Category: Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

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

Book on alternative veterinary medicine: Placebos for Pets

McKenzie is a practicing veterinarian who also has a master of science in epidemiology (in addition to a bachelor’s degree with a double major in English literature and biology and a master’s in animal behavior). He has been the president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medical Association and runs the popular SkeptVet blog. That’s how I came to know of his writing.

For years, I have consulted the SkepVet blog about any new trend or alternative veterinary treatment that comes around. Dr. McKenzie presents the evidence and assesses it. This book is like his blog on steroids.

He accomplishes two main objectives with the book. First, he covers a large number of alternative treatments and interventions that are practiced in veterinary medicine. He handily groups them into natural categories, and also covers the history of the interventions. The history is often…surprising. Things that seem to have a gleam of ancient tradition about them, for instance, were invented out of whole cloth by one person a hundred years ago. Others have many subcategories that contradict each other. Other interventions are plausible but have been studied so much and for so long with only mixed results that they will probably not turn out to be miracle cures. So the book serves as a terrific reference to this large and complex topic.

The second objective he accomplishes is perhaps even more important. He teaches us how better to build good critical thinking skills and start to assess these interventions ourselves.

This is a book for an educated audience, but is perfectly appropriate for the pet owner as well as the animal professional. His writing style is clear and down to earth, and he explains some very difficult concepts with grace. There are 1,070 references, which take up fully 30% of the book (in the e-book format).

What Is Alternative Medicine?

Any topical non-fiction book has to define its terms early on, and McKenzie does so. It takes a whole chapter. Defining alternative medicine is a lot harder than one might think. It’s almost a moving target, although he does not use that term. He analyzes the terminology, including “alternative,” “complementary,” “integrative,” “holistic,” “natural,” and more. He discusses these as ideological categories that depend on philosophies of how we know things. I can’t present his whole argument here. You’ll really need to read the book for this, and I strongly recommend you do so. But here is one of his working definitions of complementary and alternative medicine:

The category of complementary and alternative veterinary medicine, then, is not a set of beliefs about health and disease so much as an ideological construct. It links ideas and practices primarily through a stared status as outside the medical mainstream.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc
herbal medicines in bowls and bottles

The Case for Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine

Early in the book, McKenzie presents rates for human life expectancy, maternal mortality, and child mortality. (I presume these data are not available for other species). Life expectancy started a dramatic upsurge around 1900 and continued through the entire 20th century and beyond. Maternal mortality showed a dramatic downturn starting a bit earlier (when doctors started washing their hands) and also continued through the 20th century. Likewise, child mortality dropped a bit from 1850 to 1900 and substantially after that. McKenzie points out that today, even people living in the poorest countries in the world can expect to live longer than most humans in history could have dreamed of. He goes on:

And those of us in the richest nations, with the best access to the fruits of science and technology, now routinely live more than twice as long as most human beings who ever lived. This is not because we are fundamentally different from those who went before, but because we have developed ways to understand the world and use that understanding to reduce suffering and death more effectively than ever before.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc

It doesn’t seem like anyone should have to defend science-based medicine, especially from within a first world country that reaps its benefits, but these are the days we live in. And Dr. McKenzie explains the processes of science, its strengths, and its limitations very well. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy, he says:

As a path to knowledge, it is long and winding, but it is far more likely to get us where we want to go than any other road we’ve tried.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc

How He Assesses Alternative Interventions

McKenzie has a structure for how he approaches the dozens of interventions he assesses in the book. The structure is:

  • What is it?
  • Does it work?
  • Is it safe?

Much of the information under “what is it?” was completely new to me. It taught me, once again, not to assume that because something is called “traditional” or “natural” that it necessarily is, or if so, that that is a good thing.

The “does it work?” section is often extensive. If there were easy answers here, the intervention would probably be part of evidence-based medicine already. On the other hand, McKenzie is quite clear when there is enough evidence to say, “No, it doesn’t work.” An important part of many “does it work?” sections is “is it plausible?”. He discusses the likelihood that this particular intervention could work according to the science we know, including whether the ideas at the base of it violate the scientific evidence we have.

He doesn’t dismiss interventions as often as you might expect. One surprising thing to me about the book is how open Dr. McKenzie is to the possibility of new findings related to alternative therapies. This guy is fair. He’s not some glib “debunker.” And his discussions are thorough. If there is even a chance that a therapy might be beneficial, he includes that in his writeup.

“Traditional” Medicine

After reading Placebos for Pets, any leftover warm fuzzies I had for “old” or “traditional” medicine are out the door. The magic is gone.

These ancient medical traditions (the ones that actually are ancient) were created by people who

  • had no idea of the causes of most diseases and conditions; and
  • didn’t know the functions of the organs in our bodies. They often didn’t even know basic physiology.

