Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Can stories about dogs with aggression issues have happy endings?
By the time people have come to me for help with a dog’s aggression problems, the situation is often pretty serious and it’s not unusual for people to be at the end of their rapidly fraying ropes. Though not every situation has a fairy-tale ending, I approach each new case with optimism, partly because that’s my basic nature, but also because it reflects my experience that once in a while, a dog improves more than I imagined possible. Every unexpected happy ending is an occasion to celebrate, both because success is wonderful for the people and dogs involved, and because I always learn something new.
The fierce look on my client’s face when she said she had been advised by a vet, two trainers and a groomer to euthanize her mixed-breed dog Bear was matched by her words: “We’re just not going to do that, so please don’t waste my time and money by suggesting it.” She adopted him after her husband died, and he had helped the kids with the loss of their father; they loved the dog and couldn’t say good-bye to him. He was an angel with the woman and her two children and aggressive with everybody else.
Bear’s aggression was clearly fear-related and extremely serious. On multiple occasions, he had bitten men, women and children, sometimes bruising skin, other times breaking it. Even more discouraging than the large number of bites was the fact that in the two years since Bear had joined the woman and her children, he had never become comfortable with a single person outside the family.
My deep concern about the likelihood of this dog overcoming his fear continued during the early stages of working with him. It took weeks of hard effort using counterconditioning for him to even marginally improve. It was nearly a month before we could be certain that he was making progress because it came at a glacial pace.
Then one day, everything changed. We were working with a person whom Bear had been exposed to at low intensities multiple times. She was sitting calmly about 40 feet away. Treats were tossed and the dog took them, though, as usual, despite being relaxed, he didn’t seem too happy.
Then, I swear, we could almost see the light bulb go on over his head. He suddenly seemed to make the connection between the person and the treats. Oh, I get it! I love treats, and people make them appear. I guess people aren’t so bad after all. This is a great world and it’s filled with great treats and great people who throw them for me. It’s all so wonderful! Bear looked at the woman, began to salivate, had more treats tossed for him and tried to pull closer. He was actually trying to approach a person outside the family for the first time, and he was happy about it.
After that, progress was rapid and easily generalized to new people. Within a few weeks, Bear stopped behaving aggressively because he was no longer fearful. He was glad to see new people even outside of organized sessions, and eagerly approached strangers in a way that was previously unimaginable.
Bear taught me that while most fearful dogs learn gradually and tend to progress at a slow and steady rate, some have flashes of insight. They experience what I can only compare to a “Helen Keller-at-the-well” a-ha! moment, followed by rapid progress.
In some cases, the big picture involves so much more than the dog’s behavior, extending well into family dynamics and human interactions. A couple came in with their Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rusty. The wife was afraid of the dog and didn’t want to keep him, but the husband had no problems and wouldn’t agree to rehome Rusty. He had given up a dog as a child and never got over it.
The husband wanted me to tell his wife that she needed to stop letting the dog push her around. The wife wanted me to tell her husband that the dog would bite her again, she couldn’t stop it and it wasn’t safe to keep him. I knew that success would require compromise and cooperation, but the couple’s relationship and the woman’s relationship with the dog both seemed almost beyond repair. The humans were very angry with each other, and it was hard to imagine that changing. With all this conflict, nobody was happy, including the dog.
Rusty’s behavioral issues involved threatening and biting the woman in a number of situations: around food, when he was resting, when she attempted to sit on the couch next to him or approached him while he had a toy or a chew. The dog did not react negatively to the husband in the same situations. The first thing I did was let them know that I regularly saw dogs who acted this way with couples—fine with the one with whom they have a close relationship and aggressive with the other. Rusty’s behavior didn’t mean that the woman was doing anything wrong. It just meant that he reacted differently to each of them, and that his behavior was a reflection of the different relationship they each had with Rusty.
It took considerable effort to help them see the situation from the other’s perspective, but it was an essential step toward resolving the issue. Acknowledging the validity of both of their viewpoints helped. The husband began to understand that his wife was afraid, and legitimately so, but that he could play a role in changing the situation. Once the wife was no longer blamed for the problem, she was able to empathize with her husband, who was emotionally tortured by the thought of not keeping the dog. She accepted that the dog’s behavior could be improved. At that point, they were ready to work on the issue together.
