And imitate novel human actions and store them in memory
Researchers have shown that dogs can indeed not only mimic human actions, but can retain actions in their memory. According to a new study by Claudia Fugazza and Adám Miklósi, from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, this deferred imitation provides the first evidence of dogs' cognitive ability to both encode and recall actions. The research is published in Springer's journal Animal Cognition.
In order to test if dogs possess the cognitive ability of deferred imitation, Fugazza and Miklósi worked with eight pet dogs who had been trained in the “Do as I do method” by their guardians. While dogs are good at relying on human communication cues and learn by watching humans (and other dogs), what this study set out to test was if dogs can perform imitatively not directly after seeing a human do it, but some time after seeing the action.
So they made the dogs wait for short intervals before they were allowed to copy the observed human action. An example of the action done by the human and then performed by the dog was ringing a bell or walking around an object like a bucket.
“The researchers observed whether the dogs were able to imitate human actions after delays ranging from 40 seconds to 10 minutes, during which time the dogs were distracted by being encouraged to take part in other activities. The researchers were looking for evidence of the dogs' ability to encode and recall the demonstrated action after an interval.”
Fugazza described how one of the tests was carried out: “The owner, Valentina, made her dog, Adila, stay and pay attention to her, always in the same starting position. Three randomly chosen objects were set down, each at the same distance from Adila. When Adila was in position, Valentina demonstrated an object-related action, like ringing a bell with her hand.
“Then Valentina and Adila took a break and went behind a screen that was used to hide the objects, so that Adila could not keep her mind on the demonstration by looking at the object. During the break, Valentina and Adila either played with a ball or practiced a different training activity, for example, Valentina asked Adila to lie down. Or they both relaxed on the lawn and Adila was free to do whatever she wanted—sniff around, bark at people passing by, and so on.
“When the break was over, Valentina walked with her dog back to the original starting position and gave the command 'Do it!'. In a control condition, the ‘Do it!’ command was given by someone other than the owner, who did not know what action had previously been demonstrated by the owner. After the 'Do it!' command, Adila typically performed the action that was previously demonstrated.”
It is remarkable that the dogs were able to do this. But the length of time varied—with an action familiar to the dog, delays were as long as ten minutes. If the action/task was novel and the the dogs had not be exposed to it before, they were still able to perform it after a delay of one minute.
“The authors conclude: "The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs. This would be so-called ‘declarative memory,’ which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge."
To view more demonstration on the "Do as I do" method, see this, and the following demonstrations.
Fugazza C & Miklósi A (2013). Deferred imitation and declarative memory in domestic dogs. Animal Cognition; DOI 10.1007/s10071-013-0656-5
News: Karen B. London
The biter's suffering continued
There was a lot of blood, which is typical for bites to the ears. The little white dog who was bitten was sitting calmly in her guardians lap while her injury was attended to. Despite having been surprised by a totally uncalled for bite as she entered the backyard to join the party, she was doing okay. She was clearly hurt, but this stable dog was accepting the loving comfort of her guardian and didn’t seem as upset as one might expect.
If only the dog who had bitten her had been in such good shape, psychologically speaking, but he was a mess. He had no physical injury, but he was traumatized. He is a fearful dog who had been overwhelmed by the party long before another dog—his biggest fear—had shown up. I had been watching him uneasily for a little while before the incident and had told my kids to stay away from him. I had no way of knowing that he would end up biting, but I could see that he was scared, which put me on red alert because I know that’s the cause of so much aggression.
I didn’t see the bite happen, but I heard a ruckus, and hoped that it was just noise and nothing worse. We were attending an event where we knew almost nobody and in the introductions, I had mentioned that I work with dogs and specialize in aggression. After the bite, the guardian of the dog who had bitten called me over with the plea, “I need you!” Luckily, the dogs had already been separated, which is the only thing that went as I would have advised all day.
The guardian of the dog who had bitten asked me, “What should I do?” and I told her that the kindest thing she could do for her dog was to get him out of this situation. We agreed that he was very afraid, which is why he had bitten, and she told me that he can’t tolerate other dogs at all, but that he had been letting people at the party pet him, which was big progress. The dog may not have behaved aggressively to people petting him, but he was tongue flicking, tucking his tail, trying to move away from them, and his pupils were dilated. He wasn’t just nervous—he was terrified.
