Good Dog: Studies & Research
A study investigating this question is problematic
Dogs are inclined to follow our lead in many ways, but they don’t go overboard if it does not serve their interests, say the authors of a new study. If people give dogs bad advice, they figure out that it is worth ignoring, according to a new study in the journal Developmental Science. Let’s look into how they arrived at this claim, which I don’t think is supported by the data.
The researchers were investigating whether dogs (and dingoes) would imitate the way people showed them how to get food out of a puzzle box even when there was an easier way to do it. Only one step was required to reach the food, and that was lifting the lid to a box. As part of the experiment, humans added an extra, unnecessary action to the process by pulling a lever that did nothing, and then lifting the lid of the box.
Both the dogs and the dingoes quickly learned to skip the step with the useless lever and just open the box to get to the treat inside. In other words, it looked like they ignored the useless instructions from the humans. This behavior differs from human children, who tend to perform all the steps they have been shown even when some of them are unnecessary. That behavior is called “overimitation” and the uncritical copying of the behavior they observe may allow kids to minimize the amount of trial-and-error learning they must do.
The dogs and the dingoes observed humans opening the box, and were then repeatedly given the opportunity to open the puzzle box. Over time, as they gained experience with it, they were less likely to use the lever. The experimenters consider this evidence that both species learned that pulling the lever was an unnecessary step for opening the box, even though they saw humans doing it. I agree that the data support the idea that they learned that the lever is irrelevant. I just don’t think that observing the humans pull the lever made any difference, and that’s because this study does not find any evidence that dogs imitated the humans at all.
In addition to the experiment in which subjects observed humans pulling the irrelevant lever, there were also a series of trials (with a different set of dogs and dingoes) in which they were presented with the puzzle box without any opportunity to observe a human opening it. In that experiment, the dogs and dingoes were solving the puzzle without having seen anyone else open it, so they were doing it completely on their own. The authors write that, “dogs were equally likely to use the irrelevant lever, regardless of whether they witnessed a demonstration (in Experiment 1) or not (in Experiment 2).
They point out that there was no evidence that dogs were more likely to copy the humans’ actions than the dingoes were, but what’s just as important is that there was no evidence that the dogs were copying humans at all. Therefore, I don’t think that their conclusions about dogs and overimitation hold water. They would first need to show that dogs copy any human behavior, which they do not do, in order to then test whether dogs copy irrelevant human behavior.
There was one interesting conclusion from this study, though it has nothing to do with imitation, social learning, or human influence on dogs’ actions. Evidence from this study, as well as previous research, indicate that dingoes solve problems more quickly and with greater success than dogs. In Experiment 3 in this research paper, a different puzzle box was used. Pulling the lever was an essential step in opening this particular puzzle box. In this experiment, both dogs and dingoes did pull the lever in order to access the treat inside. When compared to the rates of pulling the lever when it was pointless, dingoes showed a greater change in their behavior. That is, they were more likely than dogs to pull the lever only when it was relevant, unlike dogs, who pulled it quite often even when it was not an essential part of the box-opening task.
Questions about the possibility of overimitation in dogs are extremely interesting, and I want very much to know more about this behavior, which I don’t think was adequately addressed by this study.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog resource guarding is a common— and fixable—behavior.
Does your dog growl and show his teeth if you come near him while he’s chewing on a bone? Does he stiffen if you try to take a toy from him? If you walk near him while he’s eating, does he eat faster? Would you be nervous if a child approached while he had a rawhide? If you can answer no to all of these questions, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune: you have what most dog people want. If you answered any in the affirmative, your dog is exhibiting behavior that canine professionals call “resource guarding.”
Resource guarding refers to any behavior that a dog displays to convince others to stay away from something he considers valuable. Among these behaviors are the growling, tooth displaying, stiffening and frantic eating already mentioned. To that list, add glaring, snapping, barking, leaning over the resource to shield it and biting. Dogs commonly guard food, toys, treats, bones, rawhide, beds and even another dog or a person.
