Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beep, beep!

A few weeks ago, I got stuck behind a large truck on the highway, a rather unremarkable phenomenon, really, except the fact that I remember exactly what that truck looked like: it was a mid-sized delivery truck, smaller than a semi, but definitely not a passenger vehicle. The truck itself was white, and it was noticeably plain; there was no shipping company name emblazoned on the sides. And, as a large truck, it took a bit longer to get up to speed once the traffic light turned green. I maintained a generous but not unreasonable following distance- two seconds, probably- when it happened.

I got honked at.

At first, I wasn’t sure the beep was intended for me, but when the car behind me- the type and color lost to memory- drove past, the driver’s hand gesture confirmed that I was definitely the recipient. Even now, I have no idea exactly what I did wrong. After all, I couldn’t possibly go any faster without risking an accident.

I know it wasn’t a big deal, but it bothered me because I had no idea what I had done wrong. I was still thinking about this incident several days later when I attended an obedience trial. As I watched the handlers working with their dogs outside of the ring, I saw plenty of collar corrections. Sometimes the reason was obvious- a dog who left the handler’s side to go sniff another dog, for example- but often, I had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, the dog had done to merit a correction.

My feelings about the use of punishment in dog training aside, I just can’t see the point in a correction that isn’t connected to something. What does that teach the dog?

I know from my experience being honked (and gestured) at that the answer is, “not much.” Since I didn’t know what mistake I’d made, I couldn’t change my ways even if I wanted to. I was annoyed that I’d been singled out for no discernable reason, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the driver was crazy. More than that, my memory about the event has very little to do with my offense- whatever it was- and everything to do with the truck in front of me and the location. Even now, driving through that area reminds me of my confusion. Talk about misplaced emotions!

And if I- with my presumably larger brain and more sophisticated cognitive skills- had all that baggage, how in the world does a dog process a similar experience? How does he ever figure out what the desired behavior is? How can avoid a correction if he doesn’t know why he received it? What does he think about his handler, who for all appearances, is acting completely crazy? What weird connections does he make between the annoying and/or painful stimulus and the environment?

I will never deny that punishment in training works. It would be foolish to do so considering that the dogs I saw at the trial were working at high levels. But given my experience on the highway, I do wonder how the dogs figure it out. It must be profoundly frustrating at times, and I have to wonder how they remain sane through it all. Because if I'm honest? I’m pretty sure that if I got honked at every time I drove somewhere, I’d end up taking the bus instead.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Canine Cognition

Historically, there has been a lot of animal research, but not much on dogs. I've always found this puzzling, but I guess working with non-human primates or rare birds is a bit more exotic. Thankfully, research on man's best friend has exploded in recent years, so today I'm going to share what Patricia had to say on the subject of canine cognition.

As always, we must start at the beginning. Can dogs think? For those of us who live with them, the question seems silly. Of course they can. But science requires that we prove our assertions. So what is “thinking”? Patricia shared that the scientific community generally defines it as: the ability to formulate an abstract mental representation of an event or object external to the self and the ability to manipulate that representation to solve a problem.

That's a pretty big definition, so let's break it down. First: can dogs understand abstract concepts? It seems that they can. Ken Ramirez has done quite a bit of what he calls “concept training”- teaching dogs (and other animals) things like left vs. right, high vs. low, and big vs. small. He's even taught them how to copy the actions of other animals!

Imitation is actually a pretty complex cognitive process. In order to perform a novel behavior after observing someone else do it, the observer needs to have self-awareness, some measure of empathy (as in, his left front leg is like my left frong leg), and an ability to translate seeing into doing. Ramirez isn't the only person to have taught mimicry- Adam Miklosi from the Family Dog Project in Budapest has done it, too.

No discussion of smart dogs would be complete without talking about Rico the border collie who has demonstrated the ability to “fast map.” This is a mental process in which children (and apparently Rico) learn the meaning of a new word after hearing it only once. Rico learned the names of over 200 different objects, and could retrieve them for a different room when requested. That's pretty impressive on its own, but when Rico was told to find the name of something new, something he'd never heard of before, he could correctly choose the novel object through the process of elimination.

In a similar vein, European researchers have taught dogs the concept of “match to sample.” Using touch screens, they have the dog match two identical images. Dogs are quite adept at this, and so researchers began assigning “value” to the images. Some images resulted in treats, and some didn't. Dogs learned to choose the “positive” images and avoid the “negative” ones. When two images were placed next to each other, the dogs would not only choose the positive ones, but would also infer that the other image- even if they'd never seen it before- must be negative. After that, they would avoid the negative item, even when it was paired with another novel image. Pretty neat.

These are pretty complicated ideas, so I'm really glad that somone uploaded this video demonstrating them:

So, it seems pretty clear that dogs can think abstractly. But can they solve problems? Again, we dog people would agree this is a no brainer. Thankfully, science supports us: dogs can solve problems. What's interesting, though, is the way they do it.

Dogs, dingoes, and wolves have all been tested on what's called the “detour test.” The subject is on one side of a see-through fence, and there's food on the other. The task is to go around the ends of the fence in order to get to the food. It sounds simple, and the dingoes would agree: 100% of them could complete this task within 60 seconds. Dogs, though? Depending on the study, only 60-80% could do it.

Why is this? Well, scientists have found that wild canids seem to be more adept at solving non-social problems than dogs. Man's best friend truly believes in his role, and is more likely to look to his owner than to try to solve the problem himself. Which, let's be fair, is a way of the solving the problem. After all, why not get the being with opposable thumbs to do the hard work?

