News: Guest Posts
AFTER A LONG DAY of being a dog, no dog in existence has ever curled up on a comfy couch to settle in with a good book. Dogs just don’t roll like that. But that shouldn’t imply that human words don’t or can’t have meaning for dogs.
Chaser, a Border Collie from South Carolina, first entered the news in 2011 when a Behavioral Processes paper reported she had learned and retained the distinct names of over 1,000 objects. But that’s not all. When tested on the ability to associate a novel word with an unfamiliar item, she could do that, too. She also learned that different objects fell into different categories: certain things are general “toys,” while others are the more specific “Frisbees” and, of course, there are many, many exciting “balls.” She differentiates between object labels and action commands, interpreting “fetch sock” as two separate words, not as the single phrase “fetchsock.”
Fast forward two years. Chaser and her owner and trainer Dr. John Pilley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College, appeared again in a scientific journal. This time, the study highlighted Chaser’s attention to the syntactical relationships between words, for example, differentiating “to ball take Frisbee” from “to Frisbee take ball.”
I’ve been keeping an eye on Chaser, and I’ve been keeping an eye on Rico, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, all companion dogs whose way with human language has been reported in scientific journals. Most media reports tend to focus on outcomes: what these dogs can — or can’t — do with our words. But I think these reports are missing the point. Learning the names of over 1,000 words doesn’t just happen overnight. What does the behind-the-scenes learning and training look like? How did Chaser develop this intimate relationship with human language?
Recently, I had the pleasure of making Chaser and John Pilley’s acquaintance when they visited New York City for their forthcoming book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, out 10.29.13 (Facebook/Twitter). I sat down with Pilley to discuss Chaser’s initial training and learning and to pose questions offered up by readers of Dog Spies (Twitter /Facebook) and Do You Believe in Dog? (Twitter /Facebook). Pilley did most of the talking, and Chaser contributed too, periodically bringing me a Frisbee and sticks of various sizes to throw. As Pilley says, “Learning builds on learning,” so here’s what I learned from our conversation about the early building blocks of Chaser’s education:
Chaser is known for her extensive vocabulary. Can you walk us through how she came to learn the names of over 1,000 different objects?
Because learning depends upon learning, it helped to have her first learn certain simple behaviors, most of which were obedience behaviors like sit, stand, stay, and drop. She also learned herding commands like ‘way to me,’ ‘come by,‘ ‘there,’ ‘freeze,’ ‘walk,’ ‘go out,’ and ‘crawl’ among others. I used positive reinforcement, and in the beginning, I used food when she came to me. I gradually phased out the food.
When I started teaching the name of objects, I said, ‘Watch Pop Pop’ and would show her the object and say, ‘This is Frisbee,’ and I would hide the object just two feet away, so at that point, it wasn’t really hidden. When she went looking for it, I would keep saying, ‘Find Frisbee, find Frisbee,’ and when she mouthed it I would say, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ Then we made it more difficult, and I would really hide it out of her sight.
That was the procedure. A couple of times a day, I would play with her with that object for five minutes or so. No other objects would be on the floor, and we would play with that object, and I would profusely repeat the name of that object between 20-40 times in each session. ‘Find Santa Claus, Find Santa Claus,’ and then, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ when she mouthed it. That was the first step in teaching her the names of proper nouns.
After the first object was taught, it was set aside, and we worked on another one. She always learned one object at a time, a successive method of teaching. Before Chaser, we had tried a simultaneous method of teaching with other dogs [presenting two objects at a time], and that didn’t work.
As Chaser learned the names of different objects, how did you test what Chaser was learning? Did you have a way to assess her initial and long-term memory?
After a few weeks, it was time to test Chaser. The criteria for learning was that she had to successfully select a particular object out of 8 other objects. My criteria was not just that one test. We replicated it at least 8 times, and the items surrounding the object of interest would be different from what she had seen in earlier presentations. She had to be successful in each of those independent sessions 8 times in a row. If she was successful on the first 6 but missed on the 7th, I stopped the testing and put the object aside and worked with it some more.Then I would start the testing some more.
