Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Modern fun for a boy and his dog
May 12 2016
I’m not old enough to remember when the only toy a boy and his dog had was a stick, but I’m sure old enough to be impressed by a remote control car that carries both of them around! In this video of a toddler and a dog in a car, it appears as though the dog is fully in control of the vehicle. At first viewing, I found that a bit unsettling, even with a trustworthy dog. I realized later that the mom (offscreen) controls the acceleration and braking as well as the right turns. The dog is turning the car to the left, though, with some remarkable paw control.
Besides being entertaining, this video has some nice qualities to it. I like how calm the dog is throughout the video and the sweet, gentle way that the boy pets his dog at about 20 seconds. I couldn’t help but smile at the way the dog looks around like he is watching the road. Responsible drivers of any species deserve a pat on the back, or in this case, a belly rub! I also like the way the mom responds instantly when the boy wants to stop. The moment he requests it, the car comes to a halt. She’s wise to avoid a situation in which either the dog or the child is unhappy.
Not every dog has the ability to be comfortable or calm enough to keep this activity safe and fun. Would your dog be able to handle it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs react to magic
May 10 2016
Magician Jose Ahonen made treats disappear right in front of dogs’ noses. When I watched videos of his work, I saw dogs who understood that a treat had been there and that it MUST still be nearby. Their reactions made it clear that they knew the treat had gone missing.
One common response was for the dogs to look down at the ground as though the treat had fallen. A fallen treat is probably a familiar experience for most dogs, so they were using a search strategy that had worked in the past. Many of the dogs began to sniff and investigate the immediate area. Another frequent reaction was to look at Jose or in the direction of the camera, where perhaps the guardian and a camera operator were. Many dogs look to people for information or for help when they are confused. I see this in training or when a toy has rolled somewhere inaccessible, so it was not surprising that dogs who were puzzled about the location of the treat did this. A number of dogs pawed at Jose’s hands, which is such a common response to a closed fist around a treat that I’ve used it many times as part of training a dog to “Shake” or “High-5”.
The most interesting aspect of the video is that dogs in it appear to show object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. Object permanence is considered a major milestone in human development. Many children have been tested—an experimenter hides a toy while the child is watching and then observes whether the child can find it. Most children show object permanence by the age of one year. A lot of dogs have shown object permanence in scientific studies, but it is not universal in the species.
The magic tricks with dogs in these videos were for entertainment and are not controlled experiments. The smell of treats was still present, so that could have tipped the dogs off that the treats still existed. Their actions are certainly not conclusive evidence that dogs are cognitively capable of object permanence, but they are still suggestive of it.
I wish I could see a longer clip of each dog because I’m curious how much time they spent searching and whether they showed increasing frustration. It was a relief to realize that each dog was given a treat before and after the disappearing trick, which I would imagine lessened any distress about the missing treat. For some of the dogs, the most distressing part may have been the laughter of the people observing. I think dogs can tell when they are being laughed at, and it bothers me. Still, it's really hard not to laugh when you watch this (I know I did!), so I can hardly blame people for that.
How do you think your dog would react to a magician making a treat disappear?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Feel the weight, feel the love
May 6 2016
Sometimes people acquire a lap dog on purpose, choosing with great care a dog who is small, cuddly and loves to sit with people. Other times, an unintended lap dog, particularly a large one, brings to mind that famous comment referring to software: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” That is, you can consider it a problem or you can accept that it is just part of the system.
There are a lot of perks of living with a lap dog. You always feel loved, you certainly feel warm, and there is no possibility of being lonely. Many dogs love lap sitting, happily taking advantage of any opportunity to sit on people as they enjoy a cup of coffee, do a little yoga or attempt to watch a movie. There are many reasons why dogs choose to be so physically close to us that they are literally on top of us.
Some are social and friendly without boundaries, while others are a bit clingy because they are insecure. Some are fearful and seek comfort in physical contact but others simply don’t want to miss out and seem to be in a constant state of asking, “What’s up guys? What are we going to do now?” I believe there are dogs who are heat-seeking missiles and love to share body heat regardless of the weather. We could argue that all lap sitting stems from loving us and feeling comfortable and happy when they are with us. Whatever the reason, it’s a very cozy feeling to have a dog in your lap, especially when the dog is clearly so content to be there.
On the other hand, having a dog in your lap can be problematic, especially if the dog is bigger than your lap. It can be hard to work at your computer, eat your breakfast, repair your glasses or perform any number of tasks when the movement of your arms is impaired and all you see is fur. It may also mean that you remain in place when you really should get up. I have personally continued to sit with a dog in my lap because it made me so happy even though both legs had fallen asleep or I had to use the bathroom so urgently that I was really pressing my luck.
