What’s Wrong With Intelligent Dog Training?

Why not?The one thing that the dog world is not short on is tribes.  Call them philosophies or methods or techniques if you like, but the dog training world seems to always be divided into tribes that claim to offer the best way to train your dog.  Whether it is Cesar Millan and his “Pack Leadership” style of training, the “shock collar” training that seems popular among sporting dog enthusiasts, or the “Relationship Based Training” advocated by Suzanne Clothier, each of these tribes sets themselves apart from the rest of the dog training world.  Each tribe has its gurus, important books, and a means to identify with others who believe in the same kind of training.  If this sounds a little like different religions, I don’t think that is merely coincidence.

God, they say, is unknowable.  In a very real sense, DOG is unknowable to humans in many ways as well.  We can make our observations, collect our data, and form our hypotheses on how and why dogs behave as they do.  The fact that dogs cannot tell us what they are thinking in any direct way means we are constantly interpreting and speculating on what their behaviours may mean.  Even though science has learned a great deal about dog behaviour and canine cognition/learning, direct access to what B.F. Skinner called the “black box”, the mind of the dog, remains out of reach.  It is often that narrow blind spot that different tribes use to distinguish themselves and set them apart from all of the other tribes of dog training.  

“You can sit by the river for years and never get wet”

I had a very talented friend who would frequently use that phrase in reference to older, more experienced people in his field.  At a young age, my friend was, in many ways, more accomplished and better informed in his field than colleagues who had been at it for 20 years longer than he had.  It seems to me that it is not how long you have been doing something that matters but how intelligently you engage and your ability to learn from those experiences.  It’s the same with dogs.  I frequently tell people that I have been living with and training dogs for 30 years, most of those years I did it badly.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I learned more in my first year of using behaviour and science based training than I had in the previous 20 years.

I frequently encounter dog trainers who will use the number of years they have been involved with dogs or the number of dogs they have worked with as their claim to some authority on the subject.  “I have been [breeding, training, working with, around] dogs for 30 years.  I think I know something about them.”  I’m sure these people do know some things about dogs.

Humans have some remarkable ways of fooling themselves.  One of those ways has been identified in psychology as “confirmation bias“, a process where someone will unconsciously disregard any information that conflicts with their existing beliefs or will focus only on information that supports their beliefs about a particular subject.  Do we really know what we need to know about dogs?

KnowledgeIt seems that you can believe the same incorrect conclusions about dogs for years and never challenge them.  I know this to be true because I did it myself for 20 years.  What’s worse is that it seems people have the capacity to convince themselves that they are better informed as the years pass but they are just selectively choosing the information that supports what they already believe.  There is no reason to change what they know.  If it isn’t broken, why fix it?


If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

One of the most confusing things about different dog training methods is that they can appear to give us the same results.  If I tell my dog to “Sit!”, we all know what that looks like and we could all judge whether or not the dog had done the “sit” in response to my cue.  What is more difficult to know from this observation is how I taught this dog to sit.  Did I use Clicker Training?  Natural Dog Training?  Relationship Based Training?  Pack Leadership Training?  Perhaps I even used a combination of these or other methods.  But a “Sit” is a “Sit”, right?  There was a time that I believed that too.

Then I read Melissa Alexander’s “How You Get Behavior Really Does Matter” and I realized that getting the results I wanted was only part of the story between me and my dog.  Like throwing a pebble in a pond, the process by which we teach our dog can ripple into other areas of our lives together.  Frustrating my dog with confusing training might make her unwilling to learn other behaviours or even to respond to known behaviours.  Being overly generous with food rewards for easy training might make my dog lazy or bored or interested only in the food.  How we approach training our dogs really does have an impact on not just the performance of a specific behaviour we train but on our dog’s overall attitude and behaviour in life situations as well.

