eileenanddogs

Author: Eileen Anderson

Regression to the Mean: Why Our Dogs’ Supplements Often Aren’t Working as Well as We Think

Regression to the Mean: Why Our Dogs’ Supplements Often Aren’t Working as Well as We Think

Last year I had a minor medical problem, more of a bother, really. It’s one for which a few supplements have been shown to help. My doctor said I could try “Supplement X, Y, or Z.” I didn’t do anything at the time I talked to him because the problem hadn’t been happening right then.

But then the problem started bugging me. I had it for about 10 days in a row. I thought, “Hey, this would be a great time to try Supplement Y.” I wrote down in my calendar that I had had the problem for those 10 days, and wrote down the day I started the supplement. And the problem improved massively for the next 14 days.

Yay, it worked, right?

No. I didn’t have enough evidence to conclude that. What I could have been seeing was regression to the mean.

When problems vary in intensity, people tend to try interventions during a “bad” spell. They call the doctor; ask their neighbor; or start a supplement, diet, or exercise regime.

That’s exactly what I did. I started a supplement when my problem was bad. But if a variable problem has been worse than average for a period of time, what usually happens next? It will likely get better. It’s variable. It is so easy to attribute the good spells to whatever intervention we might be trying. We want things to work, and we are wired to grab at such correlations.

Graph of severity of health problem. The first 46 days show a love level of severity, from 0–5. Then follows 10 days of values from 5–10. This is a classic setup for regression to the mean if those last 10 days were anomalous. The health condition in the next time period is likely to be improved.
From earlier data, what do you predict will be the severity of my health problem if I start a supplement on Day 56? What do you predict will be the severity of my health problem if I don’t start a supplement?

I had 10 days of data before I started the supplement, but it was 10 days of **extreme** data. And 10 days is pretty short in any case. (I made up the data on the graph for the first few weeks as a demonstration. It represents the low level of the problem that mostly passed under my radar.)

Regression to the mean is why people frequently will say of an intervention that it “worked for a while then stopped.” When we have that particular experience, the intervention likely didn’t help at all. We were only experiencing the effects of regression to the mean. Things got better because they were very unlikely to get worse. But we are humans, and we assign causation at the drop of a hat.

Health problems that are especially vulnerable to this false attribution include chronic conditions like pain from arthritis or headaches, allergies from unknown triggers, fatigue, and mild to moderate gastrointestinal problems. Any painful or bothersome condition that comes and goes but rarely reaches an acute level. (Because that’s when we go to the doctor for a more aggressive intervention.)

If I want to improve my chances of really knowing whether a supplement helps for a chronic, variable condition, I should take data for as long as possible before starting the supplement. (Almost none of us do this; more on taking data below.) I should start it at a random time. After I start the supplement, I should take it for a preassigned number of days. If there are studies supporting the use of the supplement, I should record data for at least as long as the studies did. I should decide the number of days beforehand and stick to it. (This removes the chance of stopping at a fortuitous time for the data.) I should record my data religiously. After the period is over, I should go off it again for the same amount of time and keep taking data. This is called a reversal design, and give you two chances to look for a difference due to the intervention: when you start it and when you stop it.

Obviously, I am not recommending you ever go off a doctor-recommended prescription medication as an experiment. The reversal design should only be implemented when it is safe to do so. In my situation, my doctor had encouraged me to experiment with the supplements.

Implementing a better structure would have given me a better chance of knowing whether the supplement had an effect. But even then, it would not tell me for sure. Besides regression to the mean, which still could be in play, there are a dozen other reasons and biases that could make it appear that the supplement was effective.

Regression to the mean is both a statistical event and a cognitive fallacy. The statistical event is as described above. When an entry in a time series is at an extreme value, the most likely thing to happen next is for it to fall back toward the mean, or average. This is not the same as the “law of averages,” which is itself a fallacy. Regression to the mean has to do with values over a span of time, and what happens after an extreme value.

If images are helpful to you, check out this article about regression to the mean that includes graphs and a couple of really clear scenarios. Also, it will let you know that some businesspeople and marketers know about regression to the mean and use it to sell products or services.

Regression to the Mean and Our Dogs

The above is not a made-up story. It did happen to me.  I’m sharing it because we do the same thing with our dogs. It’s a cautionary tale about how damn easy it is for us to assign causation when it’s not really there.

It happens all the time in life. How many times on a dog group have you seen someone write, “Yes, Acme Supplement is great, but after a while, it did stop working.” Or “I used Smoke’em Powder and it worked great at first. It was worth it for that period, even though it stopped working as my dog’s condition deteriorated.”

