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Good Dog: Studies & Research
Food Sharing in Dogs
Familiar dogs prompt generosity more than unknown dogs

Dogs will give food to other dogs. Okay, maybe your dogs don’t show this tendency at home enough for you to believe it, but in laboratory settings, it happens. (It happens in other species, too, especially in various primates and in rats.) A recent study of this behavior found that the details of the experimental situation influence whether dogs choose to give food to other dogs or not. 

“Task Differences and Prosociality; Investigating Pet Dogs’ Prosocial Preferences in a Token Choice Paradigm” investigated prosocial behavior—voluntary behavior that benefits others. In the study, dogs were trained to touch a token with their nose to deliver food to another dog who was in an enclosure, or touch another token that resulted in nothing happening. This is a different experimental design than has previously been used in which a dog could pull a shelf with food on it so that the food reached a dog in another enclosure, or pull an empty shelf.

In the experiment with the tokens, sometimes the dog in the enclosure was one that the “giving” dog lives with, sometimes it was an unfamiliar dog and sometimes the enclosure was empty. In some trials, there was a dog next to them when they were choosing whether to touch the token to give food away. Sometimes they were alone when making their choice.

The study found that 1) Dogs were more likely to give food to dogs who they live with than to dogs who are strangers. 2) Having another dog with them made them more generous, meaning that they were more likely to give food when they were with another dog rather than when they were alone.

To be fair, the dogs were not literally sharing the food out of their own bowl. They were choosing to act so that food would be given to another dog, but they didn’t lose out on any food by giving to the other dog. Still, it’s nice to know that dogs can share food, even if what we most appreciate about them is their ability to share love!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dog-Directed Speech
Puppies are most responsive to this type of talk

Baby talk may make grown-ups sound ridiculous to many people, but that doesn’t take away from its value. Extensive research has shown that human infants are better able to learn language when we talk to them using higher pitches and at a slower speed than when we talk to other adults. This style of communication is called “infant-directed speech”, and it’s natural for many folks to slip into it when addressing young individuals, especially those who are not yet verbal.

A new study called “Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it?” suggests that the same principle may be operating when humans speak to dogs—another of our social partners who don’t fully understand our language. People tend to talk to their dogs in a way that is similar to the way they address children. There may be value in this “dog-directed speech” as well.

This study investigated the behavior of two species, and reported a major finding about each of them. On the human side, only women were studied, and researchers found that they used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages, but used higher pitches when they were talking to puppies than when addressing fully grown dogs. For the canines, this worked out well based on their age-related responses to the way we talk to them. Adult dogs were equally responsive to normal speech and dogs-directed speech. Puppies, however, became more engaged when addressed with dog-directed speech than when the women spoke to them as they normally talk. Specifically, it was the higher pitch in the dog-directed speech that influenced how attentive puppies were.

There are many questions that flow naturally from this study and its intriguing results. Do men talk to their dogs with higher-pitched, slower speech patterns, and does the age of the dog influence the degree to which they do it? Do dogs who look more juvenile because of larger eyes, shorter muzzles and bigger heads elicit dog-directed speech more than dogs who have a more mature look? Does dog-directed speech facilitate language learning in dogs as it does in human babies?

Do you talk to your dog using a different speaking style than the one you use for adult humans?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Don’t Let Others Spoil Your Dog’s Training
Protect the Cue

No matter how much work you put into training your dog, it often seems like there’s an army of folks conspiring against you, determined to derail your efforts. Maybe Uncle Ian loves to roughhouse with your dog, or perhaps your daughter’s best friend encourages him to jump up on her every time she visits. It could be that your dog-sitter forgets to give him a treat if he comes when called, or your neighbor thinks it’s hysterically funny to chase your dog when he steals a sock and runs away.

Out of necessity, I have developed defensive strategies to prevent other people from wrecking both my own and my clients’ best-laid training plans.

Training dogs is simple in theory but complex in practice. The goal is to teach a dog to perform various behaviors on cue, so that when we ask a dog to “sit,” the dog’s behind hits the ground, and when we say “come,” he runs to us without hesitating. All we have to do is to teach the dog what those cues mean and make it worth his while to comply, but the details of how to do that are anything but straightforward.

Complexity enters the picture in so many ways, including: How to teach the dog the behavior (shaping, luring, capturing). How to reinforce the dog (using a primary reinforcer such as a treat, belly rub, game of tug or new chew toy versus a secondary reinforcer like a click or a cue for a favorite behavior). Proofing the dog to be able to respond to a cue in a variety of situations (including distractions up to the level of “squirrel”). The trainer’s skills and expertise (timing of the reinforcement, length of training sessions and when to stop them, the order and speed of progression through each step in the process).

