The “Idiocracy” of “Science” in Dog Training

 

For the readers unfamiliar with the term “idiocracy”, it is a movie from 2006. A satirical comedy outlining the deterioration of intellect and scientific knowledge in society. Depending on the audience, people have even called it a “funny but scary documentary” of what is happening in the world. One premise depicted over and over is the populations acceptance of the “science” promoted by advertising and branding. And while this article is not a movie review, one example I’d like to cite before moving forward. In the movie, a popular sports and rehydration drink has done their job so well explaining scientifically that a drink with electrolytes is far superior to water to replenish fluids that the entire population is convinced that therefore this sports drink should also be superior to watering plants and crops. The result is naturally dying crops and food shortage. And while the statements about the drink are scientifically factual, naturally the population goes completely overboard in their interpretation of the facts. And while it makes for a funny movie, I find myself daily reading statements or watching explanations which seem dangerously close to “idiocracy” in their forced insistence that a kernel of science validates virtually anyone’s approach as long as there is some way to loosely tie in some term that sounds scientific.

 

Many factors prompted me to sit and write, from the fiery debate about “purely positive” training, to the frivolous throwing around of concept terminology which have become catch phrases in dog training. The fact that every time science is mentioned the only references used  are learning psychology and not behavioral science.  Non animal tested or involved laboratory scientific research being levied to influence and affect dog training. And just overall salesmanship and commercialism.  Everyone has the right to make a living and do business, but, education and training matters, and we should never get caught up in inaccuracy, misinterpretation, or re-inventing the wheel just to make a buck. The professionals in this industry owe dogs and handlers more than that. We are champions of a cause and we must first and foremostly focus on  the mission and the task, all other concerns including commerce, fame and notoriety must come a distant second.

 

Now that I am done with my rant, let me begin digging into subject matter. The subject matter is science and terminology. Definitions and interpretations. I wrote an article many years ago trying to get people on the same page on terminology which had been around for ( by now) over 100 years yet kept being re-defined and re-interpreted. Now, 25 years after those articles the same thing is still going on.

 

Let me begin with learning psychology. What is learning psychology? Well it is Skinner. Burrhus Frederic Skinner! So who was he? He was a brilliant man, but a psychologist, not an animal trainer. A HUMAN psychologist. While often referred to as a behaviorist, his research was not into behavior, it was about learning. And it was intended to draw extrapolations about HUMAN learning from the animal example.  His famous book “The Behavior of Organisms” (1938) is of course a crucial text for any of us. However, the way Skinner used the term “behavior” is(was) somewhat loose and does not coincide with the use of the term by other scientists, especially those from other countries speaking different languages . I feel this is one of the reasons why people struggle with the concepts outlined by Skinner as well as other scientists in practical applications. Which makes sense of course, because Skinner in most of his work did not apply his findings in practical settings, but merely extrapolated his findings in a research setting.

Skinner was a giant, and he will remain a giant for the rest of time. But, he was not an animal trainer or practitioner, nor was he a behaviorist in the common sense. That being a scientist studying behavior in a natural and biological setting. And while he did all his research and data collecting in the proper scientific manner (as set out in laboratory research procedure), he did NOT study natural science, behavior, or biological significance of observed behaviors or actions.

Add to that the fact that in the English language certain terms appear (or are) very much interchangeable and do not signify interpretive difference. Terms like “action” and “behavior” are interchangeable. Terms like “drive” do not exist in scientific literature. So whenever the term is used it appears interchangeable with the term “instinct” which is very much different in other languages.  So it is no wonder that there is some confusion, difficulty of interpretation, and at the end stage where practitioners attempt to make sense of all the work that came before them becomes so open to interpretation it can barely be defined in a way that leads to agreement among hard working people trying to make sense of the research and science which we all try to study and make sense of.

 

Some readers may not agree with what I have said above, which is perfectly OK. I want to spark conversation. And for the sake of this conversation, maybe you can all wrap your heads around the way terminology was used for many decades and still is used in other countries and languages around  the world. That by the way includes people like Pavlov, Trummler, Lorenz, Brunner, Eibel, Eibesfeldt, Heinzler, Immelmann, Most, Stern, Thews, Gzimek, just to name a few.

Animal behavior in nature, without human influence or interference or training. Animals behaving the way they do based on the nature and world around them. Governed by instincts, drives, genetic programming, and the result of behavior which must have a biologically significant outcome.