There are those in dog training who focus on “manners” and making sure that dogs are not “rude” when interacting with humans.  Often their training methods get results and they get them quickly.  Unfortunately, much of what they do involves stopping behaviour.  Don’t jump up, don’t nip, don’t pull on the leash, don’t bark.  These techniques get the desired results and the dog thinks twice before doing the behaviours again.  But then the owners notice something they didn’t expect.  They enroll their dog in an agility class and their dog is reluctant to run and jump and work away from them at a distance.  Why?  Because the dog does not want to be reprimanded yet again for some unwanted behaviour;  he is thinking twice about it.  It’s what they have come to expect from their “manners” training.  Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The thinking dog trainer

Good intentions and unconditional love do not train a dog.  Time, patience, education, and a well prepared training plan is what trains a dog.  An intelligent  dog trainer looks for all of the information they can get on all aspects of dogs, behaviour, and learning theory.  It’s not enough to just know how to throw a pebble into the pond, you should also know how ripples work and where they are likely to go before you throw.  Sometimes that means admitting what we thought we knew was wrong and casting old information aside in favour of the new, despite our own cognitive bias.

TogetherMy experience with students has shown me that many of the problems dog owners have happen because they didn’t realize that the solution to one behaviour problem might just create 3 other problems.  Many times these problems come about because the owner has discovered a new tribe of dog training and has followed its principles without looking closely enough at what they were doing and how it affected their dog.  Their search for a solution has led them to a new and different set of problems.  And here cognitive bias can once again fool us into thinking that the new problems are preferable to the old problems.  They have a solution they think is good enough.  Or is it?

We like to call this the “Information Age.”  There are more books, articles, videos, and other information sources available to us today than ever before in human history.  Making the best use of that information is up to us as individuals.  While God remains largely unknowable, our dog is right here with us and we have opportunities each day to interact and discover more about her.  She too is a valuable source of information.  Regardless of what you read or are told about dogs, behaviour, and training, think about that advice and how it will affect you and your dog.

Everyone who trains a dog has different strengths.  Each will develop the skills that they think are important to them and their time with their dog.  The kind of training we do with our dog should not be based on our association with a particular tribe.  Our human need to belong to a group should not outweigh finding the best approach to teaching our dogs and helping them to enjoy a happy, healthy life.  Your choice of dog training methods should not depend on a certain tribe, a charismatic guru, or a commitment to an ideology.  It should depend on the careful, thoughtful efforts of the most important person in your dog’s life.  You.

Until next time, have fun with your dog.

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Photo credits –

Why Not? – Big Grey Mare 2007 From Flickr
Knowledge – It’sGreg 2005 From Flickr
Together – outlier dogs 2009 From Flickr


Recent Eric Brad Articles:


  1. avatarLinda G says

    The following is actually a blog post by the horse trainers, Mark Rashid and his wife Crissi McDonald, and their experience upon watching Cesar Millan’s work with dogs, never having seen his work before. Folks here may or may not have heard of Mark Rashid. He’s the writer of such books as “Considering the Horse,” “Horses Never Lie,” and several others, for anyone who might like to learn more about him. (Mark had to take a few days off, a rarity for him, with a shoulder injury, and he and his wife happened upon some “Dog Whisperer” shows while doing so.)

    As for myself, I am nearing retirement, and I’m beginning to have the opportunity to learn about working with dogs to an extent I’ve never had the chance to before. I was searching the internet and happened upon someone doing remarkable work with marker/clicker training, and I wanted to learn more. But I couldn’t do so without also having to listen to folks being vilified that did things differently, and Cesar Millan seems to be the figure most used as the example to most avoid. I have long been drawn to his work, and was surprised to find that in appreciating his work, I’m labeled, as is the case, here, a cultist.

    Editor: Continued at another link… (see below)

    [EDIT – Due to the length of this reply, Linda has graciously moved it, in it’s entirety, to her Facebook page. The full text of this reply can be found HERE. All links and references she posted here are on that page.]

