Pavlov Wasn’t A Dog Trainer

Have you ever engaged in a dog training conversation when someone said, “well, the science says”? I’ve seen a lot of that stuff over the years. I confess, I have said stuff like this, as well. However, when discussing training methods, we first must ask what is the quality of the evidence?

Almost all the “science” people are referring to comes from scientists who were not dog trainers. They had no interest in dog training, weren’t researching dog training, and had no track record of good dog training. Take Pavlov, for example. Was he a dog trainer? Nope. Yet, when people talk about classical conditioning during a dog conversation, his name will crop up. The same is true when people start talking about operant conditioning during a dog training conversation, and B. F. Skinner’s name will pop up. Neither of these scientists were dog trainers. Most scientists are not dog trainers. Most of them also know little to nothing about dogs.

Let’s follow this trail a bit more. Marian and Keller Breland did their famous racoon experiments, proving that the theory of operant conditioning couldn’t be viewed in a vacuum, and that you had to consider the species you were working with. What Skinner might have predicted, after working with rats and pigeons, wouldn’t necessarily apply to another species, such as raccoons. Similarly, in other learning studies, what might apply to a chimpanzee won’t necessarily predict what might happen with a human, and what might happen with a wolf doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the same results with a dog. When people quote Mech regarding wolf behavior, and then attempt to apply his work to dogs, they are making an obvious evidentiary mistake.

Another consideration is the quality of the study that you are reading. Most studies on animals that people refer to could not be replicated today. The first consideration would be whether those experiments were ethical. Many were not. No way could anyone get permission to legally do such research today in most developed countries. Second, the studies weren’t up to the standards of what we would currently consider the best scientific practices. Included in this are all those poorly worded studies that would be hard to replicate based upon the written accounts. Not all scientists are good wordsmiths. Third, some studies would be too costly to repeat. No one is going to grant that kind of money for a long dog training study, and there wouldn’t be sufficient homes for the dogs after the study was over since some dogs might come out in pretty poor shape. Lastly, a good deal of research has been biased by the scientists. Scientists, like all humans, can sometimes make up a study, and make up their results, just to get their personally desired results. Not all science is science. A lot of science is biased by the philosophy of the scientists involved. Different scientists, with different agendas and philosophies will come to different conclusions.

Most of the dog training solutions we apply were never tested in a well-designed scientific study. That doesn’t mean that what we do is wrong, it’s just that most of what we do can’t be called “science”. On the other hand, those science types who scorn what dog trainers do, for the most part, haven’t successfully trained a lot of dogs in the situations dog trainers encounter.

I can recall two students I’ve worked with who were pharmaceutical researchers. They had done numerous authorized animal behavior studies. These guys were both high level scientists and had done experiments on primates, and other non-human species. But they needed a dog trainer for their dogs. I’ve also worked with human psychologists, who also needed a dog trainer for their dogs. All these people had expert scientific, behavioral, and medical degrees, but that didn’t make them dog training experts. On the other hand, I couldn’t do their jobs, either. Good scientists stay in their lane. And good dog trainers also stay in their lane.

More than one of the animal science textbooks in my library have a preface stating that the experiments they are referring to involve some specific species, and caution that the results might not apply to other species. That’s good science. What’s not good science is claiming that this or that study is the definitive answer when that study wasn’t done on dogs or concerning the specific behaviors that you are training.

While I love science, and continue to study behavioral science, I recognize that a lot of what I study wasn’t done on a dog. Thus, I must always ask myself is what solution is the most reasonable conclusion? Can I apply this concept to dog training successfully and ethically? In some cases, the answer is “Yes”. In other cases, I will consult with someone I respect, to bounce the idea around and get their experienced opinion. People who train dogs know things about training that these scientists often don’t know, will never know, and don’t care to know. On the other hand, just because there isn’t a scientific study proving this or that procedure is best, doesn’t mean we don’t know what we are doing. In fact, we do know what we are doing based upon experience with countless dogs over many years. We should be listened to.

It is also unfair to put all dog training methods and techniques under the microscope, say in a court of law. One dog trainer will say this, and another will say that, and maybe both are right, both are wrong, or one is right and the other is wrong. It takes at least 10 years to get a grasp on the long-term effects of doing this or that method with a dog (since it takes time to see the effects over the entire lifetime of many dogs), there is no way a judge or juror, with no such experience, can make a good judgment as to what should or shouldn’t be the best approach. I caution novice dog trainers to not spout off regarding things which they don’t have the years of experience to back up. Great websites and marketing materials don’t make you a master dog trainer.

The latest problem here is the assertion that the only people qualified to train dogs are certified animal veterinary behaviorists, yet they don’t have access to any special science that the rest of us can’t find or apply. Many don’t train dogs in people’s homes, or do any kind of training for professionally deployed working dogs. Being in an office doesn’t make you a great dog trainer. They still have the same limitations, and if they haven’t trained a lot of dogs, instead of read stuff in a college program or only done controlled studies of some specific issue, then even their suggestions are limited in value. There isn’t a guaranteed way to prove this or that because there aren’t sufficient well-designed studies to prove this or that, and the unique situations we all encounter involved will differ from what is stated in those studies.

No one can claim they have mastered the objective reality of the science of dog behavior modification. We can only make judgment calls, and those making the judgments need many years of experience to have an idea about the causes and effects of this or that method.

So, where does that leave us? Science is great, but a lot of things haven’t been studied or proven in a scientific study. It’s great to study science and there is more science to study than any one person can ever master in a lifetime. If you want to know about training this or that behavior, you should try to understand something about the basics of behavioral science. Guys like Pavlov and Skinner are interesting, and their work gives valuable hints. Next, it is good to adopt a philosophy of dog training. You should know where you are coming from and what parameters you are applying to each dog training goal and problem. Lastly, I think it is good to find mentors, whether in books, videos or through personal relationships with experienced dog trainers who are applying humane methods. You will never just be able to rely on “the science” because the science is lacking in most areas of dog training.

Science is a search for causes and objective reality. We are a long way away from figuring it all out, or even having the answers about all we need to deal with. I doubt we will ever get there. Studies can only sample small parts of the whole of animal behavior. A lot of things must be ignored in every study to claim some conclusions. Skinner did a lot of experiments with rats and pigeons in closed boxes. Pavlov did his experiments with dogs strapped into immobilizing harnesses. They were trying to avoid looking at the entire animal and instead seeking to pick out some identifiable cause => effect principles. Take those animals out of the boxes or harnesses, a lot of other behavior would occur, and no person can ever document the entire symphony of animal behavior that is occurring, both outside and inside the animal, and with all the other living beings around the animal. No one can “know” what is right and true in total. So, if someone says “the science”, I think we should understand that they are, hopefully, expressing an interpretation of some kind of science, but also understanding that there is probably no specific study to prove that “science”. It is purely a statement saying that trainer is attempting to do a best effort at applying what they have extrapolated from scientists like Pavlov or Skinner.

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