Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Detection dog essential for research success
For three years, scientist Chris Bugbee of Conservation CATalyst has been studying a jaguar named El Jefe, first with support from the University of Arizona and now from the Center for Biological Diversity. El Jefe is about seven years old and the only wild jaguar known to be in the United States. Most members of this species live further south, in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, but El Jefe has spent at least three years in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Jaguars are notoriously elusive, rarely seen and can have territories that cover hundreds of square miles, so the study of El Jefe represents a major success story. He’s not, however, the only animal associated with this study who is a success story.
The other one is a female Belgian Malinois named Mayke, who is a working detection dog. She has been trained to bark when she finds jaguar scat, which she can distinguish from the scat of other large cats. (Mayke is also trained to bark when she finds the scat of ocelot, another species of wild cat.)
Mayke was born to do scent work, coming from a program in Germany that has successfully bred many dogs for this purpose. Like her close relatives from the same lines, she has a great nose, can handle heat and is both trainable and intelligent. Even with that background, her first assignment was not a good match. She was originally placed as an explosives detection dog, but she couldn’t handle working around big trucks or gunfire. Those stresses upset her to the point that she was unable to perform the work she was trained to do, but she excels in the wide open, remote spaces where El Jefe lives, and where both dog and jaguar have been videotaped.
Detection dogs can be trained to find a huge range of things from explosives to drugs to people to invasive snails, so why was Mayke trained to find jaguar scat? The answer to that requires an understanding of how scientists view the excrement of their study animals. As a friend of mine who studied patas monkeys in Africa once said, “Most people think of poop as just poop. I think of poop as information.” (FYI, I paraphrased in order to maintain our PG rating.)
Scat is a major resource for people studying wild mammals, but it’s hard for people to find, especially when the animal in question is a jaguar and can travel 30 miles a day. Luckily, dogs are not held back, as people are, by pathetic noses and tiny olfactory lobes. A trained dog can sniff out scat, and therefore allow humans to learn so much more about an animal than would be possible on our own.
Thanks to Mayke and her trainer, biologist Chris Bugbee, it has been possible to map out El Jefe’s home range, learn what he’s eating, figure out a number of places where he likes to bed down during the day, and study his DNA. Mayke found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US, which is a big deal because the jaguar has not always been in this part of its historical range. It’s because of Mayke’s work that scientists have been able to place camera traps in places that El Jefe is likely to visit. The jaguar has been photographed and videotaped over a hundred times in the last three years. The understanding of El Jefe’s location and behavior, made possible by Mayke’s unique contribution to the project, have shown that El Jefe is a resident male who lives in Arizona.
According to Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center For Biological Diversity who has studied jaguars for years, this is important because people and organizations who are reluctant to use any resources to protect him tend to refer to him as a “solitary wandering male”. That implies that he is just a vagrant temporarily lost and visiting the US. This is a nonsensical classification because males of this species are always solitary except briefly during mating. Females are also solitary except during mating and during the short period they have young with them.
Jaguars are native to Arizona. Both males and females were living and breeding in the area until people shot and poisoned them out, beginning in the early 1900s. The interest in El Jefe is helping to protect 764,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona, and making it more likely that recovery efforts can re-establish a jaguar population in the area. The area is at risk of great damage to wildlife, water and the attractive landscape because of a proposed copper mine. There are many reasons to reject this environmentally damaging project, and El Jefe’s large territory is one of them.
With such a rare species, it’s important to keep as many potential breeding animals in the population as possible to maintain the genetic diversity. Previously, a male named Macho B who spent time in Arizona and was photographed there, returned to Mexico to breed, and it is likely that El Jefe is also a part of that same population.
Arizonans are quite attached to him already. That is especially true of the kids who named him. Children at Valencia Middle School in the Tucson area, whose mascot is the jaguar, picked his name. El Jefe (Spanish for “The Boss”) was the overwhelming choice in the vote among the five names that were finalists.
