The “Little Albert Experiment” and reactivity.

Have you ever heard of the “Little Albert Experiment”, it will probably make your toes curl, as it’s rather controversial and certainly wouldn’t pass an ethics board nowadays.

In short, Albert, a baby who was afraid of loud noises, was shown a white rat at the same time as a loud noise was sounded. In a short period of time Albert began to associate the sight of a white rat with a loud noise and would start to cry. Eventually there was no need for the sound to be played, simply showing Albert a rat was enough to elicit fear, as he expected the sound to follow. This fear lasted long after the experiment had finished. There are lots more details if you do a quick google.

What has this got to do with dogs and training ?  Read on…..

I was just on a walk with Mouse (the puppy), and we saw a chap coming towards us with a gorgeous dog on lead, who was wearing a choke chain. From the owners body language I could tell that the dog was perhaps ‘reactive’, and worried by other dogs, so we stepped into the road and gave them a wide berth (to try and help their dog feel safer). Three times in as many seconds the dog looked at Mouse and growled a little. Each time he did, the chain was sharply snapped, the owner verbally scalded the dog, and twice prodded it hard in the ribs with his finger.

If we put ourselves in the dogs ‘shoes’ what are we saying to him ?

By causing discomfort every time he sees another dog we are not teaching him that they aren’t to be worried about, in fact we are teaching him the opposite. He won’t associate the discomfort or pain as coming from the person on the other end of the lead, he will simply see another dog and feel pain. In a very short time he will probably start growling at more dogs because he thinks it is the dog that is causing the pain.

How about instead, if every time our worried dog sees another dog we give him a tasty titbit, how do you think he will start to feel (assuming he likes the titbit we are giving him) ?

*If you guessed that he will start enjoying seeing other dogs you are right, we are changing his emotional response from worry and fear, to happy anticipation. (I’ve simplified the process abit, but hopefully you get the idea).

It will probably take longer than it took to make Albert afraid of rats, but if we are kind and consistent we can often help our dogs overcome their worries.

(It’s not just my brain thinking this up, lots of scientific studies back up the fact that using positive reinforcement training (the adding a titbit part) is more beneficial in the longer term).