Thursday, November 17, 2011


A classmate of mine posted a Facebook status about how you would go about handling a situation where a friend has asked for advice regarding their dog showing aggression toward their four-year-old. In this situation while I can offer advice from my experience and the literature that I've read on canine aggression, there is a child involved and I am not a behaviorist. Ultimately anything I say can have real consequences for that child. So I told my friend that I would refer her friend to a behavior expert. A few people offered the same advice. Then another girl chimed in (we'll call her M) with the following gem: "put him in his place - dominant dogs are dangerous!"
I just... *facepalm* So much wrong with that statement. Let's ignore for a moment that she automatically assumes that a dog displaying aggression is dominant - which absolutely is not always or even usually the case. Aggression has many causes, a very common one being fear or insecurity. Anyway! Moving along...

Usually when people use the phrase "put him in his place" they are referring to using dominance or positive punishment-based methods, otherwise known as being your dog's "alpha." I've written about this topic before, and why you shouldn't get your dog training advice from Cesar Millan. But in this case, she is explicitly recommending that the owner use these methods to deal with a dog that is aggressive toward a small child. I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I see someone making a badly wrong statement in general, let alone when the safety of a child is involved. Of course I said something.
  • Julie Lada: @M - Depending on what you mean by that - usually people who talk about putting a dog in their "place" mean to be dominant/alpha over the dog - you could very well make a bad situation much worse and get that child bitten.
  • M:  ‎@ Julie - Not addressing the issue in fear of a bad outcome is worse than trying with the chance of failure - In which case it would probably happen anyway. There is no point in keeping a dangerous dog - there are too many good dogs that need homes!

    I pointed out several more times that numerous studies have shown that the use of positive punishment in aggression cases results in higher states of arousal and more frequent incidences of aggressive behavior as well as escalating levels of aggression. And that positive punishment is known to result in the cessation of all behavior wherein the dog has not formed an association between an action and an adversive stimulus and therefore has no idea what is causing you to yell at and/or hurt them and stops doing anything for fear of inciting the adversive stimulus. This often gives the appearance of having "cured" the aggression, when really the underlying cause of the aggression (be it fear, medical, etc.) is still left untreated.

    She clung to her guns. Used "in my experience, dominance works" as an argument. Nitpicked the linked study (after I reminded her to read it three times) with some valid criticism and some outlandish and clearly biased such as implying that referring veterinarians had not assessed the dogs for a medical cause of aggression before referring them to a behavior specialist as well as attempting to chastise the study for not assessing data that it was specifically never designed to address (receiving professional training vs. at home use of methods learned through social media). It got ugly, I got more aggressive and eventually we stalemated. She's clearly not interested in having her worldview of dominance and aggression shaken up.

    But what killed me was this line...
    • M: Just because I am not up do date on the latest research regarding dog aggression does not make my knowledge inadequate to help a friend.
      THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THAT MEANS! If you don't know what the current consensus in the field is, you shouldn't be speaking on that topic! You shouldn't be giving advice to anyone based on something you are not up on the current data about, especially when it involves the safety of a child!

      I feel like her statement is in line with a lot of my colleagues. "I don't have to know what I'm talking about, because I have a right to share my opinion." A right to do so? Yes. Is it ethical to do so? Not a chance.


      1. I've gotten into many fights with many people over these things. It's good to fight the good fight, but I think it can be most effective if you do it correctly.

        You are actually in a lucky spot because you are surrounded by people who believe some wacky stuff. This means lots of chances to learn what tactics work and which don't. I relish the opportunity to practice on people who believe wacky things, because it gives me awesome feedback on how effective my communication style is.

        It might be a little lonely, but you'll avoid the trap that a lot of people have of entering an echo chamber of like-minded people. These people generally never learn how to effectively communicate with people who disagree and never learn how to change minds.

        Try and make mistakes. Learning opportunities abound! :)

      2. I went to a voodoo vet thinking that she was adding to her knowledge of veterinary medicine, but the voodoo was in place of actual knowledge. After my dog died due to her ignorance, I found a skeptical vet. Keep fighting the good fight. The Kendras of the world need you. R.I.P. Kendra 2/7/2011, just four months after being rescued.

      3. @Lindsay: Oh, this is hardly the first time I've gotten into a debate like this. I belonged to a secular non-theist club for 4 years of undergrad and we engaged with a lot of believers. Between that and a lot of public speaking, I've gotten pretty good at determining what sort of buzzwords, arguments and demeanor suggests a certain type of person and how they'll approach the debate.

