Dog experts are everywhere. Whether it’s because they have owned dogs their whole lives or because they have read the latest book by a celebrity dog trainer, they know how dogs work and how to train them. Can you blame people for thinking that way? I can’t. Dog people love talking about dogs and the diversity of opinions and information makes for some fascinating, enlightening, and frustrating conversations. But now scientists have taken an interest in dogs and dog behaviour and are presenting us with lots of new information on how to live with and train our dogs. And those conversations have gotten even more…um…interesting.
With the emergence of the Internet and social networks like Facebook, the debates about what is “right” and “wrong” in how we train dogs have exploded onto millions of computers. Now dog owners around the world have those doggie debates at all hours of the day and night from the comfort of their sofa, bedroom, or home office. You would think that all of this conversation would be a great benefit to the dog world. Input from tens of thousands of training professionals, pet dog owners, researchers, and scientists could raise our understanding and awareness of dog behaviour and training at an incredible pace!
Reasonable dog discussions
You would think so but, in the words of a dear friend in the dog world, “Not so much.” There are reputations and egos at stake here. No one likes to be wrong about things, certainly not on something so public as the Internet. And it can be hard to change minds when the subject of the discussion remains, due to biology, completely mute. We can’t simply ask the dogs to explain themselves. So we watch them and interact with them and we cogitate, speculate, postulate, and pontificate about every aspect of our dogs.
Can there be reasonable discussion about dogs on the Internet? Sure. It happens all the time. But more often these discussions fall into finding supporters, countering detractors, defending positions, and demanding proof from authoritative sources. Then come the debates about who’s authoritative sources are valid and who’s are not. Scenarios are proposed. We are asked how we would handle this or that hypothetical situation with this or that hypothetical dog. Then it’s time to sit back and watch the fun as point and counterpoint are offered from various points of view.
Training the hypothetical dog
Discussions that present “what-if” scenarios get dissected and hashed out from every possible angle. Many times the scenarios are chosen to support a particular point or point of view. The main difficulty I have with many of these discussions is that they are entirely hypothetical. The solutions and opinions being offered are most often entirely derived from speculation and interpretation of dog behaviour and training information, scientific or otherwise. Remarkably some of the hypothetical solutions proposed in these discussions turn out to be inaccurate once you move beyond the hypothetical and move into the reality of what has been tested with real dogs in real situations.
One case in point was the revelation by author and researcher Dr. Brian Hare that dogs understand when humans point at things to direct their attention. Discussions on various Facebook groups suggested all kinds of ways that this ability in dogs could be used in training. But I have seen dozens of dogs ignore their handler who was clearly pointing to the next obstacle on an agility course. My experience in the real world was in conflict with what was being proposed. And yet the justification for the “truth” of this ability to understand pointing seemed to be repeated references to the work of Hare and Dr. Adam Miklosi, who had also done similar testing.
I had the opportunity to discuss this with Dr. Miklosi this past summer at a conference. Miklosi told me that in tests where dogs were led into a room where the handler was already standing in a pointing posture, the dogs scored no better than random chance in getting the correct choice! This is in stark contrast to the results of other tests that showed that dogs who were shown pointing gestures (where the dogs saw the arm move toward the correct choice) got the correct choice 70% of the time! So did the dogs learn the concept of “pointing” or were they just following some instinctive response to follow the movement of the tester’s arm? A good question and one that is being studied further.
The problem is that the online discussions can continue to point to these studies and use them in training the hypothetical dogs. They are, after all, published studies by reputable scientists in the field. And there is a large body of research and information to draw from when discussing dog behaviour and training, some from the academic community and some from professionals working with dogs in everyday life.
This raises another important difficulty. Scientific research is not a recent phenomenon. Published research extends back into the early 1900’s and beyond. Newer research can augment, support, or even invalidate previous studies. Just because someone can provide a published source of scientific information from 1964 doesn’t mean that the content of that study remains valid today. There is history to be considered and the body of work relating to that topic since 1964. But that would take time and effort to research and this is not something that fits in well with the light-speed discussion style of Internet communication.
The plural of anecdote is data?
And then there is the problem of hearsay. “A friend of a friend who has 15 titles on her dogs in this or that dog sport uses [insert training method or idea] and it works great.” Sometimes it is something someone heard at a seminar one time or saw on a YouTube video. While these kinds of anecdotes can be informative and interesting, they can leave out important bits of information like how long the training took, what conditions need to be set up to make it work, what the relationship of the dog and trainer is, or the skill levels of the particular dog and trainer. Usually it is the relative “fame” of the trainer that plays the major role. The more well known the source, the more credible the information is assumed to be.
Another factor in the credibility of these anecdotal sources is the number of times they have been repeated and where they have been shared. The rise of online communities like Facebook has allowed a form of “folklore” to evolve faster and spread more widely than ever before. You only need look at the number of online communities that have cropped up based on the television show The Dog Whisperer where participants can develop entire training regimes based on heavily edited scenes of a well-known dog trainer using techniques without explaining in any depth how or when to appropriately use them!
Work with real dogs
People are going to talk about dogs, on the Internet and elsewhere. And all of the published material and anecdotes can be valuable in our discussions. But the one thing that I don’t see often enough in these discussions is actual experience with dogs. Remember that? Working with the dogs? We can discuss a concept or technique until we are blue in the face but what has your actual experience with it been? How does it work with your dog? Did you find it easy or difficult to implement? Did it work differently than you thought it might? Have you tried it with a real, breathing dog?
It’s a bit like the difference between theoretical and applied science. The theoretical scientists love the “pure science” of formulas and equations and principles and concepts. They spend hours working out how things should work based on the principles and concepts. The applied scientists are more concerned with solving real world problems. All of that theory doesn’t mean a hill of beans to them if you can’t fix a bridge or get a rocket to Mars. Often the theoretical is seen as superior to the applied science because it’s all done in the mind; it is more “pure” science. Granted that theoretical science has provided many important contributions to mankind’s body of knowledge but applied science gave us electric lights and the Internet.
So the theoretical discussions out there on the Internet about training hypothetical dogs can have its value but we shouldn’t lose sight of the “applied” nature of what we know about dogs and training. One of the key functions of applied science is to test theory under actual conditions and see if they are, in fact, valid or if they require revision based on new data that may be gained. You remember data, right? That stuff you gather when you actually work with the dog so you know what works and what doesn’t?
I think it is very important that we not just speculate, interpolate, and regurgitate the science or history of dog behaviour and training in an effort to construct hypothetical formulas for training or solving behavioural issues. We should actually go out and try this stuff and report back what we are finding. A bucket of real data is worth an ocean of “could be”, “should be”, hypothetical speculation.
I’m a great believer that our best source of information about dogs and their behaviour comes from working with them directly. Our dogs are the ultimate authority on what is and is not true about dogs, about what dogs do and don’t do, about what dogs are and are not. If we spend less time dealing with the hypothetical and more time working with the dogs and collecting data, imagine what we could learn! Imagine if we could share all the data we collected. Maybe even over the Internet. It’s not enough to speculate and discuss, we need to continue to ask better and deeper questions.
We need to stop training dogs in our heads and talk about what we are actually doing with our dogs. The truth is there but we have to make the effort and share what we find.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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Photo credits –
Petra Wingate copyright 2012