Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
The Yin Effect
September 28 2014
On September 28, 2014, the world lost one of leading advocates for the humane treatment of animals when 48-year-old Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, died at her home in Davis, Calif. Her death was attributed, tragically, to suicide. The news spread quickly on social media and stunned the training, behavior, veterinary and humane communities in which she was a leader. I was honored to count Sophia as a friend and a colleague.
To say that her death shocked everyone who knew or knew of her is an understatement. I would be hard pressed to think of anyone more unlikely to leave us in the manner that she did, and it has been extremely difficult for me to come to terms with the loss.
Dynamic, loving, generous, compassionate, intelligent, ebullient, extremely hard-working, Sophia approached everything she did—from running her own media company (aptly named CattleDog Publishing) to her tireless work as a veterinary behaviorist and trainer—with the highest level of excellence, professionalism and enthusiasm.
A pioneer in the field of force-free, positive-reinforcement dog training, her books include How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves and Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, the first (and so far, only) instructional book for veterinarians on these important skills. Her expertise and generosity are still on display on her website, drsophiayin.com, where she shared training videos, papers and practical advice, all for free.
I first met Sophia at a Karen Pryor clicker-training expo, and her passion for the program was infectious. We had just launched The Bark, and she eagerly accepted my invitation to write for us. More recently, she and I attended an APDT meeting together— accompanied by her amazing little JRT, Jonesy, a constant at her side— and it was like being with a rock star. Every bit of the attention and praise that came her way was well deserved.
About five years ago, she told me she was planning a vacation to Southeast Asia. We had published a story about an amazing street dog project in Bali, so I mentioned it to her, and suggested that she might look in on them. Well, even though Bali had not been on her itinerary, she made it a point to go there and help out. She not only gave seminars and training demonstrations, she also brought much-needed medicines (and dog toys, which was very like her). It was so unexpected, yet so eminently “Sophia” for her to step up in that fashion. On a personal note, I also enlisted her expertise when we brought our semi-feral, fearful pups home from Kentucky; her counsel (take it slow, have plenty of patience) and advice (stimulate without force) worked wonders.
She generously gave time and energy to so many people. It was Sophia’s mission to improve our understanding of animal behavior, and the behavioral modification programs she developed were strictly scientifically based (unlike the coercion or dominance methods popularized by a TV personality). Sophia dedicated her life to helping us learn how to better communicate with our animals as a way to improve the bonds between us.
We grieve for the loss that her family has suffered, and we will make it our mission to honor her memory by promoting and enshrining all that she stood for. Her legacy—the Yin Effect, some call it—is enhanced every time someone offers a dog a jackpot treat for responding to a cue, or takes up chicken training to master the art of a “quick” click, or adds a dog to a personal exercise routine, or (in the case of vets) sits on the floor to be with a patient.
Dear Sophia, you taught us so much. Bark dedicates our Winter 2014 issue to Dr. Sophia Yin, with tributes and recollections from those whose lives she touched.
Did you ever see Sophia Yin blowing in a dog’s face to counter-condition his tendency to snap and growl? It’s a thing of wonder. I wonder at the speed with which a formerly reactive dog can be turned into a delightful, adoptable dog. I wonder at the pleasure the dogs who were lucky enough to meet Sophia must have received from their encounter. I wonder at her ability to apply simple, well-known behavioral principles to novel problems with such mastery.
As someone who is keen to understand and highlight the dog’s point of view, I saw Sophia as embodying this approach in a meaningful, practical way—toward training both dog and owner to comprehend what the other is saying. My heart about leaps imagining the improvement in the lives of the dogs she worked with, directly or indirectly.
— Alexandra Horowitz, PhD Author, Inside of a Dog
Sophia Yin and I met often over the years: at conferences, at ClickerExpo, over training matters and commercial interests, too. She was elegant, warm, smiling, always full of new projects, new creative ideas, new training. Once, she showed me a video of a stallion in the barns at UC Davis who was terrified of the fly sprayer. She clicker trained him to the point where he left off ogling the pretty mare in the next paddock to run to Sophia and get his face sprayed instead. Her newspaper column, her wonderful book on gentle handling … everything she did was magic. Darn it, Sophia, we were not through with you! I miss you.
— Karen Pryor Founder, Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy
Like many others, I was devastated to learn of Sophia’s death. I did back-to-back lectures and workshops with Sophia in southern Germany in late 2006. We talked about the importance of positive training/teaching, and she was very interested and concerned about the terminology used to discuss the behavior of dogs, especially the word “dominance.” We had lovely exchanges about this and other topics, and I learned a lot from these discussions. I loved how “up” she always was, and how enthusiastic she was when talking about dogs—always open to learning more about them and their relationship with us.
People gravitated to her like she was a magnet. I followed Sophia’s career closely because she was so very interested in applying what we know about dog behavior to how we teach and live with these amazing beings. We also shared a passion for “getting out”; when Sophia contacted me after the conference, assuming I might not remember who she was—of course, I did—she wrote: “It’s Sophia from the Germany conference. I went running on the path you suggested the day after the conference. It was a nice run.”
It’s heartening to know that Sophia’s legacy and positive spirit, energy and love for dogs and people will live on and on, as they should. Thank you, Sophia, for all you did for dogs and their humans. The “Yin Effect” will endure for years on end.
