Consider the (Caregiver) Placebo Effect

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “placebo effect”, the perception of improved health while unknowingly receiving a sham (placebo) treatment that in reality should have no benefit at all. Growing up, my mother referred to this as “giving someone a sugar pill”. The assumption is that because we believe that we are receiving an actual treatment, our mind tells us that we should feel a bit better. Then amazingly, we do feel better. We notice a reduction in symptoms and ultimately conclude that the “medicine” must be working. The irony is that placebos actually can be powerful medicine (or something), at least for some people, for some diseases, some of the time.

placebo-comic

Placebos and Us: The effects of placebos in human medicine are well-documented and are described with human diseases of almost every type. The highest level of placebo effect is seen with diseases that have subjective symptoms that are patient-reported and difficult to measure directly, that tend to fluctuate in severity, and that occur over long periods of time (i.e. are chronic). Examples include depression, anxiety-related disorders, gastric ulcer, asthma, and chronic pain. In medical research, an average placebo response rate of 35 percent is reported, with rates as high as 90 percent for some health conditions. By any standard, that is a whole lot of sugar pill response going on.

placebo

Placebo Control Groups: Although the reasons that we respond to placebos are not completely understood, medical researchers universally accept the importance of considering them when studying new treatments. Studies of new drugs or medical interventions include placebos as control groups to allow unbiased comparisons with the treatment or intervention that is being evaluated. Any effect that the placebo group shows is subtracted from the effect measured in subjects who are receiving the actual medication. The difference between the two is considered to be the degree of response attributable to the treatment. If a placebo control group was not included, it would be impossible to differentiate between a perceived response (placebo) and a real response to the treatment. Today, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are considered to be the Gold Standard of study designs by medical researchers. The “double-blind” part refers to the fact that in addition to having both a placebo group and a treatment group, neither the researchers nor the subjects know which subjects are getting the treatment and which are getting the placebo. (For more information about double-blind research trials with dogs, see “Thyroid on Trial“).

What about Dogs? Can a placebo effect occur with dogs? Possibly, but things work a bit differently where our dogs are concerned. Most obviously, while highly communicative in many ways, dogs cannot specifically tell us what part of their body is in pain, how intense that pain is, if it is abating, or by how much. Rather, we use our knowledge of a dog’s behavior and body language to determine how he is feeling. As their caregivers, we are the recorders and the reporters of our dogs’ health, symptoms, and response to treatments. Similar to human studies, this is most relevant when the symptoms are things that are not easily measured using medical tests and that are more subjective in nature.

A second important difference is that dogs are basically always blinded to treatments. Although they may understand that something different is being done to them (or that there is a strange pill buried in that piece of cheese), most people will agree that dogs do not have an understanding that they are being medicated for a particular health problem or are on the receiving end of a new behavior modification approach. As a result, unlike human patients, dogs lack the specific expectations and beliefs about health interventions that may be necessary for a placebo effect to occur directly. However, because it is the owner who reports many symptoms and changes in health to their veterinarian and also who conveys subjective information regarding the dog’s response to a given treatment, a different type of placebo effect may be in action with dogs. This is called a “caregiver placebo effect”. As with human maladies, the conditions for which this type of placebo effect has been described in dogs are those that involve subjective measures of health (pain, activity level, appetite) and that have a tendency to fluctuate in severity.

Let’s look at two examples – the caregiver placebo effect in dogs with osteoarthritis and in dogs with epilepsy.

Does Your Dog Hurt Less? Osteoarthritis is a painful and progressive health problem that can seriously impact a dog’s quality of life. A variety of medical and nutritional treatments are available today for afflicted dogs. These range from NSAIDS (ex. deracoxib, meloxicam), nutrient supplements (ex. glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate) to alternative medicine approaches (acupuncture, cold laser therapy). Researchers who have studied these treatments use subjective measures of lameness in which dogs’ owners and veterinarians numerically rate their dog’s degree of pain, mobility, and interest in daily activities in response to treatment. Some, but not all, studies also include objective measurements of arthritis that quantify the amount of weight-bearing in the affected legs and weight distribution in the body.

Arthritis Studies: In virtually all placebo-controlled studies of this type, a substantial proportion of owners and veterinarians have reported improvement in the placebo-treated dogs. However, when measured using weight-bearing techniques, the dogs in the placebo group showed no change in or a worsening of disease. Michael Conzemius and Richard Evans at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine decided to quantify the actual magnitude of the placebo effect in this type of experimental trial (1). They analyzed the data from 58 dogs who were in the placebo control group of a large clinical trial that was testing the effectiveness of a new NSAID. All of the enrolled dogs had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had clinical signs of pain and changes in gait and mobility. This was a multi-centered design, which means that each dog’s own veterinarian conducted the bi-weekly evaluations of gait and lameness. Both owners and veterinarians completed questionnaires that measured whether the dog showed improvement, no change, or worsening of arthritis signs over a 6-week period. Neither the owners nor the veterinarians knew if their dog was receiving the placebo or the new drug.

Results: Half of the owners (50 percent) stated that their dog’s lameness decreased during the study, 40 percent reported no change, and 10 percent said that their dog’s pain had worsened. When these reports were compared with actual change as measured by force platform gait analysis, the caregiver placebo effect, (i.e. thinking that improvement occurred when there was either no change or an actual worsening of signs), occurred in 40 percent of owners. The veterinarians performed no better. A placebo effect occurred 40 to 45 percent of the time when veterinarians were evaluating dogs for changes in gait or pain. This means that not only were the owners strongly invested in seeing a positive outcome, so too were their veterinarians. This effect occurred despite the fact that all of the human participants were aware that their dog had a 50 percent chance of being in the placebo group or the drug group, and that there was no way to be certain which group their dog was in.

Seizure Study: This study used an approach called a “meta-analysis” which means that the researchers pooled and then reexamined data collected from several previous clinical trials (2). Veterinarians from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Minnesota reviewed three placebo-controlled clinical trials that examined the use of novel, adjunct treatments for canine epilepsy. During the treatment period owners were asked to record all seizure activity, including the length of the seizure, its intensity, and the dog’s behavior before and immediately following the seizure. The pooled results showed that the majority of owners of dogs in the placebo group (79 %) reported a reduction in seizure frequency in their dog over the 6-week study period. Almost a third of the owners (29 %) said that there was a decrease of more than 50 percent, the level that was classified in the study protocols as indicative of a positive response to treatment.

What’s Going On? Well, several things, it appears. The most obvious explanation of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs is owner expectations of a positive response when they assume an actual treatment is being administered to the dog. Whenever we introduce a new medication or diet or training method and anticipate seeing an improvement in our dog’s health, nutritional well-being or behavior, we naturally tilt toward seeing positive results and away from seeing no change (or worse – a negative effect). This is a form of confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see and that confirms our preexisting beliefs. In fact, an early study of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs found that when owners were asked to guess which group their dog was in, the owners who said that they were certain that their dog was in the treatment group (but was actually in the placebo group) demonstrated the strongest placebo effect (3).

Such expectations may be an especially strong motivator when we are dealing with maladies that have affected our dog for a long time, infringes upon the dog’s ability to enjoy life, and for which we feel that we are running out of options. Osteoarthritis and seizure disorders were the health conditions studied in these papers, but I can think of several other problems with our dogs for which we may easily succumb to the power of the placebo effect. These include chronic allergies, adverse reactions to food ingredients, anxiety-related behavior problems and even cancer.

Cognitive Dissonance: Another factor that may contribute to the caregiver placebo effect is finding oneself in a state of contradiction. When we invest time and money (and hope) into a new treatment for our dogs, it follows that we will naturally have high expectations that the treatment will work. Indeed if it does not, we may experience cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradicting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. For example, “I was told that giving my dog dehydrated gooseberry rinds would cure his chronic itching; these rinds are expensive and hard to find. He does not seem any better…… Uh oh. This is not a good feeling….”

Psychologists tell us that our brain reduces this discomfort for us (without our conscious awareness, by the way) by simply changing our perceptions. “Oh look! I am sure that the dehydrated gooseberry rinds ARE finally working. It just too some time – several months in fact. Still the effect MUST be the gooseberry rinds. YAY!”  In this case, convincing oneself that the dog does seem a bit less itchy, her coat is a bit healthier and overall, she does really seem to be feeling better, immediately solves this problem for the brain and for our comfort level.

cognitive-dissonance

The Hawthorne Effect: Finally, a related phenomenon that is common enough to have earned its own name is the Hawthorne Effect, also called observation bias. This is the tendency to change one’s behavior (or in our case how one reports their dog’s behavior) simply as a result of being observed. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people whose dogs are enrolled in an experimental trial may behave differently with the dog because they know they are enrolled in a trial that is measuring many aspects of the dog’s life. In the case of the arthritis studies, owners may have altered how regularly they exercised their dogs, avoided behaviors that worsened the dog’s arthritic pain, or began to pay more attention to the dog’s diet and weight.

The point is that when people are enrolled in a research trial or are starting a new medical treatment, diet, or training program and are being monitored, they will be inclined to change other aspects of how they live with and care for the dog as well. These changes could be as important (or more important) than the actual treatment (or placebo). This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and is another reason why we always need control groups, but the occurrence of the Hawthorne Effect emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the thing that we think is working for our dog may not actually be the thing that is doing the trick.

Take Away for Dog Folks: When trying something new with our dogs, might we, at least some of the time, in some situations, be inclined to see improvement when it does not truly exist? When interpreting our dog’s response to a novel therapy or supplement or training technique are we susceptible to falling for the sugar pill? It seems probable, given the science. It is reasonable to at least consider the possibility that a placebo effect may be influencing our perceptions of our dog’s response to a new food, a new supplement, a new training technique or a novel treatment. This is especially true if the approach that we are trying has not been thoroughly vetted by research through double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. While the development of new medications and foods and training methods is exciting and important, we must avoid the tendency to see improvement from something that is novel simply because we expect and desire it to be so.

CITED STUDIES:

  1. Conzemium MG, Evans RB. Caregiver placebo effect of dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2012; 241:1314-1319.
  2. Munana KR, Zhang D, Patterson EE. Placebo effect in canine epilepsy trials. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 2010; 24:166-170.
  3. Jaeger GT, Larsen S, Moe L. Stratification, blinding and placebo effect in a randomized, double blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of gold bead implantation in dogs with hip dysplasia. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2005; 46:57-68.

Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact and Fiction” (2015).

Beware Straw Man Cover

Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge)

Happy New Year from The Science Dog!

To start the year off, I am participating for the first time in The Pet Blogger Challenge that is organized by the travel site, Go Pet Friendly. Many thanks to my friend Eileen Anderson for alerting me to this annual event. Below are this year’s queries and my responses. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about The Science Dog!

  1. When did you start your blog and, for anyone who is just seeing it for first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience? Answer: I created The Science Dog in September of 2013, shortly before the publication of my fifth book, “Dog Food Logic“. The purpose of The Science Dog is to provide up-to-date, evidence-based information to dog folks and pet professionals about dog training, behavior and nutrition. My focus is primarily on original scientific research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals. I try to find studies whose results are relevant to trainers and dog owners and then summarize these in what I hope is a “user-friendly” style. Oh, and yeah, sometimes I editorialize a bit.

    soapbox

    GETTIN’ UP ON THE OL’ BOX

  2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016? Answer: I published the second Science Dog book in July of 2016, entitled “Only Have Eyes for You“. Both writing and promoting it has been a lot of fun! My husband Mike designed the cover for the book (as he did for “Beware the Straw Man“), and I was especially tickled that he used a photo of four of our dogs, posed in our garden. The oldest girl, Cadie, has since passed away, so this photo is very near and dear to my heart.

    Cadie Chip Vinny Cooper May 2013

    CHIPPY, VINNY, CADIE AND COOPER

  3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.) Answer: I enjoyed writing all of the posts, especially the nutrition essays, as I had focused the first two years of the blog on topics related to behavior and training. In 2015, I started to include more essays about nutrition and feeding practices. However, my personal favorite of 2016 has to be “The Perfect Dog“, because it reviews two recent papers that provide some insight into the gap between what people think a dog should be versus who dogs actually are (and also, to some degree, places the responsibility for this exactly where it lies).       Unrealistic Expectations
  4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog? Answer: I use FaceBook quite a bit, and have a FB Science Dog page that gives dog folks access to the blog and allows readers to chat and to contact me directly. I love to hear from readers, especially when they have ideas for new science-based topics for the blog! (hint-hint).
  5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts? Answer: The essay that received the largest number of hits (~ 18,000) was “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it“. Catchy  little title aside, I think that it resonated with shelter professionals because it presents a set of research studies conducted by Alexandra Protopopova’s team that both challenged a prevailing belief about training and adoption rates and presented some unique solutions that may be more effective as predictors of dogs’ chances for adoption.   Sit Ubu
  6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.) Answer: There are a number of dog-related blogs that I follow regularly and enjoy. Two that are among the best are Eileen Anderson’s not-to-be-missed essays about dog training at EileenandDogs and Julie Hecht’s excellent research summaries at Dog Spies.
  7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them? Answer: What my readers may not know (but all of my friends do) is that while I hold a Masters Degree in Canine/Feline Nutrition, I cannot cook a human food meal to save my life. I started volunteering two years ago at our local soup kitchen, The Daily Bread, and the other volunteers quickly learned this little secret. I am now a designated dish-washer and happily report that I excel at that particular task, keeping everyone safe (and well fed).

    daily-bread-people-2

    SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SOUP KITCHEN! 

  8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers? Answer: Not to point any political fingers (interpret this as you like), but my advice to other writers (and citizens) is: Don’t lie and stick to the facts that have evidence to support them.    just-the-facts-maam-2
  9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017? Answer: The biggest challenge that I may have in 2017 is finding enough time to work on all of the writing and dog training projects that I am excited about. I am currently writing a new dog training book that presents evidence-based training and the applications that we use at our training school, AutumnGold, plus developing a few new training courses with several of AutumnGold’s instructors and writing essays for The Science Dog (many of which will appear, in some form, in the new book). Add in training and enjoying time with my own dogs, and it looks like it will be a busy and fun year!

    Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms

    PLATFORM TRAINING AT AUTUMNGOLD!

  10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Answer: Thanks to GoPetFriendly for sponsoring this blog challenge and hop! This is a Blog Hop!

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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Pretty in Pink

Our youngest dog, Ally, has a ‘bestie”. Her name is Colbie and she belongs to our friend Amanda, a trainer who also works as an instructor at AutumnGold. Ally is a Golden Retriever. Colbie is a Pit Bull Terrier, adopted from our local shelter while Amanda was on staff there.

Ally and Colbie Chasing

ALLY AND HER BEST FRIEND, COLBIE HAVE A PLAY DATE

Being young girls, both Ally and Colbie wear pink collars, Gentle Leaders and harnesses. For Ally, this is simply a fashion statement. For Colbie, given her breed and the breed-stereotypes that she may encounter, it means a bit more. Amanda purposefully dresses Colbie in pink hoping that such feminine attire will present Colbie as the sweetheart that she is. (Being color-blind, Colbie has no opinion).

Ally and Colbie in Pink

PRETTY IN PINK

Although Ally does not care about Colbie’s genetic heritage (or that she wears pink), many people do. Breed stereotypes are pervasive and impact local and state breed-specific legislation (BSL), rental property regulations, and shelter decisions regarding adoption and euthanasia. BSLs in the US and UK specifically target Pit Bull Terriers and other bully-type breeds, and either ban ownership of these breeds outright or impose strict restrictions upon ownership. These laws are based upon the assumption that targeted breeds are inherently dangerous and that individuals of the breeds can be reliably identified. There is much controversy (and no consensus) regarding the first assumption and is a topic for another time. In this article, we look at the second assumption regarding reliable breed identification. Is there supporting evidence? It turns out that there is quite a bit of science on this topic – and the results are quite illuminating.

Pit Bull or something else? Prior to the development of reliable DNA testing, the only method available for identifying the breed of a dog whose heritage was unknown was visual assessment. A shelter worker, veterinarian or animal control officer would examine the dog and assign a breed designation based upon physical appearance and conformation. Even with widespread availability of reliable DNA tests, most shelters and rescue groups continue to rely upon visual identification to assign breed labels to the dogs in their care. Given the life or death import of these decisions for some dogs, it is odd that the question of the reliability of these evaluations has not been questioned.

Until recently.

Experts don’t agree: In 2013, Victoria Voith and her co-researchers asked over 900 pet professionals to assign a breed (or mix of breeds) to 20 dogs that they viewed on one-minute video clips. Each of the dogs underwent DNA testing prior to the study, which allowed the researchers to test both the accuracy of visual breed-identification and the degree of agreement among the dog experts. Results: Poor agreement was found between visual breed assignments and DNA results in  14 of the 20 dogs (70 %). Moreover, there was low inter-rater reliability, meaning that the dog experts did not show a high level of agreement regarding breed assignments to the 20 dogs. More than half of the evaluators agreed on the predominant breed in only 7 of the 20 dogs (35 %). Although Pit Bull Terriers were not specifically examined in this study, these results provide evidence that physical appearance is not a reliable method for breed identification.

You say Pit Bull, I say Boxer: The following year, researchers in the US and the UK collaborated and examined the consistency with which shelter workers assigned breed labels to the dogs in their care (2). A group of 416 shelter workers in the US and 54 in the UK were asked to assign a breed or mix of breeds to photographs of 20 dogs. They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to list the specific features that they used in their determination. Of the 20 dogs that were used in this study, more than 3/4 had a bully-breed appearance. (Note: An important difference between  the UK and the US is that all UK shelters are subject to the country’s Dangerous Dog Act, a law that bans the ownership of Pit Bulls. While such bans exist in the US, there is no universal law. Rather, select municipalities or states have various forms of BSL). Results: Perhaps not surprisingly, UK shelter workers were much less likely to identify a dog with a “bully appearance” as a Pit Bull Terrier than were US shelter workers. Instead, the UK shelter workers tended to label these dogs as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a breed that is allowed in the UK, rather than as a Pit Bull, a breed that is universally banned. Despite this difference, results corroborated Voith’s study in that the researchers found a great deal of variation among shelter workers in their assignments of breed and there was a lack of consensus regarding which of the 20 dogs were identifiable as Pit Bull Terriers.

DNA vs. shelter staff: A 2015 study surveyed experienced shelter staff members at several Florida animal shelters (3). At each of four sites, four staff members were asked to assign breed designations to 30 adoptable dogs who were housed at their shelter. Collectively, 120 dogs were evaluated by 16 staff members. DNA testing was conducted on all of the dogs. A primary objective of this study was to examine the reliability of shelter staff’s ability to identify Pit Bull Terriers and dogs with Pit Bull heritage and to compare their assessments with DNA results. (Note: The DNA signatures that are used to identify Pit Bull Terriers are those of the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terriers, two breeds that are considered to be genetically identical to the Pit Bull Terrier). Results: Approximately one-third of the dogs who were identified as a pit bull-type breed by one or more shelter staff lacked any DNA evidence of bully breeds in his/her heritage. When inter-rater reliability was examined, agreement among shelter staff was moderate, but still included a relatively large number of disagreements. What this means in practical terms is that a substantial number of dogs in this study were labeled as pit bulls or pit bull types and yet had no such genetic background. Even if the shelter staff agreed on a particular dog’s identification, this would be rather a moot point (for the dog) if they both happened to be wrong.

But she doesn’t look like a Chow Chow: How can this be? How is it possible that a dog who appears to have the characteristic “pittie-type” head shape,  muscular body and other distinctive features tests negative for Pit Bull heritage? The conclusion that many people make from these discrepancies is that DNA testing must be unreliable, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. However, the fact is that it is not uncommon for the results of DNA tests of dogs who have mixed heritage to identify a set of primary ancestor breeds that look nothing like the dog in question.  This occurs because purebred crosses, particularly after the first generation, can result in unique combinations of genes that produce a wide range of features. When several different breeds are involved, some of these features may not be apparent in any of the ancestral breeds.

This occurs for two reasons. First, many of the breeds that we know today were originally created by crossing two or more existing breeds and then selecting for a small set of physically unique traits in subsequent generations. However, the dogs of these breeds still carry genes for a much wider variety of traits, even though the genes are not being “expressed” in the dog’s appearance. When these dogs are then bred to dogs of other breeds the hidden traits may become evident in their puppies. A second reason is that less than 1 percent of the canine genome encodes for breed-specific traits such ear shape, coat type and color, and head shape. So, a dog could be a large part (genetically) of a certain breed, while not showing all of the breeds physical traits, which may have been rapidly lost during cross-breeding with other breeds.

What this means for dogs: These three studies provide valuable evidence that the use of visual assessments to assign breed or breed-mixes to dogs is inaccurate and unreliable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this information is of more than just casual interest for dogs like Colbie because Pit Bull Terriers and other “bully breeds” are most frequently stigmatized by breed stereotypes and impacted by BSL and shelter policies that require automatic euthanasia. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that identifying an individual dog as a Pit Bull may be a matter of life or death for that dog.

It is not an exaggeration because we now have evidence.

Researchers ask, “What’ in a Name”? A recent paper published by researchers in Clive Wynne’s dog lab at the University of Arizona describes an ambitious series of experiments in which they examined the impact of breed labels on the perceptions of potential adopters and on the eventual outcome for the dog (4). The studies were carried out online and at animal shelters in Florida and Arizona. Participants were asked to rate photographs, videotapes, or live dogs in their kennels. In some conditions the dogs were provided with a breed label and in others they were not. Results: Two major findings came out of these studies. The first showed that stereotypes about Pit Bulls are alive and well and the second showed how this stigmatization ultimately affects dogs:

  1. People rated an image of a “pit-bull-type” dog as less approachable, friendly and intelligent and as more aggressive when compared to an image of either a Labrador Retriever and a Border Collie. In another experiment, labeling a dog as a Pit Bull negatively influenced the perceptions that people had about the dog. When visitors rated a dog who was labeled as a Pit Bull, the dogs were found to be less attractive in terms of perceived approachability, friendliness, intelligence, aggressiveness and adoptability compared with when the same dog was not so labeled.
  2. Dogs who had been labeled as Pit Bulls had  length of stays in the Florida shelter prior to adoption that were over three times as long as the stays of dogs who were matched in appearance, but had been labeled as another breed or breed-mix. When breed labels were removed from the profile cards of dogs offered for adoption, adoption rates for Pit Bulls increased significantly, length of stays prior to adoption in the shelter decreased, as did euthanasia rates. Interestingly, not only pit-bull-type dogs benefited from removing breed labels from the kennel cards. Dogs from working breeds who were available for adoption, in particular Boxers, Dobermans and Mastiffs also showed an increase in adoption rate.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There is a lot to ponder here. We have learned that breed identification using a dog’s physical appearance, even when conducted by experienced dog experts, is flawed in two distinctive ways. First, experts cannot agree consistently about how to label an individual dog. One person’s Boxer-mix is another’s Pit Bull and is yet another’s Bulldog/Lab mix. Second, DNA tests do not consistently confirm breed assignments that were based upon physical appearance. Labeling breeds for purposes of shelter retention, adoption and euthanasia is a highly dubious process, and one that is most critical for Pit Bull Terriers and other bully breeds.

We have also learned that potential adopters react to a Pit Bull label in ways that may adversely affect the outcome for the dog.  Labeling a dog as Pit Bull may increase her length of stay in the shelter, reduce her chances of adoption and increase her risk of being killed – simply because she was assigned a (possibly incorrect) label that changed the perceptions of potential adopters. And last, we have evidence that removing breed labels from the cage cards of adoptable pit-bull-type dogs (and many other dogs) increases their chance of adoption, reduces the length of their stay in the shelter, and increases their chance of simply staying alive.

Pretty in Pink for sure. But, I say, it is time that wearing pink becomes a simple fashion statement for Colbie, just as it is for her pal Ally.

Colbie Play Bow

Cited Studies:

  1. Voith VL, Trevejo R, Dowling-Guyer S, Chadik C, Marder A, Johnson V, Irizarry K. Comparison of visual and DNA breed identification of dogs and inter-observer reliability. American Journal of Sociological Research 2013; 3:17-29.
  2. Hoffman CL, Harrison N, Wolff L, Westgarty C. Is that dog a Pit Bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter works regarding breed identification. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2014; 17:322-339.
  3. Olson KR, Levy JK, Borby B, Crandall MM, Broadhurst JE, Jacks S, Barton RC, Zimmerman MS. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal 2015; 206:197-202.
  4. Gunter LM, Barber RT, Wynne CDL. What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions & labeling on attractiveness, adoptions & length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PLoS ONE  2016; 11:e0146857.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146857.

NEW BOOK! This essay is excerpted from my newest Science Dog book, “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog“.

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CLICK FOR MORE INFORMATION!

 

 

New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

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The Meaning of Click

Hi. My name is Linda and I am a clicker trainer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have been using a clicker for many years. My use began with the common gateway secondary reinforcer, the verbal cue (“Yes!”). While that worked well for a while, I eventually found that I needed more. I wanted a marker that was accurate and clear to my dog and something that could provide that immediate “ah ha!” moment in dog training that we all crave.

Cooper Clicker Training Heel

BABY COOPER HEELS FOR CLICKS

Recently, my husband suggested that perhaps I am too dependent upon my clicker. It is possible that finding them all over the house, in the pockets of my jackets and jeans, in the car, and oh yeah, one in the refrigerator, had something to do with his concern. I emphatically denied this and insisted that I could quit clicker training any time that I wanted to.

He called my bluff and suggested that I try using food alone, no clicker. Admittedly, I did not react well.

cold dead modified

PERHAPS I AM A BIT DEPENDENT

Hyperbole aside, why is it that many trainers, myself included, are so completely sold on clicker training? While the short answer is a forehead thumping “Duh…..because it works so well“, a longer exploration into clicker training, plus a bit of science, is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.

Operant learning: There is a large body of  scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of using consequences to teach new behaviors, a type of associative learning called operant learning or conditioning.  Although the consequences that are used can be either aversive or pleasurable, most trainers focus on pleasurable consequences, or positive reinforcers. For dogs, a universal primary positive reinforcer is food, though verbal praise, petting, and play are also important. (Note: A primary reinforce is a stimulus that is inherently rewarding to the animal, with no need for prior conditioning). Animals learn most efficiently when the targeted behavior is immediately followed by delivery of the positive reinforcer. Even brief delays between the behavior and the reinforcer can slow or prevent learning.

The timing issue: Herein lies the problem. In the practical context of animal training, there are numerous  situations in which it is impossible for a trainer to deliver a primary reinforcer at the exact time that the desired behavior is being offered. Examples with dogs include when teaching retrieving, targeting distant objects, or moving a paw or other body part in a very precise manner. Secondary reinforcers help to solve this problem. These are signals that are clear to the animal, such as a sound or light flash, and which are purposefully paired with a primary reinforcer. For marine mammal trainers, a whistle is used. For dog trainers, it is the click.

clicker-training_gif

Click-Treat: The sound of the clicker is transformed from a neutral (meaningless) stimulus to a conditioned (secondary) stimulus by repeatedly pairing the click sound with the delivery of a food treat (the primary reinforcer). After multiple repetitions of Click-Treat (hereafter CT), in which the click sound reliably precedes and predicts the treat, the click begins to possess the same properties as  the treat itself. Clicker training allows the trainer to precisely target (mark) tiny bits of behavior at the exact moment they are occurring. The click sound becomes analogous to a bridge in time – saying to the dog “That’s it!! That thing that you are doing right this instant is what will earn you the yummy treat that is coming shortly!”

Well, at least that is what we think the click means to our dogs………

The meaning of click: Recently, a team of Australian researchers reviewed clicker training and examined the mechanisms through which clicker training might enhance learning (1). They looked at each of the three functions that dog trainers typically attribute to the click –  a secondary reinforcer,  a marker of behavior, and as a bridging stimulus. Although we typically give equal weight to all three of these functions, the current evidence, collected primarily in laboratory animals and pigeons, is telling us differently:

Secondary reinforcer? As described earlier, once a clicker is “charged” as a secondary reinforcer, it should possess the same reinforcing properties as the primary reinforcer (treat). This means that the click sound alone, without being followed by a treat, is expected to cause an increase in the targeted behavior and help learned behaviors to be resistant to extinction. An unpairing of the connection between secondary and primary reinforce should also lead to a lessening of these effects. All of these outcomes have been tested in rats and pigeons and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a conditioned signal (click), when consistently paired with a primary reinforce (treat) does indeed take on the properties of the primary reinforcer. The researchers also provide  evidence (in rats) of a neuropsychological nature – dopamine release has been shown to occur at times that would be expected if a secondary reinforcer was the driving mechanism for learning.

Event marker? Almost all clicker trainers, when asked to explain why clicker training works so well, include some version of “it precisely marks the behavior that I wish to reinforce, at the exact moment that it is happening“.  I agree with this account, given my own practical training experiences. But, of course, belief is not the same as evidence.  What does the current science say about using an auditory signal to mark behavior? As a marker, the signal (click) must draw the animal’s attention to the event. So, if a signal functions to mark behavior, we would expect to see an effect of the signal, though at a lower intensity, when it is not paired with a primary reinforcer. For dogs, this means that hearing the “click” sound, regardless of its pairing with food, should emphasize that moment and thus enhance learning whatever behavior is occurring. Again, though not tested with dogs (yet), this hypothesis has been tested with laboratory animals. The evidence suggests that learning is somewhat enhanced by a marker alone but that the pairing of the marker with a primary reinforcer is decidedly more potent. While “click” may indeed be a marker for behaviors, this function is intricately related to its role as a secondary reinforce rather than marking an event simply by bringing the animal’s attention to it.

Bridging stimulus? The bridging stimulus hypothesis focuses on the “a treat will be coming to you soon” portion of clicker training and applies when the dog is a distance away or there is a temporal (time) delay between the behavior and delivery of the food treat. According to the bridging hypothesis, rather than simply marking the behavior, the signal communicates to the animal that reinforcement will be delayed (but is still promised). A limited number of published studies have examined this function, but the evidence that is available suggests that an auditory signal (such as a click) may bridge the temporal gap between behavior and food. However, all of the studies used a type of training process called “autoshaping” which is a highly controlled and contrived experimental process. Whether or not a click acts as a bridge in the practical and varied setting of dog training remains to be studied.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The bulk of the current evidence coming from other species, primarily lab animals who are tested in highly controlled conditions, tells us that the major way in which clicker training enhances learning is through the click’s function as a secondary reinforcer. As far as event marking and acting as a bridging stimulus, these may be in effect, but if so, they are in a supporting role rather than being the star players. So what might this information mean for we who love to click?

  1. In its role as a secondary reinforcer, the click takes on the pleasurable properties of the primary reinforcer, food treats. Pairing of the click with the treat (charging the clicker) is essential to both establish and maintain these properties.
  2. While clicking without treating will work for a short period of time, repeated uncoupling of the click from the treat will extinguish the connection and the click will stop being effective as it gradually reverts to a neutral stimulus.
  3.  Although most of us refer to the click as “marking” behaviors, the actual marking properties of the click appear to be intricately linked to its function as a secondary reinforcer, rather than having any stand-alone strength in this capacity. Ditto for bridging stimulus.

Bottom line? Given  these three suppositions, if you are a trainer and are in the habit of clicking without treating, you may want to stop doing that (2). The power of the click lies principally in its strength as a secondary (conditioned) reinforce, so maintaining that connection appears to be key.

As for me, this evidence provides further support for the strength of clicker training with dogs. Don’t think I will be going through any 12-step program to reduce my dependency anytime soon.

12 Step Click

Happy Training!

Cited Papers:

  1. Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. How clicker training works: Comparing reinforcing, marking, and bridging hypotheses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; Accepted paper, in press.
  2. Martin S, Friedman SG. Blazing clickers. Paper presented at Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference, Denver, CO, 2011.

 

Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.

Fundamental-Attribution-Error

THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR

We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.

soapbox

I THINK I’M GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOX

There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing

ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’

Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:

FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION EXPLANATIONS (THE EXCITABLE DOG):

  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?

SITUATIONAL EXPLANATIONS (UNWANTED EXCITED BEHAVIORS):

  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

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