REVIEW – The Science Behind Dog Training, Science Festival


By Freda O’Byrne

The title of the lecture was ‘The science behind dog training’ and consisted of two parts; the first consisted of a powerpoint presentation on the psychology behind different approaches to dog training and the second was a demonstration by the dog stars of  Auchinlay Dog Agility Group.

The evening was enthusiastically, in fact entertainingly, introduced by Richard Wiseman, professor in “public psychology” at the University of Hertfordshire and the Science Festival’s first Guest Curator.

He welcomed animal behaviourist and trainer Elaine Henley, principal lecturer on Animal Behaviour at Glasgow Metropolitan Colleges onto the stage for the first part of the evening – the science bit. Elaine gave us an overview of the developments in psychology relevant to dog training – we all remember Pavlov and his dogs but we also met a fellow called Skinner who advocated a form of training called Operant Conditioning  – basically I think I understood what was said to mean that if we make a mistake – we try to remember it and do things differently next time. Similarly if what we did works – we do it again. It is learning due to the natural consequences of our actions. Something I am still working on for myself never mind my dog!

Elaine then went on to talk in some depth of reward based training which does what it says  on the tin – gives a  positive response immediately during or after a desired behavior.  For example, when a dog sits down he is rewarded as soon as his rear end touches the ground. We were told timing must be immediate in that we had five seconds to respond to a positive behaviour and three seconds to a negative one or the dog will not understand the connection. Furthermore consistency of commands and cues is essential if the dog was to understand us – they read signals and sounds but do not speak english or any other language we were firmly reminded.
There is no doubt that Elaine is a very engaging and experienced animal behaviourist but her delivery and connection with the audience was hampered by the over use of the powerpoint screen. Her presentation contained almost too much information for the time she was allocated.

When she finished the floor was opened up for questions from the audience and this section was fascinating and far too short. We learnt that the collie chasing shadows should be brought to the vet to rule out any illness first, that Lottie’s eyes should be washed by an adult only in incremental stages and be accompanied by a treat each time to help her accept the activity and that the long legged Parson Jack Russell, who got stuck down rabbit holes, needed to be even thinner than he already was.

Next onstage was Eric Ferguson animal welfare officer for Clackmannshire Council who founded ADAG Auchinlay Dog Agility Group over 25 years ago to enable pet dog owners to train in Agility. Eric has also played a leading role in the development of Scotland’s new Dangerous Dogs Act. What was very striking was the variety of dogs taking part – a staffordshire bull terrier, a collie, a beagle, a poodle, a border terrier, a portuguese terrier, a rescue dog – all types and personalities and all very highly motivated to obey instruction from their owners.

The dogs performed obedience exercises with astonishing accuracy and timing, ran an agility circuit including jumps, tight turns, a tunnel and a platform on which they had to lie still for five seconds mid race with glee, and approached a game of flyball like furred rockets.

What was extraordinary was how focused the dogs were all the time – despite having several hundred people cheering and shouting encouragement. Eric made a comment which stood out to me – he said that the first step was to enjoy your dog, find ways of playing with it and then build from that.

Again the question and answer section brought a cascade of responses from the floor and after a farewell greeting from Richard Wiseman, the audience were then encouraged to come down, meet the dogs and talk to the presenters. It took the technical staff asking folk to leave the building for fear of incurring overtime costs to eventually tear us all away.