The first steps in Rusty’s program involved setting rules that both the man and the woman followed. The basic lesson I wanted Rusty to learn was that he would get what he wanted in life (food, treats, attention, play time, walks, toys and so forth) by being patient and polite rather than by being pushy and aggressive.
He had to respond to cues from both of them throughout the day—sit, down, stay, back up, get off (the couch). A dog who behaves aggressively to a specific family member needs a high level of training to stay out of trouble and get out of sticky situations. Rusty enjoyed training and was willing to work, but for the sake of consistency, needed to be cued to perform the same behaviors in the same way every time.
I also needed to help the woman and the dog develop their relationship through fun and playful interactions. Since Rusty was better outside the house, where there were no resources to guard, we set up daily play, hiking and running sessions. He was still required to respond to her requests, but the two of them had fun together.
Once the woman had just a little success with the dog—when he listened to her cues and responded to them—their relationship grew very quickly. Their improved relationship meant that our efforts to change Rusty’s aggressive behavior in the problem situations inside the house were more effective. As she began to feel more confident around the dog, her optimism and her commitment to him grew. Her husband saw that she was working hard and really cared, and that magnified his desire to make sure she felt safe and comfortable with Rusty.
Reducing conflict within the human family benefits everyone, including the dog. My job is to do my best to minimize conflict, get everybody on board with the program and acknowledge each person’s perspective. This case taught me that it is impossible to predict which couples will be able to resolve serious issues between them, and to hold out hope that each couple I am working with will be one of the happy-ending cases.
While I was interning with Patricia McConnell, I sat in on many of her cases, including that of a 10-year-old Beagle mix who had suddenly become aggressive. Odin had been friendly and sweet all his life, but was now avoiding the family. The family described the situation as a total personality change. He snarled if approached and bit if touched. As I sat silently in the consultation, hope was not at the forefront of my feelings. I felt very upset by the severity of the problem.
What Trisha already knew and what she taught me that day is that pain is a common cause of aggression that comes on quickly and seems completely out of character, especially in adult dogs. This dog was immediately referred to their veterinarian, who discovered a severely infected tooth. When that medical issue was resolved (the tooth was pulled), the dog returned to his usual pleasant self. He no longer experienced pain when he was touched, so he no longer had to resort to threats and bites to keep people, even those he loved, away from him.
I learned that pain can cause abrupt onset and personality-changing aggression, and it’s a lesson that has been useful many times since. It can be most obvious in old dogs, because it always surprises people when an elderly, or even middle-aged, dog changes his behavior so dramatically. It’s important to consider that possibility in dogs of all ages—young, middle-aged and elderly— if the change is sudden and seems out of character; if it relates to being touched, especially on a specific spot; if the dog seems worse after exercise or late in the day; or if the dog seems to have good days and bad days.
A woman came to me for help with Stanley, her Standard Poodle, who was aggressive to other dogs when on a leash. We taught Stanley to watch his guardian’s face and to turn around and walk the other way, and to perform these behaviors in the presence of another dog rather than bark, lunge and growl.
Naturally, our goal was to prevent situations that were too much for Stanley to handle, but I always like to have a plan for the unexpected. That way, my clients have something more productive and less damaging to do in a bad situation than struggle with an out-of-control dog and say to themselves, “This is exactly the sort of situation Karen says should be avoided because it could cause a setback in our training program. This should definitely not be happening.” With that real-world perspective, I advised the woman and her dog to run past the other dog if she found herself in a position that made retreat impossible and to run away from the dog if it was so close that Stanley would not be able to focus on her and respond appropriately. Running is the fastest way to increase the distance between your dog and trouble. This works best when the other dog is on a leash because sometimes an off-leash dog will chase after another dog who is running, and that is obviously the last thing you want when your dog is aggressive to other dogs.
