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Canine Behavior: Genetics vs. Environment
The debate over nature vs. nurture as it applies to learning dates back over a hundred years. Certainly, during much of the 20th century, the distinction between learned and inherited behavior appeared much clearer than it does today. The concept that any type of behavior was either learned or merely developed without learning seemed a rationale and straightforward belief. Research based on these expectations caused some scientists to conclude that rat-killing behavior among cats, for example, is a learned behavior rather than an instinctive one, that human fears are all acquired, or that intelligence is completely the result of experience. Learning theorists were arguing at this point that most behavior is learned and that biological factors are of little or no importance. The behaviorist position that human behavior could be explained entirely in terms of reflexes, stimulus-response associations, and the effects of reinforcers upon them entirely excluding "mental" terms such as desires, goals and so forth was advanced by J.B. Watson in his 1914 book, Behavior:
An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. These early scientists routinely employed dogs in their research, with clear indications of learning behaviors taking place. However, the debate continues over just how much of this learning can be attributed to the environmental factors and how much relates to instinctual behaviors. This paper examines the relevant and scholarly literature concerning operant conditioning in general, and the extent to which it works with dogs in particular, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. There has been a unique bond between humans and dogs throughout the history that likely resulted because each species possessed certain characteristics that were equally beneficial to the survival of the other. Anyone who has ever owned a dog can attest to the powerful relationship that can develop between owner and canine. The answers to the "why?" Of the bond of dog ownership, for those who do not understand it, can be partly explained, at least in a clinical sense, by the long list of health factors that are associated with pet ownership and bonding. However, this relationship tends to be one-sided in many cases. "We have systematically, through seat-of-the-pants, applied genetics, been changing dogs. We have been modifying them to fit our immediate needs and even to fit our technology" (Dogs and People: The History and Psychology of a Relationship, 1996, p. 54). Human beings have played an instrumental role in creating dogs that fulfill specific needs. By applying the most primitive forms of genetic engineering, dogs have been bred to accentuate instincts that were evident from their earliest encounters with humans.
As noted previously, while details about the evolution of dogs remain unclear, the first dogs were hunters with keen senses of sight and smell; humans subsequently developed these instincts and created new breeds as need or desire arose over time (Dogs and People, 1996). Dogs were able to acquire food by scavenging the campsites of humans; humans could stay warmer in colder climates and have a live alarm system to warn them of predators by allowing the dogs into their dwellings. This close bond between the two eventually grew stronger, gradually maturing into a relationship that was much less utilitarian and more focused on higher-level needs, such as companionship and emotional security (Wendt, 1996).
According to "Dogs and People: The History and Psychology of a Relationship" (1996), "There is a long standing controversy as to where dogs come from. The current belief is that dogs started out originally as wolves. Early in our history we domesticated the wolf and that eventually became our pet dog" (p. 54). The study of such human-animal relations, known formally as anthrozoology, has seen an upsurge of interest in recent years, with researchers from many different academic fields contributing to creative studies involving the multiplicity of interactions between humans and dogs. Podberscek, Paul, and Serpell (2000) reviewed much of this work as it relates to relations between people and companion animals, and stated that the history of companionable human-animal interactions goes back to before the emergence of Homo sapiens as a distinct species. Human ancestors, Homo erectus, also lived in close relationship with the ancestors of modern dogs, Canine familiaris.
Further, long before the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, Amazonian Indians are known to have lived with dogs as companion animals (Schwartz, 1997). At the same time, in pre-modern Europe, people of all classes also lived with dogs as companion animals (Thurston, 1996). Unfortunately, all human-animal interactions have not been so amicable. Animals have been used and abused by humans in various ways, which almost all people consider unjust and inhumane (Wendt, 1996), and behavioral scientists continue to prefer dogs, among other species, for research purposes today (Gormezano, Prokasky & Thompson, 1987).
