Good Dog: Studies & Research
“This is not your food! Don’t even think about eating it. This … is … not … your … food.” What do our words mean to dogs? Not that I’m about to stop speaking to dogs anytime soon, but I do wonder what my daily utterances signify to Millie, Piper, Upton and Finnegan, the dogs I converse with on a regular basis. Do I sound like a cross between Charlie Brown’s teacher and Gary Larson’s “What Dogs Hear” cartoon? Are we on the same page, or even in the same book?
I set out on a quest to explore dogs and their understanding of human language. What do we think dogs understand? A lot, according to a study by Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest. Thirty-seven owners provided a list of 430 different utterances that they thought their dogs knew, with each owner providing an average of 30 phrases.
Enter Rico, Chaser, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, companion dogs celebrated for their panache for human language. The news media hails them as “super smart,” and after meeting Chaser, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson exclaimed, “Who would have thought that animals are capable of this much display of intellect?”
So what are these dogs doing with words?
Seven years later, Chaser, a Border Collie in South Carolina, took the gold medal when Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College reported that Chaser knew the distinct names of 1,022 objects — more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic items. Chaser knows that “Uncle Fuzz” is different from “Wise Owl,” who is certainly different from “Merlin.” This is not merely a story about Border Collies, however. Researchers recently related that Bailey, a 12-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, knows the names of about 120 toys.
Chaser and Rico also win praise for their ability to learn and retain the names of new objects. When presented with a group of toys, all of which were familiar except one, the dogs could retrieve the unknown toy when asked to fetch using an unfamiliar word. In essence, the dogs were pairing a novel object with an unfamiliar name after a single association and then remembering the name of that new object in subsequent trials. In children, this is called “fast mapping,” and it was thought to be uniquely human. Pilley notes, “This research shows that this understanding occurs on a single trial. However, Chaser needed addition rehearsal in order to transfer this understanding or learning into long-term memory.”
“That’s just training,” you might say, but this suggests that some dogs show a cognitively advanced skill where actions are understood as independent from objects. Reid and Pilley found that Chaser does not interpret “fetch sock” as one single word, like “fetchsock.” Instead, she can perform a number of different actions flexibly toward a number of different objects. Daniela Ramos, a veterinary behaviorist in São Paulo, discovered that a mutt named Sofia could also differentiate object names from action commands, suggesting these dogs attend to the individual meaning of each word.
This all seems quite extraordinary, but nothing comes free of controversy. Do dogs like Chaser and Sofia use and understand language the same way humans do, or are they merely welltrained? For example, some researchers are not certain that dogs actually “fast map”; dogs might be doing something that simply looks like “fast mapping” from the outside. Regardless, it does seem as though these dogs have a conception of objects and actions. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and beloved Bark columnist, agrees. “Understanding requires that we share the same reference — that we have the same construct of an object or an action. For some dogs, it seems like they do.” Pilley concurs. “When an object, such as a toy, is held before Chaser and a verbal label is given to that object, Chaser understands that the verbal label refers to that object.”
In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz reminds us that even if these are the only dogs in the world capable of using words this way, it allows us to see that a “dog’s cognitive equipment is good enough to understand language in the right context.” This body of research indicates what is possible, not necessarily what most dogs do every day.
Who Are You Living With?
Like Rocky Balboa preparing for his climactic showdown, these dogs are highly motivated. Fischer notes, “Rico was eager and hard working. You’d have to tell him, ‘That’s enough. Get something to drink. Take a rest.’” Chaser is similar, says Pilley. “She has two states—highly, highly active and recuperating and resting.”
Denise Fenzi, a professional dog trainer from Woodside, Calif., who specializes in a variety of dog sports, reminds us that this type of motivation is not necessarily the norm. “Not all dogs share this attention to words. Even in my dogs [all of whom are the same breed], there is a huge difference in ability to verbally process. I didn’t train them differently. It’s just easier for one to quickly get words.”
What dogs are able to do with language could also be explained by their tutelage. If dogs don’t learn to attach a variety of different actions to a variety of objects, it might be harder for them in the long run to be flexible with human language. Susanne Grassmann, a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explains, “Chaser was trained to do different things with different objects, and she differentiates between what is the object label and what is the action command, meaning what to do with that object.”
Ramos notes that Sofia’s relationship with certain objects was a bit different. “Throughout the training, we always paired ‘stick’ with ‘point.’ As a result, it was difficult for her to perform any other action toward the stick beside ‘point.’ If we had trained her ‘stick: sit,’ ‘stick: point’ and ‘stick: fetch,’ she would have learned that multiple actions can be directed toward the stick, and her response would probably be different. For example, when presented with a novel object, such as a toy bear, she could direct a number of different actions toward the bear, but there was a reluctance to change her action towards the stick, which could have to do with the rigidity of training.”
And even if you do explicitly teach that different words have different meanings, it can be challenging. Ramos found that learning the names of objects is not always easy for dogs. “It was hard for Sofia to learn to discriminate the names of her first two objects, but after the initial discrimination, it was like she learned to learn. It became easier,” recalls Ramos.
“Because this type of learning can be challenging, service dogs [who have little margin for error] are taught a limited, but instrumental, set of words,” explains Kate Schroer-Shepord, a qualified guide dog instructor at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
Pilley found that dogs’ success at object learning depended upon the training method used. “When we put two objects on the floor and asked dogs to retrieve each object by name, they couldn’t do it; simultaneous discrimination wasn’t working. Instead, Chaser was able to learn the names of objects through successive discrimination. She would play with one object in each training session, and through play, the object assumed value. We’d name the object, hide it and ask her to find it. Discrimination testing between the names of different objects occurred later.”
Words or Melody?