In addition to testing her initial learning of objects, each month we tested her memory on all of the objects that she had learned up to that point. We did it in sets of 20. I put 20 objects on the floor, using only objects which she had shown initial learning, and we asked Chaser to retrieve each of the 20 objects. Over the course of 3 years of teaching, Chaser was successful in retrieving 90% of the objects correctly. Most of the time she retrieved 100% of the objects and other times 95%, but it never got below 90%. If she was not successful, I put that object aside for additional training. The reason we tested her each month was we wanted to make sure that she was not learning new objects to replace an old object. We wanted to be sure that there was complete retention in the long term.
How about grammar? What were the general training and testing procedures?
Chaser initially learned actions independent of specific objects. I might be holding a piece of food, and I would say, ‘Take.’ Over time, she learned the three commands, ‘take,’ ‘paw,’ and ‘nose’ and they were later applied to different objects. The first step in grammar is two elements like, ‘Take Lamb,’ and Chaser demonstrated that each word had an independent meaning. I like to say that learning builds on learning. Not until she learned the two elements should she learn three elements. When she heard the phrase, ‘Take ball to Frisbee,’ she was successful three fourths of the time. But she seemed to act on the last thing she heard, so we changed the expression to ‘To ball take Frisbee.’ We also tested the inverse, ‘To Frisbee take ball.’ This work tests her syntax, her understanding of the rule. When we invert it, we’re demonstrating semantics, that she actually understands each of those components of the sentence and the different meanings of the words.
Can you talk about the use of play in Chaser’s learning and training?
Tension, fear and anxiety inhibit creative learning, and play and tension are incompatible. During play, creative learning can take place. If you are going for complex learning, you are not going to get any learning with tension and anxiety; I’ve learned that in over 30 years of teaching. One of the things that runs throughout the entire book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, is that play is one of the secrets of Chaser’s learning.
Most people don’t explicitly teach their dog words, yet they think that the dog understands many words. Do you think this assumption could ever be problematic?
As long as this doesn’t result in some kind of negative response like criticism or punishing the dog, it could be innocuous. It could have a negative impact on the dog if someone thinks a dog should know a word or phrase and holds it against the dog if he doesn’t seem to be performing. The best and simplest assumption is that if a dog is not emitting a behavior, then the dog might not understand.
Does knowing words and syntax help Chaser have a “happier” life with humans?
I think when you have more understanding, there is better communication and thereby more happiness.
What do you hope people take away from Chaser’s story?
The big thing is that Chaser is not special, and that anybody’s dog is smarter than he or she thinks. I’m hoping people will work with their dogs, of course teaching them words, but also getting to know their dogs. Find out what makes your dog happy, and give your dog opportunities to explore its interests.
Hecht, J. 2012. Say What? Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Bark Magazine
Goldman, J. Monday Pets: How Do Dogs Learn New Words? Scientific American. May 10, 2010
Pilley, J.W. with Hilary Hinzmann. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2013 Release
Pilley, J.W., and A.K. Reid. 2011. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes 86: 184–195.
Pilley, J.W. 2013. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation. Published online May 13, 2013.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Two pups with disabilities find each other at a Calif. rescue
Eve and Dillon were abandoned hundreds of miles apart from each other, but managed to find a forever home together in a heartwarming story. Eve, a deaf and half blind Catahoula mix, was found on Christmas Eve by a Bear Valley, Calif. mail carrier nearly frozen at just nine weeks old. Dillon, a Border Collie mix, was left behind at a Palmdale, Calif. boarding facility where his family dropped him off several months ago and never returned. Both pups were fortunate to end up at Marley's Mutts Dog Rescue where they instantly bonded, literally becoming each other's guide dogs. Dillon soothed Eve's anxiousness and Eve became Dillon's eyes. Rescue volunteers describe watching them play together as magical. The rescue knew Eve and Dillon had to stay together, but finding a home for even one special needs dog is challenging. Marley's Mutts took to social media and quickly caught the attention of Shelley Scudder via Facebook. Shelley already had two dogs of her own, but was won over after seeing the special relationship between Eve and Dillon. Looking at photos, you can definitely see the joy and trust the two pups have in each other. Hopefully this story will inspire others to give a special needs dog a second chance.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Many presentations featured dogs
Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.