— Marc Bekoff, PhD Author, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animal Matters
Sophia relentlessly championed reward-based dog training and provided a wealth of easy and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques. She was a bright light in the fields of dog training and behavior counseling. I really loved her approach. Despite her excellent academic pedigree, Sophia never tried to complicate matters by using unfathomable terminology. Instead, she always explained behavior and training succinctly and clearly in a down-toearth, step-by-step fashion that everybody could understand and follow. Her Manners Minder is a brilliant tool with numerous uses, and her book Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats was a breath of fresh air and remains a must-read for all veterinary practitioners. Sophia died much too young; such a tragic loss. Her sparkling presence and sage, practical advice will be sorely missed.
— Dr. Ian Dunbar Founder, Association of Pet Dog Trainers
It was always a pleasure to have Sophia in my workshops. She was interested, and interesting. Her enthusiasm was infectious to the other students. Later, when we shared a stage during seminars, she was an enthusiastic and tireless teacher. She was a prolific writer, addressing issues of great importance to pet owners around the world. I was very sad to hear of Sophia’s death. My deepest condolences to Sophia’s family and colleagues.
— Bob Bailey Founder, Operant Conditioning Workshops, Animal Behavior Analysis and Clicker Training Pioneer
Having Sophia as a mentor and friend remains a very great honor. She cared deeply for animals, and taught us to make their lives better. Sophia came to Bali at her own expense to help us. She worked tirelessly to show that animals have feelings, and taught our staff how to work with fearful and aggressive animals.
We use her training materials Her translated animal-posture posters are in Bali schools, where children learn love and respect for animals through Sophia’s heart and teachings. Bali continues to benefit from Sophia’s understanding, kindness and enduring love of animals. Sophia inspired us all. Her legacy will live on in Bali. Rest in peace, dear Sophia.
— Janice Girardi Founder & Director, Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA)
The veterinary and animal behavior communities lost a true champion for our pets with the passing of Dr. Sophia Yin. She was a strong advocate for humane, science-based, positive-reinforcement training. However, I believe that her greatest contribution was her visionary and tireless promotion of low-stress handling to veterinarians, veterinary students and all animal professionals. Her death has left a huge void in the world of animal behavior, but left perhaps even a greater void for all of the veterinary patients and clients who have benefitted from her teaching.
— Melissa Bain, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
Sophia Yin was a leader and an innovator in the field of dog training —so positive, so skilled and so productive. Her incredible output of high-quality books, videos, blogs and seminars helped thousands of people and animals. An advocate for positive, science-based training and gentle treatment of our pets, Sophia will be missed by cats, dogs, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians and vet techs.
She made all of our lives better and our relationships with each other richer. That is the beautiful legacy she leaves behind.
— Karen London, PhD Certified Animal Behaviorist
Along with so many others, I was devastated when I learned of the sudden passing of fellow veterinarian and admired animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Sophia and I were classmates in veterinary school at UC Davis. Although we traveled in different circles of friends during those wondrous and difficult vetschool years, I will always remember her with a beautiful smile on her face! She was the top of our class, incredibly intelligent; she won every scholarship and award possible.
She was already thinking outside the box during those early years by writing and publishing (through her own self-formed publishing company) a veterinary “nerd book.” Anyone who has graduated from vet school knows exactly what I am referring to, a small pocket notebook that lists all the critical facts, diagnoses and drug dosages vet students need to survive their senior clinical year. This nerd book has since been adopted by every veterinary school in the country.
Sophia had a soulful understanding of animals, and helped all veterinarians and their staffs learn how to better understand and manage the intense fear a pet can feel when it comes into our clinics. We were lucky to have her so close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area; Sophia was “the” person to whom we referred our most difficult behavior cases.
The world has lost a truly gentle, incredibly intelligent and pioneering veterinarian as well as a hero and humane advocate for all animals.
— Jenny Taylor, DVM Founder, Creature Comforts Holistic Veterinary Center
Dr. Sophia Yin’s presence in any forum had a magnetizing effect. We were all drawn to her because she exuded passion and enthusiasm. Dr. Yin always shared her expertise in a generous and inclusive manner. Her work and dedication to lower stress levels for dogs and cats, veterinary professionals, and trainers and groomers set the ball in motion for every caregiver to look at medical and husbandry care through empathetic and compassionate eyes. It is an absolute honor to have learned from her, and to have shared experiences with both domestic and exotic species with her over the years. Dr. Yin will be missed beyond words.
— Laura Monaco Torelli Founder, Animal Behavior Training Concepts
Sophia was a vibrant member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. She served on the executive board and several committees for many years, and co-wrote some of our position statements. Over the years that I’ve known her, she strongly believed in AVSAB’s mission, and always actively helped us reach out to those who wanted information about animal-friendly training and behavior modification, and decreasing patients’ stress during veterinary visits. Many of our members gravitated toward veterinary behavior because of Sophia’s work and guidance, and many others used her handouts and videos regularly when treating behavior patients. I believe that I speak for the majority of our members when I say that Sophia’s passing has left a great emptiness, and those of us remaining will honor her memory by carrying on with what she started.
— Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM Immediate Past President, AVSAB
What impressed me most about Sophia Yin was her apparently unflagging drive, crackling intelligence and sheer number of talents. Is it really possible to learn and practice a variety of behavior modification strategies; have a clinical practice; teach college classes; go on the speaking circuit; develop a fantastic and much-needed remote food dispenser; commit to perfection and entrepreneurship; perform and publish research projects; deliver dynamic outreach materials for the public, the behavior community and veterinarians; and publish one-of-a-kind books layered with specific demonstration pictures and accompanied by detailed how-to/ how-come videos? Really? Of course, it’s not possible! Yet, she did!
I use her materials every day in my work. I, like many others, refer clients to her books and videos, veterinarians to her Low Stress Handling information, and members of the public to her blog or Facebook page. I do my job better because of these resources.
Sophia’s talent, energy and care as a healer will live on in these materials. She will not be forgotten by the thousands of people she helped and influenced. We must continue to build on the amazing breadth of talent and knowledge shared by this one mighty firecracker of a veterinarian. We must find a way to keep her contributions alive, sparking more to lead the fearfree, science-based animal behavior movement in both their personal and professional lives.
We are grieving and many of us are tired, but let us kindle the fire she built and start more. Our profession is doing important work. Teaching people to respectfully problem-solve with animals can help them reach for non-violent solutions to intrapersonal and societal problems as well. While many of us may not burn as bright, we can still create lasting change, especially if we use the scaffolding Sophia created.
Sophia: We always needed you far more than you needed us. You brought blazing reality to the emotional dangers we face and to the amount of work yet to be done. You are greatly missed.
— E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
“Be more Sophia Yin” is an expression in my home. We use it to mean, “You’re reinforcing the wrong behavior. The dog doesn’t understand what you want.” Dog lovers would be well served to adopt this phrase. To “Be more Sophia Yin” is to bring clear communication and fun to your training. It is to leave myths and stereotypes at the door and embrace canine ethology and cognition research and the science of learning and training. It is to embrace enjoyment and cooperation as opposed to coercion or brute force as the path to behavior change. Sophia Yin spent a lifetime connecting animal lovers and practitioners to techniques that help companion animals feel safer and happier. I am devastated that Sophia Yin is no longer with us, and forever thankful that her legacy remains.
— Julie Hecht, MSc Canine Behavioral Researcher and Science Writer
Part of the work I do as a force-free trainer is to discourage the use of punitive training methods and to dispel outdated behavior myths that continue to pervade the public’s consciousness. Changing the way people interact and teach their dogs can be very challenging, and sometimes I feel like I’m walking up a very steep hill that never ends.
There are certain people who make the walk easier, though, people I look up to and from whom I find the strength I need to continue teaching— people who make perfect sense and energize me with their knowledge and expertise. Sophia Yin was one of them. She was a force for humane training, and helped animal lovers all over the world better understand their pets. She was a valued contributor to my Positively site, and her posts were always widely shared and appreciated by a large pet-loving audience. She was someone I looked up to, admiring her tenacity and the candor with which she spoke.
Those of us whose lives she touched will never be the same, and her loss is profound on so many levels. I will continue to share her work far and wide so that pet lovers still benefit from her wisdom, passion and desire to make the world a better place for pets and the people who love them.
— Victoria Stilwell Author, It’s Me or the Dog, Train Your Dog Positively
Walking the dogs
September 6 2014
I was walking Lola, Kit and Charlie this morning at the Bulb, a regional park in nearby Albany (CA), when I saw a man setting up, what looked like a birdwatching apparatus, but, happily and surprisingly, it turned out to be a set of bagpipes. I held back with two of the dogs (asking them to jump up on a “painted” boulder) not being sure how they would react to this unexpected park visitor. But I let Lola go up to him and sniff around. He welcomed her, reached down to pet her and to assure her that the sounds coming from the strange “bag” weren’t going to harm her. He turned out to be a really nice guy—which could be easily gleaned by the way he welcomed the dogs—he looked to be in his 60s, and has worked in public libraries (around the country) all his life, and just started to pick up the pipes again after a long hiatus. I certainly look forward to seeing and hearing him practice again.
I was able to capture a video snippet of this special moment. Would love to hear about the ones you have had during a dog walk—an unexpected surprise, a lovely sunset, meeting an interesting person, just something that made you thankful that you and your dog were able to share in its magic.
(Simon and Schuster)
Not long ago, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, looked at the connections between human ailments and those suffered by other animals. In the process, she coined a new word, zoobiquity, to describe that nascent field of study. The 2012 publication of her book of the same name marked an awakening interest in exploring the “animal-human overlap.”
Now, as an apt complement to that work, comes Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT. In her book, Braitman explores the ways in which the human mind and its disorders are inextricably linked with those of other social animals. She was launched into this line of study by her struggle to understand and heal Oliver, her compulsive, phobia- and anxiety-plagued Bernese Mountain Dog. Through caring for Oliver, Braitman experienced firsthand the challenges that animals with extreme mental illness present to themselves and to the people who love them.
