eileenanddogs

Category: Critical Thinking

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”
When Is Citing a Research Study Not Enough?

When Is Citing a Research Study Not Enough?

Answer: Almost always. One study is usually flimsy evidence. What we need to consider is the bulk of the research. I’ll explain.

Most of the online requests for studies I see are from people who want to support their points of view in online arguments. Others are investigating a health or behavior condition that has to do with their own dog. Some need references for a position paper on dog training or another aspect of care. There are also people who are delving deep into an issue for reasons of education or scholarship. But usually, these people don’t need that much help.

Requests are almost always couched as follows:

“Is there a study that shows XYZ?”

This is human. We believe something, either from a perspective of faith or a review of the evidence. We want to bolster our belief with stronger evidence. But thinking we can do this with one study is based on a misunderstanding of how science and research work. In order to find strong evidence, we need to view any study in the context of the other research related to that topic.

There are plenty of contradictory studies in the canon. You can often find one that supports your position even if it’s wrong. It’s only over time that the best evidence floats to the top. And it takes an expert to assess that evidence.

The most recent study is not necessarily definitive. In fact, recent studies should be treated with healthy skepticism. Even when they are building on previous research, there has not been time to replicate or contradict their findings.

All this leaves us with some problems and challenges.

What’s Better Than One Study?

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to get an expert’s view of a study or a set of studies? To get an educated opinion about them? Well, there is a way. Experts tend to write books and articles. Here are three types of publications that will help the reader get a broad sense of a topic. Citing one of these publications is usually superior to picking out a single study.

A sampling of learning theory research books

  • Textbooks, depending on the level, cover a broad view of a field of study or topic. Good ones provide the standard research citations for every subtopic they discuss. They are almost always more appropriate for “winning an argument” than a single study. That’s because the author will cover all views and note which have the most supporting evidence. See Example 1 below.
  • Scholarly compilations are based on a large topic within a field of study. Usually, world experts are asked to contribute an article or chapter on one aspect of the topic. For example, the red book in the picture above is Operant Learning: Areas of Research and Application and has chapters by Azrin, Sidman, and other heavy hitters. Some of the information has been superseded over time but the book is still a great reference for the classic research.
  • Review articles summarize the research on a certain topic up to the current date. An example is James McGaugh’s article on memory consolidation: “Memory: A Century of Consolidation.” If you take a look at that on Google Scholar, you’ll see that it has been cited several thousand times by other authors.

These three types of publications provide the views of experts. They can tell us which studies have stood the test of time, been replicated, or been expanded on. They can tell us when the research took a wrong turn. They can tell us what new research to take a look at, and they do it without the sensationalist headlines we often get in blog posts.

Here are a couple of examples of what I learned on two different topics using textbooks (Example 1) or a personal review (Example 2). Oh yes, and a third example where my research had big holes in it.

Example 1: Punishment Intensity

Last year I wrote a post called Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong. In it, I talked about the pitfalls of using punishment. On the one hand, starting with too low an intensity allows the animal to habituate. On the other, starting with a high-level intensity risks fallout. There is nothing controversial about this finding. You can find information about it in any learning theory textbook.

A picture of picking cherries with a line through it. Cherry picking one's research is a bad idea.

A commenter claimed I had cherry-picked the studies I cited. But I hadn’t. I had cracked multiple learning theory textbooks. All of them covered the topic of punishment intensity. And they cited the same group of studies.

Textbooks are giant literature reviews created by experts in the field. They are generally way more helpful than a study or two.

Example 2: Dogs and Music

I keep track of studies on the purported effects of music on dogs. I am actually fairly qualified to assess some aspects of that literature, as I have master’s degrees in both music and in engineering science with an emphasis on acoustics. I keep a list of dogs and music studies.

A brown dog appears to read a learning theory textbook for research
It’s usually safe to quote Chance

This is a new field so you won’t find extensive coverage in textbooks. The research is still in what we might call an oscillating phase, with conflicting, back-and-forth results. Yet there is a burgeoning market of music products for dogs, most of which claim that research has “proven” that music is beneficial to dogs.

