Animal Training and Pseudoscience—Critical Reasoning

I wrote an article in early 2016 titled “scientific or moralistic training” where I mentioned some points that I believe are increasingly influencing masses under a scientific premise. In another article, I contributed with my anthrozoological vision to classify the various groups and sub-groups of animal trainers. I recommend the reading before you continue.

In this article, I will analyze some subjects with some critical reasoning and certainly repeat subjects from previous articles, but I will repeat myself whenever I verify that science is being manipulated in order to control groups.

Current tribal struggles are concentrated on likes, shares, and comments on social networks, and groups need to be nurtured either by ideologies, moralities, or fallacies, most of them by narcissism or virtual schizophrenia of the author(s) and/or the need for personal promotion as a therapy for one’s own insecurity. And to make this worse, we have the social conditioning that is done through groups, the own prior judgment without the interest of researching on the subject, following the opinions of others, criticizing and condemning texts or people without reading or seeking factual validity with themselves.

Studies demonstrate the influence of social networks on the user’s daily life, including the increase of stress, our fear and other symptoms according to with most recent studies. Being imprisoned in groups prevents us from thinking and look to the reality, maybe that’s why we are an easy species to train.

The pet industry itself (in increasing expansion) is increasingly influencing society, both families and professionals. They create needs, present commissioned studies and promotes a commercially necessary ignorance where people do not know for sure why they acquire or is they really need to acquire but the real message passed is they will be better people if they do. They sell design, not knowledge or information.

At the moment, several very vague studies on dogs are emphasizing the benefits of having dogs, and social blindness has never questioned the reason for such emphasis.

If animal welfare (a true fallacy and more and more a banal but commercially successful word) really matter, I wonder why there are no studies about the increasing number of behavioral problems of dogs in the last 15 years due to the dogs being more and more indoors, in artificial environments and with families constantly implementing models of anthropomorphism and babymorphism? A bit inconsistent if we look at all the current “appealing offers” on the market.

The dog at the moment is a mere object exactly as before, but now camouflaged under the premise of “social utility for humans.”

I also question why doesn’t exist a welfare study on animals used for social purposes? According to experts, dogs should be used in social actions within an ethical limit, but which limit? Common sense? I’m sorry, but I reject rhetoric. I am not condemning this industry, just the commercial banalization factual that it is becoming and that does not favour owners and pets.

People prefer to buy a $50 toy because they “say it works” than buying a $10 book and try to better understand their pet and provide them with a life within their individual natural needs where that toy would not even be required.

The same for dog trainers, who prefer to learn in seminars or fast theoretical courses and believe in all romanticism passed without the interest of taking a scientific book, to study the scientific reality, its concepts, definitions, applications and practice with the greatest number of dogs possible to develop their own training method, having the notion of the practical reality and continue daily to research and study more and more. Assuming  “diplomas hunting” posture, they are only deceiving themselves and whom they can teach.

This anthrozoological view on the subject may seem very cold or harsh words, but it is simply an anthropological, sociological and above all zoological views of a species that we deny to be just one more on this planet. And it all starts there. We try to soften our behaviours in a moralistic way by denying the science that characterizes us as animals we are.

What I am going to present in this article are not judgments, are scientific facts about reality, most often “romanticized” or ignored because don’t follow our ideals. Certainly, not everyone will agree, but we must separate our emotional opinions from current scientific facts.

And I give you the healthy challenge to read this article with a pragmatic view, to doubt everything that can be written here and to research not only the articles, studies and scientific references that will be in this article but also other purely scientific and non-opinionated literature.

It is up to you to decide how you intend to lead your personal/professional life, to adapt scientific reality to your technical and ethical limits, or you can simply create a utopian world and manipulate science to try to confirm certain socially accepted theories.

The scientific process itself does not prove anything, science can at best “be right” about something, and can be changed at any moment depending on the results of new studies. Studies do not prove, studies show statistical results of a particular observation. What today is A, tomorrow can be B. Right or wrong does not exist and cannot exist in science. Science is what it is, based on the study of the evidence hitherto presented, does not follow currents, cultures or personal opinions. Science is not to blame for misusing it. It is our duty to look for reliable sources when we are working with other living beings.

In this article I will focus on the dog training world, that is being what most virtual fallacies create. I note that ethology and behaviourism are being increasingly blamed, discredited and denied for the most varied ideological motives and implicit arguments for such serious statements.

But first, and because I like dictionaries, it’s necessary to define various concepts I’m going to use. Some of them I will develop in the analyzes to the varied arguments:

Science is the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world acquired through observation and experimentation. Science is a process, not a conclusion.

Morality is the principle that concerns the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.

Ethics is a moral principle or set of moral values held by an individual or group.

Culture is the biological adaptation of the human genus that has fundamental properties or characteristics that are subject to the same evolutionary algorithm, selective variation, retention, transmission. It is based on human nature and is constrained by it.

