Home
research
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dog Training: Operant Conditioning
When operant conditioning clicked (and clucked)

On a warm and slightly overcast morning in 1967, a rusty, mustard-colored station wagon slowly approached the terminal at San Francisco International Airport. Wheels still rolling, a door opened and something gray jumped out. As the wagon continued on its way, an animal headed toward the terminal. It was a cat.

Straight five steps, then wait. The glass door opened and as a portly man in a business suit dragged his overnight bag through it, the cat darted in. Straight 10 paces and the cat was inside the terminal. It headed left 20 feet, then right 30 feet, then left two more feet. No one seemed to notice. The cat settled under a bench where two men sat, engaged in intense conversation. Ten minutes passed, then 20; the cat lay patiently, its tail occasionally twitching.

Then, abruptly, the cat stood up and retraced its steps. Two feet to the right, 30 feet to the left, 20 feet to the right and out the glass doors. Once again, the station wagon pulled up and without stopping, a door opened. The cat leaped in. Mission accomplished.

The project, commissioned by the CIA and run by Animal Behavior Enterprises, had been a success. The cat’s cochlear implant (a device agents used to listen to the cat’s environment) had proven reliable, and its months of training using the relatively new technology of operant conditioning had proven effective for this intelligence operation.

Does this sound preposterous? Would it sound less preposterous if the trained animal had been a dog? Thanks to the science of operant conditioning, European police and military teams have been able to train their working dogs to perform at a much higher and more reliable level than had been possible using traditional coercion- based methods.

This type of training is no small feat. In 1996, Simon Prins, co-author of K9 Behavior Basics: A Manual for Proven Success in Operational Service Dog Training (2010), was hired to lead an innovative project for the Canine Department of the Netherlands National Police Agency. A test project with a three-year timeline, it would continue if it were a success. The project included a detailed list of tasks for dogs to perform.

“This included normal operational tasks, such as tracking, and explosive and narcotics detection,” says Prins, “but also climbing, rappelling, traveling by helicopter and boat and, the most challenging, training dogs to work with cameras and to follow radio or laser guidance at long distances.”

Although Prins had been a patroldog handler in the regional police force for only a few years, he was selected for this project because he was seen as an innovator. “I had been questioning our traditional force techniques because I noticed that dogs would shut down and stop working, or my police dog would become aggressive to me and to the trainer. So I was already looking for new methods.”

Stepping Up
New methods were what the job was all about. “The other traditional [forcebased] trainers all said that radio or laser guidance was not possible,” according to Prins. But he was sure there must be a way; so, even though he would not be able to return to his old job if he failed, he accepted the challenge. Within three years, he had succeeded in completing all of the tasks set for him, as well as a few more.

At this point, you may be asking yourself — given the fact that people have been training dogs for more than 4,000 years — why did traditional trainers feel these new tasks were impossible? Also, if a guidance system had already been developed for cats in 1967 in the U.S., why did it take Prins three years to reinvent the wheel 30 years later?

Bob Bailey, who worked on the 1967 project and later became co-owner of Animal Behavior Enterprises after marrying its cofounder, Marian Breland, explains. According to Bailey, it was the advent of animal training and behavior as a science that allowed them to develop the system for dogs, cats and, later, dolphins. “Dog training has been practiced as an ancient craft,” says Bailey. “The science of training wasn’t developed until the 1940s with B.F. Skinner.”

What’s the difference between craft and science? According to Bailey, “Crafts generally develop over thousands of years and tend to preserve what’s old and what has been done before. Information is passed down in secret from master to apprentice, and the apprentice must never question the master.” As a result, when errors are introduced, they tend to be preserved. Another characteristic of a craft is that a change is usually designed only to solve an immediate problem. “Rarely do they look for general principles,” says Bailey.

Science, on the other hand, is a systematic way of asking questions, a process that eventually weeds out mistakes. It’s guided by principles and data, and researcher’s approaches change and are revised as new information comes to light. As a result, science advances quickly compared to craft.

Bailey backs up his description with an example: “For 1,000 years, the Chinese used gunpowder to build small rockets. Then the Turks decided to build bigger ones, which they used on the British. It took them 800 years to develop the technology.” Then, in the 1900s, science and technology stepped in. In 1926, American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid- propellant rocket. In 1949, less than 25 years later, the U.S. sent a rocket to the moon.

“So it took 800 years of craft to send a six-foot rocket half a mile and less than 50 years of science to send a rocket to the moon,” Bailey summarizes.

From Puzzle Boxes to Bells and Whistles
Once the psychology of learning became a science, animal training made the same great strides. In 1898, scientist Edward Thorndike first described the principle of operant conditioning. Using cats and a small cage called a puzzle box, with food outside the box, he found that cats placed in the cage could learn how to get out, and that with each trial, they got faster at it. He theorized that the cats were learning by trial and error.

Others were making discoveries at the same time, but the one who really put things together was B.F. Skinner. Through many experiments, Skinner developed the principles of operant conditioning, which describes how animals cope with their environments.

Skinner found that animals learn to repeat behaviors with consequences they view as positive and to avoid behaviors with those they view as negative. They learn best when the positive or negative consequence is timed exactly to the behavior, and their learning rate is directly proportional to the rate at which the behavior is reinforced.

