Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Both Ends of the Leash: Walking the Talk
Alex, the world’s most famous African Grey parrot, died September 6, 2007, and the world is a sadder place for it.
You may be wondering why a column about dog behavior would begin with a memorial to a parrot, but there is an important connection between Alex’s behavior and that of your dog. It was Alex, and his human, Irene Pepperberg, who stretched our understanding of what goes on in the minds of nonhuman animals, including the furry best friend lying at your feet.
When, in 1977, Pepperberg began teaching Alex to use words to communicate, the consensus was that animals could be taught to associate sounds with objects (“Go get your ball,”) but not concepts. Concepts are abstractions that live only inside your brain. For example, try picking up a “bigger,” or giving someone a “different” as a birthday present.
The argument used to be that nonhuman animals could only respond to something directly in front of them, and weren’t capable of the kind of cognitive gymnastics that abstractions require. However, Pepperberg’s research taught us that not only could Alex use words to label an object’s shape, form and color (“Alex, pick up the blue triangle out of all the other objects on the tray.”), he had little trouble grasping concepts like “different” and “bigger” (“Alex, what color is the object that is shaped differently from all the rest?”).
Alex’s thought processes, and the way he communicated them, went far beyond answering questions put to him during his training sessions. One day, while looking in the mirror, Alex said, “What color?” Mind you, Alex had been trained to answer questions, not ask them. When the surprised trainers answered, “grey,” Alex was then able to identify other grey objects.
That wasn’t the only time Alex surprised his handlers. I am still amused by a video I saw of Alex working with an impatient trainer. After several interactions, clearly frustrating for person and parrot alike, Alex belted out, in a startlingly clear Bronx accent, “Go away!” But the bird’s most compelling vocalization took place when Pepperberg had to leave him alone, for the first time, at a veterinary clinic. As she walked away, Alex said in a soft and quiet voice, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” (This knowledge has made leaving my dogs at a vet clinic a hundred times harder for me, and I pass it along to you with my own soft and quiet, “I’m sorry.” Ignorance indeed can be bliss.)
When Pepperberg first began working with Alex, there were suggestions that certain other animals could understand simple concepts, but it’s only been during the last 20 years that this issue has gotten the attention it deserves. We’ve found that many animals—including rats, pigeons and a surprising star in cognitive research, the octopus (honest)—can functionally use concepts like “different” and “bigger.”
But what about our dogs? If an octopus can understand the concept “different,” surely our dogs can too. Or can they? Until very recently, research on our best friends has lagged behind that on primates and laboratory rats; apparently, “familiarity breeds contempt” in science as well as in the rest of life. But dogs are finally becoming hot topics in cognitive research—check out, for example, recent issues of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Here’s a little about what we’ve learned so far. Research confirms that dogs can also functionally use concepts like “larger” and “different.”* What’s more, in certain contexts, they can also be taught a more complicated procedure called “delayed non-matching to sample.” Here’s how the experiment works: The dog is presented with an object that has a piece of food underneath. He’s allowed to move the object and get the food. Then, after a delay of a varying amount of time, say, 10 seconds, the dog is presented with two objects. One item is the same as before, the other is different. The “right” choice is the different object.
When researchers first conducted the study, the dogs failed miserably. After hundreds of trials, the dogs were still unable to identify the different object. In comparison, rhesus monkeys figured it out pretty quickly. But when the researchers changed the procedure and asked the dogs to choose an object in a different location, our best friends turned into academic stars, getting the answer right 90 percent of the time—even after waiting 20 seconds between presentations.
So, here’s where musings about cognition leave the land of the research lab and settle into your living room. Of the words you use (whether they reference actions, objects or concepts), how many do you think your dog understands? The answer may be more complicated than we think. Let me illustrate with a story:
Last night, as we have for many nights, my young Border Collie, Will, and I worked on his ability to label objects with names. He is the fastest canine learner I’ve ever had— and that’s saying something, since I’ve had many other dogs, seven of them Border Collies. This dog learned to lie down on his side for acupuncture in less than five minutes. He learned to stretch out his foreleg on cue in less time than I can write about it. I can ask him to “Go get your toy,” five minutes after he has dropped it 200 yards away and he will retrieve it. In short, he’s one of those “oh-wow” dogs who make training look easy.
