There is something uniquely frustrating about carefully following directions to do something and finding that it doesn’t work. It could be the handful of left over parts when you assemble that bicycle at Christmas or you install that new piece of software and you can’t get it to open properly. In situations like this our options are limited. We can (and probably do) retrace our steps and repeat the directions with more care to see if there is something we have missed. If that fails, we are left to curse at whoever provided the directions because they clearly don’t produce the results they promised. But when it comes to working with our dogs we have a few more alternatives.
They say that the definition of “stupidity” is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. But somehow that seems to be the approach many dog owners take while training their dogs. If a training technique doesn’t work, they try it again but louder, harder, slower, or even just like they “really mean it this time.” I used to do it myself and the reason was simple. When things didn’t work, the first place I looked for the cause of the problem was at the end of the leash. I looked at the dog.
Blame the dog
When things went wrong with our dog Vince years ago, our first thought was that we had a stubborn and willful dog on our hands. One of those difficult dogs that was trying to be the “alpha” of the house. Thinking back on it, I’m amazed at how easy it was to blame our misunderstanding of the situation on some failing in the dog. We were the ones who were not understanding. And that lack of understanding was making it that much harder for Vince to learn.
Over the years we had learned a handful of dog training techniques by rote. We knew enough to use certain techniques like “leash pops” and “corrections” to get our dogs to do what we wanted. But when those things didn’t work with Vince, we didn’t have enough knowledge or understanding of dogs and behaviour to adjust. All we could do was repeat things louder or harder or slower. When that failed, we blamed the dog. And that was a cop out.
Science is a method
Discovering modern dog training based on behavioural science changed our training and probably saved Vince’s life. I have a background in computer science and that turned out to be an unexpected blessing. Gaining a better understanding of the science of behaviour was important but there was more to using this new kind of training than just new training methods and techniques. You see, science is more than just knowledge, it is a method as well.
The “scientific method” has been the tool that has brought us the most important advancements in civilization from history to medicine to technology and more. Like many things, it is diabolically simple but not always easy to execute. The process involves asking a question (e.g., “Why does that happen?”), doing some research, making a best guess at a possible answer (a hypothesis), coming up with experiments and ways to collect data, and analysing the results to see if your “best guess” was on target or not. Good scientists will also show their work to colleagues to make sure they didn’t make a mistake or come to the wrong conclusions.
When it came to our dog Vince, the only way to not repeat the same mistakes was to re-educate myself. One of the first things I learned was that much of my dog’s behaviour could be explained by science. I found modern dog training methods based on the science of behaviour. That was something I could relate to and I eagerly read books by animal trainers who referenced the work of important behavioural scientists like Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, Herbert Terrace, and others. A common thread in their work was the same scientific method I had used in my work with computer systems. I learned that the same process I had used for years professionally could be used with my dogs.
While I was familiar with the scientific method from using it for years with computers, it took some effort to adapt it to how I worked with my dogs. The first and perhaps most difficult thing about it was that it put all of the responsibility on me. I couldn’t just pawn off any failures on my dog. The dog was there to learn and I was the one responsible for making that learning work. If it wasn’t working, I had to use analysis and experimentation to make it better.
The scientific method is a repeating process. If your experiments and data don’t give you the conclusion you expected, you don’t get to just blame someone else. You have to re-examine your question, your methods, your assumptions, and your data and then you must try again. That process can be easy enough with machines who don’t care how many times or how many ways you have to run your experiments. But dogs are a different matter.
Dogs are living, breathing, emotional beings. I was grateful for the books I was reading on modern dog training because they stressed the importance of looking after my dog’s well-being while working with them. Using science was not just a simple, mechanical process to determine what worked. I had to take my dog’s emotions and responses into account or it could affect our results. The process wasn’t just about getting my dog to do something. It was about helping them understand what I wanted and encouraging them to offer that behaviour on their own. It was a tricky thing to learn to do well.
Finding that 2 + 2 does not equal 5
Before using science-based training, troubleshooting a training problem with my dog went something like this – If it doesn’t work, try it again a few different ways, get mad at the dog for being difficult, try one more time in case it might work this time, go look for a different technique that might work. Then repeat the process with the next technique. The important piece that I kept missing was looking at why that training method was supposed to work. I just followed the directions and never asked “why should this work?”
So we would hop-scotch from one training “trick” to the next just trying to get the results we wanted. Looking back on it, I should have known better. It’s no wonder that things weren’t adding up for Vince. There was no consistency in how we were working with him. But once we starting using the principles of science and scientific method, we stopped just trying one technique after another and started observing and making small changes to better understand what was helping and what was not.
I started questioning my assumptions and observations. I started looking at all of my dog’s responses, not just the successful ones. Using this process of trying something, making observations, making small adjustments, and trying again was like stepping into a whole different world. I was working WITH my dog and not just getting them to do something. We were cooperating.
Through the looking glass
Using the scientific, methodical approach suggested by modern science-based dog training taught me one very important lesson. The only way to truly understand how and why a given training technique works is by trying it out with the dog. The only way to really understand the process is to watch my dog respond to it, good or bad, and try work out how to make it better. All the logic and reasoning and speculation in the world won’t give me what 5 minutes of real experience with my dog will give me.
Once I started using the process of asking why and trying out “what if” scenarios in training, I started seeing just how far the rabbit hole went. “Corrections” were not meant to correct anything, they were meant to stop unwanted behaviours and were really behaviour deterrents. Repeating a cue “like you mean it” when giving commands was just intimidation and not really making things any clearer to my dog. I started testing and questioning everything I was told about dogs. I was stunned at what I found.
I’ve learned a lot about dogs and behaviour over the past 13 years. Using this methodical approach to working with my dogs has allowed me to use the knowledge I’ve gained from brilliant authors and speakers. It has helped me put a lot of knowledge into practical use because I have seen it work (or not) for myself with my own dogs.
So now, after digging deeper with that scientific method, I know what to do when the directions don’t work. I don’t just blame the dog. I ask questions. I question assumptions. I try different approaches. Most importantly, I observe and help my dogs. Experience is a wonderful thing. An ounce of data is worth 10 pounds of assumptions. And best of all, it’s fun for both me and my dog!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Photo credits –