That’s a stretch. And it pays to know something about the literature before taking such claims at face value. For instance, you can buy recordings of music that is specially altered for dogs. A certain brand claims that their music has been clinically proven to relax dogs and allay their fears. The product’s website cites a study. One study.

But what about the bulk of the research? Is there more than that one study? There sure is. And they leave out of the marketing materials the fact that their specific product has been tested twice three times in subsequent research studies. Guess what? In both all three of the studies the product has been no more beneficial than regular “classical” music. Instead of mentioning that, they just continue to cite the older article that shows benefits to dogs from classical music.

If we trace the current threads of research on dogs and music, we will see that a current hot topic is habituation. There are some studies that have shown that dogs habituate to music that is played regularly. Think about that one for a minute. Those tracks you play during every thunderstorm (if they ever did contribute to your dog’s relaxation) may have become so much background noise to your dog.

The lesson I have learned here is to always, always check the sources myself. Whether deliberately or through an oversight, product marketers, writers, and private individuals often cite studies that don’t actually support their claims. In some cases, they cite studies whose results are the opposite of their claims. One company referred me to a study that found their product to perform no better than a placebo!

Example 3: Research Blooper

Yellow sign that says "OOPS!"

In 2013 I wrote a blog post about errorless learning. I performed my standard research procedures and came up with Herb Terrace’s work starting in the early 60s with pigeons. My post was critical of applying his methods to dog training. The pigeons were food deprived and their training necessitated hundreds, even thousands of reps. Plus I disliked the absoluteness of the term “errorless” since even Terrace’s pigeons made errors.

I published my post and a friend whose parents trained with B.F. Skinner gently showed me Skinner’s work and his suggestions about setting up antecedents for errorless learning. Turns out my post on errorless learning had many errors! Several decades before Terrace, there was an important discussion regarding the role of errors.  The topic was important in Skinner’s work. Skinner disagreed with Thorndike, who claimed that errors were necessary for learning. I could get behind Skinner’s claims, which centered on skills and planning used by the teacher/trainer to make the learning process as smooth, efficient, and stress-free for the learner as possible.

In my defense, most textbooks and scholarly discussions about errorless learning center on Terrace’s work, not Skinner’s. Terrace’s own references and credits to Skinner are skimpy. I’m just lucky I had a friend who could direct me to the right place. I published a second post on errorless learning with updated information and corrections. I left the first one published (with cautions for the reader and links to the second article) as an example of how easy it is to miss a research elephant in the room.

Who else has a personal “Oops” story? Did you get taken in by a popular article on a study that turned out to miss the point of the study? Did you go as far as I did and publish an article that didn’t cover the research well?  (Not sure I can get any takers on this but it’s worth a try!)

My Learning Theory Go-To Resources

Here’s a list of the textbooks I use most often when researching a learning theory topic. Enjoy!

  • Chance, P. (2013). Learning and behavior. Nelson Education.
  • Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Pearson.
  • Domjan, M. (2014). The principles of learning and behavior. Nelson Education.
  • Domjan, M. (2000). The essentials of conditioning and learning. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  • Goodwin, C. J. (2016). Research in psychology methods and design. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Honig, W. K. (1966). Operant behavior: areas of research and application. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior (Vol. 2). Appleton Century Crofts.
  • Klein, S. B. (2011). Learning: Principles and applications. Sage Publications.
  • Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Wallace, M. (2018) Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan Publishing.
  • Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Wadsworth. Belmont, MA.
  • Schwartz, B. (1989). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Co.
  • Shettleworth, S. J. (2010). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

Graffiti on a brick building that says, "False"
Photo credit carnagenyc: see bottom of page

I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that Continue reading “I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)”

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)

What if we had to know our animal training theory and practice so well that we could easily tell someone what would disprove the hypotheses that inform our methods? That’s what scientists do. If we are going to claim to base our training methods on science, I think we should get with the program. 

There’s a concept in science that is not much discussed in the world of dog training. The concept is falsifiability. Learning about it can save us a world of hurt in assessing statements about training methods. Focusing on how we would disprove our own methods may seem counterintuitive at first, but bear with me. Continue reading “Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)”

Being Open-Minded About Training

Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment Continue reading “Being Open-Minded About Training”

Silence is…Scary?

Silence is…Scary?