Perhaps the most important part of Mayke’s contribution to the study of El Jefe is that she enables scientists to learn about this jaguar in a non-invasive way. They are able to get an amazing amount of valuable data without bothering the cat. This matters for any species, but it’s especially critical when working with rare animals. Sadly, there are cases of jaguars being injured or killed because of attempts to radio collar the animal (to monitor the animal’s position) and a bad reaction to the tranquilizer. Mayke can locate signs of the animal’s presence and allow scientists to collect data without any such invasive techniques, which eliminates the risk associated with other methods of study.
When I asked Bugbee if there was anything else he wanted to share with me about Mayke, he answered, “Just that she’s a success story—even if you ignore that she’s found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US—because she found her confidence and came into her own.” They’ve been working together for three years and have a close relationship. Bugbee knows her well and understands her behavior. He knows the different ways that she reacts to various wild animals. If she finds scat from a puma, she pees on it. If she detects fresh deer scent from the glands in their feet, she points—holding one paw up and leaning in the direction of the deer. She also has her own unique responses to bobcats and bears.
Bugbee talks about her with great affection and respect, sounding like both the professional trainer he is and a loving dog guardian like any other, saying, “I wish I knew all of the things she picks up on. It would be incredible,” and “She’s a good dog. I like her.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Italian supermarket finds a way to make their stores even more pet friendly.
Many pet lovers dread having to leave their pups at home while they run errands. Not all dogs would enjoy coming along for the ride, but it would be nice to have the option for well behaved pets. This dilemma even inspired one woman to create Dog Parker last year, a collection of subscription based kennels placed in front of select Brooklyn, New York storefronts, intended to be used by people running into the grocery store or eating at a restaurant.
Ideally more places would be pet friendly, but health laws and irresponsible owners have made this a challenge. So when I learned that a grocery store in Liano, Italy not only welcomes dogs, but recently added pet friendly shopping carts, I was envious! Just being able to bring your dog into a supermarket is already extremely pet friendly, but the specially designed shopping carts really roll out the welcome mat. For anyone who has carted their dog around a store in a regular shopping cart, you know what a big deal that is! I usually put a towel or crate mat at the bottom of the cart to make it more comfortable for dog feet, but these carts have that feature incorporated into their design.
Unes store owner, Gianfranco Galantini, was inspired to create the pet friendly shopping carts after seeing how many dogs were left tied up outside of his stores. So he fitted some of his shopping carts with a special partitioned section in the front that has a solid bottom. Dogs can sit or stand up while looking out of the front. The carts are also cleaned after each use.
This whole venture is made by possible by the fact that small dogs are legally allowed to enter stores in Italy, as long as they're kept under control. So far everyone has been responsible, only bringing in well behaved pups and keeping everything clean, so there haven't been any problems. Unes' new carts have been so popular that the grocery chain is now considering adding them to their other locations.
Do you wish you could take your pups shopping?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Experience with relevant objects has no effect
Anyone whose dog loves to get into the garbage for a trash party or is better than Houdini at escaping from a crate knows that dogs are problem solvers. In fact, their ability to solve problems is an active area of research, and the results are not always intuitively obvious. (That’s the way that scientists express what other people might say as, “Whoa! That’s not what I expected!”)
In the study, “Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs”, researchers studied how two factors relate to how well dogs solve problems presented as physical tasks. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the ability to inhibit themselves was correlated with increased problem solving ability and whether experience with objects relevant to the problems made a difference. These two variables were chosen for investigation because there is evidence that they are both important in problem solving ability across a range of species, including humans.
In order to address these questions, they recruited 63 Border Collie puppies in pet homes and studied them over a period of three years. Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups that differed in their experiences with physical tasks.
The first group (enrichment group) received toys that gave them the opportunity to learn about the physical effects of gravity, attachment, and support and also a set of toys that required attending to a size differential between objects to access a treat. The second group (manipulative group) received toys that gave them the same opportunity as the first group to manipulate toys, to push and pull on handles and other parts of the toys, but which did not teach them about the effects of such actions or the importance of relative size. The third group (control group) had only the typical toys used by guardians for stimulation, such as ropes, balls and various rubber toys. The dogs in the experimental and manipulative groups (but not in the control group) took part in a string-pulling study that provided an additional educational experience about the physical effects of their actions.