Research and technology advanced quickly, and within only eight years, operant conditioning had made its way out of the lab into an applied setting. During World War II, Skinner, who wanted to help with the war effort, set out to train pigeons to guide missiles by pecking at an image of the target site on a screen in a project called Project Pigeon. To demonstrate to the navy how it worked, Skinner took six pigeons and the apparatus in which they were trained to Washington, D.C. The demonstration was successful, but the navy turned him down; the admirals may have been taken aback when Skinner opened the chamber, which resembled a Pelican missile warhead, and they saw three pigeons pecking away.

Skinner’s two graduate students, Marian Breland and her husband, Keller Breland, had dropped out of their degree programs to help with Project Pigeon. They learned a lot while working with Skinner, more than they had learned in class, and became skilled at shaping — a process by which a goal behavior is taught in increments, systematically rewarding intermediate behaviors. They also learned about secondary reinforcers — unique tones such as a clicker or whistle that, when paired with food, could be used to tell the animal exactly when it had done something right.

The couple, who saw how powerful these nonforce techniques could be, decided that when the war was over, they would get into some kind of business where they would use operant technology to help solve problems for animals and, later, humans. In 1947, they founded Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), whose mission was to demonstrate a better, more scientific way of training animals in a humane manner using less aversives.

They started with dogs, but trainers shunned the new method, claiming that people had been successfully training for centuries and no new approaches were needed. Rebuffed on the canine front, the Brelands turned to other species. For 47 years, ABE trained animals for its own theme park, the IQ Zoo, in Hot Springs, Ark., as well as for shows across the country. At ABE’s height, the Brelands could have up to 1,000 animals in training at any given time, many for companies such as General Mills, who used them in commercials and at sales conferences. They also worked on animal behavior and training projects for the U.S. Navy and Purina, as well as for Marineland of Florida and Parrot Jungle, where they developed the first of the now-traditional dolphin and parrot shows. When they started, there was only one trained dolphin, whom it had taken trainers two years to get ready to perform. In six weeks, Keller trained two new dolphins to perform the same behaviors.

Bob Bailey met the Brelands when he was hired as director of dolphin training for the navy and Keller and Marian were contracted to help. “I spent six months at ABE learning to train many animals, including chickens.”

Three years later, the same year Keller passed away, Bailey joined ABE as assistant technical director and head of government programs. Later, he became research director too and then executive vice president and general manager. Eventually, he and Marian married.

Over the course of their career, the Baileys trained more than 140 species (or about 16,000 individual animals). In 1990, they retired and closed ABE. Then, in 1996, they received a series of calls from Simon Prins.

Inspired by Dolphins
“I’d spent a year traveling internationally and searching for training methods. I saw a dolphin show, and the girls were training the dolphins to perform incredible behaviors without shock collars or punishment devices. I did more research, and it all led back to Marian and Bob Bailey, so I contacted them,” Prins recalls. It took 20 emails and 10 phone calls before the couple agreed to help. “Bob was quite rude … he hung up on me many times.”

“We didn’t want to deal with police or military because in our experience, they are punishment-based,” says Bob. In the U.S., the Baileys had come to feel that force-based trainers could not make the change to operant technology because eventually, they fell back on the method with which they were most comfortable. “These trainers take what we say and modify it. They take good operant-conditioning principles and modify them, and then say they won’t work.”

Eventually, as Prins continued to meet Bob’s increasing demands, Bob agreed to help. Prins came with a few other trainers as well as his superiors to the Baileys’ Hot Springs headquarters to learn by training chickens.

Animal Behavior Enterprises had tested many animals for learning purposes and found that chickens provide by far the best training model (find out why). Prins and his bosses quickly learned that training is a technical skill rather than a mystical, inborn ability. A science, not a craft. They trained chickens to selectively peck just one type of object among a group of objects, and to perform tasks only on cue. They learned to train behaviors as a series of many little shaping steps, and to keep track of the outcome of each trial in order to determine whether they were having success or needed to fix their technique or plan. They did this all with positive reinforcement — without physically manipulating the chickens.

“Bob and Marian changed my whole perspective on animal training,” says Prins. As a result, he met all of the 1996 goals, and more. At first it was difficult. ABE had developed remote-guidance systems for cats, dogs and dolphins by 1967. In months, they could train dolphins to perform many behaviors, including traveling 12 hours on a circuitous eight-mile route with no reinforcement. It took Prins three years to work out the methods.

“I talked to Bob by mail and phone, but it was difficult, because I was the only one here using these techniques,” he recalls. The process required thinking about what he wanted, planning how he would get it and then implementing the plan and collecting data. This was followed by an evaluation of the data and revisions to the plan based on the results. This process defines the field of applied animal psychology that the Brelands had created based on Skinner’s work. It’s something that most dog trainers are ill-equipped to do.

Whenever Prins got stuck, he fell back on his old habit of blaming the dog instead of recognizing that he had signaled the wrong behavior with his body language or had poor timing or an inadequate shaping plan. According to Bob, the traditional method of training would advise, “Get a bigger stick and beat the dog harder.” He reminded Prins that he needed to stop blaming the dog and look more carefully at video evidence to see what was going wrong.

“He had been training under the eye of other trainers, who for many years [had taught] him it was the dog’s fault, and you must correct the dog,” says Bob. “If you’re the one making the errors, you should be beating yourself, not the dog.”