Content warning: animal experimentation (mice).

This post is not directly about dogs, but it’s about something we see happening in the dog world very frequently. That is the misunderstanding and misapplication of research results. This particular example caught my attention because it involves something I have a bit of expertise in: sound.

In the past few years there has been a rash of articles about how important silence can be in our lives. Many of them center on a campaign by the Finnish Tourist Board that promoted the restful silence of that country. I’ve been there, and it’s true!

The silence thing got my attention. I’m a fan. I’m an auditory person, musically trained. I’m very sensitive to my auditory environment and dislike unnecessary background noise, including music. When I have music, radio, or the television on, I am actively listening.  When I’m done they go off. I need and enjoy quiet.

Likewise I am quite attuned to the “background” sounds that are present even when it’s very quiet. I am sitting in my study now. I’m aware of traffic noises, neighborhood dogs, the occasional creak of the house, the furnace and refrigerator when they cycle on, my neighbor’s sump pump, and Clara snoring. She’s got a funny little whistle sound in her nose. Plus I can hear some of the common urban mashup of low frequency noises. The 60-cycle hum of power lines is audible, although we habituate to it. We can hear even lower frequencies generated by industrial equipment. Most of us city dwellers are unaware of these lower frequency, deeper noises, although sometimes we notice their absence if we get out “beyond the sidewalks,” especially at night. But even with all that going on, my environment right now definitely qualifies as quiet, if not exactly silent.

Frequency and magnitude breakdown (FFT) of the noise in my study
Frequency and magnitude breakdown (FFT) of the noise in my study

How different would it feel if **all** that noise were gone?

Silence is Golden?

The articles I ran across praised the value of silence in our lives and cited a scientific study that had “proved” the value of silence.

Here are some of the articles.

All of the above cite a particular study from 2013 as part of their arguments:

Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis

The entire study is available at the link.

In the study, the effects of different auditory stimuli were tested on mice with the goal of analyzing whether they affected the creation of new brain cells. The scientists were looking at adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus. They exposed the mice to five different acoustic conditions: the ambient sounds of the facility, white noise, some Mozart piano music (thoughtfully transposed to the normal hearing range of the mice), the calls of rat pups, and silence. Most mice were exposed to one of the auditory stimuli for two hours a day for three days inside an anechoic chamber. After one more day they were killed and their brains were studied. Some mice were exposed for seven days, then killed.

The Mozart music and the silence resulted in the largest increase in precursor cell proliferation after three days of exposure to the sounds. (Precursor cells are new, blank cells that can develop into different kinds of cells. For example, stem cells are one type of precursor cell.) And after seven days of exposure, only silence was associated with increased numbers of precursor cells. Edit 4/3/16: I deleted some incorrect comments I made about the control of the study. 

Back to the articles. They claim, and cite this study to support, the idea that periods of quiet, perhaps “down time,” are beneficial to our brains. The articles evoke images of calm contemplation and taking breaks from mental activity. This is a potent meme in our sometimes noisy, frenetic lives.

Such periods probably are beneficial. The problem is that that is not what this study is about. The term “silence” in the study refers to a specific state that is virtually never replicated in normal life. And it was probably not a pleasant state for the experimental mice, despite the article title. Here’s what it really involved.

Anechoic Chambers

the walls of an anechoic chamber absorb sound and break up the waves, creating and eerie silence
Walls of anechoic chamber–photo source, Wikimedia Commons

All of the mice experienced the sound exposure inside an anechoic chamber. Anechoic chambers are enclosed spaces in which the amount of reflected sound is reduced almost to zero. They are built of absorptive material installed in patterns designed to break up sound waves. They are also insulated from exterior noise. When there is sound being generated on the inside, as with the recordings used in the experiment, only the original sound wave reaches the organism’s ears. There are no reflections. This is an abnormal situation. In real life, we almost always perceive some reflected sound.  Any noise would without reflection sounds “dead.”

This is a highly disturbing auditory situation if you don’t understand what is going on. I’ve been in an environment that approximates that. It makes your ears feel funny and you lose senses you didn’t even know you had. You can no longer sense where objects are in relation to your body (the rudimentary human equivalent of echolocation).