I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.
At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:
Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs
The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions
Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”
Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior
Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?
Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?
Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study
A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs
Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers
I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A man is cleared of an animal torture conviction based on a technicality
These days more and more states are passing or strengthening animal cruelty laws, but recently progress in this area took a giant step backwards. Last month an Iowa Court of Appeals ruling overturned the conviction of a man who beat a puppy to death with a baseball bat. According to Polk County attorney John Sarcone, this ruling will make it harder for future animal torture cases to make it to trial.
In 2012 Zachary Meerdink was convicted of killing Rocky, his 7-month old Boston Terrier, after the puppy had multiple accidents in the house and bit his girlfriend's children (although it seems there is no actual evidence of this happening on the day of the beating, but that is beside the point).
A three-judge panel voted two to one that prosecutors failed to show Zachary acted with a “depraved or sadistic intent to cause death,” as required by the state's animal torture law. They say that the evidence showed Zachary did not appear happy about the beating and had first tried other ways to change the puppy's behavior.
I don't see how being upset or having attempted to train the puppy makes it okay to kill an animal. Zachary could have easily brought the dog to the animal shelter if he thought the situation was no longer working out.
This case shows how important it is for us to put pressure on our local lawmakers to strengthen animal cruelty laws. Fortunately, there is still hope for getting justice for Rocky. State prosecutors filed an appeal with the Iowa Supreme Court, arguing that a person doesn't have to look “happy or eager” to kill to be convicted of animal torture. They are also asking the high court to clarify the state's animal torture law.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A fellow animal control officer received a call to pick up a dog found lying emaciated and soaking wet in a creek bed. The tiny Chihuahua was rushed back to the shelter and examined by the shelter veterinarian. In addition to being skin and bones, she was too weak to stand, had a clouded eye and the look of long time neglect about her. She was immediately started on treatment but the prognosis was poor. Her blood work suggested that her organs were failing. Whether this was result of starvation or some other medical condition was unknown.
When I first saw the dog she was lying apathetically on her blankets in the shelter clinic. She looked terrible but the thing I noticed was the odor. She had that terrible “hoarder” smell to her sparse coat. Unless you’ve lived it, there is no describing it but it’s a combination of rotting garbage, feces, urine and filth that’s unmistakable. Every hoarder situation I’ve gone on smells the same, whether its dogs, cats or something else.
The tiny dog declined overnight and the discussion ensued about whether it was kinder to let her go. I certainly didn’t want to put her through anymore pain if she wasn’t going to survive but she didn’t seem to be in terrible pain, just incredibly weak and sick. I decided to take her home to foster. If she wasn’t going to survive, at least she should die in a quiet place surrounded by love.
As weak as she was, I couldn’t bear the stench of her coat and gently lowered her into a warm sudsy bath. She seemed to relax into the warm water and was soon clean and sweet smelling although she still looked terrible. I wrapped her in a warm towel and cuddled her close. She sighed, leaned against me and fell asleep.
I called the little dog Hannah and since she was unable to eat on her own, I carefully syringed a tiny amount of bland gruel into her mouth every few hours. People always want to pour high fat food into starved animals but in most cases that can be very harmful. The animal’s body needs time to slowly acclimate to eating normal foods again and re-feeding must be done very carefully. Within a day or two she was able to eat tiny amounts of food on her own and was able to stand and walk a little.
I was so encouraged by Hannah’s progress but was cautious about getting too excited as I knew she wasn’t out of the woods yet. Her gum color was still pure white as a result of anemia and I worried about organ failure. I worked closely with the veterinarian on her care and thankfully she continued to improve. After a week or so it looked to me like she might have gained a little weight. I put her on a little food scale and found that she had gone from less than 4 pounds to about 5 pounds. I was jubilant! As Hannah felt better her personality began to emerge and what a delightful girl. She followed me everywhere and began playing with toys and asserting herself with my 120 pound Great Dane.
