Don't Make These Mistakes

Learn the top 10 Mistakes dog owners make when training their dogs, and what you need to know to avoid them.

Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes kneels next to Malinois with tug during training.
Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels at Heart Dog Studios

I can’t tell you how many times I publish something and people get angry.

I think it’s a function of just being on the Internet.

It seems that, no matter how tolerant I try to be, there’s always that handful of people whose opinions differ from mine, that will inevitably go on the attack.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE reading everyone’s comments. And I love a good, productive and respectful discussion on techniques or theory. I don’t claim to be right all the time. And I’m a sucker for learning and exploring alternative perspectives.

But there always seems to be a few that take it too far.

I always find it funny, when they attack me personally when I write something they don’t agree with.

Attack my voice, my hair, or clothing. Like that is a constructive use of time.

That, or I’ll get threats, and people telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to own dogs.

LOL…okay….nevermind the backyard breeders and the dog fighters. The large number of dogs that die in shelters or are otherwise homeless. But THIS person who clearly loves dogs and dedicates her life to them but disagrees with my fundamental ideology should lose her rights to dog ownership! Nice try.

I guess there will always be those people that can’t deal with someone that has a different opinion than they do…

But that’s beside the point.

I think, one of my favorite arguments I see however tends to be the one that starts out with…

“You’re wrong because Scientific Studies say…”

This one is my favorite.

Because as a college level statistics tutor and a biochemist by degree, I know there are no absolutes in these types of studies. And I’ve learned that studies like these are simply a jumping off point for further exploration and analysis.

I’m not wrong. We simply have different opinions and experiences (which believe it or not, is okay!).

Here’s the (perhaps hard to stomach) truth.

Blindly following science is irresponsible.

There, I said it.

Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes sits in grass next to Malinois rolling on his back.
Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

It’s prudent to stay current on the latest studies. It’s good in any profession to continue to evolve and progress.

But I’m here to tell you that scientific studies are not the foundation upon which you should build your relationship with your dog.

Here’s one of my favorite examples.

“Science says dominance doesn’t exist”

Well, that’s not really what it says, but that’s not the point.

Truth is, decades ago, science said otherwise. And people blindly followed the research, until it was disproven.

Despite the fact that all those years back they were wrong, THIS time they’re right…right?

Why leverage your entire training ideology (and your relationship with your dog) on behavioral studies that will probably be challenged, disproven, proven, and argued for eternity?

(Guys, don’t lose focus. I’m not arguing for or against the idea of dominance here. Don’t take this as me saying we need to revisit dominance and pack theory – that’s not what I’m saying, and that’s not the point. It’s just an example)

And the truth is, science happens every day in your home.

In your interaction with your dog.

Because no scientific study featuring a sample of Golden Retrievers or Labradors, or any mix of pet dogs for that matter, regardless of how big the sample is will effectively represent my Malinois’ behavior.

Or account for my lifestyle…

Or account for many of the other variables that simply can’t be accounted for.

I see it every day…

One study says beer is good for you in moderation…

Another says you should never drink…

One study says to consume coconut oil on the regular for improved health…

Another cautions against it.

Guys…back in the day cigarettes and Coca-Cola were thought to be GOOD for you!

So should you follow science?

Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes stands next to leashed Malinois that is laying in grass.
Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

Yes. 

Don’t automatically discredit it – that isn’t what this is about. To remain effective, you should always be in the practice of learning and evolving your method.

Instead, stay current. Read and understand the science. (Or if you aren’t really into it, align yourself with a dog trainer that is.)

But your direct experience matters just as much as some scientific study.

Actions and reactions speak louder than any journal publication can.

So don’t overthink this. 

Rather than second guessing yourself, or blindly following protocols that are subject to be disproven at any given moment, instead, do what works for you and your dog.

Whenever you are implementing your training, perform your own “not-so-scientific analysis”.

Ask yourself:

  1. Is what I’m doing working? Am I getting the results that I want?
  2. Is what I’m doing supporting my end goal?
  3. Do I (and my dog) feel good about what I’m doing? Are we generally happy after training?