For mice, being trapped in an anechoic chamber and exposed to its unique qualities could well have stressed them out of their minds. We can’t explain it to them. So we need to get rid of the positive connotations of the word “silence” in the case of this study. This was not restful or calm. It was foreign and strange, something that no animal could be prepared for from previous life experience.

We should note that the mice who were exposed to other auditory stimuli were also placed in the anechoic chamber. There was doubtless also some strangeness for them. But since sound was being played, they would not experience the strangeness of absolute silence.

The Results

If you read far enough in the study, there is discussion about silence being a stressful state.

But of the tested paradigms, silence might be the most arousing, because it is highly atypical under wild conditions and must thus be perceived as alerting. Functional imaging studies indicate that trying to hear in silence activates the auditory cortex, putting “the sound of silence”, the absence of expected sound, at the same level with actual sounds. The alert elicited by such unnatural silence might stimulate neurogenesis as preparation for future cognitive challenges.–Kirste, Imke, et al. “Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis.” Brain Structure and Function 220.2 (2015): 1221-1228.

No kidding. In other words, the level of silence was novel and probably uncomfortable and scary. The apparent increase in neurogenesis in the mice’s brains correlated with a time when they were suddenly thrust into an eerily quite, unnatural environment and couldn’t escape. They weren’t in the equivalent of a pleasant, peaceful, mousie yoga studio.

A more accurate title for an article about this study might be, “Being trapped without the possibility of escape in a strange, frightening environment may help generate new brain cells.”

The Big Picture

I am not weighing in on the methods and results of the study. Neither am I arguing against the value of relative quiet in our noisy human lives. I am highlighting the way this study is being incorrectly referenced. The results of the study do not connect with the spin of the articles about it. And we can’t blame it only on the journalists. Note that the scientists themselves prompted this, in part, with the reference to “Silence is golden” in the title. Catchy, but misleading. (Also, to be fair, most of the articles cite other studies as well, studies that may support the claims about restful silence.)

Humans love to take mental shortcuts, and articles about the “value of quiet” are attractive in our noisy, hasty world. They resonate, if I may use another auditory figure of speech. But we need to be careful.

This particular example jumped out at me since I have a background in acoustics. I was curious about how the “silence” was created, and as soon as I saw the mention of an anechoic chamber, I was on the trail. But in this study, you don’t actually have to understand acoustics to see the problem, as long as you read the whole thing. The paragraph I quoted above is one of several in the “Discussion” part of the study where they make observations and theorize about the findings. The fact that the silence was a highly stressful condition is discussed in detail. But you have to read far enough to get there, and to drop your automatic warm fuzzy thoughts about silence and calm states.

I’d love to know whether anyone has been in an anechoic chamber or experienced other sensory deprivation. What was it like? When I was in graduate school we bought the materials to build a chamber and I messed around with the stuff, so I know what even a small exposure to the noise absorptive materials made my ears feel like. Creepy!

Related Posts

Don’t Get Mud On Your Face! Citing Research in Discussions 

Reading Research: 8 Classic Red Flags (Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs)

Reading Research: Does Size Matter? (Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs)

How to Spot Research Spin: The Case of the Not So Simple Abstract

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

Positive reinforcement-based training is subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Many people genuinely don’t understand how it works, and others seem to deliberately misrepresent it. Some of these misunderstandings and misrepresentations are very “sticky.”  Misunderstandings, straw men, myths—call them what you will, Continue reading “6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training”

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

What should a dog trainer be willing and able to tell you about his or her techniques? And how valuable is it to get that information in clear, concrete language?

Renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson has put a lot of thought into this. We live in a world where dog training is a completely unlicensed industry, and it’s total chaos out there.

There are a dozen euphemisms for what is commonly known as an electric shock. Some trainers make positive reinforcement approaches out to be extremist.  There is plenty of talk of packs and wolves and being a leader, but sometimes little specificity about what these “leaders” do.

When asked about their methods, trainers who employ punishment and negative reinforcement often throw up verbal smoke screens about it. Some may talk about magical leadership powers that can solve problems all by themselves and will insist that they do nothing to hurt, scare, startle, or coerce the dog, claiming knowledge of the Magical Attention Signal  that works without having any consequences. Others will admit to using “corrections” but not punishment, which is overtly dishonest.

