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 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 a little 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 taking normal-sized bites 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 that their dogs are very content licking and licking something and that they enjoy the LickiMat. I think that’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, that something is necessarily soothing or calming or interesting when it may not be.

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 if I 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. That’s an organic part of eating a 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.

The bottom line is that if I had read that particular 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 a lot of it just as if it were 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

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Ist dieser Hund außer Kontrolle vor Freude oder aus Stress – falsche Frage

Click here for the English version of this post. 

Immer wieder machen Videos von Agility Hunden die Runde im Internet, die die “Zoomies” kriegen, also ohne ihren Hundeführer vom Kurs abkommen und über den ganzen Parkour ihre Runden drehen und hüpfen.

Üblicherweise gibt es dann die Diskussion, ob das aus Übermut/Freude oder aus Stress passiert.

Das sind natürlich gute Fragen. Meine Meinung: ich habe deutlich mehr Hunde gesehen, die das aus Stress machen, viel seltener habe ich Hunde gesehen, die plötzlich aus lauter Freude einen Lauf- und Hüpf-Anfall kriegen.

Ich rede mal ein bisschen darüber, was diese “Zoomies” auslösen kann, aber letztendlich werde ich auf den Punkt kommen, den ich viel wichtiger finde als Spekulationen über die innere Motivation des Hundes. Weil für diesen wichtigen Aspekt ist es egal, ob ein Hund aus Übermut oder Stress unansprechbar losrennt.

Wie Zoomies häufig anfangen

Ich habe noch nie – im Video oder auf dem Platz – gesehen, dass ein Hund seinen Menschen stehen lässt um alleine loszupesen, wenn der Agility-Kurs gut verläuft und Hund und Halter gut in Verbindung stehen. Bestimmt passiert auch das, alles passiert mal im Agility. Aber typischerweise passiert so etwas nach einem Führfehler. Wenn man (noch) nicht gut im Agility ist, kann das aussehen wie ein Fehler des Hundes. Schließlich wissen wir Zuschauer, was das nächste Hindernis sein sollte – und der Hund läuft woanders hin. Aber oft rennt der Hund, der vom Kurs abweicht, genau dahin, wohin der Halter ihn (versehentlich) geschickt hat.

Ich höre noch wie Gerry Brown, mit dem ich mal trainieren durfte, sagt “schau auf deine Füße”. Als ich nach unten sah, schauten meine Füße genau in die Richtung in die mein Hund ganz pflichtbewusst gerannt war – in die falsche Richtung. Und auch meinen eigenen Trainer hab ich im Ohr „Du hast sie da hin geschickt.“ Warum auch immer, es ist für uns Agility-Anfänger schwierig zu verinnerlichen, dass der Hund oft genau das macht, was wir angezeigt haben, wenn er diese Art „Fehler“ macht.

Zoomies passieren also häufig, wenn wir den Hund ab ins Niemandsland schicken. Unsere Körpersprache kann dazu führen, dass der Hund vom Kurs abkommt und dann wie eine Rakete losgeht. Zoomies passieren auch, wenn man zu viel von einem Hund verlangt. Sie können vorkommen, wenn der Hund generell Stress hat, sie können auftreten, wenn wir immer wieder vom Hund verlangen, eine Sequenz oder ein Hindernis zu wiederholen, das am Anfang fehlerhaft ausgeführt wurde oder verweigert. Manchmal ist der Grund auch, dass wir den Übergang von Training zum Wettkampf nicht gut genug trainiert haben. Wenn der Hund nicht gelernt hat, auch mal ohne Belohnung zwischendurch einen Kurs zu laufen, dann leidet er unterwegs schon aus Mangel an positivem Feedback und sucht sich eine anderen Verstärker.

Man braucht Erfahrung, gute Anleitung und gute Beobachtungsgabe um zu erkennen, wenn man einen Fehler gemacht hat. Oft merken wir es mitten im Lauf nicht, besonders bei einem Wettbewerb und denken, der Hund hat einen Fehler gemacht.

Beispiel für Abweichung vom Kurs

Hier ein Beispiel dafür, wie es aussieht, wenn ein Hund dahin läuft, wohin er geschickt wurde, nicht dahin, wohin der Halter vorhatte ihn zu lotsen. In dieser Fotosequenz von einem Training bei uns im Hinterhof sende ich Zani in einen Wust von Slalomstangen im Blumenbeet statt über die zweite Hürde.

