Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging: making evidence-based fun

A critical thinking blog about all things dogs for owners, researchers and professionals.

I share insights and techniques about the cases I see in my dog behaviour therapy practice (Den Haag), I review dog books, I discuss findings of important research articles, and I discuss controversial issues. Bursting with pop science, scathing rants, vivid analogies and tongue-in-cheek illustrations.

Who am I

IMG_6610My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat in The Netherlands. I run an evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice (Canis bonus) and dog training school (OhMyDog!) in The Hague. I graduated in Zoology (University of Newcastle), then specialized in applied companion animal behaviour (postgrad dip). When I am not working on rehabilitating dogs with behaviour problems, I relax by examining ideas in the pet and behaviour world critically.

For more about me, visit the homepage.

What the blog is about

This blog shares evidence-based information about dog behaviour in layman’s terms. I am on a mission to spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. So I relentlessly:

  • bust apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales;
  • promote responsible dog ownership;
  • question received ideas.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can use to make intelligent decisions about their dog.

I cover many subjects, from comparative psychology to behaviour modification techniques, training school practices and dog welfare. And then of course, I interview interesting dog pros and tell you about my latest dog book review.

To find the articles

  • Click on a category (panel to the right) such as ‘Dog behaviour’ or
  • Enter your search terms in the search bar (top right)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, (or contrary). You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

Canis bonus in blog directories

dog-training-blogger-top-50

Dog Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Blog Directory & Business Pages at OnToplist.com
Add blog to our directory.

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Responses

Dog book review: Paranormality

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. September 2016
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Paranormality

Paranormality is a great pop science book. Written by Psychology Professor Richard Wiseman, it reviews the research into paranormal claims and how each and every one of them got systematically debunked. It does not concern dog behaviour per se, but it is a great tool to fight off science denial in general.

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Wiseman - Paranormality

 

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sloppy puppy class: doing more harm than good?

Dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele lists do’s and don’ts of puppy class design. Written in August 2016.
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Early puppy classes: good or bad?

I was talking to Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy – Vet Behaviourist at Animalytics and Wagenrenk – about what she thought of our stance on early puppy classes at OhMyDog‘s (my dog training school in The Hague). Our position had always been to take on very young pups whilst tightly managing the risk of disease (see Hard choices section below).

I’d had the occasional push back from GP vets but had assumed it was because they had a purely medical, not medical-behavioural perspective. The medical-behavioural perspective gives you a more complicated risk picture. Solid epidemiological research like this one, and position statements by well-established institutions like the American Association of Veterinary Behaviourists inspired our guidelines so we felt we were on solid grounds.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are an orthodoxy among modern dog trainers.

Given that Valerie was also a behaviourist, I didn’t think for one second that she would take a medical stance yet she exclaimed: “That is FAR too young.” Not only was it too risky in terms of disease risk, but many puppy classes did more harm than good on the behaviour front.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are orthodoxy among modern dog trainers. Had I fallen for bandwagon thinking? The school’s evidence-based vision was being put to the test. We now had to cast aside the popularity, economics, tradition, and comfort of that idea and examine our policy critically. We had to do the right thing.

I made a list of her concerns and asked more colleagues (vets, behaviourists, trainers) to chip in. We ended up with a list of do’s and don’ts against which to check our current standards. The following post shows you the results.

Puppies socialisation traumatisation classes

Don’ts: Many dog training schools pressure owners to push the pup in at the deep end. “Bring them to kids’ birthday parties,” they say, or “Take him to the shopping mall on a Saturday.” One of the worst ones is: “Let every passerby pet him.” All fine in theory but horrendous in practice: more pups than not come out of this deep end approach with solid aversions, and some with a downright phobia.

There's a fine-line between constructive exposure and trauma

There’s a fine-line between educational exposure and trauma

We brain-wash our students with our socialisation mantra: ‘the pup notices but does not mind’

Do’s: We ourselves noticed that our students also confused socialisation/habituation (i.e. gradual and positive introduction) with flooding (i.e. deep end stuff). We changed our program to make this point central: we have tattooed the socialisation mantra tattooed in their heart: ‘the pup notices but (altogether now) Does – Not – Mind‘ (thank you for the great one-liner, Temple Grandin). We show our students the signs that it’s time to take a break long before the pup has had enough, and we break it all down into small steps. So it’s a firm No Flooding approach for OhMyDoggers.

Puppy classes are faaaaaaaar too long

Don’ts: Many puppy classes last an hour and ask the pup to stay perfectly still throughout. They expect the dogs to patiently wait their turn and to rise up to the occasion the second it’s time their turn to perform. To make matters worse, many schools host ten to twelve pups per class, leaving them over-stimulated and frustrated out of their furry little minds.

tantrum

Tantrums are a sign the class is far too long for the pup

Do’s: We too were running into over-stimulation and under-stimulation problems at the beginning, so we adjusted our policies to pro-actively manage the pups between turns:

  • Our classes have a maximum six pups per member of staff.
  • Our puppy classes last forty minutes.
  • We have behaviour coaches – whom I trained in behavioural first aid – who try to swoop in as soon as a pup shows a subtle sign of stress. The coach then increases distance, demonstrates a focus game, or adds a visual barrier.
  • We have a mountain of brain toys and games to keep the high-drive pups happily focused between turns.
  • We explicitly instruct our students that their pups do NOT have to sit between turns and won’t start the central explanation until every pup is happily settled on their mat with a chew toy.
  • We enforce a mandatory distance between pups so that they do not feel threatened by the proximity of other pups whilst waiting for their turn.
  • We ask each handler to bring a familiar, comfortable blanket and to let the pup take a nap at any point in class.
  • We alternate between intense and calm exercises.

Puppy fight club

Many students contact us hoping the puppy class will be a giant puppy playground, and hoping this will force the shyness out of their dog. We have to rain on their parade because we take a very serious approach to puppy play.

bully

Kids aren’t exactly the best social skills teachers. Pups aren’t either.

Don’ts: Many schools allow all the pups in class to play together with barely any supervision or intervention. “Let them sort it out,” they say. This is a disaster waiting to happen: you wouldn’t rely on boisterous two-year-old boys to teach your toddler social skills, right? Leave the little Hooligans to their own devices and it will end in tears. They’ll get more and more excited and the whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy.

When it comes to teaching pups social skills, the Puppy Fight Club approach will only teach the boisterous ones to perfect their bullying, and the shy ones to perfect their fear.

fight club

First rule of puppy club: no fight

Do’s: Teaching the pups social skills is absolutely part of our program, but it is done through a structured and closely supervised exercise, not a free-for-all. It takes controlled exposure and careful re-direction to teach the young ‘uns decent social skills. So we do have puppy play sessions, but it is a structured and closely supervised exercise, not a free-for-all:

  • We match the pups by size and play style.
  • We don’t let the whole class play at once and only allow a few pups ‘in the arena’ at a time.
  • We sprinkle the field with visual barriers and interesting objects to break the focus on the other pups.
  • We alternate the attention and recall exercise with the play exercise, so the pup keeps their guardian on their mind throughout the session.
  • We keep the play sessions extremely short and get a ‘fresh’ pup after a couple of minutes.
  • We show the students when to intervene – again, long before things get out of hand.
  • We transition to and from play mode smoothly.

The whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy

In short, these sessions have an explicit educational objective and they are not organised as a wild romp for their own sake.

Hard choices: Medical versus mental health

The reasoning behind opening our doors to very young (therefore not fully vaccinated) pups lies on two main arguments:

  1. Euthanasia for behavioural reasons is the number one cause of death in otherwise healthy dogs.
  2. Failing to appropriately habituate/socialise pups to city dog situations at this sensitive age predisposes them to develop behaviour problems.

Don’ts:

  • Some puppy schools have no vaccination policy in place, or do not follow up on them. A piece of advice here: if a school lets you join without showing proof of vaccination, move on. If they have such a cavalier attitude to their students’ health, where else are they cutting corners?
  • Some puppy schools overfill their classes with ten to twelve pups, and place them extremely close to each other
  • Some puppy schools give their puppy classes in public areas which are visited by many non-school dogs, so they can’t make sure that all dogs treading the grounds are vaccinated.

Do’s:

At OhMyDog, conscious of the fact that we opened our doors to very young pups, we had already managed the risks quite pro-actively:

  • All the school’s dogs have to be on schedule for their vaccinations (including kennel cough).
  • Only our students’ dogs step foot on the field, no outside dog.
  • I get up-to-date disease and vaccination information from the veterinary clinic where I give my behaviour consults, and I train the staff accordingly.
  • We do not accept pups who are sick on our grounds (e.g. diarrhoea, etc.)
  • We operate a stringent hygiene policy: no dog is allowed to relieve themselves on the field and if they do, it gets immediately cleaned up.
  • The pups do not interact physically with each other outside of one short segment of one lesson every eight weeks.

Given that pathogens can stay active on the ground for weeks, we know our policies are not perfect, particularly after speaking to European veterinarians who made it clear that the American Veterinary Association’s policies were not a perfect match for us. So we also upped the recommended age of joining from eight to ten weeks.

When handlers who prefer waiting get in touch, we give them a thorough guide with socialisation/habituation milestones and methods so they can start BEFORE they physically bring the pup to classes. After all it is important to start puppy socialisation early, not necessarily puppy class.

Puppy class 2.0

Phew. After giving our classes this health check, we only needed to change one policy: we moved our recommended starting age from eight to ten weeks.

If you thought designing a responsible puppy class was just about having fun with cute fur balls, think again!

Illustration credits

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dog book review: Elke pup een goede start (A good start for each pup)

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. August 2016
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Elke pup een goede start (A good start for every pup)

Martine Burgers’ and Sam Turner’s first volume is becoming a bit of a classic in The Netherlands. It is an illustrated, complete, week-by-week guide to raising a happy, well-behaved and healthy pup.

This is the review I’ve written for it.

 

 

Vol I of Sam Turner's and Martine Burger's illustrated series

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When a skeptic talks to an animal communicator

Scientific sceptic Laure-Anne Visele interviews animal communicator Marieke Akgul. Conducted in January 2015. Article by Laure-Anne Visele, published in August 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

Marieke, animal communicator

Marieke lives Mariekewith her husband and their five cats close to Groningen (North of the Netherlands). She, like me, helps answer people’s questions about their animal’s behaviour. There is a difference in our approach, though, and a sizeable one at that: she does it through animal communication, and I do it through evidence-based behaviour therapy.

My leaning towards scientific scepticism is no secret. I love going on excursions with fellow skeptics to paranormal fairs to explore their claims. That’s where I met Marieke. She was hosting the Dieren Dialoog booth. She was so transparent about her work, so nice to talk to and so understanding of the idea that it could raise skepticism that we arranged this follow-up interview.

Read on for a conversation between scientific sceptic and animal communicator.

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

It started with a beluga whale

Laure-Anne Visele – How did this all start for you? What led you to the conclusion that you could communicate with animals?

Marieke Akgul  – I’ve always felt different. Even as a kid I’d always reacted differently to things. I sensed I had a gift but you know how is it when you grow up: you try to blend in. I only found out much later that I was high-sensitive.

LV – When was that?

MA – It was in 2005. I got to swim with Beluga whales whilst on holidays. I was alone out there with the Belugas when and then I heard: “Do you know where my family is?” I said “I don’t know but I can bring you back.” So I held the whale and guided it back. I am scared of the smallest fish yet this felt completely natural. I looked at the trainer and saw that look in his face. He looked at the Beluga, then back at me. He knew something real had just happened.

pix Beluga

Marieke’s first AC experience was with a Beluga whale

LV – What did you do after that experience?

MA – Nothing. I was too scared of the paranormal to pursue this. As a high-sensitive a horror movie is like reality to me. These things could really happen because of my ability.

LV – So when did you take it to the next step?

MA – When my cat, Maya, died. I needed answers. It felt like a part of me had died with her. I started to read more about it and I learnt to open up to the signal. As a high-sensitive, it came relatively easily to me. First I heard my cat Joey talk to me.

LV – What did you hear?

MA – Numbers. It was all about what time it was, that it was time for him to go out. “Eight”, he’d say. I would check and it was eight o’clock. It was the right time each time he said a number. To the nearest minute.

How Marieke explains her experience

LV – Does this rest on the assumption that a cat can read time?

MA – No, not time. Moments. Everything is a process with its own flow; its own cycle. Animals are connected to us, to each other, and to these cycles. They grasp some concept of time through their connection with us. He knows it’s eight o’clock because I know it’s eight o’clock. And I need a clock to tell me this but the cat just knows what time it is.

LV – Do you have a particular process to communicate with the animal?

cat eyeMA – People send me a picture of their animal with a question. I then look at the picture to connect with the energy of the animal. If I feel its energy – its lifeline – it is still alive and I can sense where it is. Every individual animal has its own distinct frequency. I need to tune in to that frequency to connect.

Then I use my heart to send out a question and I get the answer back in my head through images, movies, feelings. It took me years to fine-tune it, to calibrate what image belongs to what emotion or thought. I am still developing in it.

LV – How does a communication moment go?

MA – It is like an interview conversation, like a Q & A. I ask more and more precise questions to get to the answers my clients need.

LV – How do you think it works?

MA – I think the animals who live in my house form a beacon of light which amplifies their missing friends’ ability to connect with me. Somehow that really works. Maybe it isn’t me, but the animals communicating through me.

The need for evidence

LV – These are things you believe to be true but how do you demonstrate to yourself, and to the world, that they are? How do you rule out the possibility that you might be mistaken?

MA – Because I experience it so frequently. I have spoken to so many animals professionally. At the last count it was 273 cats, 114 dogs, 25 rabbits, 13 parrots, and 4 reptiles.

LV – But those are still four hundred personal experiences. How do you validate your feelings objectively?

Drug dependence

As hard as it is, we need objective measurement

MA – There has been almost no records of people scientifically investigating animal communication.

LV – Oh I can put you onto these experiments if you want. It’s been tested. The book Paranormality (see reference section), for example, reviews some of the most interesting of these experiments. We could even run your own work through scientific testing. I am a trained scientist. I would love to design a protocol for us to go through.

MA – That would be very interesting! But if an animal is connected to a human who doesn’t believe, the animal may not communicate. Take this lady who called me: “I don’t believe in this, but I have this problem with the dog. Can you help?” I tried to make a connection but the dog didn’t tell me a thing. He didn’t want me to know anything.