Thinking is the activity of the mind that tries to make sense of the events of life, we can think about what we want without any effort, which makes us desire or want something.

Reasoning is a process that helps us to accept or reject statements made by ourselves or others.

Dogmatic Thinking is characterized by a firm and blind adherence to a certain set of instructions.

Critical Thinking recognizes and appreciates contextual differences and their complexity, rejecting previous conclusions and accepting more appropriate conclusions.

A premise is a declarative sentence that serves as the basis for a reason, which will lead to a conclusion.

An argument is a set of assumptions or justifications that lead to a conclusion. This process can be good or bad, but never true or false. Arguments can be explicit (when assumptions leading to the conclusion are all stated) or implicit (when assumptions leading to the conclusion are under-understood). The latter is widely used at the advertising level. They can also be classified as valid or invalid, strong or weak, convincing or not.

A fallacy is an error in the formulation of an argument.

An opinion is an expression of a subjective belief or a position on a particular subject, not always based on true premises, and most of the time based on emotional motives or social pressures.

Rhetoric is the art of speaking and convincing others without regard to the truth of the premises.

Let us now analyze some statements:

“Ethology created the dog dominance theory.”
This statement is widely used today, so I want to look at it first. The first question I ask under this statement is: What is ethology?

Ethology is the study of animal behaviour in its natural environment. The ethology approach differs from the methods used in other behavioural sciences, for example, ethology explains behaviour based on its function and cause.

Psychology explains the behaviours through physiological processes or mechanisms of learning and creating an artificial or controlled environment to study them. Ethology studies the behaviour of the animal in its natural environment and describes the behavior as natural selection shaped it and developed variations.

While the principles may seem the same, the approaches used to determine the results of your goals. Through its approach, the ethology allowed the elaboration of ethograms of several species, being the essential matrix for the study of the species, including the dogs.

In recent years, interest in the emotions of animals has increased due to developments in affective neuroscience.

In humans, emotions are an awakening of the state of the body, accompanied by characteristic behaviours and particular inner feelings. In other animals, the way behaviour is demonstrated differs from each species, so it is dangerous to try to use emotion as an approach to explain behaviour.

The second question I ask under this statement is: Where did the theory of dog dominance come from? This question will be divided into two other questions, the first, what is dominance? And the second, “what is the theory of dominance of dogs?”

For the first sub-question: Dominance is not a characteristic or personality trait, it is a behaviour. And what is a dominant behaviour and how can dominance influence the interaction of the species?

Dominant behaviour is a quantitative and qualitative behaviour presented by an individual with the function of obtaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource, on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without there being any kind of injury between the parties. If injury occurs between any of the parties, the behaviour is aggressive and not dominant. Their quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-reliant to completely self-confident (Abrantes, 1997).

Dominant behaviour is particularly important for social animals that need to co-inhabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a specific social strategy has evolved with the function of dealing with competition between partners, while conferring a greater benefit at the lowest cost.

Dominance regulates aggression in animal societies with high agonistic rates, favouring the establishment of hierarchical relationships to preserve social homeostasis (Elkins, 1969). Social hierarchies vary from species to species and are not always linear, especially in species affected with the effects of domestication, so certain terms such as Alpha have been demonstrated in several studies that do not apply in this specific context in certain species.Wolves and dogs included.

From the definition itself, we notice that other words are used socially to replace “dominant”, such as “confident”, curiously with the same meaning.
From here, we can begin to conclude that ethology per se has not created any kind of dominance theory and is very clear in its definition, which leads us to the second sub-question: What is the dominance theory in dogs?

This theory was created in the world of canine training based on a lupomorphism model, which suggests that social interactions between humans and dogs should be based on the rules applied in lupine society, that is, a rigid hierarchy made by humans who must use behaviours based on the lupine society. However, this model, although still in use in dog training, began to be discredited after Dr. David Mech and his team with the development of their studies, showed that the use of the term “alpha” in a specific study with captivity wolves was used erroneously from the moment studies have shown that wolves do not have such a rigid hierarchy as previously thought, but NEVER rejected that dominance does not exist in wolves nor the use of “alpha” is wrong in some cases (page 8). In fact, a study of social behaviour among dogs demonstrated that the interactions among dogs are less stabilized than interactions among wolves (Feddersen-Petersen, 1991)

This leads us to another statement: “Dogs are not wolves, it would be like comparing humans with monkeys, so they do not form groups.”

The first part of the statement “Dogs are not wolves (…)” is easily proven at the taxonomic level. It’s correct.

The second part “(…) would be like comparing humans with monkeys”, on an evolutionary level this statement is a complete nonsense and an insult to the scientific community. First, because when we consult the evolutionary line of wolves-dogs with ape-man both in a paleoanthropological and evolutionary aspect, we realize that millions of years separate both with the complex variables and common ancestors involved in both evolutions. And second, with this statement is created an enormous argumentative incoherence that reveals a perfect ignorance on the subject and can discredit à priori all previous statements.

