Why We Have To Read Research Very Carefully

       The pet behavior and training literature is full of misinformation that exists  because writers either misread or misinterpreted the research of others. One prime example is the frequent claim that synthetic pheromones from dogs can reduce anxiety in a variety of situations. A systematic review of the literature (Frank et al. JAVMA, 2010, 236, 1308-1316) indicates that the evidence is extremely poor for the positive effect of pheromones on dog fears of noises, travel, veterinary visits and adaptation to shelters.  Yet the claims continue. We recently read a paper that is ripe for mis-interpretation. The title is “Puppy power! Using social cognition research tasks to improve socialization practices for domestic dogs (Canis familiaris).” Wouldn’t you think that an article so entitled would be about things that improve socialization in puppies? We did.        What about statements such as this: “We highlight specific ways by which breeders may alter setup of these tasks to further generalize the social cognitive benefits for the puppies.” [p. 195]  or this statement “The second section has a strong applied focus, offering several different tasks that could be incorporated into socialization regimes of breeders as a way of enhancing the skills that adult dogs have been shown to possess.” [p.196]. Hot Dog! Research on the cognitive abilities of dogs have given us new and powerful ways to socialize our puppies!
       Not so fast. Is this what the paper really says? Wel-l-l-l, Yes and No. The quotes and title are there, but then there are other statements that lead to a very different conclusion. For example, we read on page 202  “We highlighted several different tasks that have been used as experimental paradigms in dog cognition research, which could be adapted by breeders for use with puppies as a way to encourage development of social skills observed in adult dogs.” [Our underlining] And later “A shortage of studies on puppies highlights the need for further research into this area to aid in the development of socialization tasks for breeders who are interested in early-age socialization of their puppies. These tasks could help researchers better understand the development of social cognitive skills in dogs, and whether specific coaching designed to enhance dogs’ social skills as puppies affects personality or behavior of adult dogs.” [pp.202-203, our underlining]  So maybe the research on the effectiveness of cognitive tasks as socialization for puppies isn’t really very strong. 
       But then we read “Although it is not known whether evaluating and then incorporating cognitive skill development into socialization practices will affect adult dog behavior, such an effect may be possible because these social cognitive skills represent strengths that are required in adult dogs to adapt to living closely with human companions.” [p.196, our underlining]  So we don’t really know if the cognitive tasks that are reviewed in this paper really do improve socialization of puppies.
      Then the authors reinforce the hypothetical relationship between cognitive tasks and puppy socialization with these statements “It will be particularly important to study puppies and then track these dogs as adults, to see if there is any long-term value in incorporating social cognitive socialization practices into the regular socialization regime of litters.” [p.200, our underlining]  “What is needed now, then, are studies that specifically examine the relationship between particular socialization practices during puppyhood and the development of canine personality and behavioral traits.” [p.200, our underlining] 
      Confused?  We were the first couple of times we read the article. The article should have been better written. The authors should have been clear that they are only hypothesizing that cognitive tasks given to puppies would improve socialization and affect adult behavior in positive ways, and that they are only calling for research concerning this, not summarizing established research.  There is nothing wrong with hypothesizing relationships and calling for research.  It is an important task in scientific research. But, it should be made very clear that that is what is being done. It isn’t clear in this paper.
      The confusing and conflicting statements only make misinterpretations inevitable. And then once someone else cites this study incorrectly, others will cite that incorrect article and so on.  This is one way that myths are created. We cannot depend on journal and book editors to clean up such confusion, so we have to take it upon ourselves to critically read the literature. 
      Don’t be surprised if sometime in the future you read or hear that this study has shown that puppy cognitive tasks improve socialization. Not everyone reads as critically as they should. 


Howell, T.J. & Bennett, P.C. 2011.  Puppy power! Using social cognition research tasks to improve socialization practices for domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 195-204.


  • Leslie Sinn

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    I laughed when I read this. I had just finished reading Howell’s article and ended up reading and re-reading it multiple times before I was clear that the article offered nothing new.
    In addition, I am conducting a literature search on some aspects of cat behavior and have ended up ripping my hair out because of the numerous misinterpretations of studies in the literature. I have had to follow literature chains back decades to original research projects to be sure of exactly what has and hasn’t been proven/claimed.
    This should be a lesson to all of us….

  • Suzanne & Dan

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    Glad you enjoyed this Dr. Sinn! When I was doing my literature review for my dissertation I ran into the same problem – trying to back track citations to the original research was extremely tedious (and in those days not much was available online). The original research was often very different from how it was referenced in the secondary and tertiary literature. And this problem is definitely GETTING worse. And too many authors – who should know better – are citing tertiary literature rather than tracking down the orginal references. So cudos to you for being thorough!

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