the hit or miss approach. Fortunately, animals do not tell stories. You
can always believe them.

References:

Pierce, W.D. & Cheney, C. D. (2008). Behavior Analysis and Learning: 4th Edition. New York, NY: Psychology Press