I had been posting Hannah’s progress on my facebook page each day and a woman who had seen her photos expressed an interest in adopting her. After several weeks when it seemed obvious that Hannah would survive, we arranged a meeting. The introduction was successful and after Hannah had another thorough vet exam and was spayed she went to her new home. She had gained more than 2 pounds by then and was really starting to look good.
It is such an amazing feeling to watch a neglected animal blossom and get a forever home. I would love to hear from readers who have rehabbed a dog in need, or adopted one.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s counterproductive and unfair
When I tell people that I work with dogs with serious behavior problems including aggression, the response is often something like, “Isn’t it the people’s fault? I mean, don’t you find that the dogs are acting that way because the people haven’t trained or raised them right?”
I always disagree, saying as gently as I can, “No, most of the dogs I see are really challenging dogs who would have problematic behavior in any situation. And most of the families I work with have had other dogs with perfectly lovely behavior.” It’s true—the dogs are the ones with the problem in my experience, not the guardians.
Many clients blame themselves, too, probably because the idea that anyone can make any dog behave in any way they desire is so prevalent in our culture. This can lead to guilt and shame that prevents people from seeking help as well as making them feel terrible. Most of the clients I see have dogs with aggression, and the vast majority of the people have had many dogs over the years without such problems. It makes no sense to assume that the dog has gone bad because of mistakes by the people or their inadequacies when they have raised other dogs who did not turn out the same way. People are seeking help and accusing them of being at fault is both unfair and counterproductive.
Many dogs who are aggressive or have other equally serious behavioral problems are naturally wired to struggle with social issues. Some are ill or in pain, while others have a past that is unknown but may involve limited exposure to the world (inadequate socialization) or some ordeal in the past that affected them and their behavior profoundly.
I find myself explaining over and over to clients and people I meet socially that I object to blaming guardians for the serious behavior problems of their dogs. Sure, the behavior of some rowdy dogs may be a result of inadequate training or inconsistencies by the guardians, but slightly rude or out of control dogs are very different than dogs with much deeper issues. When it comes to dogs whose behavior problems represent abnormal (as opposed to just boisterous) behavior, it’s important to realize that the people didn’t cause the problem.
Do you find that people are being blamed for dogs’ serious behavior problems? What’s your take on this?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They are treasures
The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)
The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.
Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.
However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.
He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.
When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.
Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?
News: Guest Posts
Why we need research and how you can help
I was asked by health researcher, Jessica Chubak, PhD, to post this notice of the work that she is doing on the effects of pet visitation programs on children with cancer. To me, her study—which she is trying to raise crowd funding for— seems to be very worthwhile, so thought you would be interested in learning about it too. —Claudia Kawczynska, Editor
Animal-assisted activities for kids with cancer: why we need research and how you can help
Can pet visits help kids with cancer? Ask children with cancer who get to see and touch therapy dogs. Ask parents, doctors, nurses and animal-assisted activities volunteers. The answer is unequivocally: yes, pet visits help.
I’m an animal lover and have been since I was a kid. I’m also a scientist who is trying to prevent cancer and make life better for people who have it. I’m planning a study on pet visits for kids with cancer. You might reasonably ask: Don't we already know those visits help? Do we really need more research?
Here’s why we do:
1) We need to know about the safety of pet visits for kids with cancer. I've talked with pediatric oncology clinics around the country. Many cancer programs don’t allow animal-assisted activities, primarily because of safety worries, specifically infections, in this vulnerable group of kids. They want hard evidence (see #3).
2) We have to learn exactly how animal visits can help. Visits from pets won’t make everything better for kids with cancer. Pet visits might reduce anxiety but not pain. Or they might relieve pain but not fatigue. If we know what parts of pediatric cancer treatment are easier with pet visits, we’ll know how to make effective animal-assisted activities programs for kids with cancer. If we identify areas where pet visits don't help, we know where to focus our attention on developing other interventions.
