The Importance of Reading Scientific Articles

It should come as no surprise that there is quite a difference between the scientific literature about animal (and dog) behavior and popular literature on dog training. 

It’s still fairly difficult for the average dog trainer to access the scientific literature.  On occasion, articles originally published in the scientific literature are made available on the internet, but more often only abstracts are accessible.  Being able to read complete papers usually requires journal subscriptions, membership in scientific societies, or purchasing individual articles, all of which can be quite costly. 

Despite these barriers, we believe it is crucial for any dog trainer or behavior consultant working with pets who really wants to be at the top of their field, to bring the latest in scientific knowledge to the everyday business of working with dogs and other animals, and who wants to avoid perpetuating myths and misconceptions to make the effort to at least dip their toes into the waters of scientific articles.
The body of articles that directly report on original research are referred to as the primary literature.  These sorts of articles describe the research questions asked, how the research was conducted, what data were collected, how the data were analyzed, and what conclusions were drawn. Authors of the article are usually the ones who conducted the research.

The secondary literature is comprised of articles that cite, or refer back to the original research.  Review papers often do this as do many popular or applied articles. Many times – but not always – authors of secondary articles have actually read the article they are citing.
Tertiary literature cites secondary literature and the authors of these articles quite often have never read the original research article. 
You can imagine that what is said in the tertiary (and sometimes even secondary literature) is just like the childhood game where one kid tells something to another kid who tells a third kid, and by the time the “something” is shared with the sixth or seventh kid, the message has become totally distorted from what the first kid said.

So if you are relying only on the tertiary literature about dog behavior (which is usually the most easily accessible) for science based information you are going to encounter a wealth of misinformation. 

For example, while doing some research for our “Biscuit” series for our Behavior Education Network members about important aspects of cat behavior we ran across an article on where the author stated veterinary behaviorists had coined the term “allo-grooming”.  While we have the greatest respect for those credentialed individuals they would be the first to acknowledge that references to “allo-grooming” have been in the behavioral literature for decades and they had nothing to do with creating the term.  The same article contains some statements about how allo-grooming makes the individual doing it feel – something for which there is no data and is nothing more than speculation by the author.

Another example is an ongoing exchange between Dr. Marc Bekoff and dog trainer Charles Kelley on the subject of social dominance in dogs.  A clear example of how interpretations made in tertiary literature can become garbled is Mr. Kelley’s claiming in his article that Dr. Mech wrote that “dominance displays are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.”  What Mech actually wrote was “dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.” Dominance displays and dominance contests are NOT the same thing. 

The exchange continues and is interesting reading.  Start with Dr. Bekoff’s most recent post “Dominance and PseudoScience: Making Sense of Nonsense” and follow the links to previous articles from both individuals. 

The take home message is that we would encourage anyone in the pet behavior and training field to become somewhat familiar with the scientific literature.  We believe this to be so important we’ve made it a benefit of being a member of Behavior Education Network.  Each month, we review two scientific articles.  If the articles are publically available, we provide links to them so you can read the original article.  If not, we summarize the article for you – the research questions, methodology, results, conclusions, and why what was found is important to you.

In addition to becoming a BEN member, another strategy is to at least read an introductory college level textbook on animal behavior.  Some of these are now available in e-book format.  We asked four or five of our respected colleagues which undergraduate level text they would recommend, and the best recommendation was Principles of Animal Behavior, Second Edition by Lee Alan Dugatkin.  You can buy a used copy on Amazon for $28 – a good investment in your professional education.  Buy it.  Read it. Become a BEN member for ongoing exposure to science based education and scientific literature.

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