Every so often, a sun flare emerges within the dog training community. It’s bright, it attracts attention, causes some explosive interactions and, eventually, burns out. Flares are not necessarily bad. After all, had no flare-ups occurred in the past couple of decades, a majority of trainers might be continuing to use outdated methods. But flare-ups can also be rife with logical traps. The dangers are two-fold:
- They interfere with our critical thinking skills
- They have the potential to confuse and mislead dog guardians
While it’s good to question the status quo, many discussions easily dissolve into logical fallacies and poor science. Whether you’re a behavior change professional, a behavior geek, or someone who wants to provide the best life possible for your dog, here are a few pointers on how to solve (and resolve) flares when you see them occur within the dog training community:
Where’s the evidence?
We owe our dogs real science. Real science is peer-reviewed and backed by evidence. Real science is not based on conjecture, opinion, or personal stories. Nullius in verba. Demand evidence.
Beware logical fallacies
We’re all susceptible to logical fallacies, whether making one of our own or believing someone else’s. If you’re aware of potential missteps ahead of time, you’ll be more likely to catch them in your own patterns of thinking or in someone else’s. Here are a few examples (read more about logical fallacies here)
Begging the question: This is an argument that requires the reader to accept the conclusion without providing real evidence. In these cases, the argument’s premise states the same thing as the conclusion, or the argument fails to address critical gaps.
Example: Socializing puppies is the humane, ethical thing to do. Therefore, it’s humane and ethical to socialize puppies.
False dichotomy: An argument that incorrectly paints a situation as having only two choices. The argument then eliminates one of the choices, seemingly leaving the reader with only one remaining option.
Example: Puppy parents have the option to socialize their puppies or avoid socialization altogether. Since puppy socialization can be done incorrectly, puppy parents must avoid socializing their puppies altogether.
Appeal to ignorance: Claiming that due to inconclusive evidence, readers should accept an argument’s conclusion on an issue.
Example: Because the research on puppy socialization is inconclusive and divided, people should accept my conclusion.
Slippery slope: The arguer claims that a chain reaction will take place, often leading to a bad ending, despite a lack of evidence supporting this claim.
Example: If we allow all puppies to continue being socialized, dog owners will continue to socialize their puppies improperly. We will end up with generation upon generation of dogs with behavior problems. To prevent this from happening, we must avoid all puppy socialization.
Beware cherry-picking and single-case studies
Articles that cite studies that support the author’s argument can be misleading. After all, the author’s statements are backed up by citations, so those statements must be correct, right? Wrong. It’s important to consider several factors when reading articles that cite other sources in support of an argument:
- Are the citations valid?
- Does the author take a comprehensive look at the literature available, or does the author only focus on citations that support his or her argument?
- Is the author accurately interpreting the research?
It’s also important to look at single-case studies with a critical eye. While they can be helpful in understanding the context of behavior, beware articles that base arguments solely on personal experience, or one or two ad hoc experiences with dogs.
Remember: While important, personal experience is vastly different from research that has been vetted via the scientific process.
Avoid sweeping generalizations
It’s important to stay informed of the latest research on dog behavior, but it’s equally important to avoid training “trends.” Trends are typically based on popular opinion at the time, and aren’t based on true, hard science. Training trends gain popularity because they “sound good,” are a quick fix, or appeal to a person’s own biases. Trends also put the dog behavior community at risk of making sweeping generalizations about a particular topic.
Whenever you notice a trend emerging in the training community, ask yourself the following questions:
- Where’s the evidence?
- Is the evidence valid?
- How are my own biases affecting my interpretation of this trend?
Final note: As trainers, it’s important to realize that how we communicate the latest trends within the behavior community has a vast impact on dogs and their guardians, particularly if others see us as experts in the field. This doesn’t mean we can’t have biases – that’s not reasonable. But it does mean we need to be particularly careful when communicating information about behavior and training. And it also means empowering our own clients with critical thinking skills.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.