Im ersten Foto habe ich den Kurs eingezeichnet, den ich für sie geplant hatte. Agility-Kundige können sehen, dass ich nicht gut positioniert bin, Zani hat nicht genug Platz und sie sitzt schief zur ersten Hürde.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

Die folgenden Fotos zeigen was passiert ist als ich mich nicht schnell genug und nicht eng genug gedreht habe, um sie über die zweite Hürde zu schicken. Erstaunlicherweise hat sie die erste Kurve gekriegt (obwohl mein Handling nicht gepasst hat). Aber was passiert als nächstes?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence
Sehen Sie, dass sie nun genau dahin läuft, wo meine Gestik sie hinschickt?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away
Meine Drehung kommt viel zu spät.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed
Ab ins Blumenbeet!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani ending up in a flower bed

Ich hatte versucht, eine scharfe Rechtswendung anzuzeigen, aber meine Drehung war weder ausreichend schnell noch scharf genug. Außerdem wäre ich ihr im Weg gestanden. Als ehrliches treues Mädchen lief Zani genau dorthin, wo ich sie hingeschickt hatte.

Diese peinlichen Bilder veröffentliche ich, um zu zeigen wie üblich es ist, dass der Hund genau das macht, was wir angewiesen haben – ob wir das in dem Moment realisieren oder nicht! So bald Hunde die grundsätzliche Körpersprache beim Agility gelernt haben sprechen sie diese besser als wir. Hätte es kein Blumenbeet gegeben, hätte ich Zani weit voraus ins Nirwana geschickt. Und wenn das ein Wettbewerb gewesen wäre, je nach unserer Verbindung miteinander und danach, wie gestresst wir beide gewesen wären, hätte ich ziemliche Schwierigkeiten gehabt, sie wieder zu mir zu kriegen.

Was passiert, wenn ein Hund “Zoomies” hat?

Also, zurück zum aktuell kursierenden Zooming-Video. Nach einiger Überlegung habe ich entschieden es hier nicht zu verlinken. Man findet solche Videos sehr leicht auf YouTube.

Im letzten, das ich gesehen habe, scheint ein Führfehler oder Einschätzungsfehler zu einem Verlust der Verbindung zwischen Hund und Besitzer zu führen. (Der Fehler war, vom Hund wiederholt ein Hindernis zu verlangen, das er verweigert hatte) Man sieht, wie die Verbindung zu bröseln beginnt. Dann haut der Hund ab und vollführt diese faszinierenden Sprünge über alle möglichen Hindernisse (nicht Hürden). Die meisten Diskussionen über dieses Video drehen sich darum, ob der Hund aus Stess oder aus purer Freude herumzoomt. Zeitweise sieht es so aus, als würde sie Spaß haben.

Aber ich finde, „Stress oder Freude“ ist nicht die Frage, die wir eigentlich stellen sollten.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Hier gibts nichts zu sehen, bitte gehen sie weiter

Was, wenn wir nicht versuchen, was der Hund gerade fühlt, sondern anschauen, was der Hund tut? Was, wenn wir das Zooming exakt als Ablauf beschreiben? In den Videos, die ich gesehen habe, gibt es eins, das alle Hunde tun, während sie rennen und springen.

Sie meiden ihre Halter.

Die Halter winken, pfeifen oder rufen, versuchen genügend Verbindung zum Hund zu kriegen um weiterlaufen zu können. In einem der letzten Videos habe ich in 56 Sekunden Zooming 10 Versuche mit Rufen oder Winken gezählt. Erfolglos.

Dieser Halter hat mein volles Mitgefühl. Mir ist das auch schon passiert. Aber seinen Hund nicht zurückrufen zu können, der volle Pulle rennt, ist nicht witzig. Es ist auch nicht niedlich. Und es braucht nicht als Video mit netter Hintergrundmusik veröffentlicht zu werden. Es ist eine Frage der Sicherheit.

Im Hintergrundton zum Video hört man wie jemand von der Seite reinruft, die Richter sollen auf den Ausgang aufpassen. Ein hervorragender Vorschlag.

Wenn wir also vom Sofa aus gute Tipps geben und darüber diskutieren ob das jetzt Stress ist oder nicht, verlieren wir vielleicht das Wichtigste aus den Augen. Wir spekulieren über die Motivation des Hundes, und fühlen uns auf vertrautem Boden. Aber eigentlich schauen wir ein Video von einem unangeleinten Hund, der nicht auf einen Rückruf reagiert. Wiederholt. In einer Umgebung, die nicht geschlossen ist.

