Science is more than the mere description of events as they occur. It is an attempt to order, to show that certain events stand in lawful relations to other events. No practical technology can be based upon science until such relations have been discovered. But order is not only a possible end product; it is a working assumption which must be adopted at the very start. – B. F. Skinner
Yeah, Science! – Jesse Pinkman
I was compelled to write my last blog because dogs, and dog trainers, deserve real science. And then I stopped to consider, “What does that even mean?” Real science? Is there any other kind? I’ve considered this a lot over the past couple of months as it pertains both to the global pandemic we’ve been facing and what’s happening in the field of humane dog training.
At no other time in our country’s history that I can recall has real science been so critically important. Our very lives depend on it. And yet real science has been condemned, rebuked, and vilified as if it were the enemy. All in service to a pernicious and tyrannical leader whose own agenda supersedes the value of human life. To say that these behaviors are repugnant and horrifying is an understatement.
It was both heart wrenching and infuriating to see talented, brilliant scientists and physicians with outstanding credentials being punished and their very lives threatened for speaking the truth about the global pandemic and the scientific resources that could have saved lives. But not only were real scientists punished and scientific evidence buried, there was a burgeoning of “alternative scientific facts” and unsubstantiated, harmful treatments. And then there were the conspiracy theory videos. Blatant lies and dangerous misinformation were dressed up as science to deliberately mislead and confuse. One conspiracy theory video in particular was even delivered by a real scientist with an axe to grind. All the while, legitimate scientists, physicians, nurses, healthcare professionals, and first responders were toiling diligently to combat the virus.
Some scientists and physicians recommended ignoring the conspiracy theories and videos in the hopes they wouldn’t gain traction. Others encouraged the public to speak out, to push back as allowing misinformation dressed in science’s clothing to stand unchallenged may give legitimacy and credence to outrageous, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening claims. In a well-written and widely circulated article in Forbes, author Tara Haelle discussed the importance of pushing back on misinformation and conspiracy theories posing as science as they have the potential to be harmful, and in the case of the new coronavirus, life-threatening. Haelle stated, “If you don’t push back on them, even to those you love or don’t want to upset, you’re enabling them. You’re allowing people to spew harmful, dangerous nonsense that kills people and demoralizes the millions of health care providers trying to save lives.”
That’s a powerful call to action! Haelle speaks to an obligation to push back against misinformation that’s potentially harmful or life-threatening. And that’s not an easy charge. Who relishes confrontation? Who wants to be the one to go out on a limb and disagree? We’re nice people after all, and nice people don’t disagree. Wouldn’t you rather just unfollow or unfriend? That’s a great way to escape and avoid the uncomfortable feelings that inevitably arise from pushing back against misinformation. The overarching question to ask ourselves is, “What’s the cost?” What’s the cost of leaving scientific misinformation hanging out there unchallenged? Because there is a cost. In the case of COVID-19, time wasted, lives lost. The ultimate cost.
Why This Matters in Animal Training
I see a parallel between what’s happened in our country and what’s happening in the field of humane animal training. While it pales in comparison to the life-and-death urgency in the greater macrocosm of our society, what’s happening in the microcosm of the humane animal training community has resulted in its own divisiveness and potential for harm. Just as scientific misrepresentation has no place in healthcare, it has no place in animal training, either. No matter how well-intentioned the trainer may be. And just as it’s important to push back against science-related misinformation and misrepresentation in health care, it’s important to push back against it in animal training. To name it. And question it, in an effort to move forward. To better serve animals. To bridge the divides among our community of humane trainers. To advance our field as a profession.
I’m sharing my next thoughts in the spirit of goodwill, though they may challenge one’s beliefs and perhaps even result in some feelings of discomfort. They spring from our collective desire as humane trainers to provide the best care possible to animals and the people who love them.
Even those of us who call our training science-based or evidence-based or have that as our goal may not actually be “doing science.”
The humane animal training community prides itself on being “science-based.” Many of us use this catchphrase on our websites and other marketing materials. We indicate that we are “evidence-based” trainers and that our training methods are based on “scientific principles.” We wish to distinguish ourselves as trainers who “do science” from those whose training methods are based on “woo,” dominance methods, or basic cruelty. Because we are passionate about dogs and their people, and we want the very best for them! It guts us to see dogs on shock and prong collars, to see dogs hit and strangled in the name of training, and to see heartbroken owners who are devastated by the trauma their dogs have suffered at the hands of incompetent, uneducated “trainers.” Calling science carries authority and cache. It signifies to potential clients that we’re different. That we’re educated and ethical professionals. That our training methods are safe, humane, effective, and based in science. Because we love dogs and their people. Because dogs deserve science.
I’m concerned because it seems “science” and “evidence-based” have been reduced to memes, GIFs, and cute sayings on t-shirts in the dog training field. Humane trainers use these phrases to distinguish themselves from trainers who espouse pseudoscience to explain dog behavior and training – things like “leadership,” “dominance,” and “energy.” But what if what we’re saying or doing as humane trainers isn’t really grounded in science? Or it’s an incomplete or incorrect application of scientific knowledge and principles? Or it’s our opinion? Or experience? How much different is that from promoting pseudoscience?