Dogs derive an enormous amount of information from contextual cues, particularly our body movements as well as tone and “prosody” — the rhythm, stress and intonation of our speech. “When people talk to dogs, dogs pay attention to the melody and the mood to predict what is happening or what will happen next,” explains Fischer.
Fenzi says that dogs can just as easily respond to gibberish as to real English words; “I could go through every level of AKC obedience from the bottom to the top saying, ‘Kaboola,’ and the dog could succeed.” In many cases, dogs may be understanding tone rather than individual words.
“One of the most notable differences between novices and professional trainers is the ability to modulate the prosodic features of their speech,” notes McConnell. “The pros learn to keep problematic emotions out of their verbal cues, like nervousness in a competition, and to use prosody to their advantage when it’s advantageous, for example, to calm a dog down or to motivate him to speed up.”
In another study, Ramos explored whether, when taken out of context, dogs knew the words relating to toys they were thought to know. Most did not, much to the surprise of the owners. When the verbal skills of Fellow, a performing German Shepherd from the 1920s, were tested outside their customary contexts, Fellow knew only some of the words and actions that his owners thought he understood.
While many owners deem their dogs to be word-savvy, their reports tell a different story. The Pongrácz survey found that many words and phrases were executed only in contextually adequate situations (for example, saying “bedtime” when it’s dark and you’re in your pajamas rather than at noon when you’re in your work clothes). As with Fellow, this suggests dogs might not be attending to only words themselves.
Put Words to the Test
McConnell initially thought Willie knew the name of her partner, Jim. “To teach Willie, I would say, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Jim would call Willie over. When Willie consistently went to Jim, I’d say it as Jim was driving up, and Willie would run to the window. One day, Jim was sitting on the couch, and I said, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Willie ran to the window, all excited. This difference in definitions is more common than people realize — dogs don’t have the exact same concept of words that we do.”
While there is no question dogs can understand verbs, their definitions might differ from ours. McConnell shares a classic example that she learned from Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. “What do dogs think ‘sit’ means? We think ‘sit’ means this posture we call ‘sitting,’ but if you ask a dog who is sitting to ‘sit,’ he will very often lie down. To him, ‘sit’ might mean get lower, go down toward the ground.”
Many people tend to overestimate their dogs’ facility with words and assume that dogs and humans have a shared understanding. Because a dog responds in one context and not in another doesn’t mean he is being disobedient. As Tom Brownlee, master trainer with the American Society of Canine Trainers and instructor in Carroll College’s anthrozoology program, candidly advises owners, “If a dog’s not getting ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ may be — then you are doing something wrong. It’s our job to help them understand.”
When you talk to your dog, consider that the words you speak might not carry the same meaning for both of you. Instead, other aspects of communication might be more relevant. Maybe the real lesson is that context, prosody and tone — rather than dictionary definitions of words — are vitally important for human communication, too.
This piece is dedicated to Professor César Ades (1943–2012) and Dr. Penny Bernstein (1947– 2012). While their exceptional contributions to the fields of animal behavior and psychology endure, their presences are greatly missed.
News: Guest Posts
Study finds Hormone-disrupting Chemicals Leach from Some Plastic Toys
The toy aisle is meant to be all about fun, but recalls, toxic imports and a dearth of regulations have left dog owners facing tough choices. Many toys are made of plastic and may contain chemicals that interfere with hormones.
A new study by researchers at the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University shows that BPA and phthalates, chemicals that disrupt hormones, “readily leach” from plastic or vinyl bumper toys used to train retrievers.
Philip Smith, a toxicologist and co-author of the as-yet unpublished study, uses plastic bumpers to train his Labrador Retrievers, Bindi, age 11, and Huck, age 5. He wondered if the bumpers might expose them to hazardous chemicals.
In fact, the compounds are hard to avoid. BPA, the building block of polycarbonate plastic, is found in most food and drink cans; phthalates are common in food packaging, personal care items and vinyl plastics.
“BPA and phthalates come from many, many sources” besides pet toys, Smith says. So a dog’s “cumulative exposure may be significant.”
The study, conducted by graduate student, Kim Wooten, is one of the first to examine these chemicals in pet toys. In children’s toys, some phthalates have been banned in the U.S. and the European Union. In July 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups.
Although their health effects in dogs are unknown, the hormones they interfere with regulate many biological functions.
Studies done mostly with rodents have linked BPA and phthalates to impaired development of reproductive organs, decreased fertility, diabetes and obesity, cancers, and behavioral and attention problems.
No, dogs are not mice. There are “species sensitivity differences” in regard to toxics, Smith says. For example, dogs are at greater risk than humans from eating chocolate. But while their sensitivity to synthetic chemicals may also differ, “we are unaware of specific reasons why they might respond in a significantly different manner.”
Available data suggests that the most vulnerable pets may be pregnant females “and perhaps young animals like puppies.”
According to a 2012 pet health report by Banfield Pet Hospital, some cancers and other diseases in dogs are increasing. “The rate of overweight and obese pets has reached epidemic levels in the U.S., affecting approximately one in five dogs and cats.”
The causes are unknown, but Smith says it’s possible that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including phthalates and BPA, play a role.
Certain aspects of canine cancer suggest that dogs are sensitive to them, he says. For instance, exposure to estrogens raises the risk for mammary cancers. For metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, researchers are finding that some hormone-disrupting chemicals appear to “affect metabolic endpoints, in addition to reproduction and behavior.”
For the toy study, the researchers tested orange and white bumpers from two unidentified makers, using artificial saliva to simulate a dog chewing a bumper. The amount of toxics released in a dog’s mouth couldn’t be determined due to the use of simulated saliva,
But what is a high exposure in dogs?
“We are not aware of any exposure guidelines pertaining to these particular chemicals and dogs,” Smith says.
