Actual Companion Puppy and Dog Training Science
The More Common Amateur Dog Trainer's
'Positive' Training Pseudo-Science
It is a sad reality that with companion dog ownership at its highest, very few companion dog owners (or veterinarians, vet techs, breeders, rescues etc.) have been exposed to companion puppy and dog training associated with legitimately applicable behavior-science.
If your goal is only to teach tricks (as opposed to home, neighborhood and other real-world life-skills), treat based operant-conditioning is an excellent choice. I often use the clicker training version of operant-conditioning as a means to provide dogs with mental stimulation. However, when it comes to home, neighborhood and other real-world life-skills, in a word – NO.
When a companion puppy or dog owner encounters any trainer offering ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat-based, and especially if they say they are ‘science-based’, as a means to teach life-skills, it is best to run away. That isn’t to say that they should run into the equally inept arms of a ‘Might Is Right’, Alpha, Pack Leader, Dominant, yank and crank-based trainer either.
What is being marketed to companion puppy and dog owners (veterinarians, vet techs, breeders, rescues etc.) as ‘science’-based dog training is almost always at best, loosely based and more often than not, cherry-picked aspects of scientific research that were never intended to be applied in the teaching of companion dog home and outing life-skills. In the controlled settings of an agility ring or obedience ring – yes (to a certain extent). For home and outing life-skills, a hard, emphatic, NO!
Real science has had a real struggle since the advent of the internet as it serves as the perfect petri-dish medium for both the ignorant and intellectually challenged and both groups are generously represented in the world of dog training. There is literally zero legitimate scientific research to support what is commonly recommended and offered to companion puppy and dog owners in the teaching and learning of real-world life skills to their companions. Nor can any examples be found where any higher order social species (dogs, wolves, apes, humans etc.) has taken such a narrow view. Which is a good thing because at least in the human realm if our parents had taken such a bizarre approach to raising us, the majority would either be dead or incarcerated.
How this has come to pass is an interesting journey into human rather than canine psychology, but for the purposes on this article it will have to suffice to say, that in essence it is because companion puppy and dog training is an entirely unregulated industry driven by people that love dogs, that upon even casual examination, are found to actually know very little about the science of behavior shaping in its entirety. Like flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers they are intellectually unfettered by the constraints of real science. In fact, the more real-science they are offered the more confirmation and other bias entrenched they become. In the end it becomes apparent that they understand behavior-science in the same manner that a parrot understands the English it parrots. And yet, they dominate the companion puppy and dog training world.
It is a reality that in North America, anyone that wishes to call themselves a dog trainer – is a dog trainer, and those that wish to become dog trainers on average, by far have little (but more frequently have zero) background in applicable science. Hence, the industry being solely driven by people that love dogs. Without the filters of critical thinking and a heightened awareness of the pitfalls of logical fallacies and cognitive bias, the two most common (and unsupported by science) ‘Might Is Right’, (Alpha, Pack Leader, Dominant) and its polar opposite (and far more common) All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat approaches have become the only two choices puppy and companion dog owners are likely to encounter. The former is closer to how a bouncer shapes the behavior of an unruly patron and the latter how a heroin dealer shapes the behavior of the heroin addict. These models exist as means to shape behavior but not in the context of any species in charge of shaping the behavior of the offspring they love.
The more common of the two ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat is rabidly promoted as ‘scientific.’ The ‘science’ referred to is based (barely) on research done in the ’60s by B.F. Skinner. I say barely because, typically, it has been unethically and selectively interpreted and watered down to suit marketability rather than legitimate science. Skinner’s and related works were never intended to be relied on in the manner that amateur dog trainers attempt to apply in the context of training companion puppy and dogs.
Skinner’s work has value as a ‘color in the palette’ of companion puppy and dog training, but in the distorted (cherry-picked aspects) manner most amateur companion dog trainers have embraced, when it comes to reliability in the context of real home and on outings life-skills in the real-world its limitation are readily apparent. The unary/monochrome manner in which it is offered to companion puppy and dog owners ignores other elements that should be incorporated (relationship perceptions, lifestyle, environment, handling ability, and experience, etc .) Essentially, other colors in the palette are left out. What the amateur dog trainers have marketed as science-based companion puppy and dog training was only ever intended for controlled settings (rats in a maze, cetaceans (killer whales and dolphins in an aquarium, dogs in a ring (agility)).
As a slight aside, for what it’s worth, companion puppy and dog owners will also occasionally encounter an additional category of amateur trainers that promote themselves as ‘balanced’. This usually means that they incorporate bits of both of the aforementioned ideologies. Binary may paint a clearer picture than unary, but it is still lacking in the readily available to anyone willing to consider the existing science that are required to effectively assist a companion dog owner teach, and their dog to learn.
The reality is that there isn’t a single species on the planet that uses what amateur companion puppy and dog trainers that believe in the ideologies of either ‘Might Is Right’, Alpha, Pack Leader, Dominant or ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat suggest. One might as well watch the movie the Lady and the Tramp as if it were a documentary as embrace either of these two approaches as legitimately applicable science. Fortunately, there is copious science available to guide how to best shape the behavior of a puppy or a dog that can be found in the scientific disciplines associated with ethology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology etc. that can fill out the palette and create a picture far clearer to both the companion puppy or dog owner and the puppy or dog as well. Sadly, blinded by bandwagon and other cognitive biases, amateur companion dog trainers myopically ignore this science.
To further confuse companion puppy and dog owners, many amateur companion dog trainers belong to ‘organizations/associations’ that were formed to add contrived legitimacy to their virtually non-existent scientifically legitimate credentials, so that the pseudo-science they embrace might be perceived by the average companion puppy and dog owner as legitimate. As it is with the science, the credentials are also pseudo. Just as there aren’t any regulations regarding companion dog training standards, nor are there regulations regarding what constitutes a professional association. As a result, these ‘associations’ have arisen and further mislead companion puppy and dog owners.
The reality is that the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free/Never Say No/R+…’, treat, treat, treat amateur companion puppy and dog trainers now dominate the companion dog training world. However, this is not because they are correct, it is because they are many.
It’s not difficult to understand why so many desire to be a dog trainer. However, the baseline should be higher than, “I’ve always loved dogs, and I hate my current job, and I’m not qualified to do anything else.” It seems that some people choose to either become an unqualified dog trainer or if ‘love of dogs’ isn’t applicable, others it seems choose to offer their services an equally unqualified ‘life-coach’.
What used to be referred to as teaching a dog a trick (as opposed to teaching horizon widening life-skills) is now in the dog world being considered to be legitimate obedience training. It is not. What these well-meaning but ill-qualified amateurs offer always from a life skill learning perspective, turns out for a companion puppy or dog owners to be an expense as opposed to an investment in their companion.
– John Wade