Another study set out to see if dogs could recognize if their owners needed help and alert a nearby person. They set up two situations, in which the owners either fell to the ground, faking a heart attack, or where the dog entered the room to find their owner trapped under a bookcase. Lassie they were not: not a single dog sought help from a bystander. The authors concluded that the dogs could not recognize an emergency, but Patrica criticized this, sharing that she thought it possible that the dogs knew their humans weren't actually in danger. I tend to agree with her- after all, dogs have an excellent sense of smell, and their people probably didn't have any of the chemical indicators of distress. Add to that all of the hundreds of anecdotal stories of dogs saving their owner's lives... well, I think further research is needed.

The good news is that there will be further research. Canine cognition labs have sprung up all over the world, and there is a lot of really interesting stuff being studied. Check out the links below not only for references to the specific studies Patricia discussed, but also to the labs' sites in general- there is tons to explore there, and the science geeks out there will be in heaven. (There are also some links to non-canine animal cognition studies that Patricia shared with us, but that just don't fit in with this post.)

In the meantime, I'd love to hear stories about your dog's ability to think. Has he ever copied you or another dog's actions? Does he have a unique method of solving a problem? What amazing feats has he accomplished? Tell us! Anecdotes may not be science, but they sure are interesting... and maybe someone will read your story and decide to study it.

If You Want to Know More:

Canine Cognition Labs:

Thursday, November 24, 2011


“Who's your favorite dog trainer?”

The question came out of nowhere. My husband Brian and I were lazing around in bed, discussing what we might do that weekend, when he asked.

“Um... That's a hard one. Denise Fenzi, maybe?”

“Not me?”

I laughed, explaining that I thought he was asking about famous trainers. But everything about the question- from the fact that he even asked it to the wounded look on his face when I didn't name him- reminded me that this Thanksgiving, I am profoundly thankful for my husband. There are many, many reasons for this, but since this is a dog blog, I will try to narrow them down to the canine-related.

Perhaps the thing I am most grateful for is that he shares my dog training philosophy. Like me, he avoids the use of pain and fear when interacting with dogs. He doesn't feel the need to intimidate or dominate our dog. He isn't afraid to use some praise and a handful of treats. He supports both the things I set out to do with Maisy and the way I do them.

Brian's also very giving. He drives me to out-of-state trials, spends hours at runthroughs with me, recently volunteered to steward at the obedience trial I chaired, and handles dogs at the shelter dog class I've been working with. He's good at it too- the man has a natural talent that makes me envious, and he's great with shy and fearful dogs.

He's incredibly smart and well-educated- Dr. Duxbury, my dog's veterinary behaviorist, once said so after hearing him make a very insightful comment on a video of Maisy we were watching. He has read many of the classic positive reinforcement books, from Pryor to McConnell, and he's gone to his own fair share of dog seminars. Heck, he even went to Clicker Expo with me! We have some fascinating discussions around our house about things like stress, tertiary reinforcers, and the role of medication in behavior modification.

The seminar thing is pretty awesome in its own right, but it also means that he doesn't complain about how much I spend on dog stuff, including on Maisy herself. She's a pretty expensive little dog, and things like veterinary behaviorists, chiropractors, and pre-made raw diets add up. Thankfully, he doesn't mind a bit, and will even let me know when he thinks she's due for another massage.

Which brings me to perhaps his best attribute: he loves my dog. It's true- he's head over heels for her, which is a good thing because Maisy and I? We're a package deal. As it turns out, though, I think the same might be true with him.

I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but Brian is at the top of my list. I love you, honey.

(P.S.- In case you're wondering, his favorite dog trainer is Sara Reusche. I pretended to be upset that he didn't choose me, but he just smiled impishly. I'd get mad at him, but he's so cute when he's being a brat.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Training Tuesday: Busy Sunday

Sunday was a big day for the little dog.

In the morning, we went to the first meeting of our newly-formed training group. Organized by my friend Ninso, it's an informal gathering on Sunday mornings. Half a dozen or so of us each kick in a few bucks to rent a facility for an hour, and then we each do our own thing. Maisy and I worked on heeling (looked great), some dumbbell retrieves (more enthusiasm and speed), and jumps. I tried Maisy over a broad jump for the first time ever, and she didn't even hesitate (though she did cut the corner). I was pretty happy about that.

Of all the dogs there, Maisy had only met one of them before, but that didn't matter- she was wonderful. She did try to chase one of the dogs, but came back quickly when I called. I was a little bummed she even ran after the dog, but given how quickly she bounced back, I was pretty happy with her. And I was thrilled with how social she was with a bunch of new people. She was a world-class floozy, pulling out her best tricks in order to charm hotdogs out of people.

After the class, I was talking with Ninso about ring nerves and trial stress, and Maisy just chilled at my feet. We were standing in a hallway, and strange dogs kept passing at both ends (talk about sudden environmental changes!), but she barely even noticed. She wasn't even working me for treats, she was just sitting there. I was very proud of her.

After all that, I probably should have just taken her home and called it a day, but there were CDSP runthroughs scheduled that afternoon, and since I signed us up for a trial in just over a month, I figured we'd better go so I would understand the exercises. After all, it's one thing to read the rule books, but it's another entirely to really know what I would be asked to do.

Maisy settled in nicely, chewing on a trachea in her crate. But when she came out, she seemed just a bit tenser than usual and definitely a little edgy. She did end up lunging at another dog, which was disappointing. I was hoping she wouldn't demonstrate any reactivity, but she was pretty quiet and returned to me immediately, so I suppose I should count it as an improvement. Sometimes it's just so hard to sort out which expectations are unreasonable, and which are reasonable, though.