They suspect the levels released from the bumpers would be very high, though, compared with children’s toys.
The study also examined BPA and phthalates from ordinary plastic pet toys sold in stores. The bumpers leached more, but the results suggest that the other toys might have released other hormonally-active chemicals.
Smith highlights the uncertainty that shoppers face, saying the bumpers might have been made from different materials, or perhaps the packaging limited the release of some chemicals before the experiment.
Or, the less affected toys may have involved “materials that are also used in the manufacture of children’s toys.”
“We’re not really sure, but intend to pursue the question further.”
Good thing for pet owners.
“Given the extent of plastics in the human-canine environment,” Smith says, avoiding the chemicals entirely may not be possible.
But not all plastics are the same. When it comes to leaching of chemicals “each type is very different.”
“That is why studies on individual products are important.” Pet owners need the information “to make thoughtful decisions.”
Some pet toy makers say they use BPA-free plastics.
But owners may wonder why it’s even a question. Why should they have to worry about chemicals in toys or migrating from cans, even into “organic” food, to add to their dog’s exposure?
At least—at last—it is being studied.
Smith’s team plans to continue studying the exposure of pets to chemicals. “We think there is a great deal to be learned about potential pet and human health impacts from chemicals in the environment,” he says.
And as they learn, Smith says they hope to yield the data needed “to inform decisions about how we manufacture pet products, which ones we buy, and what we allow our pets to chew.”
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The Beauty of Diversity
For those of us who love dogs, using DNA tests to deconstruct our mongrel pooch’s mysterious heritage is appealing because we want to be able to answer the question, “What kind of dog is that?” Companies say that DNA-based diagnostic tests, which sell for about $60, can answer the question by comparing your dog’s DNA to over 100 of the most popular breeds. But are the tests accurate? I decided to find out.
Chance, a 10-year-old mixed-breed dog who has lived with me for six years, was my guinea pig. I tested his DNA using three different tests. In 2008, when I wrote the prequel to this article (read it online at thebark.com/dna), I had his ancestry tested with the Canine Heritage Breed Test. At that time, the company used 96 markers and tracked them to 38 breeds. A marker is a gene or DNA sequence on a chromosome that indicates “breedness.” The labs claim that the markers they use are 99 percent accurate.
In May 2012, when I began doing research for this follow-up article, I tested his DNA with the amplified Canine Heritage Breed Test again because it had been substantially improved to 400 markers and 120 popular breeds. I could have paid $25 to upgrade the 2008 test. But to be fair in my test-of-the-tests experiment, I submitted his cheek swab under a different name and without a photograph, just in case, as many people believe, the tests are a scam. In addition, I used the MARS Wisdom Panel Mixed Breed Identification Test. Mars looks at 321 markers and includes 185 breeds in its database.*
To analyze and compare the results fairly, I needed to find out if the tests were processed the same way, and I researched the history of the breeds identified in Chance’s ancestry.
Comparing the Tests
If a primary parent breed can’t be identified in the DNA, the program will look for a secondary grandparent breed, and so on and so forth, until it eventually clusters with a distant breed (if there is one). If there are no purebred ancestors, remnant breeds will be sought.
To identify markers that characterize a breed, labs take samples from multiple thousands of individual dogs representative of more than a hundred breeds. However, those dogs differ from one laboratory to the next. Although their sample sizes are big enough to absorb minor differences, no two dogs are exactly alike. Plus, line-bred dogs can affect results. For example, Labrador Retrievers bred exclusively for hunting may be more like each other than they are like the breed.
Finally, descriptive terminology differs. Canine Heritage uses primary, secondary and in the mix. Wisdom Panel uses parent, grandparent, great-grandparent and next best breed matches that include percentiles.
Because Chance has no purebred parent, his strongest signal would come from a purebred grandparent. One test indicated a Siberian Husky grandparent. However, the other two tests claimed he has no purebred parent, grandparent or great grandparent. In any case, all three tests concur that a combination of spitz breeds provides the strongest signals in Chance’s ancestry — Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute and, to a lesser degree, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi, a breed with some spitz lineage. Although it transmits a faint signal, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is the only breed that showed up in more than one test. The white German Shepherd and blackand-tan German Shepherd, strong and weak signals respectively, are both named as ancestors and are admixtures of one another. Although they are herding dogs, it’s probable that both breeds have some spitz lineage. The Japanese Chin, a miniature Asian breed derived thousands of years ago from larger mastiff and spitz dogs, is also a fairly strong signal.
Large terriers make up the next strongest signals in his DNA. The German Pinscher, Standard Schnauzer and Doberman Pinscher are closely related. German Pinschers were used to develop the relatively new Doberman Pinscher breed. The Standard Schnauzer, originally called the Wire-haired Pinscher, is directly related to the German Pinscher. Sight hounds are mentioned in two tests. In the late 1800s, Borzois were likely mixed with Huskies to increase speed, and terriers were mixed with Italian Greyhounds.
The weakest signals, in some cases less than 2 percent of his makeup, include a ragtag group of breeds, including Border Collie, English Setter, Cocker Spaniel and Leonberger.
Making Sense of the Findings
The ancestral breeds named in the three tests seem absurdly disparate, but they are not contradictory. They all point to one truth: only a few degrees of separation differentiate Chance from all modern breeds. This is because most purebred dogs have a crippling lack of genetic diversity, which is the unintended consequence of modern breeding practices.
Except for 14 ancient breeds — Afghan, Akita, American Eskimo, Basenji, Canaan Dog, Chinese Shar-Pei, Chow Chow, Dingo, Finnish Spitz, New Guinea Singing Dog, Saluki, Samoyed, Shiba Inu, and Siberian Husky — all our modern breeds were developed in the last few hundred years.1 Although each has its own DNA fingerprint, they have so little genetic diversity that if you go back far enough, the DNA of almost every dog, mixed breed or purebred, will cluster with a few common ancestors. This finding raises the question, “How can breeds that look so different be so closely related.”