The term “lap dog” may imply that a dog is small, but I’ve had dogs ranging from six pounds to well over 100 pounds consider my lap the perfect seat. Size has less to do with being a lap dog than a dog’s inclination to be snuggly and affectionate in this particular way. A small gentle lap dog can make me happy because it’s so endearing to have one settle in with me. The humorous joy of having a dog who is nearly my size choose my lap as a resting place can make me just as happy. There is something vaguely ridiculous, but no less loving, about such a large dog considering my lap to be the best spot in the house, even when there is clearly not enough room for their entire body.
It’s not always convenient or completely comfortable, but the warm, cozy weight of a loving dog in your lap is one of life’s great joys. Do you have a lap dog?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The short answer is that it depends
May 2 2016
Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.
Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”
Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.
Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)
Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.
His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.
Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.
Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.
His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.
That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.
Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.
How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.
When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.
I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.
I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.
The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.
What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Insurance against the unexpected
April 29 2016
We all go to great lengths to keep our dogs safe when they are with us, and also when we must be away from one another. Safety measures can be basic, like a leash or a crate. They can also be more complex, such as microchipping or an industrial grade fence. Information is big part of safety, which is why many people have their dogs wear identification tags or have their phone number embroidered on the collar.
I recently learned about a product that is another tool in the safety battle, and it’s one that is all about information. It’s called “Dogs on Board: Open in Emergency” and it stores information about your dog. It’s designed to attach to your dog’s crate or be stored in your car, and you can put any material in there that you need emergency personnel to know in any urgent situation.
Simple information can make a big difference in your dog’s safety in case of an accident or other incident. That’s the beauty of this 15-inch tube made out of 1.5 inch PVC pipe and covered in tough materials that make it resistant to being damaged with time or because of heat. Inside, you can store health records, a picture with the name and age of your pet, your veterinarian’s contact information as well as your own, and some pre-made Lost Dog flyers that just need the details filled in about when and where your dog went missing. There’s even room for a small slip lead.
The tube is brightly colored and easy to spot, with Velcro® straps for attaching it wherever you want it. One end stays securely closed, while the end marked “open here” can be unscrewed to reveal the pull tab that allows you to remove its contents.
We all like to think that our dog will never escape or be lost while traveling, but car accidents happen, and so do every other kind of accident. They happen to cautious people and to reckless ones, people who have prepared for a worst-case scenario and those who haven’t given it a thought. They happen to dogs who are calm in any emergency and those who freak out—perhaps bolting or acting aggressively in a most unexpected manner. These tubes are another way that we can help our dogs stay safe, no matter how life’s curve balls fly by us.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog bothered by foul water?
April 26 2016
Dogs are famous for drinking out of the toilet. Though that does make me wrinkle my nose, it is far from the most disgusting water that I have seen dogs drink. I’m not talking about dogs who are lost in the desert taking in fluid from any source to stay alive. Even from my human perspective, that seems like an extremely rational choice.
I’m talking about healthy, well-cared for pets who think that a nearly dried up scum-covered pond that is more muck than water looks extremely appetizing. I’m thinking of dogs who pass up a freshly filled, clean water bowl to lick the muddy spots that melted off my snow boots and onto the kitchen floor. And I’m calling to mind those individuals who are drawn to the water that has run through the pot containing a houseplant and into the saucer below. Yes, I’m referring to the one that is coated with algae and has probably never been cleaned.
Amazingly, dogs tend to drink from the most unlikely sources without incident the vast majority of the time. Some weird water choices are usually harmless. If your dog licks the water off your legs after a shower, it’s unlikely to be a problem, especially if you rinsed well. However, their interest in fluids that we don’t want them to drink can be disastrous. There’s the obvious risk of exposure to serious water-borne diseases such as leptospirosis and giardia. Even more alarming is the risk to dogs who are attracted to antifreeze or windshield de-icing fluid because the ethylene glycol they contain can cause kidney failure and even death.
By comparison, the toilet seems like a reasonable place for the average canine to quench his thirst!
Does your dog have a favorite watering hole other than his bowl?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Even more surprising, it’s a Great Dane
April 22 2016
We all know that rescue people are called in to save cats from trees. It’s not even that unusual for kids to need help getting back down to earth from time to time. However, when firefighters were called to help a Great Dane who was stuck in a tree, they thought it was a prank—until they arrived and saw Kora, all 120 pounds of her perched 20 feet high in a huge tree.