And as I’ll mention below in the acupuncture section, lots of supposedly traditional practices aren’t even that old.

Side Effects Are Good

Right out of the starting gate, Dr. McKenzie blows the mind of anyone who is seeking effective completely but-risk free treatments for their animal. He writes the following.

…nothing that actually does anything at all is going to be completely safe. The body of a living organism is an amazingly intricate system, with every part of the system interacting with other parts in a beautiful, bewildering complexity. The idea that we could tinker with one part of such a system and have only the effect we desire without setting off any unintended consequences in other parts is naive and unrealistic.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc

Boom. He summarizes this sentiment as McKenzie’s law. It goes like this:

If it has no side effects, it isn’t doing anything.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc

The irony here is that in my opinion, this is a far more holistic statement than I’ve ever heard from those recommending alternative approaches. The word “holistic” has been commandeered by providers of alternative treatments, but it describes competently practiced evidence-based medicine very well. The idea that you can take a substance and it will affect one part of the body and only that one part (in an ideal way) is not very holistic at all.

But his statement is going to upset a lot of people. It threatens a fervent wish we have for medicine, both veterinary and human. We want something that cures the cancer, or makes the pain go away, or improves joint mobility again—all without having any other effects on the organism.

Veterinary Medicine is Under-Studied

I was not aware of how few veterinary studies exist compared to human medical studies, although I should have guessed it. It affects the profession in interesting ways. (I can see the vets rolling their eyes in response to that. Yeah, interesting…) It means that it is very common to have studies with few animals, and studies that are not replicated, and studies that are not controlled. It means that vets sometimes have to extrapolate from human studies. It also explains why it is rational and practical for veterinarians to consider alternative medicine. I hope this book is as helpful to the veterinary profession as it can be for pet owners.


With a book that covers such a wide variety of interventions in such a comprehensive way, there is just no way to do it all justice in a review. As a sample of the thinking and information in the book, I am going to cover a small part of the chapter on acupuncture.

The chapter had several surprises. First, that although needling has been done in Chinese medicine for a few centuries, it is not as old as many practitioners believe. Also, Chairman Mao Zedong created “Traditional Chinese Medicine” as an entity for political purposes in the 1950s. That is not to say that there aren’t some ancient practices, but unifying some of them (along with other more recent practices and theories) into a system is quite recent.

McKenzie says,

…Mao’s intent in creating the TCM narrative was to suggest a time-honored and coherent set of theories and treatments because that generates greater confidence in patients and doctors.

Placebos for Pets?—Brennen McKenzie, VMD, MSc

Mao himself didn’t personally believe in or take Chinese medicine.

Some alternative treatments have been entirely made up by one person. Among these types of remedies are homeopathy (Samuel Hahnemann), Bach Flower Remedies (Edward Bach), and Essiac Tea (Rene Caisse).

Back to acupuncture. Another surprise was that Dr. McKenzie himself has certification in veterinary medical acupuncture (so-called Medical Acupuncture, which is different from the Chinese variety). He disclosed that, along with his intent to treat acupuncture as every other topic in the book and assess the research. He mentions that his personal experiences are the weakest kind of evidence.

He assesses the evidence for acupuncture through several lenses and leads us through the complexities. One limitation of acupuncture research is that it is hard to create a placebo treatment because people know when they are being stuck with needles and practitioners know when they are doing so. This means most human trials are wide-open to patient and clinician bias. Several trials that used as the placebo the placement of needles at the “wrong” points found that the placebo treatment was equally effective. Does this mean that sticking needles just anywhere is beneficial, or that both sets of patients were responding entirely to placebo effects?

There is much more to the chapter than that. But McKenzie’s general conclusion (way oversimplified by me) is that while there may be evidence that there are some places it’s good to stick a needle, this doesn’t transfer credence to the whole “discipline” (or any of the many varieties of the discipline).


dog taking a pill

To show that I take reviewing seriously (and also that I read the whole book) I try to always offer criticism. But I’m coming up a little dry, here.

At first, I wished that Dr. McKenzie had offered some instructions on how consumers can assess whether a particular intervention is working. But as I read, I concluded that that is outside of the purview of the book. How to determine the results of an individual intervention is a different book. When we are looking at statistics, one success, even a well-validated one, doesn’t matter. McKenzie’s book is about how to assess treatments. And he reminds us repeatedly that personal experience is the weakest kind of evidence. So I take back that criticism.

My only other comments involve style and are not about the content of the book. Stating common myths can strengthen them, even if the argument that follows demolishes them completely. In this book, the wonderful nutrition section does have some myths as headings. So if I’m scrolling through (I bought the e-book) and come across the heading “Commercial Diets are Poison,” that’s one more reification of the concept that the author is arguing against. This is a devilishly hard issue to handle as a writer, though. Sometimes you do have to list the myth!

