This is Your Dog's Brain on Cheese

This is Your Dog's Brain on Cheese

I remember being that owner who had been told not to feed my dogs “people food” lest it reveal my weak moral fiber, and I remember the sneaky pleasure of finally getting permission from a bona fide dog trainer to just go ahead and pull out the cheese. What a crime it is that we’ve been told not to use our most powerful motivator when trying to train a dog to do a really difficult behavior. 

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The Dog Whisperer Dispute

Have you been following the latest Dog Whisperer hoopla and are not sure what to believe? After all, isn't it just a matter of opinion? Isn't it unfair to persecute someone for a difference of methodology? Isn't there room here for all of us? Treats are fine for casual training purposes, but don't Red Zone dogs really need a tough-love approach?

Here's why dog trainers everywhere are so upset.

Photo credit: 88/365 by Sarah Buckley. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Photo credit: 88/365 by Sarah Buckley. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Consider for a moment that there are some among us who believe in witchcraft. Also a matter of opinion, perhaps. But let's say someone managed to land a TV show in which real children with diabetes were treated by a self-professed witch, using a new magical approach that was not based in any known medical principles. Let's say some of the children felt marginally better afterwards but some were actually being harmed by the treatment and, what's worse, many parents were so impressed by the magic of the approach that they were trying it at home instead of following trusted medical protocols. There would be outrage.

That's what's happening in the dog training community. We're outraged that someone would ignore decades of evidence-based animal learning theory, invite the most challenging dogs to him to be rehabilitated, and apply methods based in principles of calm assertive leadership. Which is folklore. Appealing folklore, I'll admit, but nonsense it is nevertheless.

Folklore versus science. It's that simple.

Photo credit: My Dog by Elizabeth Tersini. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Photo credit: My Dog by Elizabeth Tersini. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It's ironic, some dogs respond just fine to methods based in folklore. The resilient, happy-go-lucky, I'll-do-anything-for-a-milkbone types. But the most difficult, the most panicked, and the most vulnerable -- of all the dogs out there, they deserve our very best. They deserve the science.

Behavior change is a slow, methodical proposition. It's about as sexy as ironing, about as dramatic as lawnmowing. Maybe it's OK to be entertained by magical behavioral transformations that occur simply through calm assertive leadership, but let's not sell it as truth and get people out there trying it at home.