The behavior analyst and the border collie October 19, 2016

I’ve had a variety of dogs over the years, from little (Sealyham Terrier) to big (Irish Wolfhound) and including a number of other breeds and mutts in between, but border collies (BCs) are something special. They’re pretty amazing dogs, generally reputed to be the smartest of all breeds. That’s debatable, of course, but living with one lends credibility to the argument.

About border collies

I’m on my second BC now and continue to be impressed. It’s not that other dogs don’t show some of the same behavioral characteristics that give BCs their reputation, but close observation of their repertoire through the eyes of a behavior analyst reveals the basis for their standing. Of course they learn very quickly. I sometimes joke that all you have to do to train a new behavior is to explain it to them once.

The biological secret is that they have been bred to herd sheep, often at some distance from their owner. For reasons that aren’t obvious, this demand apparently produces not just smarts but what has been called an extreme desire to please their human. It certainly produces a level of focus on their owner that has to be experienced to be believed. For example, I truly never saw my first BC sleep until he reached old age. If I was awake, he was, and even the slightest evidence of movement on my part put him on special alert. He was out of a line of herding competition champions, and it was really a bit too much.

One of the most interesting aspects of their behavior is how well they learn from natural contingencies. Unless you want to train them for some type of competition like obedience or agility, it’s reasonably easy – for a behavior analyst, anyway – to just avoid problematic contingencies and be assured they will pick up without explicit training whatever routine skills you want. Even minor regularities in their environment quickly result in established behaviors, and it’s fun to watch what emerges.

Anthropomorphism and worse

What does my affection for BCs have to do with radical behaviorism? As a behavior analyst, being around a BC every day presents the entertaining challenge of explaining the origin and sources of control over their behavior from a behavior analytic point of view. This means looking for often subtle, intermittent natural contingencies, but this is what we are trained to do. It’s not really too hard, especially when there are no colleagues around to argue with you. Aren’t our own hypotheses always correct?

Perhaps the more difficult task is avoiding the all too easy slippery slope into the dark depths of mentalism. After all, when we’re off duty (see Johnston, May 13, 2016), our dialect is largely colloquial, which is to say shot throughout with explicit and implicit mentalist allusions. Worse, when we’re talking about the family pet, we compound this problem with a hefty dose of anthropomorphism.

Attributing human qualities to non-human species has long been a serious faux pas in science, suggesting a lack of objectivity by the observer. (Why this same criticism is not applied to subjective descriptions of human affairs is beyond me – perhaps we just don’t want to concede that we are not fundamentally different from our pets.) Anthropomorphism is not just a risky explanatory venture; it’s a leap from the frying pan into the fire. What’s worse than attributing human characteristics to non-human species is attributing human qualities that are aren’t even real in the first place. Most of the aspects and explanations of human affairs referenced in common parlance are invented or fictional. They don’t help us understand human behavior and are certainly no help in figuring out why dogs, for example, behave as they do. (See Johnston, August 21, 2014; Johnston, January 12, 2015 for more discussion).

How good are you?

With anthropomorphism off the table, we are left to explain a BC’s behavior with the tools offered by our science and its philosophy. Can you do that? Can you resist the temptation to talk about a dog’s behavior in colloquial dialect, at least as an exercise? Can you put on your behavior analyst hat and get technical about the origins and sources of control over a particular canine behavior? Sure, it’s easy to speculate about a target behavior you had a lot to do with, such as sitting or coming on command, but what about behaviors that emerged unnoticed? What about searching for a certain toy or avoiding the room where they left a present for you to clean up?

Yes, we’re going to need to make some reasonable assumptions about genetically mediated behavioral tendencies. BCs show some notable examples of behaviors that simply emerge without apparent history in puppies. They often approach another animal – such as the family cat – in a crouched, slow motion walk, perhaps even dropping to the ground for a moment. They are famous for their intense stare – referred to as their “eye” – which seems to influence the behavior of their target. They may run toward a distant target animal not in a straight line but to one side in a circling path, and their speed is truly impressive. Owners who plan a herding career for their dog establish control over these behaviors by voice and whistle commands, but these behaviors have genetic origins.

Biology aside, the challenge of explaining a pet’s behavior within the confines of our behavioral science and philosophy is a good test of our core professional competencies. It’s arguably easier than explaining the behavior of our clients because the family dog or cat lacks a verbal repertoire that might distract us. Then there’s the “put up or shut up” challenge of producing the behavioral repertoire that we want. Now if I can just convince Robbie not to jump up on everyone who walks through the front door….


Johnston, August 21, 2014. What is “___________?”

Johnston, January 12, 2015. It’s about the evidence

Johnston, May 13, 2016. Do you distinguish between professional and personal?


The behavior analyst and the border collie

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

The behavior analyst and the border collie October 19, 2016