The Results from a Famous Human Experiment Can Help you Train your Dog


"This is known as the Hawthorne or observer effect and is a staple in human psychology today."


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

From 1924 - 1932 experiments were conducted on humans at a Western Electric factory (Hawthorne Works) near Chicago. Henry A. Landsberger coined a term, "Hawthorne effect", that summarized his findings from these experiments.  

The results of these experiments are applicable not only to humans, but, you guessed it, dogs too. And the impact is as relevant today as it was in the first part of the twentieth century.

The experiments were designed to test the impact of lighting levels on the productivity of assembly line workers. The idea was to optimize the lighting levels to maximize worker output.

Not surprisingly, with each increase in lighting level, productivity increased. What was not expected was with each decrease in lighting level, productivity also increased. The experimenters continued to decrease lighting levels until the factory was almost completely dark. Much to everyone's surprise, worker output continued to increase - even though it was almost pitch black in the factory.

Henry A. Landsberger was quite confused at first about all of this, but he ultimately figured it out. It was the attention that the assembly line workers were getting that made the difference. Simply being watched or observed motivated the employees to modify their behavior, regardless of how bad the lighting became. This is known as the Hawthorne or observer effect and is a staple in human psychology today.

This same effect is also seen in dogs. Simply paying attention to a dog can result in improvements in behavior.

The primary reason this works in dogs is the same reason that it works in humans. It's called operant conditioning which says that a behavior is likely to be repeated if it is followed by reinforcement. In the Hawthorne Works case, the reinforcement was attention and recognition. Since dogs are social animals and love attention just like humans, the Hawthorne effect also applies.

What this quite literally means is that simply paying attention to our dogs can improve our relationship with them. It can also increase how much attention our dogs pay to us which is always a plus when training dogs. 

What are some of the very simple, and unexpected, things we might do for our dogs to give them attention? Remember, just turning down the lights motivated the Hawthorne Works employees.

Looking at them
Touching them
Speaking to them (of course they don't understand, but they still like it)
Sitting or lying on the floor with them
Letting them smell you
Pointing at them

Two dogs live with me. I am constantly paying attention to them. It's a conscious effort and well worth the trouble. Both of them follow me around the house as if they are glued to me. I am simply doing for my dogs what was done for those Hawthorne Works assembly line workers in 1924.