News: Karen B. London
White House releases official statement
“We don’t support breed-specific legislation.” So begins an official statement from the White House. Breed-specific legislation includes any law or regulation that restricts which dogs people can have based on their breed. The most common breed to be banned is the pit bull. The statement goes on to mention research showing that breed-specific legislation is essentially ineffective at preventing dog bites and injuries, and that it is a waste of the public’s resources. The official statement is presumably a response to an online petition that requests a ban at the federal level on laws that target dogs based on their breed.
It has not been possible to determine accurately bite rates by breeds, and in the absence of reliable data, perceptions are often skewed towards whatever is reported in the media rather than the actual number of bites. At various times, certain breeds have had serious PR problems, and it changes over the years. Decades ago it was rottweilers and doberman pinschers who seemed to face the most discrimination. Now it’s pit bulls who are most often assumed by many to be dangerous just because of what they look like, and not based on any information about specific individuals and their behavior.
The statement from the White House supports the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that in order to improve public safety, we are better off with a community-based approach to dog bite prevention. The laws about dangerous dogs that deal with individuals who have a history of aggressive behavior are far more sensible than bans on entire breeds of dogs. Dogs vary greatly in their behavior and that variation is substantial within all breeds.
Our society has come a long way in stopping discrimination against people based on appearance, origin and who they are related to. It’s encouraging that we are moving in that direction when it comes to dogs, too. I’m so pleased about this big step towards eliminating discriminatory legislation. What’s your take on it?
News: Karen B. London
Boy, did I misread the situation!
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.
We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.
I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.
Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.
Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.
From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)
He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.
A Video Pick of the Week
I was rereading John Pilley’s Chaser, a must-read book about his dog, Chaser, the Border Collie who learned to distinguish over 1000 words. One of the aspects of the book I really enjoyed was his appreciation for Border Collie lore, with a nod to others, like Arthur Allen, the “grandfather of Border Collies,” who wrote the seminal Border Collies in America and went on to “star” in a 1955 Disney movie, Arizona Sheepdog. Pilley mentioned that it’s now available on YouTube, so I just watched it and want to recommend it to every dog lover. It’s my video “pick” of the week!
Granted it is a “staged” Disney film but what Nick and Rock, Allen’s dogs do on this film cannot be directed. It was stunning to see how Nick herds a Navajo child’s pet chipmunk and then goes on to rescue sheep that have fallen into a fast moving river. These are amazing dogs who demonstrate that not only can they problem solve without supervision but they also work cooperatively with each other. This short film is a testament to Allen who has said, “I like a dog that is an individualist; one who thinks for himself and will act without orders.” As the film narrator says, Allen had no doubt that Nick would do his job and bring the sheep back to their flock. That is what they expected he would do and he did it. See it for yourself and let me know what you think.
News: Karen B. London
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment
I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.
We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.
When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.
I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!
Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?
News: Karen B. London
Many dogs love the morning
It’s typical to suffer some sleep deprivation when living with a puppy, but it’s not only young dogs who encourage people to start the day earlier than we might like. A lot of dogs wake up early, ready to begin the day’s adventures at first light.
Puppies, and some of the older dogs, too, simply need to relieve themselves, but others are peppy and ready to go without any such bathroom urgency. Of course, many of these dogs have ample time in their schedules for daily naps, so there are well rested and refreshed when many people would still prefer some extra Zs.
With training, lots of dogs learn that they will not be going outside at dawn and must amuse themselves or simply wait until the humans have arisen on their own, or at least with the help of their alarm clock. A few pester people by jumping on the bed, licking faces, barking, whining, or otherwise failing to allow the people to sleep in.
I’ve only ever had one dog who was not naturally an early riser. When I woke up to go to work or out for a run, he was dragging. As I got ready to take him out, he would yawn, stretch, and look at me pathetically as he lumbered over to the door. It required encouragement to get him going on the days I was up early, but it was delightful on the days I slept in. It was such a pleasure to sleep late knowing that my dog was not waiting eagerly for the day to begin or crossing his paws in desperation as I snoozed. On weekend mornings, we both happily began the day in a leisurely way. He was rare in that way. I appreciated that trait then, and remember it fondly now.
How early does your dog wake up to greet you and greet the day, and what tactics are used to convince you to haul yourself out of bed prematurely?
