I won’t here as it’s a seminar level presentation rather than a casual blog post but I can make a reasonable, strong and scientifically supported argument that very little that currently passes for ‘learning theory’ in companion dog training is based on canine or human behavior in the context of how any higher order social species has been wired after millions of years evolutionary biology to learn life skills for real-world settings. There are much better ways to train companion dogs than companion dog owners are being offered.
What passes as training or learning theory now misses far too many colors in the palette and as a result the picture rarely comes into focus for either the companion dog owner or their dogs. The reason for this is it is almost never based on actual learning theory as it applies to the context in which it is being used vs. the context in which the results were generated warranting a paper. It also always fails to implement and even ignores or worse attempts to dismiss well-researched aspects influencing behavior that in my view are inarguably essential.
When I have been presented with the “learning theory” reference in the past, particularly with companion dog trainers leaning towards treats, treats, treats ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/No Need For No!/Skinner Meant Two Quadrants Not Four/Everyone Gets A Trophy/Don’t Wreck The Dog’s Self-Esteem/Sit Down And Talk About Our Feelings’ companion dog trainers and asked a few questions, it has often quickly become apparent that the reference is to learning theory science that is either misconstrued, altered or should never have been (and was never intended to be) given the weight it has been provided by these trainers to the context of companion of dog training. All too often it becomes readily apparent that what the companion dog trainer is calling science is actually ideology marginally supported by cherry-picked aspects of science
I believe that what passes for companion dog training has come to pass because generally speaking companion dog trainers almost always lack a background in, to use the colloquial reference, ‘hard science’ or in its place have an adequate understanding as to what constitutes authentic scientific practice. An additional lack is a thorough grounding regarding critical thinking and more often than not a knowledge of cognitive bias and its accompanying dangers. Without these things, they are very prone to confusing the validity of the results in a laboratory vs. the applicability to the field.
If I were to develop a course for companion dog trainers and I just might someday, the entire first semester would not be about dog behavior at all. It would be about learning critical thinking, cognitive bias, differentiating between real science and pseudo-science, learning to read an actual scientific paper critically with companion dog training in mind.
For what it’s worth in my opinion the most significant obstacle for an existing companion dog trainer in moving from ignorance to knowledge in this area is not a lack of intellect. It’s primarily the pitfalls associated with cognitive biases
I believe companion dog training has the potential to become a profession. I believe that companion dog trainers might one day be able to legitimately refer to themselves as professionals. I do not believe there is currently any evidence to support associating the legitimate application of the word profession or professional at least in the context I expect it to be
Essentially, all we have now is ‘fake it until you make it’ or more likely have convinced themselves and others that do not know any better,
So all of the above to say that I believe that it is what companion dog trainers erroneously think constitutes or suffices as ‘learning theory’ that is failing companion owners and their dogs. In my view, until we properly equip the owners thereby eliminating methodology as the problem, it’s too early to consider them to be the weakest link. They may turn out to be, as how much is there left over at the end of the day of the average companion dog owner? But, for me at least, it’s too early to say
John ‘Ask The Dog Guy’ Wade
Embracing Science and Common Sense