LV – That argument makes it immune to scrutiny so what evidence do you need for yourself to know it is real? A problem being resolved after your intervention is open to many fallacies and biases. Take post hoc, ergo propter hoc for example. Just because it got solved after your involvement does not mean it got solved because of your involvement. Many other untested explanations exist and many other things, besides your communication, happened in that period that you chose not to attribute to the solution. How do you exclude the effect of other alternative explanations, or the effect of time for that matter?

MA – What convinces me is that I do it so often and I get the same results every time. I make sure to include verifiable information in the report I type for the owners when I make contact with an animal.

LV – You must be fast typist!

MA – Yes!

LV – How long is the report, typically?

MA – It’s three to eight pages long. It depends on how long the conversation was.

LV – So what type of validating information do you collect for the owner? Can you give me an example?

MA – I include specific, verifiable things like ‘a big red pillow’. I try to ask the animal about their habits or preferences: like hating the neighbour’s cat, loving fish, or loving the family’s kid, or what their nickname is. There was this dog who had a nickname only the owner and the dog knew, for example. I like to go through this verification process for myself too, not just for the people.

The owners get back to me with the same feedback: so many things rung true to them. They totally recognized their animal in the report.

LV – So the reports fit the owner’s perception of their animal’s personality? By the way, the concept of personality in animals isn’t considered scientific heresy. Personality traits have been recognized, measured and observed in many rungs of the animal kingdom, not just humans. If you are interested in finding out more about this body of research, look into coping styles and personality research in animals. It’s very interesting work.

pix Cognitive biases

Cognitive bias: The many patterns different people saw in the same picture of moon

But the owners finding matching personality traits in the reports is opened to confirmation bias. If you say enough things, some will be a match, and the reader will remember the hits and disregard the misses. That’s also how stereotypes are born and that is what astrologers, soothsayers and mediums (consciously or not) rely on.

MA – I see what you are saying, but take this interesting case. The owner recognized the dog’s idiosyncracies, his level of sophistication, immediately from the way he structured his sentences in the report. The owner found it unmistakable.

He [the owner] had contacted me after he’d left his dog in the care of his ex-girlfriend and found out years later that she’d put him up on Marktplaats [the Dutch e-Bay]. When I spoke to the dog, he told me that he had passed away but that he had had a happy life. He said such sweet things that his huge man of an owner cried when he was reading the report. The dog said he didn’t blame him at all. After all these years, it was such a healing experience for the owner. He could get closure. All these emotions could finally break free.

I know it’s not verifiable but in his heart he knew it was real. We have to follow our intuition. And it tells us whether or not something is true.

LV – Unfortunately intuition is a notoriously unreliable evaluation tool. It is too open to errors like cognitive biases and motivated thinking. This is why scientifically evaluating things is necessary to validate a claim.

MA – But if I read something, I get a sense of whether it’s true or not.

LV – Oh don’t get me wrong. I am sure that you have a fine intuition about animals’ emotions and their needs. And I am sure that these sensitivities bring valuable information to the owners in many cases. The problem is how do you ever know whether you’re right without external validation?

Animals and emotions

MA – It’s interesting you should say ‘emotions’. A lot of people see their animals as one-dimensional creatures with no capacity for emotions.

LV – No modern animal behaviour scientist would deny that many animal species are capable of experiencing emotions. My dog behaviour therapy practice relies on much of this research in anthrozoology and comparative psychology, for example.

pix Emotions

Emotions are not just the dominion of human animals.

MA – That’s interesting! It certainly matches what I observe. There is no doubt in my mind that animals experience emotions. But many animal ‘lovers’ think their pets only need good food and a long walk to lead a happy, satisfying life.

pix Elephant consciousness

Research validates what we all knew: animals are not mere input-output machines

LV – That’s so true. Well-meaning people fail to provide their companion animal with their most basic emotional and cognitive needs. This can cause so much silent distress – until behaviour problems arise.

MA – To me, this opens the possibility that animals have a soul. Take altruism in animals. If you believe that some animals try to help you, then they must know you need help. They also have to understand the consequences of their actions.

LV – I wouldn’t necessarily use the word ‘soul’ but I can echo some of your observations there. Animal empathy and altruism are rich areas of research and the jury is most certainly still out. There is growing support for the idea that your average family dog snuggling up to you when you’re upset, for example, could actually be trying to comfort you. If you are interested in theory of mind and consciousness research in dogs, I can point you to the work of Adam Miklosi or Brian Hare, among others. And you’ll love books like Animal madness and How we know what animals think and feel.

Owner – dog emotional contagion

MA – I think the biggest reason animals don’t understand Man so well is animals only grasp the ‘now’. We project into the past and the future but animals don’t. If you reminisce about something negative, the animal interprets this as you experiencing something negative right now. This can cause behaviour problems. Imagine your dog attacked another dog in the past and now you have approached every dog you have met on a walk with apprehension since then. Your dog will sense this.

pix Emotional contagion

Animals and empathy: a rich area of research

LV – Agitation by the human guardian can complicate an existing problem, no doubt. Our animals look to us for clues about the safety of a situation, about how alert they should be.

MA – Absolutely. From the owner’s perspective, it’s: “My dog attacks other dogs.” From the dog’s perspective it’s: “My human is so low on energy, so anxious, right now. He is asking for trouble. This is prompting the other dogs to attack us. So I have to preempt this before they attack my human.”

LV – Something close to that heuristic might indeed play a role in fear aggression, but I wouldn’t necessarily frame it as explicit reasoning on the dog’s part. I find it more prudent to couch it in this context: the dog’s adopts a ‘the best defense is offence’ coping strategy. If the human handler is exhausted or stressed out, their dog may feel more vulnerable and might perceive other dogs as a threat sooner, lowering their threshold of aggression. Having the human handler relax in the problem situation can be an instrumental part of solving fear aggression problems.

MA – When I communicate to these dogs, they tell me they are trying to ask their owner to project more confidence. Once I have explained this to the owner, the positive changes I see give me this incredible feeling.

LV – I would argue that you are a more effective agent for change than I am in some ways. Framing the problem as a direct communication from the dog can be extremely compelling to the owner. More compelling than reviewing the possible scientific explanations or simply saying: “We don’t know what your dog is thinking, but we know what has the best chance of working in these cases.”

Example Case 1: Two over-pressured Malinois

LV - Tell me about one particular cases of change that you found interesting.

MA – One of the nicest examples of change was with two Malinois. They were extremely well-trained but their owner tried to controlled their every movement. He wanted to completely own them. He was frustrated at their poor performance in trials in light of how well they performed in practice sessions. He was a very black-and-white type of man.

LV – What did you get from communicating with these dogs?

MA – They told me: “Why does he ask us to do these things twenty, forty times? He knows we can do it. On the big day he acts all nervous and it makes us nervous too. We don’t get why he needs a piece of paper telling him we can do it?”

LV – So what happened in that case?

MA – I told them to humour their owner on the day and just go through the motions. I explained he needed the piece of paper to give him confidence. They couldn’t wrap their head around why but they did it.

Purring: science versus protons

MA – I am curious: how is purring interpreted scientifically?

LV – As in many things in the scientific literature, there is no clear consensus. A conservative explanation is that it is a type of sound that communicates the cat is experiencing comfort (or feeling very ill).

