Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Study finds that many pups prefer praise over treats.
A recent study out of Emory University found that many dogs prefer praise over treats. It all began when neuroscientist Gregory Berns was interested in what dogs "really care about." He wondered if it was all about food, or if social rewards were potentially more valuable.
15 dogs, trained to lie still for 30 minutes in an MRI, went through three experiments. The first looked at brain activity when presented with different objects--a hairbrush, a toy car, and a toy horse--paired with a hot dog, praise, or nothing. For 13 of the 15 dogs, their brains were stimulated by the praise just as much, if not more than, the food.
In the second test, Gregory wanted to replicate the first experiment, but this time a subset wouldn't get praised. The researchers found that the dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment seemed to be more disappointed than the other pups when they didn't get it this time around.
The third experiment took place outside of the MRI, in a maze where the pups had to choose between finding a bowl of food and getting praise from their owner. Researchers found that the outcomes of the first two tests were a strong predictor of the dogs' choice. The 13 dogs whose brains were stimulated by the praise, chose to head straight to their person instead of to the treats.
Gregory believes that the research shows dogs are primarily motivated by praise, which could have a great impact on training strategy. He also thinks that these findings can help identify which idividuals might be most successful as service dogs.
“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” Gregory notes in the study, “while a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”
As for our own pets, I think this study reinforces how social we know dogs to be. However, I'm not completely sure all of my dogs would pick me over a tasty treat!
Wellness: Healthy Living
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.
Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.
I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.
Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl
You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.
Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl
My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.
If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A university looks at animal-assisted therapy's effect on homesickness and retention.
When I first went away to college, I remember how homesick I felt, especially since I had to leave my pets behind. One of my first good friendships began over a conversation about our guinea pigs. Not only do animals have the ability to make us feel better, but they can also help bring people together.
New research from the University of British Columbia shows that animal-assisted therapy can help students combat homesickness and could have a positive effect on retention. The transition from high school to university can be challenging, and students who are homesick are more likely to drop out.
In the study, 44 first-year university students who self-identified as homesick were given a survey to measure levels of homesickness, satisfaction with life, and connectedness with campus. Half of the students completed eight weeks of pet therapy, while the other half were informed that their sessions would begin in eight weeks. The therapy included 45-minute weekly small group interactions with the dogs, their handlers, and the other participating students. Following the eight weeks, participants in both the treatment group and the non-treatment group completed the survey again.
Participants who completed the eight week program experienced significant reductions in homesickness and a greater increase in satisfaction with life. One student reported that the sessions "felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies." The non-treatment group reported an increase in their feelings of homesickness.
According to Professor John Tyler Binfet., homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university.
UBC student Varenka Kim says that moving to a new city to attend university caused her to feel very homesick and depressed. "I was mainly secluded in my dorm and didn't feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life."
Have time with the puppies is certainly beneficial, but more importantly these sessions gave participants a way to meet and interact with each other, forming lasting relationships that went beyond the therapy program.
Dog's Life: Humane
Transporting shelter animals to northern California, Oregon and Washington
Since its inaugural journey on Valentine’s Day of 2015, Rescue Express has been the ticket to a guaranteed future for more than 5500 animals who were once at risk of euthanasia. Headquartered in Eugene, Oregon, Rescue Express picks up dogs and cats from shelters located mostly in high-volume shelters in Southern and Central California and delivers them to underpopulated shelters in the Pacific Northwest. Twice monthly, the former school busses — now outfitted to provide and comfortable animal transport — have been traveling a well-worn route along Interstate 5.
Then, tragedy struck the Gulf Coast. So in early September, the organization expanded its outreach to include animal victims of the recent flooding in Louisiana. With local shelters unable to accommodate the influx of displaced pets, several national and local organizations worked in concert to help bring dogs and cats — those for whom owners could not be located — to safety around the U.S. The Rescue Express bus picked up 55 of those pups who had been transported to Salt Lake City. From there, they headed farther west to “receiver shelters” in Oregon and Washington where they can be adopted into loving homes.
For now, transport needs are still great along the I-5 corridor. But plans for the group’s future include initiatives like providing low-cost spay/neuter services and working with local lawmakers to improve animal welfare regulations. Want to help? Get on board and make a donation to — or read more about — Rescue Express.
News: Guest Posts
They top her list of family members
I want to be with family, “Annie, Max, and you know, the rest of our family . . . “ So said Rita, my 84-year old neighbor and very dear friend, a few days before passing away a few weeks ago. All of us who understood Rita were entertained by the order in which she named her most precious loved ones. Annie is her dog and Max is her daughter and son-in-law’s dog.
Since so many human members of Rita’s family are dog lovers, they took no offense at how important the dogs were to her. The feeling was mutual, too. During her final days in hospice care at her daughter and son-in-law’s house, Annie and Max watched over her. They only left her bed for bathroom breaks and meals. Both dogs snuggled with her and slept next to her, offering the comfort of their company in her final days.