The three-year process was a challenge, but he kept at it because he felt that it was the only way they could get the consistency and reliability they needed. As Prins explains, “If you have a punishment-trained dog, in the new situation when they are not sure what to do, they are afraid they will receive punishment, even if it is mild. Dogs just stop performing, [and] learning slows down or stops.” He had already found that it was much more effective to condition an animal to see the world as an environment in which something positive could occur at any moment.

So he stuck with it until he had the techniques down. As a result, the program was even more successful than anticipated. “Our dogs often work far from our position, often in the dark and always in an area they have never seen before,” he says. While trainers prepare the dogs for many situations, they can never truly simulate real-time operations, which usually happen in unpredictable surroundings and are stressful for the human handlers. But once they are taught by teaching dogs that performing in many different situations is fun, dogs are able to perform reliably.

Training speed has also improved. “[With] the first dog, [it] took me eight months to train him to follow a laser. With operant-conditioning, it now takes me four weeks.”

The training is heavily weighted toward positive reinforcement, but both Bailey and Prins point out that rarely, aversives are also used. Aversives are not used until trainers understand operant conditioning well and have been training extensively in it for six months, and only when a dog exhibits behavior that puts himself, humans or the operation at risk. The aversive may range from verbal reprimands to low-level shock. Before trainers use an electronic collar, they must wear the collar around their own necks and see what it’s like to be trained this way. They find out what it feels like when a correction is given, and even worse, given at the wrong moment as commonly happens even with the most skilled trainers. “Then they understand how difficult it is, and they do not like to use it,” says Prins. Overall, aversive methods comprise about 1/1000 of the training.

Their success has led to other countries, including Belgium and Norway, adopting this approach. Despite the advantage of being able to learn from Prins’s mistakes, all the trainers in his group experience some of what he did during his first three years. To select new trainers, he sends potential candidates through four five-day chicken training camps in Sweden. “The punishment trainers fall hard. We give them four days to see if they can make the change. The process is grueling,” he observes.

The change is worth it. Trainers see the difference, and the proof is not just in their impressions. It’s in the hard data: shorter training times, more dogs trained for less money, behaviors they could never train before and more consistent, reliable dogs, which lead to more successful missions.

Bailey explains that while a handful of trainers may be motivated to improve the treatment of their dog, “the trainers who actually make the changes are those who want more success and recognize that simply beating their dog more will not get that additional success.” Once they understand and become skilled at the operant technology, an added benefit is that they can finally enjoy their work and so can the dog.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cancer and Pesticides
Study finds a link between lymphoma and certain types of lawn care

I'm told that the pesticides used on my lawn are “organic,” but I still worry about the adverse effects that they might have on my pets. The dogs walk with their bare paws, roll around, and sometimes snack on the grass, so I usually keep them off of the lawn for a few days following treatment. Turns out that my fears may not be unfounded.

A recent study identified a link between canine malignant lymphoma (CML) and certain lawn care products. Researchers surveyed people whose dogs were treated at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University's Veterinary School, some with CML and some without.

The study found that the use of professionally applied pesticides was associated with a 70 percent higher risk of CML. There was also a higher use of self-applied insect growth regulators among the families with a CML dog. Interestingly (and thankfully!), researchers did not find a link between flea and tick control products and CML.

Researchers hoped to shed light on the causes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) in humans, a cancer that has doubled since the 1970's. It's easier to study the health effects of environmental risk factors in animals. CML was chosen because it has similar characteristics to NHL and responds similarly to treatment.

After reading this study, I'm already rethinking how I care for my lawn. It's great to see research that benefits both humans and canines!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind
Researchers exploring the canine point of view
Canine Mind

Doesn’t it sound reasonable to study the behavior of cranes? After all, cranes are quite different from humans — they can f ly, spend lots of time on one leg and don’t need an external GPS to find their way to Florida.

But what if we replace “cranes” with “dogs”? Why study dog behavior? Unlike cranes, dogs are not a wild species with feathers, migratory patterns or conservation needs. Dogs have lived alongside humans for at least 15,000 years; are ubiquitous in human cultures; and regularly find their way into our literature, hearts and beds (also unassisted by GPS, it must be noted). We think we know dogs just fine. What’s the point of all this scrutiny?

Dogs aren’t new in the world of research.
Our shared mammalian physiology has given us reasons to open up dogs for inspection (literally) at least since the time of Descartes. In the previous century, dogs were the star subjects of Pavlov’s work on the “conditioned ref lex” (you remember: bell + food (then repeat) = dog salivates in anticipation of food after hearing bell).

In other academic arenas, Marc Bekoff, Ian Dunbar, Michael Fox and the late Frank Beach all conducted extensive investigations into canine social behavior, physiology and development. And of course, in 1965, Scott and Fuller produced their seminal text, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Konrad Lorenz, Nobel Prize–winner and acclaimed ethologist, also had dogs on the brain; if you doubt that, pick up a copy of his book, Man Meets Dog.

Despite the thousands of years dogs and humans had spent in close proximity, scientists had never explored either the relationship or the factors that allowed dogs to become our social partners.

Dogs’ perspective as members of the human environment was missing from the equation. “It’s odd that this companion animal who has been at our side longer than any other is really not well understood,” observes Kristina Pattison, researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory.

