Recently, some dog training colleagues and I were batting around the issue of popular dog trainers denouncing standard dog training technique as an advertising ploy. The rules and methods of changing an animal’s behaviour are pretty well-known, in the way that “tonsil removal surgery” is pretty well-known, or “building a frame wall” is pretty well-known. Sure, advancements and refinements are made by practicing professionals and scholars, but no one expects tonsil surgery to suddenly be carried out by butterflies or frame walls to suddenly be made out of black matter. And yet, we regularly see dog training professionals suggest that they themselves have come up with a whole new way of changing an animal’s behaviour or emotional state, and furthermore, suggesting (with alarming alacrity) that current practice is wrong, dangerous, and out-dated. Don’t head to a dinosaur surgeon for your child’s tonsil removal! We have kinetic tonsil-fishing technology™.

“Non-operant Conditioning: The New Dog Training Technique that will Blow Your Mind”

In the time since I’ve studied dog training and animal learning theory, and was therefore exposed to the pure, clean logic behind operant and classical conditioning (it’s magic if you step back from it, isn’t it?), I’ve always been befuddled by this. Jean Donaldson, the matriarch of the Academy and a brilliant mind, worries that the invention of new and shiny training methodologies is a sparkly costume worn by those with shallow knowledge of animal learning theory. This glittering shoe, sadly, fits. But it doesn’t describe the whole picture.

According to my also-brilliant colleague at the Academy for Dog Trainers, Erik Tamm, there is more than just ignorance involved. There is money involved. And more specifically: our money, as dog trainers are often part of the target audience for this revisionist material. Erik says:

It’s just a sales tactic. Take existing, established practice and vilify it in blogs/social media etc. Then (how surprising) launch your own coaching/course/ebook that does things “different”. (It doesn’t have to, you can just give existing exercises new names). After a few years, do a 180° turn with a new blog/social media post (“why I changed my mind about x, y, z”) and launch yet another new product. You see this again and again when people are selling coaching/courses/ebooks. Fitness, personal finance, weight loss, stress management (and apparently dog training)—it’s all the same. Very predictable but it does work from a sales perspective.

Now, I love ‘shiny and new’ as much as the next person, so I admit I find it hard to pass by the gorgeous and evocative marketing materials and the promises of quick results or ‘whole new dog’ that slide by in my social media feeds. But I do resist, and I resist because I care about someone else’s money: my clients’. They pay me to help them with their dogs, and the best way to do this is to use well-vetted techniques based on the science of how animals learn. I also resist because I care about my reputation. My reputation was built on the successful resolution of my dog training cases… and here we go, back to the science of animal learning and behaviour change.

Of course, this isn’t to say I ignore refinements to the practical application and ethics of animal learning methods. These are the refinements made both by people doing research, and by people who are training hundreds of dogs in the same area that I am: pet dog training and behaviour modification. Staying abreast of new research and best practices is an important part of my job. But these are usually a tweak, not a seachange. And if and when I jump ship on any technique, it will be based on a preponderance of evidence, not on a personal manifesto, no matter how charming, no matter how tempting, no matter how deft.


Cover photo credit lilu13 via iStock

Kristi Benson
Author: Kristi Benson

Kristi is an honours graduate of, and now on staff at, the Academy for Dog Trainers. At the Academy, she is a student mentor and coach, and is in charge of the weekly webinars. Kristi is also in charge of special projects, including the Husbandry Project, which is a large co-operative veterinary care research study working with hundreds of dog owners, testing the efficiency and usefulness of a series of training plans. In her private practice, Kristi enjoys working one-on-one with dogs who need help with obedience, fearfulness, aggression, unruliness, and any number of other issues. Besides offering professional training services in the Parkland region of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada; Kristi also works with clients across Canada via video chat. She also loves helping the humans in the equation, and brings her trademark combination of humour and compassion to the kitchen table when working with her clients. Kristi is one of a stable of course developers working with Lori Nanan at, offering custom-made online content to dog owners and dog pros. Kristi also enjoys reaching out to dog owners through writing. Besides her own blog, she also regularly writes for the Academy for Dog Trainers’ blog and for Dog...