Is “Literary License” Costing Us Credibility?

Consider the following statements that we see frequently:

Punishment causes aggression

Punishment causes harm

Fear results in aggression, no exceptions

All aggression is fear motivated

Dominance in dogs doesn’t exist

Dogs never bite without warning

We’ve probably all seen these claims in any number of places.  And sometimes the authors go further, maintaining that all of those statements are “science based”, “science has proven” them to be true, or something similar.

When we’ve talked about our concerns regarding the accuracy of these claims to a couple of folks who’ve made them, a few of them gave similar responses that surprised us. They replied that while they recognized the statements might not be absolutely true 100% of the time, as stated, their intentions were to educate people.  And that’s easier if you simplify things and talk about what happens most of the time.  The exceptions, or less common outcomes, only confuse people and dilute your message.  We’re paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of the reasoning.

So according to this view, apparently, with the right intentions, it’s acceptable to exaggerate a bit, or take “literary license” in order to get one’s point across and have it more likely to be accepted.

This approach is extremely damaging to the dog training field’s efforts to be more grounded in the sciences of animal behavior and learning.  And it damages the public’s view of the trustworthiness of animal behavior science and scientific research.

First, none of the statements above, as worded, are supported by science.  The point of this article is not to get into a discussion about scientific methods, but technically, science doesn’t “prove” anything.  Science deals in probabilities and correlations.   Science is “messy” (perhaps complex is a better word) and rarely produces absolutes.

Anytime you see an all or nothing statement, as in the examples above, chances are it’s not an accurate representation of scientific findings.  We’ve taught several courses to our Behavior Education Network members about how to identify the “red flags” in so called “science based” claims (“What Does It Mean To Be ‘Science Based’”, and “Logical Fallacies In Understanding Pet Behavior” are just two examples).  In fact, we’ve even developed a checklist for doing so (“Five Things To Watch For When You Hear ‘Science Based’”).  And we have a comprehensive training program – “The Professional’s System For Decoding and Applying Canine Behavior Science” on

The bottom line is that words matter.  Words affect credibility.  No matter how much we believe in a certain idea or message, it doesn’t help our cause to exaggerate or ignore that things in the world of animal behavior often aren’t as straightforward as we would hope.  When we forget that, then we go back to beliefs, opinions and philosophies, not “science based” information.   Opinions, philosophy, and beliefs are what give us statements like “all pit bulls are dangerous”, “dogs are pack animals”, “you have to show a dog who’s alpha, and more”.

If we revise the examples we used at the start of this article to more accurately reflect what can be reasonably said about behavior we’d say:

Both negative and positive punishment can elicit aggression under certain circumstances.


Some types of punishers, or aversive stimuli, can result in both physical and behavioral harm

Fear can elicit aggression

Aggression is sometimes motivated by fear

Some social relationships that dogs form with people and with each other, can be described as dominant-subordinate relationships.  But not all.

Most dogs display threats or other indications (warning signs) that a bite will follow, but other dogs are unpredictable and can bite without signaling their intention to bite.

The qualifiers that we believe are necessary may not sit well with some people.  But education is not about absolutes and neither is science.  We can best educate the public and serve animals by sharing information that is as accurate, unbiased, and as up to date as possible.




  • Suzanne-Dan

    January 20, 2017

    We’re glad you appreciate it Margie, and thanks for letting us know

  • Margie Hillenbrand

    January 20, 2017

    Thank you. Well-said.

  • Suzanne-Dan

    January 19, 2017

    Thanks Parvene. You do your part as well. It takes all of us.

  • Parvene Farhoody

    January 19, 2017

    It is nice to see that you continue to work hard at maintaining the integrity of “science” and do not let people “get away” with being lazy with their verbal behavior.

    I applaud your persistent efforts.

    Parvene Farhoody
    Behavior Matters,® Inc.
    NYC, NY 11372

    City University of New York – Queens College
    Psychology Department
    PhD Program in Behavior Analysis; Adjunct Lecturer
    Office: College of Staten Island
    Building 4S, Room 105
    Phone: (718) 982-4082
    FAX: (718) 982-4114

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