The language of dog training: is it getting too complicated?

The language of dog trainingThere are a lot of words in dog training these days.

Long words

Behaviour adjustment training, counter-conditioning, reactivity, positive-reinforcement and negative-punishment.

To name but a few.

These are not a part of everyday language for most of us.

Not the sort of thing we chat about over the breakfast table.

They are however, some of the many terms that can cause confusion for new dog owners, and can even contribute towards making some people feel alienated from modern science based dog training methods.

Exclusive or inclusive?

Some new visitors to my positive gundogs group, especially those that have prior experience with traditional dog training methods, get quite upset by the language of modern positive reinforcement dog training. I think it is fair to say, they feel excluded by it.Let’s face it we all want a simple life.

And to feel part of, and accepted by, any new community we join.

“When did dog training get so complicated!” you may ask, “Can’t we just take a dog into the garden and train him?”  and   “Why do modern dog trainers make such a song and dance about it?”

Does it matter?

So, does it really matter if we don’t know what positive reinforcement means?  Or classical conditioning?  Does it matter if we don’t know what defines an aversive?  Or how to differentiate between punishment and extinction?

These seem like reasonable questions.

But the answer is, actually it does matter.  It matters very much.  And this is why

A common language

In order for any sport, activity, or field of interest or endeavour to progress,  those involved in it need to be able to communicate with one another.

We would quite possibly still be treating every illness with bloodletting and talking about the four humors if doctors and other scientists had not developed a common language with which to talk to one another about anatomy, histology, genetics, and pathology.

It is fairly easy to see how a specialised language is essential in science or law for example, but this is not just true of academic subjects or pure science.

It is true of any activity that requires any degree of skill and experience, that has any kind of system or protocols governing what its aims are and what kind of processes should or should not be occurring. And this includes of course, all sports and any kind of animal training.

But it’s Scary Language!

I am not sure where this fear of, or aversion to, dog training language has sprung from,  though I have my theories.  Part of it is probably simply that so many people own dogs, we see dog training as everyday and ordinary.

Dog training may be everyday and ordinary, something that many of us attempt, but it is also something at which many fail. And that is partly because we underestimate just what is involved.

If you were learning to fly a plane or sail a ship, you would not dream of trying to avoid the language of navigation and seamanship.  If you joined a pottery class, you wouldn’t question the terminology you were taught there would you?   You wouldn’t demand alternative ‘laymen’s’ terms for the processes involved.

When you specialise in anything, you need appropriate language in order to be a part of what you are trying to do.  Many specialised terms or phrases are simply a way to avoid saying fifty words where two will do.

They are abbreviations, or ways to describe complex processes or concepts.  Without them it would take forever to talk to one another.

You wouldn’t let the language of any other new sport or activity put you off participating.  And neither should you do so with dog training

But we managed before..

A common cry is that people have been training dogs for thousands of years without science or the language that goes with it.

It is true that dogs were trained long before the processes involved in behavioural science were observed, and described.

In the past dog has been treated as a craft, passed down from one generation to the next, but these dogs were not trained without science.  They were simply trained by humans not aware of the scientific process that underpinned their work.

The fact remains that all animal training works through the laws of behavioural science.  And since we have been treating it as a science and working to understand that science, huge progress has been made with respect to what we can actually teach animals to do.

The laws of behaviour

What we are doing when we train a dog is changing or modifying behaviour.  There are clear and useful ‘laws’ that govern this process.  And to ignore them is pointless.

Even if you know nothing of the science of behaviour, you are still engaging in behavioural modification when you train a dog.  Or any other animal.

The fact that you don’t know you are doing so, simply makes you less efficient.

Getting left behind

Ignoring the language of your own field of endeavour is likely to result in you getting left behind.   If sufficient people ignore this language, whole pockets and communities can be left behind.

Huge progress has been made in the field of dog training over the last few years, and this is in no small part due to the growing use and understanding of the language and principles of behavioural science.

What a muddle

Newcomers to dog training being advised by traditional trainers are often confused by incoherent and conflicting advice from possibly quite competent trainers who are unable to express what they are doing themselves, or recommending to others, because they are incapacitated by a poor use of language.

Vague and woolly comments like “you need to read your dog” , “let your dog be a puppy”  or  advising people to make sure that their dog “respects them”  or “knows who is boss”  leaves novice trainers completely in the dark.

Singing from the same song sheet

There is a distinct absence of confusion between different trainers when they all use modern science based principles.

Basically, they are all singing from the same song sheet.   They all use the same language and each trainer (or student) can understand exactly what other trainers are talking about.

There will always be difference in opinion, and this is healthy.  But there simply is no need for confusion in dog training.

Joining in

Learning a new ‘discipline’ can be a little scary.  Joining a new group or community feels a little strange.  It can take a while to settle in.

But getting involved in the positive dog training community, and learning the language of modern dog training, is well worth the effort. You’ll find clear and consistent information, principles, and strategies.  All based on humane and effective methods

Learning a few new phrases is a small price to pay for the reward

To sum up, being in charge of a dog is a responsibility.  Part of that responsibility involves raising a well behaved canine citizen.  To do this you need some knowledge of behavioural science and some practical skills.  Sharing knowledge and exchanging views powers the wheels of progress.  All that is required for this to happen is a common language, and a shared understanding of the processes that underpin behaviour.

As we are going to be using behavioural science to train our dogs it makes sense to use the language of behavioural science.  Just as it make sense to use nautical language when you are learning to navigate at sea, and study for your masters certificate.  Or the language of medicine if you are studying to be a nurse.

Your dog needs you

Dog ownership is so widespread, so common place, I think we feel that it shouldn’t really require much effort.

But your dog needs you, for a while at least, to modify his behaviour.   You can call this process ‘dog training’ if you like, but you are actually making use of a very exact science, and the better you understand it, the better you can help your dog.

The key to unlocking this understanding lies partly in being comfortable with the need to learn new words.

We only learn to speak a language through regular use and familiarity.   Don’t be afraid of a few long words.  Don’t let the sneers and criticisms of those who feel left out stop you learning.

They are just words

Yes, specialist language can be exclusive, it can make people that don’t speak that language feel left outside the group.  But the answer is to learn the language, not to try and stop others speaking it!

At the end of the day, they are just words!

They are really not too unpleasant, and once you get used to them you’ll wonder why you ever thought them strange.

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on September 4, 2014

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Adele Hayward June 14, 2015 at 11:12 pm

There’s nothing wrong with the language for those who have educated themselves but most people think that dogs are uncomplicated, robust creatures who don’t need sensitivity or consideration. The complicated language that has evolved has no chance of getting through to the majority of dog owners – who need it!


claire October 2, 2015 at 7:19 am

As always, words of wisdom from the wise, thank you. I do think that we need to work as much with our clients as with their dogs. The language we use is essential for professional communication amongst ourselves, and for those who are committed to the journey of discovery. But if we want to have our clients ‘learn the language,’ we need to simplify and explain. That can be a challenge unless we, ourselves, are fully cognisant with the words we use!


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