Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities
Facile one-size-fits-all solutions ignore the complexities of what's happening.
Posted February 18, 2021
I'm pleased to co-author this post with Boulder-based force-free dog trainer Mary Angilly. A main focus of Mary's practice is to keep dogs who display fear, reactivity, and aggression under threshold and to reduce and eliminate toxic stress.
Despite how prolific domesticated and feral/free-ranging dog populations are, there’s still much we don’t know about them. While there are a burgeoning number of studies being done that are giving us more insight into the lives of dogs, it’s essential to note that there are limitations with many of these studies regardless of their scientific credibility.1 Accepting scientific findings with some reservation and skepticism while also remembering one’s own biases, is essential and can aid us in better serving our canine companions. It's also essential to recognize the individual differences among dogs, humans, and the relationships they form mean that there are few one-size-fits-all explanations of what's happening and what needs to be adjusted so that an individual dog can fit into a human world. Of course, recognizing the importance of individuality in all studies of animal behavior is critical in assessing just what available data mean.
Mary, as a certified force-free dog trainer who is passionate about evidence-based practice, recognizes that it is essential to look for robustness of data when analyzing studies, to have a critical eye, and to continue to remember the individual dogs and humans behind the studies, as many factors can affect the outcome of the data gathered. It’s important to keep in mind that studies on dogs do not necessarily offer black and white or dichotomous answers and there is complexity that comes into play, as biology and behavior can be nuanced by many factors. For this reason, it’s important not to make sweeping statements, such as “all dogs do this'' or “dogs can’t or don't do that” to prevent the perpetuation of misinformation that plagues our canine companions and harms us all.
We're in an age where a plethora of knowledge is available at our fingertips and immediate gratification abounds for everything, and we often want firm answers for our questions. If you were to search questions such as, “How do I get my dog to stop ____ ? (insert behavior here),” you’ll find all sorts of tips and suggestions, many of which often offer a quick-fix solution without any regard for the individual animal or the context in which the behavior is happening.
For example, one recent essay discussed a literal quick-fix for stopping barking: holding one’s hands around a dog’s muzzle when they bark, and repeating this action until the behavior stops. However, there was no discussion of the many different contexts in which barking occurs, management of the environment to prevent barking, or addressing a dog’s other needs. Furthermore, while holding a dog’s muzzle closed might work to stop barking, it does not address the underlying reason for the behavior and depending on the dog, holding a muzzle shut could be considered adversarial and result in the development of more issues (like a bite to the dog’s human!). And, what we declare to be "unnecessary" or "excessive" barking likely is not from the dog's point of view.
While on the topic of barking, Mary is working with two German Shorthaired Pointers who absolutely love people. They bark whenever people pass by their house or come onto their property. She is also working with another dog who also barks when people pass by his house or come onto his property, but he’s terrified of unfamiliar people and has bitten them in the past. While these are two instances of dogs barking, there are two different functions of the behavior of barking. One is “Wooohoo, who’s here, I’m so excited!” and one is “Oh no, who’s here, I’m afraid!” which can be discerned from knowing these dogs’ personalities, from their body language, and from talking to their guardians about the contexts in which these behaviors happen. While there might be similarities in managing the environment to prevent and reduce barking, there are extremely different reasons behind the barking behavior and variations in each dog’s personality, so the training for each dog will be different.
We can find another example in a “basic” behavior, such as "sit." While there are tried and true methods (training plans) that work in teaching this behavior, it is not always a matter of running through a simple checklist to teach it. Max might be a large dog with joint issues trying to learn the behavior, so it’s more difficult for him to sit (in which case maybe we teach a behavior that is easier on the joints instead). Fluffy might have had poor experiences with strangers and she was just adopted, so when her new guardian stands over her to work on sit, she can’t because she’s too worried. Mary once worked with a dog who was actually punished for sitting, because he was being trained to perform in shows and remain standing, so sit took a very long time to teach. While the general method for teaching sit might be very straightforward, there are subtleties and different steps might need to be taken to help these dogs achieve “success.”
