Science – What It Is and What It Isn’t

A series of articles for professional dog trainers, those who want to become professional dog trainers, and those who want to become certified dog trainers.

While thinking about how I wanted to approach this new column on learning theory, it occurred to me that, before we get into the actual learning theory, it’s important to talk about what science really is and how it can help us.

There is a big divide within the dog training community about the importance of using science in training. Some feel it is the only way to train, while the others feel that it is cold and leaves too much out of the equation. I am a proponent of using scientifically established principles of learning when training. However, I think that part of the problem is that too many of us don’t really understand what that means. So – here’s why I choose to use science in my training!

The first thing to address is the word theory! Too often, I hear a trainer say “well, it’s only a theory, after all” As if that means that what they are discussing is somehow weak or unproven.  In science, however, a theory is a well established principle which is highly unlikely to change. It may be tweaked here and there, but the foundations will remain. A theory has been tested, analyzed, re-tested, re-analyzed, and tested ad nauseum!

The term the trainer is actually looking for is hypothesis. A hypothesis is a speculation or educated guess based on information – it is not just a wild guess, but something that has merit and needs to be tested further before rising to the level of a theory or failing to be proved.

As Dr. Susan Friedman explains in her telecourse, “LLP-Tele,”:

There is, at times, criticism of science because it changes. How many of us quit eating butter because we thought margarine was better for us – based on research? Now we know that margarine is terrible for us! Same with red wine – we thought alcohol was bad for us with no redeeming qualities. Now we know that red wine in moderation is actually good for us. Well, science, by its nature, is fluid and subject to change as we learn more. However, it is the best information we have at the time!

Dr. Friedman goes on to say:

  • Behavior is a natural phenomenon; a part of the physical world (thus, it can be studied by the scientific method)
  • Science helps us get past personal recipes in training and behavior (sometimes personal recipes work, but when they don’t work, they often go uncorrected)
  • Science helps us get past partisan politics (science has shown that compulsive methods are not usually necessary)
  • Science has its own self-correcting methods (that ferret out hypothesis and studies that are not valid):
    • Public, peer review (science is published for review by third parties that can examine the techniques used to be sure the science is valid)
    • Verification across independent researchers (valid scientific studies can be replicated time and again with the same results to ensure that the results are not flawed or skewed in some way)
  • Science provides us with the most reliable information at a particular point in time (and subject to future self-correction)

This does not mean that anecdotal information is not valid – it simply means it has not been tested, reviewed, revised, and re-tested and should therefore be used with caution. This is what we need to keep in mind during our training.

Learning theory, of course, is only one of many science disciplines, but it is crucial to the field of behavior modification. Ultimately, in my opinion, the best way for animal consultants to be critical thinkers is to understand how animals learn and the science behind that learning. Once we understand that, we can assess the anecdotal information from an educated view and make an informed decision.

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.