Common Language for Dog Trainers

A Common Language for All Dog Trainers

A series of articles for professional dog trainers, those who want to become professional dog trainers, and those who want to become certified dog trainers.


Every profession develops its own terminology to better facilitate communication amongst ones peers. Having a common language allows us to be very specific using a minimum of words, because our peers know exactly what we mean when we use a particular word. Additionally, using an established vocabulary allows us to communicate with others who work in the field of science, but not in our field – for instance, vets, behaviorists, ethologists and biologists.

Just for fun, here are some common terms that can mean different things to different people:

  • Tort – to a baker, a tort is a pie-like dessert; to an attorney it is an act for which a civil lawsuit can be brought
  • Male or Female – to most of us, this is about gender; to a plumber it indicates a certain type of fitting
  • Credit – to the general public it generally means a ranking which indicates how much money you can borrow; to an accountant it’s a column on a ledger sheet
  • Tart – to our mothers a tart is a woman of questionable morals; to a baker, it’s a dessert

Of course there are many, many more and we could probably spend a fun evening sitting around thinking them up. However, the point is that every profession has its language and the specific terminology of that profession facilitates communication. I also believe it is the mark of a profession when there is a common language. It shows that there is a set of standards and practices that everyone within that profession understands 

Bob Bailey, who works with trainers all over the world, finds that there tend to be regional differences in understanding of terminology. For instance, he finds that in the Northeast United States and Europe, trainers often use the word “interval” when describing “duration.” Although they seem to be similar, they are actually quite different.

An “interval” is a moment in time. For instance, if you want to reinforce a “sit” on an interval schedule, you will determine the interval (1 minute), and reinforce the animal for sitting any time after one minute – for instance, at 61 seconds. A duration is a continuation of time. So, if you want to reinforce a “sit” on a duration schedule, you will determine the duration (1 minute), and reinforce the animal at the end of the 1 minute duration if he sat for the entire duration.  A duration schedule is a shaping schedule – i.e., you are working on increasing the duration through successive approximations.

And, as with science itself, terminology can and will change as our understanding of behavior changes. This is a normal evolution and shouldn’t be used as a reason to not have a common vocabulary.

Dog trainers are in the business of modifying behavior. We are lucky because we have a language that already exits and quite elegantly meets our needs. The language of behaviorism has been developed and refined over almost a century. As with any professional language, it continues to evolve and refine, but the bones are there for us to use.

There is, however, a significant amount of resistance to using this language. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why, but I do have some thoughts. My speculations have arrived at basically three reasons people might resist using the language of behaviorism.

  • Some people are resistant to using the language because of the emotionally laden associations we have with words such as “punishment” or “aversive.” However, when you really understand what those terms mean, those emotions go away. Punishment simply means that behavior is decreasing. We all use punishment on occasion. An aversive is simply something an animal will work to avoid – this can be as benign as moving into a dog’s personal space a couple of inches to get them to sit.
  • Some people may be insecure in their ability to learn the language, or don’t want to take the trouble to learn it.
  • Some people already understand the terminology, but don’t want to admit that their techniques are primarily aversive.

There are a couple of common red herrings out there, as well.

  • There’s the argument that John Q. Public will not understand this terminology. However, there’s no reason you have to use this language with your clients – it’s for use with your peers. Understanding the terminology, and the underlying principles behind the terminology will certainly be beneficial in helpin you explain what your client’s dog is doing and what to expect when they begin modifying their dog’s behavior.
  • There’s the argument that using an aversive tool is positive because the dog is happy when he sees it. However, if you understand learning theory, you understand that the dog has a “conditioned emotional response” (CER) to the tool, which is most likely associated with good things like going out to play and train. The technique is still an aversive technique because it’s based on avoidance. You can argue that it’s “positive,” because it’s “positive punishment”; you could argue that it’s reinforcement-based because it’s “negative reinforcement.” But, these are still aversive methods. And again – we all use aversives!

So, my vote is for using the precise and extremely useful language of behavior. It will allow us to communicate more efficiently and will help us understand behavior!

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.