One more stylistic issue: the listings in the impressive table of contents in the e-book do not link to the corresponding sections. That would be such a big help in a book this size.

Bits and Pieces I Can’t Resist Including

This bears mentioning again: Things that have been studied a lot with mixed results aren’t likely to be the cure-alls people hope for. Glucosamine is a good example of this. If it had strong positive properties for joint health, we would likely know by now.

Dr. McKenzie points out that many practitioners of alternative methods use systems that are entirely contradictory. For instance, strict homeopathy instructs the practitioner never to mix homeopathic remedies with other types of treatment. But many alternative medical practitioners do this.

A common fallacy that is the basis of a lot of alternative approaches is the “more is better” fallacy. Some substances the body needs, such as vitamins, are needed in very specific amounts. When we humans learn what the functions and benefits of such substances are, we naturally think that taking more can have super effects, maybe even curing illnesses! There are few cases of that being true. Many substances that are necessary for our bodies to function well can actually cause damage in megadoses.

Our own experiences with interventions are the weakest evidence. Hate it, but it’s true.

Final Thoughts

Reading this was a landmark life experience. Not only did I learn about a lot of specific alternative veterinary practices, I believe I started thinking the way McKenzie encourages. I certainly added a few critical thinking tools to my toolbox!

The book is very readable. But don’t expect to breeze through. It is dense and packed with information! Placebos for Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals is published by Ockham Publishing and is available on Amazon in e-book and paperback formats. This is an unsolicited review and I bought my own copy. (The e-book is only $6.99, an amazingly low price.)

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

I bought my own LickiMat and this is an independent, unsolicited review. 

Here I go again, trying to figure out whether a food toy is fun, neutral, or a drag. This time it’s an Industripet LickiMat Buddy, a rubber mat with texture that you can spread food on. The texture makes it a challenge for the dog to lick all the food off.

I bought one of these mats, and immediately had to ask my trainer friend Marge how you use these without the dog just carrying it off and chewing on it. She said people cut them to size to fit into a pan. Aha!

I had the perfect thing. I’m a potter, and I had previously made a square pan, but it developed a hairline crack when fired. I hadn’t been able to make myself throw it away. Perfect home for the mat! Heavy and almost two inches deep. You can see the setup in the pair of photos below.

If I hadn’t had the dish I would have cut the mat round to go into a cast iron skillet.

The LickiMat Test

So I spread some wet dog food on the mat and let Zani go to it.

First, does it work as promised? Yes, in that it slows the dog down. I used about 1/4 cup of sticky low-fat dog food and covered only about a third of the mat. I think some foods would be a lot quicker to get off, but this was a challenge. It took Zani about 20 minutes to mostly clean it up:

Orange LickiMat in a casserole dish--before and after dog worked on it

Second, is it safe? This would vary from dog to dog. But yes, I’d give it a pretty high safety factor for Zani. She wasn’t able to get it out of the dish in her first introduction to it. (She might be able to learn that skill, though.) But I would still classify this as a “needs supervision” type of toy. I wouldn’t leave a dog alone with it, lest they did get it out of the dish then chew it up and ingest some rubber or choke.

Finally, is it fun? At least satisfying? My assessment is “not very,” at least in the normal way it’s used, and at least for my dogs. I’ve written before about toys that merely slow the dog down. I think they are probably the least fun kind of toy, and some are probably pretty frustrating for the dog. I’m not picking on the LickiMat about this; there are lots of these toys that don’t do much more than slow the dog down. But I have encouraged myself, and encourage others, to be analytical about determining whether toys are fun. They should go beyond just taking up the dog’s time. So I’m sharing my recent test of the LickiMat.

It’s hard to read Zani’s body language with food toys. If I offer anything with food in it, she is thrilled. But when she works on a food toy, she does the “concentration tail tuck.” This body language makes it hard to know how much enjoyment she is getting. She tried to lift the mat out of the dish several times and wasn’t able to, as you can see in the video. I would imagine that was probably frustrating. On the other hand, one of her favorite hobbies is finding and consuming the last molecules of food in an area.

Here’s what an untrimmed mat looks like. It measures 20 cm (8 inches) square.

full-size, untrimmed LickiMat

The Frustration Factor

Is there a way for this toy not to be frustrating? I was thinking about the difference between things we humans want to chow down on, and things we might enjoy getting only a little taste of at a time. Are there food items that we actually lick? The best examples I can think of are hard candies, suckers, and (some) popsicles. Notice that they are all sweets. Nobody eats pizza in tiny licks and bites unless they have a physical problem that prevents biting and chewing. And I think most of us would find it pretty frustrating, especially if we were hungry.

