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What is science based training?

Calling your training “science based” is all the rage right now – I also advertise my services with that label. But even though many dog trainers do have a university degree, very few of us work as scientists as well and the training definitely does not take place in laboratory conditions. But then what do we mean when we say that our training is science based?

Science is the “systematic approach for seeking and organising knowledge about the natural world.” (Cooper, Heron and Heward. 2007)

In one of his seminars, Chirag Patel talks about six defining principles of science:

  • determinism
  • empiricism
  • experimentation
  • replication
  • parsimony
  • philosophic doubt

Let’s have a look at what these principles mean and how I apply them in my own training!

I strive for fear free training and the methods I use are rooted in science. The dog does not listen to us because we have “calm energy” or we are “the pack leaders”, but because we help them learn desirable behaviors using appropriate criteria and consequences.

Determinism

The universe is a lawful place. In terms of dog training that means that every behavior has a function. Recognizing the root cause of a behavior as well as its function is our most important task before we try to come up with a training plan.

Let’s imagine a client whose dog “hates guests”. Apart from basic information (like age, sex, history, daily routine and health condition), we need to learn more about the problem behavior:

  • When did it start and how did it develop?
  • Does the intensity change? Depending on what? (for example gender of the visitors could be relevant)
  • Have the owners tried to intervene? What methods did they use and what was the result?
  • How long does the problem situation usually last?

Empiricism

Obviously it’s impossible to be 100% objective. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we describe the problem in as objective terms as possible – describe, don’t label.

For example saying that the dog is “rude” or “hates guests” is not really useful. Let’s try to replace these labels with descriptions:

  • The dog starts pacing and panting when they notice that we’re preparing for a visit.
  • When the doorbell rings, the dog starts barking (short, high-pichted noises).
  • When the guests enter, the dog barks louder, jumps at the guests, nips at their clothes.

Experimentation

In order to achieve an effective behavior change, first we must learn what factors influence this behavior.

Let’s stay with our example. Does the behavior around guests change depending on:

  • The number of guests?
  • Their gender and/or age?
  • Their behavior around the dog? (If they talk to the talk or move slowly/fast)
  • Our reactions? (Do we correct the dog, try to distract them, separate them in a different room).
  • The location of the first encounter? (For example in the yard instead of the flat).
  • What happened with the dog that day?

Parsimony

Always start with the simplest logical explanation first. Only once that explanation is proven false can we move on to more complex causes.

In our example we established that the problem is with the first encounter – later on the dog calms down. The dog gets very excited when the guests arrive, and the more they interact with the dog, the more the dog jumps and nips. The dog seems healthy (both physically and psychologically), there are no other problem behaviors. The owners have never practices this situation with their dog.

Under these circumstances the simplest explanation is that the dog does not know how to behave, doesn’t know what is expected. Here our training goals would be to teach the dog:

  • that they direct their attention to something else, for example go fetch a toy and chew on it to calm down;
  • that they will be rewarded for keeping all four paws on the ground; and
  • that they can go to their station when the guests arrive.

The owners must also explain to the guests how they should behave! For example they shouldn’t try petting the dog, they should try to remain calm – that will help the dog stay calm as well.

Replication

A behavior modification plan can only be successful if all the elements are replicable. That means that everyone who might be handling the dog in the problem situation must be able to do the exercises. The training plan must be tailored to the owner’s needs too, not just to the dog’s needs.

Let’s say that the clients with their guest problem are a young couple. The training exercises must be designed and practices with both of them, so that each of them can handle the situation later.

If we were working on something else, for example an issue outdoors and the dog was walked by several members of the family, each of them would have to learn how to act in the problem situation.

It is practically impossible to achieve a lasting behavior change without consistency.

Philosophic doubt

Strictly speaking philosophic doubt means that we should approach scientific facts with “healthy scepticism” because science is constantly evolving and so is our understanding of the world.

For me as a dog trainer the philosophic doubt has to direct consequences:

  • I must continuously educate myself. Personally, I prefer to learn from veterinary behaviorists and ABA practitioners, in order to keep up with both the theoretical and practical aspects of dog training.
  • Each training plan has to be reviewed on a regular basis:
    • Has the problem behavior improved? (For example: does the dog bark less? Can they calm down faster? Under what conditions do they still jump up?)
    • Can the owner do the exercises?
    • Can we increase criteria?
    • Are the rewards we chose appropriate?
    • How can we improve the current plan?

training process

Help, my dog pulls on the leash!

Intro

In this series we have written time and time again that equipment cannot replace training and you should not use anything that causes them discomfort and pain to make dogs stop pulling (or barking, or jumping…). At the same time, many dogs are very strong and they pose danger:

    • to their owners (sprained wrists, leash burns, injuries from falls…),
    • to themselves (running blindly under cars), and
    • to other dogs (especially if they get loose).

In this post you will learn how to manage the situation while you train them to stop pulling (preferably with a competent professional).

Continue reading “Help, my dog pulls on the leash!”

What is aversive equipment?

DISCLAIMER

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

This post contains no euphemisms. We think that aversive training tools should not be used1. Don’t feel attacked or threatened if you realize that you own something that is aversive. You’re trying to provide the best life possible for your dog, you’re willing to learn and improve and this is all that matters. At the end of the day, all we can do is try to do better next day.

What is aversive equipment?

A stimulus is aversive when it is something that the dog will work to avoid. We define equipment as aversive when it causes discomfort or pain to the dog by design 2, in order to make them behave the way we want.

Continue reading “What is aversive equipment?”

How to choose the perfect muzzle for your dog

Intro

Muzzles are disliked by many dog owners, because we automatically associate a dog wearing a muzzle with aggression. But actually there’s a wide range of situations in which muzzles are required by the law (for example on public transport). With appropriate training, your dog should have no problem wearing a well-fitted muzzle.

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How to choose the perfect leash for you and your dog

Intro

Leash might be a piece of equipment you’ve never given much thought to, but believe me, they were not all created equal. This post will help you choose the most appropriate leash for you and your dog based on your activities and needs.

The main leash types you’ll encounter are:

    • short leashes (below 1.5 meters)
    • normal leashes (1.5-3 meters)
    • retractable leashes (usually 5 meters)
    • long leashes (5m and longer)

Continue reading “How to choose the perfect leash for you and your dog”