The last part of the statement “(…) they (dogs) do not form groups” has been widely used by the world. My questions: What is a social animal? What is social behaviour?

A social animal in biology is an organism that is highly interactive with other members of its species to the point of having a distinct and recognizable society.

Social behaviour is defined as interactions between individuals, usually within the same species, which are usually beneficial to one or more individuals.
Another question: Can we say that the dog is the only social animal in the world that does not form any kind of group from its social interactions?

A rapid search in reliable sources provided varied studies of this subject. In this article, I compiled a series of studies and scientific papers from scientists who spent and spend decades studying canine behaviour who support everything that was written above.

About behaviourism
The recent criticism of behaviourism states: “Behaviorism is bad because it punishes animals and many trainers use it for it.”

This argument is fallacious, emotional and moralistic. And let’s look why it’s inconsistent.

Again, we are blaming science for its supposed practical application and using various terms without the actual knowledge of its definitions.

What is behaviourism?

It is a theory or set of research methods in the field of psychology that aims to study behaviour based on the observation and analysis of stimuli and reactions, to the detriment of introspection and consciousness. It assumes that all behaviours are reflexes produced by a response to certain environmental stimuli, or a consequence of the individual’s history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, along with the individual’s current motivational state and control stimuli. It is based on radical behaviourism, experimental behaviour analysis and applied behaviour analysis. We have as main developers J.B Watson, I.P. Pavlov, E. Thorndike and B.F Skinner.

To experiences where behaviour was increased or reduced by consequences, Skinner called operant learning, because behaviour acts in the environment. Skinner thus identified four types of operant procedures: two that reinforces/increases behaviour (reinforcement) and two that decreases/inhibits behaviour (inhibition).

A reinforcement is anything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a particular behaviour when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place.

An inhibitor (punishment) is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a particular behaviour when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behaviour takes place.

In scientific definitions, as in all science, there are no negative or positive connotations of terms. It all depends on the application. And it is in the application of reinforcements and inhibitors where there is the greatest discussion.

Reinforcers and inhibitors are always subject to three distinct conditions: The individual, the behaviour and the moment, and they must be applied in the right quality and intensity. They should not be generalized in a mechanical way as if an absolute truth it is.

In animal training, we use expressions such as rewarding the dog or punishing the dog, which are erroneous expressions because we are not rewarding or punishing individuals, but reinforcing or inhibiting behaviours.

By the other hand, there is no consensus about what we are teaching the dog and how we are teaching it. This lack of precision is not science fault because it is very clear of what we use, or signs, or cues or commands.

A Signal is everything that intentionally causes a change in the behaviour of the receiver.

A Cue is everything that unintentionally causes a change in the behaviour of the receiver.

A Command is a Signal that causes a change in the behaviour of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations.

Then, what can we conclude?
The main problem is not the science, which is very clear in its definitions, but in the practical applications of certain people, using pseudoscience to affirm or deny their thoughts, having the advantage of most people who absorb this information will not search and limit themselves to what they can read or hear on social networks, blogs, or peoples opinion.

Scientific studies must be above all a quality control for the professional, no matter the time of experience. Experience time is irrelevant. Practice time means applying knowledge and improving it, which means that we are feeding what we think right, even if it is wrong.

I can understand avoidance in speaking of certain subjects because they are very negative connotated, but the vast majority of people that avoid it do not know their real meaning, the result of all the social conditioning above written. I defend real knowledge and individual choice, the people should make their personal and professional decisions without incoherence or social pressure.

To like of animals should not be a unique requirement for animal training. The notion of communicating with a different species gives us the responsibility to seek more and more scientific (trustworthy) information with a pragmatic view of everything, in order to learn even more and don’t make the mistake of belief in everything we read or hear from others. Stimulating the natural behaviours of the species and do not conditioning them to social wills and pressures should be the main thing.

Don’t be what society wants you to be, or give in to their pressures. Respect other species and communicate with them, not by the opposition, but because there is natural feedback. Knowledge is a powerful tool and it’s free. Lack of knowledge is expensive. Nosce te ipsum.

Recommended reading references
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ABRANTES, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

ABRANTES, R. 2011. Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers.

ABRANTES, R. 2011. Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers.

ABRANTES, R. 2012. A Dog’s Self-Respect.

ABRANTES, R. 2012. Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior.

ABRANTES, R. 2013. So you want to be a good dog trainer!

ABRANTES, R. 2013. The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

ABRANTES, R. 2014. Ethology. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

ABRANTES, R. 2018. Mission SMAF. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

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Autor: Roberto Barata

Ethology Institute Tutor and administration staff member; Instructor and Researcher in Applied Mentoring and Anthrozoology in Animal Behavior and Training field.