What does it mean to think scientifically?
To begin, we start with mindset. Being skeptical is key to thinking scientifically. Being skeptical involves suspending judgement until you've had the opportunity to collect evidence from reliable sources. There's no doubt that at times, the evidence about something we want to better understand isn't perfectly clear, and that's all right. It simply means that you must make do with a working model until you have a handle on better evidence.
In dog training, thinking scientifically is a critical part to addressing our dogs and their behavior. Avoiding problematic conclusions and statements like universal truths "ALL dogs love other dogs" or "All Dalmatians behave poorly with children" is the first step in determining what work you might like to do to improve your relationship with your dog and any problematic behaviors you want to address.
Understanding that not all dogs have the same drives informing their choices and behavior allows us, their caregivers, to treat each dog as a unique individual. When we take into account the countless variables at work in any dogs life, from puppyhood through to middle age, it's easy to understand why there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dog behavior. They're simply too different, their experiences too varied, to be able to apply a singular truth to all dogs.
Another critical component to the process of thinking scientifically about your dog and dog behavior in general is being able to accept and taking some delight in being wrong about our initial assumptions. When we can disprove what we initially hypothesize, this is a very exciting thing. It allows us to narrow our focus, to take factors into account that we might have initially thought were unrelated to whatever it is we're trying to better understand.
For anyone working in the field of dog behavior, there is an implicit understanding that what we think is true is always some kind of approximation of what is actually true. Sometimes our approximations are deeply inaccurate, founded in more confidence than actual data or evidence. Our beliefs and expectations can inform judgements made prematurely. In dog behavior, these premature judgements about why something is happening can be extremely costly to our dogs and their caregivers.
When we develop a more flexible approach to our propensity to make judgements before we have sufficient evidence to support them, our lives with our dogs become easier. We learn to see our dogs as individuals-in-context, rather than trying to make them fit into a preconceived model that may be wildly inappropriate to what our dogs need to be healthy and well-rounded. We can do this by exercising skepticism, not forming premature judgements, and understanding that our first assumptions are usually wrong.
It's never too late to adopt scientific thinking into your work and daily life. And our dogs agree. Better late than never at all.
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, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.