Nullius in verba: The pressure to know in dog training


“It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.” – Charles Darwin

My dog, Earl, dreams occasionally. His eyelids twitch, his throat emits a faint barking sound, and his paws gently move. I am transfixed watching him dream, wondering what is happening inside his brain, what he is feeling and experiencing.

When watching this, I often think to myself: There is so much I don’t know about dogs.

These are dangerous words for a dog trainer in our current society. There are any number of self-proclaimed experts ready to step in, appear on television, to profess what they know. The only problem is, they don’t know. What these folk trainers are stating as knowledge are little more than myths and beliefs based on experience and interpretations, the opposite of what dogs need and deserve: facts based on scientific principles and observations.

The pressure to know, and to claim to know the answers to all things related to dogs, is dangerous.

It’s why so many cling to the dominance myth, the idea that owners must maintain alpha status in the household, despite clear scientific research showing the only species really concerned about dominance in the household are humans.

It’s why dogs endure painful training methods involving pain, fear and coercion, despite evidence that these methods produce irreparable emotional and physical damage.

It’s why dog training continues to be a sadly unregulated industry, allowing countless owners and dogs suffering behavioral fallout at the hands of “trainers” who have no education in animal learning theory, behavior modification, or applied behavior analysis.

Dogs pay the price of our pressure to know.

“There is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

If the consumer protection movement spread to the dog training industry, the pressure to know scientifically would drastically increase. Instead of gauging a trainers’  expertise based how much he states he knows, and how good it sounds to the consumer, society might start gauging a trainers’ expertise based on how he knows these things.

Answers like “I am a dog person,” “I understand dogs,” “I know because it’s my experience and it has worked” would no longer suffice.

Answers that reference empirical evidence, observations and facts would be the standard to which we would gauge dog trainers’ knowledge and expertise.

The answer “I don’t know” would also be ok. It’s ok to not know. In fact, it’s more than ok, as questions lead to more knowledge and ways to improve dogs’ lives.

It’s not ok to take that void of “not knowing” and, as DeGrasse Tyson so aptly says, fill it with ignorance and self-proclaimed expertise. Consumers and dogs deserve better.

Consumers have immense potential when it comes to straightening out the messy world of dog training. Take “I don’t know” for an answer, and then consult colleagues, research and well-vetted training books to find the truth.

Nullius in verba. Demand evidence.

– 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