She was a bit slow to warm up, which was probably partly due to stress, and partly due to the new environment. Also, I didn't have her ball, and I didn't have as much room to move around in with her, so it was a pretty different picture. At some point, I should probably think about a warm up routine for her...

Anyway, we got in the ring, and... well, it's hard for me to know what to say. Here's the video:

As I said over on Facebook, I left feeling kind of disappointed. She lagged on the fast pace, which completely surprised me since she has been forging in practice. As a result, I was sort of at a loss on how to respond. I'm not sure if you can hear us talking on the video, but that's what I was trying to tell the judge. I was not surprised that Maisy didn't do as well in a new environment as she does at home- that's a normal training thing, after all. It was just that it wasn't the behavior I was expecting! Talk about throwing me for a loop!

The judge's advice, while greatly appreciated, only threw me off more- I felt like I was trying to juggle way too much at once. In retrospect, I think that's the part that I was most disappointed in. Not the suggestions- those were great, and definitely things I needed to hear- but rather the way they broke my concentration. In the video, you can see a lot of time in the ring where Maisy doesn't have any of my attention... and she should have had all of it! As a result, we weren't as connected as I would have liked, and that coupled with her stress issues left me feeling a bit sad.

Despite how I felt, there is actually a lot to be happy with in the video. For the on-lead heeling portion, Maisy nailed her halts, did a lovely left turn, stuck with me on the about turns, and overall paid a lot of attention to me. She doesn't give me constant eye contact, but then, that's never been a criterion. Even while the judge and I are talking afterwards, Maisy remains attentive and engaged with me- love it!

The off-lead figure 8 is nice, too, especially considering that Maisy and I have worked on figure 8s, oh, maybe twice. And never with people. Despite the fact that I let her flooze all over people that morning, and despite the fact that one of the posts is a friend of hers, she stays right with me through the exercise. Good dog! Again, lots of attention, and she nailed her halts.

Another exercise we've barely practiced is the moving stand for exam, but she did a great job with it, too. I absolutely love the way her tail went nuts as the judge approached. She was just a bit uncertain when the judge reached down to touch her, but none of her little feet moved at any point during the exercise, which is fabulous.

Finally, the recall over bar jump exercise. I was a bit nervous that she might anticipate my call (she's been doing that in practice), but she held her stay! She did tick the jump on her way over (10” is a lot for her), but whatever. The front was nice, and I was very excited about her finish. It wasn't perfect, but it was a heck of a lot straighter than what we had just a few weeks ago.

Although my handling wasn't always the best (um, turning back towards her while she was lagging, anyone?), I am very proud of myself for being upbeat, happy, and enthusiastic in the ring. I squealed with the best of them out there, just like I do in practice, and I'm sure she knew I was proud of her. In the end, that's all that really matters, right?

After the runthrough, we came home and Maisy just absolutely crashed. The poor thing was so tired she couldn't even finish her bully stick. I guess being awesome is hard work!

All in all, it was a great day. It wasn't the easiest of days, and there are definitely things for us both to work on, but if she does this well in December, I will be very, very pleased. I think we've both grown a lot since that last time we were in the ring, so whether we qualify or not, I'm positive we'll be successful!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Emotions in Dogs

Do dogs have emotions? While I'm confident that my regular readers will agree that, yes, dogs most certainly do, I know there are people out there that claim this is baseless anthropomorphism. I always have to shake my head a bit when I run across someone like that- have these people even met a dog?

Still, their skepticism is warranted. After all, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, concentrated on external behavior because it is impossible to know the internal state of animals. Well... it was. Science today is closing that gap through the use of medical imaging technology and very clever research. At the seminar, Patricia spent some time to share a bit about emotions in dogs.

First though, a definition is in order. Patricia favors Damasio's definition: Emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal gland activation, etc.) that cause changes in expression (external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them (an internal, subjective thing to be sure).

We know through imaging studies that dogs have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. What's more, we've learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, also known as the mammalian brain (so named because all mammals share that particular structure). So internally, dogs meet the criteria for having emotions.

We also know that emotions serve to drive a lot of behavior: fear, frustration, and anger are the causes of many, many actions among humans and animals alike. In fact, emotions are needed for even the simplest of decision making; Patricia told us that things like deciding where to file a piece of paper is impossible without emotions. Our dogs don't file (unfortunately), but they do make plenty of decisions every day, and their behavior is definitely suggestive of different emotions. Therefore, we can only conclude that dogs meet the second criteria.

As for the third... well, while we'll probably never know exactly what a dog is thinking, we're getting closer to understanding what's going on in there, thanks to some very clever researchers. Here are the emotions science is pretty sure that dogs feel:

Disgust, Fear, and Anger
These are all very basic emotions. Disgust is considered the most primitive emotion of all since it is realated to whether or not something will kill you, especially in the sense of “ew, this is too gross to eat.” Anger is also pretty basic- Patricia shared that anger is mediated by the amygdala, and if you have one (and dogs do), you can get angry.

As for fear, well, we talk about fear in dogs all the time. Again, it's a primitive emotion necessary for life; if you don't fear danger you will die an untimely death. Our brains are very quick to make fear associations- an evolutionarily advantageous trait to be sure. A wild dog will live much longer if he learns to fear cars, for example.

Like with anger, the amygdala plays a key role, as well as the hippocampus. In fact, these systems can become overactive, causing the amygdalar pathway to bypass the cortex entirely, meaning that the animal will literally react without thinking. Since this is what happens with people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disodrder, this has caused Patricia to wonder if dogs can suffer from some sort of PTSD, too. The sypmtoms include anxiety, increased emotional arousal, irritability, being easily started, avoidance, trouble concentrating... sound familiar?