Oliver’s trauma began when he was pushed aside by his first family after the birth of a child, an event that severely affected his mental and emotional life; Braitman and her then-husband only learned about this after adopting him as a four-year-old from his breeder. When the dog’s intense separation anxiety caused him to leap out of the couple’s fourth-floor apartment window, it became clear that it was almost impossible to leave him alone. As a result, their lives were increasingly constrained by Oliver’s fears, anxieties and compulsions. In trying to understand just how to best to help him, Braitman began to wonder how similar Oliver’s experiences were to those of humans with mental and emotional problems.
As the subtitle notes, the scope of this book spans multiple species—not just anxious companion animals but also, compulsive parrots, depressed great apes and donkeys, suicidal sea mammals, jealous elephants, and many others. While Oliver’s plight—which Braitman admits had her acting like a service animal for her own dog—runs through the book, she also covers topics like Charles Darwin (a firm believer in animal emotions), anthropomorphism (not a bad thing at all, since it allows us to understand “the other” better) and animal-pharma (an industry that has become quite pervasive in the treatment of animal psychological problems). Regarding the latter, she notes that initially, these drugs—which are projected to reach $9 billion in annual sales by 2015—were only prescribed by vet behavior specialists but are now readily available from most general-practice vets.
While some of these stories can be difficult for animal lovers to read, most have mediated recoveries. However, taken together, they make a salient case for acknowledging the “parallels between human and other animal mental health,” which, as Braitman notes, “is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use and culture in other creatures.” And, given how important emotional enrichment is to all social animals, she definitely has qualms about the capacity of any social animal to lead an emotionally stable life in captivity in a zoo environment.
In the hands of an observant and engaging writer like Braitman, this story is an outstanding example of a rigorous investigation presented in a most accessible way. Readers will also be rewarded by the deep compassion and gratitude she shows for all her subjects, both the animals and the humans who care for them. As she humbly observes, Oliver was “one anxious dog who brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.”
For more insights, see the Q&A with Laurel Braitman.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs Help Us Understand Ourselves
In an engrossing new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman investigates the symptoms, causes and recoveries associated with behavioral disturbances in a wide variety of social animals. Starting with her own dog, Oliver, who suffered from debilitating separation anxiety, she discovered that mental illness in animals looks a lot like it does in people. In a recent conversation on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, she shared some of her insights with us.
Claudia Kawczynska: In the book, you talk about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that not only is one in five Americans on them, but also, increasing numbers of dogs are being given them as well. But there seems to be a divide in the veterinary field on their use. After looking into this subject, how do you feel about it?
Laurel Braitman: Sometimes our dogs need them, or the drugs are used as a band-aid to correct for stressors in a dog’s life that could be changed. Sometimes the drugs don’t work. They don’t always work for people either actually, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them in the right situation. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist, said that if the dogs she sees were humans, most of them would be committed to in-patient facilities. That is why she thinks drugs are useful in really extreme situations—to keep dogs from hurting themselves while giving behavior therapy time to work.
It’s really hard to generalize, though; so much depends on the individual dog. A certain dosage of, let’s say, Xanax, may make some dogs so blissed out that they don’t want a treat or whatever is being offered as an incentive. Other dogs might do really well on the same dosage. And different dogs will react differently to different drugs.
A lot of the behaviorists I spoke with are seeing dogs on dosages that would have calmed most canines, but are in the behaviorists’ waiting rooms because the drug didn’t work for them. There are also cases where a drug causes other issues—such as reducing inhibitions so that a previously-friendly dog becomes more aggressive.
CK: How similar are certain human and canine disorders?
LB: Panic disorders in humans are really similar to canine separation anxiety; when we’re flooded with panic, our first instinct is to escape. The same feeling drives the behaviors seen in many dogs anxious at being left alone; in my own dog’s case, he fled by jumping out of a window.
With humans, we assume that the roots of the disorder have to be dealt with in therapy over time—that we need to understand the triggers for someone’s panic. The approach for nonhumans should be the same.
Drugs are helpful when a dog is so upset, so distressed or suffering so much that the behavioral things that experts such as Ian Dunbar suggest just aren’t possible. Pharmaceuticals act like panic buttons; they can help the animal tap into the physical and emotional resources they need to be able to learn.
CK: It seems like there are at least two approaches to calming an anxious dog. Some veterinarians (such as the late Mel Richardson) believe that soothing an anxious dog isn’t the best approach—that petting only rewards the panicked behavior. But others, including Patricia McConnell, make a compelling case for the opposite approach. This is an important difference.
LB: McConnell is right! Dogs are complex thinkers and will not automatically equate you petting them with positive reinforcement. If they did, dog training would be a hell of a lot simpler! The example that Mel gave, and I included in the book, is different, however. A patient of his came in with a dog who acted scared in her living room, ever since a plate dropped off a wall during a fight the woman had with her boyfriend. The woman may have been rewarding her dog for hugging the sides of the room, not necessarily comforting him for something that was stressful. We do at times unwittingly positively reinforce our animals for behaviors we then find undesirable; but soothing your dog during thunderstorms or fireworks displays makes a lot of sense.
