American psychologist Abraham Maslow is perhaps most famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs”, a theory that traces factors of emotional and psychological growth in humans. But Maslow also gave us what has come to be called “The Law of the Instrument” which says that we will rely most heavily on those tools that we are most familiar with. Maslow himself said it best in 1966 when he said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The Law of the Instrument should be kept in mind anytime we are working with dogs or talking about dog training.
20 years ago, I thought I knew a great deal about dogs. I had lived with dogs for most of my life at that point and I had done the basic training for several dogs. But as I came to learn, my “toolbox” was not nearly as full as it could have been back then. I relied on methods I knew how to do and that produced results that were acceptable for me. But if you had told me back then that you didn’t need a prong or shock collar to get a large dog not to pull on their leash when you walked them, I would have said that it was YOU who didn’t have your facts straight. That is the power of Maslow’s Law of the Instrument. I knew a great deal about the tools I had at hand to solve my dogs’ behavioural issues and I could apply those tools in wonderfully diverse ways. What I couldn’t do is see alternatives that might have been more appropriate or more effective.
Our own comfort and familiarity with a way of training dogs can blind us to other methods. For me, one of the most important functions of behavioural science is that I can use it to examine different training techniques to better understand how and why they work. Understanding the basics of Respondent and Operant Conditioning can tell me something about why behaviours change. An understanding of ethology can help me better understand and predict my dog’s reaction to different situations or challenges. So I try to keep in mind that no one, even myself, is immune to the effects of Maslow’s Law of the Instrument.
I studied and used force training for years with my dogs. I even felt I had attained a sufficient measure of success with those techniques. If I had been aware of Maslow’s warning about hammers and nails, I might have been able to understand that many of the long term behavioural problems we dealt with in our dogs were actually the result of using the wrong tool for a particular training job. Much like using a hammer to drive screws would produce poor work, our use of outdated and less effective methods gave us some good results but also created some unforeseen problems.
So the next time a dog trainer tells you that they “use every tool in their toolbox”, it might be wise to remind them of Maslow’s words. Perhaps it is not about using all of their tools but expanding that toolbox to include some newer, better, and more effective tools instead of relying on what they already know and applying it incorrectly or inappropriately. When all you know is force (hammer), force can fix every dog (nail).