Category: Critical Thinking

Questions to Ask About That Bizarre Prong Collar Diagram

Questions to Ask About That Bizarre Prong Collar Diagram

Dear Dog Owner,

I’m writing to let you know of some really dreadful misinformation going around.

But first, here’s the truth.

It’s very simple. Prong collars hurt dogs. They can hurt a lot, depending on how tightly they are fastened and the handler’s behavior. Sometimes the sensation may be as low as mild discomfort. But make no mistake: if wearing a prong collar gets your dog to stop pulling on the leash, it’s because it becomes uncomfortable to do so.

If you take a good look at a prong collar, your intuition will be correct. Ouch! Even though those prongs are blunt, they transfer a lot of pressure into a tiny area.

Unfortunately, some trainers who use prong collars will go to great lengths to defend them, often by making stuff up. It’d be one thing if they would say, “Right, I know the collar hurts this dog, but it’s the best thing I know how to do. I’m willing to consult a professional for other ideas on how to handle this case.” But humans hold on to our biases. So instead, against what we can directly perceive with our own senses, prong defenders make up fairytales about how beneficial such collars are for the dog. They are getting more and more agitated and come up with more and more absurd defenses.

If a trainer has told you that prong collars are good for dogs because they “distribute pressure” around the neck or “protect the trachea,” please know that this is not the case.

Here are some of the many holes in the silly claims about prong collars.

The Diagram

I am going to critique a certain diagram (and a few other arguments about prong collars) I have seen online. But I won’t link to the diagram. I hate vague-posting, but I can’t see another ethical way through this swamp. I feel bound to say something about the misinformation, but I know that linking to it, even for criticism, will promulgate it. So I am in this weird position.

If you haven’t run across the diagram (I’ll describe it in a moment) or heard these arguments, great. Just bookmark this post and go on your way. If you come across weird claims about prong collars in the future, you can come back and read this article.

If you have seen the diagram and arguments, and maybe even been persuaded by them, this post is for you.

The diagram has a drawing of a prong collar with forces drawn on it to supposedly “prove” that prong collars do not put any pressure on the front of a dog’s throat. This is incorrect, and it’s easy to verify on yourself in real life if you want to wear a prong collar attached to a leash, then have someone pull steadily against it. Or you could use ballistic gel to create a model to test this on, which would be safer. This is a real-life case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The purveyors of these myths are asking you to go against what you can perceive with your senses and instead, believe a fairytale.

I’m going to give you some basic critical thinking points for this diagram and others like it through the lens of basic engineering mechanics. I’m suggesting what questions to ask when you see diagrams that purport to portray the forces on prong collars.

Note that the people who post diagrams like this put on the mantle of science and accuse anyone who disagrees with them of “being emotional.” Ya know, if “being emotional” makes you realize that what your trainer recommended is hurting your dog, then more power to emotions. But here, empathy and science agree. The prong users’ attempts to apply science to support their bias are absurdly wrong.

The diagram in question appears impressively science-y, with its vectors and arrows and cosines. But it wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school statics/dynamics course. It lacks required definitions, descriptions, and disclosures of approximations and assumptions. It uses the wrong kind of diagram for the information it purports to present. It’s the opposite of impressive; it’s desperate.

So here’s what to do if you encounter this diagram. Ask the person who is posting some questions. The questions follow here in much detail. You can, if you like, skip all this and download the one-page PDF with the questions on it. But the more of the details you can understand, the more you will realize how ridiculous the diagram is.

Questions to Ask about the Prong Collar Diagram and Claims

l. Which of the four primary force scenarios involving a prong collar does this diagram illustrate?

There are at least four possibilities. My explanations of them include some technical details, but you can definitely get the gist of it without a strong math background.

Force Scenario A. The pressure of the prongs themselves on the dog’s neck with no leash attached. The prongs are creating pressure inward while the dog’s body is pushing outward in a state of static equilibrium. The pressure exerted by the prongs of the tightly fitted collar (as per the fitting instructions) is always ignored when people claim prong collars “protect the trachea.” Whatever the orientation of the collar—whether the chains and attachment area are at the back of the dog’s neck or the right side of the neck, some of those prongs are in the front of the dog’s throat, pressing inward.

