Somewhere out there is a study that concludes that using electronic collars can be detrimental to performance in dogs. That is not science. There is a study out there that concluded that using food reinforcement can teach dogs behaviour faster than methods that use compulsion. That is not science. There is also a study out there that shows that using food reinforcement can be detrimental in training dogs. This is also not science. In fact there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that offer us conclusions about the behaviour of dogs, methods of training them, and their biology. And it is all great information. But it’s not science. Let me explain.
Science is a process. It is the process that was used in order for those conclusions about dogs to be found and verified. Anyone who claims to be a “science-based dog trainer” needs to understand this and keep it in mind. It is not the body of knowledge that science has given us that should define us as science-based trainers. It is the commitment to the Scientific Method that should define us. Our belief in that process of forming a hypothesis or assumption about something, designing ways to test that assumption, diligently doing the experiments to test and collect the data, and making an objective analysis of our findings. It also means that if we find that the data does not support our assumptions, we must be prepared to admit our mistakes, change our thinking, and begin the process again.
Another very important part of science is sharing our methods and findings with others. If what we discover cannot be repeated and verified by others, perhaps it is not as true as we think. Having input from others on our methods of testing and data collection, as well as how we interpret the findings, is very important in deciding how valid our results are. The old saying that “Two heads are better than one” can be extended here – the more your experiments can be repeated and show the same results the better.
These days I see far too many people in many different fields desperately sifting through the data that science provides looking for those pieces that will support what they think. They are looking for an authoritative source to back up what they want to believe is true. But that’s not how science works. We don’t get to pick and choose from among what this or that study says and claim we know how something works. At the barest minimum, we have an obligation to compare and contrast what we find against a variety of other sources to be sure that the conclusions hold true and are repeatable. In the dog training world, it is ideal if we can demonstrate the principle ourselves to show that it is true. But that requires a good understanding and ability to perform the tasks.
If we truly commit ourselves to being science-based trainers, we must be prepared to be the Devil’s Advocate; to examine different viewpoints, to consider many sources, and to repeat the experiments for ourselves. We must be prepared to challenge anything. To climb inside a subject to see how it works for ourselves. We must be willing to BE the scientists. We have to understand and embrace the scientific method and wield it as a weapon in our quest to sort facts from fancy. We may not always get the results we want. In fact, a big part of this is learning to say “I was wrong” easily and with some excitement. Being wrong means we have eliminated one more possibility and we know more now than we did before.
For me, as a dog trainer, science isn’t about giving me a place to back up my arguments about one training idea or method over another. That’s just debate and rhetoric. Those things don’t teach dogs. Science gives me the confidence to apply a principle in working with a dog and knowing that it will work the way I expect. Not because I want it to be true but because it has been shown to be true over and over by many people in many situations and I have used it and seen it for myself.
But demonstrating how a scientific finding or principle can be applied to our everyday training with our dogs is more than just a “Hey! Watch THIS!” proposition. There are any number of ways to get a dog to do something you want. Many of them are even fairly reliable. But it’s not enough to just demonstrate something. Why does it work? What makes it happen? How does it apply to every dog? How can it be used in different situations? Just because a trainer has managed to get a few dogs to do a given behaviour in a certain way does not mean that the method or approach is scientifically valid. It’s the difference between medicine and trying to cure cancer with chicken soup. You might be able to find an example or two where that worked but I wouldn’t call it reliable.
It matters that we know how we achieved our training goal. It matters that we can explain it as well as demonstrate it. And it matters that we can speak with some confidence about the full context of what we are doing. One can teach a dog to “Sit” using choke chain or prong collar but what is really happening is that the dog is learning to sit in order to AVOID a discomfort coming from the collar. It could be important to know what the risks are of the behaviour failing when the dog realizes that they are not wearing a collar so there is nothing to avoid! Similarly, it can be important when showing behaviour reinforcement with food to explain that it is necessary to teach the dog when training is over so they don’t continue to pester you for more treats.
So, this science-based training, it’s a big deal. It is something I can give to another dog owner beyond mere words. It gives me the ability to say “Watch this!” and actually SHOW someone how it works. It gives me a depth of knowledge to answer those nagging “what if…” and “what about…” questions that will certainly be asked. And it gives me an understanding of all the bits that need to be shared to give someone the complete picture.
It all sounds like it takes a bit of work, doesn’t it? Well, it does. Because Science is DOING. Being a science-based trainer means more than reading and quoting the findings of others. It means trying it out. Discovering the ways that something can fail. It means asking the hard questions that we sometimes don’t want to ask when something works but not quite as we expected. It means working with our dogs and being able to talk about what we’ve learned.
I think it’s all kind of cool.