On top of all those challenges, other people can mess with our cues, and this can cause them to lose meaning, change meaning or be weakened—to break the association we have built in our dog’s mind between the cue and the desired behavior. People sometimes even create new cues that promote undesirable behavior. Luckily, there are many ways to prevent other people from hijacking a dog’s training cues.

The Poisoned Cue

It takes a lot of consistent work over many months to teach a dog a totally reliable recall—to come when called every single time. I like to think that for a well-trained dog, the cue “come!” means “Whatever I’ve got here, she’s got something better over there.” In actual practice, that level of perfection—the dog always receives something so wonderful that he is glad he came when he was called—is hard to achieve, but the goal is to be as close as possible.

Many of us achieve a good recall with cues we don’t intentionally use. For example, lots of dogs come every time they hear the crinkle of a bag of treats or see us pick up the leash. To most dogs, those actions are linked with getting treats and going for a walk because of the exceptionally strong association between the cue and what follows.

From the dog’s point of view, the spoken command “come!” rarely predicts something so reliably great. This is partly because we’re up against other people who call our dogs-in-training to come and don’t reinforce them when they do so. Luckily, you can usually swamp these occasional “oops” moments with plenty of better experiences.

The real recall-killer, however, is calling a dog to come and then doing something that is aversive rather than reinforcing. When a dog associates a cue with something bad, the cue has been poisoned, and the dog will resist responding to it. So, if a dog runs to a groomer who called him to “come” and then clips his nails and gives him a bath—both of which he hates—the cue is being poisoned. The aversive can be something obviously bad (being yelled at) as well as something less obviously negative (the end of play time).

A cue is rarely poisoned by just one or even a few misuses, but repeated bad experiences are a different story. Because it’s difficult to fix a poisoned cue, the best option is to change it. Yes, it’s possible to reverse the dog’s negative association with a cue, but it’s less work to build a new association. For example, “here!” or “this way!” are good alternatives to “come.”

Teach a New Response

Years ago, I lived in an old farmhouse while it was being renovated, so workers were in the house with my dog, Bugsy, while I was at work. I knew and trusted these men, and wasn’t worried about his safety and well being. In fact, they loved my dog so much that their enthusiasm became a problem.

Each time they arrived, there were effusive greetings all around, which included encouraging Bugsy to jump up on them. He was a big dog and they got a kick out of how close he was to their height when he was on his back legs with his front paws on their chest. The problem was that I didn’t want my dog’s front paws on anybody’s chest. In fact, after I adopted Bugsy, I spent months “de-jumping” him—teaching him not to jump up like that.

A week into the remodel, I came home to a dog who jumped on me with great joy and enthusiasm. Though I was, of course, pleased to see him, the joy and enthusiasm were all his. I was totally joyless and unenthusiastic about the return of this behavior; among other things, I was concerned about him knocking over a child or my frail elderly neighbor, or upsetting people who like to keep their clothes free of dog prints.

Also, as a professional dog trainer who referred to Bugsy as “the best résumé I’ve ever had,” I saw a lot of awkwardness in my future. If he jumped on people during public appearances or when I was using him as a demonstration dog in group classes, I was going to look foolish. Immediate action was necessary. My first strategy—asking the guys not to encourage Bugsy to jump up on them and explaining the reasons why—had no effect.

After observing that the men patted their chests to encourage Bugsy, I came up with a solution. I taught Bugsy to sit whenever people patted their chests. In other words, I wrecked the workers’ ability to invite him to jump up by making that action a cue to sit. After a few weeks, my efforts paid off. A fellow who had just started working with the crew told me that he tried to get my dog to jump up, patting his chest as he told me this, but that the silly mutt couldn’t seem to figure it out. He actually implied that maybe my dog was stupid because he sat instead. (It’s not my dog who can’t figure out what’s going on, I thought, with considerable satisfaction.)

To prevent the workers from finding another way to invite Bugsy to jump up, I showed them how to cue him to shake, wave or high-five after he sat to greet them. Luckily, they found these tricks more entertaining than having him put his paws on their chests, so I didn’t have further problems.

Unique Cues

When it comes to a defensive strategy, choosing atypical cues has an upside. If your cues are standard (“sit,” “heel,” “down,” “come”) and you use “okay” as a release for “stay” and “leave it,” then your dog is more vulnerable to training sabotage from other people. Someone can poison the cue or make it irrelevant by saying it endlessly even when the dog is clearly not going to respond. This often happens with “come” and also with “drop it,” which many people say to a dog who is holding something in his mouth. The result is that the dog learns that those sounds are meaningless, making it harder to teach him to respond to them appropriately in the future.