Treatment for fear in dogs, PTSD or not, typically involves avoiding triggers and counter-conditioning, a plan which Patricia feels might be lacking. While it does help address what is going on, it doesn't do much to change the internal state. She suggested looking to diet, massage, anxiety wraps, aroma therapy, homeopathy or chinese medicine, and anti-anxiety meds for a well-rounded treatment plan.

Many pet owners believe their dogs experience this emotion, citing the way they “just look guilty” after doing something they shouldn't have. But are the dogs actually experiencing guilt?

Alexandra Horowitz set out to find out. She had dogs and their owners participate in an experiment in which the dogs were left alone in a room with some food with a researcher to watch over them. Sometimes the dogs ate the food, and sometimes they didn't But sometimes the researchers engaged in a bit of subterfuge- they would tell the owners that the dog ate the food when he didn't, or that he didn't eat it when he actually did. When the owners returned, they were instructed to either scold their dogs or greet them normally depending on whether the food was there or not.

The researchers found that the so-called guilty look was actually a combination of nine different behaviors: avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to side/back, a drooping tail, low, quick wagging, lowered ears or head, moving away, raising a paw, and lip licking. What's more, whether or not the dog ate the food had no significant effect on these behaviors. What mattered was the owner's response. Scolding resulted in behaviors associated with the guilty look, and the most were seen if the dog was obedient and didn't eat the food, but was scolded anyway.

A similar study confirmed these findings. This time, Hecht and Gasci studied the behaviors associated with the “guilty look”, and found that there was no difference between dogs who ate the food, and those who didn't. And while it appeared that owners could tell if their dog ate the food or not, upon further study, it was determined that the owners weren't relying on behavioral cues, but rather on past experiences and expectations.

Dog owners believe their dogs can feel jealous- one study even asked them about it. 81% of dog owners agreed that their dogs did, and all of the examples given included a social triad with another person or dog involved. The behaviors described were what are generally considered to be attention seeking behaviors (nosing, pawing,etc.).

But does this pan out in the lab? It seems that it does. A recent study showed that dogs understand the concept of “reward inequity,” or to put it in plain English- they can experience jealousy. Here's the deal: the researchers worked with dogs in pairs. Each dog was asked to “give paw,” but only one was reinforced. The dogs were also worked with alone, where they were asked to perform the behavior without any reinforcement. The results showed that the dogs stopped responding sooner and required more prompts when they saw the other dog getting a reward than when they were alone. In both cases, the dog got no reinforcer, but simply being treated unfairly caused the dog's behavior to deteriorate quicker.

Patricia also teased us by telling us about some of the ongoing work into the concept of “fairness” with dogs. There is some really interesting science going on, and I can't wait to see some of the resulting studies.

So it would seem that dogs have emotions. I know that I certainly think so. Of course, I believed that even without knowing about the science, but it is interesting to see it studied in a controlled, systematic way, and I love that it gives us something to point to when we run across one of those people who don't think animals have emotions.

What about you guys? What emotions do you think dogs have? Do you have any great stories that illustrate one of the emotions above (or perhaps a different one)? I'd love to hear about your experiences!

If You Want to Know More

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: The D Word

Do dogs have dominance hierarchies? Do wolves? And does it matter?

Many people argue that canine behavior can be explained by dominance- or its flipside, submission. Books have been written, television shows have been produced, and there are arguments all over the internet about “the D word.”

One of the biggest problems with the concept of dominance is that the term has been so overused (and, Patricia argues, misused) that it doesn’t mean much at all anymore. I have coworkers who talk about how dominant (or submissive) their dog is, and I’m often left wondering just what exactly they mean by that. And Maisy? Well, I’m just thankful they’ve never asked me to categorize her.

Scientists describe dominance as “priority access to a preferred, limited resource.” In other words- if there are two dogs and one beefy bone, who gets it? Which dog will stubbornly insist it’s his, and which will defer to the other’s assertion? This definition is very narrow, and the concept of dominance is really only relevant when there is competition over a resource.

But it's not just any resource. What if one dog doesn’t really care who gets the bone? Maybe he’d fight for a hunk of chicken, but doesn’t care enough about the bone to go head-to-head for it. Dominance really depends on the resource in question. Is it a preferred resource? If not, then it's not dominance.

That other word- limited- is also important. If there is only one bone, we’ve got a problem, but if there are two dogs and twenty bones? Well, both dogs are likely going to get a bone. The resources aren't limited enough to create competition, and again, there’s no need to assert dominance.

If you’re getting the feeling that dominance is very context specific, you’re right, but it gets even more specific because dominance is determined on a case-by-case basis. Unlike in birds, dominance hierarchies in most mammals are not linear. There is no “pecking order.” Just as I can get my way with my husband only to have to defer to my boss, Maisy might be willing to take on Fido to get the bone, and then submit to Rover. In other words: the term dominance describes a relationship between two individuals, not personality.

So, do wild canids have dominance hierarchies? It depends on the canid, of course. Patricia told us that foxes have dominance relationships dependent on the resource base- in months where there are plenty of small critters, the need for dominance is much smaller than in leaner times. Coyotes tend to be “faculatively social,” with only some signs of dominance and submission. And wolves? Well...

Much has been written about dominance in wolves, to the point that the notion of an “alpha wolf” long ago entered the popular lexicon. But many of the studies of dominance in wolves were based on captive situations. L. David Mech, the man who did some of the most well-known studies, went on to study wild wolves and found that they tend to live in family systems, not packs of unrelated wolves. To become the leader, the alpha wolf, requires reproduction more than dominance. The differences are profound; a family member can leave if there is conflict, a captive wolf cannot. As a result, Mech has now gone on record as saying that the term “alpha” really only applies to captive situations which require extreme signaling and displays in order to maintain harmony in a very unnatural situation.