  2. avatar says

    Eric- I just wanted to say that this is one of the best pieces of writing on this subject that I have ever read. Ironically, I didn’t read it right away because I had glanced at the title and the first few sentences and thought I knew exactly what it was going to say and that I wouldn’t agree with the overall message. Shame on me.

    “It’s not enough to just know how to throw a pebble into the pond, you should also know how ripples work and where they are likely to go before you throw.” —-I’m going to have this sentence running through my head for days.


    • avatar says

      Thanks Emily.

      I don’t think we should always read only the things we agree with. I’ve done some of my best learning when I force myself outside of my comfort zone. And, like you, I’m frequently surprised by what I find. I so glad your surprise with my article was such a pleasant one!

      Thanks for reading,

  3. avatar says

    I for one can appreciate how hard it is to write a brief article with a lot of moving parts and getting the various themes weighted in the right proportion. By the end of the article I think your point came across very well, i.e. Think For Yourself because the law-of-unintended-consequences, aka “Murphy’s Law” is always in play. And Lynn Ungars’ comment about confirmation bias is perfect. I would only add that paradoxically as it might appear, our most subjective sense, feelings, can be our most objective measure, our best defense against confirmation bias. Especially given that our dog invariably ends up reflecting our feelings. Quite the exercise in humility are they.

  4. avatarCindy Knowlton says

    What exactly in Clothier’s approach doesn’t qualify as intelligent training? If anything, she is famous for refusing to provide recipes or formulas, and insists on thoughtful, aware training that has everything to do with the dog and results. She discourages blind acceptance of any teachings, and urges critical thinking, always. Are you saying that having devoted followers equals unintelligent training? Maybe trainers have a devoted following because they do get results and help handlers work well with their dogs — and because they have done so for a long, long time.

    • avatar says

      Hi Cindy –

      This article doesn’t say that Clothier’s approach, or anyone else’s for that matter, should or should not qualify as intelligent dog training. In fact, it is not about training methods but how an owner/trainer comes to choose how they work with their dog. Please see my reply to Suzanne.

      I agree that Critical Thinking should have a place in dog training. If this is what Suzanne advocates for dog owners, I agree with her. I have met far too many dog owners looking for a quick fix who do not take the time to really understand a training technique before using it on their dog, usually with unacceptable results. And then it’s on to the next thing to try.

      Let me assure you and any others who may feel this article is about Ms. Clothier that it is not. It is not about any one method or approach. Intelligent dog training, to me, is doing the research, understanding the basis of what is suggested, and carefully considering if you can use it effectively with your dog.

      In short, this article is about how to choose a training method. If I had intended it as a critique of a particular training method, I would have been far more specific.

      I find it curious that I have not seen comments from fans of Millan, Karen Pryor, or others I referenced. Perhaps there is a discussion somewhere that has misconstrued the meaning of this article?

      Anyway, it’s not an attack on Suzanne or anyone else. I’m sorry you didn’t understand my intent on your reading.

      • avatarCindy Knowlton says

        Perhaps unintended, the suggestion remains very real, evidenced by the comments of those who understand her premise of what you refer to as intelligent dog training. That said, it would have been much more appropriate to include Clothier in your accolades for Melissa Alexander, than a string of trainers and philosophies who do offer anything but, especially in an intro paragraph on “What’s Wrong With Intelligent Dog Training,” or leave her name out of it completely as you did Karen Pryor, or whomever else you had in mind when you wrote the article.

        My concern is that your unintended suggestion will instead cause your readers to discount Clothier’s ideas altogether, and that would be a shame as she wholeheartedly advocates intelligent dog training. That would truly be a shame.

        I find myself reading a bit of confirmation bias in your replies to those of us who support the premise intelligent dog training. I’m sorry that many of us didn’t understand your intent. I’m also sorry that your message wasn’t more clear. Perhaps some clarification in a future article might help set the record straight for all of us.

