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Good Dog: Behavior & Training
“The Present”
This animated short features a dog

The animated short film “The Present” by Jacob Frey tells the story of a boy who doesn’t want to play outside. He stays inside by himself and plays video games, but he is hardly content. That looks to improve when his mom brings him a dog as a present. The dog has to be persistent to engage with the boy, but eventually the dog’s enthusiasm wins out and the two do head outside to play.

The animated short is based on Fabio Coala’s comic, which contains such lines as, “Wait, what kind of a puppy doesn’t have a leg?!” “You can’t play. You’re only there for people to feel sorry for you. Don’t pretend you’re happy.” and “ You don’t care about your leg. You’re happy anyway.” The film has experienced a remarkable amount of success for a thesis project, winning over 50 awards.

We all have traits that we share with certain dogs, and sometimes that makes us perfect for each other. In this story, it’s not so much that the boy and the dog are each missing part of a leg that bonds them together. It’s more that they both have the desire to be social, to play and to be happy.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Royal Mealtime Rituals
Insight into the Queen's canine routine.
Queen Elizabeth's Corgis are arguably the most beloved members of British royalty. Recently Dr. Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist and behavioral therapist who has worked for years with the royal canines, talked about their cushy lives in an interview celebrating the Queen's 90th birthday.

It turns out the Queen has a very specific mealtime ritual for her four pups, Holly, Willow, Candy, and Vulcan. Each of the dogs are fed individually designed menus of steak, rabbit, or chicken, topped with homeopathic and herbal add-ins. The meals are served on silver or porcelain dishes and brought out by a butler. The dogs patiently sit in a semi-circle around the Queen and they're fed in order of seniority.

This feeding ritual made me think of my own pups' routine. I also feed my dogs in order of seniority, but will flip the order if someone barks (usually one of the impatient Shelties!). Whoever barks gets their food last. This only delays their meal by a minute or so, but those are the rules in our house! Good manners trumps seniority. 

While our pets may not eat off of silver platters, we may have more in common with the Queen and her dogs than we think. Dr. Mugford had some interesting insights into the Queen's love of animals. He says she has strong views about how dogs should be cared for and doesn't tolerate unkindness. When the Queen talks about her dogs you see a completely different side to her: she relaxes."

The human canine bond is strong, no matter if we're royalty or not!

 
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How I Got Into Canine Behavior and Dog Training
It was a happy accident of sorts

I was in graduate school studying animal behavior in the University of Wisconsin’s Zoology Department. I had already gotten my Master’s degree studying a nesting association between two species of tropical social wasps that live together. My PhD work was on the defensive behavior of tropical social wasps. These topics may seem very different than my work with dogs, but they are actually not as different as it may seem at first glance. The wasp projects I designed came from my interest in social behavior in general and from particularly strong interests in species that live together and in aggressive and defensive behavior.

Dogs and humans are two species that live together and have done so for thousands of years. Despite the generally good relationship between our two species, there certainly exists some aggression. My interest in dogs, besides coming from a tremendous love for them, stems from my broader scientific interests in species living together and in aggression. It is amazing to me that individuals living together rarely, on the whole, physically hurt one another. Sure, it does happen, but considering how many interactions occur, only a tiny percentage of them are aggressive in nature. The inhibition exhibited the vast majority of the time is quite remarkable, and even more so when this inhibition functions in situations involving more than one species.

In graduate school, I was assigned to be the teaching assistant for a class called “Human/Animal Relationships: Biological and Philosophical Issues” taught by the well-known Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell. Of all the fascinating topics in the class, there was one that captivated my scientific curiosity the most. That was the biological miracle of the complex relationships between humans and domestic animals, including the dog. Here was the sort of relationship between species that I was always interested in, and lo and behold it involved my own species!

I began to volunteer at the local dog training classes run by Patricia McConnell with her business, Dog’s Best Friend. I spent one evening each week assisting trainers as they trained people to train their dogs using a combination of ethology, learning theory and great coaching skills. I learned so much about how people and dogs interact and how best to teach both species new skills.

About a year later, I moved to New Hampshire with my fiancé (now husband) because he was starting his PhD at Dartmouth College. I investigated ways to work with dogs to continue to expand my skills in that area, and found that my options were limited. I spent the year learning about dogs in the most unexpected of ways—by grooming them! I am not a natural at grooming in any species, but I learned so very, very much about dogs. I encourage anyone interested in dog behavior to find some way to get hands-on experience with dogs to complement whatever knowledge they are getting from reading or course work. Volunteering at a local shelter or with a veterinarian are other options besides grooming. Toward the end of my first year in New Hampshire, I began to teach my own classes, which were called Play Training and emphasized the use of play when interacting with our dogs, motivating them, and reinforcing them.