“Dogs suffer from a failure of imagination by those asking the questions,” explains Mary Lee Nitschke, professor of psychology, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and founding member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). “If you already ‘know’ a dog can’t think, you’re not going to ask whether it can think.”

In 1994, imagination and an open mind prompted the creation of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, initially under the guidance of Vilmos Csányi, and now headed by Ádám Miklósi. Rather than taking the position that dogs’ place among humans was unworthy of scientific investigation, they put the dog, and the dog-human relationship, under the microscope.

While previous studies had investigated owners’ intimate feelings toward dogs, the dog’s perspective on this relationship had not received comparable attention (probably because canine penmanship is quite poor and they rarely complete questionnaires in a timely fashion).

To explore the dog’s perspective, the Budapest group placed companion dogs and their owners in a modified version of the Strange Situation Test, a behavioral experiment initially created to explore the mother-infant relationship from the infant’s perspective. The test is simple enough. In a novel environment, a dog experiences separations from and reunions with an owner and a stranger while a researcher records the dog’s behavioral changes. It turned out that dogs behaved much like human infants. The conclusion? The dogowner relationship, like the motherinfant relationship, fulfills the criteria for attachment.

This research sparked a shift in perspective and demonstrated that there’s a lot we don’t know about dogs and their relationships with humans. For example, it was commonly assumed that in order for a dog to develop an attachment bond with an owner, the dog needed to be acquired as a puppy, and within a narrow age window at that. But when the Strange Situation Test was applied to adult shelter dogs who had low or restricted human contact, these dogs also displayed attachment behavior toward designated “owners.” An additional study confirmed this; guide dogs bond with their blind owners even though their relationship forms later in the dog’s life. The takeaway message was twofold: older dogs can bond with new owners, and our assumptions about dogs are not always spot on.

Since then, scientific inquiry into dogs and the dog-human relationship has exploded. “It’s almost like dogs have been rediscovered by scientists, and there are so many different aspects they can study,” notes Mychelle Blake, APDT executive director.

Dogs have now attracted the attention of a range of disciplines, from animal behavior and psychology to evolution, genetics and veterinary behavior.

Nowadays, companion dogs, working dogs, village dogs and even shelter dogs have become study subjects.

While some are interested in contributing to a growing portfolio of insights into “the dog,” others have something else in mind. “Some of the present research does not directly pertain to dogs and the humans they live with,” notes Márta Gácsi, researcher with the Family Dog Project. “Comparative studies may be examining the roots of different human social behaviors, and not necessarily concerned with the dogs themselves.”

The Duke Canine Cognit ion Center, which is part of the university’s Evolutionary Anthropology Department, takes this multifaceted approach. Their website explains, “Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. In doing so, we gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.”

“Research also has direct application for dogs and owners,” reminds Gácsi. Jennifer Bentlage, who’s working toward a master’s degree in the cognitive biology program at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, agrees. “If I can explain the purpose of my research to my parents, then it’s worthwhile.” Bentlage, who is currently exploring social learning, has recruited her own dogs, Monty and Michel — shelter dogs from Spain and Greece, respectively —as test subjects for her project.

“I am very interested in the dog’s cognitive abilities because this relates very strongly to the pet owner,” explains Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), veterinarian, animal behaviorist and director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior in Berkeley, Calif. “The importance of cognition is so that people realize who dogs are and what they can and cannot easily grasp.”

Dog cognition, a seemingly technical phrase, is simply a catch-all-term that describes dogs’ attention, memory, perception, problem-solving and mental imagery skills. As you might imagine, the questions are endless.

Crystal Thompson, a self-proclaimed dog-seminar junkie from St. Paul, Minn., thinks dog cognition research is paramount. “We have learned so much in the last few years that it behooves anyone interacting with dogs — owners, trainers, shelter workers, vet staff — to do a self-audit, to check their assumptions about dogs against what research is finding.”

We expect dogs to act a certain way, and they do.
Pet owners do not expect rabbits or cats to act as social partners, but we do expect that of dogs — and rightfully so. “Through selective pressures, we pushed dogs very quickly to be highly social, and they tend to live up to our social demands,” explains Pattison.

Dogs have the potential to move in tandem with humans, stopping when we stop and starting again at our first subtle sign of forward motion, but magic is not the mechanism (although the resulting experience can certainly feel magical!). Instead, research finds that dogs are astute surveyors of human behavior, and everything from our gaze to our larger body movements provides meaningful information.

For example, researchers have found that the right side of the human face better expresses our emotional state, and when looking at other humans, we display what’s called a left-gaze bias, or a propensity to look toward the right side of the other person’s face, where all the clues are. When dogs look at human faces, they also display a left-gaze bias. Could your dog be sensitive to your emotional state? Yup.

And just as social contexts and relationships matter to you, they matter to your dog. Research has shown that if a stranger approaches your dog in a threatening manner, your dog will respond with avoidance/aggressive behavior. But if you approach your dog in the same way, your dog responds with tolerance and contact-seeking behavior. In short, dog owners feel connected to and supported by the dogs they live with, and for good reason.

But sometimes, dogs don’t act the way we want them to.
When dogs are out of sync with us, we wonder why. “We bring dogs into our households and expect them to understand and behave like us primates … well, primate plus plush toy,” laughs Pattison.

This is where cognition research comes in. Is the dog’s assessment of a situation comparable to the human’s, and if not, what is the dog’s vantage point?

