The Appliance of Dog Science

dog in basket looking thoughtful

Why is a scientific approach to dog training important?

Who is right? The person that says they trained their dog with a couple of leash jerks and now the dog walks perfectly on the lead? Or the person that says they trained dog with a couple of treats and now the dog walks perfectly on the lead?
Well, they are both right. They are describing what happened to them, and if we assume their description is accurate and they are not lying or exaggerating then we cannot deny that each person’s method works.
But what does this tell us? There are two people using different approaches to training their dog and both methods worked. That is it.
There remains a burning question though. Which method should you or I or anyone else use to train a dog? Does the information we have help us? Yes -  it certainly helps as it does show that it is possible to use two methods to train a dog. Apart from that, it does not tell us very much.
We need to consider what happened next. Did one dog bite the trainer a month later? Did one dog get fat after a month of training? Did one dog stop coming back when called? Did one dog pester the owner for treats? Did one dog tend to do what it had learnt very well but was slower to learn new things? Did one dog repeat what it had learnt and keenly work on new training experiences? Or most importantly from a welfare perspective, did one dog appear to be enjoying life more than the other?
To get the answers to all these questions, we need to ask the trainer what happened next in the following months. Better still, we could ask lots of people about the method they use and follow up their experiences over time. Alternatively we could get two groups of dogs and use one method on one group and another on the other group. This is exactly what scientific research does.
More importantly having gathered some results, scientists are challenged by other scientists. Indeed that is exactly what science requires. If no scientist ever challenged another scientific result then the results would be biased towards the view of the scientists that carried out the research, as humans are easily tricked into seeing exactly what they want to see, as are the people that have trained their dog by any singular method. This is why it is important not to trust just one person’s opinion.
So if we want to know the answer of the best way to train our dog, it seems that science is the best way of finding out. That does not mean other methods will not work. There will always be people that find an approach that works for them. But science shows us which method is the best when we take everything into account.
So what does science say about the best training methods? Broadly speaking it says using punishment such as jabs in the neck, leash jerks and prong collars do sometimes work, but the problem is they don’t always work. Moreover, they tend to cause side effects such as increased aggression. There are also laws regarding the welfare of animals which cannot be flouted under the banner of ‘training’. By contrast, reward based training methods are associated with working most of the time - but not always - and do not tend to cause side effects such as more aggression and lastly, do not break the laws that protect animals in our care.
So given the choice, why use a method that may cause more aggression unless you enjoy being bitten and are prepared to risk your dog biting other people or children? Why put yourself at risk from prosecution? Is it really worth the risk when science shows that other methods are not associated with such problems. Dogs don’t have a choice in how they are treated, but dog trainers and dog owners do.

Graham Thompson