Pondering bumper stickers and Defining disciplinary expertise: A follow-up to my dog training non-controversy post

For many years, I never wanted to be one of those people with bumper stickers on my car.  (Although I do confess to having sported a few LA Kings stickers during my ultra-fanatical hockey phase in high school.)  Because I always thought, who the heck wants to see my personal beliefs and values plastered all over my car while they’re stuck behind me on the 405 freeway? Bumper stickers don’t change minds, they just annoy people.

Buster Brown and I drove cross country from Michigan to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in southern Utah last summer for an internship. Over the course of our 3-day trek, I saw a total of 7 Best Friends bumper stickers.

But then as I got older, more informed and more passionate, and sadly more jaded, I realized something.  Every time I saw a car with a bumper sticker that resonated with me in some way,  it made me smile.  And that’s when it occurred to me:  Bumper stickers aren’t for reaching the people who don’t agree with you.  They’re for reaching the people who do.  They’re for letting all those like-minded folks out there know that they’re not alone.  And even occasionally, maybe sparking some curiosity from those who are on the fence or unaware altogether.

An entertaining comment thread broke out in a dog training forum on Reddit regarding my climate change and dog training post, that made me chuckle about my transition from anti-bumper sticker to pro-.

Preaching to the choir?

Here’s one snippet from a discussion between someone who disliked my post and a fellow reader who questioned their reasons for disliking it:

[–]jmysl 7 points 5 days ago

I hate articles like this because they’re written to preach to the choir, and not to carefully, rationally, point out why certain methods are incorrect or how they can be improved upon. Rather this seems more a tirade against a tool and a lost teaching opportunity.

A popular complaint is that my post is simply an attempt to “preach to the choir, and not to carefully, rationally point out why certain methods are incorrect . . ” However, “carefully” and “rationally” are exactly how I would characterize my writing of this particular post.  (Okay, sure it’s pretty hotheaded and emotionally-fueled too.)  For me though, preaching to the choir is when I sit down with a good friend and a bottle of wine and rant for five hours about how dog rescue groups we’ve volunteered for should start focusing on quality of care instead of quantity of dogs rescued.  Preaching to the choir is when a pit bull rescue group posts on their Facebook page, asking for volunteers and some fanatic replies with, “People are so cruel! If they could only see how amazing this breed is!”  Preaching to the choir is showing up to a frat party full of drunk, naked kids and screaming, “Let’s party!” at the top of your lungs.  It could all just as easily have gone unsaid.

Peaches the therapy pit bull loves the idea of showing up somewhere and yelling, “Let’s party!” Except her idea of a party is a room full of babies, children and cats that she can hug.

What I did with this post, or at least hoped to do, was slap a fat bumper sticker on my car for all those professionals and experts in the field of animal behavior, who have proven themselves to be expert practitioners and recognized knowledge producers in their discipline, and who continue to struggle against the unrelenting waves of professional frauds and hacks clouding their message.  It’s a bumper sticker for those of us who try to do our research, who make an effort to read and consider the most contemporary and evidence-based knowledge and information in a given field and to do our best to implement that knowledge in responsible, thoughtful ways.

Questioning “Expertise”

Let’s look at another snippet from this same comment thread, this time questioning what constitutes expertise:

[–]chrisrico 2 points 5 days ago*

I think the problem that you’ll run into is that you’ll disagree with your opposition on who “the experts” are. To be fair, every argument from authority has the same problem – differing views on the legitimacy of the authority.

To put it another way…

I feel confident you define “the experts” to be “those who preach positive reinforcement”. The statement “among the experts, there is no controversy” is then a tautology because the group you have created is homogeneous by definition.

[–]llieaay 5 points 5 days ago

Yeah, but they are also the people with degrees.

[–]chrisrico 3 points 4 days ago

You know that people with degrees can be wrong, right?

[–]llieaay 4 points 4 days ago*

Absolutely! I agree. That’s not the same as there being debate in the field.