This latter is unlikely to be true. There are trainers all over the world who can train behaviors to fluency and solve behavioral problems without those corrections. I think it would be a huge step in the right direction if trainers who used methods such as  throwing things, kicking, poking, and hitting dogs, and of course “special” collars, would simply say so, and not hide between the buzz word of “positive.” Using aversives in this day and age is a choice, not a necessity, and that is what many trainers do not want people to know.

Jean Donaldson has developed three questions for consumers to ask prospective trainers before ever handing over their dog’s leash to them. The purpose of asking the questions–and continuing to ask until one gets a straight answer–is to insist on transparency of methods from anyone who purports to be an expert on helping a four-legged carnivore live in close proximity to, or even as a member of, a human family.

The Questions

Three questions

So these are the questions:

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

Informed Consent

Ms. Donaldson has also proposed that trainers describe their methods specifically, and inform the consumer of alternatives in written consent statement.

Here is a sample consent statement from Ms. Donaldson, quoted with permission. This is what a statement from a trainer who used a prong or shock collar exclusively might look like if they were truthful and transparent.

I propose using pain and fear to motivate your dog. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are X, Y, Z.

There are alternatives to what I propose. You could employ food, play, access to smells and patting as motivators. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are A, B, C. You could also seek the opinion of a veterinary behaviorist. Our goal is that you are fully informed before consenting to any dog training or behavior modification.

When I first heard these words in her webinar, I got the shivers at the boldness of the statement. Nobody says, “I propose to use pain and fear to motivate your dog.” But it shouldn’t be bold to suggest that at all, if it’s the truth. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to ask for–or be confronted with–with honesty from all trainers.  Can you imagine if the norm for discussing a medical procedure with a doctor were that she deliberately withheld possible side effects, didn’t tell you of alternatives, and wouldn’t be specific about what exactly she was going to do? And that there was no code of ethics or regulatory body to prevent that?

The Video Transparency Challenge

John McGuigan took Ms. Donaldson’s three questions and started a challenge for all trainers to answer them in a video.

So below I’m featuring a video that I believe does this well, and I’ll switch to a new one now and then. (You can find others on YouTube by searching using the title of this post.) You will get to hear from many different trainers who actually do use “modern, evidence-based, humane methods,” to use the language from the poster above.

Direct link to the video page for email subscribers.

Commonalities of the Answers

It’s fascinating to me how much these videos can have in common, but also how every trainer’s answer has a different “flavor.” The most important commonality to me is that trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement based training uniformly mention continuing education. In response to the third question, many will say that there are probably not any less invasive methods than what they use, but if they are out there, they want to know about them. They state that they are always educating themselves and learning more. Some mention that if they feel that a case is beyond their skill set, they will consult colleagues or even refer the case on, just as a family doctor might refer a patient to a specialist if she had a certain type of medical problem. This kind of honest self-assessment is a strong indicator of competency in my opinion. The truly skilled know their skills and are honest about both their breadth and limitations.

You will also hear almost all of them state that if a dog makes a “mistake” when working on a training task, it is their mistake, not the dog’s. This is not some romantic woo. It is the literal truth. It is up to the teacher to set the pace and difficulty of the learning for the student.

The video of my own answers to the Transparency Challenge can be found on the following page: My Training Philosophy.

Further Information on Transparency

This blog post from Pawsforpraise, Finding the Right Dog Trainer: Harder than You Think, delineates some more of Ms. Donaldson’s thinking on the questions consumers should ask prospective dog trainers. In her webinar “Out of What Box?” she further detailed her thinking on this, suggesting that trainers put the plans in writing for clients, informing them of the methods they will use, the risks and benefits, and whether there are alternatives. The webinar was a discussion on the development of standard operating procedures in pet dog training. Here is a link that describes the webinar, and here is a link to register for and purchase the recorded version.

And how about we all add to the information out there? This is a call to all trainers, professional and amateur, to think through and answer these questions for themselves. Publish your videos, graphics, or written answers online.  Be transparent, and challenge others to do so.

List of Previously Featured Videos

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

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