The formula for this is ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 +m3a3 + • • • + mnan = 0.

In plain English, that means that the sum of all the different forces comes to zero. That’s because the collar is stationary. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any forces. It means they balance each other. Imagine a tight belt. It can exert pressure on your abdomen without being attached to anything else. It gets uncomfortable fast. Now imagine it with prongs on the inner surface. There is much less surface area on prongs than on a belt (or flat collar), so the pressure is concentrated. It likely causes pain or at least discomfort. On a prong collar, the inward pressure will be distributed around the neck and be roughly equal for all the prongs. But that’s when there is no external pressure on it. Remember—we haven’t attached a leash to it, yet.

A prong collar not attached to a leash is still exerting plenty of concentrated pressure on a dog’s neck.

Force Scenario B. The steady-state force when a leash is attached and it is taut between the dog and handler (i.e., the dog is pulling). The force of the leash pulling backward balances with the force of the dog’s body tissues and other physical elements pushing roughly forward. The collar tightens because of the movement of the chain through the holes. But even after it is tight, the pressure exerted by the different prongs will not all be the same. They will depend on the direction the dog is pulling and the orientation of the collar.

Think of the belt again. If you are wearing a tight belt and someone grabs a part of it and pulls you toward them, the belt no longer has equal pressure all around your waist. If they pull on the right side of your belt and you resist, there will be increased pressure on the left side of your belt. Likewise, if they pull on the back, there will be increased pressure on the front. The prong promoters argue that the prongs, because of their angles, somehow magically direct the pressure away from certain areas. Even if that were true in the way they argue it (it’s not), decreased pressure in one area means increased pressure in another. Force doesn’t just go **poof** into thin air. It has to go somewhere. So depending on the orientation of the collar on the dog’s neck and the direction of the force, there is no area of the neck that is magically protected from pressure from the prongs 100% of the time.

I understand why people buy the idea that the prong collar “protects” the dog’s neck, even though that’s an incredibly deceptive thing that prong trainers say. Imagine a dog wearing a flat collar pulling on leash for all they are worth—pulling and gasping. Not great for their neck and throat. If one used a prong collar instead, the dog **might** pull less. You might see less pulling and gasping. That’s why people use them. Pulling less decreases the type of force described in this scenario (but not necessarily the other three). But to then call that “protecting” the dog’s neck is doublespeak at its finest. There are much better ways to protect a dog’s neck than to poke things into it if they pull. And remember, plenty of dogs do pull when wearing prong collars. Mine did, the few times many years ago that I used one.

OK, back to the math. The forces are vectors, with both magnitude and direction, but if the dog and handler are moving as a unit, the sum of the forces is approximately 0. Let me emphasize that this is an approximation. The dog and the handler will always make minute changes in direction, which create acceleration. The acceleration creates a sum of forces that is nonzero. But for an approximation, we can assume the pulling is steady and in the same direction, and the sum of the forces = 0.

The formula is the same, but the numbers in it will be different: ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan ≈ 0.

The prong is tighter and exerting more pressure into the dog’s neck asymmetrically when the leash is applying force

Force Scenario C. The dynamic force of a correction (jerk on the leash) when the leash is attached to the “live ring” of the prong collar. The live ring is the one that allows the collar to tighten when there is force transmitted by the leash. With this type of correction, the force is instantaneous and dynamic and the sum of the forces does not likely equal zero; it will equal mass times acceleration. The tightening of the chain part of the collar directs some of the force to close and tighten the rest of the collar via a pulley, then the rest of the non-symmetrical force can move the dog off balance. The formula is ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan = ma.

A jerk of the leash, when it’s attached to live ring, causes an instantaneous, dynamic tightening of the collar

Force Scenario D. The dynamic force of a correction when the leash is attached to the “dead ring.” The dead ring holds the collar at a constant tightness. With this type of correction, the force is also instantaneous and dynamic and does not likely equal zero. Again, it will equal mass times acceleration. There is no pulley action and less or no tightening in this case because the configuration of the chain is fixed. A forceful correction of this type will have forces that differ from (C) above, and may be more likely to pull the dog off balance. But the formula is also ΣF = Σ(ma) = m1a1 + m2a2 + m3a3 + • • • + mnan = ma.

