Logical fallacies in dog training

Blog post about logical fallacies in the dog training world. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog training fallacies

This post is part of a blog series about evidence-based dog behaviour advice. I introduced the concept briefly in the first post. In this article, I zoom in on the fallacies and biases that get in the way of giving rational advice about dog behaviour. If you are a dog trainer, I hope you, like me, will try to be conscious of these and try to find ways to avoid falling into their traps too often. If you are a consumer, this post will give you the tools to spot common problems so you can get your dog effective treatment and not fall for some vague ideology.

There are about a million fallacies and biases but I had to pick, so took the ones that I most often see in my work:

  1. Argument from ignorance
  2. Burden of proof
  3. False balance
  4. Argument to authority
  5. Confirmation bias
  6. Argument to tradition
  7. Einstellung

If you have suggestions for more examples in the dog world, let me know. I could integrate them to a part-2 if I have enough. Enjoy the read!

Dog of the gaps

The God of the gaps is a concept in theology. It boils down to: we shouldn’t believe in God just because we can’t think of a compelling explanation for creation. By the logic of “If it is not God, how do you explain the universe?”, we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck. This fallacy is called an argument from ignorance.

Dog of the gap arguments are rampant in dog training. We love plugging one-size-fits-all explanations instead of saying: “I don’t know”. This one is a classic: “Your dog is mounting other dogs. He’s being dominant” (if you’re curious about evidence-based explanations to dry humping, check Julie Hecht’s article). It’s compelling to say “You need to be the dog’s alpha-meta-mega-pack leader” but it doesn’t make it true. Sometimes, “We don’t know why” is the only honest answer.

mind the gap

By that logic we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck.

Sticking the dominance label willy-nilly can be misinformation, and abuse at worst. I overheard a trainer describing a dog’s destructive behaviour as ‘vengeful’ and ‘dominant’. This failed the dog on so many level it broke my heart. If the owners take the trainer seriously, they will fail to get the dog the rational treatment he needs to treat his condition (likely separation panic). They also run the very real risk of abusing their dog in trying to be alpha-mega-meta-super pack leader. Don’t get me wrong, dominance is a complex concept and it has a (tiny) place in dog behaviour diagnostics, but too many trainers plug it in whenever they please.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Be wary of a dog trainer whose go-to answer is alpha wolves, dominance and pack leaders pretty much regardless of what you ask. An over-reliance on the pack theory is a red flag that the professional in question needs more formal training in behaviour diagnostics. If you want help finding a good dog behaviour consultant, this article by Jolanta Benal is pretty good.

Bone of proof

I have neither time, energy nor inclination, to engage everyone who annoys me with the latest pseudoscientific idea. That’s not true: I have plenty of inclination, but my accountant would kill me: I still haven’t found how arguing with idiots on the internet will pay the bills.

my accountant would kill me if I spent my whole time on crusader-for-truth mode. Skepticism doesn’t pay the bills.

The good news is it’s not my job to disprove every wacky claim that makes it to my desk. It’s the job of the person making the claim to prove it, to back it up with solid evidence. By ‘solid evidence’, I mean no anecdotes, gut feeling, or personal revelations. I mean good old reproducible, verifiable, evidence. And the wackier the claim, the more evidence I’ll ask.

This concept is called ‘burden of proof‘ and Betrand Russell illustrated it nicely: If I told you there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, and you said ‘prove it’, and I said: ‘No, YOU prove there isn’t,’ you would know it’s nonsense, right? The wackier the claim, the heavier the burden of proof.

Note to the discerning dog training client: If your dog behaviour professional suggests a paranormal or alternative treatment (i.e. something that has failed the test of scientific scrutiny) like mind-reading or crystal healing, ask them for solid evidence that this approach is effective for your dog’s behaviour problem. If their only argument is that it’s not been disproven, you might suggest they read Paranormality and close the door on your way out.