I have been a dog and animal trainer for a long time. And I can use Skinner’s findings to teach many things by chaining individual actions together to create a chain which may possibly resemble a natural behavior. However, what I cannot train or shape or create are natural behaviors certain species simply cannot perform.

And this is where learning psychology and behavioral science part ways. And as practitioning  dog trainers we simply must accept that or we are not looking at the entire picture enough to do right by those who hire us as experts.

 

So, what does learning psychology teach us?  Learning psychology is commonly referred to as “Operant Conditioning”.  What is it?  Where does it apply? What does it do? Where does it help us? And where doesn’t it apply or do anything at all in our quest to train and help dogs and handlers?

 

Maybe before we examine that, I need to reference when “Operant conditioning” was first introduced into modern day dog training.

“Operant conditioning” (known as learning psychology by those who actually studied the science and read the books defining the concepts) was introduced to modern dog training in the middle 90s by people who decided to coin the terminology by their own interpretation and simply ignore the totality of the research or the findings of B.F. Skinner during his work.

“Operant conditioning” was used as “clicker training” which at the time was limited to the concept of “shaping”. In other words, “operant conditioning” by the definition of these experts was limited to “positive reinforcement” and “negative punishment” (reward, and non reward).

And while those two quadrants are very much part of operant conditioning, they are merely TWO quadrants of FOUR, which is therefore incomplete and misleading.

 

As a long term practitioner in dog training, someone who grew up in mid 70s Europe, witnessing and seeing the extreme compulsion and many time abusive approaches to dog training, I can certainly understand why there was a movement to eliminate cruelty and crushing compulsion in dog training. The pendulum was swinging, HARD! And it was swinging in the direction to eliminate abusing dogs and cruelty. I am all for that, and I have fought for those very things my entire professional career.

HOWEVER, trying to affect change by misleading people or deliberately omitting information from people while pretending to educate based on science inevitably creates problems.

The problem of course was that pretending that “operant conditioning”, ground breaking work by the biggest name in learning psychology, was limited to the principles the people who tried to bring these concepts onto mainstream dog training agreed with and liked created a lot of resistance and push back.

 

So for many years there was rejection of “operant conditioning” and dismissal of the principles simply because the champions of “operant conditioning” insisted on eliminating any and all balance from dog training by proposing that the “science” was limited to only  two of four quadrants.

 

Luckily, people do not stand still. They seek education, they read, they explore and inevitably discover the truth and facts.

Time marched on and folks looked deeper into Skinner and OC. And smart trainers realized that there was more to OC than R+ and P-.

For long term practitioners, there was really not that much news. After all, Konrad Most back in 1914 already wrote about all these things. But with Skinner and OC, we had new and clearer definitions, and we had scientific research that this is how all animals learn.

It was eye opening for many, and I would say it changed dog training in significant ways. In ways that made things better for dogs, no question. Trainers examined their approaches more, more thought and planning went into teaching methodologies. And in many cases, in cases of doubt, the benefit went in favor of the dog and many adjustments were made.

No question, it was a great renaissance in training and thought processes.

 

Fast forward to today. (or at least the last 5 -10 years or so)

A more balanced approach to dog training evolved, people actual seemed to pay attention to Skinner’s, “The Behavior of Organisms”, and all the facets of learning psychology.

Smarter, better, more patience, more compassion for dogs, and a lot more diligence when formulating training plans.

Clickers became common place, and many trainers invested way more time shaping and training and solidifying behaviors and skills before resorting to corrections or pressure and many of the stress causing methodologies of the past.

 

That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it????

So why am I writing this article?

Well, because it seems the pendulum never stops swinging.

As Operant conditioning, learning psychology and classical conditioning became mainstream it seems people have lost sight entirely of anything beyond those concepts, including the research these scientists did and their purpose.

 

I travel across the country and the world, I hear people talk about the above over and over in various interpretive versions.

More and more I see people using OC or learning psychology to validate their own training approaches. And while those approaches may not be bad or wrong or unsuccessful, many times people use learning psychology to try and validate what they are doing.

It seems in this age of dog training, as long as you can find some way to connect what you are doing to a Skinner concept, even if it is completely incorrect, your method will sell.

Folks with bigger established names and resumes will claim, “I am working quadrant A or B or C or D” and the crowd will accept it as fact without challenge, without push back.

Will the approach help dogs?

Sometimes yes, sometimes, no. But it has become a fact that as long as it helps NOBODY challenges the incorrect interpretation and IMO bastardization of learning psychology. And while an expert might make progress with a dog using his approach, a follower or student will create problems because he believes he is following learning psychology when he really is not.

