Can Dog Training Books Be Trusted?

Researchers assessed five best-selling dog training books for scientific accuracy – and found big variations in the quality of information they provide. Plus my dog training book recommendations.

Only some dog training books are scientifically accurate; a terrier rests on the settee

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you 

If people are going to spend their money on a dog training book, you would hope they would get advice that is useful, easy to follow, up-to-date and accurate. Unfortunately, some dog training books fall short, according to a review by Dr. Clare Browne (University of Waikato) et al of five best-selling books.

There is a silver lining in this story: some dog training books contain very good information. (You'll find my recommendations at the end of the article).

But the review found some popular dog training books include information that is inconsistent, scientifically inaccurate or unclear; suggest the use of punishment-based methods despite their association with negative outcomes; and use anthropomorphisms and references to leadership that may interfere with dog owners’ understanding of their pet’s behaviour. This is bad news for animal welfare. It’s also bad news for owners who may struggle with their dog’s behaviour due to following poor advice.

Dr. Clare Browne told me in an email,
“Good dog training books should have information that readers can understand and apply, but the information must also have a scientific basis. This review showed that not all of these popular books (that remained highly-ranked on large retailers' websites for years) meet these functions. This is a concern, because people who read some of these books may not be getting the best information in terms of training efficacy and animal welfare.” 
The review is framed in terms of what dog guardians need to know in order to train their dogs. Given that behaviour problems are a risk for dogs being surrendered to animal shelters, the scientists say, “if people’s training attempts are more successful, fewer dogs may be relinquished.”  There can be real-life consequences to following dog training advice.

The researchers selected five books based on their popularity. The books were initially chosen based on a search of three major online booksellers (Amazon UK and US and Fishpond NZ) in 2009; subsequent searches in 2012 and 2014 showed their continuing popularity.

The books included in the review are: Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier; The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell; It’s Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell; Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor; and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by Monks of New Skete.

The two books that come out of the review best (the silver lining) are It's Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell and Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor.

The researchers say It’s Me or the Dog has current information about dog behaviour and training, and provides the information in a way that’s accessible and easy for dog owners to follow. The researchers found Don't Shoot the Dog! contains great information and in-depth coverage of learning theory as applied to any species, including humans, although it is not specific to dogs. Both books have an emphasis on positive reinforcement.

Can dog training books be trusted? This review of five best-selling dog training books finds they don't all have good information in line with what science tells us about dogs
Photo: Michael Kraus; top, picsbyst (both Shutterstock)

The Dog Listener is based on the idea that dogs have a hierarchical structure and often compares dogs to wolves. Cesar’s Way is in part autobiography of Cesar Millan, and is based on the ideas of dominance, energy, and being the “pack leader”. How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend is based on the idea that humans should be the “alpha” and includes a lot about positive punishment.

So are these five books evidence-based? The scientists compared what the books say to what science tells us about how to train a dog.

The books were read thoroughly as well as searched for explanations of aspects of learning theory (e.g. positive reinforcement, positive punishment) and for information relevant to human-dog communication (e.g. body language, tone of voice, and timing). As well as general information, the researchers explicitly looked at how the books suggested people teach their dogs ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ and ‘come’.

The researchers counted how many times particular topics were mentioned as well as the quality of the information (e.g. how well the books defined positive reinforcement compared to a scientific definition).
The tallies for how many times positive reinforcement and positive punishment are mentioned are very interesting. Pryor mentions R+ 46 times and P+ 7 times, and Stilwell mentions R+ 52 times and P+ 9 times. This shows the strong emphasis these authors have on positive reinforcement. Fennell mentions R+ 30 times and P+ 4 times. Millan & Pelltier are the only ones to mention P+ more often than R+ (21 times vs 16 times, respectively). Monks of New Skete mention R+ 59 times and P+ comes up 58 times.

Both the Millan & Peltier book and Monks of New Skete use the word ‘correction’ to refer to some positive punishment, and Monks of New Skete reserve the word ‘punishment’ for more harsh punishments (e.g. jerking on the leash is described as a correction, but shaking and hitting the dog are referred to as punishment). As the scientists point out, inconsistencies in descriptions of reinforcement and punishment may be confusing to dog owners.