MA – My cats explained it to me: everything is a vibration. Your chair, for example, is vibrating through neutrons. Purring carries soothing vibrations through the cat’s entire body and if you touch them when they are purring, then it goes through your body too. It helps calm your body down. It is like an anti-depressant for themselves (and people touching them). That’s why cats purr after a car accident or when they are really sick: for self-reassurance.

LV – Again our two worlds meet in a sense. Petting a (purring) cat has been demonstrated to lower many people’s blood pressure and caring for a cat can alleviate many depressed patients’ symptoms. And, although I am not sufficiently well-read in that area of research, purring as a self-soothing sound is a conceivable idea. You could check the anthrozoology literature to find out more. I do not think we have good grounds to implicate vibrating protons though.

A shared struggle: Getting people to change their ways

LV – So what’s the toughest part of your job?

MA – I find it hard to bring people to a place they can change.

LV – You and me both. Getting the people to change is often key but it can be hard to do.

MA – I had this family contact me, for example. They’d taken in a stray dog from Greece but didn’t have time to take him for a daily walk. They wanted him to do his business in the garden. He’d lived on the street all his life and then became permanently constrained to a house and garden at the age of six. He told me “I am not going to pee in that garden. It is my territory. I am not soiling it.” I told them what he said and asked if they could get up earlier to take him out. They refused. He had to listen, they said. I just couldn’t let this him go so I spoke to him three of four more times after that. He kept saying the same thing. In the end, I told the owners: “Either find him a new house or find a trainer that he clicks with.”

LV – Lack of mental and physical stimulation can indeed cause chronic stress, thus behaviour problems, in animals – particularly ones that were used to roaming freely. And adult dogs do tend to avoid soiling their home range. So our reasoning might, again, have followed similar lines in this case, if you remove the animal communication element.

Example Case 2: A cat tied to fireworks

LV – Talk to me about another case that you found interesting.

MA – This week, I had a cat who ran off on New Year’s Eve [fireworks during Dutch New Year’s eve is famously traumatic for pets]. Her owners had tried to find her for three weeks. I made contact with her and helped her get over her trauma. She explained that she had gotten burnt, that she had had fireworks tied to her back. She communicated this through sounds and colours… And panic. When her fur caught fire, she said, she ran away. I explained to her that not all people were like that. I explained what had happened. The following Friday, her owners called me back to say she’d come back. They found her on the front lawn in a state of shock.

LV – Were there burn marks on her?

MA – No. But she was in such a state of shock that she was no longer the same cat. Her energy had changed.

LV – How can you attribute her return to your intervention? Or validate that she did get abused with fireworks?

MA – The cat confirmed it to me two days after I’d spoken with her. The owner also believed it. I also said she would return, and she did.

Animals as teachers

LV – What happens in the process when an animal dies?

MA – I instantly know the animal is dead, or dying. As soon as I make the connection.

LV – What does that do to you emotionally?

pix Cat rubbing legs

Animals remind us to slow down. And it’s a good thing

MA – It’s a fact of life. I feel how they are preparing for a new life. I know they are looking forward to going and starting something new. They feel positive in these moments because they were able to teach their owners a lesson during their time together.

Almost all animals are here to help us grow. Take a shy person and her shy dog, for example. Some dogs transform themselves to teach their owners. This shy dog became more outgoing to give the owner an example.

And take cats. They often walk in front of us. It is irritating but it is them reminding us that we are not living at our natural rhythm, that we are too rushed. It’s their way of slowing us down and bringing us back to a state of natural peace. They’re helping – but it irritates us!

LV – That’s the effect with most unrequited help gets, to be honest.

MA – [laughs] Yup. It certainly is!

LV – Again, I am with you on animals being useful examples for us. Only I don’t make the leap that they teach us consciously. Their ‘in-the-now’ approach can remind us to be more mindful, to live more for the moment. I do not have sufficient reason to see them as conscious teachers though. Just inspiring examples.

Advising around the euthanasia decision

LV – So what is a typical case for you?

MA – I get a lot of calls for behaviour problems and for missing animals. And then I also get more spiritually minded people wanting to know if their animals had a past life, what they can learn from the animal, what the purpose of the animal’s life is… That sort of big questions. A lot of owners also want help deciding whether it is time to let their animal go. They want a confirmation from the animal that they are ready to go.

LV – Do you ever say no to a planned euthanasia?

MA – Sometimes. It sometimes happens that the owner says it is time to let go but that the animal gets pretty mad. In most cases the animals are more OK with death than we are, though. Sometimes the animals just ask to die in their owners’ arms, in their home rather than at the vet’s.

But humans imagine animals experiences pain the same way they do. They don’t. So owners can be in too big of a rush to end the pain when really the animal can live with it and is not suffering that much. Animals have a higher sense of pain than us.

I had a rabbit once, and her hind quarters were paralyzed. She told me: “I don’t know what it is. It feels funny. It’s just not working.” I asked “What do you want us to do?” and she said: “Just leave me here”.

LV – Ethically, you’re treading dangerous waters here. If you’re wrong, it will have biiiiig consequences. Literally life or death, and a lot of potential suffering.

MA – I know. And I know where my line is. With my rabbit, I had it confirmed by the vet. It turns out she had a tumour in her belly that was blocking the pain. The vet said it was unbelievable the rabbit didn’t seem to be suffering given the size of the tumour. So for any kind of medical situation I always advise people to check with their vet.

[Note to the public: Please note that rabbits in distress can go into tonic immobility. It is also a typical prey animal strategy to hide your pain, as rabbits routinely do when live-castrated. If you suspect something is awry, please do not conclude that your rabbit is in no pain because it is not showing apparent signs of distress.]

”Where is the harm?”

LV – I am glad we are talking of harm. I often get asked: “Where is the harm in alternative medicine?” One of my biggest issues is that it can lead us to fail in our duty of care to our animals. Do you work with cases involving medical issues?

MA – I had this case of a cat with a thyroid problem. The cat told me “I don’t have the problem, my owner does. She’s projecting. Please get her to get this checked.” The owner did get it checked and sent me a mail saying her blood work was clear.

So I told the cat: “You made a fool of me. Why did you say these things?” This big macho cat then said sheepishly: “I don’t like that I am diminished, impaired. I hate that my body is not working as it should. If we get this checked, I am probably going to have to get an operation and take medication for the rest of my life. I hate medication.” It’s hard when that happens, when the owner says: “That’s not right”. But in general, animals do not lie.

LV – If I was that owner, I’d think. “Hang on a minute. You can’t just change your story when it didn’t work out. That’s too easy.”

MA – Yet somehow something about the rest of my conversation with the cat resonated with the owner and told her that I was telling the truth.

LV – Regardless of medical issues, you also give behaviour advice without being trained as a behaviour therapist. Isn’t there a chance you are delaying the dog getting the qualified care he or she needs? What happens to these problems if they go to you, instead of a trained specialist?

MA – It depends on how profound the problem is. But I have really good results with common problems.

About the risk of con artists

LV – What do you call yourself?

MA – I call myself a communicator. I thought about it for a long time, and I don’t like the sound of medium. Whenever I see one on TV, I turn it off.

LV – So you see it too right? That infuriating fakeness. The cheap con tricks? The staging?

pix Elixir

Quacks, con artists, and miracle peddlers: how to detect charlatans in an industry with unverified claims?