Operant Conditioning and Behaviorism. Instrumental, or operant conditioning, occurs when the presentation or withdrawal of a specific stimulus (i.e., reinforcer or punisher) is made contingent upon an organism's specific response. Stimuli that tend to increase the rate or magnitude of a specified response (such as a food reward or shock termination) are defined as reinforcers.
By contrast, stimuli that decrease response rate or magnitude (e.g., presentation of loud noise or shock) are termed punishers (Ader, Baum & Weiner, 1988). In human operant conditioning studies in which feedback for making the specified response is the reinforcer, the procedure is known as biofeedback. While instrumental and classical conditioning are both forms of associative learning, instrumental conditioning differs procedurally in that reinforcement (e.g., presentation of the unconditioned stimulus or U.S.) is contingent upon the making of a response that is specified by the experimenter (Ader, Baum & Weiner, 1988).
Operant conditioning is the foundation on which B.F. Skinner explored behavior. According to Ellis (1999), Skinner was possibly the 20th century's most influential psychologist, and developed "operant conditioning, which is the systematic use of positive reinforcement to modify behavior" (p. 34). A wide range of animal training, parenting techniques and incentive programs, with such common tactics as stock options, bonuses and sales commissions, were all influenced by Skinner's concept (Ellis, 1999).
Skinner based his approach on Ivan Pavlov's systematic experimentation with conditioning. Pavlov supervised several physiological laboratories of which the most prominent was the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg (Windholz, 1997). Between 1897 to 1936, at least 146 Pavlovians (graduate students and a few permanent coworkers) investigated animals' brain functions. "The Pavlovians usually ex-perimented at Pavlov's behest, for he rarely experimented himself, preferring to supervise each experimenter's work. Breach of the specified experimental procedures evoked Pavlov's anger" (p. 942). Pavlov was profoundly influenced by Darwin's concept of the struggle for existence and its functionalistic implications.
In the 1890s, Pavlov speculated that the upper tract of animals' digestive system responded functionally to specific foods, namely, a small salivary secretion to moist foods, such as meat, and a larger salivary secretion to dry foods, such as bread. Pavlov's student, S.G. Vul'fson tested this hypothesis in 1897 at the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine (Windholz, 1997). In addition to finding experimental support for Pavlov's hypothesis, Vul'fson also determined, without really trying to do so, that after eating the moist and dry foods, dogs that were "teased" from afar by these foods responded with a corresponding but diminished salivary secretion (Windholz, 1997).
Salivation to stimuli presented at a distance was viewed as being anomalous because, in view of the Cartesian conceptualization of reflexive action, an immediate contact between environmental agents and the organism's sensory receptors was required. "Pavlov realized that although salivation was of minor physiological importance in the animal's adjustment to the environment, it was, nevertheless, an observable response to stimuli" (Windholz, 1997, p. 943). In the initial Pavlovian salivary reflex conditioning experiments, the subjects used were restrained dogs; however, in the 1930s, Pavlov's laboratory obtained two chimpanzees for similar experimentation.
Pavlov was critical of Wolfgang Khler's scholarly explanation of problem solving, and successfully replicated Khler's experiment in which an ape had to reach a suspended bait by building a tower that consisted of different sized boxes. Through observations of the ape's behavior, Pavlov noted that it took several months for it to solve this problem; the ape was required to move the boxes directly under the bait, arrange the boxes in vertical order with the larger below the smaller, and test the construction's stability by climbing on the uppermost box and moving back and forth. Pavlov called this process the "chaotic" method which he believed to be identical to the E.F. Thorndike trial and error method (Windholz, 1997).
In Pavlov's view, any organism's fundamental responses to the external and internal environments are innately determined movements, the unconditioned reflexes, which, if complex, Pavlov termed "instincts." Pavlov subsequently identified several instincts, of which two were crucial to individuals' ontogenetic survival: 1) the alimentary instinct (which prompted the organism's food-seeking and eating behavior), 2) and the defensive instinct (which was aimed at avoiding noxious or harmful stimuli). "The sexual instinct enabled the phylogenetic continuity of…[continue]
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