But when I ask him to pick out his “ring,” or his “ball,” he looks like a dunce. For three weeks, I’ve reinforced him for touching a toy after I’ve said its name. I started with one object at a time, saying the name “ring” or “ball” and reinforcing a correct response with treats or play. I’ve done that hundreds of times, and if the only toy visible is the one I ask for, he’s—not surprisingly!—always right. Recently, I’ve been placing two objects on the floor and asking for just one of them. At first, I make the right choice easy by placing it close to him, while the “wrong” object is farther away. But as soon as Will has a real choice, his accuracy plummets and his responses become random. He enthusiastically chooses one, and then deflates when I slowly shake my head no. Over and over, he desperately tries to figure out what I want him to do. For a while, he was choosing the last location reinforced. When he realized that wasn’t it, he lay with his head down on his paws.
I didn’t think teaching him “ball” and “ring” would be that hard. After all, when I say, “Get your toy,” he picks up an object without hesitation. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve known for years that dogs can use sounds to label objects (you might well have a dog who knows his ball from his tug toy). Rico, the famous European Border Collie, not only knows the names of more than 200 objects, he could to match an unfamiliar name with an unfamiliar object in a carefully controlled experiment. How could my brilliant little dog be such a slow learner?
I think Will’s struggle relates to concepts. Until I began to ask him to choose one toy over the other, the sounds I made to Will had always been associated with actions: Lie down. Walk up (on sheep). Wait. Bow. Get your toy (go pick up something). It looked as though he understood that “toy” referred to his play objects—except when I experimented and said, “Go get your —” and he immediately picked up the closest object. When I asked him to “Go get your wallaby,” he hesitated a moment, and then picked up the closest toy.
Naming seems like such a simple concept, yet many of us can remember the scene in the movie Helen Keller, when, after infinite periods of frustration, Helen finally realizes that the sign she is being taught stands for the cold water running over her hand. Another riveting story is told in the book A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller. She describes a deaf man who had never been taught even the most basic communication skills bursting into tears when he first realizes that objects could be labeled, and signs could be used to converse with others about those objects.
I’m sure Will’s “Helen Keller” moment will come sometime in the future, but in the interim, his struggles are a constant reminder of the ongoing challenge to understand what’s going on in our dog’s brain. It’s important to understand which concepts dogs understand and which they don’t. Keep that in mind, and think of the following questions as wonderful ways to entertain yourself and your dog through the last cold days of winter: How much of what you say does your dog understand? What could you do to try to find out? What type of everyday concepts does your dog understand? Does your dog understand that the words you use can represent both actions and objects? Can you teach your dog to distinguish “larger” from “smaller”? You may get some definitive answers, or you may generate more questions, but whatever happens, you’ll keep your dog’s mind (and yours) entertained and engaged until spring arrives!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Tell-tail signs that your dog is feeling groovy
The next time your dog greets you when you come home, closely watch his tail. Scientists have discovered that a happy dog will wag harder to the right and an anxious dog will wag harder to the left.
The study’s findings, “Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli,” was recently published in Current Biology. Co-authors include neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste in Italy, and veterinarians Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari in Italy.
In humans, it’s well documented that the brain is divided into two cerebral hemispheres—left and right—which serve different functions and control opposite sides of the body. Most animals also demonstrate a difference between “left brain” and “right brain” functions. It is believed that the left brain in animals specializes in “approach and energy enrichment,” such as finding food. The right brain specializes in “withdrawal and energy expenditure,” such as fleeing in response to fear. Because the dog’s tail is located along the body’s midline, researchers questioned whether or not the tail displayed emotional asymmetry.
Thirty mixed-breed dogs, family pets, served as the researchers’ subjects. Each dog was put in a cage specially fitted with cameras to capture the precise angle of the dog’s tail movement. The dog was then shown four separate stimuli—his owner; a stranger; a friendly cat; and an unfamiliar, intimidating dog—for one minute each.
