Good Dog: Studies & Research
Researchers exploring the canine point of view
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.
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.
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.
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
Venturing deep into the history of our oldest friends
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?
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?
CK: Was this consciously directed?
CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
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?
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?
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?
CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
Dog's Life: Humane
The many sides of temperament testing
In a gathering storm centered on the policies of animal shelters, temperament testing has become a lightning rod. Some resource- and space-starved shelters—which might have once chosen dogs for adoption based on such specious criteria as color, size, age, breed or length of time in the shelter—now use a series of tests that purport to evaluate a dog’s behavior and predict whether the dog will be a good companion for an adopter. Shelters using such tests make several claims for doing so: The dogs they put up for adoption are safer; dogs are selected based on whether they would be good family pets without regard to age or appearance; data gleaned from the tests help shelters find better adoption matches and provide useful information to adopters; and as a result, more people in the community are adopting shelter dogs.
So what’s prompting the firestorm? Several issues. No one advocates putting vicious dogs up for adoption, but many people think good dogs are being declared unadoptable because the tests are unfair and the people administering the tests are not qualified. A common refrain is, “My dog wouldn’t have passed the test.” Further, opponents of temperament testing claim shelters use these tests to hide the truth—that they show low euthanasia rates and high adoption rates by counting only “adoptable” dogs (those that passed the test). This, they believe, deludes a community into believing that there’s no pet over-population problem, and encourages people to drop off an inconvenient dog at a shelter. Detractors also claim that testing tempts shelters to focus on quick resolution rather than spending in-house resources on prevention and utilizing outside resources such as rescue groups.
Central to all these important and intense issues, though, is the fundamental question: Are temperament tests valid? That is, can testing a dog in a stressful shelter environment predict later behavior of the dog?
Most people advocating tests agree that “temperament” tests, in fact, are not valid because a dog’s “temperament” is subjective. Instead, they prefer calling the tests “behavior evaluations,” because behavior can be seen and described objectively. Two such behavior evaluations, Sue Sternberg’s Assess-a-Pet and Dr. Emily Weiss’ SAFER/Meet Your Match, are the ones most likely to be used by shelters because information about these tests is readily available through workshops, seminars, books, and videos as well as from such organizations as the American Humane Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
“The purpose of the test is to find the gems that don’t often come in gemlike packages,” Sternberg says. “I wanted to develop a test that would reveal what the dog would be like with the average adopter, not with a professional dog trainer.” It begins with hands-off observation in which the tester looks for sociable or nonsociable responses, and progresses to evaluations for play, arousal, resource guarding, behavior with cats and mental sensitivity. The test uses the infamous Assess-a-Hand, an artificial hand on a stick that allows someone testing for resource guarding to safely approach, pet and then try to pull a food dish or chew toy away from a dog. Among other recommendations, Sternberg advises shelters to wait two to four days before testing and have two trained people perform the test.
Assess-a-Pet is not a simple pass/fail test; in most parts of the evaluation, the tester selects among a range of responses and also adds observations. For example, the four responses to a test during which the tester strokes the back of the dog are: moves toward tester in at least two out of three strokes, stays in same spot, moves away from tester, or freezes and becomes more aroused. Although some dogs have extreme responses, most responses land in a gray area.
“Mostly, the tests give us information that helps us determine who we can put the dog with,” says Trish King, director of behavior and training at the Marin Humane Society (in northern California), which bases their behavior evaluations on the Assess-a-Pet test. “If a dog is problematic in one area but fantastic in others, we will go out of our way to place that dog because we have the room and the training facility. Unfortunately, other places don’t.” At the Marin Humane Society, virtually all dogs are held for three to four days before any testing, walked outside in a lawn area to relieve themselves first and tested in a quiet room away from the kennels by two people (one of whom has gone through a full apprenticeship program). Any dog that fails—about 5 percent according to King—is retested at least once within three days, and all dogs who show health problems are tested again once they’re healthy.
SAFER/Meet Your Match
The ASPCA in New York, which receives dogs from their humane law enforcement officers, from the NYC Animal Care & Control, and from owner surrenders, uses the SAFER test to determine whether to accept owner-surrendered dogs. “The ACC dogs that we take have already been evaluated,” says Pamela Reid, PhD, director of the Animal Behavior Center. “But for the owner surrenders, we use the SAFER test to get a quick assessment. We’ve raised the bar on which of these dogs we’re willing to accept because we already get a lot of problem dogs from humane law enforcement.” Once a dog has been in the shelter a few days, it’s given a full evaluation using parts of a 140-test-item behavior evaluation developed by Dr. Amy Marder, a veterinarian now with the Animal Rescue League of Boston. “The full test took an hour-and-a-half,” says Reid. “So, we’re using a pared-down version based on her research that includes only the parts that are predictive of behavior in the home.”
San Francisco SPCA
So, the SF/SPCA devised its own test. “We sat down with all our trainers, decided what we were going to accept or not going to accept, defined our terms, and created a test with objective scoring,” Donaldson says. “We’ve got to have an objective test or our data becomes junk.”