In most cases, resource guarding is subtle. A dog with a pig’s ear, for example, may turn his body to shield his precious treasure from anyone approaching, or he may pick it up and carry it to another room. He might put his paw on it or even give you a look that means something along the lines of “Don’t even think about it,” or “Please don’t take it away. I want it.” Few people are troubled by such mild forms of resource guarding.
Even though resource guarding can become far more serious, it’s one of my favorite behavioral problems, for several reasons. One, there are ways to prevent it in most dogs. Two, behavior-modification plans are easy to implement, clients usually buy into them and they are effective at improving the dog’s behavior. Three, many people choose to simply live with it, managing it as best they can. That may not sound very inspiring, but I consider any solution that keeps a dog at home and people safe while allowing a loving relationship between the two to flourish and grow to be a success.
Prevent Resource Guarding
Dogs are often nervous about losing what they value. With that in mind, a key aspect of preventing resource guarding, including its most common form—food bowl aggression—is to teach dogs to be happy when someone approaches or reaches for their treasure, or for the bowl while they’re eating. Dogs who are happy in a particular context are a whole lot less likely to act aggressively.
Creating this positive emotional reaction is simple: teach the dog to associate the approach of a person with treats. I advise people to walk toward their dog and toss a really good treat into the bowl or near their treasure. Once the dog is used to this, the next step is to walk over, pick up the bowl or the treasure, deliver a treat (in the bowl is fine) and then return the bowl or the treasure. It’s important to do this quickly—within a few seconds at most—so the dog doesn’t feel like he’s being teased.
I suggest doing this only once or twice per session; even though the dog receives a treat, the interruption can still be irritating. (I imagine dogs in that situation feel like I do when a restaurant server refills my water glass every time I take a sip: mildly harassed.)
Many people have been advised to put their hand in the dog’s food bowl, or to pick up the bowl and hold it. Unfortunately, this strategy is far more likely to lead to food-bowl aggression than to prevent it. Such actions are irksome, so it’s no surprise that many dogs will lose their temper eventually. While some dogs will never become resourceguarders, even when provoked, others can be taught to be aggressive around their food. Some of the worst resourceguarders I’ve ever seen were taught to be that way by their well-intentioned guardians.
People accidentally teach dogs to guard their resources in other ways as well. If a dog has a bone (or food or a shoe or the remote control) and it is taken from him, he learns that he loses treasures unless he takes action. To avoid that, instead of taking something from a dog, trade him for it. Hold a treat or other desirable object right by his nose, and if he drops the contraband, give him the offered item. This teaches him that he gets paid for letting go of things rather than that he will be mugged whenever he has something valuable.
It’s very important to help dogs feel happy about releasing items and to actively avoid making it a negative experience. Trading is far better than a battle, and is very effective, especially if he’s “trading up”—getting something better than what he surrenders.
Another strategy is to have the dog drop the object, give him a treat and then give him back the item. This helps him learn that it’s worthwhile to release things. I like to teach the cue “drop it” so that if a dog gets something he shouldn’t have, I can ask him to release it before he damages it, or damages himself.
Modify Resource Guarding Behavior
Giving extra treats when a dog has something of value is a useful technique for prevention of resource guarding, but it can also be used to stop an existing behavior. (If the dog has previously bitten or threatened anyone, I advise having a behaviorist supervise this interaction.)
Start by standing outside the dog’s reaction zone and tossing high-quality treats to him. The goal is to make him happy that a person is present when he has a treasure. This change in his emotional response is what will lead to a change in his behavior. The closer you get, the more intense the situation becomes. Intensity also goes up if the dog has a more highly valued item, or if you approach, reach for or pick up the resource.
Work at each level of intensity until the dog is comfortable, and only then progress to something harder. The highest-intensity context is to approach a dog and take something that he values highly. Success can only be achieved by gradually working toward that goal and requires many steps and many repetitions over a period of weeks and months.