Upon sight of their owners, all 30 dogs wagged their tails more strongly to the right side. After a 90-second rest period, the dogs viewed a stranger. The dogs’ tails still favored the right side, but the angle was more moderate in comparison to seeing their owner. The cat elicited a bias to the right side, but it was even more subtle than when they saw the stranger. The large, unknown dog caused all of the dogs to wag their tails to more to the left.
The authors concluded that when the dog felt positive, or curious (as in the case of the cat), the tail wagged right. If the dog felt negative or apprehensive, the tail wagged left. Since the left brain controls the right side of the body, the right muscles of the tail expressed those good feelings. The left muscles of the tail signaled caution or concern, which is controlled by the right brain.
It’s always a good idea to observe your dog’s body language, whether you’re relaxing at the dog park or waiting to see the vet. Now, thanks to your dog’s tail, you have another way to tell how he really feels.
The Metropolitan Museum invites you to collect and connect
NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the United States, and houses over two million works in its permanent collection. In an effort to broaden its reach and engage virtual museum goers, it has introduced MyMet, an online feature that allows you to select and store favorite works of art, and share them via social media. With MyMet, the museum’s incredible collections are at your fingertips. Enter “dog” in the search and you’ll get 1,184 results! We spent a few hours browsing through a treasure trove of art, objects and artifacts.
Q&A with Miki Chan of SpaGo Dog
From a corporate office to a mobile dog-grooming van may seem like a demotion, but for Miki Chan, San Francisco Bay Area owner/operator of SpaGo Dog and former insuranceindustry underwriter, it was a huge step up. For 15+ years, Chan devoted her time to the demands of her job. Then one day, her supervisor, who previously had worked for AIG for 25 years and lost most of his net worth when it collapsed, advised her to do what she loved. Taking his advice to heart, she began to plan a way to return to her dog-grooming roots.
Chan had grown up with dogs, and when she was in college earning a degree in computer science with a minor in business, had a part-time job with a groomer, and loved it. So she went back to grooming school, got certified and worked for others to update her skills. Her financial background and marketing insights led her to believe that people would support a grooming salon that came to them. Plus, she didn’t like putting dogs in cages, as happens in most brick-andmortar operations. A mobile set-up would be quiet, personal, relaxing and clean—spa-like, you might say.
Chan finds working with dogs to be joyful, and is gratified that she’s been able to help them by sharing information with their owners on brushing, dental care, and health issues that the grooming process can reveal, such as lumps, skin tags, ear infections and so on.
Besides the sheer pleasure of working with dogs, she’s also glad that she no longer has to deal with office politics, plead for time off or spend endless hours for the benefit of corporate shareholders. We asked if she had any tips for others considering a career change, particularly self-employment, and she shared a few with us. Before jumping, Chan recommends that people be sure they can support their preferred lifestyle (whatever that might be) without their previous paycheck. She also points out that knowing your target audience is crucial, as are time-management and customer-service skills. And being knowledgeable about what you’re doing is key to building trust.
The insurance world’s loss has been the dog world’s gain, and we’d bet the planet’s happiness quotient has gone up a few points as well.
Do you find that people are comfortable with the concept of a mobile groomer?
What’s a typical grooming session like?
When it comes to nail trimming, black nails can be really difficult. What do you advise?
What kinds of things do you see most often?
Grammy award–winning musician talks "The Best Dog".
Amy White and Al Petteway are Grammy award–winning musicians whose wonderful American traditional music can be heard on the soundtracks of Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries.
We asked Amy to tell us more about “The Best Dog,” a tender song on her new CD, Home Sweet Home, and about the dogs who inspire her. This is her reply.
“‘The Best Dog’ isn’t so much about a particular dog as it is about this great, yet very fragile gift we receive from loving one.