After a year in New Hampshire, I accepted a job offer as a behavioral intern back in Wisconsin at Patricia McConnell’s Dog’s Best Friend. It was a tough decision to take this dream job because it meant that I would live 1300 miles away from my husband for four years. I literally flew home from my Alaskan honeymoon to New Hampshire, packed up to move to Wisconsin, and said good-bye to my husband of three weeks. Opportunities to intern in the field of applied animal behavior are so rare that it was worth the sacrifice, hard as it was. I love the work I do and would not have been able to do it without the proper training and education.

Sometimes people assume that I must be thrilled to have gotten out of the world of stinging insects. The fact of the matter is that I love wasps and miss my social insect days. Still, I also love dogs, and I can’t help but enjoy the switch from wasps to dogs because dogs are less aggressive and much easier to work with.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Need a Reminder About the Joy of Play?
Act like this dog, or at least watch him

Continuing to play into adulthood is a rare trait across the animal kingdom, but humans share this oddity with dogs. Being playful throughout our lives makes us unusual, but it bonds us together. It’s hard to imagine the relationships with our dogs being as strong without sharing play.

Whether we play together or watch each other play, we can relate to one another’s fun and find that it inspires playfulness in each of us. That might be what happened with this dog who went sledding after taking inspiration from the boy who was originally on the sled.

I like this dog. In 17 seconds, I see evidence of a great many admirable characteristics. He is a problem solver who takes initiative. It’s likely that he knows what the sled is for from prior experience, so he’s pretty smart. He’s obviously physically coordinated since he stays balanced on the sled, leaps on it at high speed, and uses it like a scooter by pushing with his feet. He’s fast enough to chase down a sled, and he is certainly very playful. It’s hard to watch this video without imagining what a glorious time he is having.

All I know about this dog is what I see in this short clip, but his playfulness is endearing enough to serve as a reminder to have more fun in life. If he had a motto, I suspect it would be “Carpe diem—Seize the day” (unless he is very literal in which case he might choose “Seize the sled.”) Either way, message received, little buddy. Message received.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs are Often Mislabeled as Pit Bulls
University of Florida study compares shelter breed assessments and DNA tests.
My local shelter is filled to the brim with homeless bully dogs, but because of the stigma around these breeds, these dogs are often overlooked. It's such a problem that some area rescue groups transport non-bully breeds from the South to make available for adoption.

A recent study at the University of Florida found that shelter pups are often mislabeled as Pit Bulls, which can adversely affect their chances of being adopted. According to Julie Levy, a professor at the school and the lead researcher on the study, animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs on appearance alone.

"In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog's life might depend on a potential adopter's momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters."

The researchers evaluated breed assessments of 120 dogs made by 16 staff members, including four veterinarians, across four area shelters. These staff members had at least three years of experience working in a shelter environment. The researchers took blood samples from the dogs, developed DNA profiles, and compared the findings against the staff's initial assessments.

There was a wide range of skill when it came to correctly associating a dog to a predominant breed. Dogs with Pit Bull heritage breed DNA (defined to include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier), were identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the staff member. They also found only a moderate level of agreement among staff members who evaluated the same dogs.

While there's a larger problem at play--changing the unfair perception of bully breeds--inaccurately labeling dogs as Pit Bulls can have significant implications like reduced adoption rates, higher insurance fees, and even exclusion from living in certain cities or buildings. Animal shelters have hundreds of pets come in every month, making it hard to spend more than a few minutes determining a pup's predominant breed. This is no easy feat for overwhelmed rescue organizations. However, this study shows how important the label can be in determining a dogs' fate.

 
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Consistency Across Intelligence Tests
Dogs who excel often do so in many tasks

Are dogs smart like people are smart? That is the question posed by researchers at the London School of Economics. They weren’t looking into whether dogs are as smart as people, but rather if they are smart in a variety of ways like people are.

When people take IQ tests, they tend to perform at a similar level across various tasks. If they do well in one area, they typically also shine in others. Are dogs the same way, showing a similar structure to their intelligence? By creating a dog IQ test of sorts with several components, the authors of, A general intelligence factor in dogs sought an answer to this question. They study was done with 68 working Border Collies to eliminate breed differences and to minimize differences in upbringing.

