Research shows that dog training delivers great benefits to many. But it’s hard to say exactly what that means for your dog.
In my early 20’s, I purchased my first purebred dog, a rough collie. Growing up watching re-runs of Lassie painted a very clear picture of the kind of dog I wanted, and what kind of relationship I wanted with her.
So I signed up for every dog training class I could, and trained until there were no more classes to take. That collie remains enshrined in memory as “the best dog I ever had.” Whether it was the training, her genetics, or both, raising The Best Dog Ever™️ was my focus during that phase of my life.
Whenever I got a new puppy or rescue dog, I located classes in my area. All of the methods were slightly different but I trusted that dog school was necessary and beneficial.
Over the decades public perception about dog training has changed. Once a hobby of canine enthusiasts, dog school has become routine. It is seen as a healthful commitment by most dog owners, and clearly worth the many hours and sizable amounts of money invested.
But there are reasons to think that the picture painted by the dog training industry overpromises.
What if all types of dog training work equally well, or not at all? What if consumers of dog training services suffer from the Dodo Bird effect? (Which takes its name from the Dodo in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” who, when asked to judge a race, decrees, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”)
Proponents of positive reinforcement training often insist on the superiority of their approach by pointing to meta-analyses.
David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn, found meta-analysis of different modes of behavior modification unsatisfying.
Referring to one study which found that only 50 percent of patients responded to the treatment, he said, “It is not what I would call a home run.”
As is true of much research, studies with less positive or striking results often go unpublished, so the body of scholarly work may show inflated effects.
“The most significant difference in outcomes almost always lies in the skills of the trainer, rather than the techniques they rely on” agreed Bruce Wampold, professor emeritus University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Some of the attributes that would seem most salient — agreeability, years of training, years of experience — do not correlate at all with effectiveness of care.”
I’ve taken liberties with this article from the New York Times to construct an argument:
There are, as they say, many roads to Rome… but some people and groups devote themselves to specific ideology over animal welfare. So it’s important to educate yourself as a consumer.
Dog training is as much an ART as it is a science.
Behavioral science is problematic in humans, who can talk… Unlike “hard” science, such as chemistry or physics, it is notoriously unreliable. So it stands to reason that “behavioral science” – or, BS 😉 – is even more problematic when studying animals who can’t tell us what they are thinking.
When navigating the unregulated dog training industry, beware fake “science.” I recommend you be a bit of a scientist yourself: Ask questions. Formulate a hypothesis. Observe closely.
Analysis of surveys are the absolute lowest bar of research, and merely a beginning point for further inquiry. In the field of medicine this type of “study” would never be accepted as evidence – so beware when publications with this low bar of research are called Science.
And be aware that “peer review” has been horribly distorted by club members inside of echo chambers, which are more like cults than academic organizations devoted to scientific inquiry.
When choosing a dog trainer, I recommend using plain old common sense.
Regardless of methods used – and there are many! – always ask for referrals from other dog owners with pets you admire. Look at the behavior and relationship of the human/canine team in front of you, and ask yourself, “is that what I want?”
Does the dog look happy and well adjusted? Does the dog owner? 😏 Basically, simply assess if the human/canine team is thriving together.
When interviewing your potential trainer, listen to their language. If you feel your emotions are being manipulated, or they are using fear or guilt to gain your business, keep looking!
Who is putting out good dogs?
Who is helping the most people?
Always trust your gut.
And as always, let me know if you need help. 🤗
Many common behavior challenges can be solved by making simple changes to how you live with your dog.
You might be surprised how much can be accomplished in just one online coaching session!
🐕Training IS Love💓
If you’re interested in psychology and science, check out the original article about talk therapy by Susan Dominus:
Does Therapy Really Work? Let’s Unpack That.
Research shows that counseling delivers great benefits to many people. But it’s hard to say exactly what that means for you.