The Rule of Three

‘The Rule of Three’ states that facts, events and definitions tend to occur in groups of three. For example; childhood, adolescence, adulthood; red, yellow, blue; primary, secondary, tertiary; fear, anxiety, phobias; space is three dimensional, and so on! Text containing three pieces of information is inherently likely to be all consuming and of greater interest to the reader than otherwise.

Animals (including humans) learn in three ways. By association – classical conditioning, by consequence – operant conditioning, by mimicking – allelomimetic learning. Social learning is via play, experimentation (trial and error) and reinforcement (see below).

We train our dogs using three steps; the ‘ABC of Behaviour’ – antecedent (cue) (assuming the dog understands), behaviour, consequence. The psychologist B F Skinner designed a closed box in which rats were trained. This became known as the Skinner Box. The rats learned by consequence that if a bar was pressed food would be forthcoming – Skinner coined the phrase ‘operant conditioning’. He further refined this by adding a signal, for example a light. Food would only be presented when the light was on and the bar was pressed. In other words the rat learned to discriminate. The relationship between the signal (the light), behaviour (bar press) and consequence (food) is called a three term contingency; one is contingent upon the others.

The opposite of discrimination is generalisation. Classical conditioning relies on two stimuli being paired. For example if we shake the dog’s kibble box a rattling sound is made and the dog will eventually learn by association that food will (hopefully) be presented. The dog may generalise this this to ALL rattling sounds. The reflex has become conditioned and hence automatic. If, however, food is NOT forthcoming the behaviour will extinguish. ‘The Rule of Three’ at work again!

Incentive vs. motivation. A subtle difference. For example we can offer our dog an incentive to carry out a certain cue (external) but the motivation comes from within (internal). Dogs are predator animals and are often motivated to chase – the incentive is the prey animal running away. Returning to our example of allelomimetic learning, whether or not our dog continues to do what has been observed depends on his/her motivation of which there are three aspects. External reinforcement which is analogous to learning by consequence, vicarious reinforcement when our dog is simply happy to observe, and self reinforcement when our dog enjoys a certain amount of satisfaction, edification or pride in completing a task. Of course we can only surmise the latter!

The renowned dog trainer and behaviourist, Sue Garrett, discusses how we, the dog parent, are motivated. For example, if our dog is displaying an unwanted behaviour we can do one of three things. Ignore and hope for the best, manage by simply dealing with it, or train for an alternative behaviour. It’s YOUR call!

Learning is committed to memory via three parts of the brain, the amygdala, hippocampus and cerebellum. Like many humans, it is thought that the short term memory of dogs is limited to perhaps a few minutes until stored in long term memory (LTM) via the cerebral cortex. LTM memory is either episodic, semantic or procedural. Respectively, this is memory formed from life’s experiences – episodes, learning the differences between objects and remembering their names – semantics (for example we know a bird is a bird and not an elephant!), and learning different practical skills – procedures.

As dog trainers we may have unconsciously and unwittingly become psychologists. The word ‘psychology’ comes from the Greek ‘psyche’ = mind, and ‘logos’ = study; the study of the mind. Comparative psychologists will study the mind of animals to help understand that of humans but it works both ways. How often do we ask, “I wonder what my dog is thinking?” To answer this we may put ourselves in the same situation hypothetically and ask what WE would be thinking; we empathise with our dog. Psychology is a branch of science and in order to study the mind a psychologist will apply scientific methods, as with the natural sciences. In order for a theory to become a fact, first a hypothesis is formed and put to the test. This involves three steps. 1. Finding and measuring all the factors contributing to the hypothesis. 2. Correlating the factors. 3. Varying the factors one at a time to measure the overall effect of the hypothesis. In short, it is scientific if it can be falsified, disproved or altered.

Happy training!

The following related blog may be of interest:

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