Her guardians don’t know how Kora managed to get up so high in that tree. They do know that she loves to wander and that she chases small animals, so their best guess is that some little critter enticed her to jump a five-foot fence and climb so high in the tree that she couldn’t get down.
To rescue her, the first plan was to encourage her to come down the way that she had come up, but Kora vetoed that idea. Plan B involved putting her in a harness and lowering her to the ground. That proved partially effective, until the harness broke as she neared the ground. The rescuers were prepared for that possibility, though, and when she fell, she landed safely in the net being held under her.
To many people, the most fascinating part of this story is that such a large, lanky dog was able to climb a tree and get herself in this mess in the first place. As interesting as that is to me, what really caught my attention is how unfazed Kora was by the whole incident. I can imagine her trying to figure out why everyone was making such a big to-do.
After she hopped out of the net, she walked away without seeming particularly stressed. Many dogs would be completely freaked out by the experience, but Kora appeared remarkably well adjusted and stable. Her behavior did not suggest she was traumatized or even upset by her ordeal.
With an attitude like that, I suspect that “Kora the Explorer” will continue to have interesting adventures!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
These dogs don’t act quite like other dogs
April 20 2016
When people accumulate animals in large enough numbers that the basic needs of those animals cannot be met, it’s called hoarding. Rescues of dogs from hoarding situations often make the news because the conditions are generally horrific—unimaginably unhealthy and unsanitary. There is usually significant malnutrition and disease, and death is common. Whenever possible, dogs rescued from such situations are nursed back to health and adopted into pet homes.
Their physical health can recover to varying degrees depending on the dog, but what about their behavioral health? There are many anecdotal reports of abnormal behavior in dogs who have been removed from hoarding situations, but the question of how hoarding affects dogs behaviorally has not been well documented. A recent study called “Behavioural characteristics of dogs removed from hoarding situations” addresses this issue by investigating how previously hoarded dogs who have been rehomed differed behaviorally and psychologically from a comparison group of rehomed pet dogs.
Dogs for the study were recruited with notices in newsletters of various rescue and shelter organizations seeking qualified dogs. To be included in the study, a dog had to have been removed from a hoarding situation. The authors of the study defined a hoarding situation as “a living environment where a person or persons accumulate animals in numbers that exceed the person’s abilities to provide for the basic needs of the animals, resulting in animal suffering”. The study included 408 dogs who had been rescued from hoarding situations.
The guardians of the hoarded dogs filled out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was developed to measure various behavioral characteristics of dogs. The C-BARQ is a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs.
The control group of 11,277 dogs came from the C-BARQ database and consisted of dogs of similar age and breed. All of the control dogs lived in homes with people who were not first time guardians. This was done to match the study group; fewer than 10 of the hoarded dogs were with first time guardians, a factor which has been shown to influence behavior.
Not surprisingly, many behavioral differences existed between the two groups. Dogs from hoarding situations were more fearful and more sensitive to touch than the control dogs. They showed more behavior associated with attachment, attention-seeking and separation anxiety. They exhibited a greater frequency of urination and defecation when left alone, destructive chewing, submissive urination and repetitive behaviors.
Dogs rescued from hoarding situations were less trainable and less aggressive. They were less likely than the control dogs to be overly excitable or energetic. They had a lower probability of being persistent barkers, of chasing small animals, or of exhibiting rivalry for resources with other dogs. They were not as likely to roll in foul-smelling material or to chase their own tails compared with dogs in the control group.
To sum up, there were substantial behavioral differences between dogs who had been rescued from hoarding situations and dogs with more typical life experiences. It’s easy to be dismayed when reading about the behavioral abnormalities of dogs who come from hoarding situations.
There’s good news, though, and I always like to look for the bright side. Many of these dogs can be placed in loving pet homes. Also, the more we learn about their atypical behavior, the better equipped we are to help them recover and the more motivated we are as a society to prevent such damaging situations in the first place.
Please share your experiences if you have adopted a dog who previously lived in a hoarding situation.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Detection dog essential for research success
April 13 2016
For three years, scientist Chris Bugbee of Conservation CATalyst has been studying a jaguar named El Jefe, first with support from the University of Arizona and now from the Center for Biological Diversity. El Jefe is about seven years old and the only wild jaguar known to be in the United States. Most members of this species live further south, in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, but El Jefe has spent at least three years in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Jaguars are notoriously elusive, rarely seen and can have territories that cover hundreds of square miles, so the study of El Jefe represents a major success story. He’s not, however, the only animal associated with this study who is a success story.
