Today I was reminded about problems we face when it comes to relying on “Science” to help educate people on the best known methods for training dogs and resolving behavior problems. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of science and do my best to share the latest in scientific information with my clients.
The problem with science is there are far too many informal and very flawed “studies” that people rely on. These studies usually come in the form of personal experiences, what friends, family and sometimes even people who advertise themselves as content experts say. Never mind that none of these experts people listen to have any formal training; sometimes they have not even reviewed a single study or document presented by behavior professionals.
What makes these informal studies (really tribal knowledge and hearsay) so powerful that otherwise very intelligent and caring people believe them? They “seem” to work. People see behavior or lack of behavior in a dog and that is enough to sell them on the method. Sometimes there are no real lasting artifacts of aversive training methods…but sometimes there are real and often dangerous results. When things go bad…it’s the dogs fault. It can’t be the methods.
Case in point: On our walk today, Dakota and I ran into a client and her dog. This is an absolutely awesome, with a capital “A”, 2 year old Black Labrador. Awesome in every sense other than he had “suddenly” began to show serious resource guarding aggression toward his mom and dad when he found a valuable item, usually a bone or chew, and they tried to take it away. After working with this dog and his mom for several weeks we had gotten to a point where the dog had learned “drop it”, “give” and “scoot – back up” cues and was trading extremely valuable chew items with enthusiasm and no longer showing any signs of tension when approached. We had him to a place where he would take his item into his crate (where he tended to guard ferociously) and I would stand outside of his crate and ask him to “give” and he would happily bring his chew bone to me. In every conceivable situation he was showing nothing but enthusiasm for making trades. He has been working wonderfully with his mom and they have been on a practice / maintenance schedule for a while. Here is the problem. Where mom internalized and had bought fully into the science of desensitization and counter conditioning and using positive rewards for desired behavior to avoid fear, anxiety and aggression. Dad has not. He had dogs growing up that were “good dogs” trained using punishment methods and his brother has a “good dog” who is reprimanded and not allowed to get away with undesired behavior so the methods do work. Apparently except when you show the dog something he chewed up, bend over close to his face, look him in the eye and say “you see this?” in a low growly voice. When you do this to a dog who finds this type of reprimand scary and threatening, because he has been punished in the past, you get a dog who lowers his head and growls at you. As a dog trainer, I understand that was a warning where the dog said “don’t do that, I am not comfortable” but what dad heard was “Don’t boss me around or I’m gonna show you”. What do you think happened? Yep, the dog growled and then dog got yelled at, pushed off the back porch and left outside. Later in the evening the dog tried to show appeasement behavior toward dad by climbing up on the couch to snuggle and you know what dad said? See, he knows he was wrong and is saying he’s sorry. Never mind dad doesn’t realize the dog is trying to say please don’t be so scary, I’m not a threat to you. Dad believes even more strongly now that his ways are showing the dog who is boss and will lead to better behavior. Mom and I will work with dad in this example and hopefully it is before a bite occurs. Thank heavens this dog has mom as his advocate!
The problem with science is that most people don’t get their data from a reputable “scientific” source and the hearsay versions are so readily available and offered freely by the people in our inner circles. The other problem is that even when diligent dog owners go looking for the good data, it’s not necessarily easy to find. How do people who are not trained in animal behavior know who to listen to? Their breeder? Their Veterinarian? Their Groomer? Their Trainer? Unfortunately these are sources who are in fact often listened to and so many, probably the majority yet today have no behavior education. The problem with Science is the challenge it provides us to make it known. The challenge of dog behavior professionals everywhere is to help make the good information easier to find and more available in mainstream channels so more people can learn the good stuff.