All dogs, no matter which experience group they were in, were taught three inhibitory tasks. One was being required to wait for permission before taking a treat on the floor in front of them. (This task is often called “Leave It” though some people using this cue never allow the dog to take the treat he was told to leave.)
The second involved the opportunity to obtain a treat from underneath each of two transparent cups turned upside down. The catch was that there were three cups and the dog would only be permitted to knock over two of them. He had to avoid knocking over the empty cup, as the final cup was made unavailable after the dog had knocked over two cups. This is very hard for dogs, especially if the empty cup is in the middle between the cups with treats.
The third task involved the dog being caught by his leash on something like a tree or a lamp post. The guardian would call the dog, but the dog had to first move away from the person in order to untangle himself.
To assess dogs’ level of inhibitory control, they were tested on each of the tasks after a month of practice and scored on a scale of 0 to 2, which 2 representing the highest level of inhibition. This study did not distinguish between learned and inherent levels of inhibition, but simply looked a dog’s ability when tested to control himself in the various tasks.
To sum up, dogs were given one of three levels of experience with objects and their levels of inhibitory control were assessed. They were then tested with four problem-solving tasks. The problems were all designed to be difficult in order to detect potential improvement based on experience. (If the tasks were too easy, researchers would be unlikely to detect any role of experience in dogs’ ability to solve the problem.)
One main result of the study is that there was no difference found in the problem-solving abilities between the three groups of dogs. That is, success at solving the problems was not related to whether a dog was in the enriched, manipulation or control group. Another result of the study was that dogs’ inhibition scores were related to their performance in two of the problem-solving tasks, but not the other two. Of the two tasks in which performance was related to inhibition, one task was positively associated with success (high inhibition predicted success at solving the problem) and the other was negatively associated with success (a low level of inhibition predicted success at performing the task correctly).
The dogs in this study did not exhibit the ability to transfer knowledge about physical rules learned in one situation to another, similar situation. The researchers conclude that dogs do not generalize from one problem-solving task to another. They hypothesize that dogs approach each problem as a novel task unrelated to others that they have already solved.
I’m curious about these conclusions because of my own experiences observing dogs. I don’t have data on canine problem solving, so my surprise about this study’s results only reflects my anecdotal observations. It seems that dogs who understand how to get food from one style of Kong or toy have an easier time figuring out similar puzzles. It also seems that once a dog has solved the mystery of one “secure” trash can, others are quick to be defeated by that same dog. Perhaps experience only matters with highly similar tasks, or when the task is presented in the same location. Another possibility is that if the motivation to solve the problem is high enough, a dog will perform at a higher level. Kongs and trash cans may provide more motivation than a puzzle in a lab setting. All of these variables would be interesting to explore in future studies. Such work is incredibly intensive and time-consuming, and I applaud these researchers for investigating canine problem solving abilities in a long-term, controlled experiment.
Do the conclusions of this study match your expectations?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Gumby runs away from multiple homes until he finds a permanent spot at the shelter.
Last month, a seven year old hound mix named Gumby escaped yet again from his seventh adoptive home. It was the eleventh time he ended up back at the Charleston Animal Society (CAS) in the last year and a half.
When Gumby came to CAS in September 2014, his first adoption lasted only three days, the first of many short lived homes. The charming pup had no trouble finding new families, despite being warned of his Houdini-like skills, but Gumby always found a way to escape. Everyone loved Gumby, but all of the adopters ultimately returned him fearing he'd be injured on one of his adventures.
After his seventh home reported Gumby escaping three times in less than a month, once busting out of the man's screen door, the shelter decided to stop placing Gumby up for adoption. They also realized that he rarely ever tried to leave while at the shelter. Gumby adored their staff, and seemed to have a special skill--the natural ability to read the emotions of other dogs. Gumby was able to comfort incoming pets, adjusting his behavior in a way that settled fearful and reactive pups.