When thinking about how a dog responds to what we’re doing with them, we can also look at the use of time-outs, or removal of access to something good. Many force-free trainers will use time-outs as a means to decrease unwanted behavior(s) in dogs. While a happy-go-lucky dog with a very resilient personality might respond well to their owner leading them into a timeout for jumping, a more sensitive or anxious dog might consider this type of handling (even if gentle) as aversive as hitting or yelling at them, and might start to avoid their owner reaching for them and even aggress or panic at these times. In the case of the sensitive dog, time outs might actually be harmful even though the intention is for them to be force-free. Time-outs are a popular and increasingly debated consequence used in not just dog training, but in the human world as well. In Mary's time working as a behavior therapist with children, the use of time-outs weren’t condoned without explicitly discussing a plan for their use with case managers. All of these factors have led her and others in the field to think carefully when determining which dogs might benefit from time-outs. Individual differences matter.
We can also look at the use of food with dog training. Mary's dog Buster loves food and would go to great lengths to eat any food, including plain cheerios. She works with many dogs who have more discerning tastes and prefer something higher value (think: tastier), but it’s up to the individual dog and an observant human to determine which foods a particular dog likes best and which situations they might use them. Most of Marc's dogs ate just about anything they could find, including rice and bean burritos and bagels laden with peanut butter. They all lived long and healthy lives.
The previous examples should emphasize that individual dogs determine what is most rewarding or aversive to them and while it’s important to have good knowledge of data, science, learning theory, and the like, it’s also essential to know who you’re training dog and human!). While there are some “best” (most efficient) practices for training with regards to how dogs learn, it’s still important to look at dogs as individuals when determining how to move forward.2 And it's essential to become dog literate.
It’s also important to remind ourselves that all behavior has a function—and dogs and humans do things for a reason. So, when a human wants their dog to stop barking, jumping, growling, humping, and performing other dog-appropriate behaviors. it’s essential to look at the context of the behavior, the function of the behavior, and whether it's really a "problem."
Normalizing dog behavior and dog-human relationships is very problematic and we need to remember: dogs will be dogs. We also need to remember that mixing science and the individual personalities of dogs and their humans and the idiosyncratic nature of their relationships is essential. This "cocktail" captures the key ingredients of what's happening and will enable us to come up with more reliable and humane solutions to the "problem" at hand.
There are many nuances to dog training and behavior, and while science and data (and perhaps a dose of common sense) can be useful guides, we also need regulation in the industry so dog trainers/teachers are better equipped to help dogs and their people. As Jerome once asked Marc, "If you wouldn't bring your child to a hack to help them along, why would you bring your dog to a totally unqualified trainer?" Right now, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and the lack of any standards wreaks havoc for dogs and humans alike.
It would be unacceptable for a doctor to continue to perform lobotomies with an ice pick in the year 2021, so why shouldn’t we continue to evolve in our best practices around canine care, training, and the like? There’s still a lot we don’t know and ethically, a professional in the field should continue to stay up-to-date on best practices for working with dogs and their people with a critical eye. We already know this is a win-win for all.
1) The vast majority of studies on dog behavior are conducted on homed dogs who only represent a small fraction of dogs in the world. It's important to keep this in mind when critically evaluating data and trying to figure out what to use and how to use it in dog training sessions. We often think that some sort of disclaimer might be offered by researchers such as: "These results, while sound for how and where the data were collected, need to be viewed in context and we need to be very careful about talking about 'the dog' or some ideal 'universal dog'. The information here might be useful but might be very limited in application to the real world of dogs in general."
2) iSpeakDog. How Dogs Learn; Casey, Rachel. ‘Learning theory’ terminology: classical and operant conditioning; Bekoff, Marc. iSpeakDog: A Website Devoted to Becoming Dog Literate.
Angilly, Mary. Dogs in Gilded Cages: Surviving, but Not Thriving.
Bekoff, Marc. "What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?"
_____. How to Make Studies of Animal Behavior More Reliable. (The STRANGE framework considers genetic, social, and personality differences.)
_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019