animal navigation bandura behaviorism dogs ethology evolutionary psychology skinner social learning theory trains vicarious learning

Ranger the Beagle Takes The A Train

If you love dogs than you are sure to have stories, like the one of my Shih Tsu, Buster, that would jump onto my daughter’s bed when I left for work and at about the time my wife or I would return home, gaze out the window, and jump down from the bed so that we could not punish him for violating the rule of the house. My friend, Andrew, had Beagles Honey and Ranger that were smarter than Buster because they would travel throughout our neighborhood looking for food, swimming in the golf course pond, and then return home to rest. Then Andrew told me about the dogs in Russia who travel the subway and prefer the first and last cars which are the most quiet so they their sleep is uninterrupted.

According to Russian psychologist, Dr Andrei Poiarkov of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute, these dogs had to move to the suburbs when after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s the industrial complexes that were the dogs’ shelters went to the suburbs. The dogs had to figure out how to get back to the city’s center where the food was plentiful. There are reports that the dogs will startle pedestrians to drop their shwarma, a meat snack on a stick, with a bark from behind. They time the trip to get off at the most desired stop, and they walk when the light is green (dogs have no cones in their retina so they do not see color so they probably time their curb crossing to correspond to the picture of the walker or to the crossing of people).How are we to explain the bizarre behavior of the subway riding dogs? Russian scientists have a history of studying dogs. The most notable is Noble prize winner, Ivan Pavlov, who discovered classical conditioned learning. However, the train traveling dogs are best explained by American Psychologists Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner who discovered operant conditioning. According to Thorndike, behavior followed by a positive consequence or reinforcement is more likely to occur (The Law of Effect). Learning is incremental and trial and error. All mammals learn in the same way, by doing. Doing strengthens the learning (Law of Use) and not doing weakens the connection between the stimulus and the response (Law of Disuse). Extending these laws, Skinner “taught’ pigeons to read and guide missiles to their target.

In addition, Albert Bandura described vicarious learning when an organism learns by watching another organism (modeling). The organism’s expectancy to be able to do what another organism does is self-efficacy.

So the dogs moved to the suburbs, but the center of the city was where their food was most plentiful. By linking their travels outside their suburban home with the finding and eating of food they learned to get back to the city center where food was most plentiful. According to the principles of evolutionary psychology the healthiest dogs that could most efficiently use their innate ability to navigate were most likely to survive, and it is this inborn will to survive which cues other dogs to do what they see their fittest brethren doing. The dogs watch other organisms, humans, getting on trains and going where they want to go or by accident discover that they can go towards the city on a train (a mode preferred to hoofing it) and ride in quiet (the front and rear cars) and conserve the energy that will be needed to forage for food. Crossing with others in the crosswalk with the green symbol avoids getting struck by a car or bus (and those that don’t learn, aren’t around so the lesson is obvious). There you have it! Dogs learning to ride the rails become an illustration of the principles of evolutionary, operant, and social cognitive learning and are no more bizarre than missile guiding pigeons.

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