“My method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals

brown cartoon dog, standing on hind legs, with a surprised expressionI bet if a person gave their puppy an excruciating correction every time he laid a foot on the carpet, they could train that dog to stay off the rug in a heartbeat. But, I wouldn’t train a puppy that way. And even if I found a hundred scientific papers demonstrating the success of this method I still would not use it, nor would I recommend it to anyone else. I think it’s wrong. It goes against my values.

Often, when we latch onto the ‘scientificness’ of a training method, we’re trying to justify and recommend its use. Why should you use this method? It must be good. Science says so!

What kind of ‘good’ are we talking about?

The connection between science and goodness is complicated. While we’ve used scientific knowledge to cure disease, improve public health, and build bridges, we’ve also used it to build bombs and torture people.

When we’re talking about the scientific goodness of a dog training method, we’re not talking about moral goodness. Rather, we’re talking about practical goodness or effectiveness. Practical goodness or effectiveness demands the question, “Good at what?” In this sense, a person can be a good doctor or a good torturer (or a good dog trainer). It just means that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well. This kind of goodness is relative to a set of goals.

By praising a training method for being scientific, we’re justifying it, or recommending it, because there is scientific evidence demonstrating that it meets a set of training goals better than alternative methods.

This doesn’t say anything about what your training goals should be. That is up to you.

What kind of goals are we talking about?

Generally, we want our dogs to be happy and perform their jobs well. But, there is a wide range of specific goals we could pick. Here are just a few ways our goals can vary:

Goals vary with respect to projects

Is someone working on rehabilitating a rescue dog, or training a lap dog, a protection dog, or a guide dog? They’ll definitely teach these dogs different behaviours and might teach these behaviours using different methods. Teaching a good strong bite isn’t a goal of most people training lap dogs. Specific goals depend on the projects a person and their dog are working on.

Goals can vary in terms of mastery: reliability and precision

Trainers can have different goals about the level of mastery their dog needs to attain.

When someone asks a pet dog to heel, they usually want it to walk in the general vicinity of their left side. In an obedience competition a dog that gets a step ahead or behind the handler, or drifts away from parallel to the direction the handler’s facing, loses points. In some cases, precision is more important than others.

Or, imagine teaching a dog ‘out.’ ‘Out’ means drop whatever is in your mouth. When a pet dog hears “out” it usually means “drop that ball.” When a police dog hears “out” it can mean “let go of that person.” In some cases, reliability is more important than others.

Teaching new behaviour is different from extinguishing an entrenched, self-rewarding behaviour

Milo doesn’t really care if he is standing or sitting. I used marker training to teach him to sit on command. It went like this:

Carla: “Milo, sit.”
Milo sits.
Carla: “YES!” Gives Milo a cookie.

Milo learned an easy way to get cookies. Sometimes he walks up and offers a sit and an intent gaze. He’s clearly saying, “Hey lady, I’m sitting here, and I’m short on cookies.”

On the other hand, I had to teach Milo not to chase bikes. He has huge prey drive, which means that, to him, chasing is its own reward. When he chases, he is giving himself his favourite cookie, a cookie better than prime rib.

Teaching Milo to sit and teaching him not to chase are two very different goals that required different methods.

But, aren’t some methods effective at achieving a bunch of different goals?

Yep. Lots of people successfully train agility dogs, protection sport dogs, and pet dogs using clicker training (aka marker training). Clicker training is all the rage. I use this method with Milo whenever I can.

But, funnily enough, there isn’t as much scientific evidence demonstrating clicker training’s effectiveness when applied to dog training in general, or to specific training goals in particular, as you might think. There is scientific theory showing that we expect it to work, but not direct scientific evidence showing that it does with dogs. The evidence that it works in a wide range (but not all) situations doesn’t come from scientists, as much as it comes from expert trainers with a track record of practical success.


The bottom line

Just because scientific evidence shows that a method meets one set of training goals, it doesn’t mean that it must meet a different set of training goals.  

And, even if scientific evidence shows that a training method meets a set of goals, a person can decide not to use, or recommend it, if it conflicts with their values.

You can’t decide what the scientific evidence is, but you must decide on your goals and values.


Note: In these posts on scientific dog training, I’m setting a high standard for calling a dog training method scientific. I’ll explain why in my fifth “My method is scientific” post, “Responsible use of science.”

  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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