Photo by UGA College of Ag via creative commons license.
Photo by UGA College of Ag via creative commons license.

Imagine going to your doctor complaining of chest pains. The doctor determines you have a heart condition that requires surgery, and refers you to a surgeon. The surgeon, after a superficial examination, weaves you a story of what he thinks is going on. He doesn’t have a plan for your operation, but intends to muck about once you’re on the operating table and will figure out what to do on the fly. Think you’re going to sign on the dotted line for that surgeon? Of course not – you’ll be running away from the office with rapid speed!

The scenario above is ludicrous. When it comes to our health, we require science, evidence and research because our lives are too important to entrust them in the hands of hunches, whims and egos.

Time for another scenario. This time, you’re at the dog park, watching a group of dogs interact. You hear a slew of comments, all variations on the same themes: “This dog is thinking this,” “I heard that dogs do this because,” and “I know dogs think this way because I’m a dog person.”

This scenario doesn’t seem quite as ludicrous. In fact, it’s one that plays out countless times each day. Maybe you’re guilty, as I am, of uttering a variation of one of the comments above. (It’s okay, we all do it and the world won’t end.) Dogs constantly encounter interventions based on hunches, whims and egos – the same things we abhor when it comes to hiring doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals. While some of these whims and hunches are harmless, others lead to misinformation about how dogs think and learn and, even worse, can cause them harm. 

In her groundbreaking book “The Culture Clash,” Jean Donaldson addresses our penchant for interpreting dog behavior, which often stems from our great love of dogs and our desire to share a close bond with them. The reality that dogs aren’t humans, and in many ways behave and learn quite differently than we do, isn’t as appealing as the Lassie idyll. Never mind that “Lassie” was actually comprised of several different, highly-trained dogs who had the ability to do retakes.

“The greatest gains for the welfare of dogs are now to be found in abandoning the Lassie myth and replacing it with information from two sources: dog behavior and the science of animal learning,” writes Donaldson in “Culture Clash.” “The prevailing winds, in fact, would make it our responsibility to have a clue about the basic needs of the species we are trying to live with as well as a clue about how to modify their behavior, with as little wear and tear on them as possible so that they fit into our society without totally subjugating their nature.”

We can still share a strong bond with dogs while acknowledging the realities of their species. In fact, the bond will be a stronger one because we will have a deeper understanding of our dogs, an understanding based on science instead of hunches.

As a dog owner, you don’t have to be a professional researcher to apply the principles of scientific thought, just like you don’t have to hold a medical degree to advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office. Simply doing the following will help you gain a truer understanding of your dog:

  • If you’re going to hire a trainer, hire one that has solid knowledge in animal learning science and uses evidence-based methods.
  • Start observing your dog’s behavior in lieu of interpreting it.
  • Read up on classical and operant conditioning, and the basics of animal learning.
  • When you read about a new training technique, or a new take on dog behavior, always ask the question: “Where’s the science behind this?” If you can’t answer that question, proceed with caution.

One of the biggest weapons we have in the field of dog welfare is science. Fortunately, all we have to do to wield this weapon is use it.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town. Contact her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.