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Category: Critical Thinking

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

This book is comprehensive. I won’t replicate the table of contents here, because you can (and should!) check it out using the “Look Inside” function on the Amazon page for Wag. It covers the major topics you would expect, including how dogs learn, their relationships with people, training, diet, and enrichment. But there are also some things that might surprise you, like the chapter on sleep.

The structure of each chapter is the same. It opens with a gentle story about one of Todd’s dogs. It transitions smoothly (more on that later!) into the research on the topic. Then it ends with bullet points on how to use this information to allow our dogs to express their doggy-ness in our human world. All while keeping them safe. There are generally one or two quotes from subject experts that add even more liveliness to the research. And this structure is all presented in one beautiful, smooth arc. I bow down in admiration to that feat alone.

Zazie Todd’s Writing Voice

Head shot of Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle,  happy on an outdoor walk
Happy Clara

Dr. Todd’s voice is consistent, whether she is telling a funny story about her dog, summarizing some interesting research and how it can apply to our own dogs, or gently reminding us that positive reinforcement training is the wisest choice.

She writes with compassion for both dogs and humans. I might write a post that is a virtual shaking of the shoulders of people who share dangerous dog and baby interaction photos on the Internet (no, I’m not going to link to it). But Todd writes in her chapter on dogs and children, “What does it feel like to be in a household with children from the dog’s point of view?” What follows are not horror stories or loud admonitions. Rather, an empathetic approach, and plenty of information we can use to help dogs be safer and be happier in their interactions with children.

Because of her comfortable writing style, you don’t realize at first that throughout the book, virtually every single thing she says is evidence-based. And if she opines or extrapolates from that evidence, she makes it clear. That’s another thing. She never overstates what the research says. For example, in the chapter on enrichment, she describes a study that tested whether dogs enjoyed solving a problem for food or whether they just enjoyed getting the food. The outcome is yes, indeed, dogs probably enjoy solving the problem for food. Her summary statement:

This study shows that having control over a situation and being able to solve problems is good for dogs’ welfare. 

Todd, p. 155

How many authors might have instead claimed the study “proves” dogs would rather work for food? Or that control is a primary reinforcer? It may well be, per Paul Chance, but it’s a hard thing to show in a study. It’s only now appearing in behavior science textbooks as a possibility.

It is so refreshing to read a book that is calm, even soothing; authoritative; and not riddled with the hyperbole so common in the dog blogosphere.

Example Chapter: Dogs and Children

The sections in the chapter about dogs and children give you an idea of Dr. Todd’s evidence-based, practical approach.

Dogs and Children

  • The Benefits to Dogs of Interacting With Children
  • How to Recognize When a Dog is Anxious Around Children
  • Teaching Children to Interact With Dogs
  • Preparing Dogs to Interact With Children
  • How to Apply the Science at Home

That last section could be life-saving for both children and dogs. The instructions are concrete and practical and yes, evidence-based. For instance, she recommends teaching children not to approach stationary dogs (sitting or lying down). Earlier in the chapter, she explains why the evidence supports this recommendation. Think of all those YouTube videos where a toddler is lying on a dog, putting her fingers in the dog’s mouth, pulling ears, etc. If infants and toddlers were prevented from approaching dogs, then taught not to do so as their cognitive abilities matured, those interactions wouldn’t happen in the first place.

In fact, the “How to Apply the Science at Home” sections at the end of each section are priceless. These lovely summations are so practical, and they are presented in jargon-free plain language.

Sable-colored dog Summer, showing a happy wag of her tail
Happy Summer

Questions This Book Can Answer

OK, I probably shouldn’t have said “answer.” But this book can provide strong evidence about these topics.

  • When might play be a bad thing? (Chapter 6)
  • Can dogs tell whether we are happy or sad? Does it affect them? (Chapter 7)
  • What’s a “growl ball”? (Chapter 6)
  • If a dog “runs” in their sleep, does it mean they are dreaming? (Chapter 12)
  • If you are planning to get both a dog and a cat, which should you get first? (Chapter 6)
  • What are some characteristics of a good puppy class? (Chapter 3)
  • Is it OK to comfort a fearful dog? (Chapters 6 & 13)
  • Why is positive reinforcement the best approach for training a dog? (Many chapters!)

