Protecting dogs from disinformation

I came across a brilliant cartoon in The New Yorker today:

130708_science-cartoon-disinformation_w620v320

To be a professional dog trainer often feels like a constant battle against disinformation. When it comes to dog behavior, disinformation is dangerous. Disinformation leads to abusive training techniques. Disinformation leads to myths about how dogs learn and why they behave the way they do. Disinformation leads to stressed and confused dogs, and stressed and confused owners.

Imagine going to a doctor because you’re worried about your health. You tell her your symptoms. She turns to her computer and, instead of jotting notes about your conversation. searches Internet health sites for possible diagnoses. Obviously, this would never happen – it’s preposterous! Our society has come to accept that medicine is a science, that practitioners of medicine must receive training, and that the process of diagnosis and treatment must follow specific evidence-based practices.

Why, then, does it not seem preposterous that society does this every day for dogs? So-called “trainers” appear on TV, spreading techniques that are based in nothing more than myth. In fact, anybody can call herself a trainer without receiving any formal education or training. Considering how much we love our dogs, and how many dogs face behavior problems that require training, this is a sad state of affairs. A sad state of disinformation.

Animal learning is a science. Dogs behave according to known and studied laws. Behavior that is rewarded increases in frequency. Behavior that is punished decreases in frequency. When dogs are afraid, trainers use a different approach than when training obedience behaviors like sit, down and stay (classical conditioning for the former, operant conditioning for the latter). Unlike humans, dogs don’t operate by any moral code, and they aren’t masters of insight, observation, and abstract thinking.

Which is why statements like “Dogs that soil the rug in the living room are being obstinate” are the antithesis of correct, and the epitome of disinformation.

Society owes it to dogs to think critically in the face of myths, falsehoods and incompetent advice. Proper training based in science gives dogs the best chance at a happy, well-adjusted life, and a peaceful coexistence with their human counterparts.

Jean Donaldson says it best in her book The Culture Clash: “The prevailing winds, in fact, would make it our responsibility to have a clue about the basic needs of the species we are trying to live with as well as a clues bout how to modify their behavior, with as little wear and tear on them as possible so that they fit into our society without totally subjugating their nature.”

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

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Protecting dogs from disinformation

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