A jerk of the leash attached to the dead ring (both rings) causes an instantaneous, dynamic jerk on the dog’s neck and may pull the dog off balance

Even if you don’t care to follow all that, know that there are different forces involved with prong collars, and some can go on at the same time.

Of the forces above, A is a static force, B can be approximated as static, and C and D are dynamic forces. Static and dynamic forces are computed differently. And remember that B, C, and D always add to the baseline force of A. If you ask which force is being discussed or represented in a drawing, prong enthusiasts usually won’t answer this, because doing so reveals that their one drawing is only a tiny part of the big picture (besides being wrong). They are not presenting the true mathematical picture at all.

2. If they tell you which of the four force scenarios the drawing illustrates, ask them to post diagrams of the other three force scenariosAsk them to discuss how these forces combine and interact, and whether there might be even more scenarios. Posting one diagram when there are multiple forces that work differently is unethical.

3. Ask them what orientation of the collar on the dog’s neck their diagram represents. Is the leash attachment area on the right side of the dog’s neck, as directed by many paid trainers who use prongs, or on the back of the neck, as many lay people use it?

Leash attachment portion of the prong collar on right side of dog’s neck as directed by some trainers
Leash attachment portion of prong collar on the back of dog’s neck, as commonly used by lay people

This question will also show that they are not presenting an accurate picture. They will not want to answer it.

If you want to see real-life photos of the right-side attachment, search for “How to Fit a Prong Collar.” Ed Frawley has a post on the Leerburg site. (I won’t link it here, but it’s easy to find.) He states that one should place the attachment section of the prong collar on the right side of the dog’s neck, not the back of the neck. The photos of the Doberman and the Malinois on that page show the right side attachment and will also give you an idea of how tightly the collars are fastened (see section A above).

If they do answer the question about the orientation of the collar, ask them to provide a force analysis that applies to the other orientation. All the elements will rotate by 90 degrees, and the leash angles will probably change. Ask them how these two orientations affect any claims about the pressure of the prongs going to zero at certain parts of the dog’s neck. It can’t be the same part in both cases (if that claim were even true to begin with).

4. On any diagram, ask whether it represents a statics problem or a dynamics problem. Why did they not make the distinction? (Another instant fail in our high school mechanics class.) Most seem to be drawn as statics problems, but they also seem to represent the forces of a correction, which is a dynamics problem. Do you see how it is to the prong collar defender’s benefit to leave that part vague?

5. If the drawing is a two-dimensional rendering, ask them what margin of error this approximation introduces, since leashes attached to collars create forces in three dimensions. Leash pressure is rarely exactly coplanar (on the same plane) as the collar orientation, which is the assumption behind using a two-dimensional drawing. The following photos show the direction of the leash force (black leash) and its relationship to the plane of the collar (yellow line).

Figure 1. Force of the leash is approximately coplanar with the collar. On a real dog, the orientation of the collar would be closer to vertical since it is usually placed close behind the dog’s ears, but that doesn’t work on my stuffed dog.
Figure 2. Force of the leash is not coplanar with the collar
Figure 3. Force of the leash is not coplanar with the collar

If a diagram is two-dimensional, this assumes that the force of the leash is coplanar with the collar. This is rarely the case in real life.

It’s defensible to use a two-dimensional approximation of the problem, but only if the creator discloses the approximation and includes a discussion of the ways this could skew results. When the force is not coplanar with the collar, for instance, the upper and lower prongs in the pairs do not exert force equally. In the image directly above, where the leash is taut and being held higher than the plane of the collar, the lower prongs of the front pairs will exert more force into the dog’s neck than the upper ones.

Again, this would be a permissible simplification, but only if the diagram creator acknowledged it and discussed the effects it had on the accuracy.

Other Problems with the Diagram

The diagram I’m discussing has some other obvious errors. Again, I will not link to it, but these are general principles you can apply in the future if you see such diagrams.

