Wherever did anyone get the idea that the definition of a science-based trainer is one who believes in the four quadrants?  The quadrants are a reality that explain the ways that we acquire behaviors. They exist. If you know that, then you’re educated as to the basics of how learning works. Good for you!  Animals, including humans, learn in different ways. So far so good.

What is interesting about science and dog training is not the existence of the four quadrants. What is interesting about science and dog training is what scientists believe about which quadrant leads to the fastest acquisition of behaviors with the lowest risk of damage to the learner.

Science suggests that positive reinforcement training is the way to go. One reason is that motivation is closely linked to learning; motivated learners learn faster because they are trying to understand. A second reason is that positive reinforcement training is associated with low stress (not getting the desired cookie is less stressful than fear of physical discomfort).  Minimally stressed learners learn faster.  That’s science too.

Belief in the quadrants should be a given if a person has a basic education regarding learning theory, but that says nothing about whether or not you are science-based; just that you know a scientific fact.

If you want to teach a dog to sit, you have options! You can pull up on the collar and push down on the butt.  Then you can add the cue “sit”  Eventually, your dog will learn “sit”.

Another option would be to hold a cookie over a dog’s head. Add the cue “sit”.  Eventually, that dog will learn to sit.

In both cases learning has occurred; it’s a fact. Understanding this is neither here nor there in terms of whether or not you are a science-based trainer because science has given us a whole lot more than that!

Let’s take this a little further. Your dog will sit when you are holding a cookie or the dog is on a leash in the place where you trained the dog to comply. We know that learning has occurred in that situation.

Now let’s say you take that same dog into a new environment where dogs are running around nearby. You cue a sit and your dog does not sit! What has happened here?

Now we’re about to discover if you apply science to your training – are you a science-based trainer in your thinking?

Science and the four quadrants would say that learning has not occurred under this particular circumstance! The dog does not know how to sit when other dogs are running around. It has nothing to do with how you taught it in the first place because the dog’s response tell us if learning occurred – not what we think we taught. If the dog sits, then they have learned sit in this circumstance. If not?  They haven’t learned it for this circumstance.

A person who understands science would say that learning has not occurred, and they would do one of several things. For example, they might increase the value of that cookie, or they might move further away, or they might pull up on the collar and push down on the butt, or some other such thing.  But in all cases, they recognize that learning has not occurred under those circumstances and they set about to train it under this new circumstance.

And the trainer who is not science based? That person would say that learning has occurred, but the dog is not doing it! The dog knows what to do and is failing to perform. What they do next depends on the trainer but it’s likely that they might correct the dog since the dog already “knows” the behavior.

And there it is.  That is where science differentiates those who understand basic learning theory from those who do not.

But let’s not forget all of the other things that science has taught us!  Dogs learn faster when trainers focus on positive reinforcement.  Dogs learn faster under low stress.  And really, there’s a lot more to it than that; issues of arousal, management, length of training sessions, raising criteria, and of course, the cognitive stuff…animal emotions, etc.  When you cue a sit and the dog does not sit, the more you understand of science within training, the more likely you are to solve the problem easily and with minimal conflict or stress to the learner.  When you recognize that dogs feel similar emotions to humans, it’s a lot harder to apply a correction as a standard answer to not getting one’s way.

If your solution to challenges suggest you have one answer for everything – “more” of whatever you do (whether cookies or corrections) you need to do a whole lot more learning if you want to become an excellent trainer.

When someone calls themselves a science-based trainer, it is not because of their understanding of how animals learn. It is their understanding of ALL of the science related to learning…and that’s a lot more than the four quadrants!  No one can know it all, so now it comes down to intent – is a trainer making an effort to understand what the science is telling us? Do they use experience, logic or a combination of both to get to their answers?

This might also be a good time to point out that a positive reinforcement based trainer may or may not be skilled at their craft. You will find highly skilled +r trainers, and you will find poorly skilled +r trainers. The same is true in the balanced community; you will find highly skilled balanced trainers and you will find poorly skilled balanced trainers.  I have every reason to believe that competent trainers who have never heard of the four quadrants exist in both camps.

But science says….focus on positive reinforcement to give you a motivated and unstressed learner and you’ll be better off.

That’s it.

It just so happens that I don’t call myself a science-based trainer even though I go to some trouble to understand the science and to apply it correctly.  That’s because when I’m trying to solve problems, I don’t look to science; I usually look to my experience, which happens to be consistent with science.  That’s a blog for another day.