After about a month of steady progress, we were twice caught off guard during the same training session by dogs suddenly appearing at a distance that was too close for Stanley to handle. At first, I thought it was the worst kind of bad luck, until I realized that after twice seeing an unfamiliar dog and twice running to escape, Stanley was happier than usual. When we saw the next dog at a distance that he could handle, we were prepared to ask him to watch in order to earn a treat, but he turned and ran. He wasn’t running to escape. He ran with joy and great glee. He had learned to be happy about seeing dogs because to him, it meant he was going to get to run, which most dogs adore doing and think is the best kind of play. He wasn’t nearly as happy about seeing dogs when they presented an opportunity to respond to a cue and receive treats.
Stanley’s response exceeded my expectations. He would see another dog and look up expectantly, hoping that he would be encouraged to run. In his case, play was far more powerful in affecting his emotions than treats, even though he was highly treat-motivated. He definitely liked treats, but running made him deliriously joyful. That positive emotion helped him overcome his undesirable aggressive behavior around other dogs.
From Stanley, I learned that sometimes, what you’re doing has a different effect than you intended, which can (on occasion) be a good thing. Running, which I first considered an escape strategy, was a form of play to Stanley, and positively affected his emotions and, therefore, his behavior.
After years of seeing clients with aggressive dogs, one big lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important to be as optimistic as possible. It’s my job to give realistic assessments of situations, and to help clients safely manage them. It’s also my job to move heaven and earth to help them improve both the situation and their dog’s behavior. If they are committed to making the effort, I am never without hope. Each case has the potential to surprise me with a better outcome than I might have predicted, and surprise happy endings are my favorite kind of success story.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
His exuberance was excessive
“Can I meet your dog?” I said to my neighbor, as I say many times each week at the park, while running errands, on hikes and anywhere else I see a dog. This was a dog who I did not yet know, and I was eager to say hello. He came over to me with the same calmness he’d had on his walk, and looked up at me. I expected a calm, possibly even a tentative greeting.
Then, his face changed, and he launched up at me, leaving scratch marks on my chest and knocking me over so that I had to use my hand on the ground to catch myself from a complete fall. The change in his face that gave me enough time to expect a change in behavior but not enough time to react sufficiently to evade contact had no signs of aggression. He did not look scared, frustrated or angry. The look on his face was one of glee. He was excited to greet me, and is truly a friendly dog. He was lacking in manners and a bit out of control, but not the slightest bit aggressive.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t hurt someone, and the first thing I did after my interaction with this dog had ended was to tell my kids that this dog was off limits. They are not allowed to pet or approach him, and if they see him coming towards them, they know they are supposed to cross the street or turn around and go the other way. My kids saw what happened when this dog bounded up at me, so they needed no convincing to give this dog ample space.
I believe it’s because the dog was friendly that the guardian was completely unconcerned with his behavior. She offered no apology and expressed no chagrin, remorse or embarrassment that her dog leapt at me and did so hard enough that I lost my balance. What she said was, “He’s such a lover.”
To be fair, as I backed away, she held on tight to his leash, which is why when he jumped up towards me again, he met resistance and came back down to the ground even closer to his guardian and further from me than when he started. Regrettably, he landed hard. He seemed totally unaffected by slamming into the ground, which reflects a combination of his focus on me and the powerful muscling of his body.
He may be friendly, if that’s what she meant by “a lover” but he could also injure someone. Since I work with dogs with a variety of serious issues, I’m accustomed to imperfect behavior, but it’s very rare for me to be knocked over. It was a little embarrassing, to be honest. I certainly hope he doesn’t ever jump on the frail elderly woman across the street, the pregnant neighbor around the corner, a child, or any other person. What is most concerning about this dog is that he does not present as out of control or prone to high aroused. He walks through the neighborhood every day on a loose leash very peacefully. Since he jumped on me, I have seen him do it to one other person, with similar results, but otherwise, he just plods along on his walks showing no signs of enthusiasm over dogs, squirrels or any of the things that excite the average dog.
As a behaviorist, the rapid switch of this dog from calm emotions and behavior to high arousal is very interesting. (As a neighbor and a mom, it’s not so enthralling.) Most dogs either have a less dramatic amount of change or take a little longer to go from one state to the other. Many dogs get excited when meeting people, but few dogs are wild around people while showing no signs of exuberance in response to any other stimuli.
