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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zazie Todd’s Writing Voice

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

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

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

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

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

Todd, p. 155

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

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

Example Chapter: Dogs and Children

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

Dogs and Children

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

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

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

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

Questions This Book Can Answer

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

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

Tidbits

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

Why You Should Buy This Book

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

Where You Can Buy the Book

Just Wow

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

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

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

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

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

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

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

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

Husbandry

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.

Critique

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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