The subject of this post is a critical one to me, and is likely to raise the ire of some who disagree with its content. Placing guilt, blame, or pointing a finger is not of interest here, though those of us whose methodologies it touches upon may feel that way. There are a number of very real dangers in the dog training world, and I'm not talking about tainted food, diseases, or the various contraptions or apparatus' that populate the field.
They are ideas.
These ideas are not based in the scientific research or study of canine behavior. They are not based on carefully collected observations, or hypotheses tested over many years and documented.
These are the ideas that we, as humans, somehow innately know how a dog should be treated in all situations and circumstances. That we have the answers to questions far outside our realm of experience or field of expertise. Any time we are faced with a training methodology that does not rely firmly and heavily on scientific principles of behavior and reinforcement, we should be asking the question, "Why?"
"Why does this work?"
"How do we know it works for a dog in this context/environment?"
"How do we quantify, or track, our dog's aptitude with this particular methodology, to ensure we are seeing a change in the behaviors we do not want, and an increase in the behaviors we do?"
Allow me to be clear. Any trainer possessing a dogmatic, fixed belief that their methodology is the only one that works, in the absence of scientific proof (read: data) to back it up, should be second guessed. The fallout from untried, untested, and unproofed training processes can result in lifelong challenges for any dog, no matter their breed, upbringing, and temperament. If you think rationally, and apply simple logic, it becomes clear that any approach to training dogs not supported by well tested evidence that said methodology is effective may not only result in new, unwanted behaviors, but may in fact make these behaviors worse.
Without a scientific foundation, any training path should be heavily questioned as to its effectiveness and how long it takes to reach any level of reliability whatsoever. I'm going to bet that in most instances, reliability cannot be realized without using a scientific approach and some dogs will show no progress at all until appropriate research and study is taken into the methodologies appropriate to canine learning.
"Well," you might be asking at this point. "How can I make sure my trainer or behaviorist is using principles well founded in scientific research?"
It's not that hard, actually. You can ask questions like:
"How will we measure my dog's training progress?"
"Do you have any training statistics regarding the dogs you've trained in the past who have shown significant improvement?"
You see, quantifying and qualifying our work may be the most important thing a dog trainer does for the dogs in their care. Not only does it allow us to perfect the methodologies we've learned through our studies, but it allows us to share our findings with other dog trainers in an unbiased, objective, and logical way. A dog trainer that does not evaluate their own work can expect little or no improvement in their own processes, let alone the improvement of the dogs they're charged with. The majority of dog trainers will not provide an unbiased gauge for their own work. Why? Probably a few reasons. The first being that it's much more hard work to track our observations, the efficacy of our work on the canines we train, and then modify our methodologies to ensure a better standard of training as we progress through our careers. Secondly, it may mean that the dog trainer in question might have to reconsider the manner in which they train, when they're already so good at promoting their own work that they have many people believing that it doesn't get any better. Ever.
Many well meaning dog owners have been convinced by these silver tongued trainers that their methods will transform their dog for life, no matter how unpleasant, or fun, the training may be. And when the training doesn't stick, they can't explain why. This is what evaluation allows for most importantly of all - the ability to identify and nail down what's going wrong, and then work to change it into something going right. The consequences of well reasoned, scientific dog training are immediate and powerful.
This is not an issue that should be pushed under the rug. Ensure your dog trainer can not only back up his or her claims of behavior formation and change with good research before taking their advice. Being open-minded is a wonderful thing, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism, analysis, and groundwork. After all, your dog's life may be at stake.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.