To be fair, some people have told me their dogs are very content licking something and enjoy the LickiMat. I think it’s great that they have a suitable toy for their dogs. Some dogs really do find it soothing, so I’m not ruling that possibility out with my criticism here. I just don’t want people to fall into the trap, as I have, of assuming something is necessarily soothing or calming or interesting because it’s marketed as enrichment.

I have thought long and hard about whether I would use the LickiMat as an enrichment toy for my present dogs (or most dogs). The general answer is no, but with one exception. I finally thought of a way of using this toy that would likely be both enriching and enjoyable for the dog. That would be to put a whole pile of food on there, as well as working some onto the surface. In other words, create a situation where the dog can eat most of their meal normally, then can choose whether to go on and work for those last bits.

I see Zani “work for the last bits” a lot. After a training session, she often patrols the area for the last treat crumbs. But since she has already had a meal (I don’t train my dogs on an empty stomach) and a good handful of treats, I think there is little frustration involved.

At the end of a meal, we humans will often chase that last pea around our plate or sop up the last bit of sauce. Cleaning up is an organic part of eating a good meal, but if the whole meal consisted of tastes and bites that small, it wouldn’t be much fun.


A lot of people use food toys like this one as distractions during husbandry tasks. They give the dog something to do while being clipped, for instance. I would do that only with a dog who is already fine with the husbandry procedure. I use food for building associations during husbandry, rather than as a distraction. For a dog who is already nervous about the handing, using food as a distraction can create reverse conditioning. That means the dog will get nervous when you bring the food out instead of the food making the husbandry a happy thing. But for most dogs who are habituated to husbandry activities, I think licking things off a mat is more enjoyable than just lying there. And of course it’s a better alternative than having to restrain the dog, as long as you aren’t sabotaging yourself with reverse conditioning.

I would also use a product like this for a dog who wolfed food down and was in danger of bloating. In that case, just slowing the dog can be a lifesaver.

Bottom Line

The marketing materials for the LickiMat lead off by saying that mats are a “medical-free” way to calm your pet during storms. There are such assumptions in this statement. First, that a scared pet is even interested in eating. Second, that licking is necessarily soothing. Third, that any method short of medication will help a thunder-phobic dog. I think all of these are questionable. But what bothers me most is the “medical-free” part. Discouraging a medical route when some dogs desperately need it is terribly irresponsible. But it’s a marketing ploy that works again and again.

Bottom line: if I had read the “medical-free” claim by Industripet, the maker of LickiMats, I wouldn’t have supported the company to begin with. But now I have one, and I don’t like to waste things. If Zani, or another future small dog in my household, ever needs to eat wet food, I may use the LickiMat in the way I described above. I’ll put a whole serving of food on there and let her eat just as she would out of a bowl. Then she can choose whether to take the time to lick up the rest. I might also use it for a dog who needed to eat slowly for medical reasons, and for a stopgap measure to distract a dog. And who knows, I may get a dog who loves licking food. But for general enrichment, I’ll give my current dogs a toy that moves or some sort of nosework any day!

Thank you to Alex Bliss for the photo of the untrimmed mat.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro

small black dog Zani gazes at a Lotus Ball toy with Velcro enclosures

Velcro, a type of fastener with two different fabric surfaces that adhere to each other, typically makes a loud ripping noise when pulled apart. Some dog harnesses, coats, medical supplies, and other gear use Velcro closures.

This ripping sound can be aversive. Some sound phobic dogs are triggered the first time they hear it. And some dogs who are OK with most sounds may find it unpleasant when Velcro is unfastened close to their ears.

I recently “inoculated” my dog Zani against fear of the Velcro ripping sound. Zani has a Continue reading “How I Helped My Dog Love the Sound of Velcro”

Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials

Books in Review: Eileen’s Essentials

A brown dog appears to be reading a book on learning theory by Paul Chance. Books keyword
This book is on the list!

Since this is a gifting season for many folks, I thought I would share the books I own that are almost never on my bookshelves. By that I mean the books that are next to my computer or open on the kitchen table or mixed up in the bed covers. The books you see me quoting here. The books I open up when I need to solve a problem or I need a high quality reference.

I could easily name 20 more dog books that I dearly love and highly recommend. Maybe I’ll do that next year. But these are the ones I need the most.

The following are not affiliate links. I chose the author’s website for the link if the book was available there, next, Dogwise, if the book was available there, and Amazon for the rest. Most are available several other places.