If you use unusual cues, or words in a foreign language, you protect yourself and your dog from these problems. How likely are most of us to come across people who try to communicate with our dogs using the Dutch “af,” meaning “down,” the French “ici” for “come” or the Czech “zustan” for “stay”? Avoiding the release word “okay” in favor of the less-common “free” or even a random choice such as “jailbreak!” or “all done” prevents interference from other people.

Be Proactive

Specific defensive strategies are useful, but none are as effective as taking charge of the situation and doing everything you can to be assertive about what happens around your dog. Few people are skilled in dog training, but for the most part, they mean no harm. (If someone is purposely wrecking your dog’s training, they don’t deserve to be around either of you.) Most people will do the right thing with some direction, and that can prevent them from causing training trouble.

So, manage the situation. That may mean preventing access to your dog, especially in your absence. It can also mean saying in a straightforward way, “He came when he was called, so give him this stuffed Kong,” as you hand it over.

If someone is encouraging your dog to steal things and play keep-away, tell them exactly what to do instead, and why: “This will teach him to make a game of stealing things, and I don’t want that. Instead, let’s encourage him to trade that sock for a handful of treats.”

If someone is playing rough with your dog, tell them, “He’s not allowed to play that way because he gets too excited and starts biting, but here’s a tug toy that he will like playing with even more.” If that fails to change the person’s behavior, you can intervene by enticing your dog into a game of tug with you, or by saying, “When he gets overly aroused like this, I put him in his crate with something to chew on so he can calm down,” and then do exactly that.

Dog training would be tricky enough if we could do it in our own bubble with no interference from anyone else. As it happens, we do it in the real world where all kinds of unplanned challenges crop up. As frustrating as this can be, there are ways to counteract the actions of these would-be spoilers. Ultimately, we are each responsible for training our dogs and protecting them from setbacks in that training—any way we can.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Crate Escapes
Dogs use creativity to break free

Most people love that dogs are good problem solvers except when they hate that dogs are good problem solvers. Take the age old battle of dog versus crate. This is one of the situations in which we fuddy-duddy humans object to our dogs’ creative thinking and hamster-like wiggling ability. When we crate dogs, we are usually doing it for their safety and the safety of our homes. Millions of dogs love the coziness and security of their crates, and happily trot in to spend some restful time there, but the people who recorded the following videos have dogs who are not in that category. These dogs will apparently do anything to escape their crates, and they are successful at doing so. The many ways that our canine buddies set themselves free show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This dog breaks out after much effort, and while I admire his acrobatics and persistence, it is concerning that a dogs who make a break for it in this way will injure themselves. Luckily, this particular dog seems to have accomplished the goal without suffering any damage, but his level of desperation is concerning because he is literally forcing the issue.

What’s interesting me about this next dog is not the “how” of her escape, but the “why” of it. She was so drawn in by the calls of a litter of puppies in the shelter that she was apparently compelled to escape her kennel to be near them. Her own litter of puppies had recently been taken from her, so it’s likely that she her post-partum physiological state made her especially receptive to the needs of puppies.

This dog is methodical in her escape. There is no evidence that she is distressed or emotionally aroused in any way. She seems simply to prefer to be out of her crate than in, so she takes the necessary steps to make that happen in a calm, organized way. She shows evidence of having the emotional stability of an astronaut, to the point that I can practically here her saying to herself, “Work the problem.”

One of the sweetest videos of dogs escaping their crates is this one, because the crated dog had outside help. It’s great to have a pal who can help you get out of a jam!

Has your dog been victorious in a contest of Dog versus Crate, and if so, do you know how the escape happened?

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Tension & Teamwork in Dog Training
Understanding the role tension plays in relationships.

We were in an open hayfield in the middle of a training exercise with one of many young bird dogs when John, my boss, asked me, “What is tension?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “There was no tension between you and your dog.”

Though I’ve been around bird dogs and mounted field trials for almost seven years now, I still have much to learn. Because it was my first time as a handler during this part of the training process, my own tension level was initially pretty high.

Earlier, I had consciously tried to let go of the concern that I would make a fool of myself and, by association, of my dog. Mostly, though, I was mentally and physically tense because I knew how crucial it was to get my timing right. I’m fine with being a beginner, I’m even fine with making a fool of myself. What I’m not so fine with is the idea that after three years of gradually developing my good dog, I could potentially screw her up in a matter of weeks.