The other one is a female Belgian Malinois named Mayke, who is a working detection dog. She has been trained to bark when she finds jaguar scat, which she can distinguish from the scat of other large cats. (Mayke is also trained to bark when she finds the scat of ocelot, another species of wild cat.)
Mayke was born to do scent work, coming from a program in Germany that has successfully bred many dogs for this purpose. Like her close relatives from the same lines, she has a great nose, can handle heat and is both trainable and intelligent. Even with that background, her first assignment was not a good match. She was originally placed as an explosives detection dog, but she couldn’t handle working around big trucks or gunfire. Those stresses upset her to the point that she was unable to perform the work she was trained to do, but she excels in the wide open, remote spaces where El Jefe lives, and where both dog and jaguar have been videotaped.
Detection dogs can be trained to find a huge range of things from explosives to drugs to people to invasive snails, so why was Mayke trained to find jaguar scat? The answer to that requires an understanding of how scientists view the excrement of their study animals. As a friend of mine who studied patas monkeys in Africa once said, “Most people think of poop as just poop. I think of poop as information.” (FYI, I paraphrased in order to maintain our PG rating.)
Scat is a major resource for people studying wild mammals, but it’s hard for people to find, especially when the animal in question is a jaguar and can travel 30 miles a day. Luckily, dogs are not held back, as people are, by pathetic noses and tiny olfactory lobes. A trained dog can sniff out scat, and therefore allow humans to learn so much more about an animal than would be possible on our own.
Thanks to Mayke and her trainer, biologist Chris Bugbee, it has been possible to map out El Jefe’s home range, learn what he’s eating, figure out a number of places where he likes to bed down during the day, and study his DNA. Mayke found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US, which is a big deal because the jaguar has not always been in this part of its historical range. It’s because of Mayke’s work that scientists have been able to place camera traps in places that El Jefe is likely to visit. The jaguar has been photographed and videotaped over a hundred times in the last three years. The understanding of El Jefe’s location and behavior, made possible by Mayke’s unique contribution to the project, have shown that El Jefe is a resident male who lives in Arizona.
According to Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center For Biological Diversity who has studied jaguars for years, this is important because people and organizations who are reluctant to use any resources to protect him tend to refer to him as a “solitary wandering male”. That implies that he is just a vagrant temporarily lost and visiting the US. This is a nonsensical classification because males of this species are always solitary except briefly during mating. Females are also solitary except during mating and during the short period they have young with them.
Jaguars are native to Arizona. Both males and females were living and breeding in the area until people shot and poisoned them out, beginning in the early 1900s. The interest in El Jefe is helping to protect 764,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona, and making it more likely that recovery efforts can re-establish a jaguar population in the area. The area is at risk of great damage to wildlife, water and the attractive landscape because of a proposed copper mine. There are many reasons to reject this environmentally damaging project, and El Jefe’s large territory is one of them.
With such a rare species, it’s important to keep as many potential breeding animals in the population as possible to maintain the genetic diversity. Previously, a male named Macho B who spent time in Arizona and was photographed there, returned to Mexico to breed, and it is likely that El Jefe is also a part of that same population.
Arizonans are quite attached to him already. That is especially true of the kids who named him. Children at Valencia Middle School in the Tucson area, whose mascot is the jaguar, picked his name. El Jefe (Spanish for “The Boss”) was the overwhelming choice in the vote among the five names that were finalists.
Perhaps the most important part of Mayke’s contribution to the study of El Jefe is that she enables scientists to learn about this jaguar in a non-invasive way. They are able to get an amazing amount of valuable data without bothering the cat. This matters for any species, but it’s especially critical when working with rare animals. Sadly, there are cases of jaguars being injured or killed because of attempts to radio collar the animal (to monitor the animal’s position) and a bad reaction to the tranquilizer. Mayke can locate signs of the animal’s presence and allow scientists to collect data without any such invasive techniques, which eliminates the risk associated with other methods of study.
When I asked Bugbee if there was anything else he wanted to share with me about Mayke, he answered, “Just that she’s a success story—even if you ignore that she’s found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US—because she found her confidence and came into her own.” They’ve been working together for three years and have a close relationship. Bugbee knows her well and understands her behavior. He knows the different ways that she reacts to various wild animals. If she finds scat from a puma, she pees on it. If she detects fresh deer scent from the glands in their feet, she points—holding one paw up and leaning in the direction of the deer. She also has her own unique responses to bobcats and bears.
