There is a very high bar for claiming that a dog training method is scientific. Not only does there have to be peer-reviewed research studies, but there also has to be a bunch of them, and they need to directly refer to the training method in question. It is a difficult standard to meet.
Just because it is difficult to meet this standard, it most certainly doesn’t mean that we should abandon scientific research on dog training. What the high standard does mean is that we need to be careful, responsible, about how we use scientific information.
In the rest of this post, I’ll explore just how high that bar is, and give you an alternative way, a responsible way, to think about and use scientific information about dog training methods.
What the heck is a body of evidence anyway?
The idea is that there needs to be a bunch of studies and that you need to be on the lookout for studies that support your training method AND studies that don’t. It’s not immediately clear how many studies make a bunch, or how to balance the studies that support and that don’t support a particular method. Most of the time a person has to rely on scientific experts to get an overall idea of the degree of support for particular methods.
Philosopher Heidi Grasswick has argued that it should be part of the job of science to sift through the evidence it generates and provide us with usable, significant information. However, there is not much motivation for individual scientists to do this time-consuming work. Thankfully, when it comes to veterinary and human medicine and public health, there are professional and government organisations we can turn to for this sort of expertise.
For example, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has a Humane Training Methods for Dogs position statement. In this statement, they recommend reward-based methods, and discourage aversive methods, and do not recommend aversive methods unless reward-based methods have failed and unless the aversive methods are used by a skilled person. They provide citations to the scientific literature supporting their claims, and you can use those citations to track the research papers down for yourself. However, even this position statement is not especially specific about particular training methods. It pretty much advises us to be as humane as possible.
Is the evidence ever directly about what you do with your dog?
If a person wants to call a dog training method scientific, then the scientific research should be about the dog training method they are actually talking about. This seems obvious, but in fact, there is rarely, some might even say never, a direct connection between the research and dog training practice. One reason for this mismatch is that studies are conducted under controlled experimental conditions, and dog training happens ‘in the wild,’ or at least in the more complicated everyday situations that we find ourselves in. The context the dog-handler team is working in, the skill of the trainer, the temperament and experience of the dog, all make a difference. Also, sometimes, a lack of communication between scientists and dog trainers can result in them using the same name to describe what are, in practice, different training methods.
The bottom line is that it is difficult to be justified in claiming that a training method is scientific. But don’t give up on scientific approaches to dog training.
A matter of degree
Instead of thinking of the scientific nature of a training method as an all or nothing sort of thing, we need to think of it as a matter of degree. Some training methods are supported by more evidence than others, and the scientific research can be more or less like what we actually do with our dogs.
When we point to a method as being scientific, our usual goal is to justify our use of it or recommend it to others. More evidence that is closer to our training method, justifies us in giving a stronger endorsement or recommendation of the method as scientific. It’s not an on/off switch; it’s a volume control knob.
Take care though, because scientific evidence can’t give us 100% certainty that a method is the best possible method. In addition to the tricky nature of evidence and the fraught relation between science and practice, science can only test what we have dreamed up in the first place. It is completely possible that someone will come up with a new method that is better than anything we have right now. Also, science is trustworthy because it depends on the experiments we’ve actually done and the measurements we’ve already taken. This means that we always need to be open to changing our minds in the face of new experiments and new evidence.
Responsible use of scientific information means calibrating our endorsement of a method as scientific to the quality of the evidence supporting that method.
Note: this is my fifth post in a series on scientific dog training methods.