The tests performed on the dogs investigated their abilities to navigate barriers to get to food, to determine differences in quantities of food, and to follow a human gesture indicating the location of food. The combined tests took about an hour for each dog.

The general conclusions of the study suggest similarities between the structure of human and canine intelligence. Specifically, just like in people, there was individual variation and dogs who did well on one test were more likely to succeed at other tasks. Dogs who were quick at solving problems were also more accurate.

I think it is very interesting that we have moved away from the idea of “intelligence” as a single factor in humans, but researchers are searching for such a unified concept in dogs. Years ago, people spoke of general intelligence in humans as a separate thing than talents such as social skills, emotional connectedness and athletic or musical or artistic abilities. Now, we are more inclined to discuss people’s emotional or social intelligence or musical IQ, and more likely to discuss factors that are included in intelligence (like problem-solving ability) by being specific about them.

The main result of this study—that certain abilities in dogs such as negotiating detours, assessing quantities of food, responding to human gestures and solving problems quickly tend to be linked—is very interesting. I wish the authors would have focused on the links between the specific tasks they studied instead of generalizing to the point of putting every ability into one category called intelligence. What is going to happen if future studies suggest that a particular trait or ability is found to have no correlation to the others? Will it be considered irrelevant to intelligence, in its own special category or will it pose a problem to the concept of a general intelligence?

That said, I consider this an excellent study. It clearly shows that some individual dogs consistently have better success when asked to solve problems to accomplish various tasks. Very few studies have looked at how dogs differ from each other in this way. More studies on individual differences in cognitive ability are needed and I look forward to learning more about how dogs’ minds work as researchers continue to pursue studies comparing individuals’ abilities.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cream of the Crop: Shelter dogs frolic at the beach

Every week finds us out at the off leash beach with a group of friends and dogs. There might be as few as 4 or 5 dogs or as many as several dozen in our group. Almost all of them are formerly unwanted shelter dogs now living the lives they deserve as beloved and adored family members. On a recent beach day we passed a woman walking alone. She stopped to gaze at our joyful group playing in the surf and said to me, “My, what a lot of beautiful, well behaved dogs you have.” I thanked her and explained that I worked at a shelter and they were almost all former shelter dogs. She looked at them in surprise and said, “Well you sure picked the cream of the crop.”

I was taken aback for a moment. I glanced at beautiful Tyra, the Great Dane who came to the shelter as a scrawny, terrified stray. She had been frantic, trying to bite, and without even the faintest idea how to walk on a leash. I looked at dear old Pit Bull Patty, her chocolate brown coat glistening in the sun as she ambled happily in the sand and thought back to my first sight of her. She had been positively skeletal, nearly hairless and with tumors hanging from her enflamed, thickened skin. Sweet, adorable mixed breed Evie was wading nearby. She had been on a euthanasia list in an over-crowded shelter and arrived scared to death and reeking of filth. My gaze traveled from dog to dog as I thought of where they had come from. Formerly dirty, thin, unwanted, untrained, sick and more. For a moment I was a bit offended but I realized that the woman really didn’t know. I turned back to her and said, “Actually, I take the ones that need me the most, and I make them the cream of the crop.”

Of course it has taken some work to get these dogs where they are now. Some rescue dogs are super easy but I’m drawn to the ones that need some extra help. Bathing, grooming, veterinary care, a quality diet and lots of training and exercise has brought them to this point. But even a new puppy in perfect condition needs those things. All dogs are individuals and some dogs, due to genetics, lack of early socialization etc may not ever reach the point of fabulous health and being stable and off leash reliable.  But most dogs, given what they need to succeed, can become wonderful, happy companions. The rewards of bringing out the best in discarded dogs are endless.

Tell us how you brought out the best in your dog. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs and Machine Learning Come Together in an App
Fetch! identifies your pups' breed makeup through new technology.
A few years ago, consumer canine DNA tests became popular among dog lovers curious about their pets' heritage. Through a cheek swab or blood sample, you could see what interesting mix of breeds your rescue pup was made up of. But for many, the novelty didn't warrant the price tag.

Now there's a free, though less scientific, alternative through an app called Fetch! The program was created by Microsoft Garage, a project lab that lets Microsoft employees work on projects not related to their regular job (it's been compared to Google's famous "20% time" initiative).