Have you ever known a dog who seemed so calm that their truly explosive greeting behavior was unexpected?
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
News: Guest Posts
with free live streaming
If you think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, Thank You!
That means you stopped by Dog Spies in May 2013 and read a post with the same title. But that was #SPARCS2013, and this is #SPARCS2014; same concept, different location, topics and speakers. During this year’s 3-day event, June 20-22 2014, leading canine researchers will cover three general areas of research that get at the core of what it’s like to be a dog:
Topics that many dogs are sometimes better acquainted with than their humans:
SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training and Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory. From June 20-22, 2014, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action — either in-person in Newport, RI, or via free Live Stream to your living room (or bathroom, if that’s where you prefer to take your canine science).
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the conference goals: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science. It is an international initiative to discuss what is known (and not known) about dog behavior, biology and cognition. No hooey included.
As a new addition to #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? — featuring myself and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb — will moderate. In conferences, I find that all the great info being discussed moves very fast. A question pops into your mind and you need clarification, but the speaker is already on the next topic.
At #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? will act as your pause button, fielding questions and expanding on speaker content. We’ll monitor questions and comments on social media, moderate the daily panel at the end of each day (posing your pressing questions and diving into hot-button topics), and we’ll hold post-talk interviews with each speaker (of course, speakers should be prepared to field questions on Ryan Gosling and his dog). We’re putting a large emphasis on engaging both the live and online audiences, so follow along at @DoUBelieveInDog and #SPARCS2014.
Here are the #SPARCS2014 featured speakers along with their respective talks topics. Visit the conference webpage for talk abstracts and learning goals:
Ray Coppinger, PhD
Why do breeds of dogs behave differently? –> Julie comment: No simple answer here!
Simon Gadbois, PhD
Applied canine olfactory processing: What trainers need to know beyond learning theory.
It is not what you like, but what you want that counts: The neurochemistry of behaviour and motivation.
Sam Gosling, PhD
Overview of research on temperament and personality of dogs.
Kathryn Lord, PhD
Barking and conflict.
Patricia McConnell, PhD
I see what you’re saying: Translating conflict-related visual signals.
Coyotes, Koalas and Kangaroos: What the behavior of other animals can teach you about your dog –> Julie comment: I haven’t seen a talk with this scope before!
James Serpell, PhD
Individual and breed differences in aggression
What the C-BARQ can tell us about human temperament –> Julie comment: C-BARQ stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. Get acquainted with it here.
The influence of owner/handler personality on the behavior of dogs
Monique Udell, PhD
Integrating ethology, learning theory & cognition in animal training
Clive Wynne, PhD
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? –> Julie comment: I’m sure trainers and owners want to know, “Do some approaches to dog behavior have more of a basis in learning theory than others?”
Prescott Breeden, BM, CCS
The phenotype of molecules: Why nature vs. nurture is the wrong question –> Julie comment: And the right question is…
#SPARCS2014 also features short presentations from emerging researchers. Check out the SPARCS Facebook page for speakers and topics.
Each year, the SPARCS conference and initiative is made possible by you. “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated.” Check out donation and membership opportunities.
Stay in touch with the SPARCS initiative on Facebook and Twitter.
Did you catch #SPARCS2013? Maybe you watched the Free Livestream or even attended in person. What was it like? And what are you looking forward to at #SPARCS2014?
This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs have so much to learn from other dogs. Having worked in animal shelters for more than 25 years, I’ve seen so many dogs who were isolated and have no social skills with other dogs or people. When I bring these dogs home and introduce them to my pack, they are often terrified, aggressive or shut down. In almost every case, my smooth, easy going dogs have the newcomer feeling comfortable fairly quickly. In the case of orphaned pups, it’s even more critical as they aren’t learning any dog skills from mom.
