Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

The behaviorists' belief that any animal or person could learn just about anything if the rewards were right led Ivar Lovaas to his work with autistic children. In his most famous study he took a group of very young autistic kids and gave one half of the children intensive behavior therapy while the other half got much less intensive treatment. Behavior therapy just meant classical operant conditioning, having the kids go over and over the behaviors Dr. Lovaas wanted them to learn and giving them rewards whenever they got something right. He published results showing that half of the kids who got the intensive therapy became "indistinguishable" from normal kids.

There've been years of controversy over whether Dr. Lovaas did or didn't cure anybody, but to me, the fact that he brought those kids so far there could be an argument about it is what matters. Behaviorism gave parents and teachers a reason to think that autistic people were capable of a lot more than anybody thought, and that was a good thing.

The other major contribution behaviorists made is that they were, and still are today, fantastically close observers of animal and human behavior. They could spot tiny changes in an animal's behavior quickly, and connect the changes to something in the environment. That's one of my own most important talents with animals.

So for all of its problems, behaviorism had a lot to offer, and still does. Besides, the animal ethologists had their blind spots, too. For instance, both the ethologists and the behaviorists were in total agreement that practically the worst thing anyone could possibly do was to anthropomorphize an animal. Ethologists and behaviorists probably had different reasons for being against anthropomorphism -- Dr. Skinner thought it was just as bad to anthropomorphize a person as an animal -- but whatever the reasons, they agreed. Anthropomorphizing an animal was wrong.

To a large degree they were right to stress this, because humans just naturally treat their pets as if they're four-legged people a lot of the time. Professional trainers are constantly telling people not to assume their pets think and feel the same way they do, but people keep on doing it anyway. The dog trainer John Ross even has a story in his book Dog Talk about the first time he realized he was being anthropomorphic, and he's a professional. He had an Irish setter named Jason who was a big "garbage dog," constantly getting into the garbage whenever Mr. Ross wasn't around. Mr. Ross figured Jason knew he was being bad because if there was a mess on the floor the dog would take off running the minute Mr. Ross got home. On days when he hadn't gotten into the garbage he didn't run, so Mr. Ross thought this meant Jason knew that strewing garbage clear across the kitchen was wrong, and ran away because he felt bad.

He found out differently when a more experienced trainer had him try an experiment. He told Mr. Ross to go get into the garbage himself, when Jason wasn't watching, and dump it out all over the floor. Then he was supposed to bring Jason into the kitchen and see what the dog did.

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