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
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6 thoughts on “Beware The Amateur Companion Puppy and Dog Trainer”
Well written and oh, so true. Agility, rally obedience, and conformation are all totally treat driven…glad to hear the truth as written by you. Anybody that says they just ‘love’ dogs, is someone that is 1 step away from being the next ‘train your dog for a fee’ trainer…scary in my opinion.
Nothing the matter with agility, rally obedience, conformation either however the approach to training dogs for those activities that occur in controlled environments, not to mention the level of commitment (lives revolving around dogs) and how quickly those skills (tricks) fall apart when the dog is moved out those environments and within view of a day to day distractions out of nowhere (squirrels, doorbells etc.) is or should at least be a hint that companion dog training is different enough that perhaps we should be considering that life is not Cirque de Soleil with the same hightly regimented peformance day after day.
Thanks for your input.
You seem to have a lot of beliefs about clicker training that just aren’t true.
At no time did Karen Pryor, or anyone that introduced her to clicker training, ever say that clicker trainers shouldn’t say, “no”. And it’s absurd to think clicker training says anything about reward only training. There are literally aversive techniques that are built into the foundation of how clicker training works.
And then to say that clicker training doesn’t work with behaviors around the house or life skills… do you seriously believe this or are you like all those other trainers out there that want you to believe that they have some esoteric knowledge of dog training that only they understand?
A lot of what you’ve said here is misinformation. You seem to think you know what clicker training is and yet you’ve shown that the concept is actually foreign to you.
What Karen Pryor said or didn’t say with regard to saying, “No!” wasn’t mentioned in the article. It may have been if the point of the article was to discuss how one would shape the behavior of a chicken to do a trick as opposed to reliably perform a life skill with real-life distractions, or to condition a rhinoceros in an enclosed area in a zoo to return to a pen. Or a dog to hit a mark in a play or perform a trick stunt in a movie or a television show, or a pet dog or a working dog to succeed in scent detection exercises.
Many things are relative, so compared to you, perhaps clicker training is a foreign concept to me. I couldn’t or would dare to say because I prefer a less assumptive ad hominem approach to discussion. So, as “foreign” as the clicker training “concept” may be to me from your perspective, (albeit it being an uninformed perspective) I have done the majority of the aforementioned successfully. Ironically, in the past when I have been subjected to similar assumptions with regard to my knowledge of clicker training, I have found that compared to the assumptive individuals I without exception had been using the clickers and their underlying related principles far longer and more frequently. Sometimes so much longer that my use preceded their birth.
As to your wondering if I’m one of those “esoteric” trainers, that seems to indicate that the point of the article seems to have been lost on you which is the idea that shaping the behavior of a companion dog (note I said companion) by a companion dog owner (note I said companion) that simply wants their dog to be civilized enough to live with and go places with real day to day distractions kicking in randomly both before and after training, as opposed to performing an “obedience” (actually not obedience but is tricks) in a controlled setting like an obedience ring or agility in an agility ring, etc. It is the idea that it is remotely realistic to suggest that clicker training by companion dog owners living a real-life will (not even can, but that too is doubtful) succeed in teaching reliable life skills should be considered at least somewhat esoteric.
Only an amateur dog trainer would think that a companion dog owner’s life will revolve around their companion dog in the same manner as that clicker wielding amateur dog trainer’s life revolves around theirs. Operant conditioning is a tool for which there are a time and a place. As with all tools though, it isn’t the tool that is the problem, it is the fool at the end of the tool that is the problem. Operant conditioning (clicker or not) is also only one of the tools. And amateur dog trainers that foist the idea for things other than where it shines are those fools. Whether that foolishness stems from ignorance or stupidity is case by case. For the former if the cognitive dissonance isn’t too deeply entrenched I can help with, the latter I cannot.
At the risk of being further thought “esoteric”, I prefer to be an evidence-based companion dog trainer and there’s no evidence I’ve ever encountered, personally, anecdotally or scientifically to support the use of clicker training as a stand-alone or even marginally useful tool in a companion dog training scenario when the trainer is the average companion dog trainer. Clicker training in the hands of a companion dog owners consistently fails to produce results in the field (foundational life-skills as required by companion dog owners), as opposed to when it’s the far more follow-through oriented such as the trainers of the Orca in the aquarium, the enthusiast dog owner in the agility ring, etc..
Whereas and perhaps it’s also esoteric to believe that the bodies of science in the fields of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology and various other branches of psychology, ethology, etc. seem to indicate that dogs, wolves, apes, and humans have after millions of years of evolution evolved a methodology for teaching life skills for the real world that actually works without the need for treats or brutality. That by no small coincidence work beautifully when shown to both companion dog owners and the dogs themselves. If that is considered esoteric by someone such as yourself, it is only because the pseudo-science spewed by clicker wielding amateur companion dog trainers have made it so. Not because they are even remotely scientifically correct. It is because they are many. It is because there are more of them than legitimate evidence-based, companion dog trainers that actually know a bit more about behavior than what Skinner or Pryor had to offer. You know; additionally legitimately applicable science essential to providing a more complete approach.
As I opened with, in my reply, Pryor wasn’t mentioned in this article. The disastrous problems associated with clicker training with regard to companion dog training may have begun with her, but the real problem is her pseudo-science disciples that parrot what she said, may have said, what they thought she said, wish she said (or Skinner) said. As is the case with most parrots they on average lack an educational background that included the disciplines associated with critical thinking and awareness of the dangers of cognitive bias and logical fallacies. That combined with the petri dish that is social media the ignorance and stupidity they have to say with regard to companion dog training has flourished. In spite of there not being one iota of scientific evidence to support their recommendations in the context of long-term reliability with companion dogs by companion dog owners. I would no more recommend companion dog owners try to learn how to teach their dogs reliable life skills from an amateur trainer (aka parrot), then hire a parrot to teach their children to speak their native tongue.
John ‘Ask The Dog Guy’ Wade
Embracing Science and Common Sense
I PRESSED ON
Can you recommend any book(s) that you deem to be good and that teach a more scientific approach to training?
Hi Kathy, I wrote something many years ago on the topic. (The Beautiful Balance – Companion Dog Training With Nature’s Template (downloadable eBook)) It’s quite possibly the shortest book on companion dog training ever written. In fact, more of an essay. Nevertheless, if you can ignore the fact that I seemingly ignored every grammar and editing rule in existence, you’ll likely learn more about companion dog training from the perspective of what not to do and why, and what to do and why than anywhere else. The cost is only $4.99 CND which is about $4.40 US. Click Here – John Wade (www.askthedogguy.com)