Our perception of skin allergies that come and go is subject to regression to the mean

Again, the way regression to the mean works is that we tend to consider interventions—diets, exercises, supplements—when the condition is at its worst. For example, we know our dog has some arthritis that is pretty well controlled most of the time with a prescription drug. But the arthritis is getting worse. Instead of going back to the vet, we may try a supplement that our neighbor told us about. And when do we tend to try it? When our dog is acting like she is in more pain than usual. When we are having extreme values in the time series.

So we start her on Acme Supplement. Lo and behold, over the next few days, her pain appears to lessen. We automatically attribute it to the supplement. That is how our brains work, noticing correlations and leaping to assigning causation. Between the regression to the mean fallacy and the owner placebo effect (since our dogs may not actually be feeling better—we just wish they were), we feel certain we have solved the issue. Our dog feels better and it’s because of Acme!

These two biases together keep unproven supplement companies in business and whole product lines lucrative. All we have to do is try a certain product when the condition is at its worst. Then when the condition naturally improves, we are certain it is due to the product.

An interesting twist is that even after some time has passed and the product doesn’t seem to be working “anymore,” we don’t doubt its original efficacy. We rarely go back and say, hmmm, maybe it never worked after all! What we say, and tell others, is that it worked, but then stopped working. We often keep recommending it!

You will read versions of this over and over. You’ll see it in dog health, in suggestions for dealing with fearful dogs, in dog training of all sorts, in human health, and in other practices.

Owners of dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction are particularly vulnerable to regression to the mean with regard to interventions. Not only do the dog’s symptoms change from day to day, but the owners know it is a terminal condition and the worsening of the dog’s condition can’t be stopped. If the dog has a few good days in a row, it serves as a beacon of hope. That’s human nature.

Take Data and Be Skeptical of Assumptions

It’s normal to start to pay attention to a problem when it reaches a certain threshold. So it’s rare that we are going along, for instance, keeping a journal about how often we have headaches if we are not often troubled by them. But that’s exactly the type of data we need. We can’t go back in time when our dog develops a problem, but we can start keeping track immediately and also record anything we remember from the past.

Blanche Axton, a champion data recorder about her dogs’ health, wrote a super helpful article about this: “The Importance of Tracking Changes in Dog Behavior.” She is my inspiration.

There are lots of tracking tools available for those of us who like to use technology. When my dog Zani started exhibiting extremely fearful behaviors for which I couldn’t identify a trigger, I started taking data. I used a Mac journaling app called Day One. I created a template that included the behaviors I tracked. With the press of a button, I could pull up a blank template to fill out at the end of the day. This made it as easy as possible to write every day. I could add other notes and often included photos.

My system was primitive compared to what Blanche describes in her article. If you need to start tracking a health or behavioral problem with your dog, I suggest you take a look at hers, my simple lists below, and create something in between in a format that works for you.

Some of the things I tracked for Zani’s mysterious behavior change and included on the template were:

Bad Signs

  • trembling
  • slinking around 
  • unhappy facial expression, ear set 
  • staying at back door 
  • whining at front door 
  • avoiding bedroom 
  • avoiding kitchen when I am sitting at table 
  • coming to me repeatedly for help, then leaving 
  • clingy 
  • refusing food
  • getting in my lap trembling 

Good Signs

  • tail up 
  • playing 
  • enjoying training 
  • came in the bathroom while I showered 
  • did agility enthusiastically 
  • slept in bedroom 
  • hanging out with the rest of the dogs 
  • lying in dog bed on couch (instead of hiding in crate)
  • affectionate

These items were mostly hard to quantify. For most of them, I just answered yes/no for the day, then sometimes elaborated with notes. If you are tracking medical symptoms, you’ll probably need fewer categories than I needed for Zani’s mental breakdown, but you may need more detail about circumstances. Keep in mind Blanche’s system of noting things like times of day and other environmental factors and how much that helped. Perhaps if I had done that, I would have eventually found out what was freaking out my little dog.

Another thing to do is to be skeptical. I knew about regression to the mean, but I forgot and still thought the best time to start a supplement was during a symptom flareup! I think I’ve got the lesson a little better firmed in my mind now, but at the same time I need to remember that there is part of my brain that will grab at correlations whether I want it to or not.

Read the Kahneman book. It is full of examples about our cognitive biases and gives solid instructions about how to fight back against them.

And finally, regression to the mean can keep us messing around with things that aren’t really working. It’s a good reason to take data and be skeptical of our own “intuitive” responses that say something is working. We might be doing this while neglecting a proven intervention that can really help.

