Most weeks, I like to put together something on a single topic regarding dogs or dog training. It’s fun to explore things in depth and see where they come from, where they go, and even if we can be better or smarter about them. I tend to be scientific in my approach to most things. I like to break them down, see how they work, and be able to put them back together again. But I recognize that not everyone shares my systematic approach to dogs and dog training.
There’s lots to see, hear, do, and think about when it comes to our dogs. Working with my dogs is a passion. So, perhaps more than many dog owners, I read book and articles and the Internet to stay on top of the latest information. I try to filter the best of that learning into this column to share what I’m finding. But some weeks, like this one, what is knocking around inside my head is not as well defined or structured as that. It’s not a bad thing but it’s a bit more on the opinion side than my usual articles. A bit of Canine Nation things-that-make-you-go-“hmmm”, if you will.
This – When did “Science” become a bad word?
Something I’m seeing more and more on the Internet is a negative reaction to science and behaviour analysis by dog training professionals. Many of these trainers actually distinguish themselves as being “non-science” based. Their methods are pointedly described in imprecise, emotional terms like “relationship”, “energy”, or “natural.” I can only assume that this is a way to portray these trainers and their methods as more human and “feelings” based trainers. So when did science become a bad thing?!
I came across the website of dog trainer Kevin Behan who calls his training approach “Natural Dog Training.” Behan claims that what makes his methods work is that they use the dog’s “energy” as a source of information. Behan believes that all dogs know how to perform all of the behaviours we would ask of them – sit, down, heel, stay, etc. According to his website, we only need to create “an emotional group climate which our dogs intuitively synchronizes his actions to, in order to be in harmony with his group.” Frankly, I have no idea what he’s talking about but I’m fairly sure he’s the only one who could show me how it works. For a fee, of course.
I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get through more than 15 minutes of an episode of The Dog Whisperer on television without hearing host and dog training guru Cesar Millan make reference to “energy” in order to achieve “balance” in a dog’s behaviour. Millan has written books on the topic and more than 130 episodes of his TV show have not made the measurable aspects of this “energy” any more tangible to anyone watching him work.
Even dog experts that are popular among more modern positive trainers seem to like to keep a healthy distance from science. Suzanne Clothier, an author and popular speaker on dogs and relationships, seems to have a problem with science. I attended a seminar with Ms. Clothier a few years ago and in response to one of my questions, I was told not to bring all that science into it and Ms. Clothier moved on without addressing my question. Although she has been published in scientific journals and is reported to be an avid reader of scientific journals, Ms. Clothier has chastised some positive trainers. Dog trainer Crystal Thompson attended a Clothier seminar in 2010 and reports that Clothier characterized clicker trainers as being “too cerebral” and that using operant conditioning can treat dogs like computers by basing training on stimulus-response.
Apparently science is fine when we are trying to build skyscrapers, electric cars, or saving lives with modern medicine. But heaven forbid we use it to understand and modify the behaviour of our dogs. It seems to be much more acceptable to draw comparisons to human feelings and attitudes when dealing with our dogs. Teaching our dogs to “respect” us and to work for us out of a sense of duty or loyalty instead of for tangible rewards. To me, it’s a belief system that places higher value on less information and more intuition. I’m reminded of a quotation I saw recently: “Science doesn’t really care what you believe.” Dog owners and trainers ignore the facts that behavioural science and psychology have given us every day. It makes as much sense to me as not believing in gravity.
That – Behavioural Monkey Business
This week I happened upon a very interesting film. Project Nim is a documentary by James Marsh based on the book “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.” The film chronicles the life of a chimpanzee named Nim who was brought into a research project conceived and run by Dr. Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. The film takes us on a chronological journey through the life of Nim from his birth and arrival at Columbia only days old, through his 5 years in the Terrace project, his relocation to a chimpanzee refuge in Oklahoma, his subsequent sale into medical experimentation, and his eventual rescue and rehoming to the wildlife refuge of Cleveland Amory where he lived out the rest of his life. It is a film that very effectively tugs at the heartstrings and allows the audience to empathize with the captive Nim. And, for me, that was the biggest problem with the film.