Und das ist das Problem mit Zoomies und Zoomie-Videos. Sich erfolglos in öffentlicher Umgebung um die Aufmerksamkeit unseres Hundes zu bemühen ist kein Spaß. Die Sicherheit des Hundes, anderer Hunde und sogar von Menschen kann auf dem Spiel stehen.

Many thanks to translator Eva Kahnt!

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

 

Brown, mixed breed dog zooming

Auf Deutsch. (German version of this post.)

There’s a video going around (there always is, right?) of an agility dog getting the “zoomies” and taking off on her own, running and jumping all over the ring without her handler.

As usual, there is plenty of discussion about it. Is the zooming dog stressed out? Or is she expressing fun and joy?

I think these are good questions to ask. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen far more stressed dogs zooming.  I think it’s rarer to see dogs who are suddenly possessed with an urge to run around joyfully by themselves on an agility course.

I’m going to talk just a little bit about what can prompt zooming behavior. But I will focus on an issue that I believe is much bigger than speculating about the dog’s inner state. Because in one important way, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is running from joy or stress.

How Zoomies Often Start

I have never seen, in a video or in person, a dog leave her handler to go running around by herself when the agility run is going well and the dog and handler are connected. I’m sure it happens—everything happens in agility. But the more typical time for it to happen is after a handler error. If you’re not familiar with agility, this can look like the dog is in error. After all, we spectators can usually tell what the next obstacle is supposed to be, and the dog is going somewhere else. But often when the dog “runs off,” she is going exactly where the handler (accidentally) sent her.

I can hear Gerry Brown, whom I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and a seminar spot with, saying, “Look at your feet!” When I looked down, they were pointing in the direction my dog was dutifully running—the “wrong” way. And I can hear my own teacher saying many times: “You sent her there.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for us beginning agility folks to grasp that the dog is often doing exactly what we indicated when they make this kind of “error.”

So zoomies often happen when we send the dog off into no man’s land. Our moves can result in the dog going off-course and then taking off like a rocket. Zoomies can also start when we ask too much of a dog. They can start when the dog is generally stressed out. They can start when we keep asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that was executed incorrectly or avoided the first time. Or sometimes they happen because we have not worked at transitioning to trial situations well enough. If the dog is not used to running without added reinforcement, she may already be suffering from lack of positive feedback and will seek alternative reinforcement.

It takes some experience, good instruction, and good observation skills to see when we made an error. We often don’t realize it in the middle of a run, especially in competition. We think the dog made a mistake.

Off-Course Example

Here’s what it looks like when a dog goes where the handler directs her instead of where the handler intended. In this photo sequence of some backyard practice, I accidentally send Zani into a clump of weave polls in the flowerbed instead of sending her over a second jump. Yes, this was a real practice.

I have marked on the first photo where I intended for her to go. Agility folks can see that I am not positioned well, there’s not enough room, and Zani is not facing the jump.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

The subsequent photos show what happened when I didn’t turn tightly or soon enough to send her over the second jump. Miraculously, she made the first turn, no thanks to my handling. But what’s going to happen next?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence

Can you see that she now goes exactly where my gestures indicate she should go?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away

My turn is way too late!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

Into the flowerbed!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

I was trying to cue a hard right turn but didn’t turn quickly enough or sharply enough. Not to mention I would have been in her way. Being an honest and truehearted girl, Zani went exactly where I asked her to!

I offer these embarrassing photos to show how common it is for the dog to be doing exactly what we asked, whether we think so at the time or not. Once they learn the basic language of agility, they speak it better than we do. If there had been no flowerbed, I would have sent Zani off into the wild blue yonder. And if this were in a trial, depending on our connection and both of our stress levels, I could have had a heck of a time getting her back.

What’s Happening If the Dog Gets the Zoomies?

So, back to the latest zooming dog video. After some consideration, I decided not to link to it here. You can easily find several on YouTube that match what I’m discussing.

In the latest one I’ve seen, a possible handler error of judgment seems to prompt a disconnect between dog and handler. (The error was to repeatedly ask the dog to make another attempt at a failed obstacle.) You can see the connection starting to break. Then the dog takes off, circling the ring and doing these stupendous jumps over non-jump obstacles. Most discussions I have seen about the video are about whether the dog is zooming out of stress or just having a good time. It does appear that at times she is enjoying herself.