I recently had the pleasure of fostering 12 puppies from several litters that had been abandoned in an apartment. They were mostly small mixed breeds and needed a place to hang out while they were vaccinated, spayed or neutered and awaited new homes. They were in pretty good shape but seemed to have had little exposure to people or new dogs. I wanted to give them positive interactions with as many people and dogs as possible before they were adopted. My own dogs are wonderful with puppies but my Great Dane, Doberman, Golden Retriever and Pit Bull are so big that they were at risk of stepping on these little guys, even as gentle as they are. My small dog is a Chihuahua/Pug mix but he’s 15 years old and too frail to have to put up with puppy shenanigans.
A dear friend of mine has a wonderful 3-year- old mixed- breed dog who’s about 20 pounds and adores puppies so we put Clifford in with them. Clifford worked his way through the whole litter with a softly wagging tail and sweet welcoming body language. The scared little shut-down pups loved him on sight. In moments they were following him everywhere and taking his cues on approaching people and exploring new things.
As soon as pups start feeling confident, they can become bratty. Relentless demands to play, chewing tails and ears and overall in-your-face behavior can put them at risk with cranky dogs. It’s important for them to learn appropriate interactions with other dogs without having them injured by harsh corrections. Cliff isn’t much of a disciplinarian but he will give a growl and a snap if the puppy is over the top pushy. It’s so valuable to watch the pups become more respectful of their elders when they get corrected and may even prevent them from being injured by another dog in the future.
Each day until they were adopted, the puppies got a dose of Clifford therapy and soon they were becoming the affectionate, confident pups they were meant to be. All have been adopted into new homes and Clifford eagerly awaits the next group of fosters.
News: Guest Posts
I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”
The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.
So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**
But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:
A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?
**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!
Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.
This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What dogs do influences potential adopters
We know that millions of shelter pets are available for adoption each year, but that many are never selected. Most previous research into the choices that people make about which dog to adopt has focused on what the dog looks like and the dog’s behavior in the kennel.
The recent study “Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption” investigated whether dogs’ behavior during an interaction outside of the kennel had any impact on the likelihood of adoption. (Potential adopters chose which dog or dogs they wanted to spend time with in a session out of the kennel.)
There were only two behaviors that influenced adoption: 1) Dogs who ignored people’s attempts to initiate play were far less likely to be adopted than those dogs who played when people attempted to initiate play with them, and 2) Dogs who spent more time lying down close to potential adopters were fourteen times more likely to be adopted than those who spent less time lying down near the people. Dogs who were adopted spent half as much time ignoring people’s attempts to play and twice as much time lying down near potential adopters than dogs who were not selected for adoption.
This research suggests that even in a short interaction—the average in this study was 8 minutes and did not differ between people who chose to adopt the dog and those who did not adopt the dog—people were making choices based on dogs’ behavior. Specifically, they chose dogs who played with them and who spent time lying down near them. This study suggests that people are selecting dogs who act in certain ways and that training dogs to behave in these ways has the potential to increase their chances of being adopted.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs and humans follow similar path
If you think that your dog has changed in his tendency to pay attention to you over time, you are probably right. A new study is the first to describe the developmental changes in dogs’ attention over their entire life.
In the study “Lifespan development of attentiveness in domestic dogs: drawing parallels with humans”, scientists studied 145 Border Collies from the ages of 6 months to almost 14 years old. Dogs were placed in 7 groups, reflecting these developmental periods: late puppyhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, late adulthood, senior, and geriatric.
The researchers concluded that dogs (at least of this breed) show predictable changes in attentiveness, which they define as the ability to choose to process some environmental stimuli over others, as they age. Their major findings were:
Have you noticed changes in your dog’s attention habits over time?
News: Guest Posts
Unfortunately, this is true. I’ll explain.
Dogs are trained to sniff out a lot of things, and some of those “things” are human remains. Human remains, except those in a cemetery, are usually not out in the open; someone doesn’t want them found or there has been an accident. But bring your own Scooby Doo to the case, and you might have a fighting chance.
But how do dogs get into detection mode? Training can take many different forms, but customarily, trainers present dogs with a target odor (the smell of interest) and control odors (that are not of interest). They are trained to alert to the target odor and ignore the controls. Sometimes trainers use a scent detection board, like the one below that the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center uses when training dogs to alert to ovarian cancer.