  • Learning & Behavior by Paul Chance. I have the fifth edition from 2003 because the current edition (seventh, 2013) is pretty expensive. I write about learning theory so I need a source for definitions and references. Can’t do better than Dr. Chance.
  • The Essentials of Conditioning and Learning by Michael Domjan. OK. Dr. Chance above will tell you lots about operant behavior. Then get this one for respondent behavior. It’s got stuff I have never seen anywhere else. It’s great if you want to learn the ins and outs of both Pavlovian conditioning and operant learning.
  • Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman.  Dr. Sidman is the go-to behavior analyst on the topics of negative reinforcement and punishment and has hundreds of papers dating from the 1950s. This book is in lay language and is a bit frustrating in that it lacks references, but given his credentials it has almost become a primary reference itself. If you haven’t read much about aversives from a learning theory or societal standpoint, this book will knock you over. It will take you a while to recover.
  • Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats by Karen Overall. It’s phenomenal that we can buy a book with this much information in it at such a reasonable price. It is about behavior problems from a medical standpoint. The intended audience for this book is probably vets. It is highly technical yet quite readable.
  • Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price. This book is fairly new but already a classic. If you are a trainer you’ve probably already heard of it. But people who foster, people who work with shelter dogs, and pet owners with separation anxiety dogs all need this book.
  • Agility Right from the Start by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. This may surprise some people since I don’t write about agility much. But I love agility. This extremely down to earth book does just what it says it does: lays the fundamentals and goes from there. Wonderful, magical book. Good as a reference in that it has a solution for almost every typical agility problem. But even better because I’m pretty sure if you followed their plan from the beginning you wouldn’t have many problems!
  • A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs. Another classic. I wish I could gift a copy of this book to every single person who has a fearful dog. We could change the world that way.
  • The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Here is the One. Book. I. Would. Like. Every. Dog. Owner. To. Read.
  • Dog Food Logic by Linda P. Case. I’ve already raved about this book in a full-length review but I can’t leave it out here. I consult it frequently. I think nutrition for dogs is a more at-risk field even than training. With training there is no credentialing system. With nutrition there are credentials but they don’t seem to matter to people. People just hang out a shingle anyway. Listen to Linda. She has the expertise and she is objective. Plus she’s fun to read.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book on cognitive biases is invaluable to me as a writer. I have actually made myself a list of the biases he covers and review them at times. It’s a brilliant book. None of us is immune, unfortunately. We can only work at it.
  • Training Levels: Steps to Success by Sue Ailsby. Of all the training books I have read, this one is the most practical. It builds generalization and proofing into every step. Plus following instructions written by Sue is like having your favorite auntie coach you. If your auntie is wicked smart and, well, a little wicked.
  • Beyond the Brain by Louise Barrett. This one is new and I have to be honest in that I haven’t even finished it! But it fits my criterion because I keep pulling it out for some incredible examples of advanced behavior from organisms with very little brainpower. It gives you a whole new outlook on how behavior can develop.

There you have it! I have several other posts almost ready and will get back up to speed after my webinar on canine cognitive dysfunction hosted by the Pet Professional Guild on Monday, December 14th. Those old music habits kick in and I’ve been rehearsing in all my free time. Come if you can!

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.

If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.

That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new Continue reading “Fooled by the Foobler? A Review”

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Because I read this incredible book, that’s why. 

Book Review

Dog Food Logic book coverDog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case, MS

Available at Dogwise.

A book about dog nutrition and feeding choices that talks about cognitive biases and logical fallacies? My kind of book!

Author, trainer, canine nutritionist and consultant Linda Case has written a unique book on how to make decisions about what to feed your dog. She has the right credentials:  B.S., Animal Science, Cornell University, M.S. Canine/Feline Nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana, and tons of high-level professional working experience. The book is packed with information about dog nutrition, but equally important is the information about **how** to go about making decisions about feeding. Ms. Case realizes that most people don’t make decisions about their pets based on charts of data. Of course she includes the charts, and gives instruction on how to use them. But she also teaches us how to navigate the waters of cultural assumptions, advertising, our own upbringing, and most important, cognitive biases.

The writing style is casual and pleasant, while still being precise.  She jokes around. And the book is well organized, persuasive, and thorough. There are chapters on dogs’ nutritional needs including adjusting for their age and “lifestyle,” common ingredients and what they really are, critical thinking and decision making about our dogs’ food, the history of dog food, dog food companies–who really makes what, dog food marketing and labeling (read and weep), and what regulating bodies work to keep dog food safe (in the US) and how to contact them.

Goals of the Book

I knew I would love this book when I saw the three-point synopsis in the introduction:

[In order to make good decisions about our dogs’ nutritional health…]

We need a strong emotional attachment to the idea of making the best choice for our dogs and an understanding of how that attachment affects our choices; we also need a grounding in the science of canine nutrition (an understanding of what we know to be true and proven versus what is mere speculation or conjecture); and we need a set of strong critical thinking skills to allow us to sort truth from marketing hype when evaluating dog food companies, brands, and products.

I would have been happy with just the second and third points, but the first point converts the book from merely useful to a slam dunk. And she delivers on all three.

