Once upon a time, before there was an Internet, I used to pull cables and connect personal computers into networks. It was the beginning of a long and interesting career for me as a technician/consultant in the wild world that became the computer networking industry. In a relatively short time I went from pulling cables and installing software to diving deep into network data transmission protocols and troubleshooting complex system interactions. It was exciting stuff.
One of the things I developed a talent for was talking to business people about the technology. You know, the guys that don’t really care how stuff works just so long as it works and doesn’t break down when they need it most. Sure, I knew that it was important from a technical standpoint to put certain equipment in place to handle data flow and data security. I knew that the inner workings of those devices had to be configured properly to accomplish the tasks that were required. But “Mr. Simmons”, the CEO, just knew that he was shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for someone to help his business and it was our job to just make it work.
A bridge between two worlds
It was early in my computer networking career that I learned the difference between functional specifications and technical specifications. Functional specifications defined what a system would do while technical specifications would provide details on how the system would do what the functional specification had defined. For example, a functional specification might say that the system needs to provide for email messaging between 1200 employees in 3 different office buildings. A technical specification for such a system would detail what hardware would need to be provided, which networking protocols would be used to encrypt data, what software would be responsible for scheduling and executing transmission of data, etc.
The users of a system didn’t need to know how the messages got from one place to another, they just had to have the ability to send messages. It was my job to know all of the technical details necessary to make all of that happen. So I learned that details are important but they aren’t important to everyone. Knowing how something works doesn’t necessarily help you use the system better.
It’s interesting to me that I’m running into that same dynamic in the world of training dogs. There are lots of technical details on how and why dogs behave the way they do and how they learn. But there is a larger question – do all of those details produce better functional training practices?
The devil IS the details
Research on dogs and dog related issues seem to have increased exponentially in the past 10-15 years. That’s a good thing! But the sheer volume of what we are learning can be overwhelming. For example, a few years ago I read Dr. Jean Dodds’ excellent book “The Canine Thyroid Epidemic.” I learned a tremendous amount about the role of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and thyroid in that they affect not only the physiology of dogs but can have a profound effect on their emotional states as well. It was knowledge that helped me improve the quality of life for our oldest dog who is hypothyroid by getting her on the proper medications. Scientific knowledge helped me find out what was wrong with my dog.
By contrast, recent research and articles using MRI technology to identify the parts of the dogs brain involved in emotional responses won’t have any bearing on how I train or live with my dogs. Sure, it’s interesting information but it isn’t something I can use to make my dog’s life better. The same is true of recent articles detailing research that it is the “anticipation” of a reward that most strongly influences learning and not the reward itself. I can only provide the reward, I can’t control to any fine degree how much my dog anticipates those rewards. Just like my work in computer networking, some information is too detailed to be of direct, functional use in working with my dogs while other information will have a direct impact on how I define my training.
We are happily trying to cope with an abundance of information about dogs, their mental capacities, their physiology, and their emotional makeup. The challenge is sorting through it all and finding what affects us functionally and what information is interesting but provides the technical background that helps us understand.
One of the problems with the torrent of information coming at us is that it comes in small, specialized packages. A research study that talks about the social learning capabilities of dogs here and a research paper on marking behaviour in male dogs of a certain breed there. All of it is potentially useful but it isn’t often that we get any context as to how or why the information should be integrated into our routines as trainers and dog owners. This can create some thorny problems.
We have struggled for years to understand our dogs and, like we have in many other fields of study, we are continually refining our knowledge as we gain new insights and information. But as a dog training friend rightly pointed out to me recently, it can be difficult to escape our own bias for one or another theory about dogs. Each new study offers the possibility of supporting our views on a particular aspect of dogs or totally refuting it. This is where it gets tricky. It can be easy to sort through all of this new research and just pick the stuff that agrees with our own ideas.
Theory versus application
But where does that get us? How does it benefit our dogs? I have talked before in this column about the difference between theoretical and applied sciences. It is one thing to work out to the microscopic, neurotransmitter level what is going on with our dog’s behaviour. It is a very different thing to engage with our dogs and teach them to live with us. Technical specifications and functional specifications. How a tool works and which tool to use for a particular job.
I like to keep up on as much of the new science of dogs as I can. It’s not easy. But I’m developing a system to make things easier to digest and to make better use of the information. My first step when I get hold of any new research is to determine if it involves anything that I can actually do something about. For example, science knows pretty well that “rewards” generally come down to a release of the hormone dopamine into the pleasure centres of the brain. As interesting as that is, I have no means by which to inject my dog’s brain with dopamine during training. So I just have to work at a more macro level by providing things she likes such as food or a game, and let those things produce the dopamine release for me.
The next step for me is to see if I can put the new information in a larger context. Knowing that food or play can produce dopamine helps me use that new information better. There are also books and articles by practitioners in the field of dog behaviour and training that can help me better understand some of the new science and determine if it is useful for me. And then there is my dog. I can look to her to see if the information that science is providing me is of any use by trying it out with her. I’ve been surprised over the years how much of what I’ve read regarding canine behaviour just didn’t make much difference to my dog while other parts of it were astonishingly effective.
A community of learners
The community of dog owners and trainers is thriving both online and in our various local communities. I believe that this provides us with our best hope for making sense of all that science is telling us. While not everyone is as well read on the latest information, each of us has a wealth of experience with real live dogs to be able to share our stories of our dogs’ behaviour and responses to us. If we could harness the power of our shared experience, think how much we could do to use the science and improve our lives with our dogs!
But it won’t be easy. Some of us will have to let go of long held beliefs about dogs and training. Others will have to give up being the “expert” or the “authority” in order to promote better conversations. Still others will need find ways to make the complex issues understandable for beginners and long time dog owners alike. We will all have our roles to play but we must begin by acknowledging that we are all in this together and we all want the same thing. A better, happier life for ourselves and our dogs.
Functional versus technical. It’s tricky business as over 20 years in the computer networking world has taught me. Some of us just want to teach our dogs to live with us happily while others have a hunger to understand our dogs on a deeper, more detailed level. I think there is room for both “Mr. Simmons” who just wants to get it done and the technician who knows how it all goes together. I think we can benefit from each other’s point of view. We just have to listen to each other and keep moving it forward for the dogs.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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