Thursday, January 01, 2009

Dogs and the Asch Experiment

Link to video

Back in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch decided to see to how easily people would succumb to peer pressure.

His theory was that humans had a moral and intellectual core and a finely tuned sensory system, and though there was clearly a "herd instinct" at work with humans, it would probably be over-ridden by self-awareness and rational thought when put to the test.

But what would be the test?

Asch came with up with one designed to support his thesis that humans would not easily succumb to conformation pressures.

The scheme was simple: four students were gathered together and told they were going to participate in a "vision test."

In reality, only one of the four people was actually an independent variable; the other three people were actors hired to see to what extent peer pressure alone could make a person disavow what their eyes were telling them.

In the basic Asch test all four subjects -- the three confederates and the actual test subject — were seated at a table side by side, and all four were shown a series of three lines, and asked which one was the same length as the fourth line, which was set off to one side.

In every test, the non-actor participant was last to choose -- he or she heard all three of the previous answers before he or she gave his or her own answer.

When the three confederates were signalled to answer truthfully, all four got it right 100 percent of the time.

However, when the three confederates were told to pick the same wrong answer, the test subject would often go along and give the same incorrect answer, in effect negating what he or she could actually see with his or her own eyes.

An astounding 75% of all participants gave at least one incorrect answer to at least one question when prompted by the confederates.

What's all this have to do with dogs?

Quite a lot.

You see, in the world of dogs we are frequently told that what we see with our own eyes is not true.

The show ring German Shepherd cannot walk? "Oh, sure he can -- you just don't know what proper movement looks like."

The bulldogs and the pug seem to have a hard time breathing? "Oh, don't worry, they're fine. They are very old breeds, and the bulldog was once used to chase down wild steers."

The Fox Terriers seems too big to go down a hole? "Oh, they're not. It's just that no one hunts fox anymore -- it's been banned in the UK, you know."

The pressure to conform is particularly strong in the show ring, where the unifying idea is to punch out "cookie cutter dogs."

If you want to win, you better produce the type that others are producing, and don't expect the judge to think independently!

And the pressure is not all one way.

After all, the judge is in a bit of a pickle as well. You see, he or she probably does not work, own, or breed the dogs being judged.

The judge is probably not a judge by dint of having spent 30 years shooting over the dogs, or 20 years digging on the dogs, or a lifetime coursing the dogs to live quarry in open fields.

The dog show judge has a bit of paper and a rating saying he or she is "qualified" to judge a breed, but he or she often has a dark secret that terrifies him or her just a little bit: they have no idea what they are doing! Often they are reading the standard for the breed right up to the minute before they enter the ring!

What's a judge to do in this situation?

Well, one time-honored trick is to look up the leash. The top professional handlers are likely to be handling better dogs for the simple reason that cash money pays for both good dogs and good handlers, and the best handlers are not likely to take on crap dogs as clients. Let the handlers narrow the field a bit.

And then, of course, there is the obvious cheat-sheet: a quick check on the Internet to see which dogs in the breed have been winning other big shows in recent months. Will any of them be in the ring today? If so, that's the likely winner!

After all, who wants do be the odd person out, and revealed to be a know-nothing? No one, least of all the AKC judge who took all those weekend training courses!

And so it goes, with the blind following the deaf, and the fools following the inexperienced.

A standard written by the nameless and the faceless is used by a judge who does not own the dogs or work them.

The owners of the dogs being shown frequently did not breed them, nor are they required to even walk the dog around the ring -- a paid professional has often been hired to do that.

The entire system of breeding is based on a 19th Century eugenics theory which says if a handful of dogs -- generally no more than a few dozen -- are put in a closed registry system tied to conformation shows, then evolution can be put into hyper drive and the movement will always be in a forward direction.

And in the end, what do we have?

Dogs that do not have the structure or the temperament to do the job, and dogs that are being bred for defect, deformity and disease due to rising coefficient of inbreeding and various types of genetic bottlenecks.

So is there any good news here?

Surprisingly, there is, and it too comes from the Asch Experiment.

It turns out that if even one confederate "broke rank" and told the truth, the fourth person was likely to speak up and let his or her brain follow their eyes as well.

In short, even a few dissenting voices can dramatically change the end result, so long as those voices are actually heard.

But, of course, in the Kennel Club there has never been a place for a dissenting voice to be heard.

Not until the Internet came along, that is.

The Internet changed everything, and it continues to change everything. As more and more people have come on-line and moved up the ladder of web-based applications, from email to list-serv, and from list-serv to bulletin board, and from bulletin board to blogs and web sites, the level of information-sharing has risen.

And as more information has been shared, the number of AKC registrations has fallen like a rock -- a 53% percent decline since 1983!

Up to now the Kennel Club has been losing due to a simple "war of words."

Words are a pretty low-caliber bullet as far as communication goes, but due to the power of even a little dissent against the Asch effect, words can have a big impact even when they are paired up against such big canons as the prattling announcers on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel dogs shows (which seem to on every week).

Against these thousands of hours of fawning and uncritical canine puffery has come a single documentary from the BBC: Pedigree Dogs Exposed. And yet, like David against the Goliath, it has found its mark.

"Don't tell them, show them."

And with that simple idea, the wheels have come off the bus at the U.K. Kennel Club, which has suddenly lost corporate sponsors and its longtime television patron, the BBC.

As a direct consequence of a single television show, breed standards are being re-examined. and the U.K. Kennel Club is promising -- all of a sudden -- to put breed health first. There is even some talk of opening up some long-closed breed registries. Just talk for now, but still ...

But, of course, that is what is happening in the United Kingdom. What about the United States?

Over here in the U.S., the American Kennel Club is plodding along like a draft horse as registration numbers swirl down the bowl.

The AKC seems to think that if salvation can be found, it will be found not by adopting a different business model based on producing quality dogs, but by doubling down on crap dogs produced in commercial puppy mills.

And, of course, they are looking to non-registration sources of income as well, such as kickbacks from veterinarians, pet insurance brokers, pharmaceutical companies, and dog food companies.

Will any of this work?

Not a chance.

The AKC is offering nothing new and is simply doubling down on a failed business model based on 19th Century eugenic theories.

With the information out that AKC registration is less a guarantee of health than a prediction for defect, there is no reason for commercial puppy peddlers to pay for the AKC's scrap of paper, and not much reason for hobby breeders to do so either.

Which means that AKC registration numbers are going to continue to go south, leaving the American Kennel Club growing less relevant by the day.

The signs are everywhere if you take the time to look.

The dog food companies have not yet walked away from Westminster, of course, but can there by any doubt that they will some day, and that they are already preparing for it?

Pedigree and Iams are already on the bandwagon with a new message, which is that a unique and "forever" quality pet is available to all right down at the local animal shelter. You can do good and do well through adoption.

Today, more than half of all dogs in U.S. homes are all-American mutts, and the fastest growing segment is not purebreeds (which seem to be bred for defect) but intentional cross-breeds (which seem to be bred for hoped-for hybrid vigor).

Clearly, America's long romance with the Kennel Club is just about over, even if it long-standing love of the dog is not.


Bailey gets adopted.


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