Bad Science, Bad Dog Writing — “Paws & Effect, The Healing Power of Dogs” by Sharon Sakson

August 30, 2009

I have a problem with some dog writers.

In fact, I have a problem with a lot of dog writers.

They want so fervently to extoll the virtues and abilities of dogs that they’ll accept the most ridiculous idea so long as it’s wrapped up in a colorful and heartwarming anecdote.  This does a disservice to both dogs and man. Here’s a recent example.

The following excerpt comes from Paws & Effect, The Healing Power of Dogs by Sharon Sakson. The dog in question is named Kyle, a Scottish Terrier whose owner claims that he watched TV, comprehended what he saw and even deduced the guilt of murderer Scott Petersen before any human knew he had killed his wife Laci.

“He became more and more aware of what was going on in the programs. My husband was watching The Sopranos. Kyle watched with him, but he would get really upset when people got killed. Or even if there was something harsh, like hitting another guy with a baseball bat or driving into someone with a car, He hated PBS, documentaries, or any educational like that, the kind of things I like to watch. He would give me a look like, ‘Change the channel!’”

Kyle also liked news programs, but Russie [his owner] noticed that he seemed to hate one particular person who was appearing on the screen a lot that winter. It was Scott Petersen, the husband who was eventually found guilty of killing his wife, Laci. “From the first time he ever saw him on television, he would bark and go crazy and try and bite the screen, And this was just during the time that Laci had disappeared, and they had no idea who did it. Kyle knew!”

Anyone familiar with the Clever Hans effect can tell you precisely what is going on here, since the science tells us that dogs cannot comprehend televised images due to the fact that their flicker-fusion rate differs from humans. It’s impossible for your dog to see the flashing images as you do, in a continuous stream of motion and decipher them as depicting Italian mobsters from New Jersey and duplicitous, murderous husbands.

Kyle, like Clever Hans, the amazing horse who was believed to be able to do mathematics, is taking his cue from the humans around him. It’s an engaging story and just a side light to the healing power Sakson attributes to Kyle but after reading this chapter I had to put the book down. This is a fairy tale, no matter how fervently Kyle’s owners believe it and how credulously Sakson reports it.

Ye, Paws & Effect is blurbed by respected authors like Temple Grandin, Stanley Coren, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Ted Kerasote. Of course, becoming a best selling author says nothing about the writers’ knowledge of basic canine science.

Once upon a time there were a class of beings known as fact-checkers who would comb through a manuscript and spot such errors and bring them to a publisher’s attention.

However, when it comes to popular dog books, it’s like Carelton Young said in the 1962 John Ford classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


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