Information or Misinformation? What Professional Dog Trainers Owe Their Public

What do we owe our public when publishing articles and books?

As an editor and reviewer for the APDT Chronicle of the dog, I spend a great deal of time reading other trainers’ written materials. I have a fairly good knowledge of learning theory, but no better than the average experienced trainer who has been active in the learning circles so readily available to dog trainers today.  What I have, however, is a fairly well-developed eye for statements put forward as fact that do not have sufficient references to back them up and either should be cited or, where citations don’t exist, should be more accurately presented as opinion. 

As one of the editors for the Chronicle, I have trained myself to look for these statements of fact.  They may be right or wrong, and that is not my job to decide; my job is to say “Hey!  Where’s the citation to back up this fact?”  Most (but not all!) writers are willing to either change the statement to reflect that it is opinion-based, or provide the citation(s). 

More and more trainers are writing books; consequently, there’s more and more material out there that is presented as fact yet is incomplete, misunderstood or plain wrong!  It’s very probable that this has always been the case, but there are a lot more books being published, as of late. 

To our credit, dog trainers are hungry for information! Unfortunately, because of our relative lack of sophistication about the scientific process, it also makes us easy prey for any and all information, regardless of its veracity.  We need to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We shouldn’t be taking all this information simply at face value – we need to question it!  Critical thinking skills are more important now than ever before due to the information revolution. Does what we read (and hear!) make sense; if so, what are the theoretical underpinnings of the assertion – and have those underpinnings been shown to be true by replication across researchers, subjects and different conditions?

Because many of us don’t have a rigorous science background, we tend to believe what the current “gurus” say without question.  Everything we read or hear should be examined critically.  If our gurus object to this, then we should seriously question whether he or she deserves to be a guru! 

There is a lot of misinformation in the training world; some of it is simply a misunderstanding of the terms. Of course anyone can argue for a different definition, but conforming to the conventional science usage fosters communication. Here are a couple of examples of frequently mis-used terms:

          Self-reinforcing:  Generally, when trainers speak of self-reinforcing behaviors, we actually mean intrinsically or automatically reinforcing.  Self-reinforcement describes intentionally arranging a criterion that, if met, would result in someone delivering reinforcement to oneself. For example,– when I lose 10 pounds, I’ll treat myself to a manicure.  Intrinsic reinforcement describes a hypothesized internal reinforcer inferred by observing an individual performing a behavior in the absence of any identifiable external reinforcing consequences; presumably, emitting the behavior is itself reinforcing (see http://www.coedu.usf.edu/abaglossary/main.asp). For example, a dog may continue to bark in the absence of external reinforcement.

          Variable Reinforcement Schedules create stronger behaviors:  This statement may or may not be correct depending on what one means by “stronger behaviors.” However, we see this assertion all the time, with no definition of “stronger” and often, in my opinion, with little understanding of the underlying science.  Variable reinforcement schedules create stronger behaviors in the sense that they are more resistant to extinction. If a trainer needs a behavior to be performed under low reinforcement conditions, that is the time to fade in a variable reinforcement schedule. However, not all behaviors meet this criterion. Behaviors may be better maintained with continuous reinforcement and so, trainer-cued behaviors can be reinforced each time they are exhibited, since the trainer needs to be present anyway to give the cue! (See Fernandez, E., 2001. Click or Treat. American Animal Trainer, 2:2.)

As I learn more sophisticated learning theory, I wonder how many other learning principles and terms I misunderstand! 

In addition to misunderstanding of the basic principles and terms of learning theory, the R+ movement has created its own set of myths, which are happily taken as truth and repeated as if gospel!  Here are two of my favorites:

          Clicker training teaches dogs to think!:  It would stand to reason that dogs have long known how to think – long before clickers were even invented!  I would propose that if they were unable to think, they would have been extinct ages ago!  Clicker trainers teach dogs that the click marks the behavior on which the treat is contingent. Dogs experienced in this communication may think in different ways than an inexperienced dog but that is not to say dogs didn’t know how to think, or learn, prior to clicker training. 

          Behaviors learned through shaping are stronger:  I’ve been told by what I consider to be reliable sources (but have not done any research, myself) that the method by which a new behavior is trained (luring, shaping, capturing, etc.) is irrelevant to the “strength” of the final, trained behavior.

Two of the above points use the term “strong.”  This is a great example of a term that is used to describe behavior, yet it’s open to debate because it has not been precisely defined (although it is defined in behavior analysis literature) – this is a “construct” (see http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ASC/CONSTRUCT.html).  My idea of strong could be very different from someone else’s.  When a term such as this is used in research, the term is strictly defined and is not left open to interpretation.  This is another area in which we, as consumers, must be diligent.  One (but certainly not the only) common term in animal training that is rarely defined in materials written for trainers and owners, is “dominance.”  One person’s dominance may be another person’s stress reaction!  But, I digress!

We try so hard to promote science-based training and we are working so hard to professionalize the field of animal consulting, yet we allow so much unscientific, partial and wrong information!  As long as there is a market for mis-information, it will continue to be provided.  And, being a died-in-the-wool capitalist, I wouldn’t want it any other way!  Always remember — we, as consumers, have the power to influence the quality of the product!

This isn’t to say that everyone has to be correct all the time – we all make mistakes; however, an effort should be made to get the facts before publishing and, when wrong, mistakes should be corrected as soon as possible.  This is the very least we should expect from those purporting to be experts in our field.

When editing articles for the Chronicle, these are some of the phrases I’m looking for which distinguish fact from supposition and/or anecdotal information – and sometimes just plain old guesswork!

  • “In my opinion . . .”
  • “Based on my experience…”
  • “I believe…”
  • “It would appear . . .”
  • “I think . . .”
  • “Let’s suppose. . .”
  • “It has been proposed . . .”
  • “It may be likely that…”
  • Etc., etc., etc.

When an author’s work is targeted at professionals, if a statement is made with no clarification that it is an opinion or hypothesis, and it is not a well-established principle, I expect to see a citation or footnote.  Now, I might relax this rule for materials written for the general public.  Obviously, this type of rigorous structure and formatting takes away from the readability of material written for lay people.  However, supposition should be acknowledged as such – even if the target is clients.

In summary, I really think that we, as professionals, need to be rigorous in our standards and requirements.  We have a responsibility to read materials written by fellow professionals with a critical eye and not take everything at face value; it is our responsibility to demand accurate information.  We owe this to the public we serve and to our profession.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.