Terminology matters, concepts matter, and scientific principles matter.

So we must hold one another accountable.

 

OK, so much on OC and learning psychology. On to my next concern.

The number of posts I see and read where people cite “science”.

Science in dog training. We must consider and follow the “science”. Etc., etc., etc.

So what science are we talking about exactly???

 

I have not read a post or article or listened to a podcast where anyone cited “science”.

The only concepts cited are “learning psychology” (OC) or “classical conditioning”.

What happened to “behavioral science”??

What happened to nature?

What happened to biology? Ethology? Cynology?

Those are all sciences. OC or learning psychology actually is not science.

 

Skinner was a psychologist, and a researcher. But he did not study animal behavior in any natural environment. His research, while groundbreaking and incredibly important was not intended to determine or develop animal training techniques or methodologies.

 

And while he used scientific principles to gather and collect data during his research, the experiments were in themselves NOT behavioral science. Certainly not in the perspective of studying and observing behavior happening in a natural environment with natural stimuli present. Or behaviors triggered by outside biological factors. Nor were the behaviors looked at or considered for their biological significance for survival, continuation of the species, or engaging in any life or species sustaining patters in a natural environment. Just to name a few.

So what science are we really speaking of when we restrict ourselves to OC??

OC is NOT behavioral science. It is learning psychology. Yes, scientific methodology was used to record data, but it never studied anything natural or triggered by a real biological stimulus presented by nature.

 

This brings me to the main point of this article.

The collective history of the use of K9s and the training of K9s to assist humans in their tasks has been to tap into and utilize inborn abilities, drives, and instincts dogs possess to perform certain functions and tasks on our (human’s) behalf.

Have we lost sight of that? Have we stopped entirely to look at the animal nature of dogs and their inborn talents?

Every single day I read something or hear something or watch videos which focus on how humans can create or manufacture action sequences in dogs seemingly out of thin air which look very impressive and on the surface often resemble valuable K9 skills which used to serve humans well.  But upon closer examination the “pictures” we see or have described to us may look like a real skill, but in real world applications are becoming more and more unreliable.

In fact, I read very often people talk about showing dogs “pictures” in their training.

For 100 years or so, the focus was on using dogs’ natural abilities to help us.

And for the last 10-20 years the focus has been more on ignoring natural abilities, where those abilities come from and tapping into animal instincts and simply “shaping” the appearance of something without ever examining the functionality of it in any kind of out of context application.  It seems to me that the animal nature is being ignored, behavioral science has been forgotten, and trying to trigger natural behaviors in dogs to get them to perform tasks for us has become too difficult. So instead trainers have developed approaches and methodologies which take the animal nature aspect entirely out of training because it sems to represent an X factor too difficult to deal with and instead work on manufacturing pictures which resemble real behaviors, but are not in fact behaviors at all.

I have stated this on a number of occasions before. Skinner, who has given us incredible insight into animal learning and was a brilliant man did a disservice to future generations by using the words “action” and “behavior” interchangeably in his writings.

And maybe that is a language issue in English that I may struggle with. In my education and native tongue, the two words (action and behavior) have different meaning.

Action is a simple act or movement or even gesture without needing a purpose or trigger.

Behavior on the other hand is a triggered response and in fact a sequence of actions which occur predictably and naturally when triggered.

 

So, for me this is really where the conversation begins about “science”. The science I have always paid attention to in dog training since my childhood has been behavioral science.

Thousands of years ago when wild canines, like wolves, joined the company of humans, humans found these animals useful, because they had behaviors and tendencies and innate skills which helped them be successful in their environment.

For example. These new companions were able to notice game animals humans hunted for food much easier and sooner than humans did themselves. Furthermore, they were able to use their sense of smell to follow these sources of food when humans lost sight of them or could no longer find visual tracks to follow them which naturally increased hunting success. I could come up with many more examples of the usefulness of domesticated wolves (or dogs whenever they became dogs by our definition).

At that time, the humans observed the dogs, and did the best they could to tap into the natural talents and abilities of them to increase their own success.

 

Let me propose a very simple example. Hunters pursued birds, they managed to get close, they managed to injure or kill one or more of these birds. BUT, the birds fell in very inaccessible places, in water, down a steep cliff, use your imagination a place that would have been tough for a human to access and retrieve these birds. So, their new companions, who also saw these birds, who are also predators who look at birds as food, they accessed those difficult to reach locations and fetched the birds. Maybe the humans tied ropes to them so the dogs could not run off and eat the birds themselves. But, they managed to get the birds easier because the dogs went to get them, pick them up, and carry them. The humans using whatever creative means to get the dogs to come back to them with the birds, just had a big win!