“After a month of searching for the right match, we found Buki— our Collie mix—at the end of a row of cages at the Yancey County, N.C., animal shelter. A year later, we found him a companion at North Carolina Aussie Rescue. Kip is deaf, but he often listens better than his hearing-ear dog, Buki. Kip certainly heard me crying when I was recording the vocals for this song. And he gave me comfort when he saw it was needed.
“Dogs really are our best tonic. They get us out of the house, and out of our artistic funks, right out into the world. (And they do this almost effortlessly, too. That’s quite a feat for hermit-prone artists like us.)
“We are so grateful to our dogs for helping us embrace the moment, and for helping us to find our daily joy.”
The final verse of “The Best Dog” speaks volumes about losing a dog but finding another:
Smiling in Seattle
The design sensibility at Urban Animal, a veterinary office that opened last year in Seattle, is part Airstream and part 1978 Ford truck—both of which practice founder Cherri Trusheim, DVM, owns.
Located in an old medical building in what is arguably the city’s hippest neighborhood, the warm modern space features funky vinyl chairs and second-hand medical cabinets, paint-by-number dog portraits, an enormous vintage print of a cabin in the mountains (the Irish Setter pointing in the grass was added by an artist friend later), and, in the corner, a photobooth.
Yep, a photobooth, and not one of those unsatisfying digital numbers. This booth uses film and dispenses slightly wet prints in four minutes (for $4). It’s here for clients and patients to amuse themselves and perhaps take some of the stress out of a visit, but non-clients are also welcome to pop in for snapshots.
The photobooth isn’t the only unconventional thing about Urban Animal. Dr. Trusheim, who’s worked as a relief vet and at an emergency hospital, has a different plan. In addition to its all-walk-in, open-weekends schedule, Urban Animal has a strong commitment to keeping care affordable, an approach that might include not pushing for the most extreme and costly interventions. In an industry with spiraling costs, these ideas are as surprising as, well, a photobooth in a vet’s office.
Her latest album Banga
Patti Smith’s songs often have fascinating backstories; for example, take the title song in her latest album, Banga, named after Pontius Pilate’s loyal dog in the Mikhail Bulgakov novel, The Master and Margarita. As she notes: “For those who have not read the book, Pilate waited on the edge of heaven for 2,000 years to talk to Jesus Christ, and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side. I thought that any dog that would wait 2,000 years for his master deserves a song.” Here’s a verse from “Banga”:
Loyalty lives and we don’t know why
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Make a day of it and get great take-away ideas
How many public botanical gardens welcome both you and your dog? Not many, we’d wager. But the Oregon Garden, an 80-acre botanical sanctuary located about 45 miles south of Portland, takes another point of view. Among their more than 20 specialty assemblages is the appealingly named “Pet Friendly Garden.” Horticultural manager Jill Martini says that the purpose is to show visitors how to turn their home gardens into safe playgrounds for their pets. “With a little strategy, your plants and your pets can live in harmony,” she notes.
In the Pet Friendly Garden, plants are edible, water is plentiful and flowers are undisturbed. Pathways direct pets through and around the garden, and shade is in ample supply. In other words, dogs can dig the garden without digging up the garden. The Pet Friendly Garden also offers information on edible plants, including catnip, catmint, wheat and oat grass for cats, and dwarf apples, blueberries and gooseberries for dogs. A take-home brochure lists plants that can be harmful to pets.
“The Pet Friendly Garden is part of our larger mission to provide a unique and entertaining garden experience while offering practical ideas for your own garden,” Martini says. “We invite you to bring your pet and make a day of it.”
Q&A with Alexandra Horowitz
In her new book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz—author of the wildly popular Inside of a Dog—enlists the attention and insights of others to discover more about the neighborhood in which she lives. But when it comes to really getting the inside scoop, who better to turn to than dogs, those “creatures of the nose”?
Bark: What was the inspiration for your new work, On Looking?
B: In one of the chapters, you “look” as you see your dog does, more by smell than by vision. How were you able to get into a dog’s “nosescape”?
B: What did that tell you about a dog’s experience of the walk?
B: Did you observe other differences in the ways a dog perceives the landscape/environment? For example, in the time it took to do the walk?
B: Did your dog linger at landmarks, and if so, why do you think he did that?