MA – I have a love-hate relationship with it. I often participate along with the show so I know when it’s fake.

LV – This is another issue I see with lack of scientific validation: the market becomes wide open to people who consciously deceive their audience, con artists. That’s why I find it so important to rigorously validate claims, particularly in a therapeutic setting.

MA – Absolutely. Animal communication can be a gold mine for dishonest people. I was at this pet fair once and these people showed me a picture of a huge Rottweiler on their phone. So I said: “He is a sweet dog to everyone and everything. But he is quite smart and cheeky and once you say ‘yes’, he’ll demand the privilege again and again.”

They said they’d talked to another communicator before, who had sent them twenty lines of generic stuff like “You have to be firm with him”. So I said: “He’s just really smart. He needs to use his mind a lot is all.” They were happy with my interpretation. They said I really knew what I was doing.

And I was at another fair and started talking to this high-sensitive medium doing Reiki. She said she’d seen lots of people claiming to be animal communicators, but that she was happy to finally see someone who knew their stuff.

I try to be as sincere and open and transparent as I can in my work.

LV – That’s the sense I got. Whilst we do not agree on the need for validation, it’s certainly been a pleasure talking to you!

Illustration credits

References

Getting in touch with Marieke

Posted in Dog pros: a day in the life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Want to be a professional dog trainer? Advice to the newbie

Blog post about making the right career choices in dog training. July 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

So you want to be a dog behaviourist?

I met young V. (twenty years old student) when I was giving her mom a behaviour consult about their three dogs who weren’t getting along. She is finishing a Bachelor’s in law, and asked me what it would take to re-train as a dog behaviour consultant. If you are curious about the advice I gave her, read on.

The finances of dog training

It’s not like full-time dog training/behaviour vacancies come out in droves, so there’s a big chance you’ll have to start your own business.

Before I went full-time, I had a cushy corporate job with a regular income and my laptop, car, phone, pension, and education all paid for. I’d combined dog training with my corporate career for years, so when I started full-time, I figured “How hard can it be?” It turned out it took way more grit than I’d banked for.

The good news is: it’ll scare some business sense into you faster than years of working in Corporate ever could. It’s amazing how struggling to make your mortgage will sharpen your interest into tax law and marketing. The bad news is: it’s like a child. The love, the work, the worry… They – never – end. I (personally) would not have had the broad shoulders for this straight after graduation. I am glad I started off with a corporate career.

Sisyphe

My advice is this: only go pro once you’ve built your business chops in a mainstream company for a while, and once you’ve saved up a VERY big fund for rainy days.

Self-education in dog training

The obvious first step in building some solid knowledge on dog behaviour is to read tons of books.

Like anything else, though, dog training books are a buyer beware market. Too many churn out dangerously pseudoscientific ideas. I am a compulsive dog book reader, so I had to suffer through my fair share of these. To save you the pain, here is a shortcut to what I consider to be the must-read books for any aspiring dog behaviourist.

They will give you a taste for the fundamental aspects of the profession, they are written for the layman, and they are well-researched. If you just have time for one, pick my old time favorite: Benal’s.

  • Dog trainer’s guide (Jolanta Benal): Essentials of dog behaviour problems, causes and interventions
  • Human half of dog training (Ries van Fleet): Essential human coaching aspects of dog training
  • Animal madness (Laurel Braitman): A look into comparative psychology (i.e. what psychiatric disorders have been observed in animals)]
  • Animals make us human (Temple Grandin): A short review of important aspects of animal cognition, with the usual unique Grandin insights.
  • Ethical dog trainer (Jim Barry): Invites you to think hard about the big ethical questions of the dog training profession, written by a university-trained philosopher and professional dog trainer.
  • Bad science (Ben Goldacre): Not written about dogs specifically, but nonetheless an essential tool in detecting pseudoscientific claims. You can also read its little brother, Beware the strawman (Linda Case): it’s another critical thinking book but this one is just about dogs.
  • So you want to be a dog trainer (Nicole Wilde): A book about the daily professional realities of being a dog trainer, with tons of tips and suggestions. How to run a dog business (Veronica Boutelle) is a complete toolkit to starting your dog business. It gets more specific than Wilde’s, so maybe just read this one once you start seriously contemplating starting the business.

Once you’ve read the essential books, it’s a good idea to patch up on the broader topics like neuroscience or behavioural genetics. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to be a good dog behaviourist, but a solid grasp of neuroscience helps. So you might want to patch up your knowledge of these topics through on-line courses and more technical texts. If you look hard enough on Coursera or Udemy, you are bound to find good modules in neuroscience, animal welfare, diagnostics, comparative psychology, and behavioural genetics. Each module will cost you a few hours a week, but it’s a great investment. If you look at my profile, you can find a few good courses examples. And yes, I am more than a little addicted to Coursera.

Academic background for dog training

I am happy that more and more trainers combine experience, passion, AND academic training. The dog behaviour professions are growing from obscure art to transparent science. You can get the critical thinking skills you need to run an evidence-based practice through other means, but I – personally – got there thanks to my academic training.

Don’t get me wrong: many science graduates are asses, and many fine thinkers aren’t science graduates, but a serious scientific degree is a solid brick in the wall of your credentials.

If you still have a choice of degree, then invest in a one that is related to behaviour or to animals like ethology, zoology, veterinary medicine, neuroscience, or (bio)psychology. It will give you a massive boost if you do go into dog training, and if you don’t, then you still have a solid degree to fall back on.

book of knowledge

Before you pick a programme, grill the university’s career officer mercilessly about the job prospects:

  • Zoology and ethology, for example, tend to lead to specialized research/academic jobs, which are few and far between.
  • Neuroscience and psychology, particularly if you pick cognition modules (the golden child in behaviour right now), can open a lot more doors in corporate as well as university jobs.
  • Veterinary medicine will pretty much guarantee you an income or at least research prospects. And then, the best route towards becoming a dog behaviour practitioner would be to study to become a board-certified vet behaviourist.

If you already have a Bachelor’s and it is neither animal- nor behaviour-related, you can always study for a part-time postgraduate degree as you work. Having been there, I can tell you, it’s hard going, particularly if you have a family, but it’s definitely worth it.

Professional dog training certifications

Dog training and behaviour advice are not protected professions here (Netherlands), but I find it more ethical to get a solid professional certification before you start out. Real families and real dogs would suffer if you gave overconfident, gung-ho advice. These certifications also get you to network with flesh-and-blood colleagues, and give you fresh perspectives from different people. Self-education gets you a little insular if you don’t watch it. The main goals of these professional certifications, though, are to give you the skills you need to start practising, and to put a recognized piece of paper in your hand.

This is the catch: these programmes are often run by non-academics, and tend to have glaring holes in the theory. You’d be wise to ask highly educated alumni what they thought before committing to one. You’d also be well-inspired to ask established professionals how respected the qualification is. Don’t do your research and you might end up with the well-meaning amateurs, the ideologues, or the big empty names. A university-bound applied programme like a postgraduate (e.g. I did a postgraduate in applied companion animal behaviour) reduces the risk that they botch up the theory, but be sure to grill them about how much real-life exposure you’ll be getting with their programme.