Fast forward to 2022. A trainer wants to teach his dog to fetch.

Let’s say it’s an IGP dog who has to fetch a wooden dumbbell. Or a French Ring dog who has to fetch a pair of rolled up socks, or any other sport or utility dog who has to retrieve a designated object and bring it to the handler. How does the approach look today?

 

Well, we have the forced fetch (using OC negative reinforcement, to shape individual actions, create chains of pictures which then may resemble a retrieve). Or we use free shaping ( using OC positive reinforcement to shape individual actions, create chains of pictures which then may resemble a retrieve).

And aside from those two methods, there are dozens of others blending concepts together to get the final result, a retrieve of an object on command.

Nothing wrong with that, nothing evil or reprehensible (unless you’re cruel), and in competition it won’t matter one bit which way you got there as long as the picture is what the written standard calls for.

So what is your problem then, Armin?!?!

 

The problem, is, we are creating things out of thin air in almost a laboratory environment to resemble something dogs would do on their own using their natural behaviors, instincts and drives. WHY??

Have we become so detached from anything natural we can no longer fathom that dogs have natural behaviors and that we as humans must teach them every little thing in the way we view it for dogs to be able to function??

 

I have seen this in so many facets of dog training in the last 10-15 years it makes me sad.

Humans teaching dogs how to search or track. If there are two things dogs are probably at the very ,very top ability wise, they would be tracking and searching.  But we as humans feel that unless we intervene and break it down and guide them and show them they will somehow not be as good at it.  That sounds completely insane to me.

 

That is just one example.

The dog training world has become a factory set up. We must manufacture each physical action preventing and blocking and forbidding every natural tendency, emotion, drive, or impulse we do not understand or don’t know how to control or extinguish.

 

The obsession with training systems and trademarked manufacturing methods, along with picture pattern training dogs can reproduce just as long as the context is close enough to their experiences has become mainstream.

It has completely taken over the pet and sport training world. Neat little tricks, patterns and pictures dogs are boxed and limited into in order to be less like dogs and just more like good little robots who do not annoy us.

 

And as I travel around the world I see it creeping into the real dog world more and more every day. And as I see it happening, I see reliability decreasing. More dogs can meet standardized examination, but functional reliability has not increased, and in some places decreased significantly.

 

Dog training has come a long way. As an industry, I believe we have made great strides to reduce abuse and cruelty and the “always blame the dog” culture. Those things are incredibly positive and beneficial in many aspects.

BUT, with the introduction of the term “science” as a catch phrase. Remember all the ways the phrase “follow the science” has been used in the last few years.  It seems that all someone has to do is merely invoke the term “science” and all critics go mute and are afraid to speak up.

As a result, less scrutiny is occurring. People are using terms and phrases invoking established “science” or at a minimum the principles of “learning psychology”. And once those terms are put on paper, nobody dares to challenge them or speak up for fear of being called an anti-science heretic, or worse just a dinosaur.

I recently reviewed and studied a university web reference source defining terminology. It was shocking to me. Shocking, because it has become accepted to simply re-invent terminology and use it as “commonly used” rather than sticking to the scientific and original definition of the terms.

I see creative trainers doing good and productive things with dogs, going back to old school equipment usage because of the benefits derived from their use. But then comes time for explanation why or how this piece of equipment worked 30+ years ago and therefore how it works today in 2022. And theories arise. Theories which are incorrect, however, creatively explained through incorrect interpretation of learning psychology, so people regurgitate these incorrect concepts as “science”.

Why is it not enough to get positive results from techniques and or use of equipment?? Why must it be labeled something that somehow ties it to Skinner even if the tie is incorrect because the concept does not represent Skinner’s teachings?

 

I hate to speculate, but I am going to. The reason for this shameless and frivolous and INCORRECT use of these incredibly poignant concepts and terms is because it SELLS. It makes money and it attracts attention to the re-inventor from people who want to learn but have not spent their due diligence to study the texts and the science or research behind all the terminology.

 

The industry I primarily focus on is the real world application industry.  Real SAR, real detection, real LE, real military, real Special Ops. Anything that leads to life saving and meaningful results from the use of dogs.

I love dog sports. I applaud pet owners who want better training for their dogs, either through lessons or board and train.  All training is good.

