Animals in our lives: Teaching the Philosophy of Companion Animals

This semester I’m teaching a university class on the Philosophy of Companion Animals called “Animals in our Lives.” Wow. I feel so lucky to do this! My students are hardworking, engaged, and good-natured, and together we are doing great work. Thanks gang!

Developing and teaching a new course takes up every spare moment. After getting my work done, going to the gym, and training and exercising Milo, I’m usually finished for the day. So, I’ve been posting here less frequently than usual.

Thank heavens I have my students’ permission to post about our class.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the syllabus that explains a little bit about what we are up to.

Animals in our Lives, Philosophy 271

Course Description
This class explores the science and ethics of human relationships with companion animals.

Course Outcomes
In this class you will:
1. Explore the social influences on, and impacts of, scientific research
2. Develop an understanding of the relationships between humans and companion animals from scientific, philosophical, and practical perspectives
3. Acquire the skills and confidence to learn, assess, and use scientific information

Discussion Topics
Unit 1: The science of emotion and the role of emotion in science
• The neurobiology of canine love
• The impact of human emotion on animal research
• The movement of scientific knowledge from the lab to the public

Unit 2: Anthropomorphism or anthropodenial
• The sense of smell and what it’s like to be a dog
• Consciousness and animal minds
• Folk psychology across species

Unit 3: Do good animal handlers and trainers need science?
• Is clicker training scientific?
• The media and celebrity dog trainers
• Different kinds of expertise and the public understanding of science
In each unit, we will explore readings from scientific, philosophical, and popular sources.

So far we’re just getting going on the unit on love.

I’ll update you as we move through the class.

“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

“My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training

Clicker training, sometimes called marker training, is all the rage. I use it with Milo all the time. Linda Case, over at The Science Dog, points out that even though clicker training is based on scientific theory, is incredibly popular, and has a track record of success

…there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. … Even more surprising is the fact that the results of the dog studies that are available are not unequivocally in the “Yay, Clicker Training!” camp. Rather, their results have been lukewarm at best, with some showing only limited (or no) benefit.


So, how do we explain, and what do we do about, this conflict between the scientific evidence and the practical success of using clicker training with dogs? Case examines a scientific paper by Lynna Feng et al. that does an excellent job sorting out this problem. The paper’s title says it all: Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results.

In her analysis of this paper, Case writes that

One possible reason that dog trainers, many who believe emphatically that clicker training is a highly effective tool, are at odds with the less than stellar results of the published studies is that perhaps we are not talking about the same things. In other words, the way in which clicker training has been studied with dogs (and, one could argue, with other species as well), is not the way in which clicker training is actually used in practice. Several important differences were identified in Lynna’s study. The two most important are: (1) In practice, clicker training takes place over extended periods of time; (2) It almost always includes an established and positive relationship between the trainee (the dog) and the trainer (usually the owner).

The primary point that I came away with from this paper was that despite some continued attempts  to make it so,  clicker training as applied with dogs is not a purely behavioristic methodology. Rather, if one considers all of the new information that we have regarding the dog’s cognitive abilities, including their well-documented ability to read and understand human communication signals, then it is likely that the actual practice of clicker training involves much more than a rigid application of CT without any personal (relationship), cognitive, or emotional component. Since the studies that are in existence have studied clicker training using highly controlled behavioristic methodologies, perhaps they did not effectively measure or capture the depth and complexity of the phenomenon that is taking place when we use clicker training with dogs.

Remember that saying that a training method is scientific means that there is a body of peer-reviewed, publicly available, scientific evidence demonstrating that the method they are referring to meets their training goals better than alternative methods.

Case’s and Feng’s discussion of the science of clicker training shows that there was a mismatch between the research testing the application of this method to dog training, and what the trainers using this method actually do. In other words, the evidence was not referring to the actual method in question.

Scientific experiments often look at what they are studying in a strictly controlled way, and sometimes they look at a part of a training method instead of the whole thing. On the one hand, this is good because it helps researchers figure out precisely what is going on. On the other hand, it means that we need to use our judgement when applying scientific research to real-world situations.

When looking for scientific support for a dog training method, consider how closely the scientific evidence refers to what you are actually doing.

Two things stand out about this research on clicker training. 

First, Feng’s research sorting out this conflict is an example of science working just the way it should. The public availability of the scientific research on clicker training dogs allowed scholars like Feng and Case to evaluate the science and offer suggestions for making it better.

Second, I really like Feng’s study because she treats the expert dog trainers’ knowledge with respect. There are lots of different kinds of experts. Scientists are one kind of expert and people who have successfully trained lots of dogs are another kind of expert. Sometimes, but not very often, a person has both of these kinds of expertise. Most of the time though, scientific and practical experts need to work together.


Note: This is the third 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

Training plan June 4-10

My overall goal is to get Milo titled in CKC Rally Obedience.

This week we will work on:milob1

  • 3 minute sit and down stays (medium distractions when we are at home, and mild distractions when we are out).
  • three steps of focused heeling that starts and ends with a nice sit.
  • still front feet for stand-from-sit (just popping out his butt). We’ll do this on a front foot target at home (which he already knows) or on a picnic table if we are out.
  • clean up 3 toys in one room.

I’ll use a clicker for the heel and stand exercises to help with my timing.

We’ll do two, five-minute training sessions on six of the next seven days.

Heel position Heel position
Stand from sit Stand from sit
3 minute sit stay 3 minute down stay
Clean three toys Clean three toys

I’ll also keep going on Ed Frawley’s article, The Power of Training Dogs with Markers.

Check back at the end of the week for an update on our progress!