[–]chrisrico 3 points 4 days ago

Also, you seem to be implying that there are no people with degrees that advocate for punishment based training. If there were people with degrees that advocated punishment based training, would that change your mind?

[–]llieaay 4 points 4 days ago*

I didn’t mean to. I won’t get into the fringe opinions that exist in human psychology, because it’s too upsetting, but every field has it’s erm left field. I read a story about a paleontology PhD who (despite his thesis which contradicted this) believed that the Earth is actually only 6000 years old. There are anti-vaccine doctors. Dissent does exist everywhere, but it doesn’t constitute debate in the field.

Couldn’t have said it better.  This is the real problem with “the field.”  Those who have failed to learn anything about animal behavior and training and yet continue to espouse their own outdated, and unsupported beliefs constitute dissent from the majority view of the field, not debate in it.  Hence my question about whether you are a dissenter creating noise or a true member of this community.  Here’s another response to the dissenter’s idea of expertise.

[–]retractableclause 3 points 4 days ago

I’d like to think that anyone involved in the animal training world would recognize animal behaviorists and ethologists as the experts.

Bravo!  I’d also like to think that animal behaviorists and ethologists are viewed as excellent examples of those typically and rightfully considered to be “experts.”  Coincidentally, those are some of the folks I listed in the opening paragraphs of my original post!

Defining “Expertise”

In my original post, I offered a handful of “expert” names with links to additional information demonstrating their expertise.  Here they are again, below:

the Adam Franks of the animal behavior community–Bob Bailey, Jean Donaldson, Nicholas Dodman, Patricia McConnell, Sophia Yin, John Bradshaw, Marc Bekoff, Ian Dunbar and countless others–have not only been in complete agreement on how dogs learn and the most effective and humane methods for training and caring for them for over a decade, but they’ve been presenting, writing, teaching and researching the topic in as many public forums as possible for just as long.

While certainly representing only a fraction of  “experts” in the field of animal behavior and dog training, the above mentioned names are representative of expertise in this field as it is acknowledged by its members.  Every discipline has contributing members whose names take on symbolic, or synecdochical meaning.  For example, my fellow education colleagues and I don’t need to explain to one another how we define expertise in the study of teaching and learning when we use names like Lee Shulman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pam Grossman, Deborah Ball, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Sam Wineburg.  The range of professional knowledge and experience embodied in names like these, while certainly not all-inclusive, is representative of the field as a whole.  You may not have ever heard of them, but you better believe that anybody who studies education with any sincere interest in participating in and contributing to the the field has.

So, if you are unfamiliar with the names of those animal behaviorists, ethologists, dog trainers, and veterinary behaviorists who I originally cited, now would be a great time to do a little reading and research and maybe learn something about this professional arena you claim to be a part of.

Here are some common characteristics we would expect to find in a legitimate “expert” in any given discipline or field.

An expert is someone who:

Hudson wonders what the “experts” have to say about the most effective methods for extracting your squeaky ball from the clutches of an angry cat

There are lesser known dog trainers and behavior consultants all over the world doing incredible and responsible work with dogs and their owners because they understand that the above criteria are what distinguish true leaders in the field and make a point of learning from and modeling their professional practice on what those leaders are doing, and innovating in similar ways.  Whatever our passion, be it dogs, painting, organic gardening, civil rights, beer brewing or open source programming, we’re all free of course to do as we please pretty much whenever we like and nobody has much of a right to stop us.  But the minute we decide to become an active participants in a given field of study and publicly advertise ourselves as a knowledgeable members in it, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to the field. We are no longer acting as just individuals, but rather as part of a complex and interdependent web of actions and ideas.

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About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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One Response to Pondering bumper stickers and Defining disciplinary expertise: A follow-up to my dog training non-controversy post

  1. Pingback: “Hey, have you heard the one about climate change and dog training?” | The Unexamined Dog

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