In terms of how the books covered learning theory (essential information if you want to train a dog), there was a lot of variation. The researchers say Pryor’s book provided the most comprehensive information, with a primary focus on positive reinforcement. Three of the books did not explain either reinforcement (Millan & Peltier), punishment (Stilwell), or both (Fennell), although they did have examples of them in the book. Monks of New Skete did explain both, but they advise starting with a low level of positive punishment and then increasing it over time. The scientists point out this is not consistent with the scientific literature; studies show that animals can habituate to punishment administered in this way, such that over time high intensity punishment will not stop the behaviour (although it might have been effective if used from the beginning). This is very harsh and not good for animal welfare.

"advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."

The timing of delivery of reinforcement and/or punishment is crucial, but the scientists found that only Pryor and Stilwell emphasized timing and gave clear, replicable advice.

Although all of the books referred to the use of classical conditioning (except for Pryor, which has a different focus), Stilwell was the only one to explain it.

Only three of the books contained instructions for how to teach dogs to 'sit', 'lie down', and 'come' (it's worth noting the other two do not describe themselves as dog training books, even though they are popular as such). Stilwell contained clear instructions using non-coercive methods; Fennell was also non-coercive, but the researchers felt the instructions sometimes lacked detail. Monks of New Skete had instructions that were easy to follow, but they suggested physically putting the dog in position (negative reinforcement). The researchers say, “this is surprising, as since the 1980s there has been a shift away from physically coercing dogs during training.”

The researchers found Pryor has great information, but by definition, since the book is about any animal, it was not specific to training dogs.

The level of detail about the cues people should use when teaching dogs also varied across the books.

The researchers discuss the literature on dog training methods which suggests potential risks to animal welfare from using confrontational techniques. They say,
“Although a causal link has not been established, it could be argued that punishment-based techniques have been shown to be associated with fewer benefits than reward-based training methods and in fact, have been associated with significant negative effects (e.g., aggressive responses). Considering all of this, advising the dog guardian public to use physically aversive training techniques, as suggested in some of these books, may not be the most prudent course of action in terms of safety and animal welfare."  
This is an important study since it is the first time scientists have investigated the type and quality of information available in best-selling dog training books. It is careful, thorough, and methodical – and to be frank, the results are alarming.

It is especially concerning that books that recommend aversive methods continue to be so popular, given the scientific literature suggests a risk to animal welfare from using these methods (as well as a potential risk to human welfare if the dog is aggressive in response). It shows just how much work needs to be done to teach people how best to train their dogs.

It also shows that as well as choosing a dog trainer wisely, it is important to choose dog training books carefully. Unfortunately many people will be guided by what is on the most popular lists.

In light of the books consistent position on the best-selling lists, the scientists say,
"this indicates the books’ on-going popularity and that they probably contribute significantly to the type of information that is accessed by dog guardians."
This review is a valuable contribution to the literature  on dog training and animal welfare. Given the level of detail, it is not surprising it only considers five books. It would be very interesting to see these methods applied to other popular dog training books too.

You can follow the first author, Dr. Clare Browne, on Facebook.

If you want to read more about the research on dog training methods, you might like to start with don't punish your dog for peeing in the house, a new literature review recommends reward-based training, or you can check out my dog training research resources page.

My Dog Training Book Recommendations

If you found this post helpful, I think you will like my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which is full of tips on how to train and care for your dog. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

In addition to It's Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet by Victoria Stilwell and Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (both of which featured in the review), my other recommendations of the best dog training books are:

Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson,
Train Your Dog Like a Pro (also by Donaldson),
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller,
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnell,
Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace by Kathy Sdao.
Life Skills for Puppies: Laying the Foundation for a Loving, Lasting Relationship by Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills.
From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker DVM, Lisa Radosta, Wailani Sung, Mikkel Becker, and edited by Kim Campbell Thornton.
Dog Care for Puppies: A Guide to Feeding, Playing, Grooming, and Behavior by Vanessa Charbonneau. 

Which dog training books do you recommend?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Browne, C. M., Starkey, N. J., Foster, T. M., & McEwan, J. S. (2017). Examination of the Accuracy and Applicability of Information in Popular Books on Dog Training. Brill. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341453

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me