We’ve already talked about how wolves and dogs are very different, both physically and behaviorally. So does this mean that we should drop the concepts of dominance and submission for dogs entirely? Both Bradshaw and Coppinger suggest that we do. Bradshaw even says that dogs don’t have the cognitive ability for status. Instead, he talks about “resource holding potential,” which seems like a nice way to discuss “the d-word” without all the baggage that comes along.

Patricia shared that she believes there is some sort of dominance/submission relationship between dogs. After all, when there’s two dogs, someone has to get the bone. She has also seen puppies who seem very interested in controlling resources at an early age- so much so that she thinks there is probably a genetic component to this tendency.

She’s not entirely sure what to call the tendency though. Do you call it “controlling resources”? “Status seeking”? “Dominant”? No matter the words chosen, though, one thing is clear: the concept as a whole is just not useful in living with dogs. Our dogs are very rarely in competition for resources with us, and failing to respond to our commands has nothing to do with who could win the bone- it has to do with training.

Nor is dominance related to aggression, at least not in the sense that aggressive dogs must therefore be dominant. Aggression can be a way to win the bone, but so can groveling. There’s a pretty big difference in the tactics of Gaddafi and those of Ghandi, and yet both could get priority access to desired resources.

I’m very thankful my coworkers have never asked me if Maisy is a “dominant dog.” I honestly don’t know how to answer the question. It just doesn’t come up in our relationship. Part of this is probably because I view her as a teammate or partner; we work together to achieve our goals. She has the freedom to request things she wants, and I am free to say no... or more likely, to spoil her rotten. It doesn’t seem to matter, really. If she is “dominating” me, then it is with my permission… and enjoyment.

If You Want to Know More
Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
Dogs, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
L. David Mech's website- complete with links to articles and videos

Patricia's Own Blog Posts on the Subject:
The Concept Formerly Deseribed as Dominance
Dogs and Dominance: What's a Person to Do?
Dog Training and the D Word
Dominance Mythologies (Patricia's summary of a presentation by Suzanne Hetts)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Training Tuesday: On the Road Edition

The days are getting shorter, the temperature is getting colder, and the trial I've signed up for is getting closer. All three of these factors mean that it is time for me to move away from training in the field across the street from our house and on to more difficult settings. We started today at a pet store:

I was pleased to see that, on the whole, her heeling is still good. Although we both make mistakes (she goes a bit wide at times, and my handling fell apart completely), I absolutely love the amount of of attention and enthusiasm I'm getting from her. And since my entire goal for the trial is to have fun and feel connected, well... I think we'll be successful.

Now that I know she's capable of good work in a more distracting environment, I'll start pushing more and making her work harder for her cookies. We'll also work on a bit more self-control (the visiting, while awesome in terms of her reactivity, is not so awesome from a training standpoint). My goal is to get her out somewhere new two to three times a week from now until the trial, focusing on happiness, not perfection.

As a side note, the sequence from approximately 2:20 to 2:35 is my favorite. From the way she leaps onto the screen, to the way she goes to visit with the stranger, to the way she stands on her hind legs in heel position... well, she's terribly cute. I wouldn't mind NQing on cute.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: What Science Tells Us About Puppy Development

So now we know: a dog's behavior is a complex thing, based upon both his genetics and his experiences. But can we stack the deck in our favor? How do we ensure that our dogs, and those in the future, are safe, healthy, and sound? What do we know, scientifically, about puppies? Patricia shared some of the research (and some of her own opinions) on the matter.

Good Dogs Start Before They're Born
If genetics influences behavior, that begs the question: What are we breeding for? Patricia showed us a slide that was made up of advertisements for various breeders, including show/conformation breeders. The focus was unequivocally on physical characteristics: size, substance, toplines, coat, color... things which are easily visibly, but in the grand scheme of things, probably not so important, at least not when we're considering the family pet.

The thing is, Patricia told us, today's breeds have severely limited gene pools, and while this is great for establishing a breed, it tends to be detrimental for maintaining it. Lack of genetic diversity can result in less variability in major histocompatibility, which is related to autoimmune diseases, allergies, and hypothyroidism. Patricia urged breeders to calculate co-efficients of in-breeding rather than just looking at pedigrees, and for breed clubs to consider outcrosses with related breeds when done to introduce new genetic material. As for us puppy buyers? We need to look for breeders who consider temperament when planning litters.

Maisy is from a puppy mill- and it shows, even at 12 weeks.
But there are other things that affect a puppy even before he's born. His in-utero experiences can have an effect as well. If a puppy’s mother is experiencing stress, she will have higher levels of cortisol in her body, which will probably reach the fetus. If it does, the fetus will develop fewer brain receptors for cortisol. As an adult, that puppy’s brain won’t be able to sense cortisol unless there are large amounts present in the body. Since the body does need some cortisol, the brain will compensate for the lack of receptors by producing increased amounts, which can result in hyper reactivity, withdrawal, and depression. Not a good thing, and it definitely puts a whole new spin on puppy mills, doesn’t it?

But even if momma dog is happy and content throughout her pregnancy, the number of male vs. female pups in the uterus can have a profound effect on behavior through the process of androgenization. This happens when a female fetus is next to or between two males, which will expose her to increased amounts of testosterone. Studies have found that testosterone has been correlated with an increase in cortisol and aggression. Of course, we really can’t control things like who is next to whom in the womb, but it’s still interesting!