The complex DNA of stray mutts on the mean streets of, for instance, Lugazi, Uganda, or Zorzor, Liberia, may answer the question. Ubiquitous freeranging dogs living on the fringes of human settlement are not, as previously believed, semi-feral, mongrelized purebred dogs, but rather, are genetically distinct and subject to the pressures of natural selection. Some populations have been isolated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Subsequently the village dog genome remains complex and unabridged.
Suspecting that village dogs may be pure genetic remnants of ancient dogs, Adam Boyko, assistant professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, co-founded the Village Dog Genetic Diversity Project with his colleague Carlos Bustamante, a genetics professor at Stanford School of Medicine.
The project is a worldwide collaboration of researchers, volunteers and veterinarians who gather canine DNA samples along with photos and information on weight, age, body measurements and coat color. The samples are analyzed at the Canine DNA Bank at the Baker Institute for Animal Health, part of Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which maintains a growing DNA archive of dogs worldwide.
The scientists believe their work will shed new light on when, where and under what conditions dogs were domesticated, and how dogs have adapted to human settlement, environmental stress and disease.
The first phase of the study included collecting samples from modern breeds, their mixed-breed relatives, breeds reputed to be from remote regions of the world and African village dogs. In 2009, they reported that African village dogs are a mosaic of indigenous dogs descended from more ancient dogs that migrated to Africa.2 Findings also indicated that their genome is being eroded at an alarmingly fast rate as they mate with recently introduced modern dogs. Researchers are now scrambling to find dogs in even more remote locations. In the summer of 2012, workers began collecting DNA samples in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On a continuum, gray wolves, the progenitor of all dogs, have the most genetic diversity, and purebred dogs have the least. Village dogs’ diversity lies somewhere in between. Because purebred dogs are the result of strong selection for exaggerated traits, they have only a fraction of the genetic diversity displayed by village dogs. The genetic variant that underlies a desirable trait, whether it’s extreme size or intense behavior, has become fixed, wiping away not only competing variants but also variants associated with nearby genes.
Genes located close to each other on a chromosome are said to be linked, and tend to be inherited together or, conversely, wiped away at the same time. Thus, a trait that isn’t selected for can be wiped away simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that trait happens to affect, for instance, immune response to disease, then that could be a problem.
By comparing the genome of village dogs to that of purebred dogs, scientists hope to be able to identify what’s been lost as a result of intense artificial selection. Dr. Boyko notes that “village dogs offer a chance to understand the mechanisms of certain genetic diseases. Knowing what those genetic variants are might be the first step towards invigorating genetic diversity in some modern breeds.”
The Significance of Canine Origin
Previous studies suggest that dogs originated in places as varied as Eastern Europe, China’s Yangtze River Valley and the Middle East. In a 2002 study, researchers pinpointed East Asia as the place of origin. However, some scientists think these dogs are descendents of an even older population that developed in a different place. Dr. Boyko’s findings confirm this. African village dogs have about the same amount of genetic diversity as those in the East Asian study, suggesting that both groups are the same age. It’s possible that both populations originated together somewhere else and then migrated to East Asia and Africa at about the same time.
To thoroughly complicate matters, the Canidae family does not play by the same rules as most other mammalian families. Unlike, say, horses and donkeys, dogs, wolves, coyotes and golden jackals can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Consequently, following the genetic trail from domestic dog to wolf leads to a lot of stops and starts and many dead ends as well as plenty of headaches for evolutionary biologists.
A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
As Dr. Larson notes, “There has been so much admixture since dog domestication began, and especially in the last few hundred years, that looking at modern dogs is always going to be problematic. There may be modern populations that are less ‘corrupted’ or admixed, but even they will possess a legacy of several thousand years of crosses with large numbers of populations, and even wolves.” He adds, “The only way forward is to focus on other methods, including, but not limited to, ancient DNA from archaeological dog and wolf remains. And of course, there is the wider interpretation and understanding from lots of other fi elds to put it all in context.”
In the paper, researchers discussed an interesting pattern that emerges when sites with archaeological dog and wolf remains are overlaid onto maps showing the historical distribution of wolves. First, the archaeological remains are not found in the places where ancient breeds are believed to have been developed, intimating that dogs may have been domesticated multiple times from local wolf populations. Second, most of the ancient breeds come from areas where wolves never ranged, suggesting that humans had dogs as they migrated around the globe. Furthermore, dogs only appeared in these locations after agriculture was introduced.
The canine genome’s full story continues to evade scientists, but as DNA technology advances and analysis becomes cheaper and faster, researchers are optimistic that the answers they seek are right around the corner.
Will I continue to test my future shelter rescue mutts to find out who they are, even though I know that the answers will be the same — all modern dogs are so closely related that it’s almost impossible to discriminate ancestry? Probably. Other mysteries lie hidden in our dogs’ DNA. The idea that an animal can be morphed into so many extreme shapes and behaviors yet remain a simple combination of only a few stem parents is one of them.
We like to believe that scientific discovery advances tidily, fact by fact, to prove an irrefutable truth. But science is a messy business. And there is hardly a better example of just how messy than the search to tease out the mysteries hidden in the canine genome.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs walk again after spinal injury
In an exciting development in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, researchers at Cambridge University were able to restore some movement to the legs of dogs who had been paralyzed. (All 34 dogs in the study had become paralyzed by injuries or accidents. No dog was purposely injured for the research.)
