Embracing the Unknown

Today, I return to my series on quotes that have inspired me. The first in this series was way back in January of this year when I wrote about the danger of assumptions. This month, I’d like to talk about the value of admitting that we don’t have all of the answers. Data and evidence are powerful tools for guiding our actions. However, there are times when the data is unclear or we are simply dealing with a situation where we don’t have data.

This is all too common in the world of animal training and behavior! It’s important that we understand that it is alright that we don’t know. And also, that sometimes what we do know is wrong. In fact, this perspective – being able to be open to changing our minds in the face of new evidence – is a key feature of science. This leads me to the quote that inspired this blog post:

“[Science’s] genius is self-criticism. When you find that the universe is accelerating and accelerating in its rate of acceleration…, this is not supposed to be true and the moment [scientists] find out that all major assumptions have been overthrown, there’s rejoicing in the scientific community…And that is the authority of science for me.” – Marilynne Robinson, On Being with Krista Tippet, The Mystery We Are


I can tell you from experience that this quote is true. Never will you see a group of scientists as excited as they are when there has been a new discovery – especially if that new discovery completely contradicts a premise that was widely held to be true. For me, this experience creates feelings of excitement, joy, and wonder.

In this case, the speaker is using a physics example, but it could just as easily be animal behavior. Science is deeply valuable. But it is also imperfect. It has limitations. As our technological capabilities expand and as we ask new questions from different perspectives, our knowledge will inevitably grow. Sometimes that means that what we once thought was true will turn out to be disproven. Or, at the very least, more complicated than we initially thought.

If we cannot learn to be comfortable with this reality, then it will impair our ability to help dogs – and other animals – to the best of our abilities. The classic example in dogs is dominance theory. Initially, research on wolves indicated that wolves maintain stability within a pack through aggression by dominant individuals toward subordinate ones. This led many dog trainers to advocate for asserting dominance (through intimidation) over our pet dogs in an effort to improve their behavior. However, it turns out that the observations on wolves were based on interactions among captive wolves that were not living in family groups, as they would be in the wild. Free-living wolves made up of natural, family groups do not have high levels of aggression. That means that the idea of establishing dominance over domestic dogs through aggression or the threat of aggression was based on an entirely false premise. To its initial discredit, the dog world was very slow in coming to this realization, though we’ve done a good job of catching up by now.

The dominance example is not the only example of the dog world learning that a commonly held belief or approach may not be supported by evidence. A more current example is the recent proliferation of studies that find no benefit of using a marker (such as a clicker) for training new behaviors (I’ll be doing a Research Bites presentation on one of these studies in early 2021). New discoveries that disprove or modify existing viewpoints and beliefs are not limited to dogs, of course. They can and do happen in every discipline. The continued search for accurate information is necessary if we want to make progress. If we want to do the best for the animals we are trying to help, then we must be open to being wrong.

It is my belief, that remaining open to learning means, among other things, that we need to listen to other perspectives, even if the viewpoints differ from our own. It means creating a space where people feel safe asking questions and making suggestions that may challenge the status quo. It means being willing to have discussions about things that may call into question your own personal views and beliefs. The challenge to us all is learning how to do this in a way that keeps us open to new evidence, ideas, and perspectives, while also holding true to our own core values. It’s not always an easy path to walk, but in my opinion, it’s possible and well worth the extra effort. If we are not willing to remain open to new ideas, then we may limit our ability to grow and learn and, as a result, we hurt ourselves, our field, and the dogs and families that we are trying to help.

It is very easy for people to read between the lines and find – or think they find – unspoken messages that the reader never intended. Therefore, I am going to be very clear. This is not a veiled attempt to suggest that I think we need to use aversives to train dogs. The last time I trained a dog using aversives was in the 1980’s when I was in 3rd grade and I took my Standard Poodle to a dog training class. The class used choke and pinch collars as most of them did at the time. So, I used these methods as well. However, it didn’t take me long to look at my dog and decide she didn’t like it. So, I stopped training her. I didn’t know at the time there were other, kinder and gentler options. Luckily for me, I was able to find my way there in high school with two positive reinforcement trainers in my 4-H dog training program. I never looked back! My point is, I made an ethical decision very early on that I wouldn’t train using aversives and I wouldn’t train using methods that were upsetting to the dog. I have stuck with that ethical decision and luckily I am backed up by an overwhelming and continually growing body of evidence that the best results are achieved through positive reinforcement, and other non-aversive methods.

And, really, this conversation goes well beyond just talking about the use – or avoidance of – aversives. I mentioned above that several papers have recently been published that find no benefit to using verbal markers or clickers. That’s a pretty big bombshell in the positive reinforcement world. It may be easy to dismiss it as bad science. But there have been enough papers now that it can’t be ignored. What do we do instead? Embrace it! Let’s take a detailed look of what the studies are finding, what that might mean and how we can use that to make us more effective trainers. These are the important conversations that we need to be having!

As an educator, I aim to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking the hard questions and where admitting that we don’t yet have all of the answers is completely acceptable and not an admission of failure. When we think we know it all, we close ourselves off to learning, and that’s the true tragedy. Please keep learning and embracing all that we don’t know and still have to discover!

If you love the idea of asking those challenging questions and really digging into what we do and don’t know and how we can apply it to our work as trainers and behaviorists, then please join me for Research Bites or check out my 2021 course schedule. We will be talking about one of the clicker training studies in January, but there are plenty of great topics before then as well!



Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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