If you search google for science-based training, you’ll find a bit of information about learning theory and positive reinforcement. In the dog training and behaviour world, the fact that someone uses positive reinforcement has become synonymous with being science-based or evidence-based. But there’s really SO MUCH MORE to the science of training and behaviour.

5 benefits to using science in training and behaviour modification

  1. Improve your knowledge and understanding of behaviour

  2. Help you to choose the type of training methods that you use

  3. Learn new, effective methods for training and behaviour modification

  4. Learn information from other species, or interspecies relevance?

  5. Improve your critical thinking skills

1 – Improve your knowledge and understanding of behaviour

There is new information coming out all the time about the basics of animal behaviour, and in fields such as ethology, cognition, pharmacology, anthrozoology, and more.

Understanding how and why animals behave the way they do can help us to understand and potentially alter behaviour that may be perfectly natural for dogs, but the humans they live with don’t particularly love. It’s also an area that is really fun to nerd out in, as understanding species that are different from us can be really fascinating.

We can learn about:

  • Prevalence of various behaviour problems

  • Associations there might be to medical problems or other behaviour

  • How behaviour medications work

  • Development of certain behaviour

  • And so much more…

2 – Help you to choose the type of training methods that you use

A majority of the time, when someone says that they use science-based methods, they’re saying or insinuating that they used primarily positive reinforcement based methods.

There is a lot of science on learning theory, including both operant conditioning (where voluntary behavior is altered by consequences) and classical conditioning (which involves involuntary behaviour modified through association with other stimuli).

The fundamental learning theory research was done quite a while ago. However, more recently, there has been applied research coming out that has looked at:

  • Positive reinforcement

  • Balanced training (which is typically a combination of positive reinforcement and positive punishment)

  • Aversives

  • Comparisons between different training types and their effects and associations on training success, dog behaviour, and the human-animal bond

This research can be used to help inform the type of training and behaviour modification that we use with animals, and is also helpful information to provide to pet owners and others that work with animals to help improve animal welfare.

Anecdotal evidence vs science

One topic that comes up a lot when discussing different training methodology is anecdotal evidence, or someone’s experience using a particular type of training method. I’m not saying that experience isn’t valuable – we all tweak and adjust what we do based on the positive or negative outcomes in our daily lives, and in training and behaviour modification. However, sometimes an individual’s success is used to argue the global benefits to all other dogs, trainers, or consultants. They may very well see positive outcomes, however this is dependent on that particular person, their very specific methods of doing things (which may have intricacies that others cannot replicate), the population of animals they work with, and more.

When looking at results from scientific research, we know that there was a hypothesis being tested, and typically we can look at a body of research that can explain a phenomenon better than a single study or experience.

Personally, I use scientific evidence as a basis for what I do, and then tweak and test small details based on my own experience or that of others.

3 – Learn new, effective methods for training and behaviour modification

Those working in training and behaviour modification have learned from mentors and develop or tweak methods. It’s normal to get comfortable with those methods and the results (received) with them. However, there is always room for improvement.

Research studies go beyond personal experiences and look at results using different people and controlling for other variables. This area is just beginning to gain popularity in research

For example, there is science on:

  • The use of clicker training

  • Various protocols for behavior modification such as aggression

Getting more information about the success of different techniques and protocols can help us tweak what we’re doing to get more success, or try new methods that have been shown to lead to improvement with many different dogs in different areas and working with different experts.

4 – Learn information from other species 

In many cases, research in other species can be applied to what you’re doing, something I call interspecies relevance. Learning about other species can make you consider:

  • Their differences and similarities, learning about animal behaviour in general

  • How the information presented could be applied or tweaked to the species you’re working with

A lot of research in dogs in particular, started much later than that of other species. For a long time, dogs weren’t really considered an appropriate research subject, and it’s been more recently as the bond between dogs and people has been more valued and accepted in society and in the scientific community that this research has taken off.

One example is the grimace scale, which was originally developed for rodents in research. The scale looks at changes in the facial expression of the mouse or rat, and allowed researchers to determine if animals were in pain in various situations, such as post-surgery, to assess effectiveness of pain medication, etc. From this work, feline and equine scales have now been developed.

5 – Improve critical thinking skills

Learning how to really assess new scientific information can ensure that you’re using information that is valid, but also gives you skills to start to critically assess how you approach working with animals

Critical thinking is a valuable skill for all of us to have, and one that we can continue to work on. Thinking critically can allow us to really assess the information we take in, looking at the quality of the evidence, bias, and alternative explanations.

This can be helpful in many areas, from assessing the information we consume while learning, to decisions in our personal lives. Importantly, for those working with animals, it can help us to assess the protocols and procedures we use in order to keep improving.


Using science to help inform our training and behaviour modification can help us in many ways, and helps to improve the welfare of the animals we work with.

If you’d like a handy glossary of terms that defines many of the scientific topics we’ll be discussing, please go to