The woman did not want to leave the party and said so. I urged her to go home and let her dog escape a situation in which he was clearly miserable, but she didn’t want to go, and stayed there with that poor scared dog for hours. I felt so bad for him and wished that I could have persuaded her to take him home.
I also wish that I could have been more proactive about preventing the bite in the first place. Long before the bite, I thought it would have been a good idea to take the dog home, but if I told people to take their dogs home every time I saw them in situations that seemed beyond what they could handle, I would say it so often I would make the boy who cried wolf seem uncommunicative. It’s not advice that most people want, and I don’t give it in settings when I am not working unless I am asked. And even in this serious case with a bite involved, I was asked and that advice was not followed. The few other times that something bad has happened and I’ve advised people to get the dog out of the situation, they did, so this guardian’s decision to stay was exceptional.
It’s no fun to leave a social event or even to leave your dog behind and attend on your own, but so often these actions are in the best interests of the dog. I feel so bad for both dogs, and I also feel bad that I wasn’t able to lessen the suffering.
News: Karen B. London
Deciding when to euthanize
Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.
In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.
Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.
Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?
News: Karen B. London
How well does your dog handle them?
If you love the Fourth of July, it may be one of the few times that you find yourself thinking about the differences between you and your dog instead of the similarities. (It will probably also happen if you ever decide compare your respective views on cow pies.) Having the day off to barbecue, watch a parade, and see the fireworks may be heavenly to most people, but not for most dogs.
Okay, perhaps they’ll enjoy the barbecue if enough of the yummy stuff makes it to the ground, but even then, they may find their insides upset later on. And the parade may appeal to the most social of dogs and those without any kind of personal space issues, but the crowds can be overwhelming and scary to dogs not accustomed to such large groups of people. For small dogs especially, there is a very real danger of being stepped on or otherwise squashed in such a setting.
Of course, the big misery for dogs on Independence Day is the fireworks. Dogs who fear loud sounds, especially those with a phobia of thunderstorms, suffer the most. But even dogs who go through much of the year with nothing more than a normal startle response to a dropped pot or a car backfiring can freak out when dealing with the prolonged nature of these annual celebratory explosions. That’s why I urge people to keep their dogs home and away from fireworks even if they are sure their dog can handle it. I’ve seen many stable dogs who had no reaction one year but fell apart the next. It’s not worth the risk!
It pains me personally that this is one of the most dreaded days for the canine set because it’s my birthday, and I’ve always considered myself lucky to celebrate with the whole country. I love the fireworks, and as a little girl, I believed my Dad’s jokes that they were just for me. I still enjoy his nickname for me—his little firecracker—even though I now understand that even though he sometimes meant it in a good way, sometimes he didn’t. I love to share my favorite activities with dogs, but unluckily for me, my birthday is the one day of the year that it is the most difficult.
Some celebrations on this holiday may be pleasant for quite a few dogs—a small gathering of people for a simple meal, walking around town together away from the biggest crowds, and certainly spending time with you if you have the day off. On the other hand, the fireworks and the parades bother the majority of dogs.
How do you handle the Fourth of July with your dog and what parts of it do you share?
News: Guest Posts
How to make your dog happy
I have good news for all of us who don't look like Ryan Gosling or Gisele Bundchen: your dog doesn't care. Dogs are much more interested in our smells than our looks. Just watch a dog with his head out a car window-nose forging ahead. Wind brings innumerable scent molecules directly to the dog's face, which in the dog's world, makes for a pretty good day. * You might look like a one-eyed pig, but to your dog, it's your bouquet that makes you beautiful.
A Beautiful Sight to Sniff
Unlike us humans who preoccupy ourselves with visual landscapes, dogs smell their vistas. Maybe you've had the experience of walking a dog when all of a sudden the dog gets hooked on something. Even though that something is completely out of range and invisible to you, the dog's behavior indicates, “What I'm checking out is really interesting. We are not going anywhere, buster.”
To get inside your dog's world, you need to pick his brain-and his nose. Dogs have much more nose than us humans. Their extensive olfactory epithelium allows them to trap and assess odor molecules at concentrations of up to parts per trillion, while we are more in the range of parts per million. Yep. I said trillion. Their noses are about a million times more sensitive than our noses. Often, our brains can't register what they whiff.