Live with It
Despite the challenges of sharing a home with a dog who guards resources, it’s common for people to choose to live with it. People who have a dog with this predilection know when to expect the behavior, and they simply avoid going near their dog when he has a valued item. This predictability may account for the lack of concern many have about resource guarding. Of course, predictability varies depending on the household. A single person who rarely entertains is in a very different situation than a family with five small kids who have additional children over to play nearly every day.
Years ago, the standard view was that a dog shouldn’t be approached at mealtimes or when he was chewing a bone or playing with a favorite toy, and there’s a lot of good sense in that. If people don’t bother their dogs while they are eating, and they purposely avoid going near them when they have a bone or other treasure, trouble can be averted.
Life with a dog who allows absolutely anyone to take absolutely anything away from him is pretty easy, but that’s really a lot to ask of even the dearest, sweetest dog on the planet. There are, of course, dogs who are as unlikely to guard resources as they are to calculate Schrödinger’s wave equation. But we shouldn’t assume that dogs who are lovely but perhaps not so nonchalant about being mugged are bad.
With dogs who are at risk of causing injury, it’s obviously critical to have some way to make sure that everyone is safe. People can deal with this problem by preventing situations that trigger problem behavior (particularly aggression) and with behavior modification that alters how the dog behaves when he has something of value. How important it is to train dogs not to resource guard is an individual decision; many people are highly committed to changing their dog’s resource guarding behavior, while others, not so much.
Resource guarding is both common and absolutely normal canine behavior. I’m not excusing it or saying that it’s not a problem, but like barking and chewing, it is accepted by many people as part of living with a dog—although clearly, it’s nobody’s favorite part. As is true of other undesirable behavior, though it can be changed and improved with behavior modification, tons of people choose to accept it, figuring that life is too short to demand perfection of their best friends in all contexts.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
One of the best things about living with dogs is the unbridled joy with which they greet us every time we come home—no matter how long we’ve been away. It has long been thought, and oftentimes documented, that dogs have a sixth sense that allows them to “know” our ETA in advance. Just how do they do it?
In Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog, she offers what seems to be a very reasonable explanation. It isn’t that they can smell us from afar or hear our footsteps or the car motor. Rather, as she writes, “there was a potent combination of two forces leading to these dogs’ abilities. The first is the distinctness of our smell to our dogs. The second is the ease with which dogs learn our habits.”
As she goes on to say, “It might be that the odors that we leave around the house when we leave lessen in a consistent amount each day.” Basically, our smarty dogs’ amazing noses know that “over the hours we are gone, our home begins to smell less of us.”
She tested this theory by recruiting a colleague to sneak one of her partner’s stinky t-shirts into the house hours after her partner left, once again infusing the house with his odor. And yes, the ruse seemed to work. That day, their dog, who had reliably demonstrated that he knew when his person was nearing home, was found snoring on the couch.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Dogs who play fetch solo
The world is filled with dogs who love playing fetch more than life itself, but most of them only get to play when a person is also on board. Sadly, there aren’t many people who want to play fetch every waking minute, as some dogs would prefer. For a few clever dogs, that doesn’t matter because they have figured out how to play fetch all by themselves.
Do you have a dog who plays fetch alone? If so, did you teach your dog to do that or was it something he figured out on his own?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Have you ever noticed your dog taking interest in something you are watching on the television? If so, you may have wondered what they might be thinking, or if they are even seeing the same things that we are, or in the same way that we are.
As it turns out, dogs do in fact notice and understand pictures that they see on the television screen, as well as the sounds that accompany them. These days, with the evolution of television and more high-resolution and digital broadcasting, dogs literally see a brand new picture, with much more clarity than before. There are even scientific studies in which the results show us how they see and process images, why they are attracted in the first place, and whether or not they understand what they are watching.Is There Any Proof?
A 2013 study shows that dogs can pick out pictures of other dogs apart from humans, and group them into categories using only visual clues. It is a known fact that like-species gather for social interactions and dogs recognized and were drawn to their own species on the television screen more readily than images of anything else. Possibly an evolutionary measure based on breeding needs, it is an important facet of a dog’s life.