The diagram has a two-dimensional problem drawn onto a three-dimensional perspective rendering of the collar. This creates errors in the angles. To accurately draw the angles they are trying to represent, you need a view looking straight down on the collar. The image on the left immediately below approaches that. Notice how the upper prong of each pair almost obscures the lower. I shot that photo almost straight down. Now, look at the upper and lower prongs in the image on the right. Drawing angles onto an image like that one and claiming that they are valid would be an instant failure in any mechanics course.

To represent an object such as this type of collar accurately, a top view and side view should be provided. A three-dimensional rendering could be included to show readers better visualize the object. This is not where you draw your angles, though.

In another terrible error, the creator of the drawing drew the angles on parts of prongs that were not connected to each other. They used the top prong for one section of each angle drawn, but then used the bottom link on the collar, the part that does not connect to the top prong, for reference for the other part of the angle. The first image below shows the section that is operating as a unit and should be the basis of any angles computed.

These parts of the prong collar are part of one functional unit

The second image shows how parts of the collar that are not directly connected were used for computing angles.

These parts of the prong collar are not directly connected to each other

This may be a subtle point to follow, but it is an egregious error.

A final problem is that the drawing doesn’t account for the change in direction of the force resulting from the pulley effect of the chain that tightens at the attachment area of the collar during a correction. A pulley changes the direction of a force. This is an especially interesting omission because if the creator had noticed it, they could’ve used it to support their argument (which would still be erroneous, though). That they missed this shows that we may be dealing with more ignorance than deception. But the end effect is still the same: they are using fallacious math to support a biased and incorrect conclusion.

When force is applied to the live ring, that force changes direction as the chain pulls through elements of the collar that act as pulleys

Bonus Fallacious Argument

This argument may not accompany any particular diagram. But it is common, and so demonstrably wrong.

If someone states that the prong units are acting as levers, ask for details about this. Levers are machines that magnify (increase) force. Ask what class of lever it is: 1, 2, or 3? (That one, at least, is a simple question—if there is a lever function going on here at all.) Ask for an approximation of the mechanical advantage of the levers (ratio of load and effort). How much do the levers increase the pressure from the prongs on the dog’s neck? Increasing force is the function of a lever. So prong users who claim that the prong units have a lever function are shooting themselves in the foot. Levers increase force.

A true lever has a load that is normal (at a right angle) to the lever itself. Think of a seesaw (a class 1 lever). We put loads (children) on top of the seesaw; we don’t apply a force horizontally and push it from end to end. If we did, it wouldn’t be functioning as a lever. Ask for a diagram showing a detail of a prong acting as a lever and the forces applied by it, including the ratio of effort to force. Ask how much the lever is increasing the force on the dog’s neck. Because that’s what levers do: increase force.

Succinct Printable Document with the Questions

I know this is awfully long. So here is a one-page document that has the key questions to ask when you encounter a prong collar diagram that purports to show beneficial effects.

Questions to Ask About Prong Collar Claims


It never seems to go well when defenders of prong collars try to appeal to science. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic that people can make stuff up, take shortcuts, refuse to define their terms, and won’t disclose approximations—and convince many people that they are producing good science merely by drawing some arrows.

Not to mention that they convince many people, who in their hearts may suspect otherwise, that they are doing a good thing for their dog when they use a prong collar. People do desperate things when their dog has a behavior problem they don’t know how to fix. I certainly did.

Some may ask why I didn’t provide my own diagram of the forces. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that it would take more than one diagram. The interaction of forces on a prong collar is not a simple problem. It needs to be addressed with the more sophisticated mathematical modeling tools we have now, such as the finite element method.

Take-home message: One drawing can’t represent all the force scenarios on a prong collar. It’s a cheap deception. Trainers who use pain or discomfort to train or manage dogs need to own it. They need to stop making up stories about protecting the dog’s throat when instead they are painfully concentrating force into tiny areas.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

P.S. I am keeping comments closed for now. I have been working on this off and on for months and am tired of the whole thing.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

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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)”

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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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