I always comforted Oliver during thunderstorms, I didn’t ignore him, and clearly if that worked he wouldn’t have had a thunderstorm phobia. I think we approach these problems with an almost patriarchal kind of “tough-it-up” attitude. It doesn’t work with children and it doesn’t work with dogs. It doesn’t account for the fluidity and complexity of the human or other animal mind. Dogs know we are reading their distress and they read ours. No other creature on the planet—including other people in my opinion—is better at reading our emotions than dogs. They’ve spent at least 15,000 years at it.
CK: Oliver was a purebred Bernese Mountain Dog. In your research, did you find that abnormal behaviors were more, or less, likely to be found in purebreds?
LB: I wish there were a good answer to that. Every behaviorist I spoke with, and many trainers, were familiar with breed-specific manifestations of mental illness. Tail-chasing, shadow-chasing, OCD. Oliver suffered from an extreme case of separation anxiety, but I didn’t find that was something frequently seen in Berners.
(By the way, I’m not saying that shelter dogs won’t have issues; they could have the same or different problems related to abandonment, phobias, or lack of socialization.) We should really have honest talks with breeders about the mental health of their dogs, but we rarely do. Every breeder will say that they breed “family” dogs. But I have to wonder if—once they’ve spent a fortune on breeding pairs, and the pups are potentially quite valuable—they will really take one out of the mix if he or she develops mental problems.
CK: It was interesting to read that Nicole Cottam, who was at Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, thought that jealousy was the leading cause of canine aggression.
LB: Jealousy is an issue for many more creatures than dogs. It came up a lot in regards to other social animals too, like elephants and the other great apes. Why would we, or our dogs, be the only ones to experience it? Our pack, our families, our troops are everything and it can be threatening if we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we may lose someone’s attention.
In the context of elephants, it’s a matter of public safety. Almost everyone I talked to in Thailand believed that most elephant-on-elephant and elephant-on-human violence comes from jealousy. If a young man who works with elephants visits a girlfriend, they say, he has to shower many times before he interacts with his elephant again and, sometimes even that’s not enough. He’ll need to bring a truckload of pineapples or bananas to win back the trust of his elephant.
Elephants can also be extremely dangerous if one of their elephant friends becomes closer to another elephant and ignores them. Or if a person is feeding elephants and doesn’t feed them at exactly the same time—that can be dangerous as well.
Dogs, of course, can be aggressive and protective around food. But perhaps it may also be that the dog is jealous—that he or she feels another dog is getting more of your attention because the other dog is being fed first.
CK: How can we know that dogs experience jealousy?
LB: Jealousy is actually the darker side of a positive emotion. That is, if we build our lives around those near to us and have close relationships with them, and then suddenly those relationships are taken away, we are going to feel bad. Everything in us wants to connect—we are social beings. Most of us are also our dogs’ primary “other” animal.
Clearly, that is what happened in my dog’s case. He went from being the center of his first family’s world to its fringes because there was a new baby in the house. [Ed. note: Oliver’s previous owners moved him to the garage, among other things, when he started to act out.] I have nothing but empathy for the family. They didn’t mean to hurt him; they just didn’t know what else to do.
CK: How do we know that dogs have these complex emotional experiences?
LB: There are many things we can’t test for specifically (even if we’re doing things like putting dogs inside MRI machines), but since we have been living with dogs for thousands of years, we owe them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, talking to friends at the dog park can teach us a lot. That’s how Darwin did it; he collected stories, then amalgamated the stories into a theory. His stories about his dogs are wonderful and clearly anecdotal—really the equivalent of talking to dog park people.
CK: Modern life can be difficult for dogs; most have far too little to do, and few opportunities to express their true “doggishness” or funktionslust (a great German word you use—taking pleasure in what one does best). For many dogs, that would be running, sniffing, chasing and so forth. How can we give our dogs more of what they need?
LB: Most dog owners have the best of intentions, but realistically, can’t pack up their urban lives and move to the country, or get a second dog to provide their dog with a companion.
But going to a dog park and spending most of our time engaged with our phones—emailing, tweeting, posting to Facebook—and then going home and sitting in front of the TV (even if our dog’s sitting with us) isn’t good for either of us. Most of the things that will make our dog feel better are things that will help us feel better, too. Neither humans nor dogs are prepared for many aspects of contemporary life. We spend too much time indoors, seated, by ourselves. . How all of this has affected our canine companions, we still don’t know, but it can’t help but contribute to some of the issues we are seeing in dogs.
CK: Our own dogs are almost always with us; they come to the office, they get long hikes in the local parks and so forth. But when we take them up to the country, they seem to come alive; they’re different beings. It is amazing to see how they behave when they have free access to the outside. They rarely nap during the day, they’re always alert—they just seem more fulfilled.
LB: It’s the stimulation, and we all need that. Dogs who are not as motivated or curious about their environment may need less stimulation, but they still need some.
CK: Behaviorally, there are similarities in canine and human cognitive decline, you point out that in dogs, as in us, it can perhaps be offset by mental stimulation and a diet rich in antioxidants. (As a devoted crossword puzzler and blueberry lover, I was heartened to read this.) Any more thoughts on this?
LB: Avoiding the problems of an aging brain, or at least slowing the process, is really at the forefront of human medicine now, and we ought to be looking into that for other creatures. Adding a miniscule amount of blueberries to dog treats isn’t going to do it, however—that’s crazy. But if we need another reason to stimulate our dog’s minds, this is it.