The breaks in the spinal cord were at least partially fixed with the use of cells from the dogs’ own noses. The specific type of cells that they used, olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), are involved in the growth of nerve fibers that are necessary for communication between the brain and the nose.
Dogs who were treated with OECs showed significant improvement in the movement of their back legs compared with the control group, which did not receive OECs. Being able to walk again obviously has considerable quality-of-life benefits. Researchers point out that this procedure will probably be most effective if combined with other therapies, such as drugs and physical therapy.
Though it is likely a long way off, similar therapies may eventually be effective in treating people with paralysis because of spinal cord injuries.
Wellness: Health Care
Something was wrong with Whiskey, and it wasn’t lethargy, whining or refusal to eat that tipped off his owners. It was chew sticks, unchewed. For the 10-year-old Small Munsterlander, chewing was a lifelong obsession. It had been a good life, one spent running down San Francisco city sidewalks; playing in the parks; exploring neighborhood shops; and, of course, chasing toys on the beach.
Whiskey’s owners, Tom Swierk and Robin Addams, indulged his appetite for beef tendons and other treats. The dog they had acquired as a young pup still had “lots of sass,” as Swierk describes him, or he did until last Thanksgiving, when his owners realized he had lost interest in chewing, one of his favorite pastimes. The Small Munsterlander, a hunting breed that originated in Munster, Germany, has been bred for centuries to thrive on chasing and retrieving. True to his roots, Whiskey was a friendly, devoted dog with an intense streak that his owners channeled into play. When Whisky ignored his chew toys, Swierk thought it was a problem with a tooth, and took him to the vet.
It was cancer.
Oral cancer, both malignant and benign, is not uncommon in dogs. Unfortunately, Whiskey’s tumor wasn’t benign. The lesion on his lower left gum was malignant squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common oral malignancy in dogs. In humans, it accounts for 70 percent of all oral tumors.
The wrenching news came with a silver lining: the cancer hadn’t spread to other organs. “This type of malignant tumor metastasizes less than 10 percent of the time,” Swierk says. It is known for its aggressive growth, however, and the tumor had already invaded Whiskey’s jawbone. Nearby were lymph nodes, a ready target and a pathway for the cancer to spread.
What, then, could be done? The usual course of action was to amputate the affected bone, sometimes using chemotherapy and radiation. Another common treatment involved shaving the growth, Swierk says, but that would also mean subsequent periodic surgeries. With the diseased bone removed, Whiskey’s chances for a full recovery were good. A life without chewing, however, wasn’t so promising.
After amputation, the jaw is never quite the same. The teeth and bones gradually fall out of alignment, and the dog’s teeth can cause ulcerations in the hard palate. He could eat, but there would be no more chew toys. He could not play ball or tug of war.
As it turned out, there was another option. A team of vets at the University of California, Davis, had been working on a fix for pets who lost jawbone to disease or injury. It had only been used in five other dogs, but the results had been good. Their vet referred him to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, 73 miles east of San Francisco.
It was a done deal for Swierk and Addams, who were prepared to travel to New York, if that’s what it took to not only save their dog, but have him back whole, and to pay the $8,000 treatment cost. Whiskey was more than a pet to them — he was their companion.
“Whiskey is our world, plain and simple,” Swierk says.
Bone regeneration was seen as science fiction in 1948, when Dr. Marshall R. Urist, a UCLA orthopedic surgeon who pioneered the field, got started. Urist spent five decades at the bone research laboratory at UCLA, where he discovered how to use proteins to stimulate skeletal repair.
In 1971, he proposed the name “bone morphogenetic protein” (BMP) for the growth-promoting factors he used to prompt new bone growth in rabbits. The bone proteins act as signals to stem cells, which migrate to them and are converted into bone-forming cells. These cells then grow bone in the area where the BMP was placed.
Naturally occurring BMP is found within bone, but clinically useful amounts can’t be easily extracted from human donor bone and so must be genetically engineered in the lab.
At UC Davis, Whiskey was in the care of a team of vets who had been perfecting a new procedure to regrow damaged jawbone, work that drew on Urist’s research and other experimental and clinical treatments developed for humans. The team included Dr. Dan Huey, a biomedical engineer; Dr. Boaz Arzi, a veterinary surgeon; and Dr. Frank Verstraete, who heads the dentistry and oral surgery service at the veterinary teaching hospital. Their goal was to put biomedical approaches to bone replacement to use in veterinary practice. Once they had refined a technique that would work for dogs, they put out the word, and soon referrals from other vets were coming their way.
“It wasn’t an experimental study, just an innovative application of existing materials,” Verstraete says.
Over a two-year span, eight dogs have undergone the procedure, and to date, all are doing well, the vets say. Each dog spent three days at the teaching hospital for an exam, surgery and recovery, followed by three post-operative exams.
Whiskey, their sixth patient, had the largest lesion. There was no getting around it: he would lose much of his jaw. But with the help of a titanium plate, a sponge and some bone proteins donated by Pfizer, he would grow a new one in a matter of months.
The team’s first task was to decide how much bone to take in order to remove all of the cancer. That proved to be 2.5 inches, or about half of Whiskey’s lower left jawbone. Once the diseased bone was out, in went a titanium plate built by Dr. Arzi, which was screwed into place on the remaining bone.
But the titanium plate alone was not enough to hold the jaw together. The greatest risk was failure of the plate due to the large gap where the bone had been, Dr. Verstraete says. Over time, pressure on the plate would cause the surrounding bone to resorb.
Enter the scaffold: a stiff, sponge-like piece of material that was fitted into the space. It, too, was only part of the solution. The next step in building a new jaw would require Whiskey’s own stem cells, attracted to the bone proteins in which the scaffold had been soaked. Like a magnet, the bone proteins would draw stem cells from the dog’s surrounding bone and soft tissue to the scaffold, where they would attach and turn into bone cells, according to Dr. Huey. The new bone cells would eventually fill the entire void and integrate with native bone. On a molecular level, the new bone is the dog’s own, with a DNA makeup identical to other bones in his body.