My Regression to the Mean Experience

In my case, it is unlikely that Supplement Y worked. After the first dramatic two weeks when my problem disappeared, it came back at about its normal levels (the mean). But then later when I finished the bottle and stopped the supplement, there was no uptick in the severity of the problem. It just continued in its on-again, off-again manner. I would need more carefully planned and gathered data to give me a better idea of whether Supplement Y helped me with my problem. But at this moment, despite those glorious few days when it was at a very low level, it probably didn’t help.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until the holiday hits. Even with just a couple days’ lead time, you can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do starting today or tomorrow.

  1. Check into medications. If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.
  2. Countercondition to noises. Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises; don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats.

    You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them. This is why I am suggesting this method, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for after the holiday, when you can keep your dog safe from accidental exposures to the sound.
  3. Create a safe place. Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby. Also, low-frequency booms can’t be “soundproofed” against except with materials that are much too big to use inside a house. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds to an effective degree. But if a crate is your dog’s safe place, that’s great. Here are some examples of safe places for dogs.
  4. Play sound or music. Experiment with sound masking to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white or brown noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and is called sound masking.

    And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p.318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! And play it on your best sound system so as to include those low frequencies. It can mask some of the scary noises coming from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

    Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

    The perfect resource for some households is the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, this music could be the very thing for you and your dog.
  5. Practice going out. Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? If your dog is not used to being on-leash for potty time, start practicing now, including getting the harness on. Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.
  6. Comfort your dog if that helps. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog, if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food or a fun game after every scary noise, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it. If they want to hide, let them.
The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!
The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help? Her article has suggestions for both long- and short-term solutions.

Thanks for reading!

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                          

IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2020

IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2020

Are you stymied about how to start a blog? Stuck three-quarters of the way through writing a memoir? Wanting to get a more consistent look and style with your client handouts? Needing information about self-publishing? I can help!

I am offering writing mentorships for trainers and behavior professionals through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) again in 2020. You can bring any writing projects to the mentorship, from outlines to final drafts, and get intensive one-on-one help. My coaching and the course materials will help you improve your writing and better represent your business. And you can do this while collecting some serious CEUs through your professional organization (see below).

The mentorships start on January 12, 2020. During the eight-week course, I will provide individual coaching to up to 15 mentees with writing projects of their choice. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly videoconference.

There are also spots for auditors. They will be able to view all written discussions in the classroom between the mentor and mentees, will have full access to the supporting course materials, but will not take part in the videoconferences or submit their own projects.  

Read the official mentorship course description and register here. 

The link above will tell you “who, what, when, and where” about the mentorships. But here I’m going to tell you the “how and why.”  How will they work and what will it be like for participants? And why should you sign up?

How Will the Course Work?

I already get lots of assistance with my writing

The mentorships take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interactions. When I created the structure of the course, I wanted to be sure there would be plenty of material in addition to the one-on-one editing/coaching. I created nine video lectures and supporting printed materials. The videos and printed materials cover style sheets, time management, motivation, organization, voice and audience, writing tools, editing tools, search engine optimization, references and plagiarism, and collaboration.

During the course, I’ll also post resource lists and timely articles on writing and the writing industry. I will provide startup assignments and information on typical business documents for mentees who want help with writing but don’t know where to start. We’ll probably have a silly contest or two. Mentees will upload or link their individual projects so we can work on them together. Auditors and other mentees will view our discussions and the editing process.

Documents we can work on include but are not limited to articles, blog posts, class handouts, behavior assessments, biographies and other marketing materials, announcements, grants, reports, and books. Fiction is welcome.

The mentees and I will have weekly videoconferences. When I started this mentorship, I didn’t realize what a pleasure these would be, nor how they would help the mentees become a community. We usually have some amazing crowd-sourcing moments, and mentees often end up doing peer reading for each other during the course and after it is finished. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be if you take advantage of the community available through the mentorships.

What’s Special About the Structure of the Course?

  1. I will not be grading anything. We’ll all push aside the “write-it-for-a-grade-and-hope-the-teacher-likes-it” paradigm. That’s not what mentorship is about.
  2. I will be your hired coach. You can tell me the types of assistance and critique you want, or you can turn me loose and say, “Help!” We’ll figure out the best way to work together. My goal will be to help you improve your writing skills so you can turn out some great documents. I’ll help you get unstuck if that’s what you need. My help won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though this is a writing mentorship, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, hasty punctuation, and other chat conventions will be fine. Nothing in the mentorship will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.
  4. Introverts needn’t worry. The group activities are not mandatory, and I’ll do my best not to put you on the spot. I’m an introvert too, and although I love the social aspects of the mentorship, I won’t be pushy about participation.
  5. Psst. You don’t even have to be an animal behavior professional. The topic is writing, and the concepts I teach and that we discuss are universal to communicating effectively in English. Most of the projects and many of my examples are animal behavior-related, but people with other interests or from different professions are welcome.