3) It’s all about medical evidence. Doctors, nurses, and parents of pediatric cancer patients want to see solid support from careful studies before starting animal assisted activity programs. It’s important to have evidence for any treatment, including supportive care. And even when research gives us expected answers, it often provides additional information. We might not be surprised if a study shows that visits from pets relieve stress in kids with cancer. But we also want to know if group or private visits work best, and when and where visits are most helpful, in the waiting room or after a procedure? How often should visits happen and how long should they last? We need answers to help design effective animal-assisted activities for young cancer patients.
My research focuses on developing safe and effective animal-assisted activities for kids with cancer, based on ideas, concerns, and solutions from the kids, their families, and their health care providers. My crowdfunding campaign will help fund this research. I hope you'll support this project, maybe with a donation (even a small amount), but especially by spreading the word to others.
I’ve thought about this study a lot and I think it is important to do. If you are interested in sharing your ideas on why you think it's important—or why it isn't—please leave a comment. Thank you.
More about Jessica Chubak
I am a faculty member at Group Health Research Institute, where my research focus is improving cancer screening, care, and survivorship. My new project is inspired, in part, by my volunteer work after college. I helped in the pediatric ward of a hospital. Working with children and families I saw how play distracted them from the stress of being in the hospital. As a lover of pets, I find animals to be incredible companions. After learning about the Pet Partners program and promising preliminary work in Canada, I decided to include animal-assisted activities for children with cancer in my research program.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine facial expressions reveal a range of emotions
When I get home, there's no question in my mind that my pups are excited to see me. And they each have their own way of expressing that joy. Scuttle runs in circles and wiggles her whole body uncontrollably, while Nemo barks and wags his tail. While these behaviors are often thought of as the sign of a happy dog, a new study shows that canine emotions may be more universally expressed through their eyebrows and ears. Researchers at Japan's Azabu University used high-speed cameras to track dogs' facial movements in response to different stimuli. They found that dogs tended to move their eyebrows up, particularly on the left side, when seeing a human family member and moved their left ear back when meeting a new person. If the pups were shown an object they had a bad association with, like a pair of nail clippers, the dogs moved their right ear instead. One of the scientists, Dr. Miho Nagasawa, hypothesizes that the ear movement in response to unfamiliar or negative things may stem from its use to convey emotional expression. Eyebrow movement may reflect the movement to look at someone that they have an established relationship with. After reading about this study, I tried watching my dogs when I came home yesterday. As you can imagine, excited pups move way too quickly to see eyebrow movement! However, I am really curious about the range of facial expressions to different people. For instance, Scuttle loves people and when we meet a stranger, she can barely control her excitement. Would her facial expression be radically different with me versus with another person? I would really like to see more research done on the canine facial expressions associated with established human relationships. What are your dog's happy signals?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pups stolen under the pretense of board and train
For me, finding the right trainer, dog walker, or veterinarian is complex process. I want to make sure we agree on training and health care philosophies, that they have enough experience and knowledge, that they genuinely care about their clients, and that others are happy with the service they've received. After all, you're putting a great deal of trust in these people to help you raise part of your family. Several people on the East Coast had that trust broken when the man they paid to board and train their dogs disappeared with their pups, leaving them heartbroken. Investigators identified a man named James Randel Whitten as the one responsible, but he's still missing. The scam has been run in multiple states, including North and South Carolina and Delaware. James advertises his "business" on websites like Craigslist and convinces people to board their pets with him. He then takes the money and dogs and disappears. James was last seen in Tarboro, N.Car. and has gone by multiple aliases. Not only is he kidnapping animals, but he's also neglecting them. Before James left Tarboro, he left a Pit Bull and French Mastiff without shelter, food, or water. Fortunately both pups are safe and back with their families, but there are countless dogs still missing. For more information, the affected families started a Facebook page and web site to help get the word out. They're hoping to find the remaining dogs and prevent other families from being scammed. This case does highlight the importance of choosing a reputable dog trainer, especially if it's a board and train situation (I much prefer situations where the trainer teaches people to train their dogs). A good starting point is to ask friends or local veterinarians for recommendations. Verify trainers by searching online for reviews and asking them for a few clients that you can contact for references. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers has more tips on their web site for choosing a trainer. Hopefully James will be caught before he moves on to other states and the remaining pets will be reunited with their families.
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