If the answer is yes to all three, stay the course – even if a scientific study or a very opinionated (and sometimes downright mean) dog trainer says otherwise.

In my opinion, one of the hardest hurdles to overcome in training your dog, and the one thing that regularly obliterates progress and the human K9 bond is overthinking and second-guessing yourself.

And it can be near impossible to avoid if you truly care about your dog and want what’s best. It can be challenging, even for the best dog trainers and handlers to overcome the very loud opinions criticizing everything you do and citing scientific studies to back up their claims.

But the truth is your experience matters just as much as a scientific study. So don’t be afraid to trust your gut.

Do it because it improves your relationship with your dog. Not because a scientific paper, or an Internet bully somewhere told you to.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    13 replies to "Science, Dog Training and the Power of Experience"

    • Shari Forst

      Love your articles. You’re so right we should never stop learning . I read behavior journals all of the time looking for new information. I have also evolved and changed my opinion over the last 25 years. You have to. That’s how you grow both personally and professionally.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks! Absolutely. Never stop learning. Always grow and evolve <3 It's the best part about dog training. I enroll in 2-3 classes every month, and read the journals regularly. I absolutely love learning new things that help me better help dogs!

        • Lydia

          What journals do you read?

    • Douglas A McCullough

      HI Meg, really enjoy your prospective. Always second guessing myself in training my 4 GSD’S that also live in the house. One 3.5 year old girl who moved in recently has a BH and is amazing. That gives me a goal. Don’t know much about her past, other than trained and titled in Italy. One major parameter in all training is patterns. 4 very different dogs, all behaviors, good and not so, follow repetitious patters. So in every behavior I try to instill in the dogs, I try to repeat the process exactly the same way every time. (If it works.) Amazing how almost all behavior in dogs follows patterns. Thanx

    • Rhea Machado

      If only I had the unlimited funds, or even just more funds, so that I could attend the variety of seminars and trainings that I want. Even when I watch someone and think, “wow I would NEVER do it that way” I still learned something that in turn makes me a better trainer. I like how everyones different methods of doing the same behavior can work differently for different dogs in different stages of learning. I want to have so many tools in my toolbox that it takes me an hour to pick one! LOL

    • Andrew Guineay

      Hi Meagan,
      Wow, thank you for this, it was as if you were reading my mind.

      I’ve only been practicing force free science based training for about three and a half years, so pretty new to it, and often I’ve found myself in conflict between getting it right or doing what I feel is right and works for us. I tried hard in the beginning to follow the “rules” and to be fair when first starting out I feel it is best to stay in the guide lines, so not to confuse your dogs. But as I’ve got to know how they tick, what makes them want to work/play I’ve been able to use “what works, what makes my pups happy” I do feel when I am too uniformed in training, I’m not enjoying it, and I have to remind myself I got a dog so we can share fun moments with, not feel as if I’m doing a exam every time we play. ????

      • Meagan Karnes

        ^^^Yes. THIS. So much THIS ^^^ Having a dog should be a joy. Not a scientific experiment. Fun first. Always 😉 Keep up the awesome work! Your passion shows in your training (love your videos over at The Dog Park!)

    • Heather

      Ah, the voice of reason!

    • Kee van Deurs

      Oh boy ! Reading, viewing and listening at least a couple of hours a day – information overload…no real absorbing – just cramming it in because I want my dog to be the best she can.
      The 3 questions you listed just nailed it for me !!! I’m writing them down !
      And highlighting the ‘over-thinking – yup ! I can get so caught up analyzing (now her tail is relaxed, or is it, is it swinging or wagging, bla bla bla) that I lose sight of the journey LOL

      Keep these and your videos coming !

    • Shannon howard

      I believe that as a trainer it our responsibility to continue our education in all aspecests of training. No one method works for every situation. And there are tons of different areas to educate yourself in, there is never enough time in the day! I agree with what works and gets results and in the end there is a happy healthy dog and owner.

    • Newsguy

      Thanks for the chapter.

    • Steve m

      Very good ready and great way to share about science!

    • Lila Zachwatowicz

      Thank you for that one! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.