Humane trainers are quick to rebuke balanced trainers who call science. We get particularly wrapped around the axle when they claim to be “science-based” in their marketing. We criticize them for not being transparent about their methods, for lying and obfuscating in order to promote outdated and inhumane methods. They’re duping the public and that’s WRONG! But what about us? Is it any better for humane trainers to call science or claim we’re evidence-based if in actuality we’re not?
Are we really “doing science”?
What IS Science?
Definitions matter. I love Cooper, Heron, and Heward’s (2007) nuanced consideration of the definition of science. As an introduction to the topic, they state, “Used properly, the word science refers to a systematic approach for seeing and organizing knowledge about the natural world.” (p. 3) Further, they explain that the goal of science is “to achieve a thorough understanding of the phenomena under study…Science seeks to discover nature’s truths.” (p. 3) Most importantly in our current political climate, Cooper et al. state:
Although it is frequently misused, science is not a tool for validating the cherished or preferred versions of the “truth” held by any group, corporation, government, or institution. Therefore, scientific knowledge must be separated from any personal, political, economic, or other reasons for which it was sought. (p. 3)
Cooper et al. then outline three levels of scientific understanding:
- Description – A set of observable facts collected about the subject of interest.
- Prediction – The relationship observed between two variables.
- Control – How reliably two events co-vary.
In seeking to define science, Cooper et al. posit that a definition of science may be found “in the behavior of scientists” (p. 4). [Italics mine] And while there is no one set scientific method, they state that all scientists are guided by a set of assumptions in their efforts to discover nature’s truths. Briefly, per Cooper et al., the fundamental assumptions of scientists include:
- Determinism – Scientists accept that the universe is lawful and orderly. Events do not occur randomly.
- Empiricism – Scientists derive knowledge from objectively defining, observing, and measuring their subject of interest.
- Experimentation – Scientists conduct experiments to systematically compare their subject of interest under two or more conditions.
- Replication – Scientists accept that the results of their experiments are reliable and useful only to the extent that they can be repeated.
- Parsimony – Scientists rule out simple explanations before considering more complex ones.
- Philosophic Doubt – Scientists “continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact.” (p. 6) They accept that scientific knowledge is tentative and will relinquish their most valued beliefs in light of new scientific evidence.
The importance of maintaining an attitude of philosophic doubt, both in research and practice, cannot be overstated given our current circumstances. Both in our country at large and in our community of trainers, there are individuals who are holding on tenaciously to incomplete or misrepresented scientific information, even in light of solid evidence to the contrary. This becomes particularly concerning when these erroneous beliefs inform practice. When they are dressed up in science’s clothing. Being a science-based practitioner means using the best available scientific evidence to support the use of a procedure or technique prior to its implementation, as well as evaluating its efficacy on an ongoing basis. This is the very basis for evidence-based practice.
Following a nuanced discussion of the purpose and attitudes of science, Cooper et al. offer this definition of science, which will be the foundation of my speaking, writing, and teaching in ABA:
Science is a systematic approach to the understanding of natural phenomena – as evidenced by description, predictions, and control – that relies on determinism as its fundamental assumption, empiricism as Its prime directive, experimentation as its basic strategy, replication as its necessary requirement for believability, parsimony as its conservative value, and philosophic doubt as its guiding conscience. (p.7)
This definition delights, awes, and inspires me. It transcends specific fields and is the basis for all sciences. It challenges me to move beyond the superficiality of science as meme and to think deeply about my work as a practitioner. To challenge myself to determine if I’m really “doing science” or just reducing it to a saying on a t-shirt.
What IS Evidence-Based Practice?
“Evidence-based practice” isn’t just a catchphrase. It isn’t having a degree or taking continuing education in a particular field or branch of science. It’s not knowing the difference between operant and respondent learning, or being able to apply these principles. It’s not membership in a certain professional organization or the attainment of a particular credential.
Evidence-based practice is a specific model of service delivery and decision-making that incorporates 1. the best available evidence from the published research literature in one’s field; 2. one’s expertise and ethics; and 3. the clients’ values, culture, and preferences.
Evidence-based practice originated in the field of medicine with the publication of “Evidence Based-Medicine: A New Approach to Teaching the Practice of Medicine” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1992). The practice of evidence-based medicine signified a major shift away from traditional medical decision-making based on a physician’s medical training, unsystematic observations from experience, intuition, and common sense to decision-making based on the best evidence from research literature combined with medical training, experience, and expertise. It required physicians to develop new skills in identifying specific problems, conducting literature searches, selecting relevant research studies, evaluating the strengths and limitations of the research, determining the best evidence available to address the problem, presenting research findings to colleagues, and then integrating the evidence with their experience and expertise to develop an appropriate treatment plan.