It’s impossible to say, of course, whether or not the dogs knew that she was dying. We can only speculate, and it’s certainly a possibility. What is clear is that they loved her and wanted to be with her. It’s also obvious that these dogs were giving her an immeasurable gift of love, and that their loving attention to Rita gave the rest of her family a sense of peace, too. The contentment she experienced because of the constant company of dogs as she declined and died was a blessing to them, too.
Have you observed dogs unwilling to leave the death bed of a loved one?
Wellness: Healthy Living
Researchers try to better understand the condition nicknamed swimmers tail.
From time to time I hear about friends' dogs who have developed “swimmers tail,” a condition many believe is caused by spending too much time playing in the water. Limber tail as professionals call it, mostly affects larger working dog breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, and results in the tail becoming limp and painful.
A team at the University of Edinburgh wanted to study cases of limber tail in order to understand the habits and lifestyles that might explain why some dogs are affected and others are not. The researchers confirmed that the condition is more likely to show up in working dogs. But not all of the affected dogs had been swimming prior to the onset of symptoms. They did find that dogs with limber tail were more likely to live in northern areas, lending support to anecdotal reports that the condition is associated with exposure to the cold.
Interestingly, Labradors that suffered limber tail were more likely to be related to each other than unaffected dogs, which may indicate an underlying genetic risk.
This was the first large scale study of limber tail. Researchers hope that further studies will look to identify genes associated with the condition, which could help breeders identify animals that are likely to be affected. Overtime, this could help reduce the disease prevalence.
Thankfully limber tail isn't a life threatening condition, but this often causes it to be overlooked and underestimated. Limber tail isn't always reported to veterinarians since symptoms usually resolve themselves within a few days or weeks. However, it's thought to be very painful and distressing for affected pups, so more research is certainly welcome in this area.
Has one of your pups ever been affected by limber tail?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s worth it, but taking care of dogs is hard
It’s fun to share our lives with dogs—most of the time. Sometimes, though, having a dog feels like work, and not just when there is a real crisis such as a dog suffering from a major illness or injury. The regular daily trials and tribulations of dog guardianship require plenty of opportunities for sacrifice and hard effort.
All people find challenges in different aspects of living with and caring for a dog. For me, it’s the pressure to get home to them. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly want to get home to dogs, but the feeling that I have to get home by a certain time can be stressful. Many of us live with a bit of a canine-imposed curfew. There have been many times when I have wanted to run an errand or meet a friend for even a brief time immediately after work, but I need to head home first to let dogs out, give them exercise and feed them. I don’t like the way going home to dogs can feel like an imposition on my freedom. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal. It’s just that from time to time, it feels like a drag to do what I know is right for dogs when that doesn’t serve my immediate desires.
There are a lot of people whose big struggle is dealing with all the dog hair. Many of us may feel like no outfit is complete without dog hair. However, fewer of us believe that no home decorating scheme is complete without massive quantities of fur everywhere. Some dogs shed constantly and in large quantities, but even dogs who only donate their fur sparingly can put a strain on household cleanliness.
Perhaps the most common complaint about having a dog is picking up poop. Whether this involves picking it up in bags on walks or regular clean-ups of the yard, I hear a lot of complaints about this part of having a dog. I know of nobody, including, myself, who considers this chore associated with being a dog guardian to be anything but a big, unpleasant nuisance.
Having a dog is worth any and all of the trouble that comes with it, but that doesn’t mean every moment is pure joy. What aspect of having a dog feels the most like work to you?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Golden Retriever is rescued nine days after being trapped by an earthquake.
Two weeks ago, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake devastated parts of Italy, claiming almost 300 lives and leaving thousands without homes. A family in San Lorenzo a Flaviano managed to escape, but couldn't find their Golden Retriever, Romeo. When the earthquake struck, they were sleeping on the second floor of the house and Romeo was downstairs. The family searched for him all day, but assumed the worst after they couldn't locate him. No human survivors have been found since those that were rescued the first day.
Last Friday--nine days later--Romeo's family got quite the surprise. When they came back to their damaged home to retrieve belongings, rescuers heard Romeo barking from under the rubble.
Romeo was a trooper, keeping calm while firefighters worked to free him and then patiently waited while they checked him over. Amazingly Romero was unscathed. Rescuers believe he was saved from being crushed by structural beams above where he was found.
In addition to being saved, there have also been dogs helping with the rescue efforts, such as a Black Labrador named Leo who located an four-year old girl in Pescara del Tronto and a German Shepherd named Sarotti who helped find a ten-year old girl in Amatrice. Leo even got to shake paws with the Pope on Saturday in a meeting with rescue crews.