There is even a channel especially for dogs on HDTV called DogTV. The channel has more frames per second than regular television and is specifically colored for a dog’s specific sight. Since dogs can process visual information faster than humans, what they see is quite different from what we see.
Herding dogs, in particular, are motivated by moving objects (think flocks of sheep). They watch the television much more intently that other breeds for this reason.Depth Perception
Human depth perception is the ability to distinguish a 3-dimensional worldview from the 2-dimensional images from the retina. This comes about from the human cognitive ability to reason and formulate similarities of experiences. For dogs, the term could more readily be described as depth sensation as their means of locating objects that they have seen.
The evolutionary adaptation known as binocular vision allows the eyes of some mammals to move in simultaneous directions, also known as "vergence". When something is view close up, ocular convergence is promoted. Seeing objects in the distance, on the other hand, promotes ocular divergence. Both canine eyes then work together in a state known as fixation where two different images come together to create depth sensation, which is promoted by binocular overlap.
This comes into play while dogs watch television in that they realize the objects are not actually with them, but on some other plane all together. It doesn’t thwart their curiosity, however, and often leads to complete fixation on the images on the television screen.Field of View
The term "field of view" describes how different parts are seen at any given point in time along the visual plane. Dogs who are predators have a very narrow field of view and depend more on binocular overlap to, or depth sensation, to visually locate and isolate prey. Their maximum field of view is about 240 degrees, while animals of prey have a nearly 360-degree field of view, for protection reasons.
This field of view possessed by dogs may immediately attract some breeds to a moving picture, but once they determine that there’s nothing really happening, they may quickly lose interest.Detecting Motion
Humans have many more cones in their eyes than dogs do, therefore human eyesight is very sensitive to movement of bright lights. A dog’s retina’s, which have far fewer cones, are much more sensitive to lower light situations. They are also much more capable of noticing a moving target and can hone in on moving objects at further distances than stationary objects that are quite near them.
This ability to monitor movement is another reason dogs are capable of seeing and paying attention to television. They may not have a good idea of what is going on within the program, but they can see that action is taking place. When their curiosity is satisfactorily peaked, they will pay more attention.Dogs and Television
Old style American televisions that work from tube technology have a frame rate of 60Hz, meaning that the frame refreshes sixty times per second. Newer television, models known as HDTV, refresh at a much faster rate. Many images on the television screen appear stationary to humans, as their rate of vision is slower than that of the television. At about 50Hz, images would appear, to the human, to look like images from a flipbook. Dogs, on the other hand, get the flipbook imaging up to 75Hz, so the images have to have a higher refresh rate to appear fluid to a dog.
To dogs, the older televisions reflect images that they perceive as simple flickers of movement or light, however, the newer televisions present more fluidity and make images appear more realistic to the canine eye’s abilities.
Some dogs even use face-tracking as a means of identifying and relating to information they see on the television screen. However, as a study has shown, face-recognition in dog’s is a trained behavior that can cause dogs to focus on the images that they see on the television screen, effectively overshadowing their natural abilities and responses in this scenario.
Dogs are initially attracted to the television because of certain sounds that they hear. Once the noise has their attention, and they then find out where the sound is coming from, they begin to focus on the images and, depending on the breed of dog and the way their eyes function, interact with the stimulus or not. It was found that some of the sounds that elicited the most response from dogs was other dogs barking or whining, the sound of the human voice giving friendly commands or praise and the sounds of squeaky toys.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How Do Dogs Remember?
In her new book, The Secret Language of Dogs, trainer and Animal Planet star Victoria Stilwell explores the ways recent canine studies show us how to better understand the hidden language of dogs.
Memory is crucial for problem solving, hunting of prey, smell recognition, facial recognition, and general learning. Dogs need to memorize environmental landmarks so they can find their way around as well as construct mental maps of where these landmarks are located. Although dogs use visual markers to navigate their surroundings, they rely more heavily on how things smell. This mental mapping is important for remembering territory and territorial boundaries as well as being able to reach a food source or an area of comfort and safety.
