Critical Thinking and Dog Training

We happened to see a post on Dog Star Daily where Dr. Dunbar said “there’s something about dogs which tends to short-wire some people’s critical thinking skills.”  As we write this, we are immersed in delivering our course

“How To Be an Expert Witness in Dog Bite Cases”

so critical thinking skills have been on our minds a lot.  Dr. Dunbar’s statement clicked home for us because critical thinking is absolutely essential for the role of an expert witness – and for good dog trainers, behaviorists, and behavior consultants as well.

The website defines the term as

“the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”.

That might sound like a lot of high-priced words that don’t have much meaning for those of us working with behavior and training issues in dogs and cats.  But when we really look at that definition, it is absolutely applicable to what we should be doing every time we work with a pet and a person.

Shouldn’t we be analyzing and synthesizing information to conceptualize (figure out) why a pet is behaving in a certain way, and using our conclusions to thoughtfully guide our actions with the pet and our recommendations to the owner?  It’s when we DON’T apply all these skills and instead either don’t see or refuse to see what the animal is telling us, get stuck in one particularly narrow view of what’s acceptable in training (the extremes might be we can ONLY use positive reinforcement, OR remote shock collars work for EVERYTHING – who needs food), or “make up” explanations for an animal’s behavior without being familiar with the science that we get into trouble. 

Science doesn’t have all the answers about why animals do what they do.  Sometimes we just have to say “I don’t know”.  If we don’t know, it’s OK to speculate – here’s why I think he’s doing this – as long as we make it clear that this is our opinion, based solely on our own experience. Others may arrive at a completely different explanation based on their experiences.  And ALL those opinions could be wrong if the "why" is not subjected to objective testing or research. 

It’s always a good idea to try to think about more than one possible explanation for a behavior and then use the critical thinking skills found in the definition above to choose the best explanation based on the information we have at the time.  

A comment by a Richard Paul on the C.T. site says

“If we are trying to foster quality thinking, we don’t want students simply to assert things; we want them to try to reason things out on the basis of evidence and good reasons.”

Another statement we should all take to heart.  It’s easy to come up with a list of common assertions about dog and cat behavior.  Here’s a short list we brainstormed in under 3 minutes and we’re betting you can add to it:

  • Indoor only cats have longer life spans than ones allowed outdoors.
  • Irish setters are airheads and not very smart. (fill in your breed and behavior statement!)
  • Punishment causes aggression.
  • Licking is an obsessive-compulsive behavior.
  • A dog that has tasted blood is more dangerous and likely to bite.
  • Chaining dogs causes them to be aggressive.
  • A temperament test is similar to a human personality test, and can predict how dogs will behave in many situations to a high probability.
  • Dominant dogs are more likely to urine-mark.
  • Allowing dogs to sleep on their owners’ beds is one of the causes of dominance aggression.

Now ask yourself – where is the evidence for any of these statements? If we assume all these assertions to be true without considering alternatives, we are definitely not employing critical thinking skills.  There is some research that pertains to some of those assertions, but the results do not unequivocally support the assertions.

Thinking critically allows us to consider alternative explanations.  That in turn helps us come up with new ideas to accomplish training and behavior modification goals that we would otherwise not have thought of if we unquestionably accept the many assertions in our field that lack reasonable supporting evidence. 

If you want to improve your training and behavior modification skills, by developing your critical thinking skills and bring a more scientific approach to your work, AND get access to tools and forms that will help you, our two session course on  "How to Use the Scientific Method to Track and Improve Your Behavior and Training Results" is available from  OR you can become a member of Behavior Education Network, where these courses and more than 50 others are available as benefits to members.

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