Tidbits

Small black and rust hound dog lying down in a relaxed way and wagging her tail, looking very happy
Happy Zani
  • Most of us have heard it by now: one difference between dog and wolf DNA is that dogs have genes related to the digestion of starch. But what I didn’t know before was that this was in an area of DNA associated with important survival traits. A lot of the genes in the area have to do with brain function, but here were these genes related to digestion as well! It makes sense that anything to do with what a dog can get nourishment from is a survival trait. But this information changed my perception from starch being an ancillary food for dogs. Perhaps it is now, but there must have been significant populations of dogs during their history with us who had to get nourishment from starch to survive. It was strongly selected for. The fact that Siberian Huskies do not have as strong a genetic indicator of starch digestion as other dog breeds is interesting but non-surprising. Up until recently, Siberians have lived in human communities with a strongly meat-based diet and the need to digest starch would not have been selected for.
  • The chapter on senior dogs has more details on the physiological changes that dogs go through as they age than I have read elsewhere. These are at once fascinating, a little sad, but extremely helpful to know.
  • It was fun to learn that sleep appears to help dogs with memory consolidation, just as it does with humans, and to read about the implications this can have on training.
  • On a related topic, I so appreciated her assessment of the well-known study comparing different training schedules for dogs. The schedules compared were daily vs. once or twice a week. This is another study that is generally presented in a slightly misleading way, and for which she cuts through the hype. It’s easy to come up with a headline like, “Dogs Learn Faster with Less Training!” We might assume from such a title that in a given week, then, a dog trained only once learned more than a dog trained multiple times. Wow! But that’s not how the comparison works. As Todd puts it, “The results found that the dogs taught once or twice a week performed better than those taught every day (although obviously it took longer for them to have enough training sessions to learn the task).” Thank you for the parenthetical remark! It makes all the difference.
  • Here’s a quote from the chapter on fear that shows how Dr. Todd speaks about the dangers of aversive training. “Forcing your dog to face their fears will likely make things worse. If you have been using aversive methods to train your dog, stop, because this adds to your dog’s stress.” So calm, so matter-of-fact. The science tells us we should be living in a post-aversive training world. There just aren’t good arguments for it. Her writing regularly makes that clear without any harsh words or finger-pointing. (This in itself is an evidence-based approach.)
  • In the same chapter, she has an absolutely stunning section titled “It’s Worth Getting Help.” This section is about dealing with dog behavior problems—but also human behavior problems. She approaches both with the same gentle empathy combined with practical, evidence-based information that is typical of the whole book. I’d like to just copy the whole section for you here, but of course, I can’t do that. So see below.

Why You Should Buy This Book

  • It is a great resource. It has 280 references in it! How can she even do that and still have such a pleasant, readable book? Also, you can bet that she checked a whole lot more references than those 280! Those are the ones that made it through the “what’s most important?” filter.
  • It’s fabulously written.
  • You can win arguments. Or at the very least, have evidence at hand for many of the common ones circulating in the dog world. For instance, is somebody saying dogs shouldn’t play tug because it will make them dangerous or “dominant”? Pick up your copy. She’s got a study showing otherwise in the chapter on enrichment.
  • That unique voice. Gentle, empathetic, precise, and clear.
  • Wag is good reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t say this lightly. But I think it’s important to note the low-stress approach of the book. While it covers a lot of topics that are highly in contention among the different schools of training, there is none of the stress caused by discussions of these topics on social media. There is just Dr. Todd’s calm voice explaining, and not overstating, the evidence. I should note my own biases and life experience here, though. I suppose it could be stressful for someone who strongly disagrees that evidence from science should be a basis upon which we make decisions. But they probably wouldn’t be reading it in the first place. For the rest of us, it’s a way to learn about a topic we are passionate about. We can follow paths into scientific literature or just sit down and enjoy it.

Where You Can Buy the Book

Just Wow

I am a fast reader. I’m usually a gobbler. I go through several books a week. But I chose to read this book over several weeks. It was just not possible for me to read a book with so much information in it without stopping to think—a lot! And to look at the studies myself. I finally broke down and kept a Google Scholar window open on my laptop because I kept investigating the wonderful trails she laid.

One example of such a trail: dogs’ neophilia. She discusses a shelter study about dogs’ responses to old and new toys. There was some tantalizing information in there that led me to check out the study. I learned that one probable difference between novel and “used” toys is the presence or absence of the dog’s saliva. I do rotate toys—now I’ll be sure to wash them before I put them away.  So as thorough and information-packed as this book is, every paragraph is the tip of another iceberg of information about dogs! Talk about enrichment! This book is a banquet.

I try to include criticism when I review books. I want to distinguish my reviews from the paid/affiliate sort that rave about everything. But this book is deserving of rave and I’m hard put to find a flaw. At first, I thought it didn’t have an index. But silly me. It absolutely has an index! I was reading an advance copy. Indices are always created last, because of page numbering. So strike that. I’m afraid I have no criticism of this book!

As a dog blogger, I know how hard it is to write non-reactively. There are hundreds of us out there writing every day about bad-and-wrong things that catch our attention. At times I have specialized in that approach, to my dismay. Then comes this pure pearl of a book. Dr. Todd shares with us the very best practices, the best ways to give our dogs a great life, and how to help them be happy. Think about it: how many evidence-based dog books have you seen with the word “happy” in the title? Not just exercised, not just well-fed, not just kindly trained, not even just enriched, although those are all included. But happy. Kudos to Zazie Todd for writing the most helpful, kind, and loving book possible about dogs.

Related Posts

Text (except for quotes from the book) and the dog photos copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

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!

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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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