As a bare minimum, you should come out of your certification programme(s) with:

  • The learning principles (operant/classical conditioning),
  • Fundamental ethology,
  • Essential research findings in dog ethology and cognition,
  • Practical experience in people coaching,
  • Effective and ethical behaviour modification protocols for common dog behaviour problems,
  • Practical experience in dog training,
  • Tools to critically evaluate statements and research findings

If you can’t find the whole package, consider combining an academic specialization in dog behaviour with a well-recognized professional certificate. It’s hard work, but you can combine it with paid work so you’re not bleeding yourself dry doing it.

Dog trainer: experience required

It took me years of practice before I could shape client relationships in a way that promotes compliance. I had to get a ton of rookie mistakes out of the way before I became effective. I wish I had shadowed more people before starting out.

Luckily, nothing is easier than getting a dog training internship if you approach it with modesty and enthusiasm. This post gives you the run-down on on how to apply for a dog training internship (if you are in Den Haag , why not apply to OhMyDog?). Approach different schools and behaviourists, and be sure to experience different cultures and ideologies.

experience

To make the most out of the experience, take notes of what impresses you, what  you’d do different, what you’ve learnt. Watch you don’t get high and mighty, though. What seems like orthodoxy to you now now may take on a different light after a few years of practice. And these people could turn out to be precious networking contacts later in your career, even if you disagree with them. I took the holier-than-though attitude, and I regret it. It’s one thing knowing the best practices and the latest research, but it’s not everything. Building positive relationships with colleagues in the region is also important.

If you are lucky enough to find a school or practice where you feel comfortable, ask if you can join the team in the longer term. You won’t be making a living out of it, but many people are perfectly happy leaving it at that: combining their day job with volunteering at their favorite training school once a week. It’s a great compromise if you want to work with animals, but don’t want to run your own business.

How many credentials for dog behaviour?!

This mix of experience, professional training and academic education might seem excessive, and it probably is. Many great dog behaviour consultants don’t have that background. In an unregulated profession so how far you decide to push your training is a question of personal choice. I personally felt the self-tuition route alone left me open to partisan thinking, so I followed the academic route.

My advice is this: grow into the best behaviourist you can be with the resources you have. And whatever you do: steer clear of ideology and stick to facts.

Picture credits

  • Sisyphe: Shared by Giorgiomonteforti. Attributed to Hine Lewis Wickes (1874). Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC-PD).
  • Book of knowledge: Photo by Dorothy Zeidman. Scuplture by Donald Lipski, 1985; Copyright: Donald Lipski. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY 3.0).
  • Experience: Picture by NY Photographic. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Using jealousy in dog training

Blog post about using jealousy to your advantage in rehabilitating a dog. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

A jealous shepherd

Tank was referred to me through the veterinary practice for which I give behaviour consults. He was a young Swiss shepherd with debilitating fears which were turning into aggression. With such a large dog, you don’t let fear take a hold so the owner did the responsible thing and got help.

The owner was, unfortunately, already skilled and knowledgeable. She had already aptly applied a lot of the best practices I would have advised. This would not be a quick fix, and we needed an angle.

Tank lives with his big brother Bouncer. They are full brothers: they share the same early environment, the same mother, the same father, and the same owners. Yet Tank and Bouncer could not be any different. Where Tank was – typical Swiss Shep – flighty and retiring, Bouncer was more ‘I-love-you-so-much-I-could-explode’ towards total strangers.

We held a couple of exposure therapy sessions with fake guests, and, whilst Tank was responding well, things weren’t moving as quickly as I wanted.

What Tank and Bouncer did have in common was their jealousy of each other. They both wanted to be first in line for the next treat or compliment or game. And boom, that was it. We had our angle. From that point on, we started deliberately having the guests pay tons of attention to Bouncer and barely any to Tank. They would greet Tank and speak to him gently when he came closer, but that was about it. Bouncer, however, was showered with praise, cuddles and games. Bouncer couldn’t believe his luck. He was besides himself with joy every Thurday afternoon.

The beauty of it is that, within a couple of short sessions, Tank was pushing his nose against the guest for the next game of ‘toss-the-treat’. The instructions to the guest were clear: do not pay any attention to Tank unless he himself is requesting it in a relaxed way. We also made sure that whatever reward the guest gave Tank was tossed far away from them, so that it would always be Tank’s choice to return to the guest.

In this video, we show Bouncer (the brave one) playing with a brain game whilst Tank (the shy one) looks on.

We are now at the point where the owners can continue the exposure therapy themselves, as our sessions have allowed Tank to experience, again and again, the feeling of being close to a guest of his own volition. We have manipulated Tank’s feelings towards guests so that he sees them more as fun commodity than imminent danger.

This demonstrates the art side of behaviour therapy. It’s not all about clinical science and dry theory. There is a huge think-on-your-feet element, and that’s what keeps me excited about the job.

Disclaimer: No two cases are the same so please do not use jealousy in your behaviour therapy unless you know that you can safely do so.

(video and names shared with explicit permission from the dogs’ owner)

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Logical fallacies in dog training

Blog post about logical fallacies in the dog training world. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog training fallacies

This post is part of a blog series about evidence-based dog behaviour advice. I introduced the concept briefly in the first post. In this article, I zoom in on the fallacies and biases that get in the way of giving rational advice about dog behaviour. If you are a dog trainer, I hope you, like me, will try to be conscious of these and try to find ways to avoid falling into their traps too often. If you are a consumer, this post will give you the tools to spot common problems so you can get your dog effective treatment and not fall for some vague ideology.

There are about a million fallacies and biases but I had to pick, so took the ones that I most often see in my work:

  1. Argument from ignorance
  2. Burden of proof
  3. False balance
  4. Argument to authority
  5. Confirmation bias
  6. Argument to tradition
  7. Einstellung

If you have suggestions for more examples in the dog world, let me know. I could integrate them to a part-2 if I have enough. Enjoy the read!

Dog of the gaps

The God of the gaps is a concept in theology. It boils down to: we shouldn’t believe in God just because we can’t think of a compelling explanation for creation. By the logic of “If it is not God, how do you explain the universe?”, we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck. This fallacy is called an argument from ignorance.

Dog of the gap arguments are rampant in dog training. We love plugging one-size-fits-all explanations instead of saying: “I don’t know”. This one is a classic: “Your dog is mounting other dogs. He’s being dominant” (if you’re curious about evidence-based explanations to dry humping, check Julie Hecht’s article). It’s compelling to say “You need to be the dog’s alpha-meta-mega-pack leader” but it doesn’t make it true. Sometimes, “We don’t know why” is the only honest answer.

mind the gap

By that logic we could plug anything from magic leprichauns to quantum healing whenever we’re stuck.

Sticking the dominance label willy-nilly can be misinformation, and abuse at worst. I overheard a trainer describing a dog’s destructive behaviour as ‘vengeful’ and ‘dominant’. This failed the dog on so many level it broke my heart. If the owners take the trainer seriously, they will fail to get the dog the rational treatment he needs to treat his condition (likely separation panic). They also run the very real risk of abusing their dog in trying to be alpha-mega-meta-super pack leader. Don’t get me wrong, dominance is a complex concept and it has a (tiny) place in dog behaviour diagnostics, but too many trainers plug it in whenever they please.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Be wary of a dog trainer whose will answer with alpha wolves, dominance and pack leaders no matter what you ask. It is a red flag that they need more formal training in behaviour diagnostics. If you want help finding a good dog behaviour consultant, this article by Jolanta Benal is pretty good.