Instead of asking if a dog is friendly, for example, they ask if the dog approached a handler within X number of seconds; if it growled for three seconds when a stimulus was within six feet on the right side; and, as the stimulus came closer, did the dog snap or continue to growl. “We’re checking boxes and at the end we can see if the dog is above or below our criteria for an adoptable dog,” says Donaldson, who notes that dogs often pass the test with suggestions for behavior modification. “Because the criteria were agreed upon by all people in the shelter, and the result is the same whether I test, you test, the test happens this week or next week, no one is forced into a god position.”
To determine reliability, they tested their method in two ways: The dog was retested (without behavior modification) a week later by the original tester and the results were com-pared; and three to five testers tested the dog independently and those results were compared. Because results were the same, the test was deemed reliable.
As for valid? “We keep records on all the dogs, but what has to happen and has not happened is the follow-up,” Donaldson says. “The issue with our test and with all the evaluations is that we haven’t crunched enough follow-up numbers. We have to say we really don’t know.”
Some data on temperament tests is slowly becoming available, though.
Testing the Tests
She has also begun evaluating dogs in boarding kennels to see whether the tests are as valid for dogs with homes as for dogs in shelters. “On dogs already in loving homes, SAFER is proving to be predictive of aggression and nonaggression,” she says. “While we are still collecting and analyzing the data, early reports indicate a strong predictability.”
In a separate study, Dr. Marder has been looking at the results of follow-up phone surveys for 70 adopted dogs that were assessed at the ASPCA using her 140-test-item behavioral evaluation. “I was seeing dogs put to sleep that were like dogs in my private practice,” she says. “The owners were working on the problems and the dogs were doing fine. So, I wanted to find out which tests in the behavioral evaluation were predictive of behaviors in the home.”
Each test-item in the evaluation called for objective observations: Evaluators described the placement of a dog’s ears, for example, rather than classifying a dog as “happy.” And, the evaluation as a whole was tested and determined to be reliable: results were the same regardless of who did the testing.
To organize the study, Dr. Marder grouped the test items into such categories as possessive behavior, handling, protective behavior, cage behavior and response to fearful stimuli. The dogs’ responses were also categorized by such behavior as aggressive, friendly and fearful. The phone surveys made one, two, three and six months after adoption asked about these categories.
In “Pick of the Shelter,” (Bark, Fall ’03) Patricia McConnell, PhD, wrote, “It is impossible to perfectly predict the behavior of a dog in one context when you’re doing the evaluation in another. Period. End of sentence. Impossible.” Dr. Marder’s results show that this statement is true.
Rather than trying to draw a perfect correlation between a shelter test and behavior in the home, Dr. Marder decided to look at how well (how perfectly) a test predicted behavior, in the same way, for example, that results of an SAT test predict academic success or failure.
Once her numbers were crunched, she concluded that none of the individual test items were 100 percent predictive; each test only indicated tendencies. She also determined that the ability of any test to predict behavior changed over time. “The dogs change in two directions, an increase in behavior or decrease in behavior,” she says, and recommends that other information, such as intake profiles and the behavior of the dog in the shelter, also guide predictions and triage decisions.
With this in mind and looking at the broad picture, Dr. Marder’s analysis shows that if a dog growled, snapped or bit during any test in the shelter evaluation, the dog was more likely than not to exhibit one of these behaviors again after adoption. But, importantly, by digging deeper into the numbers, she saw that growling during any test at the shelter did not predict snapping or biting after adoption.
When considering categories of behavior, she found three for which positive tests were moderately predictive: possessive aggression, protective behavior and mouthing. That is, if a dog lifted a lip, growled, snapped or bit over food, rawhide or a bed during the test, the dog was likely to show some form of possessive aggression after adoption. Similarly, dogs who lifted a lip, growled, barked, snapped or bit when approached or threatened by a stranger (protective behavior) were likely to show territorial behavior after adoption. And dogs that mouthed during the test were likely to mouth after adoption.
Somewhat predictive were positive responses in categories having to do with aggression to children (dogs were tested with a toddler doll), interdog aggression and separation anxiety. And if a dog showed cage aggression in the shelter, it was somewhat likely to exhibit territorial behavior after adoption.
Of course, what the dog doesn’t do during an evaluation is also important. For example, dogs who did not show possessive aggression, separation anxiety or fear of people during the test were not likely to have these behaviors pop up after adoption, either. And a dog’s friendliness, or lack thereof, in the shelter tended to be the same after adoption. The number crunching continues as she readies the data for publication.
For her first study, Smith tracked 839 behaviorally assessed dogs adopted over a two-year period. The results, which she’s planning to present at the HSUS/Animal Care Expo in March, show that dogs put into a level-one category (no restrictions) after the behavior assessment stayed in the shelter an average of six days, level-two dogs (restrictions such as homes with older children) stayed an average of nine days, and level-three dogs (more difficult issues) stayed 14 days. Some of the level-one dogs were returned and adopted out again, but none were euthanized. On the other hand, 3 percent of the level-two dogs and 7 percent of the level-three dogs were returned and euthanized (or euthanized elsewhere) for behavior problems. “Our return rate has decreased since implementing an assessment process,” she says. “We are making better matches and our euthanasia rate has not increased.” Smith believes that because of temperament testing, the shelter is putting safer dogs up for adoption.