Dogs also need to have a good working memory if they have to find food for themselves. They have to remember that if the prey they are chasing goes behind a rock and disappears, it might still be there even though they can’t see it.
It’s believed not only that dogs have good olfactory memory and can remember smells for years afterward, but also that smell is linked to their emotional memory, just as it is in humans. The smell of a veterinary hospital may always elicit negative emotions, whereas the odor of a favored person triggers happiness and joy. Auditory memory is also important and is especially useful when it comes to remembering the sound, tone, and pitch of a human vocal signal that is linked to a certain action or behavior.
Dogs can not only recognize the voices of people they know but also learn and remember that different vocal pitches and tones mean different things. Their physical reading skills can help them determine what human vocalizations mean, and because people tend to speak in higher pitches when they are being affectionate and lower pitches when they are upset or angry, it is easy for dogs to learn the difference and respond accordingly. You can help your dog learn by being consistent with your vocal pitch as well as being aware of how to use tone when talking to your dog or giving cues. In general, the type of cue will determine the type of tone and pitch you use. You can use highenergy vocalizations to excite your dog into playing, for example, or to get your dog to come back to you when you call; use medium tones for everyday cues such as “wait” by the food bowl or “stay” by the front door when a guest is entering. You can use lower tones to tell your dog how you feel about a certain behavior, but take care not to frighten him into compliance. The canine memory is so good that he will truly remember and recognize the difference! Dogs that have been raised in positive, stimulating environments tend to have better memory function than dogs that have been raised in social isolation, because the more pleasant experiences a dog has in early life, the more chances its brain has to develop.
Reprinted from THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF DOGS Copyright © 2016 by Victoria Stilwell. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.
Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.
I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.
Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl
You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.
Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl
My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.
If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Dog Who Hated Surprises
The big dog lay on the floor in my office consulting room, as calm as could be. After a few minutes, he rolled onto his side, let out a huge sigh, and fell asleep. Once in a while he would open one eye when he heard another dog in the next room, but mostly Bailey seemed like the calmest dog in the world.
Sitting in two chairs in front of me, Jack and Sarah, Bailey’s two humans, described a very different dog. They lived in a suburb of Boston, where Bailey had free rein in their large house. Jack was a minister, with a gentle manner, flyaway hair, and large spectacles. Sarah was kindly and quiet with a ready smile. But despite their calm and warm demeanors, they were clearly in deep distress about the antics of their mixed-breed rescue, Bailey.
The stories were alarming. Recently, while outside the parsonage for his morning walk, Bailey had attacked a poodle that was innocently passing by. Even though the poodle was not harmed, his owner had reported the incident to the police, and was talking about filing a lawsuit. This would be bad enough for any dog owner, but a lawsuit could financially ruin Jack’s church.
Bailey had certain definite triggers. Oddly, blue jeans as well as anyone in his territory seemed to set him off. A few days before the poodle incident, Bailey and Jack were out for a walk when they had been surprised by a man turning a blind corner around a hedge. Bailey had lunged, teeth bared, and ripped the man’s jeans. Fortunately, the man was happy with Jack’s offer of a new pair of denims and did not take the matter any further.
Bailey also was puddling in the house and compelled to bark at anyone who walked past the parsonage’s large bay front window. He had even shown aggression to friends who visited. Bailey was not providing the welcome that visitors to their parson for counsel or comfort would normally expect. While Jack and Sarah loved their dog, they had to face the fact that Bailey was likely to injure someone else. They had been seriously considering giving Bailey up for adoption, a kindly euphemism for what we all knew would likely mean euthanasia.
