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


ddbb said...

Awesome!Thank you for sharing so much precious information!

Jen said...

Wow, lucky, I'm glad you got to hear Patricia McConnell as well! And I'm very glad that you also shared it with us.

Socialization is an odd and interesting topic. I think the reason that it's so variable is that dogs, like people, learn their entire lives. Even if wary at first, a dog can learn to associate people or other dogs with positive things, and thus learn to be friendly, or at least non-reactive, when the situation dictates. That's just a wild guess; I haven't read all of the lovely research yet that you've linked!

ddbb said...

excuse me, some resources are from NCBI..anyone knows how to use the NCBI?

Crystal Thompson said...

ddbb- what are you trying to do? If you're looking for the full text of the articles, it's not all available. I included it if I found it, but often I simply had to link to the abstracts. If you're particularly interested in an article you can try politely emailing the researcher and requesting it.

Jane said...

Doesn't it seem like the Jindo study and the Seskel study have rather different findings? I've only read through them rather quickly, but in the Seskel study it says "puppies which were reared with minimal or no contact with humans until 14 weeks of age remained timid of strangers and fearful in novel environments even following several weeks of gentle handling and exposure to humans." Which seems to be rather contradictory to what they found with the Jindo pups. I wonder if the breed has anything to do with the findings? Very interesting.

Jennifer Jo said...

As always - great post! I agree with the final answer of "probably" and I am so glad my dog did go through all 3 levels of puppy classes when she was young. She still turned out to be anxious and reactive, but I can only imagine how much worse off she would have been without those experiences.

Crystal Thompson said...

Hi Jane,

That portion you quoted isn't actually from the Seskel study, and I must apologize because I think my link may have been confusing. I wasn't able to find even the abstract for the Seskel study, and the best I could do was the thesis I linked to, which contains a brief discussion of Seskel. The portion you quoted is actually from Freedman, and Patricia didn't discuss that.

That said- yes, it does seem to be contradictory to what the Jindo study found. (And, I might point out, the Seskel study, which found no significant correlation between puppy class and social responses to people or dogs.)

So. Why is that? Honestly, I don't know. Patricia did point out that Jindo dogs are quite different than many other breeds in terms of their responses to people- apparently they are "one person dogs," which may affect things.

It's also not unusual for science to be contradictory, and all studies should be read critically and with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, I'm not terribly good at that. I try, but... well, others are better at it than I. I also haven't had a chance to read everything I've linked to- there is a lot of material there, and I've been very busy.

So... I'd love to hear from anyone who can theorize why these studies are seemingly at odds with other research.

ddbb said...

I see! Thank you Crystal!

Joanna said...

Not impressed by a study that says that an aloof breed was equally aloof with or without socialization. Do the same thing with golden retrievers and maybe then we'll see a difference. :P

Sarcasm aside, I really would love to see more studies about puppy classes and other methods of socialization, but I imagine that it's really hard to measure that kind of stuff. On an intuitive level, it really makes sense to me that attitude toward people is much more linked to genetics than socialization, since it's often a breed trait.

ddbb said...

After reading the paper of "Behavioral reactivity of Jindo dogs socialized at an early age compared with non-socialized dogs". I am interested in the study of fearful mother's puppies (or i may say the genetic problem) with or without socialization.

Crystal Thompson said...

Alright Joanna... do the study with goldens, then. I'm serious- I agree that breed difference may have effected the results, and I'd love to see another study, but with a different breed.

ddbb- Glad you're enjoying the studies... let me know what else you read, and how they line up with what's presented here!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Well if we're picking breeds to do the study with I vote labs.

Against my judgment, work took in 6 golden retrievers from a "great" breeder who had no socializatoins to others and no outings off the property for their first 6-9 months (all were 6-9 months when we got them, different litters). But even though they were all complete puddles, very easily startled by noise, extremely unconfident in new situations, and hand shy they ALL still really loved people and would seek out interaction.

Despite their horrid start they were able to trust everyone they met. And 3 were even able to progress to "normal" dogs out in public. Genetics are strong.

Crystal Thompson said...

That's fascinating Laura. Were any of them useful in your training program?

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

2 of the 6 made it, as autism dogs. They had no drive to "work" but loved cuddling. The others just couldn't recover quickly enough from being startled.

ddbb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ddbb said...

Hi,Laura.I am interested in your training program!
Will u update the information in your blog?

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

ddbb: It's not my own training program. I am a trainer for an assistance dog organization called Can Do Canines.

ddbb said...

Laura, yes, I know your are a trainer coz I follow your blog from long time ago.^^Thank you for sharing such interested story about the "autism puppy".

p.s.sorry for my poor english, im improving =P


Crystal Thompson said...

Daisy, your English is quite good, although I have no doubt that you will continue to improve. :)

Tegan said...

Thanks for your post and your extensive links. I look forward to reading them.

Anonymous said...

Hello Crystal, thank you for the links included in your article, I have not heard about the Bio Sensor stimulation before you mentioned it here - very interesting. My breed of interest is a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, where early socialization is VERY important part of the dog's life. Genetics play their part, but in general if you don't socialize with people, dogs, city... you will never really make up for it later no matter the effort.

About the retention of dogs after completing puppy classess - I wonder if they accounted in the study for the fact that people already strongly interested in their puppy are those, who will most likely persevere with the classess and therefore would have kept it no matter the puppy class attendance?