Dog Training’s “Hummingbird Effect” and How We Get from Now

Photo by Maureen Backman
Photo by Maureen Backman

A hummingbird’s wings carry an interesting evolutionary history. Structured like a bird but with the aerodynamic abilities of an insect, their wings allow them to hover for nearly indefinite periods of time. This unique ability gave them an evolutionary advantage over other birds; despite using high amounts of energy to hover midair, they were able to feed on plant nectar in a way other birds could not. Plants’ sexual reproduction mechanisms served as the catalyst for this unique bird. Natural selection at its most beautiful.

Steven Johnson, host of How We Got to Now on PBS and BBC One and author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” used the fascinating anatomy of the hummingbird to coin what he terms “the hummingbird effect,” a riff on Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect.” Johnson’s “hummingbird effect” describes how innovations in one domain can trigger unexpected, and seemingly unrelated, innovations in other domains – just as one plant’s means of reproducing shapes the evolution of a hummingbird’s wing.

The dog training field is undergoing a slow evolution, away from aversive-driven methods of the past toward science-based, force-free methods. It often seems an uphill battle, one without a clear “epiphany” moment or a clear catalyst.

According to Johnson, the eureka moment is a myth. “If you want to understand how big ideas truly save the world, you need to get rid of the myth of the eureka moment,” he explains during an episode of How We Got to Now. “The truth is, there’s no such thing as a light bulb going off in the mind of a lone genius. Our best ideas start as something else, a vague sense of possibility, a hint of something bigger.”

Recently, while browsing a local bookstore, I stumbled upon a children’s book geared toward teaching young people how to interact with dogs safely. I opened up to a random page and was appalled. The illustration showed a woman clamping her mouth over a dog’s snout, apparently showing the dog she was the dominant party of the relationship. Anyone who has been a frequent reader of my blog knows that the only thing this illustration accomplishes is giving its readers an efficient way to acquire a dog bite.

Sadly, this small story  is part of a wider problem: The disparity between what science shows about how dogs learn and how best to train them, and what the general public thinks (and what popular media figures tell the general public).

Why can the scientific community cultivate such depth and breadth of information on animal learning, applied behavior analysis, and the evolution of dogs, while much of popular dog training literature available to dog owners consists of outdated methods, incorrect claims of how dogs learn and operate in the world, and favoritism of myth over fact? Dogs desperately need humans to have a “eureka” moment, and fast.

Johnson posed a possible answer to this conundrum during an appearance on The Colbert Report, saying, “Science asks that we alter our behavior in some ways.”

And as anyone who has endeavored to change their own behavior or their dogs’ behavior knows, altering behavior is expensive. Behavior change takes time, effort, paradigm shifts, erosion of previous habits and thought patterns. Science challenges us to think differently, reject previous notions like dominance, the need for pain and intimidation in training, and to think critically, not mythically, about what dog trainers tell owners to do.

It’s easy to think that evolution, or revolution, in a particular field has a clear starting point. Someone has an idea, publishes a study, turns previously conceived notions upside down, and the new ideas spread like a current through society. As Johnson posits with his “hummingbird effect,” this is not the case.

It’s impossible to say what factors may end up changing the tides of dog training away from myth and misinformation toward science and evidence-based practice. If Johnson’s “hummingbird effect” teaches us anything, it’s that change and innovation are non-linear and surprising. Perhaps it will be a rise in dog bites and failures from “dog whisperer” techniques that lead owners to try a different approach. Perhaps a random study on some topic in a seemingly unrelated field will plant a seed for change in the dog training industry. Or perhaps it will be on an individual level, with force-free trainers working case by case toward successful resolutions.

As Johnson states in his program, “We make our ideas, and they make us in return.”

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen 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