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EFFECTIVE ANIMAL BEHAVIOR RESEARCH

Dogs Are My Patronus

Veterinary Scientist blogging about dog training and ownership and general animal welfare. 

EFFECTIVE ANIMAL BEHAVIOR RESEARCH

Natalia Alexandrov

“Educate yourself!” A phrase we eagerly throw around when someone we deem ignorant is saying something we disagree with. And it’s true, some people really need to educate themselves, in particular people who have taken it upon themselves to educate others. 

But how do you educate yourself? I’ve seen the self-education a lot of people come up with… and it’s not pretty. I don’t think anything infuriates an educator more than writing something informative based on science and facts, only to have someone contradict them with isolated-incident anecdotal “evidence”, as if that means all their research and science is wrong on that basis. It’s a bit like saying, “well I’m still alive, so clearly death is a myth.” 

That is not someone who has educated themselves, but rather someone who has never evaluated anything critically, from all possible angles, before coming to an informed conclusion. 

So, again… how do you educate yourself? 

 

Read. But don’t read indiscriminately. Use discernment. Be critical. Don’t just look at the best seller list, or Oprah’s Book of the Month. Take a look at 1) what topic the book is discussing and 2) who is writing about it. 

Before you even start reading the book, ask yourself: 

  1. Who is the author? 
  2. What are their qualifications to write on this subject? 
  3. Is this an anecdotal book or a scientific book? 
  4. How old is this book? 
  5. What do the author’s peers have to say about this book? 


For example, I picked up the book “Animal Cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals” by Clive D.L. Wynne. I then turned to the back to read the summary. 

“Can ravens count? How do pigeons find their way home? Can chimpanzees use language in a human-like fashion? These are the kinds of questions that occupy scientists interested in understanding animal minds. […] presents a fascinating account of animal intelligence and abilities, covering a wide range of key topics from language and communication to sensation and problem-solving. […] Clive Wynne reviews research on species ranging from fire ants to dolphins […] complex reasoning (do cats understand that objects hidden from view still continue to exist?), balanced by a critical stance towards some of the wilder claims found in the popular media.” 

Now, what does it say about the author? 

“Clive D.L. Wynne is an Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida, and studies cognition in species from pigeons to marsupials. He worked previously at universities in Australia, the USA and in Germany, and was educated at University College London and the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous scholarly papers on animal learning and cognition, and is the editor of a book on models of animal behavior, Models of Action: Mechanisms for Adaptive Behavior.” 

So, the author is a professor of psychology who has made numerous contributions to the scholarly world, and the book is handling a topic he is familiar with and has professional experience with. That’s already a good start. The publishing date is 2001, which is somewhat older, so the reader should be critical of the studies being referred to and make sure they are still considered valid. 

The book contains several reviews from his peers—other professors and researchers from various universities—who agree that this book is an excellent source of information, which further indicates the author has a lot to offer on this subject. 

With this information in mind, you can start reading, and as you read, continue to ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. How old is the study they are referring to? Is it still considered a valid source? 
  2. Are they even referring to any valid studies?  
  3. Are they using science and logic to make their argument, or relying on emotional manipulation? 


Use critical thinking while reading. Don’t look for reasons to disagree or agree with the author, but simply pause and ask yourself, “is this a logical conclusion? Does this make sense?” To the best of your ability, try to put aside personal feelings on the subject, whether it’s about the author or about the subject matter. 

When reading a book like this, I take notes. I make note of undeniable truths as they come, and I make note of the author’s personal musings and hypotheses. I also make note of my own personal musings based solely on the information provided. 

Toward the end of the book, I look to see if I reached the same conclusion the author did, and if not, I ask myself why that is the case, and, if necessary, go back and re-read certain aspects that may have confused me, or that I simply may have misunderstood within the context of the book. 

So, now I’ve read an educational book on a subject. I’ve worked through it, and fully understand the logic and science behind it. Am I done now? No. Now it’s time to move on to the next book, the next study, the next journal, and then another, and then another. 

Also, I can’t just read books on animal cognition and call it a day. There are other book focuses that are closely affiliated that have to be studied as well: physiological behavior, ethics, animal science, and animal communication. 

A book on “The Biology of Animal Stress” may have a stronger focus on overall animal welfare, and a book on “Animal Play” or “Principles of Animal Communication” may focus on overall body language and inter-species norms, but they all come together to create one big picture.

Educating yourself is a never-ending process. There will always be a new study to read, and a new theory to work through, and they may end up disproving something we previously regarded as fact. 

Anatomy and physiology changes as animals evolve, and animal behavioral norms change as they adapt to an ever-changing domesticated life. We must always be willing to put aside what we once embraced, and acknowledge the truth. 

 That, is how you educate yourself, and it’s how you educate others.

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