Help Puppy Be All He Can Be
A puppy’s early days can also have a profound impact on his adult behavior. And I do mean early- the US Army created an Early Neural Stimulation program (also known as SuperDog or Biosensor) that is completed between days 3 and 16. This program only takes a few minutes a day, but the end result is impressive. The Army’s research shows that it results in dogs with stronger heart beats, a better adrenal system, increased immunity, and more stress tolerance.

"What is all this white stuff?!"
The results are probably the result of increased dendritic branching. Dendrites are basically connections to other neurons, and when there are more connections, the dog will have increased health and mental stability. Dendritic branching happens as a result of experience, and so things like the early neural stimulation programs probably increase the amount of dentritic branches in the puppy’s brain. Another easy way to do this is by providing a complex environment for the puppy to explore (play tunnels, platforms, different surfaces); such novel experiences help improve the puppy’s long-term behavior.

Nursing is also a vital experience for puppies. Patricia described how pups will push their littermates off a teat, which teaches frustration tolerance and persistence. The pups also learn to tolerate a lot of body touching/handling when this happens. This is probably why, anecdotally, puppies from single litters seem to have more behavior problems.

Patricia also advocated for allowing momma dog to do a natural weaning instead of the breeder forcing weaning at a particular age. In addition to teaching frustration tolerance, she’s seen some very interesting body language happen between momma dog and puppies, and believes that this process is an important learning experience for the pups.

Socialization, Puppy Classes, and You
Anyone who has been in the dog world, even peripherally, has probably heard about the importance of socialization. But what do we know about it scientifically? Well, the results are interesting… and not entirely what I expected.

First, when is the socialization window? Well… we don’t really know. Scott and Fuller said the primary socialization window is between 3 and 7 weeks, but were willing to extend it out as late as 12 weeks. Patricia described some of their research as “squishy,” which means that she takes those ages with a grain of salt. Add in the fact that every individual will develop at his or her own rate, and… well, there's science there, but it's not an exact science.

Okay, but what can socialization do for a dog? Well, two separate studies, conducted on two different breeds, found that socialization may help in some areas, but that it’s unlikely to create a difference in adult dog’s attitudes towards people. One project on German Shepherds studied the differences between puppies adopted at either 6 weeks or 12 weeks, and found no difference in either group in their adult behavior towards humans. However, the pups adopted earlier showed higher distress behaviors, disease and mortality. The other study grouped Jindo dogs into two groups: half were socialized from weeks 7 to 13, and half were isolated. The results showed that the socialized dogs were more playful towards novel objects and dogs… but that there was no difference in their attitudes about people.

So what does this mean? Well, it’s possible that the socialization window is open longer than the guidelines suggest. It’s also possible that a dog’s behavior towards people is more strongly linked to genetics (and less so to early experience) than we think. Considering the fact that dogs have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to interact with humans in certain ways (cooperatively to herd, independently to kill pests, etc.), this seems plausible. Ultimately, we don’t know how much of an effect socialization has, although it seems clear based on the Jindo dog study that even if the benefits are more limited than previously thought, it’s still worth the time.

One highly touted way of socializing puppies is through puppy classes. But does science back this up? Well… probably not. Some researchers placed 58 pups into 5 different groups: socialization and training, socialization only, training only, going into the classroom and being fed a comparable amount of treats, and going into the classroom and having nothing happen. The end result? They found that the group the puppy was placed in had no effect in their social responses to people or other dogs.

Maisy went to puppy classes... but did it matter?
What they did find, however, is that the dogs in the socialization and training group were rated higher on responses to obedience commands, and a later study done by MM Duxbury (who just so happens to be my dog’s own veterinary behaviorist) found that dogs who went to puppy classes were retained at higher rates (90%) than those who did not (75%). Was this because of the effects of socialization? Were these dogs more obedient, and thus easier to live with? Did the owners simply bond with their dogs more if they’d been through a class together? Or was there actually some socialization going on that "innoculated" the dogs against future behavior problems? No matter the reason, it would seem that puppy classes are not a waste of time.

So… can we stack the deck in our favor? Probably, although I suspect we just don’t know enough just yet. Still, it is exciting to see that there’s a lot of research being done into dogs in general, and puppies in specific. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to hear Patricia McConnell discuss some of it.

If You Want to Know More

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Behaviors with a Genetic Influence

The Labrador’s desire to retrieve. The Great Pyrenees and his devotion to his flock. The Border Collie’s infamous eye. There is no doubt that each breed of dog shares more than physical similarities: they also share behavioral tendencies, a fact which clearly demonstrates that a dog’s genetics contributes to the way he acts.

But beyond breed-related predispositions, what other behaviors can be inherited? Patricia identified five, although she freely admitted that two of them are based on personal speculation alone. The other three have some science that show they tend to be pretty stable over time.

The first, and possibly the most researched, is shyness. Shyness is not the same as docility. It has nothing to do with submission. And it doesn’t really tell you how the dog will act. Shyness, scientifically speaking, has to do with fear of the unfamiliar.

This behavioral trait is actually a continuum, with shyness at one end and boldness at the other. It is influenced by the level of cortisol, the HPA axis, and the activity of the amygdala. A study by Goldsmith and Lemery demonstrated that it is surprisingly stable through an individual’s life. They discovered a correlation between a child’s cortisol baseline and his mother’s, and found that the baseline level taken one and a half years before a child started school could predict a teacher’s evaluation of inhibition at age seven.

In other words, shyness is strongly linked to genes, and is incredibly easy to pass on. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: the child (or monkey or rat or cat- all have been studied) who runs from something new and unfamiliar stands a better chance of surviving than the one who boldly investigates strange and potentially dangerous things. It also makes sense then that shyness is expressed early in an individual’s development. Patricia shared that Margaret Seary Young found it was the only trait reliably predicted on puppy tests.