Bugbee talks about her with great affection and respect, sounding like both the professional trainer he is and a loving dog guardian like any other, saying, “I wish I knew all of the things she picks up on. It would be incredible,” and “She’s a good dog. I like her.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Experience with relevant objects has no effect
April 11 2016
Anyone whose dog loves to get into the garbage for a trash party or is better than Houdini at escaping from a crate knows that dogs are problem solvers. In fact, their ability to solve problems is an active area of research, and the results are not always intuitively obvious. (That’s the way that scientists express what other people might say as, “Whoa! That’s not what I expected!”)
In the study, “Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs”, researchers studied how two factors relate to how well dogs solve problems presented as physical tasks. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the ability to inhibit themselves was correlated with increased problem solving ability and whether experience with objects relevant to the problems made a difference. These two variables were chosen for investigation because there is evidence that they are both important in problem solving ability across a range of species, including humans.
In order to address these questions, they recruited 63 Border Collie puppies in pet homes and studied them over a period of three years. Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups that differed in their experiences with physical tasks.
The first group (enrichment group) received toys that gave them the opportunity to learn about the physical effects of gravity, attachment, and support and also a set of toys that required attending to a size differential between objects to access a treat. The second group (manipulative group) received toys that gave them the same opportunity as the first group to manipulate toys, to push and pull on handles and other parts of the toys, but which did not teach them about the effects of such actions or the importance of relative size. The third group (control group) had only the typical toys used by guardians for stimulation, such as ropes, balls and various rubber toys. The dogs in the experimental and manipulative groups (but not in the control group) took part in a string-pulling study that provided an additional educational experience about the physical effects of their actions.
All dogs, no matter which experience group they were in, were taught three inhibitory tasks. One was being required to wait for permission before taking a treat on the floor in front of them. (This task is often called “Leave It” though some people using this cue never allow the dog to take the treat he was told to leave.)
The second involved the opportunity to obtain a treat from underneath each of two transparent cups turned upside down. The catch was that there were three cups and the dog would only be permitted to knock over two of them. He had to avoid knocking over the empty cup, as the final cup was made unavailable after the dog had knocked over two cups. This is very hard for dogs, especially if the empty cup is in the middle between the cups with treats.
The third task involved the dog being caught by his leash on something like a tree or a lamp post. The guardian would call the dog, but the dog had to first move away from the person in order to untangle himself.
To assess dogs’ level of inhibitory control, they were tested on each of the tasks after a month of practice and scored on a scale of 0 to 2, which 2 representing the highest level of inhibition. This study did not distinguish between learned and inherent levels of inhibition, but simply looked a dog’s ability when tested to control himself in the various tasks.
To sum up, dogs were given one of three levels of experience with objects and their levels of inhibitory control were assessed. They were then tested with four problem-solving tasks. The problems were all designed to be difficult in order to detect potential improvement based on experience. (If the tasks were too easy, researchers would be unlikely to detect any role of experience in dogs’ ability to solve the problem.)
One main result of the study is that there was no difference found in the problem-solving abilities between the three groups of dogs. That is, success at solving the problems was not related to whether a dog was in the enriched, manipulation or control group. Another result of the study was that dogs’ inhibition scores were related to their performance in two of the problem-solving tasks, but not the other two. Of the two tasks in which performance was related to inhibition, one task was positively associated with success (high inhibition predicted success at solving the problem) and the other was negatively associated with success (a low level of inhibition predicted success at performing the task correctly).
The dogs in this study did not exhibit the ability to transfer knowledge about physical rules learned in one situation to another, similar situation. The researchers conclude that dogs do not generalize from one problem-solving task to another. They hypothesize that dogs approach each problem as a novel task unrelated to others that they have already solved.
I’m curious about these conclusions because of my own experiences observing dogs. I don’t have data on canine problem solving, so my surprise about this study’s results only reflects my anecdotal observations. It seems that dogs who understand how to get food from one style of Kong or toy have an easier time figuring out similar puzzles. It also seems that once a dog has solved the mystery of one “secure” trash can, others are quick to be defeated by that same dog. Perhaps experience only matters with highly similar tasks, or when the task is presented in the same location. Another possibility is that if the motivation to solve the problem is high enough, a dog will perform at a higher level. Kongs and trash cans may provide more motivation than a puzzle in a lab setting. All of these variables would be interesting to explore in future studies. Such work is incredibly intensive and time-consuming, and I applaud these researchers for investigating canine problem solving abilities in a long-term, controlled experiment.
Do the conclusions of this study match your expectations?
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