Bollen tracked 2,017 dogs that she tested personally with Assess-a-Pet using follow-up calls at six months for every dog and at one year for random dogs. “I tried to do as many components of the test as I could, whether or not the dog was aggressive during the test,” she says. Bollen, who hopes to have her results published in a peer-reviewed journal, was unwilling to release actual statistics at this time, but did share some general results.
“I found that if a dog showed overt aggression that caused it to fail one part of the test, it was likely to show overt aggression in other parts of the test,” she says. And, of the dogs she deemed adoptable, a high majority showed no aggression after adoption. “My results show that the temperament test does identify dogs that have a tendency to exhibit aggression in certain situations. Performing the test reduces returns because we reduce the number of aggressive dogs who are placed back into the community, and it allows us to make better placements. And, lastly, borderline dogs, the ones that showed behaviors of concern during the temperament test but were adopted out, were more likely to exhibit behavior problems or aggression post-adoption.”
The results sound encouraging; however, canine behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, who is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, casts a skeptical eye on temperament testing and the data being presented. “I think Amy Marder’s work has a lot of potential because she’s asking about probability, about how consistent the dog’s behavior is over time,” she says. “I’m a scientist. Before I can look at findings, the test has to be repeatable and reliable and there has to be objective criteria. We have to codify the behavior … where the dog’s ears are, if there’s vocalization, and if so, whether it starts low and goes up or goes down, where the feet are, what the hair is doing. And context matters. The people who use the Assess-a-Hand do so to have a safe way to reach toward the animal, but the first set of conditions is whether your test instrument is valid. This test object doesn’t mirror the real world, so the answer has to be no. So, don’t tell me a dog growled.
“I’m not saying there aren’t factors in these tests that will be predictive, but they may not predict what people think,” Overall adds. “When I review the tests, I see spurious correlations.”
Dr. Overall isn’t alone among behaviorists in questioning the tests. “We do our damnedest to find appropriate placements,” says Reid. “The test gives us just one snapshot of behavior. We’ve had dogs that aren’t good on the evaluation but were fine with the people who were walking them and cleaning the cages. So we take that into consideration.”
Reid joins her colleagues in calling for more research. “The two things that are missing are, first, more studies and greater numbers,” she says. “And second, we need information about dogs that fail an evaluation in some way, undergo rehabilitation and get adopted out. We need to know whether the behaviors resurface.”
Adds Donaldson, “The anti-testing people are so incredibly well-meaning. I know where they’re coming from. You run a test, adopt the dog anyway, and the dog is fine. Clearly there are problems with the tests, but it could be that some tests are valid, that some parts of the tests may have good predictive value. The preliminary results from tests by Emily [Weiss] and Amy [Marder] have value and are a tantalizing reinforcement for some things, but we have to get funding for more research. Before we can save all the dogs, we have to triage; we have to save the maximum number of dogs in a way that makes sense. If testing is not the way, if it turns out that there is no way to test that’s adequately valid, then we’ll need to stop banging our heads on the testing wall. But then what will we go on?”
Implicit in the work these researchers and behaviorists are doing and in the worries people inside and outside the shelter system have about temperament testing is their concern for the community and for the dogs. Pete Miller, a shelter supervisor at Santa Barbara County Animal Services and a 20-year veteran of the shelter system who believes temperament tests are a necessary part of good sheltering practice, perhaps puts this best: “When a dog dies in an animal shelter, it almost doesn’t matter whether the dog was an old favorite or a hopeless case of a violent animal that never had a chance; the dog was alive one second, and literally gone the next. Everything it ever was and every possibility for what it would have been and done—gone in a second. It’s the actual fact of the real loss and what it means to kill that needs to weigh most and is the reason there should never be a formula that tries to remove the responsibility from a person or dim the reality of what it means to take away a life.”
Editor's Note: This article won the 2004 ASPCA Humane Special Award for Dog Writing.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs understand pointing better than chimps
A few years ago I took my dogs to the Harvard Canine Cognition Lab to participate in some really interesting research. One of the studies looked at the dogs' understanding of gestures, such as pointing. I didn't think my pups were really making the association in the lab, but at home I do think that they seem to understand when I'm pointing at things. Maybe it's just a shared understanding we've developed after years of living together.
Despite my anecdotal findings, apparently dogs are pretty good at understanding gestures. Previous studies have shown this before, but recent research shows that dogs are even better in this area than chimps.
A team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany presented 20 chimps and 32 dogs with the same task, retrieving an object that a researcher pointed to. The team found that the dogs were much more successful than the chimps.
The researchers think that pointing may be a human form of communication, which is why the chimps couldn't understand the concept. However, they were puzzled by the fact that the dogs were able to pick up on the pointing.
I wonder if this has to do with the close relationship we have with our dogs. They've evolved around humans and previous studies have shown that they can understand our body language. It's a pretty cool concept!
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