On top of that, dogs' noses come equipped with a vomeronasal organ (unfortunately, it's not a musical instrument). The vomeronasal organ has tons of receptor cells that take sniffing to the next level. It is thought to be important in detecting species-specific information such as pheromones. While our understanding of dog olfaction still has a long way to go, we do know that yes, your dog is getting quality information from that other dog's behind, face and urine.
If you're starting to look at your dog as one big nose, you're in good company. Many of the folks working with dogs or researching dog behavior and cognition remind dog owners that smelly (or smelling) experiences are integral to a dog's “good life.” In the spirit of picking your dog's nose, here are four ways to give your dog the gift of smell:
1. Take your dog on smell walks
In Inside of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz recommends accompanying dogs on smell walks. She explains:
“[Dog]-walks are often not done with the dog's sake in mind, but strangely playing out a very human definition of a walk. We want to make good time; to keep a brisk pace; to get to the post office and back.”
Dogs don't care about “making time.” While walking with the dog's nose in mind might alter total distance traveled, you and Bucky can bond over quality olfactory experiences. In a smell walk, Bucky might sniff as he likes, choose the direction of the walk or linger to get to the bottom of a particular smell. What else might you provide on a smell walk?
2. Consider smelling sports
Taking a cue from drug sniffing dogs, K9 Nose Work has recently become a formalized fun activity and a favorite of many companion dogs and owners alike.
You don't have to turn your dog into a narc to get into smelling sports. It's about “getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a favorite toy or treat reward hidden in one of several boxes.” (K9 Nose Work)
The game can then be expanded to include entire rooms, exterior areas and even vehicles. Of course, scent work can be conducted in less formalized ways. Don't be afraid to get creative with smelling sports. One man's narc is another man's truffle pig.
3. Make up your own smell(y) games
Have you ever put your dog's olfaction to the test? After being out of the country for a year, my friend and I wanted to see whether her dog would remember me. Our sneaky setup was unscientific and simple: Millie and her owner would walk down the street, and I would walk past them, coming up from behind and not interacting in any way, to see whether Millie paid me any mind. As I walked past, Millie turned toward what could have just been another stranger in NYC, and gave one of those glorious welcomes that says, in not so many words, “YOU ARE HERE! YOU ARE HERE! IT'S YOU!! YAYAYAYAYAY!!”
It's possible this is more of a game for my friend and me than Millie. Still, it's a reminder to us humans—who often need reminders—that the nose is a great way to connect with a dog.
4. Make your reunion smelly
Try making “smell” a priority when greeting dogs. While most people don't overtly sniff and greet, we need to keep in mind that Scruffy's schnozzle is her window to the world. You want to keep that window wide open, not close it.
It goes back to our different biologies. When we people walk into a party, most of us look around, see who's there and then make the next move (either toward a friend or toward the bar). For dogs, “looking around the room” is easier done with the help of olfactory investigation because visual cues could be misleading. Who hasn't been confused when meeting a friend with a new haircut/glasses/facial hair/gorilla suit?
With dogs and their wonderful snouts, they don't have to worry about mistaken identities. Sight can be confusing, but a smell check can set things straight! That's the way you'd do it too, if your nose were a million times more powerful than it is.
Take a look at a reunion between a dog and a member of U.S. military returning from deployment:
The owner then provides the dog a hand for sniffing, and after olfactory investigation, the dog shows a proper display of, “IT'S YOU!! IT'S YOU!! YAYAYAYA!”
Does this video surprise you? And just as important, do you give your dog opportunities for olfactory exploration during greetings?
There are things out there in the world that you might not notice and can't understand but that your dog is very in tune with and would like a closer look (oh please!). And these things have nothing to do with whether you are Ryan Gosling (but if you are Ryan Gosling, feel free to give me a call).
Photo: Dog smelling sunflowers by Dylan, used under Creative Commons license
References Horowitz. 2009. Inside of a Dog What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner Wells & Hepper. 2003. Directional tracking in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 84, 297-305.
* Wind can play a part in scent detection. A recent paper exploring directional tracking in dogs notes that the researchers laid trails at a “ninety degree angle to the direction of the oncoming wind to reduce the possibility of the dogs using airborne scent to determine directionality.” It's easier to attend to a scent if airborne scent molecules are flying directly into your face, like a car ride.