It's always nice to hear some of the positive stories amid tragedies like these.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The influence of each species’ feeding ecology
Humans tend to be risk-averse, which is often illustrated by our decision when offered either $100 or the opportunity for a 50-50 shot at receiving either $200 or nothing. In general, humans go for the sure thing. We are not, as a species, risk-prone, or we would gamble on the shot at getting the bigger payoff.
It turns out that a number of studies across a broad range of species have shown that how a species responds to risk is predictable based on their feeding ecology. Animals who depend on erratic, ephemeral food sources, such as meat that they hunt or fruits that are patchy and only ripe for a brief time, tend to be risk-prone. They are willing to gamble on the big payoff. Species that eat diverse types of food or food that is more reliably available, such as vegetation, are risk-averse.
Some of our primate relatives are like us, and some are the opposite. For example, bonobos and lemurs (who both eat a very diverse diet that is mainly vegetarian) are risk-averse like us, choosing a sure thing of lower value over a chance at something better. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys—both meat and patchy fruit eaters—are different, being risk-prone and choosing the option that may yield a big reward but could leave then empty-handed. This pattern has appeared in closely-related species birds, too, where those who eat insects are risk-prone, while species who eat seeds are risk-averse.
Scientists haven’t fully explored how widespread this pattern of feeding ecology predicting risk-taking behavior is, but wolves and dogs are an interesting test case. These two species diverged quite recently in an evolutionary sense, but their feeding ecologies differ greatly. Wolves are primarily hunters and dogs are mainly scavengers. Hunting has a high failure rate, but the rewards of a big kill are enormous. In contrast, the source of food for the vast majority of dogs worldwide is human refuse, which tends to be available far more regularly.
In a recent study called “Exploring Differences in Dogs’ and Wolves’ Preference for Risk in a Foraging Task” scientists investigated whether wolves and dogs conform to the pattern seen across so many other species. Based on their different feeding ecologies, they predicted that compared with each other, wolves would be risk-prone and dogs would be risk-averse. The study was done at Wolf Science Centre in Austria, using dogs and wolves who were raised and live at the facility and have had the same overall experiences there.
The subjects of the study were trained to choose either a bowl that contained a dry pellet of food or a bowl that had a fifty percent chance of containing a piece of meat and a fifty percent chance of holding a stone. After each choice, the subject was given the contents of the bowl. All the wolves and dogs in the study were subject to tests to confirm that they understood the choice they were making and also to confirm that they preferred the meat to the dry food pellet.
The researchers found that the pattern of risk-taking seen in other species also applied to wolves and dogs. As expected, wolves were more risk-prone than dogs. However, there is more to this study than that simple conclusion. Wolves learned the system faster than the dogs, and the researchers acknowledge that they may have understood it better than the dogs. Additionally, dogs’ preference for the meat versus dry food pellet was not as strong as it was for wolves. Therefore, the risk of losing out and getting nothing for the chance to get something only a little better than a food pellet may not have been worth it to dogs. There was greater variation among individual dogs in risk-taking strategy compared with wolves, who were more similar in their choices, so it’s possible that there are dogs who are risk-prone as well as dogs who are risk-averse. (Dogs made the risky choice from 38 to 76 percent of the time, while wolves took the risky option 70 to 95 percent of the time.)
Overall, despite the conclusions made from the data in this study, direct comparisons of the choices made by these two species may require further study. It would be very interesting to learn more about decisions to take risks by dogs and wolves in a study with more than seven of each species, though I realize possible subjects for a study such as this are limited. It would also be fascinating to know about the decisions foxes and coyotes would make if presented with the same choices. Comparative research that include dogs as one species among many allow us to learn a great deal about how their evolutionary history and ecology have affected their behavior. It’s one of many ways that we can deepen our understanding of the animals who share our homes and live in our hearts.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Leaving the air conditioner on isn't the magic solution for leaving pets in the car.
People leaving dogs (and kids) in hot cars has been a heated topic this summer. For those traveling, making the car a comfortable place for pets is a necessity. I've seen lots of solutions, from leaving the air conditioner on to using aluminum shade blankets to deflect the sun. There are also thermometers that monitor a car's temperature from your phone. With all of the media attention on pets in cars, some people that keep the air conditioning on have resorted to posting a sign on their car so well meaning animal lovers don't automatically smash their windows open.
But keeping temperatures cool isn't foolproof. Earlier in the summer an Indiana kennel had 14 dogs die after their truck's air conditioning set-up malfunctioned. And last month, in a more unusual chain of events that were thankfully less tragic, a woman in West Virginia learned that keeping your vehicle on can be problematic. She left her two pups in the car with the engine and air conditioning running while she ran an errand. Meanwhile, the dogs managed to crash the car into a Walmart store. It happened at a slow rate of speed so no people or pups were hurt, and there was minimal damage to the car and building.
It's probably best to leave your pups at home while you're running errands or eating at a restaurant, but for those who don't have a choice, make sure you have a solid plan for keeping your pets cool. And if you leave the engine on, remember to put your car in park!
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