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By Published On: October 11th, 2010

2 black dogs holding the same frisbeeOne of my favorite podcasts is the Brain Science Podcast hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell an emergency room doctor in Alabama. Described as the show for ‘everyone with a brain’, Dr. Campbell interviews authors of books on neuroscience. Of special interest to me was her interview of Jaak Panksepp on affective neuroscience. Dog lovers will appreciate her interview with Kyla Duffy of Happy Tails Books, in her other podcast, Books & Ideas. Kyla is a circus arts performer who takes her high flying act on the road to raise awareness and money for animal rescue, as well as publishing books with stories about rescued dogs.

The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 70) is an interview with Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. The conversation focused on the fact that scientific reasoning and critical thinking do NOT come naturally. Instead, we all tend to make similar errors, such as mistaking correlation for causation.

Those of working with dogs would do well to make note of this tendency since it happens all the time when we are trying to change behaviors in dogs, as well as trying to figure out why something is successful, or not. I am reminded of a comment made by John Rogerson, a well known trainer from the U.K., who said, “We have all the theories, dogs have all the facts.”

When we are able to stop or change a behavior, it is easy to assume that whatever we did, just prior to the change is responsible for it. However dogs often learn despite what we do, not because of what we do. For example, the unfortunate practice of ‘dominating’ a dog with the use of physical force, is often heralded for producing miraculous changes in a dog’s behavior because of its relation to how wolves and dogs communicate within their own social groups. Yet when we look at the research that has been done, we find that the norm for dogs and wolves is not a social hierarchy maintained through the use of force or aggression. This is not to say that they don’t behave aggressively or that fights over resources do not occur, but that social order is, for the most part, maintained through social conduct which is cooperative rather than competitive.

When we assume that a dog changes their behavior to suit our preference because in the course of ‘dominating’ them we have gained their respect as leader of the pack, we need to consider that what we might have accomplished instead was to have caused the dog to fear us. While fear of retribution or punishment is a popular way of maintaining social order, governments and gangs use it quite effectively, is it really the relationship we want to have with our dogs? Dr. Robert Zapolsky documents how living with constant stress contributes to illness, and that stress can be psychological, as well as physical. The threat of punishment, especially if it is used routinely to manage or control behavior can add to the stress a dog is already experiencing.

We’d expect a chuckle if we were to claim that our dog’s ability to perform well on an agility course was due to the ‘lucky’ red undies we were wearing. Yet again and again we hear theories on why dogs perform behaviors, theories which have no basis in fact. While there are vast areas of animal behavior that we do not have science-based research on, there are many areas in which we do.

While this is not a call for solely using rigid science-based techniques when training dogs, it should be a reminder that interacting with our dogs in ways that we perceive to be the same as the ways they communicate with each other, may not work for the reasons we think they do. Wearing our lucky red undies when training may be the safer bet.

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