Trainers as capable communicators

_DSC1174 - Version 2Recently, The New York Times interviewed Alan Alda, whose Center for Communicating Science strives to create effective communication between science and health professionals and the public.

Reading the article through my dog trainers’ lens, one of Alda’s statements struck me as highly relevant when it comes to dog training and animal behavior:

“That scientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity. They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.”

The dog training community faces a distinct lack of science and communication about science-based methods. Whisperers, snake-oil salesmen and hacks run rampant, and face few repercussions because of the industry’s severe lack of regulation.

For those like myself who advocate for humane, force-free dog training, science is our foundation. Science demonstrates how animals learn. Science shows that it is possible to train highly effective behaviors without the use of force or pain. Science does not yield to gimmicks and the whims of pop culture trainers. Science – when properly executed – does not succumb to biases or political agendas.

If science is so effective and forms the foundation of animal learning and behavior, why doesn’t it feature more prominently in the public discourse? Often, debates about dog training divest into arguments about personalities, biases and opinions. These conversations aren’t productive, nor do they effectively address how dogs learn, why force-free training works, and what occurs when dogs are subjected to pain and coercion.

Because of their promises of quick fixes and “new” methods, and because of their effective sales job, so-called trainers with no formal understanding of animal learning drown out science’s voice.

Society loves easy, quick-fixes. “New” and “revolutionary” training methods sparkle in front of our eyes and lure us in, with the hope that suddenly dog training can be done quicker, easier, with more magic. For most people, the phrases “evidence-based,” “best practices,” “animal learning science,” and “peer reviewed” aren’t nearly as sparkling.

This doesn’t mean that using force-free dog training methods based on the science of animal learning is boring. Far from it, it is rewarding, exciting, effective, and, most importantly: fun.

According to Alda, scientists and science advocates need to tap into the public’s desire for a story. They need to find a hook that will connect them to their audience.

“Every experiment is a great story. Every scientist’s life is a heroic story. There’s an attempt to achieve something of value, there’s the thrill of knowing the unknown against obstacles, and the ultimate outcome is a great payoff — if it can be achieved. Now, this is drama!”

The same can be said for those of us in the dog training community fighting so hard for science to be taken seriously. We need to connect with dog owners, tell compelling stories, and show the beauty of force-free training. Jargon and lecturing will fail to drown out the hacks and snake-oil salesmen. In fact, it might make their message stronger.

If dog trainers can not only be great at their profession, but also “capable communicators,” as Alda puts it, we can achieve greater support for humane, science-based methods.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

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