About the Author
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
News: Karen B. London
Science supports what we’ve long believed
Our dogs are our kids. It’s not rocket science—we love them, they love us. They look to us for comfort and care. We call them our fur kids or our four-legged children. So, even though it’s not news to us, it’s validating to see science confirm what we already thought was true: Our dogs are like children to us.
Children have been shown to explore the world most confidently if they have a strong attachment to their caregiver (usually a parent.) They use the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment if they have learned that the parent is dependable and reliable, and this phenomenon is called the secure base effect.
In the recent study, The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs—Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, researchers conclude that dogs are bonded to their guardians in the same way that infants are bonded to their parents. They found that dogs use their guardians as a secure base, just as children do.
In the study, dogs were tested in each of two experiments and their behavior was quantified. In the first experiment, dogs were given the opportunity to obtain food from interactive dog toys, and the amount of time the dogs spent attempting to extract the food was recorded. The dogs were tested in three different experimental situations: 1) with their guardian absent, 2) with their guardian present and encouraging them, and 3) with their guardian present but silent and unresponsive. Researchers also recorded how much time the dogs spent in close proximity to their guardians as well as to the experimenter, who was present in all conditions.
The results of this experiment showed that the different situations had an impact on how long the dog manipulated the interactive toy in an attempt to extract the food. The dog manipulated it longer when the guardian was present than absent, but there was no difference in response to whether the guardian was encouraging the dog or remaining silent. The dogs spent an equal amount of time close to their guardian regardless of whether they were receiving encouragement or not. They spent more time close to the experimenter when their guardians were absent than when they were present, suggesting that the experimenter offered some security, social support or comfort in the experimental context.
The second experiment was designed to determine if the effects seen in the first experiment could be explained simply by the fact that in the situations in which the guardians were present, there were two people in the room, whereas in the guardian-absent condition, there was only one person. In other words, what if dogs are not affected by having their guardian as a secure base, but simply react to the presence of more than one person in the room? So, in experiment two, the first experiment was modified to include a fourth condition in which an unfamiliar person (rather than the guardian) was present along with the experimenter.
The results of the second experiment were that dogs manipulated the interactive toy longer in the presence than in the absence of their guardians, regardless of whether an additional unfamiliar person was in the room. The dogs spent more time near their silent, unresponsive guardians than to the unfamiliar person, who also refrained from interacting with the dog. The addition of the unfamiliar person condition allowed the researchers to determine that the guardian had a specific effect on the dog’s performance that cannot be explained by the presence of just any person.
Prior to participating in this experiment, all dogs were tested for their willingness to eat food in the absence of their guardians. They were also scored for their tendency to exhibit separation distress when kept away from their guardians. Interestingly, there was no relationship between the time spent manipulating the toys in the absence of their guardians and the amount of separation distress they showed, which means that the results of the experiments cannot be explained by a tendency of the dogs to manipulate the toy less because of the distress of separation.
This is the first study to demonstrate that the relationship between dogs and guardians is similar to the relationship between children and their parents in that both involve the secure base effect. This raises concerns about experiments into cognitive abilities that involve problem solving that is far more complex than in this study because the absence of guardians could significantly lower performance by the dogs.
It also confirms the view that most of us have about the canine members of our family—they are like kids to us!
News: Karen B. London
Squirrels, bicycles, deer, runners
You are enjoying a pleasant walk with your dog when you are suddenly faced with a distraction. The severity of the situation depends on your dog’s natural excitability and level of training along with the specific distraction that has appeared. The situation might be no big deal, a chance to proof your dog’s training, a bit of a hassle or a serious problem verging on a catastrophe.
The iconic distraction is the squirrel. It’s no coincidence that when people are pointing out that their dog is distracted by something, they just say, “Squirrel!” in an excited way. It’s true that squirrels cause incredible challenges for many dogs and their guardians. Many dogs will alert, tense up and chase a squirrel if given the opportunity. Others will bark, whine or spin in circles. There are dogs who will lie down silently before bolting towards the squirrel, as though they have been stalking it. And yet, there are plenty of dogs who aren’t overly interested in squirrels and don’t react at all. Perhaps those dogs are just not easily distracted, but some of them just find other things distracting instead.
Among the animals that can be distraction nightmares for guardians are sheep, chickens or other birds, cats, other dogs, horses, deer, and elk. Any sort of person can be problematic as a distraction, but top honors usually go to shrieking children, bicyclists, skateboards, roller bladders, and runners. Distractions can even be inanimate objects such as plastic bags blowing by, trash cans, trucks, cars, motorcycles, and balloons.