Numerous studies have found that dogs attend to human communicative intent. As your significant other may have told you (possibly more than once), how you say it matters. Want a dog to come to you from across the room? Research by Patricia B. McConnell, and beloved Bark columnist, explored how different sounds affect dog behavior: “Four short notes were more effective at eliciting a come response and increasing motor activity levels than one longer continuous note.” In the real world, yelling “COOOME!” (akin to one longer continuous note) will most likely result in exasperation, but short, rapidly repeating notes, like “Pup-pup-pup,” will likely bring a dog on over.

Are dogs cooperative or competitive? Are dogs like chimpanzees, who more readily locate food in competitive situations when prohibited from going to a certain location. (A possible chimp translation might be: “The only reason you’re telling me not to go there is because that’s where the good stuff is, you jerk.”) Nope, dogs fare better in cooperative situations, finding food when informed of its location in a friendly, cooperative tone. Bringing this back to daily life: if you wonder whether the dog-human relationship is based on competition or cooperation, this is another check mark on the cooperative ballot.

Understanding the dog’s perspective is important because incorrect assessments of behavior can cause problems in dog-human relationships. “People think the dog is doing something to create trouble,” explains Floridabased Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist. “Almost everything on TV is about conf lict — a fight, someone trying to win or cheat; it’s very confrontational and we are always looking for a fight for superiority. Fortunately, animals don’t always work that way.”

And why can’t dogs just do what we want them to do? In one study, dogs who performed a 10-minute sit-stay (meaning, they exerted self-control) gave up quicker on a subsequent task than dogs not required to exert that initial self-control. This initial act of controlling their behavior depleted their energy, thereby adversely affecting subsequent behavior.

The consequences for not understanding dogs’ behavioral capacities can be dire. “The biggest cause of death in dogs is behavior problems, and failure to inhibit is at the root of many behavior problems,” explains Pattison.

“He barks all the time — failure to inhibit barking; he growled — failure to inhibit an aggressive response. He jumps up — failure to inhibit jumping. We expect dogs to forgo their species-typical behavior patterns and inhibit them in favor of a response we find more appropriate.” The applications for dog cognition research are vast. “The cognitive research says, look, the dog is not doing this to get your goat, he’s not doing this to diss you, he’s not trying to dominate you and take over the world,” says Dunbar. In other words, he’s just being a dog. Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, finds that the “final showdown” misconception often results in inappropriate owner-dog interactions and worsening of the dog’s behavior.

Dog-care professionals are taking note of this growing body of research. In 2004, APDT began including a science track at their yearly conference. Their mission is not simply to saturate trainers with research, but also to provide education about research methods and the nuances of study design. APDT leadership hopes that as more research hits the press, trainers will read studies with a critical eye and make informed decisions about their application for training. As Blake points out, “One study simply advances a hypothesis, and ongoing research is needed to improve our understanding of dogs.” “Research helps broaden our view of what is possible,” add Nitschke. “The fact that cognitive studies sometimes disagree with each other is wonderful, because it means there is more for us to look at. Different studies with different results broaden our vision of what is possible.”

Research also has application in the classroom. “My students were blown away,” reports Johnna Chamberlain, who teaches at the Lang School in New York City, a school for gifted children with learning differences. That’s how she describes her students’ reaction to “Dogs Decoded,” the NOVA special on dog cognition. “[My students] hadn’t considered that dogs were communicating through their barks, bodies or tails. Since [my students] might have social or emotional delays in relation to perspective taking, it was a big deal for them to consider their own relationships with pets and realize that dogs are communicating and thinking in their own unique way.”

Thompson looks at the breadth of cognition research from a different angle; she wonders whether owners are providing for their dogs’ mental needs. “It’s important for owners to realize that dogs have real mental abilities and needs. Putting food in a dog’s bowl is just wasting his brain. It’s the little things — Kongs, Tug-a-Jugs, hiding kibble around the house — it’s not hard, and it’s a simple way to engage their natural abilities.”

“How you interact with dogs often depends on your impression of their abilities,” notes Juarbe-Diaz. Reframing our expectations, with a little help from research, could set up dogs to succeed in our primate world. As Gertrude Stein said, “I am because my little dog knows me.” Shouldn’t we do the same for dogs?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Q&A with Mark Derr about Dog Origins
Venturing deep into the history of our oldest friends
sociable wolves

Mark derr, long-time Bark contributor and historian of the dog, recently released a new book, How the Dog Became the Dog, in which he examines canine evolution. Derr covers a lot of ground in this work — 135,000 years, to be precise! We talked with him about the dawn of dog, and how our evolutionary pathway coincided with theirs.

Claudia Kawczynska: Canines going from fierce predator to “loyal companion” is quite a leap. Can you sketch how and why this might have happened?
Mark Derr: The premise I start with is that, in many ways, dogs are an evolutionary inevitability. As soon as humans and wolves encountered one another on the game trails, they struck up a relationship, and they’ve been at it ever since. People and dogs have very similar social structures, and there was a level of sociability between some wolves and some people that allowed those particular individuals to come together.

So, wolves and humans had an affinity, and sociable wolves would often breed near human societies. As they began to do that, populations were established, though not everywhere and not in great numbers. One group of socialized wolves would die out and others would appear in other places at other times. There is evidence that destroying the structure of a wolf pack destroys the culture for the young, leaving them without guidance. Imagine that this happened over many, many generations, resulting in a more socialized “dogwolf” — or dog-like wolf. In that sense, you’re never going to find a single place for the [first domesticated] dog to have appeared. Rather, you have [the dog developing] wherever you have wolves and humans.

