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The Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, Part 2 of 2

In this first part of this blog, I talked a little about animal trainers vs. strictly dog trainers.  Now I’m going to turn to the academics: the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s, vet behaviorists and others officially and rigorously qualified to call themselves behaviorists by virtue of membership in a formal behavior society.  As with the animal trainers, I want to make clear—there are fools, braggarts and nutters that manage to insert themselves into high places, advanced degrees and all; anyone who has been to college has encountered at least one professor whose only apparent virtue was tenure.  The History of Science is filled with colorful, often famously arrogant characters whose main claim to fame was that they got something entirely and completely wrong.  Again, those aren’t the people we want to look to for dog training wisdom:  a Ph.D. alone does not a great behaviorist make. Thankfully, the people we’re talking about are real experts who have a lot more than just the fancy degree to offer us.  

And that’s the second “disclaimer” I need to insert, just because I encounter it occasionally on the kinds of dog training lists and Facebook debates I try to avoid:  Joe or Jane the Trainer making some snarky and ill-informed comment to the effect that the Esteemed Vet Behaviorist they don’t agree with is an Ivory-tower elitist who has never actually held a leash before, certainly not the leash of A Real Dog, a dog with serious issues or bigger than a Cocker Spaniel.  This is, can’t put it too bluntly, utter garbage.  Most vet behaviorists (around 50 or 60 in the U.S.) and the Ph.D.s who are applied animal behaviorists have hands-on practices that consist almost entirely of the toughest problems: serious aggression, fear/anxiety and phobias.  Many of them also compete at very high levels in various dog sports, run behavior departments at large shelters and handle more difficult dogs in one animal hoarding case or dog-fight bust than Joe or Jane see in a year.  And they have something that many of us mere dog trainers haven’t got: the advantages of a formal education.     

And there are real advantages.  As a dog trainer, I like to think I’m pretty well-informed.  I’ve done my best to follow the science, stay current and critical and glean the best information from the best possible sources.  I like to read, I’ve been a lifelong amateur naturalist and outdoor enthusiast.  The trouble is, except for my AA in Biology in junior college (hardly an advanced degree and very long ago) I’m largely self-taught.  And the catch of being self-taught, of not having that formal education, is that I tend to cherry-pick the bits that arrest my attention and interest (evolutionary biology, genetics and ethology) and throw up my hands at the bits that seem too difficult or that don’t strike my fancy (statistics, biochemistry and the twistier aspects of neuroscience.)   In my bird watching days, I got pretty good at shore birds and raptors, but never did get the itty-bitty warblers sorted out.  As someone who grew up in drought-ridden So. Cal, I’m infinitely more knowledgeable about desert ecology and marine life than I am about forest ecology and fresh water systems.  

So although I have acquired a pretty hefty heap of eclectic and delightful information, I also have gaps in my knowledge that you could drive a truck through.  Some of those gaps are probably more important than I realize; some of them I may not even be aware of.  Without a stern but kindly professor or a dissertation committee looming over my shoulder, there was no one to make me buckle down and get through the second chapter of the text on statistics (which left me in tears of frustration and searching for dark chocolate) or persuade me to pay more attention to those pesky Little Brown Birds.  None of this makes me a bad dog trainer or a bad bird-watcher.  It does mean, when it comes to breadth, scope and discipline of knowledge, I’m simply not on the same level as a Ph.D. behaviorist or an ornithologist.    

Which is why, since I don’t have a Ph.D. of my very own, I’m going to listen very closely to what the highly qualified academic experts in my field have to say.  We are fortunate to have some extraordinary people who have both the talent and generosity to share their knowledge with the regular dog training “troops” like me and the pet owning public, and they are very much worth listening to.   They are, or should be, the first people we turn to with our questions about dogs and dog behavior.  Not the ones we finally discover after taking the dreadful and counter-productive advice of the “dog expert” on every corner—the neighbor who criticizes everything your dog does, the lady who breeds Cockapoos in her basement, the hunting guy who trained a Lab to listen to him sometimes and someone on your Facebook page who has “been around dogs all their lives.”  These folks could, possibly and accidentally, be correct and brilliant.  But why take the risk, especially if you don’t have the knowledge base and expertise to evaluate the information you get?  Easier, and safer, for you and your dog:  if you’re seeking high quality information, head straight for the top.   

At the top is another very real and important difference between our truly academically science educated behavior folks and even very good, well-intentioned, best-selling popular “dog experts.”  The difference is a paradigm, a ground of being and relationship with one word itself:  knowledge.    

What do most of us—including “dog experts”—mean when we say we know something?  For most of us, unless we’re dealing with strict facts—the address of our favorite pizza place, the Capitol of our state or how many inches are in a foot—what most of us mean is something like:  I have personal experience in the matter, it works for me, I like it, I agree with it, I have a very strong feeling or opinion about it and I feel certain and justified in the rightness of what I’m saying.  Like, I know.  

When someone with a formal academic background in science says they know something, they don’t mean anything like the above at all.  When a Ph.D. applied animal behaviorist says, we know, what he or she means is something like: there’s been four decades of research, it’s been peer-reviewed, there’s a stack of papers and data that could fill a two-car garage, the statement has been tested and replicated forwards, backwards, upside-down and sideways and it is accurately predictive of the phenomenon in question to a very high degree of certainty under all normal tested circumstances.