  5. avatarSimon Prins says

    Eric, I really like your article. The big difference between apes and humans is that humans, especially young children, solve problems much faster because they help each other. In the dog training world sometimes it seems that people are more busy to defend ‘their new method’ instead of helping others. I hope this article and your work will contribute to the fact that trainers will help other trainers. Open their minds and understand that there is more around their idea’s, training clubs or guru’s. We all can learn from each other and by doing that we maybe can make the learning curve for new trainers shorter…


  6. avatar says

    I was quite amused to find my approach to training – Relationship Centered Training – listed as one of the “tribes.” Not sure how what I teach and practice – thoughtful training based in detailed knowledge of the physical, mental & emotional dog and how any chosen technique, methodology, theory or equipment impacts that dog, the handler *and* the relationship – is at odds with “intelligent dog training.” Easy to name names & apply the “tribe” label. An intelligent and knowledgeable assessment of where my approach fails to meet your standards would have been much more informative — but it would require actual knowledge of what RCT stands for and promotes. Thanks, though, for adding to my ever growing list of things I’ve been labeled! (Now wondering if I’m a tribe leader, a tribeswoman, a tribal type… and if there’s any tax relief involved in being in a tribe?)

    • avatar says

      Hi Suzanne –

      First let me address your question: I do not think your teachings and practices are at odds with intelligent dog training. Having re-read the article, I can’t see where I said as much. But to clarify, my intent in writing this article was to encourage dog owners/trainers to intelligently examine and determine for themselves what forms of training are and are not appropriate for their dogs. The article is not a value judgement on any particular training philosophy or practice.

      With regards to the “tribe label”, as you called it, I use it as a descriptor for all of the various “camps” we seem to have in the dog world. There are those who follow Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnel, Michael Ellis, and many others. “Tribe” is not used here as derogatory term. Simply to call attention to the fact that there are some people in the dog world who will take up a training method because they read it in a magazine or heard that this or that author recommends it. Whether it was your intention or not, you have followers – I have met more than a few of them. As someone who takes a rigorous approach to her work with dogs, I would expect that you would agree that people should use your RCT training because they have examined it and it makes good sense to them given the information and data you present. Not simply because you are Suzanne Clothier the published author.

      If this article were intended as an intelligent and knowledgeable assessment of your approach, it would have been far more informative than my 1500 word allotment here would permit. As it stands, I don’t believe my standards are of importance for training any dogs other than my own. Having been to one of your weekend seminars a few years ago and having read your “Bones Would Rain From The Sky” I have some idea of how you approach dogs and training. I think there is much we would agree on.

      As far as adding to the list of things you have been labelled, I think it is clear that you do have a following. Call it a tribe or fans or anything else you like. You are a far more read author than I am. I am flattered that you took the time to read my post. I’m sorry that you didn’t take away from it what I hoped my readers would.

      All the best,
      Eric Brad

  7. avatar says

    Thanks so much for the mention in your article! It was a brilliant article, and I agree with every word. :-) When I was first learning to train, a person I respect told me that some people have 20 years of experience and some have one year of experience 20 times. I took from that that I should always keep learning, because I would never know everything.

  8. avatarKit Champagne says

    Brilliant article! I’ve been around dogs my whole life and have watched the dog world go from some really nasty practices to really great ones. It is sad to see some ”trainers” get stuck in old practices because ”they work”. The thing I know most about dog training is how much I have yet to learn. Every day is an exciting new adventure in learning from outside resourses and from what my canine companions teach me.
    Thank you for being part of the adventure!

  9. avatar says

    Hi Eric, I landed here because it seemed to be philanthropic to me “Life as a human” but I have got the stuff about dogs. I read that. Well, you have articulated well the human perception for dogs or dogs training. I’m scared of dogs so I don’t have one at my space. There is a reason behind it.
    Clear my doubt: When we feel hungry, we eat stuff that we like. And, if we don’t get any, we feel frustrated and then eat anything that comes to our sight. Now what if a dog feels desperately hungry? And for the owner it becomes difficult to make it for a day due to any reason (may be out of station). Are there any chances that when the owner comes back, dog may attack him or just take a bite of his hand because meet & bones remain the yummiest food for it. I don’t think so that dogs have discrimination power. So what is your perception about it? Being a safety services provider, I’m curious to know the safety of a dog owner.