Puzzles we can solve together are fun. I played hide-and-seek games with my dog—that was a great brainteaser. Talk about memory! He would always look first in the last place I hid. Clearly, he thought, She was behind the fridge the last time so she’s probably there this time, too.
CK: We do this with our three all the time, and what I find interesting is that they never seem to use their noses to find us.
LB: I wonder if they may be “playing fair” with us, giving us a fighting chance. They might realize we’re so bad at this game, and know that if they use all their abilities, they would win all the time. End of game! No fun!
CK: People don’t seem to like complicated solutions, especially when it comes to dog training and behavior. We want to know the answer now. How do we accommodate that?
LB: I think it’s human nature to want answers, especially when we have an animal who is upset. It feels like life and death, and sometimes, it is; the stakes with this stuff are high. If a dog’s emotional problems manifest in aggression or make life too difficult and we can’t fix them, the dog can wind up at a shelter. People’s sense of urgency though can lead them to absolutes that don’t help them or their dogs.
I am hoping that this book helps people understand why helping dogs can be a little complicated and a lot rewarding. A dog’s social and emotional world isn’t as fixed as most people think it is, and on the positive side, a dog’s resiliency can work in our favor. Even though many dogs have every reason to not believe in the goodness of humans, they often do anyway, giving us chance after chance to help them. That is a magical, heartening thing.
For more insights, see the book review for Animal Madness.
Every dog has its day, and every day “has” its dog! So Friday August 15 has been declared as “Check the Chip Day,” by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medicine Association) and the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association). It serves as a good reminder to make sure your dog’s microchip contact information is correct—perhaps you adopted a dog from a rescue group and forgot to change the contact info to yours, or your address has changed and you didn’t notify the microchip registry. And, if your dog isn’t chipped yet, this is also gives you the impetus to do it now—helps to ensure that you can be easily reunited with your dog if she is ever lost. A study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2%. If you don’t know your dog’s chip number—a requirement to log into the registry—ask your vet or shelter to use a universal scanner to read the chip. Microchips come in various frequencies. Unfortunately there is no one frequency yet in place, so frequencies might be 125 kilo Hertz (kHz), 128 kHz, or 134.2 kHz, and only an universal scanner can read all of these. It also gets more complicated because each registry has its own database, but the AAHA maintains Universal Pet Microchip Lookup Tool linking all the registries. See this helpful video for more information about microchipping and if you have more questions these FAQs from the AVMA are useful.
As everyone knows by now, brilliant actor and comic Robin Williams died on Monday. I was one of the multitudes who have fond memories of him, not just for his work in TV and film, but also because of an unscheduled performance by him at a SF comedy club. He would do that a lot, just drop in for a “visit,” get up on the stage, or in this case, just go to the front of the room, and everyone, including the other performers, were beguiled by his enormous talent in making people laugh. In one of the articles this morning in the LA Times, it was noted that his neighbors in Tiburon, Calif. took special delight in seeing him walk his dog, “The children called him “the funny man” and would greet him as such when he was out walking his pug, Lenny (after another famous comedian). He joked around easily with them, Cook said, “because they were kids.” I also think that he joked with the kids because he had such a generous heart and was known to pay special attention to children everywhere.
As for the Pug, Leonard, Williams did adopt him back in March 2010 from Curly Tail Pug Rescue. See the story behind that adoption. And in an interview with The Telegragh (UK) he talked about little Lenny noting, “I also have a gay rescue pug called Leonard, who I take for walks, because I am very secure in my sexuality. He has a boyfriend and they are planning to adopt a Siamese kitten together. We’re very modern.” He was indeed a very funny man and will be missed by all.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Vilmos Csányi talks about animal behavior and understanding the mind of a dog
July 30 2014
The internationally renowned Hungarian scientist Vilmos Csányi studies canine behavior and intelligence at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, where he chairs the department of ethology. We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his recent book, If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (translated by Richard E. Quandt). Much of his book draws upon his astute observations of his own pet dogs, the delightful Flip and Jerry. He makes a convincing case for special social and emotional bonds between dogs and humans, and for the idea that, by observing the cognitive behavior of dogs, we can also learn much about how the human mind works.
Bark: In your book, If Dogs Could Talk, you write that dogs are excellent human ethologists, what do you mean by that?
Vilmos Csányi: A family dog constantly observes human behavior and always tries to predict interesting actions in which he could participate. Dogs can learn any tiny signal for the important actions and is always ready to contribute.
B: You also say that dogs can show empathy, especially toward their owners. Are you familiar with any cases in which a dog has been empathic to a species other than humans?
VC: They are also empathic with each other. On one occasion Flip wanted to go out in the middle of night but I slept too deeply and was not awakened by his murmur; Jerry came and started to bark loudly, which instantly made me awake. I believed that Jerry had the problem, but he went back to his sleeping place and Flip was the one who enthusiastically ran to the door to be let out as soon as possible.
B: You write about the similarities between dogs and humans, including that both species seem to have a genetic imperative to follow rules. What evolutionary advantage does this bestow on our two species?