B: Do you think we can refine our sense of smell by watching our dogs? Perhaps using our sense of smell differently, or doing more sniffing?
Dog's Life: Humane
Add your voice to the calls for more humane care
For years, those of us who work on animal welfare issues in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have wondered what it would take to get the attention of the island’s governor, the police, the courts, the media and the rest of the country. The daily atrocities—from abandonment and gross neglect to beatings, shootings, burnings, machete attacks, poisonings and more—carried out on dogs, cats and even horses would be top stories anywhere else. How much worse would it have to get?
We found out in October. That was when municipal employees and workers from a private animal control agency, hired by the mayor of Barceloneta to rid three public housing projects of animals, seized about 80 family pets from their homes. What happened next is hard to fathom. Some of these animals—mostly dogs—were thrown to their deaths off a 50-foot bridge. (Three of the animal control workers go on trial for animal cruelty in May.)
Suddenly, people were paying attention. The “pet massacre” was news around the world. Organizations like mine, the Save a Sato Foundation (sato is slang for “stray dog”), fielded e-mail from across the U.S., Europe and even Australia. “This inhumane brutality is making your country appear savage and brutal in the eyes of the world,” was a typical sentiment.
We urged everyone to write to Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to beg him to find a solution to the deplorable suffering of the island’s animals. An online petition demanded the same thing; the goal was to reach 1,000 signatures—to date, 51,000 people have signed it. Acevedo Vilá, who has demonstrated a shocking lack of compassion during his years in office, answered every letter the same way: This was an isolated incident.
But he knows better. For years, rescuers from Manos por Patas and Amigos de los Animales have been tending to abandoned and brutalized animals on a strip of eastern coastline known as “Dead Dog Beach.” Acevedo Vilá has been sent the evidence: photos of the remains of dogs stuffed into garbage bags. (The situation north at Los Machos beach is just as bad.)
All this abuse carries a financial toll. In 2002, the nonprofit Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, a long-time proponent of addressing the issue, estimated that the island lost some $15 million a year “as a consequence of the stray animal problem.” The Barceloneta incident has surely sent this figure soaring.
At first, it seemed as though something positive might happen. The government-run Puerto Rican Tourism Company (PRTC)—famous for sending glossy brochures to tourists who wrote to complain about animal suffering—announced the formation of a coalition to address the problem. What emerged was a plan long on animal control (which means massive roundups and killings) and short on education and sterilization. Another problem was the PRTC’s budget for this effort: zero.
Another entity, the government’s Office of Animal Control, created last summer after years of haggling, could have seized the moment to effect real change. But it’s so disempowered that it doesn’t even have permission to use its meager $1.5 million in seed funding to fulfill its mandate of creating animal services in all 78 municipalities.
In the meantime, rescuers report seeing the massive dog sweeps they feared, especially near tourist spots. We know that not every dog can be saved. But, without addressing the root issue—overpopulation—these sweeps will only be followed by many more. Raising public awareness about sterilization is critical, as is making the procedure widely available.
The newly formed Coalition for the Wellbeing of Pets (CWP) is trying to do that. This mix of animal welfare groups, vets and shelters is seeking a waiver from the Veterinary Medicine Examining Board to allow off-island vets to conduct an initial spay/neuter project that could become a model for the future. (A ban on off-island vets has thwarted many earlier attempts.)
Puerto Rico also needs to raise its citizens’ awareness about animal welfare. There are shelters on the island, but with euthanasia rates topping 90 percent, people refuse to take their unwanted animals there. Instead, they prefer to dump pets on the streets, where there is at least the illusion of survival. But it is an illusion—stray animals suffer horribly.
Most importantly, we can’t let this issue go away. Bark readers can help. Please write to Gov. Acevedo Vilá; PRTC’s Executive Director of Tourism, Terestela Gonzalez; and Congressional Representative Luis Fortuño, who will be challenging Acevedo Vilá for the governor’s office next fall. And visit Save a Sato’s website to find out more about Puerto Rico’s dogs and what’s being done to help them.
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