Later in the book, she reiterates her point:

It should be evident by now that my goal with this book is not to tell you what food to feed to your dog or how to specifically advise your clients about their dogs. Rather, my objective is to promote well-reasoned decision making that combines a working knowledge of the scientific method, canine nutrition and critical thinking skills.

You get it? She’s not going to make a master list of the best dog foods and recommend the top five. She’s going to teach you how to do it yourself, for your own dogs.

Biases and Fallacies

Is Summer a skeptic too?
Is Summer a skeptic too?

A great strength of the book is the focus on biases and fallacies about dogs, their needs, their nutrition, our own motivation, and much more. Here are a few highlights.

Illusion of Control: She takes as a small case study the Internet claims that a certain ingredient is connected to seizures in dogs. She shows the tortuous path that led to the rumors. Most important, she points out that the known possible causes for seizures, genetics and idiopathic, are both something over which an owner has no control. Because of confirmation bias and the illusion of control, diet is most people’s go-to solution for any health problem that is making us feel frustrated and helpless.

Overfeeding and treat training: She points out that connecting food and love (a good thing) can lead to dog obesity (a bad thing) if critical thinking and self observation are left out of the picture. She points out that training sessions strengthen the association between food and love in our minds and can have an effect on our choices. And even though she mentions training with food in this section, she does not equate that with having overweight dogs. She states the obvious without fanfare, that it just requires the ability to subtract the calories from the dog’s daily needs to prevent any weight problem. I had never thought about how training with food reifies the food/love connection…in the human.

Zani performing a "natural canid behavior": Eating grass
Zani performing a “natural canid behavior”: Eating grass

Naturalistic Fallacy: She introduces and first discusses this fallacy in the section about dogs’ nutritional needs. She sums up the problem with a sentence that may tick some people off, but which she defends flawlessly: “There is no rational reason to believe that, just because something can be classified as natural for dogs…that it without question follows that these things are better for dogs.” She goes on to explain that benefits need to stand on evidence, not just a claim of naturalness. She discusses the effects of the naturalistic fallacy several more times:  in an extended case study about choosing a dog food from the myriad choices available now, in the section on pet food marketing, and (oh boy!) in the section on labeling.

Credentials and Social Media

In a short but chilling section, Ms. Case lets us know how frustrating the world of a nutritionist can be. In an almost perfect parallel to the training world, anybody can blast their opinion on nutrition for dogs all over the internet and not be called to task for it. You can’t go a day on social media without running into it. As a nutritionist, she is ethically and professionally bound to take extreme care about recommendations, but, for instance, I, as an uncredentialed blogger, can write anything I want. I could start promoting Eileen’s All Egg Diet starting tomorrow without much risk of repercussions. But I’m going to follow her advice, which is “If you don’t have the creds, don’t make the claim.”

And indeed, I can’t start recommending this book fast enough. Just yesterday I read someone’s post on FaceBook decrying the lack of attention to nutrition that people give to their pet dogs. She went on to make four points about choosing a food. Three of this passionate, caring person’s points, it turns out, have absolutely no current basis in science, and two of those three actually have minor but documented risks. The fourth was a recommendation about labeling. The writer said to look for a certain word connected with the food. And I just learned that word has virtually no regulated meaning in the petfood industry.


Frankly, I am so thrilled with this book and grateful that it is available to us that it’s hard to find a flaw. But just so you know that I did read it with a critical eye: I would have loved a central listing of all the BS myths that we hear about feeding dogs. However, these fallacies are so numerous and so central to the arguments of the book that making a list in addition to addressing them in the flow of the text would substantially increase its size. One other thing: Appendix 5 is called a flow chart for dog food choice–a great idea. I spent a bit of time searching for the actual flow chart–could it have been an insert and it fell out?–until I finally realized that the list of questions in text format was the flow chart. I would have loved to see a graphical decision tree as well.

Odds and Ends

I learned something on almost every page of this book. Here are a few little tidbits:

  • The evidence that dogs are omnivorous
  • Which label terms on foods are actually legally defined
  • Why “filler” is an empty (ha ha) epithet
  • The pros and cons of both raw and cooked, extruded food
  • The legal bounds of the term “natural”
  • Why it’s hypocritical that a food that is supposed to be complete and total nutrition is marketed with additional implied claims about improving your dog’s health

Personal Response

I said at the beginning of this post that I intend to change my dogs’ food. I’m relieved to say that I haven’t chosen a bad food, and many of the principles I have followed in making my choice are pretty good. But now I’m better informed and can make a better choice.

Bottom line:  I trust this book. Ms. Case gives us the information we need, and teaches methods of making assessments on our own. She doesn’t set anything in stone. I am completely confident that when new information comes out that updates or even contradicts information she has in the book, she will be the first to spread the word, hopefully in a future edition.

