Dog Training – Unsensible Dog Training

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for pets


It is an excellent rule to be observed in all disputes, that men should give soft words and hard arguments; that they should not so much strive to vex as to convince each other.  John Wilkins English clergyman 1614-1672

I have expressed the view on many occasions that the current ‘touchy-feely’ approach to dogs is not in their best interests or ours.  Dogs are unique within the animal kingdom, partly as a result of their extraordinarily flexible genetic base and partly as a result of the way which we have used and exploited those abilities for our own purposes.  The changes which have been wrought via this astonishingly rapid development encouraged by human induced alterations in their DNA has not just affected their physical characteristics but their temperament too.

Our dependence on the love and affection we receive from our dogs has led some to believe that their  intelligence has kept pace with the enhancement and development of their amazing instinctive abilities.  There is no doubt that the evolution of the dog will continue and who knows what the future might bring but, for the moment, dogs are very much creatures caught between the world of the wild and the world of humans.  Much research into primates, dolphins and horses shows that intelligence is evolving in other animals but the dog remains different and, to us, special.  This very distinctiveness has led to significant problems within society through the development of an interdependence which at the extreme means that they are often treated more like children than animals.  We sometimes ‘trust’ our dogs in the way we would ‘trust’ the word or action of human: this is not a safe or sensible attitude.

The ‘new’ approaches to training

Those who 30 years ago began to question the harsh and traditional training regimes then accepted – people like John Fisher and John Rogerson to name but two, -have seen their ideas which were designed to encourage positive reinforcement of ‘good’ behaviour, being distorted out of all recognition by ‘modern’, academic animal behaviourists in whose interests it is to provide complicated (and sometimes inaccurate) answers to questions of behaviour based on research which ignores the wide range of complex domestic situations within which dogs find themselves.  They have exploited our natural desire not to hurt animals to the extent that even techniques preventing them harming themselves or others are seen as cruel.

Some members of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council (PETbc) an organisation which brings together  people with immense experience and expertise in training dogs and modifying their behaviour, believe that one of the foremost exponents of this approach is Professor John Bradshaw late of Southampton and Bristol Universities.  They think that he is someone who has used his academic position to promote his ideas into the national consciousness through various training, lobby and charity groups and they have just published a research paper which claims to prove it.  They refer to studies done in the past under his auspices and point out that they arrived at and promoted conclusions which are not justified by the research on which they are based.  They also say that this research has not been submitted for peer review because, as their paper makes clear, it would inevitably have been severely criticised.  However, this review by experts working in the field shows many of his recommendations to be fundamentally flawed.

On his retirement Professor Bradshaw published a book titled ‘In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding’.  This is a book which was reviewed with enthusiasm in the national press, mostly by those who know little about the practice of the training and behaviour modification of dogs.  One or two of the more responsible Nationals published reviews by recognised practitioners but all concentrated on readability and ‘interest’ and it was noticeable that virtually none made any comment on the accuracy of the examples or the viability of his conclusions.

New analysis and critique

The book has now been thoroughly analysed by two highly qualified very experienced dog trainers and behaviourists (Dr David Sands and Sarah Muncke).  You can read the full paper under the Education Article on their website (  David is a human-companion animal practitioner who specialises in the treatment of behavioural problems displayed by dogs, cats, birds, horses and even exotic species. He is an internationally established animal-related author and photographer having also researched human psychology and zoology. David gained his doctorate in ethology (the science of animal behaviour) at the Faculty of Science, Liverpool University.  Sarah has over 30 years experience in animal rescue work and the management and care of dogs. For the past 15 years Sara has been the manager of an independent canine welfare home. During her career Sara has assessed over 16,000 dogs on behalf of the Chiltern Dog Rescue Society.

Their critique is a devastating analysis of the liberties they say that Professor Bradshaw has taken with the facts. Embedded in its pages are, according to them,  regurgitated acres of distorted scientific argument – some of which has been the subject of previous Speakers Corners* (I thoroughly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre for an analysis of ‘bad science’ techniques of which this book is now said to be an excellent example). A key criticism is contained in an early paragraph of the analysis: ‘One of the strongest arguments against Bradshaw is the way he dumps all dog trainers/practitioners into a single negative group save only those he has an affinity/association with. If anyone published a book declaring all other biologists to be wrong – to be misled by research, mistaken about experiments and modeling and declared they are all using inconclusive methodologies – they would be challenged.’

Apparently Professor Bradshaw makes no attempt to understand or take into account the skills or experience of many dog trainers and behaviourists working effectively in this country and champions techniques which, in the view of many practitioners (much more experienced than me, I should add) has actually led to an increase in biting incidents (again see previous Speakers’ Corners*).  And if Professor Bradshaw has ever treated or trained a dog professionally we appear to be given no evidence that this is the case.

Strong stuff you may say – but you do not have to take my word for it.

Roger Mugford’s assessment

Having read the critique, Roger Mugford wrote the following which I quote with his permission: ‘The man-dog relationship should be a fascinating field for scientific study, but sadly it has attracted the least able academics who have confined their research to exploring the most anodyne topics. A recent analysis by Liverpool University (and sponsored by DEFRA) into the scientific worth of all recent published papers on dog behaviour concluded that only three out of thousands were properly conducted and produced robust data (see more details in previous Speakers Corners*).  None of John Bradshaw’s numerous publications passed the Liverpool test.  Bradshaw’s working ‘method’ whilst at Southampton University, then later at Bristol, was to pick a populist topic likely to excite Daily Mail readers (such as the defecatory habits of dogs), set unpaid students onto a tiny pool of pets and owners, then run fancy statistical analyses on dubiously scored behavioural data. This ‘rubbish in/rubbish out’, technique is used to outrageous effect in Bradshaw’s latest book. ‘In Defence of Dogs’, which contains a litany of untested theories that were probably only promulgated to milk the academic grant system and never meant to seriously contribute to development of our dog  culture. Unfortunately, this pretentious book is likely to have damaging consequences if it is taken seriously.  Imagining that dogs are the only species on the planet that do not develop social order by competitively determined dominance-subordinance systems, is a narrow interpretation of the ethological consensus.  Dr Bradshaw has done well ‘working’ the university and commercial grant system: he has worked in an uncritical world that rewards apparent effectiveness, numbers of post graduate students and of course, papers published.’

I am afraid Dr Sand’s paper refuting much of what is contained in Professor Bradshaw’s book will not be given the prominence and publicity which surrounded the launch of the book it criticises but I least we can hope that those serious about training dogs and modifying their behaviour will have access to the facts



2 Comments on “Dog Training – Unsensible Dog Training”

  1. Mabel Says:

    It’s great to read this useful post on dog training.
    I have a concern however. How do you work with an older dog?

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