Science of Dog Training

As a scientist, I find myself in the curious culture that revolves around pet dogs. I hear “science-based dog training” and am mystified by the context it’s used. The term “science”, which is a very broad, all-encompassing term, has been misappropriated to represent a very narrow training approach. In the pet dog training culture, “science-based dog training” is synonymous with “positive reinforcement training”. This is not accurate in so many ways and creates confusion and frustration for everyone, especially for our sweet little dogs.

Sciences Related to Dog Training

Science is so much more than psychology. Likewise, science-based dog training is so much more than Operant Conditioning and Positive Reinforcement. Successful dog training approaches recognize and understand the entire dog (biology) rather than just interpretations of how dogs think based on how humans think (psychology). When referring to “science-based” dog training, I am referring to much, much more than the field of psychology. In fact, psychology and positive training are just a small subset of the much broader and diverse science disciplines that comprise “science-based dog training”.

Definition of Science

So, let’s start by asking a simple question: What is Science? Technically, it is a systematic approach to describe and understand the natural world. In other words, it is our way of describing what we see in Nature. The three main branches of Science are Natural, Social and Formal. Of the three, Natural and Social Sciences apply to dog training. The Natural Sciences include biology, chemistry and physics. The Social Sciences include anthropology, archaeology, communication and psychology. The natural sciences were the pure or hard sciences because the objective, non-biased approaches to research. In contrast, the social sciences were the soft sciences because they are subjective in nature and inherently biased based on human interpretations.

Science of Dogs

In the case of dog training, we need to understand dogs to be able to communicate and train dogs. In the 1930s and 1940s, Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner conducted laboratory experiments on dogs, rats and pigeons, which ultimately led to the development of Learning Theory. Although this is interesting behavioral research under artificial conditions, it represents a small subset of what dogs are all about. In addition to the field of psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology, archaeology, and communication all contribute to our understanding of dogs. While most of these sciences contribute to understanding dogs to a lesser extent, BIOLOGY is by far the most significant science in our understanding of dogs, and is the focal point of my training and research interests.

Biology of Dogs

We have learned so much about dogs by studying dog’s closest relatives, the wolves. However, studying captive wolf populations can be misleading. Captivity is not natural and can create research artifacts. Case in point – wolf packs and social hierarchies. Significant errors in our understanding of wolf sociobiology were discovered when wild wolf populations were released and studied at Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. In addition to new findings in wolf research, scientific advancements in neurobiology have allowed us to observe the inner workings of the dog brain and how it compares to the human brain. These are just a sample of the non-psychology-based contributions to dog science that directly relate to dog training.

Science of Dog Training

Science has been getting a really bad rap lately. In fact, some government agencies are banned outright from using the terms “science-based” or “evidence-based”, as if it were a villainous term. Along with being treated in negative light, science is frequently used inappropriately – dog training is just one example. Science-based dog training is not the same as positive training. Science of dogs is so much more than psychology. Understanding the whole dog, incorporating research from different science fields, is the foundation of science-based dog training.

Science-Based Dog Training Presentation

I am so excited to give a presentation on this topic Thursday, 25 January at 6pm ET. Location is Pack Library Auditorium. There is plenty of seating in the auditorium, so please invite all your dog-loving friends and family. If you are excited or confused by this topic or firmly believe psychology is the only science relevant to dog training, I encourage you to come. The more we understand all aspects of dogs, the better companions and teachers we will be for our beloved pups.

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is an evolutionary biologist, college biology instructor, former zookeeper, author, certified professional dog trainer with Lucky Dog Training Asheville and has over 30 years of dog training and human teaching experience. Dr. K is giving a science-based dog training presentation at Pack Library in downtown Asheville on 25 January 2018. The presentation starts at 6pm in the Lord Auditorium. Please bring your dog-loving friends and family.

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