Young bird dogs are taken through a process that transitions them from their puppy days of chasing birds to their lives as functional and valuable hunting partners. Against their every well-honed instinct, they learn that only humans are allowed to go after the bird once they’ve pointed it.

The classic Pointer pose (one leg tucked up so high that it’s almost under the dog’s chin) doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen dogs stop stalking with a back leg off the ground as the scent of the bird hits their nose, or point with no foot-lifting at all. A point is simply a stalk turned into a stop, and it’s instinctive—tiny bird-dog puppies point.

Eventually, puppies and untrained older dogs become overexcited by the prospect of the feathered snack in front of them and pounce, which flushes the bird. If they let us go first, we may bag the bird for them. Of course, they don’t know the whole picture as they go through their training milestones. They experience each stage as it happens and, just like us when faced with change, they may seek a way out of the tension. This is when tension can become fear if allowed to go unchecked.

We slowly but surely bring them through the concerns they have about human involvement in their hunting “game.” To be fair and consistent with the dogs, we do our yard work well ahead of time so that they already know commands like “whoa,” “heel” and “come.” The big trick is to teach them to combine this obedience training with the thing they most want to do. Even the best-trained dog can want something a little too much.

A single badly timed cue or jarring interruption at this vital stage can cause juvenile dogs to catastrophically misunderstand the situation. If too much pressure is applied, or if they are expected to take in too much information too quickly, they can develop some truly unnatural habits. For example, they can learn to avoid birds when humans are present, an issue we call “blinking.” Once dogs start down the path of fear, it takes a lot of skill to bring back their desire to hunt.

During our initial exercise, my dog did nothing wrong. I don’t mean she was flawless, but her mistakes were down to this being her first real test of specialized skills and to my own inexperience. However, it was obvious that she was strangely detached from the situation; she appeared to be almost bored. I wondered if her lackluster demeanor stemmed from her desire to do the real thing—to go out in the field and hunt and chase birds—rather than what we were offering her. We worked with her a little more that day and some of her enthusiasm came back, but still not to a level I would have liked to have seen.

I wasn’t disappointed, but I was confused. Hence, John’s question. My initial gut reaction was that tension was a negative thing. I mentally flicked through a litany of anxious scenarios I’ve faced in life, not least of which was how to figure out the “correct” answer to the situation in front of me. Eventually, I came to the following conclusion: in order for dogs to remain quiveringly eager to hunt birds when the rules change, we have to instill in them a sense of urgency as well as the paradoxical need for compliance and cooperation—in other words, a very specific and productive type of tension.

The tension between handler and dog is a symbiosis of a sort that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. In the moment, the dog is intensely focused on the scent, so much so that you can tell if a bird moves by the swivel of the dog’s head or the flick of his eyes. His nostrils flare to catch the smallest scent molecule, and his tightly contained excitement is palpable. He is the epitome of tense but he is also very still at his core, driven by a primal desire but knowing that his best chance to fulfill it is to work as part of a team.

Because I have a great desire to train these dogs, I have to go through the fear of tension to a place of understanding— even if the understanding is that I could potentially screw up my good dog. I’m excited about exploring these aspects of tension because I recognize that tension turned to fear is of very little use unless you’re in a dangerous situation, and even then, it’s a quick-burning fuel.

Which brings to mind a term used in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy: “dynamic stillness,” which I interpret as potency stored, like lightning in a jar, ready to be unleashed in the transformation of compression to kinetic energy. When a great bird dog points, it feels exactly like that to me. The human handler needs to get on the same energetic wavelength, or get out of the way.

As I watch dogs learn to trust what they’re being asked to do, even if they don’t understand it, I see light-bulb moments. Rather than backing off the level of tension, we help the dogs find better ways to handle it, and their intensity grows proportionally with their confidence level. I have always learned a lot from dogs, but this might be the biggest lesson yet. What is tension? Tension is wanting and yet waiting in the moment. It’s a powerful place to be.

This essay was adapted from a version that first appeared on the Good Men Project website.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Genes Underlying Social Behavior in Dogs
The same genomic regions affect human social behavior

The remarkable social abilities of dogs include the many ways that they are able to interact with humans. Dogs seek out humans for food, companionship, assistance and information. They have evolved these social skills throughout their recent evolutionary past because of the advantages of communicating and cooperating with people. Genetic changes in the domestic dog over thousands of years are the source of these behavioral changes, but there remains a lot of variation in both canine genetics and canine social behavior.