No dog in that fight

This one is a classic: “You won’t give my side of the story equal consideration. I’m entitled to my opinion, aren’t I?” Sure you are, you’re just not entitled to your own facts. Be my guest: cling to a belief that goes against the weight of evidence, but then expect me to treat your position as ideology, not fact. The ‘other side to the story’ doesn’t magically pop up because you happen to have had a flight of fancy or an idea happens to appeal to you. If you decide that the majority of research on a topic is wrong and you feel hard done by because no one will ‘listen to your side’, you might be engaging in the false balance fallacy: the idea that every story necessarily has two sides.

not quite friends

 

Take the raw food disputes raging in the dog world. I have no dog in that fight. I couldn’t care less either way. I just compared the weight of evidence on either ‘sides’ and it became clear that one was science and the other was ideology. Apples and pears, not two sides of the same story.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Look for a dog behaviour professional who welcomes pointed questions and makes a clear distinction between fact and opinion. Avoid dog behaviour professionals who demand you swallow their explanation hook, line and sinker because ‘one has to be open-minded’ and scientists are conspiring against them…

Famous TV dog trainers

Dog behaviour consultants often get accused of jealousy when they warn against arguments to authority. An argument to authority has you accepting a statement uncritically because a particular person said it. Don’t get me wrong, I will lower the bar of skepticism enormously if the statement comes from an authority with experience, formal qualifications and a track-record of scientific integrity. But I will stay critical, no matter who said it.

The merit of a claim needs to be about the claim, not the person making it. If I don’t swoon when an Ethology professor says something wacky about dogs, you can imagine how little I will be swayed when the person making these statements has a compelling back story, shiny teeth and impressive TV charisma as their highest credentials.

Note to the discerning dog training client: When you ask your dog trainer or behaviourist why they are advising a particular exercise, beware of the fan boy phenomenon. You want the reason to be based on something more solid than “because I saw it on National Geographic and such and such a trainer said so”. The same goes to trademarked ‘methods’. Behaviour modification has to be about the protocol, not the person or company who designed it.

25 years’ experience in dog training

I scandalize colleagues when I push back against something an experienced trainer or behaviourist says. It’s like twenty-five years’ experience is some kind of anti-skepticism kryptonite. You can have a hundred years’ experience for all I care, I still hold your claims to the same standards as the rest of my colleagues’.

Experience is REALLY important, don’t get me wrong. I blush when I think back of the rookie mistakes that I made, and I am still learning every day – and probably will until the day I retire. I am just a rookie in comparison to the elephants of our industry and they have so-ho-ho much to teach me. I am just calling for caution when being extremely experienced slips into being judged with lower standards.

These three powerful biases can entrench bad habits and, following that logic, an experienced trainer might make more errors of judgment than a rookie. A very experienced trainer may been making the same tired old mistake for twenty-five years, for all I know:

  • Confirmation bias: Rejecting compelling evidence against your dearly held belief. The more of a vested interest you have in your belief, the more powerful the effect. To not be trapped by this, you have to question all your assumption (it’s hard work, believe me). Either that, or your (erroneous) belief will be more and more unshakeable with every day  you practice.
  • Argument to tradition/status quo bias: “We’ve always done it that way.” can be lend a trusted method more merit than it deserves. It is easy to fall for it if you don’constantly take a step back and re-evaluate your work habits from the latest research findings and best practices.
  • Einstellung: Erroneous mental shortcuts that make it difficult to solve a problem from a fresh angle. Einstellung is like a deeply worn groove that gets dug in deeper and deeper each time we work through the problem.

 

conservative club

Another potential danger of placing experience above all else is historical: the dog behaviour professions have undergone a revolutionary shift towards animal-friendly methods over the past twenty-odd years. Depending on when they were first trained, your experienced trainer may be on the ‘wrong’ side of history.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Hiring a trainer with twenty-five years’ experience has tremendous merits, but be sure that their credentials go beyond that claim. Quiz them about how they keep up with modern techniques.

Conclusion

I hope that you don’t take this post as a personal attack. All I am saying is: we are all susceptible to these fallacies, myself included, but our role is to educate the public. We owe it to our clients and their dogs to give them the most reliable advice we can: advice that hasn’t been distorted by our personal preferences, habits or vested interests.

Comments

Did you recognize one of the fallacies or biases in yourself or your trainer? Have I forgotten important ones that are relevant to dog training? If you found the post thought-provoking, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

References

Illustration credits

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