Ian Dunbar

Ian Dunbar, Photo credit: petsafe.net

The science of dog training is simply how dogs learn. In fact, it is not only how dogs learn, but how all animals learn; that is humans, dogs, dolphins, chickens, cats, etc. In the world of training animals, it is called learning theory. Simply put, this theory is the process of how learning actually happens.

As scientific trainers know, learning happens all the time, even when one is not consciously trying to train a dog. Life itself offers opportunity for dogs to learn. For example, if we feed a dog from the table when we eat, we have taught it that hanging around the table means it will get food. It also happens when we consciously teach a behavior like "sit." Dogs are watching our every move and are learning every waking minute, whether we are consciously training for it or not.

When one hears about the science in dog training, some think it is made up of positive reinforcement trainers trying to disqualify traditional trainers. Although science-based dog trainers utilize much of the all-positive dog training techniques, scientific trainers do not agree with the divisive language that can accompany the all-positive training crowd. Instead, they simply seek to train dogs using the best available scientific information on learning theory that is available at the time.

For example, science-based dog trainers believe that there is no positive reinforcement, only learning. That is where they differ dramatically with the all-positive trainer. They fundamentally reject the idea that a trainer can call themselves "positive reinforcement only" trainers because they understand that there is no such thing. This is because in operant conditioning, one cannot reinforce behaviors without negatively punishing others. A person may not be using tools that are believed to harm dogs either physically or emotionally, but that person is, by definition, using punishment when teaching an alternative cue to stop an unwanted behavior. For example, teaching "sit" as an alternative behavior to a jumping dog during greetings.

Science-based dog training can be difficult to define as it relies on information that is continually building and changing. It aims to understand a dog's nature, its ability to be conditioned, and the effectiveness of rewards and punishments.

Animal behaviorists are constantly writing new studies and experiments to shape our understanding of dog psychology. Science-based dog trainers rely on these studies to work with dogs and believe that before a behavior is corrected, everything, as much as possible, about that behavior must be understood. Some also believe that it is important to learn how to strengthen good behavior without the need for rewards and to rely on dog psychology to find ways to improve off-leash relationships between owners and their dogs.

Because scientific training relies on reading up on a good deal of animal psychology research, trainers in this category must stay updated on the latest studies. This poses a serious disconnect for the average dog owner, who may not have time to stay up to date on the latest animal learning theory research. It is for this reason that trainers who practice scientific-based dog training methods usually are professional dog trainers or animal psychologists or behavioralists.


Photo credit: Dog Decoder, mightydoggraphics.com 2016

Dog Friendly Dog Training by Ian Dunbar