BUT, only the real world applications safe lives and provide results which truly impact humans in life affecting ways.

And while the pet industry has moved forward by leaps and bounds, the real world practitioners are still progressing slowly by comparison. Because the concepts and supposed “science” applied is not as correct and understood as it should be by the “experts” in their fields.

 

I have the incredible opportunity to work with many units from across the world. And I find time and time again the units who utilize and employ “theoretical masters” without real world validation or experience are leading their clients astray. Not on purpose in my opinion, but because they do not know any better and have not bothered to educate themselves or study all there is available to study. One crucial piece being BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE beyond the application of learning psychology.

I see deficiencies which would cost lives if the teams were ever to be put into real life or death situations. To me that is unacceptable.

 

The purpose of this article is NOT to demean or disparage anyone or any specific trainer.

It is to point out that as an industry we have lost sight of something we were pursuing for many  decades. Insight into dogs, their behavior, their natural talents and abilities, and how to use them to our benefit.

What we have managed has been the ability to use learning psychology to create pictures and action chains or sequences which resemble useful and reliable functions but often are hollow and UNRELIABLE.

We have forgotten about dogs, the miracle of the dog.  The miracle of the dog’s nose. The miracle who is the dog.

I recently spoke to people deeply involved in research studies for military working dogs. My take away was a tearful statement, “you are ignoring and discounting the miracle”!

 

I have gotten into debates, even arguments with people trying to explain to me that a chemist or laboratory expert explaining to me that based on his knowledge of chemistry, I should discount 4 ½ decades of dog training and studies and observations of how dogs work scent as well as operational success and real world deployments and simply listen to what HE thinks chemistry SHOULD make a dog do.  I can’t do that. I am a student of dogs.

 

Our industry is full of talented people who have access to more knowledge, research and experience as well as science than any generation before them, but they are trapping themselves in marketing concepts and pseudo-science just to appease an audience and follow the mainstream terminology and approach that appears to be accepted by the current consumers.

 

BUT, consumers are not experts, they are subject, sometimes victims to the frauds and charlatans who are spewing utter nonsense just to convince or bamboozle a person desperate for help. I think that in my world of professional dog trainers there is not much respect for a certain “dog whisperer” nor do most of us subscribe to the nonsensical ramblings he uses to sell himself to an unsuspecting public.

Guess what?? He throws scientific terms around all  the time. He quotes behavioral science in a completely interpretive and incorrect way because it sells on TV to an ignorant audience.

Are we no better than that?

 

Science requires study, it requires research, it requires hypothesis and validation. And when it comes to animal and behavioral science the bar goes even higher, it requires a knowledge of ethology and cynology and the study of nature and biology. And this is where things are lost.

 

Yes, learning psychology is real and try and important, but pay attention to its definition. Learning PSYCHOLOGY, not science.

Marketing concepts who can’t even keep track of the principles of learning psychology, yet continuously invoke the word science are marketing concepts and NOT science.

Made up term are not science unless they can be backed by actual scientific research studies to validate them.  Words for effect are just that.

When words lose meaning because anyone who is trying to sell his product or method or concept we all lose.

 

The “IDIOCRACY” of the word “science” in modern dog training has become a thing, and it has made a farce of the men and women who spent their lives not trying to make a buck from a desperate pet owner, but who actually wanted to understand animals better and wrap their heads around why animals behave the way they do and how we as humans can tap into those incredible talents and abilities to assist us in our lives and tasks.

Those of you reading this article, I ask you. Please don’t quote science unless you know it. Explain what you are doing by outlining your experience, please stop trying to add a sales pitch by throwing Skinner’s name around or a concept you heard that you thought was profound and deep and undeniable. If you use it incorrectly you are doing harm to the consumer and those who are trying to learn the craft.

 

I know many successful dog trainers, many are not scientists and couldn’t quote any research or studies or natural experiences beyond catch phrases of pop culture dog training. And I have very little problem with these folks helping people with their dogs.

But, a certain portion of our industry has a different mandate and cause and those should be held to a higher standard. Because they serve as educators of future generations, and/or they are in a world where lives depend on them doing their jobs above and beyond the hacks and charlatans trying to make a buck.

 

So those of you who call dog training their “calling”, not just a way to make a paycheck. Please respect science, study it, know it, and understand it. And if you don’t or can’t, just sell your services a different way. Because science matters. Do not take advantage of the miseducation of the masses, do not make “IDIOCRACY” of things that are real and can serve us all do better and do right by the dogs we work and cherish and love.

 

Thank you!!!