Beware the straw man

Case - Beware the straw manPUBLISHING YEAR: 2014

SUMMARY: Entertaining summary of research studies on the behaviour of domestic dogs, giving the layman a great introduction to the basics of the scientific method.

AUDIENCE: Non-academics, be they owners or trainers, will very much enjoy this book. It gives them the tools to evaluate claims about dog behaviour critically. In fact, this book is compulsory for my dog training interns who don’t have an academic background, to ease them into the evidence-based concept.

01 Owner
The author

Linda Case, whom I had interviewed years ago, is a successful popular science writer, the author of a few classic academic textbooks on dogs and cats, and a nutrition consultant for companion animals. She has a MSc in animal nutrition and used to be an animal science and behaviour lecturer at the University of Illinois and at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Linda Case has also been running her own dog training school for over 25 years.

In other words, she is, like myself, at the cross-roads between academia and the dog training world. As such, she is the best person to write a book bringing the basics of scientific skepticism to dog training.

Style and contents

The book is relatively short, and oh-so-informally written. This is not a dry textbook whatsoever, on the contrary. It is entertaining and light.

An important objective of this book is to teach scientific skepticism to the layman, using entertaining and concrete analogies. It teaches non-scientists about the scientific method: what it is and what it isn’t. Most importantly, it teaches the layman to critically evaluate claims and theories about dog behaviour by detecting the usual biases and fallacies.

The other focus of the book is to share the results of several research papers on dog behaviour. Some tackle profound points, and some are Ig Nobel candidates. But all are covered in an exceedingly entertaining way.

The gems

As a scientific skeptic, I noted the intellectual integrity of the book above all else. You will not find opinion-disguised-as-fact in it: Linda Case explicitly prefaces her soapbox moments.

I also like that she does not pull punches when the evidence backs her up. She won’t humour you into thinking that a point of controversy is valid when reams of research indicate you should abandon it. And importantly, she addresses the usual “What’s the harm of pseudoscience” argument head on (p. 87).

These are but a few snippets of what I really enjoyed about the book:

  • Lovely review of our cognitive biases, including the elegant available heuristics concept, encouraging the reader to be extremely skeptical about their own gut feelings about the world.
  • The concept of emotional priming: you can give the dog a pleasurable experience BEFORE you present the up-to-that-point problematic stimulus in addition to administering post-hoc counter-conditioning (p. 23).
  • Great, great, great illustrated explanations of research methods (e.g. statistical power, specificity, predictive value, etc.).
  • Sharing the sacro-saint evidence pyramid (p. 43) is key to the public’s understanding of how to evaluate information. I was glad she shared it in her book (in simplified form).
  • Linda puts supposedly disputed points to rest until further evidence comes along, spoken like a true scientist: e.g. hypothyroidism
  • Yes! A book that offers full citations to back up its claim. Always a winning point for me.
  • Interesting did-you-knows like the studies on:
    • The appeasing effects of classical vs. rock music on shelter dogs
    • The predictive value of repeated surface licking on impending vomiting
    • And many many many more interesting tidbits.
  • Some profound take-home points:
    • On ‘decriminalising’ barking: Dumping excess barking as problem behaviour, thus failing to understand it may play an important communication role (p. 70).
    • On using extreme caution when using fake-hand test results for food aggression to guide real-life adoption decisions given its very high rate of false positives (p. 89)
    • On using extreme caution when interpreting temperament test results to inspire real-life decisions (p. 101)
    • On dramatizing resource guarding: When testing an animal for its suitability for adoption in a family, and when treating it, we tend to take resource guarding very seriously. Too seriously perhaps given that most families can manage mild resource guarding and in fact assume it will be present to some extent.
    • Encouraging practitioners of thinking critically of the animal welfare implications of using the extinction burst in training, with the upset and frustration it brings with it (p. 134).

Possible points for optimization

At times, the book delved too deep into statistics for the targeted audience. It was a nice refresher for me, but does the layman really need to understand repeated-measure ANOVA (p. 33), for example?

An index would have been really cool, but then again this book is not marketed as an academic textbook so this is a minor point.

Whilst the book gels with my do-no-harm philosophy of animal training, it occasionally couches this position in the realm of fact, and not ideology. It tends to over-represent the relative merits of avoiding positive punishment, and, at times, confuses the good-guys-bad-guys argument. This despite the fact that the body of research on reward and punishment efficacy is devillishly complicated. So whilst ethically, I am 150% on the ‘good guys’ side, and whilst much of research supports this as safer and more effective, this is far from a settled research consensus.

Towards the end of the book, more and more conclusions went way beyond the findings of the experiment, in my view.

The verdict

A fun and informative read that raised profound points about dog behaviour, and encouraged scientific skepticism. This book could easily become the first in a series of regularly popular reviews of the latest canine research. I would be the first in the queue to buy each new volume.

More book reviews

Like the main page: If you like what I do, please let me know by clicking ‘like’ on the main page (not on this individual review). Each ‘like’ gives me a kick, and lets me know the reviews are appreciated.

Author: Case Linda P
Genre: pop science
Browse the Book Review archive. Genre: . Author: . Reading Level: . Star: . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>