What’s your dog’s biggest distraction—the one thing you really hope you never see on a walk?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans.
All dogs are the same. really. Look at an evolutionary tree and you’ll find all domestic dogs, clustered together in one spot. But that can’t be the entire story. When asked, Rachel Licker of Lawrenceville, N.J., describes Piper, her “Basset Hound on stilts,” as incredibly goofy, communicative, playful and quick to overwhelm. According to Mary de Vachon of Nice, France, Ria, her Sheltie, is gentle and loving, content and confident, extremely shy, and above all else, a mademoiselle.
While all dogs might fit in the same spot on the tree of life, each has his or her own unique personality. Just as one person might greet you with a cautious wave or a coy smile, another will come barreling into your life doling out hugs and kisses. Dogs are the same, in that each is different.
WHAT IS PERSONALITY?
Additionally, the word describes an individual’s usual pattern of behavior, characteristics that are relatively stable over time and across situations. Say a snowman with stick arms that wave in the wind appears on the front lawn after a snowstorm. Some dogs would walk by as though Frosty had always been there. Others might play-bow and dance joyfully in front of their new friend, while a few are sure to freeze, tuck and retreat.
If those same dogs then confront other novel situations—balloons in a tree, a parade, clowns jumping out of a car, you name it—those who perceived Frosty as no bother would probably continue to be indifferent, while those who equated Frosty with Satan would also be likely to associate other odd events with the underworld. Although it does not imply that an individual will respond the same exact way every time (dogs are not robots, after all), the term “personality” denotes an individual’s usual perceptions or interactions.
Thinking about personality gets tricky very quickly because there is no universal definition. Some fields distinguish between personality and temperament, while others use the terms interchangeably. As Samuel Gosling, PhD, a personality and social psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, explains, “Temperament is the basic, biologically inherited tendencies of an individual, and personality is the result of the interaction between temperament and the environment.” That distinction is common in human psychology but is not always made in animal fields. But, as Gosling adds, “since adult animals are a combination of biologically inherited tendencies as well as individual experiences, it seems to me misleading to call that temperament. In humans, we would call that personality, so why not in other animals?”
Making a distinction between temperament and personality could enable researchers to explore whether certain traits are more stable over time than others. For example, a recent analysis surveying a number of studies found that in puppies, aggression and submissiveness were most consistent, while responsiveness to training, sociability and fearfulness were least consistent.
Understanding the relationship between early-life temperaments and later-in-life personalities could be paramount for real-world issues, such as selecting dogs for work or companionship. For working dogs, Gosling and his team advise the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to measure personality-trait consistency in order to improve the selection and training of working detector dogs.
Back home, you might think you have a handle on who your puppy Wizzer is, but what you’re seeing might or might not relate to Wizzer’s adult personality. (So even if Wizzer starts out apprehensive about the vacuum cleaner, there’s hope for improvement, and you can help him.)
At the same time, many shy away from using the term when it comes to non-human animals, sometimes because they’re uneasy about the “A” word: anthropomorphism. To avoid linking dogs and personhood so explicitly, scientists use alternative descriptors such as “behavioral types,” “behavioral syndromes” and “coping styles.” Regardless of the word employed, when the definitions are compared, they tend to describe the same basic phenomenon: consistent, individual differences in behavioral tendencies over time and across situations.
Much of the initial pushback against the term “personality” has dissipated because studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans. (Relatively speaking, this field is in its infancy, and techniques and methodologies continue to evolve, so stay tuned.)
HOW IS PERSONALITY EVALUATED?
Questionnaires, however, are not bulletproof. Gosling notes that questionnaires “don’t rule out the possibility that ratings are based on some stereotype, say a physical stereotype, like ‘bigger animals are more aggressive.’ You could still get those biases.” Dogs’ physical appearances are emotion points for humans and make them susceptible to attributions and judgments that might have no bearing on the personality of individuals. For example, the Papillon breed standard specifies that these small dogs are to be “happy, alert and friendly,” and their physical appearance easily promotes this perception of an overall perkiness. But on an individual basis, just like other dogs, Papillons can be shy (or downright neurotic).