Reactivity is “mediated by physiology,” Patricia told us, and it is therefore logical that it would be influenced by genetics. Reactivity here does not refer to the bark-growl-lunge type of behavior problem that we dog people usually define it as. In this case, it simply has to do with how quickly and how much a dog responds to its environment.

Reactivity can be desirable in certain contexts- a herding dog that doesn’t have a short reaction time probably won’t be very good at his job. On the other hand, there are times where you need a “bomb-proof” dog who doesn’t really notice, much less respond to, what’s going on around him.

It’s also important to know that reactivity is separate from the shy/bold continuum. A very bold dog might notice and respond quickly to his environment, although he will probably do it in very different ways than the shy dog does.

Another behavioral trait that seems to have a genetic influence is frustration tolerance because it is mediated, in part, by the amygdala. However, there also appears to be a strong environmental component to frustration tolerance as well. Who can’t relate to being more irritable when tired, hungry, or in pain?

A dog who is having difficulty tolerating frustration is more likely to act out aggressively. Interestingly, aggressive dogs typically show lower amounts of serotonin and higher concentrations of cortisol, which also suggests there's a link to genes.

The last two behaviors are the ones that don’t (yet) have any scientific research to back up: predisposition to use mouth and status seeking. Both of these traits are things that Patricia has observed enough to believe they are genetically inherited. For the first, she says it just makes sense. Australian Cattle Dogs, for example, would need to use their mouths in order to herd cows. As for status seeking, Patricia said there seem to be puppies that are interested in controlling resources at a very early age… but more on that soon.

It’s clear that there are a number of behavioral traits that have at least some genetic influence. They go beyond just breed-related tendencies, and help explain why two dogs of the same breed can act quite different from one another. Of course, we already know that the environment is an important factor, too. In my next entry on the seminar, I’ll tell you about some of those factors, including in utero experiences, early stimulation, and socialization.

If You Want to Know More

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Training Tuesday: Who's Training Who?

Sometimes I think Maisy might be a better trainer than I am. Take a look at this video and tell me what you think...

(More seminar recaps to come on Thursday...)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: The Interplay of Environment and Genetics on Behavior

There was a time when I believed that Maisy’s reactivity was my fault. I got her when she was around 15 or 16 weeks old, from a less-than-desirable place, which meant that she missed out on that vital socialization period. Her early experiences were limited, and no one was watching out to make sure they were good ones. After she responded so favorably to medication, I began to think that perhaps the problem was genetic. It would certainly fit with her origins.

Today, however, I believe that Maisy’s behavior is likely the result of both, and Patricia’s discussion on the interplay of the environment and genetics only confirmed this. Patricia said that it is very difficult to separate out the effects of each one on behavior. There really isn’t a way to definitively know which is causing something to happen. What’s more, most scientists agree that “flexible behaviors” (that is, behaviors that are not instinctual) don’t have just one cause; they are likely the result of both genetics and the environment.

Research in humans has shown that there are a number of behavioral traits that are stable over time and that make up a person’s general temperament- that is, the specific differences between individuals that are present and relatively unchanged from birth. The “big five” that scientists believe are genetically influenced are: openness to experience (curious vs. cautious), conscientiousness (efficient and organized vs. a more easy-going nature), extraversion (outgoing vs. reserved), agreeableness (friendly and compassionate vs. cold and unkind), and neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).

As we grow up, our temperaments are overlaid with experience, and this combination results in our personalities. Patricia used a great example to illustrate the difference: a person’s temperament is like a blank canvas where his personality is the actual painting. The finished product can never go beyond the borders of what was originally there, but it may look drastically different based upon the colors and brush strokes that happen.

All of this means that while genes set boundaries, they don’t dictate behavior. Patricia discussed several behavioral characteristics in dogs that she believes are influenced by genetics (more about that in my next post), but noted that even when a dog has a genetic predisposition towards acting a certain way, the behavior still needs to be “triggered” by the environment. Further, while we can definitely influence a dog’s behavior through experience (such as training), we can’t change his genetics. Just as Picasso was confined to the limits of his canvas, so is the best trainer confined to the limits of his dog’s genes.

Interestingly, this means that dogs with different genetics can appear behaviorally similar. The chart below (a recreation of one of Patricia’s slides) is an example of the genetics of two different dogs on the bold/shy continuum. The dogs are limited to what their genes will allow, as evidenced by the range shown.

As you can see, Dog 1 has more genetic capacity for boldness, while Dog 2 is more likely to be shy and fearful. However, their experiences will dictate where each dog will fall within their predetermined range. So, if Dog 1 is kept in relative isolation and Dog 2 receives great socialization, their actual behavior could look the same. The only difference is that Dog 1 will always be capable of being bolder, despite all of the great training Dog 2 might get. And that’s the thing with genes- you can only influence behavior within their boundaries, and you won’t know where the boundaries are until you try.

So was Maisy’s reactivity my fault? Not really. While her experiences (and lack thereof) certainly contributed to her behavior problems, I can no more control her genetics than I can my own. We are what we are. Still, it is my responsibility to take the metaphorical canvas that she is and create something beautiful by using quality tools and an environment full of vibrant colors.

And that's the thing about dogs: they are all individuals. Picasso is not Kandinsky is not Da Vinci, and it would be foolish to try and force Jackson Pollock to be Botticelli. I strongly believe the same is true for our dogs. Encourage them to be their best, of course, but we should enjoy each of our dogs for the works of art they are.

