The Great Divide


I had a conversation this week with a Dog trainer, and I began thinking about the contentious division growing between different schools of thought of how to motivate our Dogs. It seems as divisive as politics in our country; a very disturbing notion.

One one side of the motivation aisle we have the behaviorists that base their methods on stimulus/response techniques. This began with Ivan Pavlov (who, incidentally, was brutally cruel to the Dogs in his experiments), John Watson, and B. F. Skinner. The behaviorists claim they know the only humane way to train. Yet this achievement-based training can create stress and anxiety in dogs.

On the other side of the motivation aisle, we have the pack theorists. Their theories are based on the observations of ethologists like Lorenz, Schleidt and others on wolves, which dogs are very closely related (there is growing evidence that Dogs and Wolves are not different species, just different phenotypeypes). The pack theorists claim dominance is the natural way to train, but it has been shown that dogs do not see humans as other dogs or pack leaders.

The behaviorists are claiming that pack theory is debunked, however that is not entirely true. The pack theorists claim that behaviorism only works with passive dogs and that, too is not accurate. Each side spins their propaganda and selectively cites experts that support their own views. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it?

So, what is the truth? The truth is that both philosophies are at the same time correct and incorrect. It all depends. Anyone who claims that one way is the only way is either ignorant, uninformed or trying to sell you something. Claiming that pack theory is completely wrong, or claiming that behaviorism is completely wrong suggests that the trainer should consider going into another line of work. These people will try to make a Dog conform to their way of doing things rather than being flexible enough to adapt to the Dog and the situation. Both ways, however, are focused solely on control and training, not on a relationship.

There is another approach, and that is what Path of Friendship™ is based on. It comes from various fields in psychology such as Cultural/Relational Therapy, Trans-Species Psychology, Humanistic Psychology, Attachment Theory and Social Psychology. It is based on the premise that mutually satisfying and secure relationships with others are necessary for one’s emotional, physical and behavioral well-being. Rather than excluding behaviorism and pack theory, it incorporates them into the larger framework of the relationship. This is the known as Canine Relational Therapy, or Ca.Re. Therapy. (Path of Friendship is actually mindfulness-based canine relational therapy). It works primarily on one of the three broad motivational systems used for survival, called the “Tend and Befriend” system.

There are three broad motivational systems (Siegel):

1. Fight or Flight (threat system):
When we or our Dogs sense danger, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and our bodies are prepared to run, fight or freeze. This involves activation of the amygdala and the production of the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is sometimes used by the pack theory trainers.

2. Achievement / Goal-Seeking (drive system):
This happens when we are striving, competing and working our way through different challenges and tasks. We are chasing positive emotions and fleeing negative emotions. This system operates on the neurotransmitter dopamine and involves the activation of the nucleus accumbens, which is the same area of the brain that is activated by addictive drugs. This system is what is used by the behavioristic trainers.

3. Tend and Befriend (compassion and empathy system):
This system is activated when surrounded by friends and loved ones, and we and our Dogs experience feelings of connection and security . It involves the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is generated largely in the pituitary. This system is mostly used by Canine Relational Therapists. However, it is easily overridden by the other two systems unless cultivated and “exercised”.

At best, strict behaviorist trainers will help you control your dog. At worst, they are puppet masters and engage in behavior engineering.  At best, the pack theorist trainers will also help you control your dog. At worst, they are task masters and they will engage in monarchical intimidation.

So, this begs the question: which method is best? Adrenaline-based? Dopamine-based? Oxytocin-based? The answer, as I’ve stated before, is that it depends. It all depends on what you want from your relationship with your Dog. Both behavioristic and dominance based training will achieve an “obedient” dog, but is that all you really want? Or do you want to create a deep and connected friendship?  All three will always be a part of any relationship, but which one is the predominate one will depend on your feelings on who your dog is to you. Do you view your Dog as a pet, tool, or friend?

That’s for you to decide.


It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Share on Reddit

Author: Path of Friendship™

Corey Cohen is an animal behaviorist, mindfulness and emotional intelligence instructor with over 33 years of helping people connect to their dogs on a deeper level. His unique Mindfulness-Based Animal Behavior Therapy™ and his Path of Friendship™ programs are inspiring alternatives to standard dog training. His mindfulness seminars for individuals, universities, wellness centers, and top corporations has helped reduce stress and anxiety and given people a fresh perspective on life. He is the owner of A New Leash on Life Animal Behavior Services in Northeastern PA and Northern NJ. He’s also the owner of Awakenings Meditation in Northeastern PA.

One thought on “The Great Divide”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.