“My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”

If you want to see a good internet fight, just toss out the question “What method should I use to train my dog?”  People go all cap locks on each other in no time, no time at all.

internet fightSometimes these fights are about very specific training methods, but most of the time they boil down to disagreements about whether dogs should ever be given corrections or punishments. People want you to train your dog their way.

Why should you do it their way? The same set of answers pop up over and over again. You should do it their way because:

  • your dog will be happier
  • your dog will learn faster
  • your dog will love you more
  • your dog will respect you more
  • your dog will be safer
  • your dog will be less stressed

and then out comes the big gun

  • because SCIENCE says so.

I am a beginner dog trainer, but I am an expert on evaluating and using science—in fact, I’m a philosopher of science and so that’s my day job. And let me tell you, “because science says so,” is a troubling answer.

It bothers me when “science” is thrown into a conversation as a way to end debate. ‘Science says so, smart people defer to science, so take your pick: agree with me or be stupid.’

The trouble is, scientists disagree with each other ALL the time. In fact, one of the main things that scientists do is try to prove other scientists wrong.

Calling something scientific should be an invitation to open and respectful discussion of different kinds of evidence, of our experiences, and of the values and assumptions that are part of scientific practice. When someone demands unquestioning faith in science, something is messed up. Science doesn’t work that way.

Don’t get me wrong. Science is AWESOME. It is a tool we’ve used to figure out all sorts of interesting and useful things. I’m writing this post on a really nice computer. Thank you Science. But, just like any other tool, it takes time and energy to figure out how to use it responsibly. Using it responsibly means using it in a way that is honest, morally good, and practically useful.

We should use all of the tools and resources we can to figure out how to best work with our dogs. After all, we want to do the best we can to treat our dogs with respect, develop good relationships with our dogs, help them be safe, happy, and fulfilled, and to develop public policies and laws that are good for the dogs and people in our communities.

Scientific research can provide excellent resources to help us meet these goals. But, if we are going advocate for scientific dog training methods we need to ask ourselves:

  1. What does it even mean to say that a dog training method is scientific?
  2. Is a scientific method automatically good?
  3. How can you tell if folks are right when they say a method is scientific?
  4. How do you make the jump from scientific theory and evidence to doing what is best for the dog in front of you?

There aren’t foolproof answers to these questions. Philosophers disagree with each other all of the time too.  But, if you are going to use scientific information responsibly, you need to think carefully about these questions.

Note: This is the first post in a five-part series about what makes a dog training method scientific.

  1. “My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”
  2. “My method is scientific” 2: What does this even mean?
  3. “My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training
  4. “My Method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals
  5. “My method is scientific” 5: Responsible use of science

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