Donya Satriale, Behavior Team Leader for CAS, likes to say that Gumby kept returning to the shelter because "he knows he has work to do." Now Gumby helps Donya give behavioral demonstrations and acclimate new dogs.
Thanks to the shelter's extreme patience with Gumby, they eventually discovered his incredible gift for helping other dogs. CAS isn't exactly a traditional home, but it's the perfect one for Gumby.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
While scouting pups in need, a Canadian rescue organization ends up buying a shelter in Israel.
A few years ago Danielle Eden and her husband Rob Scheinberg were in their home country of Israel when they encountered four street dogs they decided to rescue and bring back to their current home in Canada. Inspired by the pups in need, they decided to create Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary in King City, Ontario, a custom made haven for animals waiting to be adopted. The 50-acre sanctuary features dogs in luxurious rooms decorated with chandeliers, paintings, and custom beds that look like antique furniture. The goal is to create a special space for people to interact with their next potential family member.
In honor of the original rescues, Danielle and Rob regularly go back to Israel and work with local shelter staff to identify dogs to bring back to Canada. Typically these are the pups that have been waiting the longest, because of their age or a disability. In January Danielle and Rob visited a shelter that took overcrowded to a new level. There were 250 dogs crammed in a space for 70. Dogs were fighting over bread and there were rats everywhere. For once it was not obvious which pups were in the most need, because they all were.
Danielle and Rob couldn't bring all of the dogs back with them to Canada, but couldn't bear to turn their backs on any of the pups. So they made the decision to purchase the shelter and take responsibility for all of the dogs there. Danielle and Rob were lucky to have the local ties to be able to make this happen.
It's been a busy last four months as they relocated 90 of the dogs to other, more adequate, rescues in Israel, brought 25 to Canada, and assembled a team to clean up the shelter and socialize the remaining pups. Half of the dogs brought to their shelter in Canada have been adopted.
Some have criticized Danielle and Rob for spending resources rescuing dogs in Israel, when they could be helping more animals in Canada (they do rescue locally as well). While that's a valid point, Danielle and Rob clearly have a connection to the country and have made a difference in many dogs' lives there.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
We can all enjoy Canada’s favorite sport
Playing is an important part of being happy, and Crusoe the Dachshund has this part of his daily routine in order. In this video, he is playing hockey (or some variant of the sport) with his friend Oakley, who is also a Dachshund.
So many aspects of this video make it fun to watch. There’s the fact that it has dogs in it, which is of course the most important piece. There’s also the whimsical music, the anatomy-enhancing uniforms and the bouncy behavior of the dogs. The skillful editing is a big part of what makes this video so entertaining. My favorite moment is at about six seconds in when one of the dogs looks to his right as though he really is on the ice monitoring the positions of the other players in order to plan his next move.
Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund has many other entertaining videos, if you ever feel the need for a little canine cheer.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs may need a break from each other
“I haven’t been more than 30 feet away from him in almost nine weeks!”
That was my older son’s answer when I asked the kids why they were uncharacteristically cranky with each other. It was a fair answer because it was almost literally true. When we spent all of last summer in Europe, it was a lot of family time. Only my husband, whose work was the reason for our travels there, spent some time away from the rest of us.
I know better than to allow that degree of excessive togetherness between dogs in the same family, and I was a little chagrined to realize I had made such a mistake with my human family. Oops. Even dogs who adore each other and are truly the best of friends benefit from some time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Unless your dogs are the rare exception because they are emotionally incapable of being away from one another, some quality time apart can be advantageous.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of time; I’m not suggesting you adjust your life so that your dogs have hours of separate activities each day. Even one walk or activity a week, or a couple of separate 15-minute play sessions can go a long way. It only takes a short break to prevent small irritations from building up. Those little stresses may not be obvious to us, but dogs can still get on each other’s nerves. Most dogs adjust and there is no problem, but we can help them enjoy life just a bit more with a change of pace involving time away from each other.