CK: What was in it for the wolves who paired up with us?
MD: Several things. Wolves hanging around humans probably ate better than “wild” wolves. They also gained sexual freedom, which is a positive thing. Raising puppies takes a lot of time and energy, but with humans around, the burden of raising the young was greatly diminished.

CK: Was this consciously directed?
MD: No, not on the part of the wolf or the human, who didn’t think about it as a benefit either. The operational presupposition is that animals don’t do things that are bad for them. So if you look at it, let’s face it … if someone comes along to help raise your offspring, you are suddenly free to do all kinds of stuff.

CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
MD: I think that was a major benefit for the dogwolf. Besides, they received protection from us.

CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
MD: There is no question that early humans benefited from dogs at a very fundamental level. Evidence shows that humans who hunt with dogs do much better than those who don’t, for example. So, theoretically, the quality of their food would be better. The dog also provided transport, greatly extending our reach, and protection. Having that barking wolf or dogwolf or dog alert us to strangers, who may not have had our best interests at heart, was a positive thing — it helped us stay alive to reproduce. There is also no question that dogs helped us hunt, and then control and guard, ungulates that had been domesticated by humans. Dogs have been invaluable to humans, and continue to be.

CK: You note that with genetic data pushing back the dawn of dog to perhaps 135,000 years ago, the idea of neoteny has been turned on its head. How so?
MD: Though dogs reach sexual maturity earlier than wolves, growth or development of other organs and limbs is delayed, which is called paedomorphism. Slowing the rate of development is said to lead to neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood.

Now, the latest research shows that a small number of genes have a big effect on everything from overall size and leg length to numerous other factors. I’ve been saying that for years. I didn’t know precisely what the mechanism was, but it wasn’t paedomorphism. There are other explanations, as it turns out. Not only that, but many of the features some consider neotenic are simply creations of modern breeders, who strove to make dogs more cuddly and humanlike by selecting for rounded skulls and large, forward-facing eyes.

To reiterate an important point, which I’ve made in numerous articles in The Bark and in my books, there is no evidence that dogs originated from selftamed, submissive, neotenic wolves. That theory — which is based on dogs originating during the Mesolithic Age, when people lived in settlements with garbage dumps — is not right. Dogs evolved much earlier than that and were in the camps with the hunters and gatherers.

CK: Back when we were both hunting the same species — together or separately — is it possible that wolves were hunting us too?
MD: I don’t know of any record of wolves hunting humans, though humans have long hunted wolves. The Plains Indians had wolves around the bison they were hunting, and there is strong evidence that shows their dogs regularly crossbred with the wolves. And sometimes to the point where it was not possible to distinguish between wolf and dog. The thing about human behavior is that much of it is fixed; even the tools we use are basically the same. It might be made from different materials, but a knife is still a knife.

Take an example from Lewis and Clark, who describe great herds of bison out there on the plains, and the Indians who hunted them with their dogs. The wolf is described by Lewis as the “shepherd” of the bison. The way wolves hunt really isn’t that much different than the way herding dogs gather animals.

People like Barry Lopez have done work on the business of wolves and human cultures, and why wolves are so distrusted by humans. The answer, I suspect, is that once dogs and agriculture were firmly established, a divorce occurred between humans and wolves (and other wildlife), because those animals were seen as threatening our livelihoods. At some point, the wolf became a competitor — an enemy, even — not because it was hunting us, but because it was taking our livestock. The mediating force is the dog.

More recently, the conservation movement established a sharp divide between the wild and the built, a divide that really shouldn’t exist, but does. At that point, the wolf became one thing and the dog became another, and they are in opposition rather than what they are, which is very closely related. I don’t think that the wolf has ever been an enemy of humans, but I could be wrong.

CK: Pat Shipman, archaeologist and author of The Animal Connection, pointed out that it was unlikely that wolf packs tracked nomadic hunters in order to live off their spoils (among other things) because those wolves would have had to cross the territory of other wolves, which would have been highly dangerous for them. So it was more likely that the dogwolf and the human were partners in the hunt. What’s your take on that?
MD: I agree. The other thing is — and this goes back to the food issue — humans are much more prof ligate hunters than wolves, and also take reproducing-age adults. Those are usually the strongest animals, and provide the best and most food. Wolves take the old and the young. Interestingly enough, once humans domesticated animals, we also tended to cull the very young and the beyond-reproduction-age females. So we came to eat more like wolves. I also firmly believe that humans and wolves just liked each other.

CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
MD: We are both extremely defensive of our territory, protecting home and hearth no matter where that is. We also both like to be on the move — we like going walkabout. Anybody who has dogs knows they love to come out with you. Dogs like to go for rides. Or, open a gate and the dog is gone. We value one another’s companionship, and we keep each other warm at night.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Dogs Act Guilty?
New research looks at conflict deffusing behavior in canines

74 percent of dog lovers believe that their pups act guilty when they've done something wrong.  There is plenty of evidence that dogs experience primary emotions, like happiness and fear, but it's hard to prove that they experience secondary emotions, like jealousy and guilt.