Bone of proof

I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to engage everyone who annoys me with the latest pseudoscientific idea. That’s not true: I have plenty of inclination, but my accountant would kill me as I am still to find how to make arguing with idiots on the internet pay the bills.

my accountant would kill me if I spent my whole time on crusader-for-truth mode. Skepticism doesn’t pay the bills.

The good news is it’s not my job to disprove every wacky claim that makes it to my desk. It’s the job of the person making the claim to back it up with solid evidence (not anecdotes, gut feeling, a tirade or claiming personal revelation). This concept is called ‘burden of proof‘ and Betrand Russell illustrated it nicely: If I told you there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, and you said ‘prove it’, and I said: ‘No, YOU prove there isn’t,’ you would know it’s nonsense, right? The same goes of any claim, and the more wacky the claim, the more solid the evidence needs to be.

Note to the discerning dog training client: If your dog behaviour professional suggests a paranormal or alternative treatment (something that has failed the test of scientific scrutiny) like mind-reading or crystal healing, ask them for solid evidence that this approach is effective for your dog’s behaviour problem. If their only argument is that it’s not been disproven, you might suggest they read Paranormality and close the door on your way out.

No dog in that fight

This one is a classic: “You won’t give my side of the story equal consideration. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?” Sure people are entitled to their opinion. They are not entitled to their own facts. Be my guest: cling to a belief that goes against the weight of evidence, but then expect me to treat your position as ideology, not fact. The ‘other side to the story’ doesn’t magically pop up because you happen to have had a flight of fancy or an idea happens to appeal to you. If you decide that the majority of research on a topic is wrong and you feel hard done by because no one will ‘listen to your side’, you might be engaging in the false balance fallacy: the idea that every story necessarily has two sides.

not quite friends

 

Take the raw food disputes raging in the dog world. I have no dog in that fight. I couldn’t care less either way. I just compared the weight of evidence on either ‘sides’ and it became clear that one was science and the other was ideology. Apples and pears, not two sides of the same story.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Look for a dog behaviour professional who welcomes your critical questions, rather than demand your credulity in the name of open-mindedness. Dog behaviour practitioners, myself included, are entitled to tell their clients about their beliefs and ideologies, not to present them as fact.

Famous TV dog trainers

Dog behaviour consultants often get accused of jealousy when they warn against arguments to authority – blindly believing something because someone successful said it. Experience, formal qualifications and a track-record of scientific integrity will give you a tad more authority in my book, but even then, I wouldn’t fall for something hook, line and sinker just on the basis of WHO said it. The merit of a claim should be about the claim, not the person making it. If I don’t swoon when an Ethology professor says something wacky about dogs, you can imagine how little I swoon when someone’s only discernible credentials are a compelling back story, shiny teeth and impressive TV charisma.

Note to the discerning dog training client: When you ask your dog trainer or behaviourist why they are advising a particular exercise, beware of the fan boy phenomenon. You want the reason to be based on something more solid than “because Cesar said so”.

25 years’ experience in dog training

I also get scandalized looks when I push back against something an experienced trainer says. It’s like twenty-five years’ experience is some kind of anti-skepticism kryptonite. You can have a hundred years’ experience for all I care, I still hold your claims to the same standards as the rest of my colleagues’.

Experience is REALLY important, don’t get me wrong. I blush when I think back of the rookie mistakes I made and I am still learning every day – probably will until I retire. I am just a rookie in comparison to the elephants of our industry and they have so-ho-ho much to teach me. I am just calling for caution when having so much experience means you get to operate at lower standards.

A very experienced trainer may been making the same tired old mistake for twenty-five years, for all I know. These three powerful biases can entrench bad habits and, following that logic, an experienced trainer might make more errors of judgment than a rookie:

  • Confirmation bias: Rejecting compelling evidence against a belief because you hold it dear. The more of a vested interest you have in your belief, the more powerful the effect. You can’t avoid this, so you have to work hard at questioning all your assumptions. Either that, or your (erroneous) belief will be more and more unshakeable with every day  you practice.
  • Argument to tradition/status quo bias: “We’ve always done it that way.” can be an appealing force and it is SO tough to constantly take a step back and re-evaluate our work habits, particularly when we’ve been using them for years.
  • Einstellung: Erroneous mental shortcuts that make solving a problem from a fresh angle difficult. Einstellung is like a deeply worn groove that gets worn deeper and deeper each time we are exposed to the problem.

 

conservative club

Another potential danger of placing experience above all else is historical: the dog training professions have been undergoing a slow shift towards animal-friendly methods in the past twenty-thirty years. Depending on when they were first trained, your experienced trainer may be on the ‘wrong’ side of history and may still advise unnecessarily painful techniques.

Note to the discerning dog training client: Hiring a trainer with twenty-five years’ experience has tremendous merits, but be sure to quiz them about how they have kept up with modern techniques, and be extremely wary of methods using force and intimidation.

Conclusion

I hope that before you take the post as a personal attack you remember what I am trying to say: we are all susceptible to these fallacies, myself included. As professionals whose role it is to educate the public, we owe it to our clients and the dogs to give them the purest advice we can; advice that hasn’t been distorted by our all too human personal preferences, entrenched habits or vested interests.

Comments

Did you recognize one of the fallacies or biases in yourself or your trainer? Have I forgotten important ones that are relevant to dog training? If you found the post thought-provoking, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

References

Illustration credits

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , | 2 Responses

Dog food – Make room for the expert – Guest post by Caroline Kilsdonk

Article about critical thinking and the public health risks of raw feeding dogs
By veterinarian and (geriatry) zootherapist Caroline Kilsdonk, February 2016. Translation: Laure-Anne Visele
Illustration credits at the end of the post

The article below is a translation of a Caroline Kilsdonk blog post: “Laisser la place à l’expert” (in French). In this post, Caroline reminds people to exercise caution towards the human health risks of raw-feeding dogs, she questions expertise-cum-arguments-from-authority and she encourages us to base our advice on well-established fact rather than compelling personal experience. Caroline touches these hot button issues with her characteristic intellectual honesty.

About the author: zootherapist in Canada

caroofficielle1Caroline Kilsdonk is a veterinarian, mother of four, zootherapist, bioethics Master’s student and talented blogger. Her intellectual output fascinates researchers and laymen alike.

She shares her moving reflections on bioethics, science, the dog-man relationship, zootherapy, and much more, in her (French-speaking) blog: Raison et compassion. To find out more about Caroline’s work in zootherapy, read her interview on Canis bonus.

About Canis bonus: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639Laure-Anne Viselé is the canine behaviour therapist at Canis bonus and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

Laure-Anne graduated in Zoology, completed her certifications in dog training instruction, and got a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you are based in Rijswijk, Delft, Den Haag or region and need ethically sound and evidence-based advice on your dog’s behaviour, you can get in touch with Laure-Anne here.

Make room for the expert

I have followed dog food trends with great interest over the past few years, particularly the controversies surrounding raw food. Many are convinced of a raw diet’s benefits and, once converted, some tend to strongly encourage others to follow suit with non-veterinary consultants encouraging their clients in that direction without hesitation.