VC: Following rules is a very important human trait, which is shared with dogs to some extent. In animals, behavior in a group is regulated by aggression and rank order. In humans, in-group aggression is very mild and the rank order is of a mixed type. Not only persons but rules also get a place in our rank order. Our behavior is influenced by persons who have authority over us and rules that regulate certain conduct. Even “alpha persons” have to obey rules, which makes human social groups very complex and adaptive.
An important task for a group can be prescribed by rules, and group members do not have to exert any aggression to fulfill the given task, just follow the rules. It is a human-specific trait and the basis of complex human societies. Its importance is shown by the fact that dogs also acquired the rule-following ability. If a dog recognizes a rule created by the master, he follows it. Sometimes the problem is how to explain the given rule to a dog. They are not able to perceive rules above certain complexity
B: The bond between humans and dogs exists because dogs acquired traits that resemble those of humans in many respects; could you give some examples of this? Also, can the same be said about the humans “acquiring” canine traits, or, at least, evolving differently because of dogs, such as the reduction of our olfactory senses.
VC: Dogs have indeed acquired behavioral traits that have human analogues. For example, dogs form an attachment relationship with their owners, and very likely (to some extent) with other members of their group, that resembles the way human children are attached to their mothers. Moreover, we have shown that even adult dogs [living in dog shelters] can very rapidly form attachment to humans [after only approximately 30 minutes of interaction]. The development of attachment between adults is again a human-specific trait.
There have been suggestions that dogs and humans co-evolve, but at the moment there is little clear evidence for this. One could suppose that at some point of human evolution, human groups sharing their life with dogs had some advantage over groups avoiding dogs. Dogs could have been helpful, for example, in removing [eating] garbage, providing protection during cold nights or alarming people in case of potential danger. Some of these functions can be still witnessed in tribes living at remote places in Africa and Australia.
It is, however, more difficult to provide evidence that such association was the cause for any behavioral or other changes in humans. Such evidence should rely on showing that, for example, there is a progressive trend in the difference in human remains over a long period of time when they are found together with dogs.
B: Your investigations into dogs’ ability to “read” us and having a greater aptitude than chimpanzees to comprehend human signals seem to have been conducted well before those that were reported in Science, which were conducted by Brian Hare in 2004. Why do you think that your studies did not receive the same level of recognition in this country?
VC: We started our research program in 1994. At that time nobody was working with dogs in the ethological community, so we had to develop our research methods basically by trial and error. Our first paper on human–dog communication was published in 1998 after being rejected by a leading journal because they found it “unbelievable.” In other words, the results were “too good to be true.” The editors probably never had dogs. Further, we had a far-reaching research program in mind that took time to develop, and was aimed at finding parallels for various human-specific behaviors, not just in the case of interspecies communication.
We have some connections to Hare’s group in Germany and his team was faster to get an interesting aspect of this work into Science in 2002. We, however, were more careful in our experimental design and analysis (and consequently slower), but were able to publish our observations and provide a behavioral basis for dog-wolf differences in another high-profile journal, Current Biology with our tame wolf “Minka” on its cover-page. (Current Biology 13, no. 9 : 763-767)
B: You believe that dogs ask questions. Could you give some examples of canine questioning? How do you think a dog ponders an answer to a question about a future action—the example you give is asking your dogs “Which way?” while taking them on a walk.
VC: Questioning is very important in human group behavior. To pose a question is to show interest in the thoughts of someone else. Young dogs also question us: Where do we go? Which way? Who is coming? Who goes down with me? Is it permitted? And so on. If people are careful and answer the questions, it can soon become a regular method of communication with the dog. If questions do not get attention, dogs give up, just like human children.
If I go for a walk with Jerry, at a crossroads I frequently ask a question: “Which way?” If I ask, then he carefully sniffs in both directions and selects the “better” one and starts to go. If I am not posing the question, then he just follows me.
B: I also took delight in your “do as I do,” dogs imitating their humans—could you suggest an example that our readers might try with their dogs?
VC: When I tried it first with Jerry, I put a chair in the middle of my room and placed a rubber toy behind him, then I performed one of three possible actions: put the toy on the chair, go around the chair, or stand on the chair. After each performance I asked him to follow. With some help, he was successful after three to four days, three to four trials each day. After this, I moved the chair somewhere else, and requested only one action each time. When he performed the action well, I showed him new actions: place the toy into a bucket, for example. Dogs usually learn this after a week. However, the rigorous scientific training procedure is not so simple. We will have a published paper about this research soon explaining all the “tricks” in detail.
B: What do you think of Rico, the Border Collie in Germany who made the news last year because he could differentiate the names of so many different toys?
VC: In my view, the Border Collie represents a very interesting case, suggesting that dogs indeed have the potential for fast “word” learning. Of course, this does not mean that they could acquire language like children, but they might have some skills for recognizing the connection between a novel vocalization (“word”) and the presence of a novel object.
The performance of this dog resembles that of a 14- to 16-month-old baby; this is in general agreement with what dogs can achieve in other faculties of mind [relative] to human cognition. This study also hints that in the case of “talented” individuals, with special training or “education,” dogs can show an even higher potential for social cognition than has been appreciated so far.