Throughout Jack’s scary tale of Bailey’s attacks, the dog lazed around my consulting room at Tufts, reminding me of my meeting with Comet. I’d persuaded Jack to let Bailey out of his harness when they arrived. Jack had been loath to do so, and he was surprised that Bailey seemed so calm once free of restraint. The dog had wandered around the room a bit before taking a nap. Bailey was hardly the most extreme case of fear-aggressive behavior that I had ever seen, though his owner’s stories clearly indicated that Bailey was territorial and anxious. Away from his own territory, which he guarded too fiercely, Bailey was a sweetheart.
The dog’s behavior almost certainly stemmed from a bad start in life. Fear-aggressive dogs reach the high point of their belligerence at about two-and-a-half years of age, the peak of their physical and social maturity. Bailey was a rescue, so his early environment was unknown. I would take bets that the first three months of Bailey’s life were far from ideal, with substandard socialization exacerbated by frightening experiences.
The first thing I told Jack and Sarah was that Bailey’s barking, which they had complained happened whenever someone passed their house, might be something they’d have to live with. As the old adage goes, if you don’t want a dog that barks, get a cat. Most dogs engage in some territorial alarm barking when people or other dogs pass the home. Mine certainly do, but the majority of dogs are perfectly well behaved, even affectionate, once people are welcomed into the home. I did suggest that they move the couch away from the window so that Bailey couldn’t jump up and see everyone passing by. We also discussed denying him access to the front room and getting blinds or curtains to cover the windows. As another old saying goes, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. Sometimes simple changes in logistics can really help.
A tired dog is a good dog, or at least a better behaved one, and from what Jack and Sarah told me, Bailey didn’t get nearly enough exercise. Even though I’d rate more exercise as a basic “square one” change, it could still make a difference. Dogs generally need at least one hour of off-leash cardio exercise per day—that’s right, at least one hour.
Jack and Sarah seemed surprised by this, but even though they described themselves as “hardly spring chickens” they thought they could manage. Clearly Bailey had some issues about his territory, probably because he was anxious. There was plenty of work we could do to help Bailey, but first I figured that Jack and Sarah were the ones who needed the most help.
Dealing with stressed-out owners is a large part of what I do, and of course most people have plenty of other things going on in their lives besides their dog’s problem behavior. But they have to prioritize what to deal with on their plates—and sometimes what’s on their dog’s plate. Because a dog’s diet can affect his moods, a high-protein diet can cause increased levels of aggression, especially territorial aggression such as Bailey was showing. So Jack and Sarah needed to change Bailey’s diet.
Bailey needed only a limited, maintenance- level of protein. When I first saw him, he was ingesting about 25 to 30 percent protein in his regular dry food. My advice was to bring that down immediately—that very day— to around 18 percent. Protein doesn’t cause the aggression, but it will fan the flames, so reducing the protein in his rations would defuse at least some of the bad behavior.
With these measures in place, Bailey’s aggression waned. He never attacked another person. The threatened lawsuit did not materialize and Jack’s parsonage was safe. Bailey had a solid home with the good reverend and his wife and would not be rehomed, or worse, euthanized.
But there’s a coda to this story that points to the complex interactions between people and their pets. It turned out that at the time of Bailey’s “acting out,” Jack and Sarah had been having a terrible problem with a loved one, and that person had died in their home as a result of drug addiction. Bailey had been the first to discover the body, and the person had been wearing blue jeans.
Perhaps the pooch’s fear-based aggression was catalyzed by the troubled atmosphere in the home and the untimely death, which affected Jack and Sarah. When members of the household have changes in mood and behavior, this often affects their pet. Trainers often suggest that owners’ anxiety is transmitted to dogs, and there is some scientific evidence to support that contention. The stress that people face has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of people and dogs. Other studies have shown that owners’ emotional states can be mirrored in their dogs. And not just negative moods—owners of puppies have increased levels of oxytocin or the love hormone, which is also heightened in puppies. But following the psychological trauma of his owners, Bailey may have become overprotective of his “pack,” which could have caused him to behave in an unusually defensive way.
From Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry by Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas H. Dodman. Permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In her new book, Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey thoughtfully examines the history, stereotypes, fiction and societal worries surrounding a breed that was once thought to be an American icon. In this excerpt, she scrutinizes the science behind a misunderstood and complicated behavior.