        In this case, I got a True Believer. Someone who has already reached a conclusion and will work backwards to attempt to prove it. Nothing I put forward was going to change her mind. What couldn't be rationalized away would be attributed to a difference of "opinion." I lost my temper with her, but in this particular case, it wouldn't have mattered if I didn't.

        Not saying I'm the most diplomatic person for the job. I am assertive and in the atheist movement we had a big hoopla awhile back over "accomodationists" vs. "firebrands." I am most certainly the latter. I think both are necessary. Some people will respond to gentle probing and being led toward the right answers, and some will respond to having their worldview abruptly drawn into question. Some people will respond to both at different moments (I fall into that category - I changed my mind on abortion from having a group of friends basically call me a bigoted idiot, but didn't respond well to criticism on raw diets but rather came around after some gentle suggestions that I wasn't being completely rational).

        That said, while I am always game for an opportunity to engage with people who have different beliefs, it can be exhausting when you don't have anyone else in your corner. And the topic of alt med in vet med is one that is so widely accepted and unquestioned that even my rational, intelligent friends who generally reject all other forms of magical thinking make excuses for alt med. It's tiring and sometimes I just don't want to even bother.

      4. Julie - I completely understand. I switch between accomodationist and firebrand depending on my mood, how tired I am, how irritating the particular person is. You'll run into all types, and I think that more practice with fellow students will teach you to deal with many different types of people (besides internet crazies). It will make you a stronger person, even if it is exhausting and frustrating.

        Remember that when arguing a True Believer, particularly on the internet, there are always people watching and evaluating your arguments, the debate watchers. While you'll never be able to convince a True Believer, you may be able to successfully reduce them to things like "well, I've seen dominance work," and seed doubt into the minds of others following along. That, along with well-placed resources, can change the minds of others.

        Also, I should add: at one point a few years ago, I was a big fan of Cesar Milan and True Believer of dominance theory. I made an off-hand comment about it to a good friend who was in vet school about it, and she basically said the same type of things that you did to this person. I scoffed, but that prompted me to investigate, which eventually converted me to positive reinforcement training. I now use almost no positive punishment (aiming for zero use). So even if you think it's a waste of time on someone, having a respectful exchange can be the starting crack that will break the dam. It took me awhile, but I eventually convinced myself.

        It sounds from your description that you did an excellent job. Remember that minds, like large doors, open slowly and sometimes require constant pressure. You have my admiration for trying to do the right thing!

      5. Re: the visibility of an argument online, I should have kept that in mind and been more diplomatic. But honestly, I was just so angry that all but the slightest tangible hold on diplomacy flew out the window. I think it's because I hold vet students to a higher standard and expect them to be more rational/compassionate/etc. than they often are and it's just terribly disappointing and infuriating when they don't live up to expectations.

      6. Regarding the woo medicine, here is a blog you might like:

        I myself am torn about wanting to learn more about it because so many clients are going to ask, and thinking, uh, no! I am planning my clinical year now and still trying to decide whether I want to spend some time in a CAM-oriented practice.

        Have a nice Thanksgiving - that is a hard one to be away from home for since it is so quintessentially American and family-oriented. And good luck on finals!

      7. @Lori: I'm familiar with Dr. McKenzie's blog. I've actually linked to him several times and has some lively email exchanges with him. He also writes for one of my favorite co-authored blogs, You should definitely check it out if you're still having doubts about CAM (fair warning, they don't wear kid gloves with CAM and alt med over there).

        This Thanksgiving should actually be really fun. My friends and I are getting together for a potluck with all the regular Thanksgiving staples. Thanks for reading!

      8. Haha, I LOVE SBM -I've been hooked on that one for awhile now :). If only more folks were...

        Enjoy your potluck!

      9. Me too! I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Novella and Dr. Gorski at TAM8 last year. I think I actually made Dr. Gorski uncomfortable at the Skepchick party. I wasn't wearing much and was carrying around a riding crop...

      10. You might like this :)

      11. I am fighting the good fight on Facebook after someone posted this: <a href="></a>

        The original poster now claims that she only wanted us to see the video, which is even worse. The "doctor" on the video sounds so authoritative you'd never expect that what she says could kill your pet.

        I'll be posting the links posted here. Thanks for the ammo, guys

      12. Can you give the name of the professors who purport acupuncture? Do they teach requisite classes? I'm wondering if they might be avoided somehow...

      13. They can't be avoided, unfortunately. I won't name names just because I don't want to get in trouble with the university and because it really won't do any good since you've got to take their classes, anyway. One of them, however, in a lecture on neuroanatomy said regarding acupuncture, "And for all those skeptics, we have studies to back up our claims." And the word skeptics was uttered with all of the snide condescension you can imagine.