By Debby Kay ©2017 all rights reserved
Summer, for me, is a time to enjoy a cool drink on the porch during those relentless hot afternoons that the East coast of the United States experiences. It also gives me a chance to catch up on reading books I’ve meaning to get to. I’ve noticed a trend lately where many people are now referring to science in their writings but not always in ways that do either the science or dog training justice. I am also seeing a lot more trainers advertise “science-based” training and I feel this is a topic that needs clarification.
I was educated and trained as a research scientist and worked many years in the laboratory, and later in administration of several Federal research programs. Working in this environment teaches you to observe, how to identify things that don’t make sense or work to accomplish what it is suppose do. As scientific discoveries are made, others build on those foundations and continue to move the science forward. This is not cheating or stealing others’ work, it is using knowledge of what was discovered, tested, and shown to be a true fact and moving forward and expanding upon that knowledge. That is the way it works in science.
Certainly, many things studied in the scientific community have greatly advanced dog training, dog breeding, and overall dog ownership. While this is true, there is also misuse of this information on many fronts. The biggest misuse I see is taking a work or its conclusions out of context. Scott and Fuller were two major contributors to our understanding of socialization and its impact on dog behavior among other things. So many times, I hear people say you cannot separate
a mom and her puppies before the age of 49 days because that is the magic number they published. There is no problem taking puppies earlier or later depending on the circumstances and the breed involved. In fact, since that early 1960s work by these two researchers, many others have looked at the various aspects Scott and Fuller established and have elaborated on it, improving our understanding of dogs even more. What has not happened is dog lovers keeping up with the changes in the science.
Many trainers are so eager to try new things regarding scent training, for example, that they don’t bother to completely test their theories out before advertising that dogs can do this, find this, or alert to this or that. So many times, I have seen trainers claim that dogs are sniffing out a medical condition in a person only to test and discover that the alerting the dogs are doing is based more on their keen observations and less on discernable scent changes. I don’t feel it is proper to claim a dog can detect something by smell if you cannot properly isolate or capture the components of the scent for the condition you are asking it to alert to. How can you prove that the dog is alerting to the smell if you can’t even prove you have the stuff he is supposed to be smelling?
While on a recent trip to California to learn more about some bacteria that is causing concern with farmers, one of the first things I ask is can we get a good source of the bacteria? Will it be consistent with what is causing the problem? Also, I need to be assured before I start any new scent detection project that the sniffing will not harm the dog. I hope to be able to obtain some grant money to continue researching the effectiveness of dogs in helping to isolate this bacteria. In the meantime, I will continue to learn as much as I can about it before I ever begin to teach a dog to sniff for it.
I know the average person does not want to spend time reading through very long, dry, and often complex scientific papers to extract a few pearls of facts to use to improve their dogs’ lives and training. However, you can take away from science a few things when training your dog, regardless of what you are training for.
- Scientists are good observers and look at all angles of their subject. Watch your dog and observe what he does on his own. What makes him happy? How does he entertain himself? How is it different when you are in the picture?
- Don’t keep doing things that don’t work. If you are in a training program and your dog’s behavior is getting worse or he is extremely unhappy, stop and re-assess.
- Don’t be afraid to test a theory out, but get all your facts first. Ask for help from more knowledgeable people if you are out of your comfort zone.
- Show respect for the work of others, but keep things in context. Not all methods of training work with all dogs or breeds—and you have to keep that in mind. Most trainers are honest and will tell you they don’t work with certain breeds or with dogs that are not, for example, food motivated. Also don’t mix methods and expect good results.
- Build on the work of others, but remember to share what you discover so the process can continue to grow for the good of our dogs.
Enjoy your summer with your dog(s) and remember to watch for signs of dehydration and heat stroke. Stay cool!
Just one example recently published is: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/is-dog-training-scientific/