Using machine learning technology, Fetch! uses a photo database to classify the makeup of a dog. When you take a picture of your pup, it'll tell you the closest percentage of your dog's breed. If your dog is a mix, you can tap the percentage of see the top five potential breeds. My rescue dog, Scuttle, came up as 99% Border Collie, which I think is accurate, but I tried the app with my friends' pups and they came up mostly Basenji and Chihuahua, which I was doubtful about. However, I can see that the accuracy can very depending on the quality of the photo you use.

If you take a non-dog photo, it will say "No dogs found" and offer a guess as to what it is. I tried a photo of my cat and it successfully identified her as a cat. If you use a photo of a person, it will go into Fetch! Fun mode and put cartoon ears on your head and playfully suggest a breed.

Fetch! uses a technology called deep neural networks to identify subtle of differences in images. According to Mitch Goldberg, a development director at Microsoft Research, this is what makes the app successful. You don't train the algorithm on a particular dog breed. In the training process, you give it a number of images and the computer determines what's unique in each of the photos.

Fetch! should improve over time as users leave feedback on the accuracy of the results. Currently the program is available as an iOS app and through a web site.

Whether it's accurate or not, it's certainly a fun program to try with your pups!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
From the Olympic Marathon Trials to Dog Names
Putting a canine spin on anything

No matter what the theme of an event is, there’s a high probability that it will end up being about dogs for me. That was true recently at a going away and good luck party for 15 local runners competing in the US Olympic Marathon Trials this Saturday. Our mountain town—Flagstaff, Arizona—is understandably proud of being the home of some of the world’s best runners, and this night, the focus was on that. We were wishing an elite group of athletes good luck and letting them know that we support them.

For me, though, from the moment a dog was first mentioned, my mind was split between running and canines. Though I was still listening to the runners introduce themselves, offer one random fact we don’t know about them and answer the crowd’s questions, I was also thinking about dog names. That’s because runner Nick Hilton’s random fact was about his dog. His Chocolate Labrador Retriever is named Rad, which is (naturally!) short for a wizard, Radagast the Brown, from Lord of the Rings.

Many other dogs clearly have guardians who are Lord of the Rings fans. Arwen, Bilbo and Gandalf were all popular names at one time. I’ve also met an Aragorn, several Sams inspired by Lord of the Rings, a Frodo, a Pippin, a Tolkien, a Lorien, and a few Shires. I’ve only met the one Rad, though.

Do you know of a dog whose name is Tolkien-inspired? Has your mind ever gone to the dogs when something totally different was going on?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An Unusual Animal Cruelty Charge
A Virginia man faced jail time for failing to bring his dog to the vet.
Deciding when to say goodbye to a beloved pet is never an easy one. When Travis Evans drove to the Stafford Animal Shelter last July to euthanize his family's Labrador Retriever, Buxton, he never imagined that he would be charged with animal cruelty. However, eleven days after Buxton was euthanized, Travis, still grieving, faced a class one misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The story began in December 2014 when the Evans family noticed a mass on Buxton's front paw. They brought him to a veterinarian who surgically removed the growth, however the procedure revealed that the seven year old pup had terminal cancer. Buxton did pretty well after the surgery until last July when the he had a seizure in the family's kitchen. Travis immediately called their vet office, which was closed, and then local emergency hospital. But by that time Buxton seemed to rebound and was walking around their backyard. Since he seemed to be doing okay, and they already knew about the terminal illness, the family decided not to take Buxton to the emergency vet appointment. But a few days later Buxton collapsed on the floor. Travis then made the decision to euthanize Buxton through the animal shelter.

The animal cruelty case focused on the four day gap between Buxton's first seizure and when Travis brought him in for euthanasia. The Commonwealth's Attorney's Office contends that the family ignored veterinarian recommendations and allowed Buxton to suffer. There's a lot of information missing from this case, so I can see why the charges were later dropped, citing the family wasn't intentionally cruel.

While I understand that the Evans' may have been short on money and felt they already knew Buxton had cancer, but if it were me, I would've brought my dog to the veterinarian immediately following the first seizure. That decision is certainly at the crux of the misdemeanor charge, however it seems like a bit of a slippery slope. The other side of this case is also interesting because the decision of when to euthanize a pet is often a bit subjective. Thinking about one of my past cats, I often think that I let him suffer too long because I didn't want to say goodbye.  

I'm glad that Stafford officials seemto be monitoring potential cruelty so closely, but I can see how these charges could be applied inconstantly. I also fear that this case could discourage people from calling the veterinarian, thinking that it could put them on the radar for a possible charge.

How do you think the Evans' family case should have been handled?

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