In 2009, Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz found that dogs were more likely to display behaviors we associate with guilt after being scolded. However, those who didn't misbehave appeared more guilty when scolded when compared to those who had actually done something wrong.

We know that over time canines evolved ways of communicating with humans, so is our dog's "guilty look" a learned response to diffuse conflict? Bark columnist and canine cognition researcher Julie Hecht and a team from Eotvos Lorand University set out to see if misbehaving canines would behave differently than dogs who had not done anything wrong and if people would be able to tell if their dog misbehaved based on their greeting behavior.

Like in the Barnard College study, the team found that dogs showed more guilt-associated behaviors when scolded. But then the findings got a little complicated.

Both groups of dogs were equally likely to act guilty whether they misbehaved or not, however dogs who actually did something wrong were more likely to show guilt-associated behaviors after subsequent greeting opportunities. So perhaps there is some element of guilt in our pups?

If there is, we're not very good at interpreting those signals. After accounting for people who knew their dogs had a history of stealing food, pet parents were not able to determine whether their pups misbehaved based on the greeting behavior.

Demystifying emotions like guilt and jealousy is difficult. But we're lucky to have many universities spearheading research in this area, so hopefully we'll know one day for sure.

Do you think that your dogs act guilty?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Influencing Hip Dysplasia
Study finds exercise helps prevent the debilitating disease

Responsible breeders have done a lot to combat hip dysplasia by researching lines and x-raying their dogs.

As a pet parent, I try to do all that I can to keep my pups healthy. To protect their bones and joints, I keep my crew at a healthy weight and avoid agility jump training until their growth plates close.

Now new research points to additional factors that could affect the development of hip dysplasia and change the way breeders raise their puppies.

According to scientists at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, puppies that exercised daily in a park had a reduced risk of developing hip dysplasia. Daily use of a staircase increased the risk.

They found that the period from birth to three months is particularly critical and that puppies born in the spring or summer and at breeders who lived on a farm had a lower risk, perhaps because they had more room to romp.

While previous studies found that rapid growth and high body weight increase the likelihood of developing hip dysplasia, this study found the opposite to be true.

Based on the study, the scientists recommend that puppies have regular off leash access to varied terrain, particularly if they may be predisposed to hip dysplasia.

This debilitating disease affects the lives of many dogs, so it’s good to have additional ways to be proactive in prevention. And the study also gives us yet another excuse to get our dogs outside to play!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding Our Dogs' Thoughts
Study uses MRIs to figure out what’s going on inside the canine brain

I spend so much time with my dogs that I feel like I know exactly what’s going on inside their heads. But of course I don’t. When I walk in the door, how do I know that Nemo is genuinely happy to see me or is just excited to smell all the interesting scents I brought home on my clothes?

Researchers at Emory University are setting out to understand what our dogs are thinking. Using an MRI to capture brain images, they’re looking at what parts of the brain activate in response to certain activities, like when we talk to our dogs. Scientists believe that this is the cornerstone to knowing what a dog is thinking.

Neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns came up with the idea for the study after learning about canines in the military. He figured that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters, teaching them to stay still in an MRI machine would be doable.

It took eight months for researchers to train two dogs to climb into the machine, put their head in the head coil, and stay still, all while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs. The first study looked at the dogs' brain response to hand signals that indicated whether or not they would receive a hot dog.  

The researchers are now looking at more complicated studies on how dogs process human language and if they recognize people by sight or smell. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of their work on canine empathy. The plan is to show dogs a photo of a person being poked with a pin and seeing if it triggers a pain response in the dog’s brain.

We know that our pups have a profound effect on our emptions and health. Knowing more about what our dogs are thinking can help us understand the effect that we have on them.  

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs and the Placebo Effect
Is it all in their heads?

Ariel, my Doberman, lies restrained on her back. She is surrounded by strangers, in a room with frightening smells. In an effort to keep cancer at bay, she has been poked, jabbed and invaded for more than a year and has now developed one of chemotherapy’s dreaded side-effects: an inflamed bladder wall, which is hemorrhagic and painful.

The doctor positions the long needle as the ultrasonographer guides its placement via the monitor. Hugging and kissing her, I cannot watch as the needle plunges into her bladder to retrieve its specimen. Yet I know the moment it happens—Ariel’s eyes dilate like deployed air bags, and she turns and tenderly cleans my face until the hurt is withdrawn. This contact is considered by many researchers to be part of the mechanism of the placebo effect at work in dogs.

Placebo is “the beneficial effect that arises from a patient’s expectations from a treatment, rather than from the treatment itself.” Does the placebo effect exist in dogs? Until recently, the presumed answer was a resounding no, because animals were thought to lack the cognitive capacity to understand the intent of medical care or the power of suggestion, or to have hope of recovery.

What a howl! Such nonsense is summarily dispelled by two pages of technical references underpinning a recent veterinary journal article entitled “The placebo effect in animals,” which documents in detail the existence of the placebo effect in dogs, among other species. A subsequent article, “Effects of human contact on animal health and well-being,” follows up with even more scientific references regarding the substantial benefits of this adjunct therapy.

Both of the articles suggest that the placebo effect in veterinary medicine can enhance the efficacy of medical treatment, and findings make a “strong scientific argument for encouraging in-hospital visitation by owners when animals are hospitalized.”

