Is there an “art” to dog training, or can it all be done with science?

The training of dogs has grown in leaps and bounds during the last several years.  There are huge organizations supporting the profession; seminars; conferences and certification.  The growth of the concept of “positive” training has also moved to the forefront and is being recognized as the most ethical, humane way in which to train a dog (as well as horses, parrots and exotic animals).

    Behavioral science has crept in along the way.  This is understandable, since the study of behavior is a science, and as Skinner, Bailey, Pryor and others have competently shown, can be applied to produce successful training paradigms.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  I would rather see thoughtful analysis and careful summaries than the countless armies of “trainers” who achieved monetary success by learning how to correct a dog hard when necessary, and nothing more.  (This is not to say that all or even most trainers before the advent of “scientific training” would fall under that category – but even now, too many do).

    So what is my point, you may be wondering?  My point began in the midst of an online debate about whether there is an “art” to training, or can it all be explained and successfully accomplished through the application of science.  Scientists on our board methodically insisted that science is all that is necessary. This is where something deep inside me came to a perplexing halt – there is something missing in that assumption.

    Yes:  all training can be explained by science.  All mechanical training could be accomplished by the application of a scientific model.  And we must pay attention to the knowledge that scientific work gives us, because that is the “floor” of knowledge that we all stand upon. But what about the *other* part of “training”?  The part where there is a relationship which develops – the part where empathy and intuition can make huge leaps ahead during a training session?  The part where there is communication and the animal is given the respect and freedom to be an individual and partner rather than an observable organism?

    Applicable or not, I think of the Beat poets; the zeal of the hippies; the perfect turn of a phrase by an author; the sense of being stared at.   I think of a dog who placed his favorite tennis ball on the grave of his deceased companion and who never would enter that yard again.  I think of my dog glancing back at me while he is tracking, ahead and on his own.  Can all of this be explained by some form of science? Stephen Hawking says that if the universe started with a singular point then all of our theories fall apart and we must simply acknowledge that we know the universe started because we can observe it, and that is all.

    Similarly, when those moments of intuitive communication happen in training that are so delightful and so rewarding – we know that training has occurred because we can observe it, and that is science enough for me.

Do you work in a dog rescue/shelter? Sign up for the Dog Shelter Behavior & Training Program – Free on Dunbar Academy