There is no need to match the proteins to a particular dog, Verstraete says. “The BMP we use is synthetic, recombinant human (rhBMP-2). It doesn’t elicit any antibody response in experimental animals.”
Just as the vets borrowed from human medicine, their procedure for dogs will now find its way back into human medicine. Their success with the eight cases has given them material for a report on the work, which they plan to submit to a scientific journal.
What lies ahead for the promising surgery? The vets hope to be able to modify the technique for use with larger jawbone defects in animals. Also on the horizon: human arm and leg bones. There is more work to be done, however. “The technique that we used has not been done for weight-bearing bones yet,” Verstraete says.
Is the new method a cancer cure, or a quality-of-life issue?
“Both,” Verstraete says. “We only do the surgery for tumors that haven’t spread. Reconstruction greatly improves the quality of life compared to the previously used technique.”
Swierk knows there’s no guarantee that Whiskey will remain cancer-free. “The assumption is that it’s a cure, but the verdict is still out.” But based on Whiskey’s September checkup, it’s “so far, so good.”
Swierk says the bionic jaw is doing its job. “He eats all his yummies as he did before.” In addition to munching kibble, caulif lower and chew sticks, he’s back to chewing and chasing balls and toys. Swierk isn’t surprised that their dog has bounced back, or that the new technology was available right when he needed it. “We never doubted for one minute that Whiskey would succeed with this new cutting-edge surgery.” It’s all part of Whiskey’s good nature, Swierk says.
“He’s led a charmed life.”
Good Dog: Studies & Research
We talk about dominance, but do we really understand it?
If a dog has behavior issues such as a tendency to mount other dogs, any form of aggression, an overly pushy play style or poor response to training, some people are sure to claim that “dominance” is the culprit. But are they right?
The ongoing dialogue about dominance in the dog world is more problematic than an unattended puppy in a shoe store but it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. While some hate the concept so much that they refer to it as the “D-word,” others swear by it, considering it an indispensable guiding principle for all interactions with dogs. Having a civil discussion on the subject, much less reaching a consensus, is a challenge, as debates often become quite heated.
Scientific inquiry offers an opportunity for greater understanding of this topic, though writings on the subject with titles such as “Social dominance: Useful construct or quagmire?,” “Social dominance is not a myth: Wolves, dogs, and other animals” and “Deconstructing the concept of dominance: Should we revive the concept of dominance in dogs?” reflect continued controversy. While dominance, or social dominance as it is often called, has been studied extensively in a number of species, relatively little work has been done in this area on the domestic dog, and more research is badly needed.
Adding to the frustration and confusion, when it comes to domestic dogs the term is commonly applied to two different types of relationships. The first relates to interactions between dogs. In this usage, dominance is defined as the power to control access to desirable resources and refers to the relative status of two dogs. In the absence of another dog, an individual dog cannot be said to be “dominant” as a personality attribute because dominance refers to the relationship between dogs.
The second, and more controversial, type of dominance relationship relates to interactions between humans and dogs. In this paradigm, humans dominating dogs is considered the path to well-trained dogs. Those who follow this school of thought claim that you have to control your dogs by being dominant over them in order to make them behave and may make suggestions such as not allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or walk through the door ahead of you, or even to spitting in your dog’s food and making a resting dog move rather than walking around him. Today, fewer trainers subscribe to these ideas than in the past.
Dominance Between Dogs
Becky Trisko, PhD, ethologist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., focused her 2011 doctoral dissertation on social interactions within a group of 24 dogs who regularly engaged with one another at daycare. The behaviors she analyzed included aggressive threat and conflict, muzzle lick, crouch, passive submission, retreat, high posture, muzzle bite, mount and chin-over.
Trisko found a dominance hierarchy among the dogs, although only about 30 percent of the pairs had clear dominance relationships. Dominance rank correlated with age (older dogs tended to rank more highly) but not with size. And contrary to popular belief, neither mounting nor performing chinovers were related to status. As a point of interest, not once in 224 hours of observation during this yearlong study did she observe an “alpha roll.”
Muzzle licking was consistently done by subordinate dogs to individuals of higher rank and was highly predictive of relationships between individuals. The clearest signals were those associated with voluntary submission, or deference. Trisko observed that dominance relationships were not about coercion, force or fighting, but rather, about an understanding by both individuals of their relative social status.
In another study exploring dominance relationships between dogs, Simona Cafazzo and three colleagues observed a group of feral dogs in the suburbs of Rome. Their primary finding was that the dogs formed a linear dominance hierarchy, meaning that the individuals in the group could be ranked in order from highest to lowest in status. (Other possible social structures include having one individual who dominates all others who are equally low-ranking or societies in which the relationships are not transitive— e.g. A dominates B, B dominates C, C dominates A). A linear dominance hierarchy indicates that the dogs in this study were capable of forming stable social groups, although many have claimed that feral dogs cannot do so. Additionally, they found that submissive behavior was most predictive of dominance relationships, rank correlated with age, and males within an age class outranked females. Rank order in the linear dominance hierarchy predicted access to food resources, with those of higher rank having priority access.
Dominance has been studied in puppies as well as in adult dogs. John Bradshaw and Helen Nott reported that interactions between littermates were inconsistent over time, and that observations of such interactions did not predict which puppy would come out on top in any competitive situation; “winners” varied from one day to the next. Despite much discussion of choosing (or avoiding) the dominant puppy in a litter, interactions between littermates do not reveal dominance relationships, much less any kind of linear hierarchy.
