The Pseudoscience of Dog Training

The Pseudoscience of Dog Training

Now this is not intended to beat anyone up … just an exercise in thought… have to question everything when you are a scientist. If no one ever questions fire as the best solution for light and heat… believe it or not you would not have your beloved smart phone. Crazy right?


What is science

     Here is a Wikipedia description that I Kind of like.

Science is a systematic enterprise that creates, builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. Contemporary science is typically subdivided into the natural sciences which study the material world, the social sciences which study people and societies, and the formal sciences like mathematics.

so, simple association works in training because it is simple not because your dog is simple. Here is the sad news based on loads of research and experience.  Both dogs and people show the same results when exposed to learning via conditioning so, no it is not your dog.

  1. You can get a dog to sit on command by using force, by using a reward or with nothing at all.
  2. Does not matter if you use positive, negative on neutral methods if you don’t alter the environment you end up with a context/state dependent behavior.. changing environments move you into the theory of elaboration.
  3. Regardless of your choice of positive, negative or neutral techniques, conditioning requires repetition no knows how many reps are required to “learn” something or how long the “learning” lasts so conditioning often fails.
  4. Repetitions must be performed correctly or you are likely learning “wrong” things and then need to counter condition.

Just as a review.

Positive = just means you add something this could be a treat or a shock from a shock collar.

Here is a funny thing.. “positive only” dog trainer hopefully understand that in Skinners world adding a shock collar to a dog is a positive punishment.

Negative = simply means you take something away.

When I use the word positive I mean … happy, pleasurable ect. When I use the term Negative I mean pain, discomfort and so, on.

CONCLUSION : if you can achieve the same goal regardless of the condition, positive, negative or neutral there is something rotten in Denmark 🙂  A good theory is easily falsifiable.   Meaning that if I use positive only techniques the dog will “learn” to sit on command.  If I try neutral or negative measure the dog will not learn to sit.  Yes I am aware of the qualitative argument that say positive measures show “better” results I have yet to see a quantitative or measured result for this argument. however, after 20+ years of working with dogs I have seen that in all three conditions the same problems arise. You can even combine positive and negative and face the same challenges. Move past Skinner.


Learning requires

  1. Control/management of emotional state (this is done by positive means)
  2. Understanding and elaboration through communication (you both have to be thinking)
  3. Motivation (this is done by positive means)

The theory above in 100% Motley Dog Dog Training


Great resource for this stuff. Psychestudy

The only statement that holds up over the years is : “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” Mark Twain said that. In my mind all the positive and negative are not predictive and in real world behavior there is no consistent positive correlation between reward or punishment and behavioral patterns.

How many “positive” reinforced repetitions does it take for a dog to sit on command without fail ? Be honest, how many of you have repeated and repeated and repeated the heal command just to have fluffy run off on the trail?

Who has not seen dogs that lives in ecollars, pinch collars or choke chains and their people still believe that their dogs are learning something from this “training collar” or that it is the only way they can control the dog, even though it is also obvious they only have the illusion of control?

Why in both conditions .. did Skinner end with the same result? The Mouse got the cheese?

I think it is because in both experiments the mouse simply used instinct to relive two primary drives 1. find food, this is all mice do. 2. survival, find a way to stop the pain that maybe life threatening or at a minimum painful.

If the mouse learned anything is was state or context dependent but, added nothing to what the mouse already knew.

At the time this was ground breaking stuff. However, unless you can explain why I can teach a dog to sit, stay or heal with no reinforcement, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement  we have a problem. Also, all types of conditioning are unreliable and time consuming if they work at all.  I have already offered my solution above. If you consider time or the number of repetitions required for the mouse to learn as an indication of the effectiveness of the conditioning you might think about would you be more motivated to remove yourself from a stressful situation as opposed to a benign situation. I would. So, there is no indication that variance in time or the number of required repetitions makes any meaningful statement about positive being better then negative.  As a matter of fact more current research indicates that while positive maybe slower it is far more likely to result in long term learning. Negative stress shows that as you increase the “negativity” your emotional state actually limits you to more of an instinctive/reflexive response where learning does not occur. This does not account for results such as trauma which as most know is long lasting learning.  I think the posit is clear.

In  the eyes of a cognitive research psychologist both of these experiments have serious confounds. Fancy way to say ooops in psychology. These results lead to incomplete findings or explanations for the observed behavior and absolutely no control or evidence for causal variables. Does not make them useless but, it does make them just steeping stones to understanding learning and neither experiment really offers much in the way of understanding animals.

The techniques in conditioning can be use to assist in elaboration. But, anyone who has used common dog training techniques can tell you that the results are anything but guaranteed. This goes for the possessive camp and the negative camp. Also, my favorite camp… we will work positive only until it does not work and then go negative.

Remember this only covers behaviors like sit.. if we  are dealing with something more complex like anxiety you will be clicking and rewarding or shocking and pinching for decades if you use the average “scientific” dog trainer…. I have seen it time and again. Guess that is why they have advanced degree programs in sciences. Remember almost everything we use is based in science and using something based in science does not make my use of it scientific nor does it make me a scientist. The techniques in positive dog training are good and have there uses but, there is so much more we have to learn and discover. That is science.

Motley Cares.. 🙂

see you next time !

disclaimer explaining a theory like punishment or wolf theory does not mean I endorse them. They are based on scientific research just like Clicker training. Here is fun real world example. If learning was as simple as reward and punishment all we would have to do is punish someone who did something knotty.. say put them in a horrible place like jail and they would come out learning to behave. Maybe if everyone where rich and had all the rewards life can offer they would behave? Neither of these statements are true… a scientist could at least come up with a good theory or two as to why. The behaviorist theories of conditioning do not explain any of it.

If you want Scientific Dog Training …. Motley Dog is were you want to be !

Here is an entertaining blog post that not only does a good job of discussing pseudoscience but, demonstrates that in true scientific fashion we can complicate any subject. Regardless, by definition common dog training is NOT scientific dog training.

Apologies to all concerned.

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