What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training?

A science or an art? The dog training industry in the UK is unregulated – though most would agree it is actually ‘self regulated’. There are many successful dog trainers who, through their own dedication and experience, have achieved success and high regard without necessarily understanding the ‘science’ behind it all. For example, they may not be aware of the psychology involved in how dogs learn. Conversely, a canine behaviourist will be concerned with the dog’s mind, as opposed to the brain, and why the dog behaves in a certain way. Historically, the industry has been bifurcated though, thankfully, with greater awareness by professionals, this is changing.

In a blog of this length it will be impossible to go into depth, rather to highlight, what I consider to be the three main criteria of dog training. These are the ‘intangible debate’, the ‘tangible debate’ and the ‘philosophical debate’. I use the word ‘debate’ as I’m sure we will be discussing these long into the future!

The intangible debate concerns things that we cannot actually see, for example, how a dog learns, the psychology of training, intelligence, his mind and his soul. So, how does a dog learn? Actually it’s no different to bringing up a human toddler up to about the age of three years. Psychology plays a big part here – there are a number of names that, historically, have played a big part in the study of animal psychology and behaviour. These include Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner, Edward Lee Thorndike, Konrad Lorenz, J B Watson and many others. Dogs and other mammals will learn by association (classical conditioning) and consequence (operant conditioning). This is described in ‘How Dogs Learn’ (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

Whole books have been written on the subject of dogs’ intelligence. This is where science truly comes in – measuring an intangible! In ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’, Stanley Coren describes adaptive intelligence (learning and problem solving), working or inherent intelligence (breed specific) and instinctive intelligence (individual specific). (Coren, 2006). Basically, adaptive intelligence is the ability to learn from experience and adapt to the environment. For a human this could mean learning how to drive a car down the road, how to be a better salesman and so on. For an animal this could mean learning to be a better hunter from previous bad or good experiences. For example wolves may form into larger packs when times are hard and there are fewer prey animals. They learn that the sum becomes greater than the parts and are able to bring down large ungulates. On the other hand a lone wolf may decide, from experience, he would be better off hunting smaller prey on his own. It depends on the personality of that particular individual; loner or socialite! Either way, they have adapted to the environment and have learned after one or two gained or missed opportunities.

Anyway, I digress – back to dogs. Coren, in his blog posted online on July 15th 2009, describes how he compiled his list of canine intelligence criteria comprised of 133 breeds. He contacted all the registered dog obedience judges in the US and Canada. 199 responded which was roughly half of those contacted. One criterion was that at least 100 judges provided assessments of the various 133 breeds. Breeds not recognised by the American Kennel Club or Canadian Kennel Club were not included in the list. The results were amazingly consistent with 190 of the 199 judges ranking the Border collie (BC) in the Top 10 with Afghan hounds consistently marked in the bottom 10. It was further discovered that, of adaptive intelligence, a dog may perform well in learning and ability, but only average in problem solving and vice versa. The Border collie – of the pastoral group – is good at learning and memory aspects, responding well to rote learning but slow at problem solving – in spite of appearing in the top 10 – as are many others of the this group. The reverse appears to be true of terriers and working breeds. My own observations confirm this when a BC, at a recent event, was stranded on the wrong side of a river. He waited for instructions from his handler. A Border terrier alongside, however, dived straight in and fearlessly swam to the other side (some may say foolhardy!).

The tangible debate centres on things we can observe, for example the conformation and physiology of a dog, behaviour, emotions (assuming these are shown), how he responds to training, what he likes to eat and how often, what his favourite toys are – the list is almost infinite. Alas, kennel clubs around the world put much emphasis on the conformation and appearance of dogs – oftentimes to the detriment of their health. In spite of the Kennel Club’s Breed Watch initiative there appears little evidence of any improvement in dogs’ health overall (if any vets are reading this I am open to discussion on this point).

The importance of a basic understanding of a dog’s biology, in particular the digestive system and the limbic system is, I believe often underestimated by owners (and trainers alike). Likewise, the importance of a balanced diet. An imbalance of protein and the production of serotonin plays a huge part in a dog’s behaviour, ability to concentrate and learn, aggression, hyperactivity and general physical health. For more detailed information, this was discussed in a previous blog.

The smell, texture and taste of food, in that order, are important to dogs. There is no evidence that dogs prefer a variety – though feeding tidbits under the table may well produce a fussy, overweight dog.  The feeding of our pet is almost a science in itself as much so as training. Learning to read and interpret dog food labels is essential as these can be misleading, though perhaps not intentionally so. The ratio of moisture will vary between dry and wet food and also between brands giving a false perspective of the nutrient content. For example, a label of dry food may state 30% protein which may actually be lower than a canned food label stating 10% as the latter has a higher proportion of moisture which should be deducted from the calculation. That said, which represents better value as we do not want to pay for moisture which has no protein?

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association discovered that dogs prefer canned meat to fresh meat, cooked meat to raw meat, and meat over cereal. There are two schools of thought regarding the feeding of raw food with little tolerance on either side. It is a decision for the owner knowing what the dog prefers; raw food may well require additional nutrient balancing for a healthy diet. The modern dog, being a scavenger at heart, has a high tolerance to a variety of foods including a degree of vegetable matter, though certain foods, such as chocolate and some fruits, are strictly off the menu!

I touched on canine personality. Any pet owner knows that there are as many personalities as there are dogs, cats etc. But what about emotions? Do our pets have emotions and if so to what extent and are they comparable to humans’ emotions? Much research by eminent scientists such as Jaak Panskepp, Gregory Berns, Becky Trisco and Evan MacLean – to name but a few – have discovered that dogs’ brains release hormones, as with humans, that are responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. Berns, the first neuroscientist to use MRI scans on dogs, showed that they do react to humans’ facial expressions and will react accordingly. The ‘cow like’ eyes we all recognise are a result of selective breeding, but the cocked head, cute expression may be utilised, after many thousands of years of domestication, to gain our attention! (NB – the dogs underwent months of training to stay still whilst in the scanner. The dog was free to walk away from the experiment at any time). So, yes, our dog is capable of falling in love and does not necessarily bond with you simply because you are the source of food and shelter! Furthermore, we have a responsibility towards our pet dogs as they were specifically bred with socialisation in mind; they are capable of feeling acute separation anxiety unless trained from an early age how to cope with this.

The philosophical debate centres on the ethical treatment of animals. For example, is it OK to kill and eat an animal by virtue of our superior intellect? We just happen to be top of the food chain and animals below us eat each other so, it must therefore, be OK. Or is it? This is discussed fully in ‘Animals in Translation’ by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Written in an authoritative way, without jargon, and aimed at the layperson. Grandin was the designer of many farming aids consulting with farmers and abattoir operators alike. To our knowledge, animals are unable to anticipate death so, therefore, I would suggest a good life and a good death! Industrial farming is, alas, becoming the norm and is an ethical problem as well as a wider environmental problem.

On a more positive note, man has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years, and even further in the last four hundred years, with regard to the treatment of animals. In the early 17th century, the philosopher and scientist René Descartes philosophised that human beings were fundamentally different to other animals. He believed that humans have a soul that interacts with the physical body. Both act in the same mechanical way but as animals don’t have souls they are incapable of feeling pain. If we step on a dog’s toe he will yelp as a mechanical response, not because he was in pain. He therefore, had no qualms about performing vivisection on live animals!

Some would argue that it is morally and ethically wrong to be showing dogs, tied round the neck, in dog shows. My blog ‘Crufts: The Greatest Show on Earth or Animal Exploitation?’ discusses this. Given another four hundred years, will we be looking back on this with our anti Descartian hat on?

Perhaps of greater immediate relevance are the questions, ‘what is the difference between a fear and a phobia?’ or ‘how does de/sensitisation versus socialisation differ to habituation’? Theo Stewart discusses the latter in her excellent blog here. Are these actually philosophical questions? Well actually no; thinking about it, it all becomes obvious. But isn’t that what philosophers do; think?

René Descartes: manic depressive or a genius?


On a happier note, Dr Berns shown here training a dog to feel comfortable inside the MRI scanner.



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