These are, obviously, two extremely different uses of the term know. 

The strict usage of the Scientific Know can be both maddening and adorable; I myself also find it very telling.  Unless they’re talking about gravity, evolution or the Laws of Learning, some of my favorite behaviorists won’t admit to knowing much of anything.  And rarely will you catch them swinging out on the limb of opinion without oodles of qualifications, “We haven’t done enough research, the little bit of data that we do have suggests that maybe this might be going on possibly but we can’t really say, I have a hunch if there’s a graduate student out there who needs a research project…”  

Thundering proclamations about “I’ve been around dogs all my life, I’ve handled thousands of dogs, I know everything about that problem, I know dogs do this-or-that because of this-or-that,” are refreshingly absent.  Present with genuine humility are soft-spoken utterances like, “I don’t know,” or the charming and gracious mantra of Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.:  “It depends.”  Claims based on personal experience, passionate feelings and strong opinions are not excluded from consideration.  But they’re not regarded as having the anything like the weight of true scientific knowledge.  

This is so not how most of us operate, it’s hard for us to imagine.  So let’s try:  pretend that you live in a world where you’re not allowed to say anything about your dog, your spouse or someone in politics unless you have tested it, you have the evidence that it’s true, a dozen other people can easily replicate your tests and get the same objectively measurable results and nobody cares in the least how passionately you feel about it all.  Oh dear, we’ve all gotten rather quiet, haven’t we?   

And this leads me to one more major difference between the real academics and your garden-variety dog trainer, however good—including me.  The Ph.D.s and DVMs and certified applied animal behaviorist are accountable to a variety of people in ways that I’m just not.  They didn’t decide they were “dog trainers” and print up business cards:  they had to take and pass tests.  Somebody or bodies reviewed their academic work, their research has to meet the standards of peer review, and many of them are associated with universities, vet schools, zoos, aquariums or other institutions.  They are members of academic and professional behavior societies that have real standards in both knowledge and performance.  They have peers in the field that aren’t going to be fooled by flimflam and good marketing, and they can’t get up at a conference or in a lecture hall and talk trash about dogs and dog behavior without some very sharp people calling them out on it.  I, on the other hand, as a “mere” dog trainer, am free to say whatever ridiculous things about dogs pop into my lil ole head—no one, literally no one, is peer-reviewing me.   

And that’s why, in my humble opinion, there’s that important difference in quality of knowledge, sometimes subtle but still tangible:  our wonderful, academically trained experts in dog training and behavior are more completely educated, hold themselves to a more rigorous standard of knowledge and have been professionally vetted by others in the field, in school, in peer review and in the professional positions they hold.     

I want you as a pet owner and advocate for your own dog to have access to the best and most accurate information out there.  With books, DVDs, websites and social media all readily available, you can.  You don’t have to rely on what the guy with the love beads and the fuzzy Malamute mix has to say about wolf behavior—you can check out what L. David Mech, the senior research biologist who literally wrote the book on the subject, has to say.  You don’t have to take your groomer’s word for it that all Toy breed dogs try to bite when their nails are trimmed, you can visit the website of Sophia Yin, DVM for her thoughts and tips on the subject.  And you certainly don’t have to take the golden wisdom of me, or Joe or Jane or any other dog trainer, however experienced, passionate and sincere we seem to be, without comparing what we say and do to the advice of the most credentialed experts in the field.   We can’t be them—we’re not behaviorists or vets—but we should be playing in the same ballpark by the same rules.  If we’re not, something’s wrong.  

Do all of the experts always agree with each other?  No, of course not, not about everything.  But you aren’t likely to go wrong following their broad consensus:  if these folks pretty much all agree that something is a good practice, I’d heed their advice and give it a try.  If the consensus is that something is a bad, dangerous or unnecessary practice, I’d avoid it and move on. 

And if anyone comes at you proclaiming that they know the Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, I’d run-run-run with my dog and my wallet as far away as possible.  Expertise and wisdom are humble things, never afraid to say, “I don’t know,” without shouting or fanfare.  

This list is by no means exhaustive or all-inclusive—only a small sampling of academics, researchers and animal trainers whose offerings of knowledge are easy to access in books, DVDs or online.  There are many, many more terrifically talented trainers, researchers and seminar presenters out there, were there space to list them all.  I invite you to Google them, visit their websites, enjoy their blogs or curl up with one of their most excellent books at your leisure.  Enjoy. 

Bob Bailey, Animal Behavior Enterprises

Ian Dunbar, MRCVS, PhD, CAAB

Jean Donaldson, Academy for Dog Trainers

Karen Overall, MA, VMD, Ph.D., DACVB, CAAB

Karen Pryor, Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Kathy Sdao, MA, ACAAB

Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium

L. David Mech, Ph.D., Senior research scientist, US Geological Survey

Pamela Reid, Ph.D.

Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB

Ray Coppinger, Ph.D.

Roger Abrantes, Ph.D.

Sophia Yin, DVM, MS.

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.

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