The connection between dog training and man and the connection between cognition and moral development are intrinsically related in more ways than one. The man is the control and the dog attempts to follow his lead. Conversely, with cognition, man is the control or thinking and the moral judgment is what follows the lead. Some years ago, Harvard psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg made the connection between cognition and moral development when he administered moral dilemmas to boy’s ages 10 to 16 and every three years thereafter. From his research he was able to define six stages of moral development that could explain why certain individuals might be effective dog trainers while others are not. For example, one of Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas is about a man who must decide if to steal a drug to save his dying wife. Individuals who said they would not steal the drug for fear of punishment, Kohlberg defined their moral development as Stage One, “punishment and obedience.” According to Kohlberg, individuals who reason at Stage One often go to great extremes to avoid punishment and generally do not consider the interests of others. Hence, the refusal to steal a drug to save a dying wife.  If we were to apply Kohlberg’s Stage One of moral development and one’s ablity as a dog trainer, we could see individuals who are overly fearful or punishing in their relationship with their dog. Interestingly, parents who operate from Stage One often raise children who are not only highly disrespectful and suspicious of authority, but also who operate out of a deep mistrust and fear of new experiences.

Stage Two, the “ reciprocity” stage, manifests a type of moral development that includes a strict sense of fairness in action and thought as in “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.” Such individuals follow rules only when one’s immediate interest is at stake. Stealing the drug to save a dying wife would be dependent on what his wife had done for him lately. Apply Stage 2 thinking to dog training and you might have individuals who only see the dog concretely — that is, ”if the dog follows my commands then I will do this for it.” Unfortunately, in some situations the dog may not beable to respond consistently to the trainer’s commands. As a result, individuals who reason at Stage 2 could become overly frustrated and impatient as dog trainers because they view the world concretely or often only in terms of success or failure.

Stage 3 is what I like to call “the conformity or relationship stage.” At this stage individuals strive to be good or live up to the expectations of the group such as friends and family. Such individuals will go to great extremes to be liked or to conform to the group’s values, whether good or bad.  Furthermore, a Stage 3 response to our dilemma would say the husband should steal the drug to save his dying wife because he is “being a good husband.” This individual could be a very effective dog trainer because of their strong need to be nice or liked, which in this case would be their dog. Conversely, they could exhibit negative behavior or the type of behavior associated with criminal behavior as displayed by gangs or what I call the * “Michael Vick syndrome,” or individuals who adopt the negative values of the group.

The Fourth Stage, “law and order” are individuals who follow a strict code of laws or rules such as the military, religious, correctional organizations and institutions. In addition, such individuals might NOT steal the drug because it would mean breaking the law as in  “what kind of society allows people to take the law into their own hands.” In addition, they are great company people who will go to great lengths to support the organization where they work or study. As a result, they are often inflexible to opinions and advice of others not associated with the organization they are apart. However, they could be effective dog trainers because they will follow the teaching and program philosophy to the extreme. On the other hand, their weakness is to follow and support programs and organizations regardless of their philosophy or even when the rights of others are diminish.

Stage Five, would seem the most effective stage for dog trainers because they not only respect the rights of all individuals, but such individuals will stand up and voice their concerns when an injustice is perpetrated. Stage Five thinkers would steal the drug not only for their wife but also for any individual in need of support. Moreover, they would not only steal the drug, but also question how a government could allow the druggist to control a life saving drug.  As dog trainers their goal is not for personal gain but to make a better society or world for others less fortunate.

We need to realize that moral development theory enlists many factors that could cause individuals to think and act differently in many different situations. In other words, ego strength, self-esteem, intelligence and a host of other intangibles can affect moral reasoning as well as our attempts to link moral development to the ability of dog trainers. In addition, distinctions must be made about individuals who are drawn to such a noble path in life. Such individuals represent a particular personality and ablity that in many ways could challenge the validity of Kohlberg’s stages when applied to dog-training programs or organizations.

* Michael is professional football player who was arrested for operating an illegal dog fighting operation on the grounds of his home.

Dr. David Sortino, a psychologist and current Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, and students. For additional articles you can go to Dr. Sortino’s blog: or e-mail: