Top critical review
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Informal journey through the research into canine cognitive abilities, with some philosophical and societal discussions.
on 20 January 2014
AUDIENCE: You won't need to know scientific/technical jargon to follow the book, but it goes waaaaay beyond what a the average dog owner is looking for. So I would position it more as an education tool for dog professionals who want to brush up on dog cognition research.
Giving credit where it's due:
The book is written so damned well it's impossible to put down. It is sharp, informal and precise in just the right doses.
And it's exploded a few intellectual bombs in me, giving me these delightful `ha haaa' moments where the last few obscure pieces of the puzzle click together.
The authors integrate the results of each study they review into:
1/ The big picture: fascinating philosophical discussions about the limits of a dog's cognitive abilities; and
2/ The mundane: shedding light on everyday dog behaviour.
They also approach controversial societal topics like breed-related legislation with wit and balance.
Pointing the finger at pointing gestures:
The book excessively stresses the importance of Dr Hare's own research (dogs interpreting human pointing gestures) in my view. The authors nearly present the work as revolutionary. But the studies' design has come under criticism by cognitive researchers. My humble opinion, being familiar with the research, is that it could be overreaching for conclusions. Criticism is an everyday occurrence in science, but it should encourage you to take the chapter's conclusions with a pinch of salt.
Soapboxing about the behaviourism witch hunt:
The authors talk of the `cognitive revolution,' a current in behaviour research which focuses on animals' cognition and emotions. It has become all the rage lately to position cognition research as the opposite of applied behaviourism (the study of the mechanics of animal learning.) Behaviourism forming the cornerstone of dog training, the authors present trainers as pure behaviourists. In my experience, this takes a reductionistic, ill-informed, and antiquated view of dog training.
As a trained zoologist and dog trainer, and as a postgraduate student in an applied animal behaviourism program, I am `a child of both schools' (if you accept the dichotomy in the first place.) But modern trainers, zoology background or not, integrate biological predisposition, emotions and cognitive abilities into their protocols. Systematically so. Long gone are the days of arrogant behaviourists claiming they could change any behaviour in any animal. When faced with a behaviour problem, the modern trainer asks himself the four questions of ethology, not just the one about learning.
Rejecting behaviourism entirely is tantamount to throwing the baby with the bathwater. Applied behaviourism techniques have irreplaceable practical value, and are founded on science every bit as much as cognition research is - more so, I would argue. So, whilst it is is all the rage to reject behaviourism as pseudo-scientific, unethical, and opposed to cognition research, I find that this false dichotomy bears no more value than the Prince-Michael Jackson marketing war. I want to help dogs, and I will do so using all the tools in my arsenal until they fail to meet my standards of evidence.
The authors' superficial take on behaviour modification techniques was evident in discussions of common behaviour problems like separation anxiety. Typical protocols use learning theory to revert the dog's underlying emotional state. In tough cases, we use drugs, but drugs alone won't address the root cause. So, of course, the biochemical markers of a depressed dog will be out of whack, and his welfare can be improved by using drugs, but that improvement says nothing about the efficacy of behavioural intervention.
Let's conclude my soap boxing moment with Martin and Batesman's observation (in "Measuring behaviour") that all the sub-disciplines of behaviour research are merging, and that they are complementary to each other. I hope to see the day where neuroscientists, cognition researchers, and behaviourists play together nicely and share their toys without resorting to name calling.
I whole-heartedly recommend this book, but, as with every book, do keep your critical thinking hat on.
So, aside from a couple of dark clouds in the sky it read well, it was chock-full of new did-you-knows, and, above all, it made me think... What more can I ask?