B: Are you familiar with Dr. Temple Grandin? She is the autistic animal scientist, and in, Animals in Translation, she compares the way she thinks and feels to that of animals. Because of her autism she thinks in “pictures” and not in “language,” similar to the way dogs and other animals perceive the world. The perspective she brings to this subject is quite amazing. Can thinking in pictures rather than language explain many of problems that researchers are faced with when they develop language-based testing for animals?
VC: I do think that dogs are thinking in pictures, and even many people are able to do that, not only [those who are autistic]. My best scientific ideas come from thinking in pictures. To some people this is very strange, they feel they can think only in the medium of language. I hope that understanding our thinking processes will get us closer to understanding animals, especially dogs, which are already “more” than animals in the area of thinking.
B: I agree with you about the importance of social intelligence and that the mind needs to be exercised—how can dog people best exercise and enrich their dogs’ minds?
VC: As a result of their unique evolution, dogs have the potential to be humans’ best friends. However, this is not an automatic process, it depends crucially on the human partner. Just as we have a responsibility for our children, dogs require the same attention on our part. They are very much social animals, like humans, and depend in their development on continuous and variable social input from the environment. This means that they do not only need to be walked twice a day, but strive for substantial social interactions, which can take the form of play or joint sporting or even training.
B: What do you consider to be the most exciting research currently in progress about cognitive abilities in dogs?
VC: In my view, the study of dog cognition could still reveal some interesting secrets. Our work on imitation is far from over. At the department we have now a couple of young dogs who are able to imitate simple body movements, so now we can investigate in detail what they really understand from each other’s and their own body movements. We also study their barking, how they express vocal signals and how they interpret such signals.
July 16 2014
Here’s an innovative idea from The Lost Dogs’ Home shelter in Australia. In their “Human Walking Program” campaign they are putting a spin on who is adopting whom in the dog+human equation. So at this event it was the dog who is “walking” the human, in this case office workers, in Melbourne’s business district. The campaign was aimed at getting desk-bound people out at a park away from their computers, and out being walked by lovely, adoptable dogs. The shelter was hoping to change the public’s perception of shelter dogs! Very effective campaign, don’t you think?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Round two in the urban debate
July 15 2014
This is a follow-up article to our political primer on dog park campaigning. We hope that you found some of the information helpful and that you are now ready to sit down with town planners and design that perfect dog park.
Let’s start by suggesting a different term for dog park. We know it’s an easy term to use, but it often evokes irate comments like: “What do you mean you want to spend my taxes on a bunch of dogs?”; “What about safe playground equipment for my kids?”; “Drinking fountains for dogs, you gotta be kidding!” Play it safe—try using terms like “off-leash” or “multi-use area,” stressing the human component at all times. The acronym-clever COLA people (Citizens for Off-Leash Areas in Seattle simply call theirs OLAs (a convention we’ll adopt here). In Berkeley, “multi-use area” refers to the multiple legitimate uses, including our leashless dogs, that are allowable in sections of the park. In Indianapolis they refer to their recently inaugurated area as a Canine Companion Zone.
In doing the research for this article and in talking with many of you who have contacted us for more information or to share your wisdom and experience, we realize that this material cannot be easily condensed into just two parts. So we will be turning this into a regular feature, with future reports including case studies from your parks.
A recap from last time: because most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” you’ll need to change this policy.
But few policymakers or administrators are risk-takers; they’ll need reassurances that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to use public land to recreate with a pack of off-leash dogs. This is to be followed by gentle and constant reminders that your request isn’t coming out of left field and you have the numbers to support your proposal (with signed petitions in hand), that you do pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and, lastly, that you regularly consult with your dogs before voting. By doing most of your homework online you can find many excellent examples of successful programs (see resources) to bring to your town’s decision-makers. Now that you have piqued their interest, the next step is to lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria.
Guidelines can help move the process along but keep in mind that, as Mencken noted: “For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution … and it is wrong.” One of the first things we learned in gathering this information is that while it is tempting to use guidelines from other cities or even from other parks within the same city, they should be used judicially and only as outlines to help shape the planning process and not as across-the-board standards. As Judy Green, a veteran of off-leash planning in Virginia, cautioned, “it is important to remain as flexible as possible,” leaving room for “fine-tuning afterwards.” Site-specific and community-specific needs must be addressed. A fifty-acre area within a five-hundred acre park might be too small for one city, but in a dense urban area like New York it could be positively palatine.
It is beyond the scope of this space to write about macro-level planning issues or site analyses—we all know that a city should provide a series of neighborhood parks accessible to the daily needs for all its citizens, including those with dogs, with major municipal or regional parks available for special jaunts. In the ideal world, dogs would be welcomed to share the total park experience with us, as they do in Australia, and not only be limited to permitted sectors. Taking these limitations into consideration, we’ll concentrate on some guidelines for a prototypical off-leash park, if only in the abstract. Operational topics, such as sponsoring groups, user-permits and maintenance issues will be discussed in the next issue.
Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.
We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.
Other design considerations:
• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
July 10 2014
This is another amazing rescue video from Hope For Paws and Eldad Hagar, one of its founders. In this one an exhausted dog, who had been living on the streets in LA and who had avoided other rescue attempts, was simply too tired this time. And while he was definitely stressed by the net, soon after, as you will see on this video, the adorable pup was basking in the love and attention given to him by his rescuers. Kudos to Hope For Paws once again.
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