    • avatar says

      It’s important to remember that dogs are a scavenger species. They are much different than their ancestor the wolf. There are several studies that dogs will prefer cooked meats or even breads to raw meat. Dogs are capable of eating lots of different foods including vegetables, fruit, and many items we leave in the trash. Pet dogs are generally well fed at least once each day. Dogs are able to go several days without eating. Considering that their owner is the primary source for delivering food, it is very unlikely that the dog would attack their owner as food. More likely they would want the owner to GET food for them!

      Dogs do have the ability to discriminate about biting humans or using humans for food. We are not a natural source of food for dogs. A dog would have to suffer terrible abuse or starvation for a long period in order to consider attacking a human to eat them.

      For more information on dogs and dog safety, you can visit this website go to this website for some great information!

  10. avatarjanice says

    I don’t care how long a person has been training dogs nearly as much as I care that they’re happy to take out their ideas and look at them critically. My question is ‘that’s great that you’ve trained/bred/shown dogs for 30 years….what new things have you learned this year that have improved your approach and relationships with your dog(s)?”

  11. avatarLynn Ungar says

    Here is the sad thing about confirmation bias. If you think you are free from it yourself, you have just proved that you have it. (“Unlike those OTHER people, I am truly objective and scientific.”) Science tells us that we all have confirmation bias, and to think otherwise of ourselves would be unscientific. Sad little catch-22. Which is not to say that we can’t all strive to keep an open mind, and judge training methods based on what we see. (Which will, alas, always be biased by what we expect to see.) But this is why I’m most comfortable with trainers like Denise Fenzi, who says “I am choosing to train without pain compliance. I am excited to see where this will take me,” rather than declaring other methods unethical or ineffective.

    • avatar says

      Denise Fenzi, who says “I am choosing to train without pain compliance. I am excited to see where this will take me,”

      Love this and feel the same way :)

  12. avatarGeoff Stern says

    Eric, some points of disagreement, not to be querulous.
    First, I shouldn’t want to lump Suzanne Clothier in with Cesar Millan, and we’ll just have to agree to disagree about electronic collars. (I don’t use one, but I know how to use one, and I know and respect many people who use them.)
    Second, while there are in dog training, as in other fields of human endevour, long-timers who really know squat-all, we shouldn’t be hasty to dismiss what the old farts know. There are lots of upstarts who have grafted onto themselves detailed expertise in behavior/learning theory and think they have a key to unlock every door. Their talk may be impressive, but so too some grizzled veterans’ list of actual performance titles on actual dogs.
    Atheism notwithstanding, I give you I give you St. Paul: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21).

    • avatar says

      Hi Geoff –

      Not to be disagreeable but I disagree that we are disagreeing!

      Clothier and Millan are indeed VERY different trainers with VERY different viewpoints and different approaches to dogs and training. The thing that I think they do have in common is that they each have very devoted followers. The same is true of some of the people I have met who champion the use of shock collars. Each tribe has it’s own followers. That’s really the only point I was making. “Clicker Trainers” are their own tribe for that matter.

      You are quite right, just because some “sit by the river for years and never get wet”, there are still some damn strong swimmers out there who have been at it for a long time. Sorry if I came across sounding like everyone who has been around for a long time doesn’t know as much as they think they do. There are many wise “old farts” (as you call them) that have a great deal to teach us. And I also agree that just because someone has become conversant in the terminology of something doesn’t mean they can execute it well. That said, I would not use performance titles as an indicator. There are lots of ways to get ribbons. I have seen people who teach agility with shock collars. I wouldn’t do it, but it can be done.

      With regards to your offer of the words of St. Paul….all I can say to that is “Amen Brother!” Prove all things indeed. Seeing is knowing and knowing is believing.

      Thanks for reading Geoff!


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