A recent study (Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders) investigated behavioral and genetic variation in hundreds of Beagles with similar upbringing and similar previous experiences with humans. Researchers studied the dogs’ social behavior by presenting them with an impossible task. Dogs were given a container that held three treats, but only two of them were accessible to the dog. The third treat was impossible for the dog to obtain. Using video, researchers quantified the time dogs spent looking at the people in the room with them, approaching them, and being in physical contact with them. Different dogs showed different tendencies to seek human interaction when they faced an unsolvable problem.

To investigate possible genetic sources of this behavioral variation, the scientists used a process called GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Study). Basically, this means that a large number of parts of the entire DNA of each dog were examined to discover potential genetic variants that were associated with the social behavior. This study shows a strong genetic aspect to differences in human-directed social behavior by dogs. Researchers found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In some cases, specific alleles (gene variants) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact.

Interestingly, the genes associated with variation in dog behavior in this study have been found to be related to various behavioral issues and social behavior complexes in humans. Specifically, autism, bipolar disorder and aggression in adolescents with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) are all variations in human behavior whose genetic contributions come at least in part from the same areas of DNA that influence human-directed social behavior in dogs. This suggests that dogs may be an appropriate and valuable model for studying these aspects of social behavior in people.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Etiquette: Turning Your Dog Into a Gracious Guest
Is your dog ready for the holidays?

Shortly after we were married, my husband and I spent the holidays with my in-laws, and we brought our young dog, Bugsy. He was social; had an excellent stay; came when called; had no history of food thievery; and would not lift his leg indoors, even on a tree, so my confidence in his visiting skills was high.

On arrival, as he occupied himself with a stuffed Kong so we could unpack the car, a possible problem occurred to me. Bugsy often tossed his Kong into the air and ate any treats that flew out of it. In our poor students’ apartment, it was endearing, entertaining behavior. But my in-laws’ decor included crystal, collectible figurines and an array of china teacups. Racing into the house in a panic, I caught the Kong in midair as it flew toward a set of porcelain miniatures. As I breathed a sigh of relief, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been a bit smug in thinking the trip would be stress-free.

This time of year generates tales of woe associated with bringing dogs to visit friends and relatives, and I get a lot of questions about this issue. Whether or not people fully anticipate the trouble that awaits them, taking a dog into someone else’s home for the holidays can cause stress. The best approach for assuaging this seasonal angst is two-pronged: Prepare your dog as much as you can ahead of time with the skills he’ll need to succeed during the visit, and make every effort to avoid other situations for which he hasn’t been prepared.

The preliminary step, of course, is to request permission to bring him along. Not everyone wants a visiting dog. Even dog lovers appreciate the advance warning that allows them to, for example, put away the Ming vase on display at the precise height of the perpetually swinging tail of your cheerful Great Dane. If your dog is not welcome, don’t bring him, or find somewhere else to stay. The strain of a visit with an unwelcome dog can permanently damage relationships. Plus, it’s hard on the dog to be Undesirable Number One in an otherwise festive home.

Training is a critical aspect of preparation. The better trained your dog is, the more welcome you will both be as guests. The key skills are to be able to sit, stay, come, leave it, greet politely, and stop barking on cue. It sounds like a long list, but these are also the basics of polite canine citizenship. I also recommend that you teach your dog at least one “show-off” behavior. This can be waiting at the door until told to proceed (easy to teach but impressive to most people) or a trick such as “roll over” or “high five.” Anything that makes your dog more charming will help ease tensions in case of a social gaffe. For example, I had a client whose dog jumped up on her father-in-law, but was forgiven immediately when she gave the cue “You goofed,” and the dog responded by lying down and covering his face with his paws, as though in embarrassment.

Common host complaints include barking, jumping up on visitors and stealing food. Of course, if he is prone to more serious transgressions such as biting, unmanageable destructive chewing or house-soiling, it is unfair to expect your dog and your hosts to co-exist peacefully, and it may be best not to go a-visiting with him in tow.

Teach your dog the skills he’ll need to be a gracious guest. If he’s a barker, teach him to stop on cue. Say “enough” the instant he starts to bark, and then put treats right by his nose. Do not let him have the treats until he stops barking. Many dogs quickly learn that quieting down when you say “enough” is a way to get treats. If he jumps up on people, teach him that if he does this, the people will leave, but if he sits, he will get treats and attention. Since the majority of jumpers do so out of an urge to be social, they quickly learn that jumping up makes people go away. They choose to sit instead, which results in the opportunity to socialize and get treats as well.