But I put it to you that “stressed-out versus having fun” is not the question we should be asking.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Humorous picture of a woman holding an agility tunnel with a small black dog sitting inside it

Nothing to see here, folks, move along

What if we look at what the dog is actually doing rather than trying to assess her demeanor? What if we operationalize the zooming, try to describe it exactly? In the videos I have in mind, there is something the dogs are very obviously doing while also running and jumping.

They are avoiding their handlers.

The handlers beckon and call, trying to get connected enough to resume the run together. In the video I saw recently, the handler either called or beckoned to the dog 10 times during 56 seconds of zooming by my count. Unsuccessfully.

I have all the empathy in the world for that handler. I’ve been there. But not being able to recall your dog who is running around at full speed is not a joke. It’s not cute. It doesn’t need to be published as a video with cute background music.  It’s an issue of safety.

During part of that video, you can hear someone on the sidelines warning the stewards to watch the gate. That’s an excellent idea.

So as we discuss and play armchair quarterback about whether the dog is stressed or not, we are perhaps not perceiving the bigger issue. We are so comfortable speculating about a dog’s motivations. That’s familiar ground. But we are actually watching a video of an off-leash dog not responding to being called. We are seeing a failed recall cue. Repeatedly. In an environment that is not completely enclosed.

And that’s the problem with zoomies and zoomie videos. Trying unsuccessfully to get our dog’s attention in a public environment is no joke. The dog’s safety, that of other dogs, and even of people, are at risk.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

 

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When Is Citing a Research Study Not Enough?

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

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

Requests are almost always couched as follows:

“Is there a study that shows XYZ?”

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

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

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

All this leaves us with some problems and challenges.

What’s Better Than One Study?

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

A sampling of learning theory research books

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

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

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

Example 1: Punishment Intensity

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

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

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

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

Example 2: Dogs and Music

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

A brown dog appears to read a learning theory textbook for research

It’s usually safe to quote Chance

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

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

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

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

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

Example 3: Research Blooper

Yellow sign that says "OOPS!"

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

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

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

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

My Learning Theory Go-To Resources

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

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

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Critical Thinking, Research | 16 Comments

A Milestone for Clara: Socialization Work Pays Off

Clara keeps racking up the successes. I don’t mean awards, ribbons, or titles. I mean socialization successes, which are far more meaningful to her. These successes mean that her world gets bigger.

A couple of months ago I posted a short brag about her progress at the vet’s office. The socialization and exposure work we have been doing regularly has been generalizing more and more. Nowadays she is less afraid at the vet than many dogs with more normal puppyhoods.

This success got me thinking. I was able Continue reading

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Posted in Milestone, Socialization | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

How Long Does It Take To Change a Habit?

Changing a habit often takes longer than we think. Habits, AKA reinforced behaviors, die hard.

Here’s what happened when I changed the location of my dogs’ eating areas for the first time in about five years. Continue reading

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Posted in Cues, Matching law, Reinforcing in Position | Tagged , | 8 Comments

My Lack of Expertise as a Trainer and How It Relates to Pipe Insulation

I’m reading this great book called The Death of Expertise. It has helped me think more clearly about my role as a dog blogger. It’s a fabulous book that I will write a review of a bit later. But here’s one piece of my response to it.

I am not an expert dog trainer. The people who are experts have Continue reading

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Posted in Humor, Management, Puppy Training | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

Socially Mediated Negative Reinforcement

I’ve updated one of my earlier posts to reflect better terminology and rewritten it quite a bit. Check it out, and feel free to share!

Automatic vs. Socially Mediated Negative Reinforcement

Text saying negative reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Negative Reinforcement | 9 Comments

Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

tan dog with black muzzle and smaller black dog stare at the camera expectantly

Stares of expectation from Clara and Zani. Note Clara’s tail wag.

The other day I was sitting in my bedroom with Clara and Zani and the doorbell rang. And there was dead silence. Continue reading

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)


Black and brown dog with her head tilted, as if to ask a question

A lot of dog training advice you get on the Internet won’t help.

Pretty strange comment coming from a dog blogger who frequently writes about training, right? But even if people recommend a humane, positive reinforcement-based approach, something is missing that can’t be done in a typical online discussion. That’s the functional assessment. Continue reading

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Posted in Behavior analysis | 15 Comments