Just Train the Damn Dog - Are academics actually improving your training? | The Collared Scholar


May 9, 2016Meagan Karnes25 CommentsGeneral Training

“What the hell is Operant Conditioning?”

His face was serious and unapologetic. And for a moment, I was taken aback. 

I proceeded to explain in very simple terms the core of Operant Conditioning and how we use it every day in dog training. He listened patiently. 


Photo Credt @ Tamandra Michaels www.heartdogphotography.com

This man is a dog trainer. But he isn’t JUST a dog trainer. He is one of the best. Not only has he been one of the most influential trainers in my career, he is also one of the very few people who I trust to read and build dogs well. He is an exceptional trainer…and he didn’t know the term “Operant Conditioning”. 

As I finished my overview, he chuckled to himself. Then, he looked at me, slight grin still remaining from the entertainment value of my sermon, and he flatly said, “So… it’s just dog training? Why can’t you just train the damn dog?”

I laughed with his words… he had a point! And with my laughter, his grin erupted into a full blown smile as he took a sip of tea, moving on from the psychology discussion to talking about “things that matter”, like our training program, chicken husbandry, and the weather. 

When I left that day, I rolled his words around my head. He used Operant Conditioning every day…and he used it well. In fact, he used it better than nearly anyone I had met. But in dog training circles, he’d be ripped to shreds for not knowing such a basic fundamental concept by name. 

Did it really matter though? Did he need to know the fancy words and advanced theories if he trained dogs and trained them well? Did he really need to be able to spout off definitions of things like Operant Conditioning, Premack, or Primary and Secondary Reinforcer if he was inherently applying those principles better than most? And more importantly, does it speak to a trainer’s worth and credibility if they can regurgitate those theories in deep academic discussions? Or is what matters most the actual results we see with our K9s?

Why can’t we just train the damn dog?

Now, I am an academic. If you didn’t know already, in my former career, I was a biochemist. I absolutely love science. I’ll be honest – I am a complete and utter nerd who would love nothing more than to spend her summers lounging by a pool and reading the latest in neurobiology. Because I love science, math, and analytics, I am drawn to studies, research, and the academic side of dog training, probably more than most. However, even with my background, I still find myself getting frustrated with the inflated academic nature of popular dog training that seems to be dominating the scene, and here’s why: Plainly stated, it’s just not effective.

Here’s an example: 

Recently, I took an advanced obedience course centered on training techniques I could put to use to improve precision in my routine. It was chock-full of information on psychology, theory and technique. But when all was said and done, and as I reflected on the course and its material, I realized that I had walked away without much that I could apply directly and immediately to my training. It was good information, don’t get me wrong, but I was left wondering if it was REALLY necessary. I mean, if we just used simple terms to communicate with one another, I could have saved myself a good hour or more that I now felt was wasted. Time that was spent learning how to “speak dog trainer”, time that could have been spent actually training my dog.

But an interesting phenomenon occurred as I sat through the 120 minute course of which I only took away about 20-25 minutes of useful and practically applicable information. While I wasn’t thrilled in the end, I did find myself lending credibility to the trainer as he continued on with training jargon and definitions. And as I watched very average dog training and very basic tactical moves, I still caught myself putting stock in his capabilities. 

Now I’m not saying that trainers who use academic jargon are bad. Some of my favorite trainers use jargon….and a LOT of it! I am simply saying that it can be very easy to put faith in a trainer’s abilities by the amount of fancy jargon they use and not by the actual training they do. And that isn’t wise. Eloquent wording and great public speaking skills don’t equal good dog training. Anyone can talk about baking, but what does the pie taste like?

None of us have endless amounts of time to spend training our dogs. Now more than ever, we are busy. We rush here and there, to and from work, trying to balance our chores, our family lives, our careers, and our dogs. So if jargon makes my comprehension more efficient and effective, I’m all about it. But if I have to spend an extra hour that I don’t have learning jargon that doesn’t help me train my dog better just so I can feel legitimate in conversations with other trainers, I’m offended. My time is valuable.

In addition, I feel like academia is replacing good dog training, and in fact at times, it is misleading people into believing that the folks reciting it know what they are doing, even when they really aren’t that good.

And most importantly, I feel like academic jargon alienates many who aren’t as knowledgeable in the scientific side of dog training, and it leaves them feeling lost and overwhelmed. I’ve seen it all too many times. Sitting in a group class and watching the trainer use words that fly right over the heads of many of participants. Some of the group is thrilled – they know these terms and they instantly resonate, adding credibility to the trainer in front of them. While others are frustrated. They don’t understand, and training now seems like an overwhelming and daunting endeavor.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the goal. But I do think it’s part of the fallout of the push to a more academic style of training.

If you’re using jargon in your training, I’d encourage you to really reflect and spend some time asking yourself these critical questions:

  1. Does my audience understand me? – Gearing your tone and language to your audience is critical in ensuring comprehension. 
  2. Is the time I need to take explaining this term going to result in better comprehension and more effective training? Will my students be able to understand their dog better for knowing it? 
  3. Do these terms add to my effectiveness, or am I using them to gain credibility? – This is important. As trainers, we need to use jargon only when it’s better for the dog and handler. Not when it’s better for us. 

And if you’re taking a course with someone who uses jargon that you don’t understand, speak up! Ask questions and make sure you are getting the most out of your time spent. Don’t put faith in trainers just because of the language they use. And make sure you leave the class feeling empowered and not overwhelmed and defeated.

Here’s the thing. Trainers who use academic jargon aren’t all bad. I know some absolutely incredible ones. But trainers who use academic jargon aren’t all good either. And at the end of the day, we need to work hard not be persuaded by fancy terminology and instead, evaluate the trainer on the results they achieve and the dogs at the end of their leashes.

A note to trainers: We need to be more cognizant of our audience. We need to make training more accessible to people of all levels of dog training, and we need to select and use jargon only when it is the most effective and efficient means to communicate something that will directly improve comprehension and tactical training. 

And most importantly, we need to spend time training our dogs. Let’s get out of the classroom and put the theories to work. It’s the only way we will learn timing and application, and it’s the only way we will really become great trainers. 

Like I said earlier, hands down my favorite trainer out there had no knowledge of academic theory. He didn’t care. Because at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. Knowing those terms didn’t help him become a better trainer, it didn’t improve his timing, and it didn’t help him get inside the dog’s head. Practice did. Years spent working dogs did. Getting out and working with trainers on the field did. When I worked with him, we never spent days sitting over coffee debating the latest academic study. We didn’t talk Operant Conditioning, Classical Conditioning, and the use of Aversives. We just trained the damn dogs. And for that, I remain eternally grateful.

Chelsey Montgomery