There are a few common phrases that float around in the dog training world that get my hackles up. One of those phrases is “I use whatever training technique my dogs need.” The implication being that some dogs are more responsive to one technique over another. And while there may be some truth in that statement, the variations necessary to train individual dogs are not as great as some trainers would have you believe.
Training our dogs is a mostly private affair. We work in our own homes with our dogs and we do the best we can. We get our information on how to train from a variety of sources. Many of us grew up in families with dogs and watched our parents work with dogs. Some of us look to books for ideas and information. Some of us seek out the advice of professional trainers or dog owning friends. And the variety of media outlets available today offer dog owners new sources of information from discussion groups and blogs on the Internet to the dog oriented shows on television.
He Said, She Said
It has been said that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that a third dog trainer is wrong. It’s a line that is always good for a chuckle but only because there is some truth in it. Why is it that with all of the resources of the 21st century at our disposal, no consensus on dog training methodology has been reached? You might think that enough research has been done to give us a general picture of what works and what doesn’t. So why do opinions on dog training vary so widely?
That’s a complicated question and one that doesn’t have easy answers. Certainly a big part of what people believe about dogs and dog training is what they have seen with their own eyes. If a given training technique produces the desired result, then that technique works in the eyes of that trainer. So why is it that what works for one dog doesn’t work for a different dog? The answer may lie in the trainers and not the dogs.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
In his book “Blink!”, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the adaptive unconscious, a set of mental processes identified in the human mind. This adaptive unconscious can actually leave us convinced that we saw something even if what actually happened was quite different. How is this possible? Researcher Timothy Wilson writes in “The Unseen Mind” that his subjects were “unaware of their own unawareness” regarding the bias of their decisions. Instead of recognizing that we were already looking for a particular outcome, we use our reasoning and introspection to explain why we saw what we wanted to see.
This disconnect between our adaptive unconscious and our introspective, reasoning mind sets the stage for misperceptions that we absolutely believe. The only way past this kind of conflict between reality and our perception of it is a willingness to re-examine observable facts. We are influenced by what we are familiar with and the things we understand.
In other words, it’s possible that a trainer believes their training methods “work” because it is what they have been taught. It is what they understand. Their adaptive unconscious influences their choices and their perception of their results. Our ability to rationalize our choices is also biased by another important factor – most dog owners have only trained a handful of their own dogs.
I have met dog owners who are absolutely convinced that a particular training technique is 100% effective for teaching a certain behaviour. After talking with them about their discovery, it becomes clear that their success is based on a sample of one or two dogs; the ones they currently work with at home. This kind of trainer is often at a loss to explain why their technique works but they can show you how to use it with your dog. If it doesn’t work with your dog, they will politely suggest that you might not be doing it correctly. Their method can’t be flawed because it works with their dogs.
Another factor is that it is difficult to teach a dog the same behaviour using different methods. Once they have learned the desired behaviour, we can’t reset them to try teaching a different way. Even if we could, why would we? We already have a technique that works and it has done the job in the past. So a given trainer is limited in their ability to compare different training techiques in a relatively short time frame. They have only so many dogs to work with and only so much time.
Numbers Don’t Lie
As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, it might be difficult for a dog owner to get information about the effectiveness of a particular training approach. It might involve trips to the library or bookstores. It might require phone calls to training professionals around the world to ask about training methods and results. The lucky ones might have access to a university that was doing research on canine behaviour. But today we have the Internet.
As a dog trainer in the 21st century, I no longer have the luxury of looking to my own adaptive unconscious and a limited pool of information to justify my training approaches. Everything from the experiences and knowledge of professional animal trainers around the world to university research on canine learning and behaviour are at my fingertips if I choose to access them. But overturning decades of my own experience to find that I don’t know what I thought I knew can be a scary proposition.
In my own case, I have made my choice to see as much as I can see and discard the things I have learned in the past if they don’t hold up in light of new information I am learning about. I have chosen to re-examine the things I have heard from dog trainers and other dog owners – the hearsay. And what I’m finding is that much of what I’m learning goes against many of the things I was taught about dogs – the heresy of a science based approach. The difference is that this new information goes beyond what I have “seen with my own eyes” and relies on the weight of the trials and experiences of trainers who are recording and reporting their results. Numbers don’t lie.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. There are lots of ways the people teach their dogs. Each method has it’s pros and cons. But in the end, people use what “works” for them. And that’s just fine, right? Wrong. Would it surprise you if I told you that methods based on punishing incorrect behaviours actually cause more problems than methods that rely on rewarding correct behaviours?
In 2004, a study was done at the University of Bristol in England. It involved interviewing hundreds of dog owners and trainers about their dogs, their training methods, and the most common problem behaviours reported in dogs. In the conclusion of their research paper the authors report that, “in the general dog-owning population, dogs trained using punishment are no more obedient than those trained by other means and,furthermore, they exhibit increased numbers of potentially problematic behaviours.”
This isn’t the hearsay of a dog owner who’s best friend is a dog trainer who has “been doing it for 20 years” and knows her methods work. These are the results of university educated animal behaviourists who devised a specific methodology to determine their results using hundreds of average dog owners in their trials. Their results were submitted for review by other professionals and it stood up to their rigorous scientific standards. And to many dog trainers out there, it is heresy!
Training Beyond Results
Using training methods because “they have always worked” for certain dogs may not be the most effective way to go. After all, I can drive nails with a heavy wrench but it’s not the most effective way to go (a hammer works better, so I am told). Remember that our dogs are thinking and feeling animals and they are not neutral as to which training approach we use. A given training method may get the desired results but, as the study from the University of Bristol shows, it may also get you some additional problems you didn’t anticipate.
We have the capacity to fool ourselves. The research on human psychology shows us that the adaptive unconscious is particularly good at masking our biases for certain answers or approaches. We may not even recognize that those new problems with our dogs come out of our own choice of training methods.
We all love our dogs. We should take the same care in choosing how we work with them that we do in choosing the right food for them or the right places to go for a walk. To me, “I use what works with my dogs” is not a good enough justification for how we train. I want to know that I am using the most effective training methods based on solid research. And if that doesn’t jive with the hearsay in my local dog community, I’m content with my methods being heresy.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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