Preacher

“…once converted, some tend to strongly encourage others to follow suit…”

I never intervene on the respective benefits of kibble vs. raw food – or, for that matter, on the kibble vs. a homemade cooked balanced diet. It is a complex matter with many variables like the quality of the kibble in question and the health of the individual dog (are there relevant digestive or dermatological issues for example?). And I have grown wary of even mentioning the (real) risks to the dog’s health. The raw food question has become so emotionally charged that discussions can quickly go awry. The one point where I do intervene is this: I ask people exercise caution when using raw meat, particularly in the presence of young children or elderly/sick persons. Strangely, even this message can be taken badly.

Shouting

“The raw food question has become so emotionally charged that discussions can quickly go awry”

I am a doctor in veterinary medicine, I have recently completed postgraduate courses on zoonoses, and I am studying for a Master’s in bioethics (taught in a public health school). My background demonstrates a solid scientific education and a will to keep up with the latest developments as well as a concerns for ethics in (human and animal) public health.

Is my background enough for you to accept what I say uncritically? No.

What does that tell you about my competence in giving dog food advice? Is my background enough for you to accept what I say uncritically?

No.

No academic background guarantees that someone is telling the truth on any given subject. I could have a PhD in canine behaviour and still tell you that socialising pups is useless based on personal anecdotes. I could say I have seen dozens of ex-puppy farm dogs growing up into happy, healthy family dogs. Whilst this is possibly true, it would be obvious to you that it does not constitute enough evidence; possibly because you are already convinced of the benefits of socialisation… Let’s take another example.

Let’s say that someone has a Master’s in animal nutrition (often focusing on cattle feed, by the way, which, is a long way away from feeding carnivores). Let’s say they tell you that raw feeding your dog presents no risk purely based on the fact that they have fed their own dogs raw for years with no problem. Why would you accept that uncritically?

Citation needed

Saying that raw feeding doesn’t carry risks should be evidence-based.

We have precious little data supporting the possible benefits of raw food and the arguments I often hear in favor of raw food have little grounding in science. I know better than to emit an opinion on these «advantages» as long as we don’t know more. The risks of raw food, on the other hand, are undeniable: well-known, documented, and published. Of course you are a grown-up, you are sound of mind, so you are free to make these decisions for your dog even if it brings certain risks to him or her. Where I have a bigger problem is when many people encourage others to also start feeding their dogs raw, without warning them against the risks.

Anecdotes can have a certain value as long as you don’t try to draw universal conclusions from them

Allow me to share a personal anecdote to illustrate (anecdotes can have a certain value as long as you don’t try to draw universal conclusions from them). For about six months, I participated in a dog training Facebook group. I gave some of my time to participate in exchanges, share scientific articles, and answer questions. One day, a member asked about the necessary precautions to take when feeding raw food to their dog. I succinctly and politely suggested caution with people whose immune system are possibly compromised. The group administrator then called in the group’s “expert” who promptly intervened by sharing their personal experience stating that their dogs were healthy (or, more accurately, symptom-less) and yet raw-fed. They concluded that our opinions just differed.

My response was this: “No. When I say there are risks to human health, that is not a matter of personal opinion. No personal anecdote or personal experience to the contrary carries any weight against the thousands of scientific papers and position papers that have been published.” [see reference section for details] The administrator then asked me in private to make room for the expert, to which I promptly complied: I left the group!

What does an «expert» need to merit our trust?

  • He has solid knowledge of the fundamentals of the topic
  • He knows the individual case well.
  • He does not base his advice on personal experience.
  • He is open to revising his position in light of new information.
  • He does not adopt a black-and-white stance, and is capable of nuance.
  • He does not go counter to science (such as opposing any form of vaccination)
  • He can call for caution on certain points (like certain types of vaccines at a certain age)
  • Whilst it is entirely reasonable to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism towards individual research findings, totally ignoring thousands of valid research studies boils down to rejecting the scientific method. To say “I am against all vaccination” is the equivalent to claiming that “There are no risks inherent to raw feeding.”
subjective venn

An expert does not base his/her advice on personal experience

I do not believe myself to be an expert in canine nutrition. When I intervene on a point, I endeavour to inform myself and not let personal beliefs taint my objectivity. Of course no one can show perfect objectivity, but at least we have to try to be neutral.

I hope my message will get through and that you will exercise caution with the health of those around you who are more vulnerable. If you are a dog consultant and promote raw food, I hope that I have sensitized you a little towards exercising caution around the human health issues.

* The objective of this text is to transmit a message of caution to protect people with fragile health. I do not aim at one person in particular, which would not be my style.

Illustration credits

Further reading

Caroline’s blog (in French): Raison et compassion (reason and compassion)

Organisational position statements on raw food:

Other Canis bonus articles by/with Caroline:

Other related Canis bonus articles:

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , , | 1 Response

Dog book review: Dog Food Logic

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. February 2016
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog Food Logic

Linda Case wrote an evidence-based and fun book again, this time telling fact from fiction on dog food. I recommend every dog owner reads this so they can take sound decisions about what they feed their dog, rather than listening to Joe-next-door-who-knows-a-lot-about-dogs for that important decision.

Case - Dog Food Logic

This is the review I’ve written for it.

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What is ‘evidence-based- in ‘Evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice’?

Blog post about evidence-based dog behaviour therapy. February 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Evidence-based dog behaviour practice?

Our dog training school in The Hague (OhMyDog!) has publicly stated its evidence-based standards. That’s fine and dandy, only we’ve found that the general members of the public don’t know what it means. Mmmmh, so much for an effective communication strategy. Worst still, when we explain what it means, some people take it to be an insult, a dogmatic stance, scientific arrogance or worse, an ideological position.

If it’s such an ingrate task, why do we bother promoting the concept? Because dog behaviour is our passion. And it irks us to see it dragged in the mud by con-artists or misguided amateurs, with often devastating consequences to the dogs and the families involved. Dog behaviour advice professions are largely unregulated (to my deepest regret), so we are passionate about protecting the consumer by giving them the tools to critically evaluate the advice they get and do right by their dog.

Skeptical face

Try as I might, it’s hard to make that face look like polite nodding.

The conversation can turn heated when we tackle it with someone with strong vested interests in something that is being criticized by evidence-based practitioners. It can be hard to explain that there are no reasonable grounds for believing that latest celebrity endorsement, alternative treatment, or paranormal intervention without coming across as jerks. But how else do you politely say something is tosh?

I am going to be writing a series of posts about the specific aspects of the evidence-based concept over the next few weeks to clear up some of the misconceptions that often get us in trouble. This will hopefully give evidence-based practitioners some communication tools to educate effectively without insulting. It will also, I hope, give people who are not familiar with the concept handy critical thinking tools. The first post is out: it concerns logical fallacies in dog training.

Enjoy!

Illustration credits

Further reading

  • Canis bonus: Post 2 of the Evidence-based series: Fallacies and biases in dog training.
  • Canis bonus: My Pinterest board on running an evidence-based practice and fighting pseudoscience in the dog behaviour world: Woo Fighters
  • Good Thinking Society: The Good Thinking Society, a UK-based skeptics enquiry foundation, investigate and exposees paranormal and alternative claims.
  • OhMyDog!: OhMyDog!’s blog post on what it means to run an evidence-based dog training school.
Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Responses