Even taking into account the risk of stereotyping, questionnaires provide meaningful information about canine personality. When comparing questionnaire ratings with separate behaviorobservation assessments, a strong link has been found. So if a dog is judged on a questionnaire to be highly timid, independent observers will generally also describe the dog’s behavior in terms consistent with shyness.
Since people are rarely shy about discussing their dogs, collecting data via questionnaires can be incredibly fruitful. The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), developed by James Serpell, PhD, and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, is a widely used assessment of dog behavioral characteristics (available for public use). The 101 questions gather insights into dogs by asking owners to use a five-point scale to describe how their dog would likely react in a variety of different situations, such as anxiety or fear in heavy traffic or when examined by a veterinarian; excited when the doorbell rings or when visitors arrive; and of course, likely to chase cats if given the opportunity.
A recent study of former breeding dogs from commercial breeding operations— commonly referred to as “puppy mills”—relied on the C-BARQ to evaluate the dispositions of these dogs once they’re out in the world. Overall, they were found to be more fearful and nervous than typical pet dogs, particularly regarding strangers and stairs, and many were sensitive about being touched. Despite having lived for years in their adoptive households, many of these dogs still displayed persistent fear and anxiety, which is exactly the type of long-term rather than short-term tendencies that investigations of personality aim to reveal.
But do we really need questionnaires when a dog’s actual behavior is right in front of us? Of course, it’s easy to watch a dog and write down how he or she reacts to various stimuli, but that’s not necessarily enough. While it is plausible to observe dog behavior in myriad situations by simply waiting for different scenarios—such as flashing lights and loud sirens—to present themselves, test batteries, which are designed to investigate whether various stimuli and situations elicit particular responses, are more common. For example, the Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) is a behavior test originating in Sweden that requires dogs to respond to, among other things, novel people, furry objects, loud noises, the potential for play and people dressed up like ghosts (yep, ghosts).
The researchers boiled down dogs’ behavioral responses into five personality dimensions: sociability, playfulness, chase-proneness, aggressiveness, and curiosity/fearfulness. Comparing the results from the DMA test battery with the C-BARQ assessment showed broad agreement between the two.
You can think of these personality dimensions as the canine equivalent of the classic human “Big Five” personality models: extroversion (sociable and outgoing), agreeableness (trustworthy and straightforward), neuroticism (anxious, irritable and shy), openness (curious, imaginative and excitable) and conscientiousness (efficient, thorough and not lazy). Research groups continue to flesh out the various personality dimensions found in dogs; recently, the Anthrozoology Research Group in Australia generated a slightly different list of attributes, one that included extroversion, neuroticism, motivation, training focus and amicability.
As you might imagine, it’s not easy to summarize and sort all of a dog’s behaviors into a small number of buckets, so there is much left to learn in this area. One hot topic that warrants more research is the possible relationships between different traits. For example, are individuals who are more bold also more sociable and playful with strangers? Or is it more challenging to find links between traits? While boldness and aggression correlate in some species, researchers have not found that to be true for dogs. Dogs who were bolder were not necessarily more aggressive. The possibilities for this area of research are virtually endless.
WHO WILL MY DOG BE?
The short answer to “Who will my dog be?” is “Wait and see.” Current research finds that puppy tests have low predictive value for later-in-life behavior. On the other hand, personalities examined in older dogs do display more stability over time. Krista Macpherson, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario who studies cognitive abilities in domestic dogs, reminds us that at the time of testing, puppies have had minimal interaction with the outside world, apart from their conspecifics. “At eight weeks, they are not that developed cognitively, and there are a lot of experiences yet to be had,” she observes. Researchers at the Clever Dog Lab (part of Austria’s University of Vienna) are currently investigating whether early temperament tests are predictive of behavioral tendencies in an older dog. By testing dogs at a range of ages, they will be able to explore the predictive value of early-life temperament tests.
At the end of the day, Jules Winnfield, the gangster from Pulp Fiction, gets it right: “A dog’s got personality, and personality goes a long way.” Rachel Licker, who lives with Piper, reminds us exactly why personality is so important. “I hope people really enjoy their dogs being more than just amicable, and give their dogs more leeway to be multi-dimensional beings. I think they might enjoy their dogs more, and I think it would create more space for the dog and owner to be happy together.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How to handle trouble at dog parks.
The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!
Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?
Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.
In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.
Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.
One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.
Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.
Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)
Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.
Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.
Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)
Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.
The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.
Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.
Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.
Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.
All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.
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