It is understandable that this is a film intended to appeal to a wide audience. What got passed over in large measure was the scientific work that Terrace and his colleagues were able to accomplish. The film itself is a cautionary tale on many levels. It shows the dangers of raising a wild animal in captivity in that their instincts are never far from the surface. But, to my mind, the more important message that is all but lost is the value of good scientific methods and data analysis to reach the proper conclusions.
Terrace’s project was to determine if a chimp could be raised from birth to understand and use language in a human context. This was to be achieved through teaching Nim American Sign Language and observing to see if he would eventually begin to combine signs and to express himself. After reviewing hundreds of hours of video tape of Nim, Terrace made a startling observation. What his team had previously identified as evidence of Nim communicating in a expressive way was actually just a response by Nim to human prompting. Terrace and his colleagues were so intent on watching Nim in the videos that they did not notice that the humans in the periphery of the frame were unintentionally prompting Nim and rewarding him for imitating.
So what did the study actually prove? The film didn’t make that clear for me but fortunately, Dr. Terrace made several very public responses that can be found on various websites to Marsh’s 2011 film. Terrace believes the study provided a definitive negative result – Nim did not demonstrate a capacity to use “language” for self expression. He maintains that this result does not invalidate the study. It showed a clear case where the hypothesis was conclusively proved wrong.
There were several lessons in this experience for me. First, it was important to recognize the intention of the filmmaker and to keep myself from putting myself in Nim’s place. I am not a chimp and he was not a human. Yes, there were observable emotions displayed by Nim at various points in the film. But I was not shown the whole story, only what the filmmaker selected for me. So it was important for me to dismiss many of the emotional characterizations made for me by the filmmaker. No one can know what Nim was thinking, only how he was behaving.
Second, and perhaps most important, is the lesson that emotions and relationships can get in the way of good observation and process. Yes, it is important that we care for our animals and we may love and cherish them. But we need to remain committed to keeping the observable facts separate from our human interpretation of them. In the case of Nim, several bad decisions were made for what some might call “the right reasons” and it prevented both Nim and the team from learning some valuable lessons. While it can be difficult, I think that we, as dog trainers, have an obligation to keep science and good process in mind when working with both clients and dogs.
There is a very real danger in assuming too many human qualities in our animals. With Nim, it resulted in his causing serious injuries to his human companions. We have the very same risk with our dogs. If we somehow lose sight of what our dogs are and are capable of, we risk serious injury. The psychological and emotional risks may be even higher. Treating our dogs as if they were human can be confusing at best and may result in serious behaviour problems if we don’t recognize their effects. There are two sides to the cuddly, lovable packages that are dogs. They are our closest animal companions and yet very different from us in the mental, emotional, and physical capabilities.
I’m troubled by those in dog training who set themselves up as something “better” than the science that is out there about dogs. In many cases they base their methods and philosophies on limited personal experience and a compassionate approach that seeks to “respect the nature of dogs.” But isn’t that canine “nature” something that science is helping us understand? From genetics to ethology to behavioural science, our growing understanding of dogs is coming from research and not simply communing with “man’s best friend.”
I’m glad I watched Project Nim and I am grateful that I made the time to do some research on the Internet to get more of the scientific background on the Nim project. The experience showed me how easily we can be drawn into humanizing an animal and empathizing what we imagine its feelings to be. I cannot deny that there is an emotional satisfaction that is attractive about the “compassionate” approach to dogs. And I understand that many in the dog world want to turn away from science and be more “human” with our dogs. We love them and want to see something of ourselves in them. In a very real way, our dogs do mirror us. But they have had to behave as we want them to in order to survive. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have them in our homes or breed them or feed them.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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