News: Guest Posts
AFTER A LONG DAY of being a dog, no dog in existence has ever curled up on a comfy couch to settle in with a good book. Dogs just don’t roll like that. But that shouldn’t imply that human words don’t or can’t have meaning for dogs.
Chaser, a Border Collie from South Carolina, first entered the news in 2011 when a Behavioral Processes paper reported she had learned and retained the distinct names of over 1,000 objects. But that’s not all. When tested on the ability to associate a novel word with an unfamiliar item, she could do that, too. She also learned that different objects fell into different categories: certain things are general “toys,” while others are the more specific “Frisbees” and, of course, there are many, many exciting “balls.” She differentiates between object labels and action commands, interpreting “fetch sock” as two separate words, not as the single phrase “fetchsock.”
Fast forward two years. Chaser and her owner and trainer Dr. John Pilley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College, appeared again in a scientific journal. This time, the study highlighted Chaser’s attention to the syntactical relationships between words, for example, differentiating “to ball take Frisbee” from “to Frisbee take ball.”
I’ve been keeping an eye on Chaser, and I’ve been keeping an eye on Rico, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, all companion dogs whose way with human language has been reported in scientific journals. Most media reports tend to focus on outcomes: what these dogs can — or can’t — do with our words. But I think these reports are missing the point. Learning the names of over 1,000 words doesn’t just happen overnight. What does the behind-the-scenes learning and training look like? How did Chaser develop this intimate relationship with human language?
Recently, I had the pleasure of making Chaser and John Pilley’s acquaintance when they visited New York City for their forthcoming book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, out 10.29.13 (Facebook/Twitter). I sat down with Pilley to discuss Chaser’s initial training and learning and to pose questions offered up by readers of Dog Spies (Twitter /Facebook) and Do You Believe in Dog? (Twitter /Facebook). Pilley did most of the talking, and Chaser contributed too, periodically bringing me a Frisbee and sticks of various sizes to throw. As Pilley says, “Learning builds on learning,” so here’s what I learned from our conversation about the early building blocks of Chaser’s education:
Chaser is known for her extensive vocabulary. Can you walk us through how she came to learn the names of over 1,000 different objects?
Because learning depends upon learning, it helped to have her first learn certain simple behaviors, most of which were obedience behaviors like sit, stand, stay, and drop. She also learned herding commands like ‘way to me,’ ‘come by,‘ ‘there,’ ‘freeze,’ ‘walk,’ ‘go out,’ and ‘crawl’ among others. I used positive reinforcement, and in the beginning, I used food when she came to me. I gradually phased out the food.
When I started teaching the name of objects, I said, ‘Watch Pop Pop’ and would show her the object and say, ‘This is Frisbee,’ and I would hide the object just two feet away, so at that point, it wasn’t really hidden. When she went looking for it, I would keep saying, ‘Find Frisbee, find Frisbee,’ and when she mouthed it I would say, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ Then we made it more difficult, and I would really hide it out of her sight.
That was the procedure. A couple of times a day, I would play with her with that object for five minutes or so. No other objects would be on the floor, and we would play with that object, and I would profusely repeat the name of that object between 20-40 times in each session. ‘Find Santa Claus, Find Santa Claus,’ and then, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ when she mouthed it. That was the first step in teaching her the names of proper nouns.
After the first object was taught, it was set aside, and we worked on another one. She always learned one object at a time, a successive method of teaching. Before Chaser, we had tried a simultaneous method of teaching with other dogs [presenting two objects at a time], and that didn’t work.
As Chaser learned the names of different objects, how did you test what Chaser was learning? Did you have a way to assess her initial and long-term memory?
After a few weeks, it was time to test Chaser. The criteria for learning was that she had to successfully select a particular object out of 8 other objects. My criteria was not just that one test. We replicated it at least 8 times, and the items surrounding the object of interest would be different from what she had seen in earlier presentations. She had to be successful in each of those independent sessions 8 times in a row. If she was successful on the first 6 but missed on the 7th, I stopped the testing and put the object aside and worked with it some more.Then I would start the testing some more.
