How to respond to fallacies in dog training

Article about logical fallacies in the dog training world
By Laure-Anne Viselé, February 2011

Dog professionals and differences of opinion

Anyone involved in dog training will agree: there is a shocking lack of consensus about even the most fundamental points.

I am all for diversity of opinion, but eventually, popular myths have GOT to be backed up by something vaguely ressembling logic.

Don’t get me wrong. I love divergent views. That’s why I love the Koda Diaries blog. It’s written by a very educated dog trainer with views often diametrically opposed to mine. Buuuuut, she presents her arguments rationally, and quotes her sources. Reading her stuff enriches my perspective.

So my point is this: by all means disagree with me, but please do better than a passionate tirade about dominance if you want to make a dent in my skepticism. Please, back it up with quality sources and sound logic.

Dog training and weak logic

In the course of my work, I meet dog pros from all allegiances, from the most extreme traditionalist to the fanatic New Ager. And when I say fanatic New Ager, I am talking communicating-to-the-spirit-of-your-dead-dog’s-grandmother.

At times my face distorts into such scepticism that the inevitable (and loaded) question eventually rears its ugly head: “What? You don’t agree?”.

I invariably regret biting the bait, as the counter-arguments are:

  • often insulting and personal, and
  • ALWAYS completely illogical.

Those of you who know me know that NOTHING grates on me more than weak logic. Be insulting, condescending, arrogant, aggressive, moronic or hysterical, but pleaaaaaaaaaaaase, be logical.

I don’t mind if you get your facts right/wrong (that’s a lie, I do mind, a lot, but that’s not the point), but please, make sure you got to that conclusion based on sound logic.

Basically, it’s not what you say, it’s how you get there.

Recurring fallacies and how to respond

Coming soon: a blog series about recurring fallacies in dog training, and how to respond to them.

To whet your appetite, here’s a small preview:

Ad hominem (‘against the person’)

How it works:

  • You say something.
  • Bob says: “That can’t be true, because you are (insert here whatever irrelevant – and often untrue – personal trait, action, circumstance)”.

Real-life example:

A dog trainer with strongly traditional views (dominance, leash jerking, etc.) talks to me about how he got driven out of business because of the lack of popularity in his harsh training methods. His explanation: “It’s all those whiny housewives, they’re all soft“.

Bob’s “argument” is:

  1. Implying that his customers were irrationally soft, emotionally weak, etc.; and
  2. That must be why they rejected his methods.

The fallacy is in assuming that his lack of success was due to a flaw in all of his customers, and in fact the world at large, for having become so liberal. As a side-point, perhaps a bit more self-criticism would have helped Bob keep his business afloat? In the meantime, Bob watches in anger as the world is being taken over by ‘spoilt dogs dominating their owners’ [sic].

When presented with such angry arguments, the only thing I can do is grit my teeth and try to walk away in one piece. It is clearly an emotional minefield for that guy, and you just don’t want to go there.

Here’s another example of ad hominem. I have heard this one so often I can write it backward:

  • (premise, true) Many behaviourists reject Cesar Milan’s methods
  • (supposition, can’t tell whether it’s true or false) Maybe they’re all jealous because they have not been as successful
  • (conclusion, fallacy) Therefore I shan’t heed their reservations.

Truth is, even if it was true that the comment came purely out of jealousy (good luck proving that, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument), is that grounds enough to reject the whole body of objections to Cesar Milan’s methods?

There’s loads more where these came from. Look out for the next in the Doggone logic series.

Want to share your opinion?

I really value your comments, so let me know what you think. I would particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Are also often confronted with very emotional dissent for your views on dog training
  • Have some pearls to share: best dog-related fallacy you’ve heard, and how it was defended.
  • Think I should get my smart alec mouth back to training school, and let the real pros do their job

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 16 February 2011 at 03:48 | Permalink

    Hi Laure-Anne,

    I so appreciate the timing of this post (at least my knowledge of it). I’ve recently joined an email list focused on dog behaviour science and the use of logical fallacies is incredible. Both ‘sides’ of the debates have been guilty of using them, and it’s almost devalued the entire list to the point where I am considering unsubscribing.

    I find that there is a lot of this in the dog world in general, not just in relation to training (thinking specifically about BSL, nutrition practices, spay & neuter, etc).

    Great post! Looking forward to more in the logic series!

    • Posted 16 February 2011 at 10:31 | Permalink

      Oh thanks, Ashley.

      It is incredible, isn’t it, how these fallacies abound. I know that people are passionate about their points, but this should never, in my mind, be to the detriment of fairness in logic.

      Like you say, the world of dog training is awash with controversial issues, like BSL, spay/not spay, raw food/not, etc. with its passionate advocates and detractors.

      Actually, have you voted on the Hot dog post yet? It shows a lot of these debated issues, lets you vote for a position, and then see the results.

      If we could all get our act together and see to it that we are fair and measured in our defense of our point, we could perhaps be closer to a consensus on some of them as a profession.

      But hey, I am preaching to the converted, aren’t I?

  2. Posted 16 February 2011 at 14:21 | Permalink

    That you are! I made a post last week to the email list I mentioned about using good logic in their arguments. Not a single person acknowledged my presence, but the insults and red herring continued to fly!

    • Posted 17 February 2011 at 10:42 | Permalink

      Goodness.

      Whyyyyyy? Oh whyyyy do people get personal to defend their point?

      I am going to set up a theme park called Rational Island for something, where geeks like you and me can relax without the delay stress of irrational arguments. What do you think? ; P

      Not sure it would be a commercial success, though, but I sure would enjoy it.

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