Experimental studies on the mechanisms of the placebo effect in animals have been underway for at least 70 years. Components of this phenomenon, including belief, expectation and trust, are presumed to be present at a neurobiological level, though cellular mechanisms remain unknown.

In humans, the placebo effect is generally ascribed to one or more of the following: classical conditioning, expectation and endogenous opiates (the body’s own naturally produced pain-relief). In animals, interestingly, a fourth mechanism is also theorized: the effect of human contact. Numerous studies have documented positive physiologic and health effects as a result of animals’ visual and tactile contact with a human. The ability of human contact to optimize an animal’s comfort and well-being provides a strong rationale for pet owners being present for many medical procedures.

A recent double-blind veterinary study involved arthritic dogs randomly assigned to either a treatment or a placebo group. Their response to treatment was objectively assessed by force-plate analysis, which precisely measures the use of individual limbs while a dog is in motion. The result? Fifty-six percent of placebo-treated dogs had an objectively measured, significant, positive response.

When a person strokes a dog, substantial decreases in the dog’s heart rate can be noted. Human contact also consistently elicits major positive changes in canine blood pressure and aortic and coronary blood flow. The placebo effect in animals on immunomodulation, cardiovascular disease, drug withdrawal, tumor growth and much more is well documented. The proverbial bottom line is that an animal’s mental and emotional state has a profound influence upon its physical health. And, human contact has a positive impact on the well-being of animals of all age groups, and produces an array of physiologic, emotional and health effects.

Upon discharging Wendy, my beloved, gentle, 11-year-old Doberman to my care, clinicians at the veterinary school advised me to “take her home and love her, she has two to three weeks to live.” I knew this to be correct. Only a few cases have ever survived Wendy’s untreatable and rare cancer for several months, and those who did required intensive, constant medication. After a month of blood transfusions, a last-ditch effort that in recorded practice has never worked, Wendy became incompatible with all available blood from canine blood banks.

On a hunch, I had her red-and-rust son’s blood tested and found that it was compatible. I communed with her, telling her that this would be the last transfusion; I also promised to discontinue other treatments and stay close by, enveloping her in love. One year later, with no further intervention, Wendy still warms my side. The veterinary school clinicians are in disbelief. There is truly no medical explanation.

That’s all right. I’ll take Ariel, Wendy and the placebo effect any day.

REFERENCES
McMillan, Franklin D. “The placebo effect in animals.” J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999; 215, No. 7:992–999.

McMillan, Franklin D. “Effects of human contact on animal health and well-being.” J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999; 215, No. 11:1592–1598.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs are Born to Run
Study finds that our pups experience “runners high”

Sometimes it takes a good amount of effort to get myself off the couch and out for a run. But when I manage to get moving, it feels great. On the other hand, my dogs seem to naturally love running and could probably gallop around all day.

As it turns out, exercising is another way that humans and canines are alike. Researchers at the University of Arizona recently found that, like people, dogs experience a “runners high,” the rush of positive feelings that result from exercising.

The study originally set out to see if certain species evolved to like running. Sprinting uses a lot of energy and increases risk of injury, so the researchers hypothesized that humans and dogs didn’t run because they had to (for capturing prey and escaping predators), but because they became hard-wired to enjoy it.

They compared species who naturally run—humans and dogs, to ferrets, which are considered non-runners. For the experiment, the dogs and ferrets were trained to use a treadmill using positive reinforcement.  

The results showed that the people and dogs had higher levels of endocannabinoids, the chemicals that alter and lighten mood, after running, but not walking. The ferrets had the same levels before and after both, suggesting that they derived no pleasure from the more intense activity.

Apparently these days most humans regularly suppress our biological desire to run, but dogs do not. So the next time your pup looks like he wants to get out and play, lace up your sneakers and go out together. You were both born to run!

News: Guest Posts
What Colors Do Dogs See?
Explaining a Seeing Eye dog’s vision to children

Whitney and I visited a school on the North Side of Chicago recently, and for some reason the first and second graders seemed particularly interested in color blindness. When one of them asked me if it’s true that dogs can only see black and white, I explained that dogs do see some colors, but they can’t tell the difference between red and green.

“If we’re at an intersection with a stoplight, it’s my job to judge when it might be safe to cross.” I described the way I stand up straight, concentrate and listen for the rush of cars. When it sounds like the traffic is going the direction I want to go, I take a guess the light is green and command Whitney to go forward. Whitney’s ears perk up; she listens for traffic and looks left and right to confirm it’s safe before pulling me across.

The students seemed satisfied with that answer and went on with other questions. Are you blind all of the time? When you were at the Seeing Eye school, what was your teacher’s name? Does Whitney like to lick a lot? What do you and Whitney do to have fun? Their thoughts eventually returned to colors, though.

One girl told me that her school uniform is red. “But does Whitney think they’re green?” I gave that question some thought, and realized I couldn’t answer it. When I got home, I did some research.

Dogs see colors, but not the same way humans do. People can see variations of violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Dogs can only see blue, violet, yellow and some shades of gray.

My source? An article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association called “Vision in Dogs,” written by P.E. Miller and C.J. Murphy. A credible source, but not sure it answers this sweet first grader’s question.

If dogs can’t see the color red, what do they see instead? Blue? Violet?

Yellow? If any of you blog followers have an answer, by all means leave a comment. I’m curious to know now, too!

Pages