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Why Science Matters

Decorative image of an iceberg

Why Does Learning About Science Matter?

This is an article I wrote awhile back, but I never posted it on my blog and I’d like to give it a little wider audience because I think it’s such an important topic!

What if you found out that, as a field, we have only scratched the surface of what there is to know about learning and behavior?  That we have just uncovered the tip of a vast and ever growing iceberg?  I think it would be incredibly exciting, because it would mean that we have so much room to learn and grow. I also happen to believe that this is true—there is a staggering amount of knowledge that we, as a field, have yet to tap into.

In 2008, I considered myself a well educated and skilled trainer and behavior consultant.  Before I moved to New York and opened my own business, I worked as an assistant trainer at Patricia McConnell’s school for a couple of years.  I also shadowed her to some of her behavior appointments.  I obtained my CPDT in 2004.  I had attended numerous conferences, workshops, and seminars by a number of prominent and well-respected trainers and behavior consultants.  I had a very strong understanding of learning theory and how to apply it.  I also had a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology, which gave me a solid foundation in science, biology and a little bit of animal behavior.

Then I entered graduate school.  Mind. Blown.  I took a graduate level learning class.  “This will be easy,” I thought.  “It’s just going to review everything I already know”.  I was partially correct. It did review a lot of material I already knew.  But, it also covered a lot of material that was brand new to me.  Suddenly, I understood learning in much more detail than ever before and was able to immediately apply that to working with dogs.  I learned nitty gritty details about timing that allowed me to reach behavior change goals more quickly and with fewer setbacks.  My other graduate courses helped me learn about behavior from many different angles. Much of this new information was also applicable to working with dogs.  For example, learning about how fear is processed in the brain helped me more effectively convince owners of the importance of prevention and early intervention.  As a result of taking these courses, my understanding of behavior grew substantially in a relatively short period of time.

The further I got into graduate school, the more my mind blew. I simply couldn’t believe how much information I’d been missing on animal learning and behavior—how much there is to know that I’d never had access to as a dog trainer. One could easily spend an entire career simply studying tool use in primates, or crows—and people do.  The knowledge of these researchers on their particular topics of interest in awe-inspiring.  And the depth of information out there that is largely unknown by the dog training world is unbelievable.  I thought I knew so much going into graduate school, but I knew almost nothing.  I still know very little compared to the amount of knowledge that’s out there.  But – that’s good news, isn’t it?  Because that means there is so much more for us to learn!

Photo by Leon Wu

With every additional piece of information we learn, we grow in potential to help dogs and their people.  Perhaps you will put something together in a way you never have before and that will allow you to change one small thing—or one big thing—that dramatically improves your success rate with dogs.  Or maybe you’ll be able to explain a certain aspect of behavior much more clearly and convincingly and suddenly your clients will start following through more consistently than before.  Maybe you’ll be able to use your new-found knowledge to put together a persuasive budget proposal or successfully argue for a policy change at your shelter.  If you train performance dogs, you may be able to tweak your approach just enough that you jump into the next level of competition that has been eluding you.

I don’t think this is just a one-way street, though. I think researchers can also benefit greatly from having a continuing dialogue with trainers and behavior consultants – in other words, those that are in the trenches working with dogs every day. The researchers can identify key questions. For example:

  • What behaviors do owners seek help for most often?
  • What types of behavior as particularly challenging to address?
  • Why does counter conditioning and desensitization work exceptionally well in certain cases of aggression and have little to no impact in other instances?

There are all questions that can – and should – be answered by research, but talking with those in the field can help refine those research questions and, in my opinion, accelerate the research process. Having conversations with research results can be extremely valuable on both sides as well. Trainers can take research findings and apply them in the field – hopefully in ways that can enhance training success and speed. Researchers can use the experiences of trainers to formulate additional research questions. Rather than operating independently in our own circles, I believe that our greatest power comes from working together and sharing our knowledge with each other. This is the single greatest way for us to help animals.

Decorative image of hands in a circle denoting teamwork.
Photo by Hannah Busing

Our profession needs this.  The dogs need this.  Trainers – don’t sell yourself short by limiting yourself to the knowledge that’s already out there in the dog world, circling through conferences, seminars and books.  Absolutely learn that—it’s very important!  But, also take the time to learn about academic research in the field of animal behavior and— just as importantly— learn how to critically evaluate and apply it. And researchers and academics – have conversations with trainers, behavior consultants, and shelter workers. Listen to their experiences and their questions about dog behavior. They have something to teach us as well.

This, of course, is easier said than done!  However, I think this is so important and I am so passionate about it, that I am making it my mission to create more dialogue between academia and research and hands-on trainers.  Through my monthly webinar series, Research Bites, I will bring the research to you so you don’t have to take the time to find it on your own.  I will put it in context for you so you don’t have to read 10 other papers just to understand the current one (I’ve already done that for you!).  I will teach you how to interpret, question, integrate and apply the information to what you already know and how you work with dogs. My multi-week courses take an even deeper dive into a variety of topics on the science of animal behavior. I am also very proud to be a board member of the IAABC Foundation, whose mission is to “inspire, develop, and provide quality, evidence-based education, research, and other charitable activities in animal training and behavior.”

I hope that you will take this journey with me.  I can’t wait to see what all of you already amazing trainers and behavior consultants can do with more access to scientific research!

If you haven’t already, please join my mailing list so that you’ll be the first to know when our online behavior science courses are ready to launch!

Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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