This review was not solicited. I saw that Ms. Case had written the book, I bought it, I read it, and I hope every other dog owner reads it as well.

Coming Up:

BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
Thresholds: The Movie
You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies at Me!


Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Home page photo from behaviorworks.org

Imagine if you could drop out of this world for two months and live somewhere where positive reinforcement ruled rather than punishment. Where teachers understood how people best learn. Where people taking a class were there to learn, not work for a grade. Where people noticed what was good and remarked upon it. Where people said please and thank you. A lot. Where “cheating” didn’t even need to be discussed. Where the teacher understood the qualities of effective reinforcement so well that she made herself available by email and text to EVERYONE and often responded in less than 5 minutes.

I got to live there for two months, mostly on Thursday nights but also for a large part of my weekends. I took Dr. Susan Friedman’s class: Living & Learning with Animals (LLA).

The best thing about the class for me was not the course material. People who have taken it are free to gasp in dismay at this point because the course material is absolutely  incredible. But I bet they know where I am going. For me it was even overshadowed by the application of learning theory to our experiences as students.

I’m one of those perennial students. A couple of decades ago I found myself working at a university where I could get essentially free tuition. After a background in performing arts, I thought it would be fun to exercise a part of my mind that had had little former training. I had always been “good in math” but had taken the music path instead. So I started taking math, science, and engineering classes. This culminated in a master’s degree in engineering science in a rigorous program. With a bachelors and masters in music performance, I had to get into the program through a loophole and basically work my ass off for years to catch up with those who had “appropriate” undergraduate degrees. But I did it. For fun.

I had little to no interest in a career in a related field. I was curious. I was there to learn. So I became keenly aware of the conflict between how to learn in order to understand the material, and and how to learn to get a good grade.  At first I was naturally inclined, and later I made a conscious effort to keep to the former method. For example, I was amazed one day when a chemistry professor said to the class, “Now, I hardly expect you to do ALL the problems at the end of each chapter.” Oh, naive me. That’s what I had been doing.

As I got in over my head and my life got busier, working to get a good grade started to hold sway. I lasted several years after the masters, was an ABD,  but eventually quit because it just wasn’t a pleasure anymore.

Fast forward back to today. The first thing I fell in love with in LLA was the approach to our homework. The teaching assistants work one on one with each student on their homework assignments. They employ what Dr. Friedman calls a soft Socratic method. Whatever your answers, whatever your level of experience, they will ask you questions to improve your understanding and gently guide you along.

I’ve been in a lot of situations where my work was critiqued. I used to be an orchestral musician. (That means I had to live with a very public level of critique.) I worked as an academic editor for someone with a PhD in English (a great job with lovely bosses, by the way). My major professor in engineering was, if possible, even more particular about my writing. I’ve always wanted feedback, but it was really really hard on my ego. When I would get my work back with the red pen marks, I would literally put it aside so I could gird myself for the corrections.  I’m not kidding: I would look at it out of the corners of my eyes at first. Finally I would get up the courage to go through it and quickly make the corrections, then hide it from myself again.

It took only one iteration of the homework exchange in LLA  for all of that trepidation to vanish into thin air. A lifetime of performance anxiety took its leave. This exchange was FUN. The teachers were there to help. You could write casually, with an occasional joke or casual remark, and they would be real people right back at ya! And with incredible expertise at helping you lead yourself to understanding. You could write things like, “Man, this part is hard but I think….” and “Am I on the right track here?” For the first time in my life I looked with happy, non-stressful anticipation for the responses to my homework. And believe me, those hardworking people were fast, too!

I realized that this is what my animals might feel like when I am doing really good training with them. It’s a game they can’t lose. The worst thing that can happen is a gentle delay of reinforcement before “getting it.” The homework game was incredibly fun. I loved being the trainee.

Another thing I loved was the method of participation in the actual teleconference.  Early on Dr. Friedman mentioned that she doesn’t use the webinar software providers where people have a visual display of the presenter’s PowerPoint presentation on the computer. She has participants from all over the world and has found that the webinar technology is just not up to the challenge of serving everyone well. But there is another benefit to her format, which I am positive she is aware of. She uses an audio conference call (group telephone call) system. She gives us all a link to her presentation with embedded graphics and playable videos. So while we listen to the audio, we have control over switching from slide to slide and playing the videos ourselves on our computers. Also we can unmute our phones to ask questions or text them in using a standalone chat program.

It made a huge difference to me. I’ve generally disliked webinars,  and find it irritating to watch someone controlling their presentation from afar. (Besides which most people have no clue how to use AV materials well and merely read their PowerPoint presentation to the audience.) Also it’s irritating especially at the beginning when their screen is already visual and we get to watch them struggling to open their presentation and get it on full screen.

