In her recently released book, Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog, Linda Case brings her expertise in training, canine nutrition and science writing to bear on separating the dog world’s provable facts from its sometimes-contentious and often contradictory conventional wisdom. Read on to learn why and how she did it.
Bark: What do you think are the main stumbling blocks people have in understanding their dogs, and canine behavior in general?
Linda Case: Because dog ownership is ubiquitous in our society and many “neighbor Joes” consider themselves to be experts about dogs, owners are continually bombarded with myths, outdated beliefs and outright falsehoods.
At the epicenter is the belief that the domestic dog lives and behaves like its wolf ancestor, and that establishing dominance over dogs and using punishment-based training methods are necessary. In truth, there is ample evidence from many scientific fields refuting the “dog-as-wolf” mythology and supporting reward-based training methods (evidence I present in Dog Smart).
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The challenge lies in helping dog owners—and the neighbor Joes they encounter—to recognize and reject information that is not evidence-based and may be detrimental to dogs, while presenting (often through demonstration), evidence regarding how dogs
learn and why we do not need to view them as civilized wolves in order to train them with kindness and respect.
Bark: How can people tell the difference between trainers who use the dog-as-wolf-dominance model from positive reinforcement trainers?
Case: The best thing is to simply ask about their training philosophy and the methods they use. Reward-based trainers should be well-versed in the language of operant and classical conditioning, the use of primary and secondary reinforcers (if they are clicker trainers, all the better!), and have an understanding of canine social behavior and body language.
Without doubt, food is the most powerful primary reinforcer we have in dog training, and it’s almost universally effective. Although it may sound a little simplistic, if a trainer rejects the use of food in his/ her training program, in my view, this is a clear sign to keep looking. While dogs respond well to a host of pleasurable consequences (petting, praise, affection, opportunities to play), food treats are by far the best tool we have to use as a pleasurable consequence for reward-based training and so should always be at the top of a reward-based trainer’s toolbox.
Bark: How would you sum up your book?
Case: Dog Smart is written as a fun-to-read, myth-busting book for dog lovers with a wide range of interests and knowledge levels. Like my blog, “The Science Dog,” the book’s primary goal is to examine the new information scientists are gathering about dogs and apply it to our everyday approaches to training.
One of the best outcomes I had from researching and writing this book was that I found a deep body of work that supports rewardbased training methods as well as an expanding body of evidence showing that dogs possess cognitive abilities that were historically considered to be off-limits for any species other than our own. In this book, I bring these two bodies of knowledge together to create a progressively minded and humane approach to understanding and training dogs.