If You Want to Know More
Temperament and Personality: Origins and Outcomes, article by Rothbart et al, 2000
Aggressive behavior in dogs that passed a temperament test, a 2006 study by Christensen et al Patricia said that this study helps demonstrate the effect that the testing environment can have on a dog’s behavior. As a result, temperament tests (which are probably misnamed) are not a guarantee of the future, but rather gauge probabilities.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: What is a Dog?

Does it seem odd for a famous dog trainer, one with a PhD and who is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, to ask what a dog is? Whether it is or not, simply asking the question encapsulates one of the things that I love about Patricia McConnell: she is always, always learning. She never assumes that she has all the answers, she's not afraid to say “I don't know.”

And so she began a day-long seminar- one intended to summarize the latest scientific studies about the genetics, development, social systems, emotions, and cognition of dogs- with the most basic of questions: What is a dog? The problem with this question, of course, is that we will never be able to truly answer it. While we all have ideas on what a dog is, our answers come from a decidedly human point-of-view. Our reality is so startlingly different from the dog's that it may even be impossible to answer the question at all.

We still try, though.

Dogs, Patricia told us, have been living with humans longer than any other domestic animal. But where did they come from? How did they become domesticated? And how long have they been living with us?

The first question is easy, at least from a taxonomical standpoint: the scientific name for dogs is canis lupus familiaris, which makes them a subspecies of wolves. However, to say that dogs are wolves is similar to saying that humans are chimpanzees. We share many of our genes with chimpanzees, as do dogs and wolves, but we do not share all of them, and even a small difference can have a profound effect on behavior.

Wolves and dogs are different largely because of a change in a regulator gene, specifically one that controls the process of development in dogs. This has resulted in paedomorphism in dogs, which is the “retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult.” Basically, as compared to wolves, dogs act like puppies.

In Patricia's experience, wolves (even wolf hybrids) act distinctly different from dogs. For example, she has found that wolves are much more physically active. They are mouthier and have a tendency to destroy things far beyond what even the worst dog puppy ever does. They aren't as docile as their canine cousins, and as a result are difficult to correct (and Patricia didn't mean physically; wolves just aren't as interested in humans as dogs are). They have an extreme desire to roam, and are next to impossible to keep at home. What's more, wolves are much more wary of new experiences.

All of this means that even a very difficult dog acts like a baby in comparison to a wolf. That's because they are, simply put, socially immature. Paedomorphic. And this paedomorphism extends to more than just behavior; it includes physical appearance and internal physiology.

One of the best examples of how the process of domestication causes profound changes is Belyaev's Foxes. Belyaev was a Russian scientist who was breeding silver foxes on a fur farm. He and his colleagues began breeding only the tamest foxes, and within eight generations, they had foxes that acted like, well, dogs. These “genetically tame” foxes were more docile than the average fox, and even as adults, they showed juvenile behaviors like face-liking and paw-raising.

But they also began to have patches of white in their coats (something rarely seen in non-domesticated animals), curly tails, and flopped over ears. Their internal physiology changed, too. Instead of one heat cycle a year, they began to have two, like dogs. There was a delay in the production of corticosteriod, which meant that their “fear period” and socialization window extended from six weeks to eight or more weeks... like dogs. And there was an overall decrease in corticosteroids in general, which meant the foxes were less likely to flee. Like dogs.

So how did dogs become domesticated? Well, we'll never know for sure, but there are three main hypotheses: The Village Dog Hypothesis, which says that there was a natural selection for wolves who were bold enough to hang around an early settlement's garbage dumps, the Hunting Hypothesis, which says that wolves began to follow human hunters (or vice versa?), and the Nurturing Hypothesis, which says that after adult wolves were killed, the pups were brought back to camp and raised by the women and children. Patricia doesn't claim to know which is correct, but does wonder if perhaps there were multiple forces in the process of domestication instead of just one.

As for when this happened, fossil evidence places domestication in East Asia around 12,000 to 14,000 (maybe even 20,000) years ago, while DNA analysis places it somewhere from 100,000 to 135,000 years ago. That's a pretty big range, one that has been expanded as science has progressed rather than narrowed, which makes it a huge question mark in history.

In the end, it doesn't really matter. While dogs and wolves are related, they are different. Wolves are difficult pets for even the most knowledgeable people, and impossible for the inexperienced. Yet dogs are everywhere, and as Patricia put it, our relationship with them is nothing short of miraculous. No wonder so many people are asking so many questions about our canine companions. We may never find all the answers, but we have learned a lot, and Patricia McConnell shared much of the current scientific knowledge about dogs with us throughout the day. I look forward to sharing some of it with you.

If You Want to Know More
Patricia suggested these books for further reading on today's topic:
Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz
Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
Dogs, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
Part Wild, by Ceiridwen Terrill

And a suggestion of my own:
The Wolf in the Parlor, by Jon Franklin

Videos you might like:
Belyaev's Foxes, selected for docility
Belyaev's Foxes, selected for aggression

And a fellow blogger's own series on Belyaev:
Leema Kennels on Belyaev

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Another Reason to Hate Boston

Boston is a very bad city. You see, not only did it steal my dog trainer, but it also stole my kidlet. I love the kidlet. She's funny, and smart, and her most redeeming feature? Maisy likes her. Seriously, there is no other explanation for this video:

This video was taken at the end of an hour long class, so Maisy was a bit tired. On top of that, this is at least the third or fourth time that the kidlet took her through the agility course. Despite all that, Maisy kept going. She didn't have to- she could have chosen to blow the kidlet off. And while there were cookies involved, there weren't enough of them to make it worthwhile. No, I think it's quite obvious: Maisy likes the kidlet.

And Boston stole her away from us. Bad Boston! Go to your room!