Following in medicine’s footsteps, numerous fields have embraced the model of evidence-based practice, including psychology, nursing, social work, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, education, and social work. The American Psychological Association approved this definition of evidence-based practice, “Evidence-based practice in psychology (EBPP) is the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences (APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, 2006). Guidelines for evidence-based practice in psychology were also offered based on this definition.
Slocum et al. (2014) proposed the following definition for the field of applied behavior analysis, “Evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis is a decision-making process that integrates (a) the best available evidence with (b) clinical expertise and (c) client values and context.” Books, journal articles, and guidelines have been written on evidence-based practice across various fields because it is not just a catchphrase or tagline. It is an actual model of practice. While each field has developed its own guidelines and steps, in general, the process is similar across disciplines.
Regardless of the discipline, evidence-based practice involves a specific step-wise process for decision-making. The number of steps may vary, typically from five to seven, depending upon the profession. A nice illustration of this process by Spring and Hitchcock (2009) may be found on the Evidence-Based Behavioral Practice website –
- Ask – Formulate a question about the issue at hand
- Acquire – Search the published literature for the best available evidence
- Appraise – Critically evaluate the evidence (validity, effect size, applicability to the issue)
- Apply – Develop an action plan based on the integration of the best available evidence, your clinical expertise, your client’s values, preferences, and the context
- Assess – Evaluate outcomes based on data and make adjustments to your plan accordingly.
These steps are not linear but rather cyclical as the process continues with each practice area this is applied to. Adjustments to practice are continually made based on new research evidence.
What About Dog Training?
Now herein lies the conundrum for me. In other professions that espouse evidence-based practice, the field is predicated upon a specific branch of science. Typically, one first acquires the formal education in the field, accrues supervised experience, acquires licensure and/or certification, and then begins to practice independently. Dog training, however, is an unregulated industry with no set standards for education, experience, and practice. There are no statutes that define the scope and practice of dog training or statutorily enforceable ethics codes. As such, there are no established guidelines for evidence-based practice within the dog training field.
I struggle to think about the model of evidence-based practice in this context. In medicine, social work, education, or applied behavior analysis, there are defined bodies of research from which professionals in those fields draw their evidence. But what about dog training? If we have an issue related to our practice, where do we find the best available evidence to help us formulate our plan? Which field of science are trainers dipping into to find that evidence? Applied behavior analysis? Psychology? Perhaps ethology? What about neuroscience? Biology? Genetics? A combination of some? All? Yet “evidence-based” is frequently used as a descriptor of services in the humane animal training community. Are trainers really drawing from a well of scientific evidence to support their practice? If so, which one? Are they following the guidelines and steps for evidence-based practice in that field? Though intentions may be well-meaning, has “evidence-based” simply become a marketing cliché?
It’s in the Behavior of the Practioner
I’m trained as a behaviorist in the fields of both psychology and applied behavior analysis. And it’s the literature in applied behavior analysis and the experimental analysis of behavior that informs my practice and guides me in problem-solving and decision-making. I feel fortunate to have such firm grounding in behavior science.
As part of my fieldwork experience in applied behavior analysis, I was charged with describing in observable, measurable terms the specific behaviors that define me as an evidence-based practitioner. Because, as Cooper et al. so eloquently articulated about science, the definition of “evidence-based” may be found in the behavior of the practitioner. It was an extremely valuable exercise as it challenged me to think about the ways I was, and perhaps, more importantly, was not, practicing in an evidence-based manner. It’s helped me to identify areas for growth and improvement to ensure that my services integrate the best available evidence from the research literature with my expertise and my clients’ values and preferences. I developed a checklist of evidence-based behaviors that will help guide me and keep me honest in my practice. It’s a living document that will change based on the services I’m providing and the needs of my clients. It’s become my touchstone to help me navigate evidence-based practice in an unregulated field.
I’d welcome the opportunity to hear your thoughts about evidence-based practice in dog training. What field of science grounds your practice? Where do you go to find the best available evidence to help guide your decision-making? What behaviors do you think are important for an evidence-based practitioner in dog training? I’d also love to Zoom with you about the topic. I’ll be happy to share my checklist with you and discuss the behaviors that are important for you as an evidence-based practitioner. Please feel free to share your thoughts!
APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice. (2006). Evidence-based practice in psychology. The American Psychologist, 61(4), 271-285.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Pearson.
Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group. (1992). Evidence-based medicine. A new approach to teaching the practice of medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association, 268(17), 2420-2425.
Haelle, T. (2020, May 8). Why it’s important to push back on ‘Plandemic’ – And how to do it. Forbes.
Slocum, T. A., Detrich, R., Wilczynski, S. M., Spencer, T. D., Lewis, T., & Wolfe, K. (2014). The evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 37(1), 41-56.
Spring, B. & Hitchcock, K. (2009). Evidence-based practice in psychology. In I.B. Weiner & W.E. Craighead (Eds.). Corsini’s encyclopedia of psychology (4th ed., pp. 603-607). Wiley.
Copyright 2020 Melanie Cerone