Many people swear that their dogs hate to be apart, but in many cases, the issue is not being apart, but being left behind. If more than one person lives in your home, it’s easier to work through this by having each person take one of the dogs to do something at the same time. If you are the only human in the family, then a good plan is to leave something fun and tasty to chew on with one dog while you go somewhere with the other dog.
If this is a challenge for your dogs, it’s a good idea to start with very short separations so that you can teach each dog to be comfortable being left alone. It’s a good skill to have in just case one dog becomes ill or injured and you have a forced separation on your hands.
If you have a multi-dog household, do your dogs have time away from the other dogs in the family?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An autistic boy nearly loses his pup for good when the Weimaraner runs away without identification.
Last August, the Carlisle family moved from Alabama to Florida with their autistic son's service dog in tow. However, during their first few days there, Delilah, a six year old Weimaraner, panicked in the new environment and escaped from their apartment.
Delilah had been by eight year old Zack's side since she was a puppy, detecting his seizures, providing comfort, and helping him communicate. Delilah draws Zack out of his shell and is often the only one who can get him to talk.
The family searched for days, handling out flyers and checking the local animal shelter, without luck. Zack was lost without Delilah. Then, in November, Zack's mom, Michele, came across a photo of Delilah on the Facebook page of a shelter 45 minutes away. But the family's excitement didn't last for long. The Humane Society of Tampa Bay had put Delilah up for adoption since she didn't have identification tags or a microchip. And the lovable pup found a home within days.
Meanwhile, Delilah's new family bonded with her for three months and initially refused to give her up. According to the Humane Society, dogs without identification no longer belong to the original owner after three days, so they didn't legally have to return her. But after hearing how distraught Zack was, they finally agreed to give her back, leading to an emotional reunion yesterday. Many people have offered the other family a new dog, but they're going to hold off for now and take some time to heal.
This story underscores how important it is to microchip your pet. They provide a back-up when identification tags fall off, and can also prove ownership. Getting a microchip put in your pet takes only a few minutes and many animal shelters have low cost clinics, so it seems like a no brainer!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s now legal to break into cars to rescue pets and people
The governor of Florida just signed a law making it legal to break into a car to rescue a person or a pet who is “in imminent danger of suffering harm.” It applies to vulnerable people and pets (including cats and dogs), but does not apply to farm animals. Many people and pets die each year because they have been left in overheating cars, so this law could save many lives. It is especially important in a hot southern state like Florida with the summer months approaching.
The law specifies procedures that must be followed in order for a person breaking into a car to be protected from civil liability for damage to the vehicle. If you are trying to help someone in danger, here’s what you should know about the law. It is required that you check that the car is locked before breaking in. If you do break in, the law requires that you do so with the minimum force necessary. You are required to call 911 or law enforcement before or immediately after rescuing the person or pet from the car, and you must stay with the rescued pet or the person until first responders arrive.
I’m delighted to know that Floridians are now protected by this law if they see an individual in danger in a car and choose to act. Many people would rescue the pet or person regardless of the risk to themselves, but it’s far better to give legal protection to such potential heroes.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Arizona shelter worker camps out until an overlooked pup finds a forever home.
Lizzy, a three year old Pit Bull Terrier mix, had been passed over by potential adopters countless times at the Maricopa County Animal Care and Control Shelter in Phoenix. Her breed already put her at a disadvantage, but Lizzy also had a missing eye and behavioral issues that require her to be an only pet. However shelter worker Melissa Gable knew that Lizzy was special and deserved a great home.
Concerned that people weren't seeing past Lizzy's physical appearance, Melissa decided to organize a "Pit-In," based on the 1960's protest sit-ins, to bring attention to the dog's plight. So a few weeks ago, Melissa set up Camp Lizzy, which consisted of a tent, air mattress, computer, and 60's themed decorations. She vowed to stay there until Lizzy found a forever home. The plan worked out even better than expected. Less than five hours after Camp Lizzy officially opened, Lizzy was adopted and went home with her new family.
Pit-Ins could be a cool way for other animal shelters to promote homeless bully breeds and bring attention to these lovely pups. I hope that Melissa and Lizzy's story also inspires others to come up with creative ways to increase adoptions!
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