Even if you prepare ahead of time, there’s plenty to do during your visit to make sure that the holiday is remembered as a fun one rather than as the last family holiday to which you were allowed to bring your dog. Exercise, chews, toys and puzzles can minimize behavioral issues such as destructive chewing and counter-surfing, which tend to worsen when dogs are bored or full of pent-up energy. Bring a crate if your dog likes it and your hosts have enough space. Help clean up, especially if the mess involves dog hair or sloppy drinking at the water bowl. Seize the opportunity to put leftovers out of your dog’s reach, and volunteer to take out the trash.

As soon as possible after you arrive, practice the skills your dog already knows so that he can learn to do them in new places, too. One of the things that separates professional trainers from novices is that professionals know that training doesn’t automatically transfer to new locations. For example, just because your dog has a rock-solid stay in your living room doesn’t mean he knows how to respond in the same way in your yard, at the park or at Grandma’s house. Even a couple of five-minute training sessions can significantly improve your dog’s performance and manners.

Obedience skills aren’t the only ones that may drop off away from home. Many dogs who are completely trustworthy when left at home alone are stressed, scared or mischievous when left alone in a new place, all of which can result in house-soiling or the aforementioned destructive chewing or counter-surfing. The change in routine, a new place and additional people may also make dogs more likely to exhibit these unwanted behaviors. Adjust your plans—and expectations—accordingly.

Faux pas may occur, but focusing on prevention will help your dog succeed. Don’t set up your highly food-motivated dog to fail by leaving him alone, even for a minute, while the turkey is on the table. If you know your dog has a tendency to find food or shoes, don’t put temptation in his way. Make some areas of the house off limits, or use a crate so that your dog never gets the opportunity to display anything but his best behavior.

No matter how things go, send a thank-you note to your hosts, perhaps accompanied by flowers, to express your gratitude that you and your dog were welcomed into their home (and, if necessary, to apologize).

Ideally, holidays are fun, not stressful. With thoughtful preparation and prevention, you can insulate yourself, your dog and your hosts from the dark side of this festive season. You will then be free to focus on the joy of togetherness for everyone, whether they sing “Fa la la la la” or “Bow wow wow wow wow.”
 

News: Guest Posts
Dogs Remember More Than You Think
A new study shows dogs display episodic memory supporting what many already knew
Dogs remember more than you might think

Dogs are "in." Hardly a week goes by that a research paper and numerous popular accounts don't appear in the news. This week is no different. First, on the "down" side, we've learned that researchers in some laboratories in the United States often secretively do whatever they want to dogs "in the name of science" in "wasteful, bizarre and deadly experiments" with little to no transparency. Basically, they get away with murder, using taxpayer's money, and no one does anything about it. 

On the "up" side of things, I was so pleased to learn about a study by Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklósi, who work in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, that was just published in Current Biology. This new and very significant essay is titled, "Recall of Others’ Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs." Needless to say, this study received broad global coverage in mass media. People really do want to know what dogs know. And, here is a video of how the research was conducted. 

Their summary of the important research essay that's available online reads:

The existence of episodic memory in non-human animals is a debated topic that has been investigated using different methodologies that reflect diverse theoretical approaches to its definition. A fundamental feature of episodic memory is recalling after incidental encoding, which can be assessed if the recall test is unexpected [1]. We used a modified version of the “Do as I Do” method [2], relying on dogs’ ability to imitate human actions, to test whether dogs can rely on episodic memory when recalling others’ actions from the past. Dogs were first trained to imitate human actions on command. Next, they were trained to perform a simple training exercise (lying down), irrespective of the previously demonstrated action. This way, we substituted their expectation to be required to imitate with the expectation to be required to lie down. We then tested whether dogs recalled the demonstrated actions by unexpectedly giving them the command to imitate, instead of lying down. Dogs were tested with a short (1 min) and a long (1 hr) retention interval. They were able to recall the demonstrated actions after both intervals; however, their performance declined more with time compared to conditions in which imitation was expected. These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory. Dogs offer an ideal model to study episodic memory in non-human species, and this methodological approach allows investigating memory of complex, context-rich events.

Didn't we already know dogs had great memories?: A brief interview with Dr. Ádám Miklósi

Many animals spend a lot of time resting, often peering around at their surroundings and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. Dogs surely do this. I often smiled as I watched the dogs with whom I shared my home just hanging out and looking around at their dog and human friends and their environs. When I've done field work on a number of different animals, I also noted that they spent a lot of time just hanging out and looking around as they rested. I was convinced that they were picking up a lot of information from just looking around, and that what they learned they could use in their social encounters with others. 