Dr Friedman presented evidence in a lecture that control over one’s environment may be a primary reinforcer. Primary or secondary, it’s powerful. That small difference of advancing the slides myself and hitting Play on the videos; well, silly as it seems, it was really empowering. I could even go back to look at something again, although I had to be quick about it!

Also, the fact that she answered people’s texts during the class was so cool. Usually in “webinars” the questions texted in are handled by a moderator and passed on to the presenter at the end. Whenever the rest of us were watching a video, Susan was obviously catching up on her texts and answering questions in real time, right when they were relevant. Occasionally she would pause her lecture–and say so–to do the same. The opposite of the impersonal, inexorable drone of a disconnected lecturer. She would answer some questions online and share some on the call. Far from bring an interruption, it was helpful. We got a breather too, got another reminder that she and all the others were real people too, and got a sense of community. And she stayed after class on the phone! Opportunities for more questions.

Speaking of community: the students are broken up into four groups who submit their homework and questions through a Yahoo group. Everyone’s homework exchanges are visible to anyone else in the group. Dr. Friedman never said ONCE not to copy other people’s homework. The assumption is that we were there to learn, we were adults, and we were in charge of optimizing our own learning experience. Which obviously would be better if we did the work ourselves. I made a point of not looking at anyone else’s before submitting my own each time. (OK, in the very first assignment I opened one email and took a glance, literally a glance, to see the format of their answer to make sure my presentation method was at least in the ballpark.) Then afterwards I would dive into the wealth of teaching and information exchange going on with the other folks. We got to watch the process of the others and learn even more about learning.

Now for the two things in the actual course material that changed my life. First, I have always had a knee jerk reaction when people joke about using positive reinforcement or punishment to their own ends. Often in husband and wife jokes. I have been really uneasy with the idea of one person in a relationship with an animal or human making contingencies on the other’s behavior. This is not something to be taken lightly. Part of this is probably related to the “cultural fog” around behavior and learning that exists. Susan mentions that people so often express trepidation to her about using positive reinforcement: isn’t it just a bribe? Won’t we make the person dependent on it? Won’t it kill their intrinsic interest? etc. And she says that not once has anyone expressed those trepidations about punishment. I’m sure part of my distrust came from the cultural fog. But part of it I think was a valid concern. It applies to using both punishment and reinforcement. What gives us the right to consciously affect another’s behavior with either method?

Susan Friedman rested my heart with one statement.  First, the outside world reacts to behavior “problems” with punishment. Better, we as thoughtful trainers improve on that; we approach the problem humanely and with an eye to training a new behavior rather than punishing the old. Our approach is usually, how do we fix the problem?

Best:  Dr Friedman’s approach: FIRST what does the animal (or person) want? That’s the starting point. It comes before “how are we going to change its behavior to suit us.” With that small (HUGE) difference in approach, it all became OK for me. It recognizes that particularly with animals, but certainly with children too, we are the ones holding the cards. We have the key to the food cabinet and the outdoors and connection with society and all the good stuff. The power difference is acknowledged. So we must always start with what the other guy wants and needs. It’s only fair. She puts a huge amount of consideration into ethics before intervening in an animal’s behavior. She respects the animal. And the person.

That’s love, folks.

The other piece of the puzzle for me was in the very last lecture. She mentioned that it goes all over her when someone responds to an encouraging comment from her with, “oh, you are using that training stuff on me aren’t you!” (Actually I think she said something closer to, “It ticks me off.” I don’t remember exactly.) She then proceeded to talk about praise needing to be genuine. Well, sure. But how does one do that? By paying attention. By being a keen observer. And when you are on the receiving end of that, you can tell instantly. The praise resounds like a bell inside you. This person SAW me. They noticed who I am. And they noticed a partially good thing I did. And they SHARED it with me. That is the first thing you will notice about Susan and her teaching associates. They are so very genuine. And they are paying attention.

In the homework, we typically received a comment on every section or paragraph that we wrote. Anything from a “Yes,” to “I loved how you worded that,” to “Not quite, have you considered…?” I have the utmost respect for the stamina and the level of attention of those folks! Their comments were never false, empty, or automatic.

As a dog trainer, I had already been learning about the importance of learning dog behavior and body language. In the course I learned all over again how that observation, with whatever species, is absolutely essential in our lives with others.

I just got a glimpse of utopia for two months. I’m doing my best to bring it home with me and share it. Thank you to Susan, Billie, Julie, Dana, Shauna, Margo, Wendy, and Cynthia. And all the rest whom I didn’t get to work with this time but look forward to for next time.

P.S. Dang it, now I want a parrot.

Thanks, Susan and associates!







Thanks from me, too!


© Eileen Anderson 2012                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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