In addition to testing her initial learning of objects, each month we tested her memory on all of the objects that she had learned up to that point. We did it in sets of 20. I put 20 objects on the floor, using only objects which she had shown initial learning, and we asked Chaser to retrieve each of the 20 objects. Over the course of 3 years of teaching, Chaser was successful in retrieving 90% of the objects correctly. Most of the time she retrieved 100% of the objects and other times 95%, but it never got below 90%. If she was not successful, I put that object aside for additional training. The reason we tested her each month was we wanted to make sure that she was not learning new objects to replace an old object. We wanted to be sure that there was complete retention in the long term.
How about grammar? What were the general training and testing procedures?
Chaser initially learned actions independent of specific objects. I might be holding a piece of food, and I would say, ‘Take.’ Over time, she learned the three commands, ‘take,’ ‘paw,’ and ‘nose’ and they were later applied to different objects. The first step in grammar is two elements like, ‘Take Lamb,’ and Chaser demonstrated that each word had an independent meaning. I like to say that learning builds on learning. Not until she learned the two elements should she learn three elements. When she heard the phrase, ‘Take ball to Frisbee,’ she was successful three fourths of the time. But she seemed to act on the last thing she heard, so we changed the expression to ‘To ball take Frisbee.’ We also tested the inverse, ‘To Frisbee take ball.’ This work tests her syntax, her understanding of the rule. When we invert it, we’re demonstrating semantics, that she actually understands each of those components of the sentence and the different meanings of the words.
Can you talk about the use of play in Chaser’s learning and training?
Tension, fear and anxiety inhibit creative learning, and play and tension are incompatible. During play, creative learning can take place. If you are going for complex learning, you are not going to get any learning with tension and anxiety; I’ve learned that in over 30 years of teaching. One of the things that runs throughout the entire book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, is that play is one of the secrets of Chaser’s learning.
Most people don’t explicitly teach their dog words, yet they think that the dog understands many words. Do you think this assumption could ever be problematic?
As long as this doesn’t result in some kind of negative response like criticism or punishing the dog, it could be innocuous. It could have a negative impact on the dog if someone thinks a dog should know a word or phrase and holds it against the dog if he doesn’t seem to be performing. The best and simplest assumption is that if a dog is not emitting a behavior, then the dog might not understand.
Does knowing words and syntax help Chaser have a “happier” life with humans?
I think when you have more understanding, there is better communication and thereby more happiness.
What do you hope people take away from Chaser’s story?
The big thing is that Chaser is not special, and that anybody’s dog is smarter than he or she thinks. I’m hoping people will work with their dogs, of course teaching them words, but also getting to know their dogs. Find out what makes your dog happy, and give your dog opportunities to explore its interests.
Hecht, J. 2012. Say What? Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Bark Magazine
Goldman, J. Monday Pets: How Do Dogs Learn New Words? Scientific American. May 10, 2010
Pilley, J.W. with Hilary Hinzmann. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2013 Release
Pilley, J.W., and A.K. Reid. 2011. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes 86: 184–195.
Pilley, J.W. 2013. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation. Published online May 13, 2013.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
News: Karen B. London
Many presentations featured dogs
Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.
I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.
At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:
Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs
The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions
Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”
Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior
Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?
Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?
Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study
A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs
Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers
I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.
News: Karen B. London
It’s counterproductive and unfair
When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”
I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.
Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.
Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.
I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.
Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?
News: Karen B. London
They are treasures
The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)
The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.
Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.
However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.
He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.
When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.
Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?
News: Karen B. London
Dogs who adore their water frozen
When an extra piece of ice fell from the freezer and onto the floor, the dog acted like I had just dropped a steak. He startled, gazed at it longingly, and looked up at me as if asking for permission. He was wagging from the shoulders back and drooling a little. It was news to me, but it could not have been more obvious that he liked ice.
A lot of dogs love ice and seem to consider it a high quality treat. There are a lot of great things about ice for dogs. It provides hydration without any gulping, it’s fun for the dog, it’s relatively easy to clean up (at least compared to gooey treats like pig’s ears and peanut butter), it’s a no calorie way for a dog to engage in chewing and that can be important for dogs who are watching their figures, and it can help cool a dog down.
Of course, ice has its down side, too. There is a choking risk, and dogs can damage their teeth on ice. Though it doesn’t likely leave as big a mess as the water bowl can, it’s portable, so there’s no telling where a puddle may form if the dog leaves it unfinished and lying around.
What do you consider the positives and negatives about having an ice-loving dog?
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