In response to this new study I received a number of emails asking something like, "Didn't we already know that dogs had great memories?" Yes, we did, and a good deal of "citizen science" shows this to be so. But, I wanted to know more, so I sent dog expert Dr. Ádám Miklósi, founder of the Family dog Project who was involved in the study, two questions to which he responded immediately. They were, "Why did you do this study?" and "How does it extend what we know from (i) other formal studies and (ii) what people know from watching their dog at home or at a dog park?"

Dr. Miklósi answered the first question quite easily: "Claudia [lead author of the study, Claudia Fugazza] went to a conference on memory, and then she suggested that maybe the 'Do as I Do' method offers a way to provide some evidence for this."

Dr. Miklósi's answer to the second question, "How does it extend what we know from (i) other formal studies and (ii) what people know from watching their dog at home or at a dog park?" was: "As usual this is something that dog people may have assumed the dog is capable of doing. But most of them did not think about the possibility that dogs remember specific events happening around them. This study shows now that dogs (and probably many other animals) are able to do this. So they not only remember (spontaneously) what they have done (there are studies on chimps, rats, dolphins along this lines), but also what their owner did. For example, they may watch the owner cut the roses in the garden one day, and then when they see those flowers again, this memory could pop up in their mind. This could happen without showing any change in behavior, because this is just a spontaneous 'thought,' although in some other cases such thoughts may actually become causes of (spontaneous) behaviour."

In one interview I did about this study, I noted, "Dogs have great memories of a lot of events and this study shows that we’re still learning just how good their memory really is ... Dogs need to be able to learn and remember what their human wants them to do, and there won’t always be an immediate association of the events in time ... So, it is not surprising to me that dogs can remember the ‘Do it’ request after a period of time even if they weren’t expecting to be asked to do something.”

A few of the dogs with whom I lived acted like "know-it-alls": Dogs remember yesterday and much more

This new research reminded me that many of the dogs with whom I lived acted like "know-it-alls." They seemed to have a sense of knowing what I was going to do or what I wanted them to do, although I'd never explicitly taught them to make these associations. I felt the same about some of the wild coyotes I studied for years. They just seemed to know what others were thinking, feeling, and wanted them to do. I'm sure the dogs and coyotes (and many other animals) had some sort of "theory of mind." (See "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow.")

As I read through this new research paper I remembered an essay I wrote last year called "Dogs Don't Remember Yesterday, Claims Psychologist," about the seemingly ludicrous claim that "dogs don't remember what happened yesterday and don't plan for tomorrow." The author claimed that dogs are stuck in an "eternal present." 

In my essay I wrote, "There are many examples of dogs and other animals 'remembering yesterday.' Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused and who suffer from severe fear or depression for years on end, and also, for example, think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned in various sorts of learning experiments, and dogs who remember where they're fed and where they've cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on."

I also wrote, "From an evolutionary point of view it would be somewhat odd and exceptional if mammals such as dogs and many other animals didn't remember yesterday and plan accordingly." Along these lines, the authors of the present study write, "This is the first evidence of episodic-like memory of others’ actions in a non-human species, and it is the first report of this type of memory in dogs. We suggest that dogs might provide a new non-human animal model to study the complexity of incidental encoding of context-rich events, especially because of their evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups."

This is a very exciting time for the comparative study of animal minds

I'm very pleased to share the results of the present study with you. Yes, many of us already "knew" from "citizen science" that dogs often know more than we give them credit for, but it's also nice to know that science backs us up. I've learned an incredible amount from people writing to me and talking with me about their dogs, and I've often noted that when the serious science is done, results rarely conflict with what many others already knew.

This is a very exciting time for the comparative study of animal minds, a branch of science called cognitive ethology. Please stay tuned for more on the fascinating and "surprising" cognitive lives of dogs and other animals. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs Smell Passage of Time
Their noses take them to the past

Dogs tend to live in the moment, accepting each treat, snuggle, or toss of the tennis ball as the whole reason for their existence with a charming singlemindedness. Yet, their understanding of time can be complex. Many dogs are able to anticipate predictable events accurately, which is why they leap on the couch to look out the window when the kids are just about to come home from school or adults are nearly home from work. Even more dogs appear to know, from their own stomach’s rumblings, that the dinner hour fast approaches. And according to researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz, “Dogs smell time.”

What does it mean to smell time? Horowitz writes in her new book “Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell”, that their powerful noses allow them to perceive the passage of time. This is not mystical or other worldly. It’s just that dogs can understand much about the past because of the extreme sensitivity of their noses.

Odors change over time, sometimes predictably. When you leave the house to go to work each day, the smell of you in the house decreases with each hour of your absence, and your dog can detect the difference. Perhaps your dog has learned through repetition that when the smell of you has weakened to a specific degree, you come home. In other words, the strength of your odor predicts the time of your return.