To train dogs to identify and ultimately find a particular scent, trainers need samples. For different types of cancer, these samples might come from the blood, urine or tissue of a person with the target cancer. But what do you use if you are training a dog in human remains detection (thankfully given the innocuous-sounding acronym HRD)? If you are a HRD handler, how do you train and practice with your dog? Where do you get your, um, samples? Is this Dexter’s side gig?
One solution is to use nonhuman remains, as long as they are a suitable proxy for humans. A recent study by Cablk et al. (2012) compared the chemical compositions of decomposing tissue from a pig, cow, chicken and human. The researchers were investigating the volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the “smell particles”—released by animals and humans.
The important question in the HRD field is: which VOCs are produced when a human body decomposes? Are they similar to or different from VOCs of decomposing animal tissue? Identifying the specific compounds—and their ratios—could help when training dogs, or in creating synthetic training samples. You know, so you don’t need a fridge full of—well, you get the picture.
When comparing decomposing animal and human tissue, the results were clear:“Although there were compounds common to both animal and human remains, the VOC signatures of each of the animal remains differed from those of humans.” Thank goodness. You are not a pig. Nor are you a cow. But yes, you are kind of a chicken: “The VOC signatures from chicken and human samples were most similar, sharing the most compounds of the animals studied.”
By contrast, VOCs in pig remains were not so similar to VOCs found in human remains. “In addition to sharing only seven of 30 human-specific compounds, an additional nine unique VOCs were recorded from pig samples, which were not present in human samples.”
HRD trainers sometimes use pig remains to train dogs, but given their VOC differences, are pig remains the best best? Is it better to train on human, synthetic human or even chicken remains?*
We don’t usually confuse humans with chickens, but this similarity we just can’t shake. It seems Marty McFly was wrong. Maybe we are chickens.
Cablk et al. 2012. Characterization of the volatile organic compounds present in the headspace of decomposing animal remains, and compared with human remains. Forensic Science International, 220, 118–125.
Hoffman et al. 2009. Characterization of the volatile organic compounds present in the headspace of decomposing human remains. Forensic Science International, 186, 6–13.
This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
We all have stories to prove it
The chain of events that led to the dog peeing on me in the middle of the night began with my children’s homework. It was an interesting and worthwhile assignment, which offers me some consolation. I hate to be peed on for no good reason!
The kids were tasked with investigating leaks in our house and making some calculations about how much water was being wasted. They had to check the water meter, make sure no water would be used during the next few hours, and then check the meter again to see if any water was being lost. We thought that it would be easiest to do this overnight when nobody would accidently wash their hands (an unlikely occurrence that only Murphy’s Law could make happen during the crucial period or anytime) or use water in any other way.
Just before bedtime after everybody had filled a water bottle, brushed their teeth and gone to the bathroom, we deactivated the icemaker in our freezer and the kids checked the meter. All we needed to do was go to bed and wait until morning for them to take a second reading of the meter.
Tragically, I awoke at midnight really needing to use the bathroom. Though I could of course have just gone but not flushed, I lacked confidence in myself. I don’t know why, but it is ridiculously hard for me to do this, and the risk that I would go, then flush automatically was too high in my mind.
“I’m up anyway, so I might as well take the dog out to relieve himself, and I can go out there,” was my thought.
Marley and I went outside and he wandered over to his favorite potty spot, and I picked a place for myself by some bushes. Still occupied with my own mission, I failed to notice the dog come around behind me until it was too late. I only became aware of his presence when he had already lifted his leg and I felt the warm stream of dog urine hit me in the lower back.
Unable to shower because of the water leak investigation assignment, I dried my back with paper towels and then used about a pint of hand sanitizer on the area before going back to bed. Though I was a little disgusted, it’s really not that big a deal considering the amount of vomit, pee and poop all of us who spend time with dogs have probably cleaned up over the years.
Besides, I found it interesting that Marley seemed to be over marking my urine with his own. Many dogs pee over other dogs’ pee, and even over the urine of men, but some dogs ignore urine from women and from kids. Unfortunately for me, Marley is not one of them.
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