The Victorian dog-show mania of the mid-nineteenth century not only created hundreds of new breeds, but also created two possible categories of bloodlines within many of them: working bloodlines, in which behaviors were most important, and conformation or show bloodlines, which prioritized appearance over behavior. The “washouts” from the conformation lines usually went on to pet homes. The dramatic increase in the number of breeders also allowed for more physical and behavioral variation within each breed, with the most popular dogs also being the most varied. Today, Labradors from American show lines are much shorter and fatter than they were even twenty years ago, while Labradors from British field lines are leaner and leggier. Dogs from these two strains may not only look different, they may also have drastically different behavioral profiles.
When breeders stop pushing, the car rolls back down the hill, and canine behavior drifts back to the middle. Exaggerated traits that are not selected for and not adaptive will mellow out and disappear over time, which is what appears to be happening in both the American and European dog populations. The overwhelming majority of modern dogs live as pets, rather than workers. Great Danes are no longer used for boar hunting. Siberian huskies do not pull sleds. Rhodesian ridgebacks do not bay lions, and most dachshunds will never see a badger, let alone kill one. Rather, these animals are physical reminders of the way the world once was. As the historian Scottie Westfall says, “Dogs are artifacts.” Though it is common to attribute a dog’s behavior to the task it was historically “bred for,” many of us fail to consider that most of today’s dogs are “bred for” the work of being companions, and have been for many generations.
In 2005, Kenth Svartberg, a zoologist from Stockholm University, collected data from more than thirteen thousand dogs from thirty-one breeds that had been subjected to a standardized behavior test and sorted them according to behavioral traits such as “playfulness,” “curiosity/fearlessness,” and “sociability.” After analyzing the data, Svartberg and his colleagues found that there was “no relationship . . . between the breeds’ typical behavior and function in the breeds’ origin.” He did, however, find that dogs from working lines (not breeds, but lines) retained more of their historical working traits than dogs from show lines, leading him to conclude that “basic dimensions of dog behavior can be changed when selection pressure changes, and . . . the domestication of the dog is still in progress.”
Pit bull breeds are not exempt from this trend. Unlike pointing or retrieving, both of which increase a dog’s ability to feed itself and its offspring by hunting, fighting isn’t one behavior but a complex series of behaviors that put the animal at tremendous risk. As highly social creatures that negotiate and renegotiate their relationships over time, most dogs depend on shared resources for their survival. If removed from human society, a dog that indiscriminately attacks or kills its own kind doesn’t live very long. While it’s certainly possible to breed for certain types of aggression (toward humans or other animals), it’s much harder to breed dogs that match the profile that fighters say they want: an animal that is indiscriminately accepting of humans, selectively reactive around other dogs in a specific environment—the pit— but tolerant of dogs outside of it, one that “doesn’t signal its intentions,” and also “doesn’t feel fear or pain.” They may as well be describing the American unicorn terrier, because these are all genetic dead ends.
No researcher has yet located an “aggression gene” or a set of aggression genes, despite years of genomic analysis. While conducting his research at Bar Harbor, John Paul Scott considered aggression “a poor scientific term [that] chiefly functions as a convenient handle to relate phenomena described in more objective terms to practical human problems.” At best, today’s scientists can only make educated guesses about certain components of canine reactivity, like the startle reflex (which multiple studies indicate is heritable) and individual pieces of the agonistic repertoire (freezing, fleeing, defensive postures, vocalizations, etc.). But this requires that researchers clearly define and isolate the behaviors they are observing, which is always a challenge. It’s possible, for example, that what was once called “rage syndrome” in certain lines of the English springer spaniel and English cocker spaniel is not one condition but several that were mistakenly grouped into one category. A few studies in mice and dogs have shown that disruption of the 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors in the brain, which regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, may be linked to specific types of impulsive aggression, but in both animals and humans, the 5-HT receptors can be damaged by stress and trauma that occur both in utero and after birth. Yet even these possible neurological links have been observed only in dogs from tightly closed gene pools. They are not widely passed from dog to dog in an open breeding system, like the passing of a disease.