This degree of scent discrimination is not hard for most dogs. Many dogs can, for example, tell which way to follow a scent trail by heading from where it is weakest (oldest) to where it is strongest (most recent) when the difference is miniscule. Stronger odors are often newer and weaker ones are older. That means that when dogs smell weak odors, they are perceiving events of the past. Because dogs can detect both new and old odors, they are perceiving events and substances across intervals of time.

Each day, even in the same place, smells help dogs understand the passage of time. As air heats up over the course of the day, air currents change and move around in space, taking the molecules responsible for odors with them. Dogs, with their sensitive noses and large olfactory lobes are able to sense the movement and presence of chemicals people barely sense if at all.

Though we humans may detect daily patterns in light or even sound, our ability to smell clues about the passage of time, is barely worth a mention. Yet, dogs detect odors that reveal past happenings to them in complex ways we are only beginning to understand.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Adolescent Dogs Go Through Fear Periods
A natural developmental stage in dogs.
dog on computer

I was walking Rosie, a happy, well-socialized 9-month old Chocolate Lab through my neighborhood when she uncharacteristically barked and stiffened. I could tell that something had spooked her even before I looked up to see a man with a big hat and huge sunglasses working on his mountain bike in his front yard. Luckily, he was unfazed by her reaction, and even more luckily, he was dog savvy and kind. He immediately removed his hat and glasses, knelt down and said to Rosie, “Hey, there, I’m not really that scary am I?” in a calm, cheerful voice. She responded by wagging enthusiastically from the shoulders back and greeting him in her usual, friendly way.

It was the second time in two days that Rosie had been startled by someone who previously would not have bothered her, so I knew that she was entering a new developmental period that is common as puppies approach a year of age. Many young dogs become more fearful of new people and new things than they were as puppies. My mentor, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. half-jokingly called it “Juvenile Onset Shyness” because so many sociable dogs become a little nervous as they emerge from puppyhood and enter adolescence.

If your adolescent dog suddenly seems a little skittish, but has previously been more confident, it is likely that your dog is just entering a normal developmental period during which new things (and even not-so-new things) seem scary even though they didn’t used to. It’s so useful for guardians to know that this stage is temporary and that it is completely normal. Within a few months, your dog is likely to be just as social and happy about whatever the world brings his way as he was when he was a puppy. (If your puppy always found the world to be a scary place, he will most likely continue to be cautious or fearful as an adult, but he may be even more so in adolescence.)

Most dogs move past this stage without any special care on the part of guardians. However, your behavior can make a difference in how this period affects them, and there are ways to help your dog as he is going through it. When your dog is spooked by something, follow these general guidelines.

  • Talk in a relaxed, cheerful way to him, perhaps saying, “Yes, that’s a really loud truck, isn’t it? Oh, look, there it goes down the road.” Obviously, your dog won’t know what you are saying, but your normal conversational tone of voice can help your dog calm down.
  • If your dog wants to be near you, feel free to pet him or play with him. You want him to come to you when he needs to feel more secure. There is no need to worry that you are reinforcing his fears. You are just providing comfort, as you should.
  • Don’t panic or react dramatically. If he is out of control, it is all the more critical that you stay relaxed. Try to control your own startle response to his barking or lunging if possible.
  • Don’t force him to approach something that he fears. That will just make him more scared, and that is counterproductive. If he wants to get away, that is fine. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is minimize his exposure to something overwhelming, even if that means turning and heading the other way. Don’t make a big deal of stopping suddenly, saying, “Oh, no!” and hightailing it out of there. Just calmly turn and move away from what scares him so that he doesn’t get any more worked up. If he can count on you to get him out of situations that scare him, that is good for his confidence and builds his trust in you.
  • Whenever you can, pair up what makes him nervous with what he loves. So, if he suddenly widens his eyes and looks nervous when he sees a new person, try to have as many new people as you can toss him a great treat when they are far enough away that he is okay with them. If the garbage truck sets him off, give him a treat or pull out a tug toy every time one goes by. The more you can teach him that things that spook him predict good things, the easier it will be for him to overcome his adolescent fears.

I immediately came home from the walk during which Rosie was unnerved by a man in sunglasses and hats and worked on associating both items with treats. Several times, I put on my sunglasses and gave her a treat, and did the same thing with hats. I want her to have good associations with those items, which make many dogs nervous. I also asked several men in my neighborhood to give her treats and to play fetch with her.

How have you handled dogs while they were experiencing “Juvenile Onset Shyness”?

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