About the Book
Title: Fox Talk
Author: L.E. Carmichael, PhD
Book Designer: Michael Penman
Illustrator: Jody Bronson
Photography: Brian Dust
Publication Date: August 8, 2013
Publisher: Ashby-BP Publishing
Recommended Age: 8+
When you talk to a dog, does the dog talk back? Many people think so. But for a long time, scientists didn't know how our furry friends learned to communicate with people. Luckily, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev had a plan. If he could tame wild red foxes, he could learn how dogs first came from wolves. By studying the way these foxes changed during domestication, the mystery of communication would be solved at a last. More than 50 years after the experiment began, Belyaev's foxes have become so tame, you can have one as a pet! Packed with eye-popping photos and first-hand research, FOX TALK reveals the story of these amazing animals... and everything they've taught us about wolves, dogs, and communication.
The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
Some days, I wish I was the kind of writer that gets to make
It would be a lot easier. If information wasn’t available,
or sources conflicted, it wouldn’t actually matter. I could pick the version I
liked and run with it, adding and subtracting as the story demanded.
As a nonfiction writer, though, the stories I tell have to
be true. I can get creative with presentation, but the facts have to stay
facts. But what’s an author to do when
the experts themselves can’t agree what IS fact?
This happened to me while I was working on Fox Talk, which is about domesticated
foxes and what they’ve taught us about human-animal communication. One type of
communication involves body language, specifically pointing. To understand how
domestic animals gained the ability to understand pointing, scientists
developed the “object-choice experiment.” The scientist hides food in one of
two containers, points to the correct one, and waits for an animal to choose
between them. Right answers more than 50% of the time are a sign that animals
are using information from the pointing gesture to find food – in other words,
Pretty simple, right? Yeah… no. As I quickly discovered,
object-choice experiments have only been around for about 10 years, and
scientists are still arguing over how to do them properly, never mind what the
results might actually mean. HOW should one point, for example: with the
finger, or the whole arm? What’s the best way to control for the effect of
training and experience? If the animal learns during repeated trials, what
impact does that have on the numbers? And what if they’re using their noses
instead of their brains?
As a writer, all I wanted was to describe one cool
experiment Brian Hare’s team did with domestic fox puppies. Instead, I got
sucked into a decade-long debate about the research that involved hundreds of
pages of journal articles. And I couldn’t read the papers like a writer,
looking for the “oh wow!”; I had to dust off my scientist hat and critically
evaluate the validity of a dozen experiments, trying to figure out WHY they got
different answers, and what that meant for domestic foxes.
I won’t lie – there was a lot of bad language involved. At
one point, I caught myself throwing printouts across my office while arguing
(out loud, no less) with people I’d never met who were not in fact present at
the time. If I was this frustrated, I can only imagine how the actual
In the end though, the data convinced me – domestication
really does make animals better communicators. It’s a fact.
Want to try an
object-choice experiment with your pet? Check out the At-Home Experiment in
Chapter 3 of Fox Talk!
Early Buzz About the Book
"Fox Talk is an educational non-fiction title exploring the domestication of dogs by studying fox behaviour and communication. The information is presented with beautiful photographs, illustrations, bubbles/boxes of brief information, and descriptions of the research findings using age-appropriate language. I think this would be an excellent resource in elementary schools or for homeschoolers in particular and I highly recommend it." ~ 5-Star Review, Mother Daughter Book Reviews