“Let’s assume that you and I are working to breed the most dangerous aggressive fighting dog in the world,” Kris Irizarry, the geneticist at Western University, told me. “And we want this dog to turn and attack any human being, child, or any other animal relentlessly and never stop until it dies, 100 percent of the time. That’s our goal, okay? Now, let’s make the crazy assumption that we achieve that goal, and we produce, I don’t know, fifty dogs, a hundred dogs, even a thousand dogs that all have the same amount of this supernatural trait. For our purposes, we’ll call them ‘Crazy Dogs.’”
As he previously pointed out, “The moment our dog mates with any other type of dog, half of that genetic material is lost, so now you have a litter that’s only 50 percent Crazy Dog. If that litter reproduces, then their offspring are only 25 percent Crazy Dog. Then it goes down to 12.5 percent, 6.25 percent, et cetera. Within only seven generations, you’re at 1 percent Crazy Dog, and that’s assuming you were 100 percent successful at the beginning, which we know isn’t true of any breeder or any type of dog. Especially when you’re talking about complex behaviors like fighting, it just doesn’t work that way. There are probably constellations of genes, maybe even hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing to that behavior. You have to get the right neuron shape, the appropriate amount of neurotransmitters, all these things.
“So,” he continued, “the idea that any dog that has an ancestor—however many generations back—that had a head shape that cast a shadow against a wall that looked like the shape of a dog that bit someone in the pants . . . the idea that this dog is now going to be biting people is absolutely ludicrous! Americans watch too many zombie movies.”
A number of other studies have confirmed that dogs lash out most frequently from fear and anxiety, not “rage.” Not every dog that displays these behaviors has been abused, neglected, or formally trained, but overwhelmingly, the factors most highly correlated with dog aggression, such as the dog’s early development, its level of socialization with people and other dogs, how it is contained, and which training methods the owner uses, are completely within the owner’s control. Research indicates that these factors are far more important than the physical shape of the dog in determining its behavior.
Our own perceptions and expectations of the animals we encounter play a role in this, as well. “Dog breeds develop reputations,” writes the biologist Ray Coppinger, “and those reputations color people’s interactions with them.”
The fearful responses of people to a perceived aggressive breed “teaches” the shepherds or pit bulls to be aggressive with people. As the dog walks the streets, some people, almost imperceptibly, will take a step back or away from the dog. In two weeks the dog can become aggressive toward people. If people treated a golden retriever the same way, in theory one would get the same results.
Are shepherds genetically aggressive? Yes! Where are the genes for aggression? In their coat color and shape. It is a feedback system, where each time a person steps back from the shepherd because of its coloring and shape, the dog becomes more responsive to the move, and the people react more demonstratively to its movement, and so on. Can you train the dog not to be aggressive once it has learned to be? Probably not satisfactorily.
Okay, then can you breed people-aggressiveness out of shepherds? Of course! I’d start by breeding shepherds to have yellow coats and floppy ears. “Gameness,” however one defines that elusive quality, has never been studied in the laboratory with other variables held constant. Nor is it defined with any consistency. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist—there’s much anecdotal evidence that it does—but we have no way of measuring it. And, as we know, not all pit bulls come from fighting stock, anyway. The Stafford and AmStaff are show breeds, as is the American bully. Most APBTs come from conformation/ pet lines as well. So, the selective pressure for “gameness” was relaxed for most pit bulls between 80 and 150 years ago. As a result, many have retained their looks but not their historical working drives.
If we want to own dogs, their teeth come along. It is up to us to learn how and when dogs use them and to keep our dogs out of situations where they feel they need to. Aside from that, we must also accept that sometimes accidents and misunderstandings, even tragedies, can happen. As much as we may want them, there are no simple answers.
Excerpted from Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
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