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Behavioral Science Meets the Barking Dog


The principles and procedures of applied behavior analysis permeate this website and inform every aspect of its perspective.

This page will provide you with a quick overview of behavioral science as it pertains to conditioning canine behavior. Although this article is actually more about behavior modification than chronic barking, we are providing this background information in the hope that it will enrich your reading of the material contained on, and facilitate a better understanding of the theoretical infrastructure that underlies this site.

The Origin of Behavioral Science

Natural law governs both canine and human behavior just as surely as the laws of physics govern the physical universe. Because behavior is lawful, researchers have been able to tease out the rules and delineate the basic principles that govern all animal behavior, including the comportment of both dogs and people.

Once behavioral scientists understood the principles that govern behavior, it didn't take them long to spell out procedures, called behavioral procedures (or learning procedures) that can be used to influence and to a limited degree, predict behavior. To understand and predict behavior is good, but to know how to change behavior is even better.

The seed that would eventually grow and evolve into modern behavior analysis was sown by Charles Darwin. Certain facets of Darwins' work were furthered by a succession of researchers, Mach, Loeb and Crozier. Then along came B. F. Skinner who built his work on that of Crozier and his predecessors, and was also strongly influenced by the work of Ivan Pavlov. In 1938, Skinner published The Behavior of Organisms, which described his work observing and conditioning the behavior of animals. With that publication, behavioral principles and procedures were delineated and behavioral science was born.

It is important to note that behavioral researchers did not invent learning procedures any more than physicists invented gravity. They just studied behavior and gave us the low down on what it is and how it works.

The delineation of behavioral principles and procedures didn't come as any surprise to the community of dog trainers. They had been using those same techniques to condition the behavior of dogs for centuries before there were any psychologists around to take credit for figuring out how to do it.

Certainly, some trainers use procedures counterproductively or, at least, less efficiently than they might. Still, all of the classic, time-honored strategies of dog training are, essentially, behavioral procedures, geared to canine sensibilities and configured for the purpose of conditioning canine behavior.

Conditioning Behavior

The term conditioning refers to the processes that create and influence behavior. Behavioral science recognizes three types of conditioning.

  1. Classical Conditioning,

  2. Vicarious Conditioning, and

  3. Operant Conditioning.

Contrasting Operant & Classical Conditioning

In the case of Classical Conditioning, behavior is the product of association. Therefore, by pairing one thing (a dog being told no) with another thing (the upset of being smacked), you condition a state of being in which both events eventually come to elicit the same emotional response. As a result, over time, for the dog, being told "no" comes to be almost as upsetting as being smacked.

In the case of Operant Conditioning, behavior is the product of its consequences. In other words, we do what we do because of what happens after we do it. Therefore, whenever you influence behavior by arranging the consequences that follow the target response (in this case, barking), you are using operant conditioning. Almost all the behavioral techniques described on this website are operant procedures. That includes punishment, reinforcement, stretching the ratio, and shaping. To read more about those procedures, click on A detailed examination of the process of bark training your dog. Also, you can find additional information about shaping by going to The relationship between dog attacks and the tolerance of belligerent barking.

Vicarious Conditioning

In the case of Vicarious Conditioning, behavior is the product of observed consequences. In other words, we do what we do because of what we see happen after we see someone else do it. For example, your neighbor buys a certain type of lawn mower and you see that it works out well for him, so you buy one just like it. Or you don't go to a certain part of town because you heard something bad happened to someone else when they went there.

Compared to its two counterparts, vicarious conditioning is a minor player in the creation and management of barking behavior. It mostly figures-in to the human end of the equation when Tweedle Dee sees that his neighbor Tweedle Dum suffers no negative fall-out from letting his dog bark, so Dee follows suit by behaving in the same irresponsible way. But it can also figure-in to the canine end of the equation when your second dog learns to bark at passersby by watching your first dog do it, or learns that he's better off not to bark by watching your first dog get punished for it.

Never Trust A Psychologist With A Poorly Trained Dog

Behavioral procedures constitute a powerful technology limited only by the degree to which you grasp the mechanism of the procedures and the extent to which you control the punishers, the reinforcers and the general circumstances of your subject's life. In the case of your dog, you control them all.

Take heed, then, when I caution you to be wary of psychologists with poorly trained dogs. If the psychologist controls everything in his dog's life and he still can't control his dog, then you have to wonder how much insight is he going to have and how much help is he going to be assisting you as you attempt to control yourself and influence the behavior of those around you.

The Dog Science Network sponsors a behaviorial course in dog training, featuring a free workshop in canine
, as well as an advanced course in how to obedience train and street safety train your dog.

This page is part of Section Six:
the More Information section of