Why Take the Course?

You can get mega-CEUs at the same time you solve writing problems that have been plaguing you for months! Or you can use the synergy of being with a group of like-minded writers to get a jump start on a whole new project.

Previous mentees have brought full-length books, both memoirs and non-fiction. We have worked on blogging a book and booking a blog. Mentees have brought handouts that present the challenge of technical writing for a lay audience. We have had long discussions on voice and many mentees have worked on theirs. A couple mentees have found out that they can write humor! I have had the pleasure of working together with mentees on short stories. We’ve worked together on the structure of a professional website. And of course we’ve worked on blog posts—lots of blog posts.

The Value of Coaching

Even if your writing is already very clean, you have no motivation problems, and your website is state of the art, you can still benefit from coaching.

Top-level professional singers use vocal coaches for their entire professional careers. Professional athletes likewise receive coaching as long as they compete. Having an expert outside observer and teacher is essential. It allows professionals to get more information about their tasks and feedback on their skill sets. It prevents them from falling into idiosyncrasies. It gives that invaluable second pair of ears or eyes.

So why not writers? Writing skills can always develop; we are always improving. Calling on a mentor doesn’t mean you are helpless or unprofessional. It’s not about getting a grade. It doesn’t have to hurt your ego. It’s about getting an outside perspective and expert feedback.

Improving your writing will help you communicate better with your peers, provide clearer instructions to your clients, and present a more polished public appearance. And participating in this writing mentorship is fun.

Register for the writing mentorship here.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise.

Benita Raphan
Yes, plenty of writing assistance

Writing Samples

You can read my bio on the mentorship page linked above, but I’m also providing some writing samples here. Since my voice in the blog is casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Dr. Brennen McKenzie released his blockbuster on alternative veterinary medicine on November 1, 2019. Placebos for Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals is out, and I recommend it highly. I am not a veterinarian, so keep that in mind as you read my review. But this is a great book for all pet owners, pet professionals, and others interested in animals who need help sifting through all the information on alternative veterinary medicine.

Book on alternative veterinary medicine: Placebos for Pets
Continue reading “Placebos for Pets? A Book Review”
Desensitization of Disgust

Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Continue reading “Desensitization of Disgust”
Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. Red Zone Dogs) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Continue reading “Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training”
Evidence-Based Practice

Evidence-Based Practice

Two years ago, I started having a neck problem that required physical therapy. My doctor sent me to a practice owned by one of his colleagues. I was treated by a licensed physical therapist.

I promise this relates to dog training. Bear with me.

The physical therapist took my history. She didn’t measure anything. She suggested a short set of exercises, heat treatment, massage, and treatment with a T.E.N.S. unit. My appointments lasted about 45 minutes. I went three days a week.

Continue reading “Evidence-Based Practice”
How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

Clara, a sandy colored dog with a black face, is trained to swallow a pill

Most of us have used the “hide it” method at one time or another to get our dogs to take pills. In fact, I wrote a whole post about some ways to sneak pills into dogs.

But there’s a better way. What if you never had to hide a pill again? What if your dog would take a pill almost like a human? Instead of washing it down with a drink of water, your dog would get a favorite treat afterward instead.

Pill-taking can be trained as a behavior. It blew my mind when I first realized this, after reading Laura Baugh’s post on it and seeing her video.

Continue reading “How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill”
How to Soundproof a Dog Crate

How to Soundproof a Dog Crate

You can’t. It’s almost impossible for the average person to soundproof a dog crate against low-frequency noises like thunder, or even against most higher frequency noises. Here’s why.

  • Soundproofing is bulky, so you need lots of space. You essentially need to build a room around the crate. A room with walls thicker than the exterior walls of your house.
  • The necessary materials are specialized, expensive, and heavy.
  • You need to be willing to give up the portability of the crate.
  • And even if you can do all this, you can’t soundproof it against low frequencies (e.g. thunder, fireworks displays). And this is generally the reason why people try to do it in the first place.
Continue reading “How to Soundproof a Dog Crate”
“I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!”

“I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!”

foxhound and black lab playing in a field

This is a story from a client of one of my professional trainer friends. Let’s call my friend “Phoebe.” My friend had met the client for some coaching for her young, exuberant dog, Raven. But it was a very long distance for the client to come. My friend received this email after she hadn’t heard from the client in a while. Some details were altered for privacy, but I’ve left the email essentially as the client wrote it because she tells the story so eloquently.

Continue reading ““I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!””
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