Fact versus theory in dog training

by Pippa Mattinson on June 7, 2017

Modern dog training is based on ‘Learning Theory’.  But the word ‘theory’ causes a lot of confusion in dog training circles.

I often come across this sentence from those skeptical about modern training methods

“It’s only a theory, it isn’t fact”

This kind of statement is the direct result of the language barrier that exists between dog owners, and behaviorists.

Because the word “theory’ has a very different meaning for scientists, than it does for the average man on the street.

Just a theory

Most of us think of the word ‘theory’ as being an idea or concept that has yet to be proven.

You might say “I have a theory about who committed that crime”  or perhaps “I have a theory about why we have all had a headache today”

You are not saying that you know the answer.  On the contrary you are admitting that you don’t.

It’s just a theory.  If you knew the answer you would say “I know who did it!”  or “I know what gave us all a headache today!”

In science, this meaning is turned completely on its head.  Or so it seems at first.

A scientific theory

The layman’s meaning of the word ‘theory’ is called a ‘hypothesis’ by scientists.

A hypothesis is something that a scientist thinks ‘might’ be true.

A scientific theory on the other hand, is an idea, or concept that has been proven beyond almost all possible doubt.

Like the ‘theory of evolution’.

And whilst there may be a few ‘creationists’ that dispute the theory of evolution,  for the entire scientific community, and for the vast majority of the rest of us, evolution is a fact, not a theory at all.

A scientific theory is an explanation of how and why things happen.

If we go further and make predictions based on that theory, we call those predictions a ‘law’.  Newton’s ‘law’ of universal gravitation’ for example, which predicts what will happen when objects are subjected to gravitational pull.

A scientific ‘law’ doesn’t go into the how and the why,  it leaves all that to the ’theory’.

Why not call it a fact?

So why do scientists refer to a thoroughly proven concept as a theory?

Why not just call it a ‘fact’ and be done with it?

The answer is to do with the very fundamental underlying principle of science itself.  And that is the pursuit of honesty.

True science is the pursuit of truth.  It is completely objective and unemotional  –  this is one of the very things that people find so unattractive about science – it can feel so ‘cold’ and ‘harsh’.

But this objectivity is essential, if we are to ‘get at’ the truth.

And the truth is – almost nothing in life is completely certain.  Science accepts that there is always a chance, no matter how small, that something we believe to be true today, may turn out not to be true tomorrow.  We can never, ever know everything.

It is for this reason that good scientists always try and prove themselves wrong, before claiming to be right

And it is for this reason, that a thoroughly proven concept is called a theory.  Not a fact.

Avoiding confusion – a dog training language

Unfortunately, this difference in meaning of the word ‘theory’ causes some confusion amongst dog trainers/owners, and those interested in canine behavior, so I think it is important that we are clear on what ‘theory’ means in strictly behavioral terms.

Much of the confusion that arises amongst those disputing the efficacy of modern training methods, is due to a lack of understanding of behavioral science.

And much of this misunderstanding is down to language.

In order to discuss our dogs’ behavior with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world, it is important that we share a common language.

As we are discussing behavior here, it makes sense for the language we use, to be the language of behavior!

Learning theory

The principles of positive reinforcement training are founded in science.  Specifically, they are founded on a scientific theory called Learning Theory.

‘Learning Theory’ is not so named because it is lacking in ‘factual’ foundation.

On the contrary, it is called Learning Theory because it is now undisputed as the explanation for how animals learn in response to changes in their environment.

The principles of Learning Theory are now widely used in dog training and you too can use this knowledge to change your own dog’s behavior.

If you need more explanation, or wish to comment, do drop your thoughts into the comments box below.

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