The Dangers of Misunderstanding Dominance
While no studies have thoroughly investigated whether dominance relationships exist between people and dogs, there is evidence that such training styles can create problems. Herron et al. investigated such techniques, often called “dominance reduction training,” and found them to be counterproductive. The confrontational methods associated with training styles that insist that we “get dominance over our dogs” caused aggressive responses in 25 percent of the dogs in their study. Techniques such as grabbing a dog by the jowls and shaking; hitting or kicking; staring; performing alpha rolls (also called “dominance downs”) and physically forcing a dog to release an item were more likely to result in aggressive behavior than were gentler, positive methods. Using such forceful methods can actually create problem behavior as well as increase a dog’s fear and anxiety. Based on what we know about dominance relationships between dogs, this is not surprising. As Trisko notes, “If dominance relationships between dogs and humans are at all similar to dominance relationships between dogs, then dominance does not apply to all relationships and when it does apply, it does not require the use of intimidation or physical force.”
A basic ethological premise is that we must understand the animals we study. In fact, this principle is considered so absolute that it is most often phrased as a commandment: Know thy animal! Understanding how social dominance does and does not apply to dogs is part of knowing who dogs are. Trisko makes this point: “If we really want to understand our dogs’ behavior, especially their relationships with other dogs, ignoring dominance will hinder us.” Bekoff agrees. “That’s who they are, that’s how they behave. They form status relationships, and we have to understand that.”
When it comes to the issue of dominance, common ground is not easy to find. Few would dispute the need for further research, though even the most carefully designed studies may not be enough to bring agreement on this particular subject. As Bekoff has noted, “People get on this kick with dominance. They don’t pay attention to the data.”
Arguments about dominance and its relevance to dogs, their relationships with each other, and our relationships with them are sure to continue. Though I prefer resolution to conflict, I can’t help but see the wisdom in moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert’s remark: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."
Young Scientist in Action
Are dogs’ mouths cleaner than humans’? Her grandmother said they were, her mother said they definitely were not. Not one to take things at face value, Abby Walling of Iowa City, Iowa, decided to conduct an experiment and answer the question once and for all. Not only did she reach a conclusion, she won a 2011 Young Naturalist Award from New York’s American Museum of Natural History for her work. As a bonus, she no longer feels guilty about letting Lucy, her kiss-happy Yorkshire Terrier, lick her face.
Specifically, Abby investigated the bacterial content of both human and canine tongues. She hypothesized that humans would have fewer bacteria — after all, they brush their teeth regularly and aren’t quite as indiscriminate as dogs about what they put in their mouths. She then obtained saliva samples from five dogs and their associated humans and plated the samples on agar in a laboratory. What she found surprised her: Humans do have more bacteria in their mouths than dogs. That, however, is only part of the story (to read Abby’s full project report and results, go to amnh.org/yna and look under Past Winners, 2011).
At the time, Abby was in the eighth grade at Northwest Junior High School, and this project landed her a place in the State Hygienic Lab’s student mentorship program, which matches junior high and high school students with a laboratory scientist mentor; Gabe Gerken, public health microbiologist, helped her refine her methodology and the lab provided testing supplies.
What does Abby see in her future? “After college, I’d like either to manage a zoo or conduct scientific research concerning animals and the environment. I am very passionate about improving the world, and I believe I can use research to solve some of the environmental problems the world is facing today.”
Sounds like we’re in good hands.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Canines claim their territory on college campuses
Summer has faded into fall and it’s time for dog lovers — and dogs too — to head to college, where dogs are taking their place in the dorm, the psych lab and even the classroom.
While some dogs simply kick back and enjoy campus life at a university with pet-friendly housing, such as Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., or Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., others give their intellectual muscles a workout by participating in research studies designed to test their ability to think and solve problems.
Dogs are taking their place in collegelevel human studies as well. At several universities, they dominate the syllabi of courses devoted to companion-animal behavior and welfare. Other schools offer entire classes or majors focused on the human-canine connection.
To a dog lover, the appeal of taking a dog to college is obvious, as is the draw of canine-focused study — but what’s in it for the dogs? While it has long been possible to study animal science, wildlife management or food-animal husbandry, formal study of dogs in academia is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 1990s, academic researchers who wanted to focus on Canis lupus familiaris were greeted with raised eyebrows, ridicule or worse. But the nascent fields of anthrozoology — the study of human-animal relationships — and cynology — the study of the domestic dog — are growing quickly in academia.
Applying academic rigor to the study of dogs can increase our understanding of their abilities and deepen our bond with them, ultimately resulting in improving their treatment by society as a whole. These goals spurred the development of the country’s first anthrozoology program and the establishment of a university wholly devoted to the study of dogs. Both of these pioneering efforts are part of a growing collection of canine-focused educational options.
When Anne Perkins was head of the psychology department at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., she was dissatisfied with existing animal-focused study options, which were basically limited to animal science and zoology. “These programs were not addressing why we love our animals so much,” she says. Perkins spent a 2005 sabbatical designing a new program, anthrozoology, which would “study the value of animals from an academic, scholarly perspective.” The new program was first offered as a minor at Carroll in 2007.
“I bit it off in pieces,” she says, adding one class at a time. The students wanted more; the minor grew into a major, and Carroll offered the nation’s first bachelor of arts in anthrozoology in 2011. The bachelor’s degree “embedded the study [of the animal-human bond] in traditional fields,” where research is peer-reviewed and published in scholarly journals, Perkins says.
Carroll College anthrozoology students focus on either horses or dogs. Students in the canine track examine theories of domestication and attachment. They study puppy development, socialization and learning, and they practice assessing temperament. Seniors raise puppies, preparing them for a broad range of doggie careers, including scent work, assistance and acting.
Like Perkins, Bonita Bergin, founder and president of Bergin University of Canine Studies (BUCS), argues that academic study is essential to improving the status and treatment of dogs. As BUCS graduates leave the Rohnert Park, Calif., campus to teach or run businesses that model ethical humancanine relationships, “we hope to enrich the understanding of the relationship that has inspired and fulfilled so many,” Bergin says. “We also hope to help eradicate the horror of euthanasia of unwanted dogs.” Offering post-secondary study wasn’t enough for Bergin; she also wanted the respect of academic peers. Tenacious as a terrier, Bergin spent three years pursuing her vision: the world’s first accredited university focusing on our canine pals and partners. Why? “I believed the dog deserved it,” she says simply.
Undergraduate and graduate students at BUCS explore the influence of genetics and heredity on dogs’ behavior and temperament. They also analyze the growing body of published research on dogs, and are encouraged to contribute original research of their own. But it’s not all books and theory. Puppies and service-dogs-in-training fill the campus with hands-on opportunities. The associate degree program, in particular, emphasizes dog training and socialization; starting the day students help out with the whelping process.
Bergin has revolutionized earlypuppy education. BUCS students begin “formally” training puppies as soon as the puppies open their eyes at about four weeks of age. The astonishing result is that most puppies respond eagerly and accurately to more than a dozen verbal cues by the time they are eight weeks old.
On the opposite side of the country, dog-loving students at SUNY Cobleskill choose among a half-dozen dog-focused electives in the animal science department. “[The courses] are designed to give students a solid understanding of the important factors involved in producing good working dogs and the behavioral basis of popular training techniques, emphasizing positive, reward-based approaches,” says Stephen Mackenzie, professor of animal science at the university. According to Mackenzie, a canine management major is in the works. Dogloving students “can work dogs almost every semester they are here,” he adds, training dogs for anything from offleash obedience and agility to tracking, trailing, air scenting and detector work “under the guidance of someone with good academic credentials.”
At some universities, dog scholars have to search for dog-related material buried like treasured bones among more traditional offerings. The psychology department at the University of Michigan, for example, offers “Dog Cognition, Behavior and Welfare,” a popular course taught by Camille Ward. The class, described as “for people who love dogs and want to learn about them from many different avenues,” has a long waiting list. Also in the psychology department, Dr. Barbara Smuts teaches “Behavior of Wolves & Dogs”; she also offers students the opportunity to participate in research projects on dogs’ social behavior.
At Barnard College, in New York City, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (author of Inside of a Dog) teaches a psychology class on canine cognition. At Eckerd College, a course on animal learning and training includes considerable material on dogs, says its instructor, Lauren Highfill. The Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., offers companion-animal welfare and management courses that primarily focus on dogs and cats. Graduate students can head to Tufts University for a master’s program in animals in public policy that includes study of companion animals, or to Harvard, where psychology grad students can take a seminar called “Puzzles of the Mind: Humans, Animals, Robots.”
At Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., dogs figure prominently in undergraduate coursework on the social organization of animals, animal learning and applied animal behavior. And the college’s master of anthrozoology coursework includes a popular class on companion animals in society. A dog-human relationships expert was recently hired, and Canisius plans to expand its dog-centered offerings, says Michael Noonan, professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation.
We’ve come far since 17th-century philosopher René Descartes asserted that animals lacked the ability to feel pain, yet cruel treatment of dogs is still far too common. Canisius prepares animal-behavior graduates to eradicate that cruelty and to “make the world a better place in the way we interact with animals” by providing a “strong, science- based education balanced with critical thinking and ethics,” Noonan says. “From the science, we see that they [animals] are more like us than was thought in the past.” Therefore, “most ethics that apply to us apply to them — animals are sentient beings whose concerns matter.”
Some schools recognize the importance of the human-animal bond by allowing pets in selected on-campus housing units — about a dozen colleges nationwide have at least one pet-friendly dorm. Other schools conduct research studies that aim to improve understanding of dogs’ abilities and view of the world. Indeed, new evidence of dogs’ intelligence, creativity and ability to understand and communicate their concerns is uncovered daily at cognition labs, where dogs take center stage.
New York City dogs can join cognition studies in Horowitz’s lab at Barnard where anthropomorphic beliefs about dogs are tested with an emphasis on “getting the dog’s perspective,” rather than a more traditional behavior-focused approach, said researcher and Bark contributing editor Julie Hecht. Current studies examine dogs’ understanding of the concept of “fairness” and the way they use their noses in daily life. “We’re trying to better understand the dog’s perspective, but we are, of course, limited by our human perspective,” and sometimes the hardest part is separating the two, she said.
Southern dogs have a choice of schools: Duke University (Durham, N.C.), the University of Florida (Gainesville), the University of Kentucky and Eckerd College all recruit local canine “students” for their research. Current studies examine whether dogs can count, how dogs form trusting relationships with humans, dogs’ interpretation of human social gestures, and canine imitation and social learning.
The studies might sound esoteric, but they can lead to real changes in the way people regard and teach dogs: Watching four-week-old puppies learn to sit, lie down and solve problems banishes forever any idea that training must involve force. Discovering that dogs can use pictures to indicate their preferences compels scientists to reexamine human-centered ideas that tie thinking to spoken language. And seeing how dogs’ behavior changes when they know that human “observers” are distracted hints at their ability to strategize.
The more we learn about dogs’ abilities, the greater the potential for true partnerships based on mutual respect rather than compulsion, says Bergin. “This is crucial in transitioning the dog from a backyard animal we see as disposable to recognizing the key role dogs play in the evolution and continued development of humans.”
Good Dog: Studies & Research
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.”
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
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
“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.
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?
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