News: Guest Posts
EEG study suggests sleep enhances learning
A Harvard Medical School professor recently rocked the Internet: “Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it’s likely your dog is dreaming of your face, your smell and of pleasing or annoying you,” psychologist Deirdre Barrett told People magazine.
And then hearts everywhere exploded.
Barrett’s sleep research focuses on humans, while an interest in evolutionary psychology helps her consider the sleep of non-human mammals. Both have similar sleep cycles, she notes, which could suggest parallels in sleep quality or experience.
But an open access study in Scientific Reports out recently moves away from extrapolation and toward hard data. Researchers in Hungary have devised a way to non-invasively peer into the sleeping dog’s brain to explore the content and function of their sleep.
Sleep in dogs is good for a number of things, including, but not limited to cuteness, cuteness, and more cuteness. But you’ve also probably heard that sleep is good for memory. Before a big test we’re often told, “Get a good night’s rest,” which is actually shorthand for—give memory consolidation a chance. “Memory consolidation” is the process where your brain pulls together pieces of information and packages them into memories that can be used in the future.
Memory is also important for dogs. Working dogs need to learn—and retain—a wide variety of job-specific skills, and companion dogs often learn basic skills to successfully live alongside humans. When a dog learns something new, can sleep help the dog perform those skills better? Should training sessions incorporate naptime?
Anna Kis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and colleagues—including members of the well-known Family Dog Project—set out to explore the relationship between sleep and memory in companion dogs. Their study involved two experiments: the first gave dogs a learning task and then peered into their sleep via non-invasive electroencephalogram (EEG)—a test that detects brain electrical activity using small electrodes attached to the scalp. The second experiment explored whether different type of post-learning activities (such as sleep) affect memory consolidation, both in the short- and long-term. All experiments were performed with consenting companion dogs and their helpful owners.
First up, the sleep study, also known as polysomnography if you want to be fancy about it. Fifteen companion dogs participated in both a learning and a non-learning condition. The experimenters taught the dogs the commands for “sit” and “lie down” in a foreign language (English). As you’d expect, no learning took place in the non-learning condition—dogs simply practiced the “sit” and “lie down” commands that they already knew in Hungarian. Nothing new. Old hat. (Most dogs don’t wear hats. Old collar?)
For the critical phase of the experiment, dogs went to sleep (gosh I love science). Dog snoozing-related brain activity was then monitored over the next three hours. Afterwards, dogs in the learning condition were retested on “sit” and “lie down” in English to determine whether sleep helped the dogs process what they had learned.
Recording setup. Credit: Anna Kis
Not only did the sleep affect dogs’ learning, the learning affected dogs’ sleep. Dogs did better responding to “sit” and “lie down” in English after taking a snooze. But even before the dogs in the learning condition were retested, two notable wave patterns stood out in the EEG spectrum in the non-REM phase (the dreamless part of sleep). There was an increase of delta power, similar to what is found in humans, and a decrease in alpha activity, which could suggest “an increase in sleep depth after learning.”
These two findings are related. Dogs learned a task, which alters their brain activity during sleep, then they performed better on the task. “This suggests that the newly acquired information is re-processed and consolidated during sleep,” Kis explained over email. More specifically, the correlation between the post-sleep improvement in performance and certain EEG patterns “is the strongest indicator that the changes in sleep EEG we see after learning are functionally related to memory consolidation,” added Kis.
Neat. Taking a snooze can improve subsequent performance (at least for this type of command learning task). But how do we make things stick? Is sleep more or less effective than other strategies for retaining information? A second behavioral experiment investigated the effect of different post-learning activities (including sleep) on subsequent memory.
Fifty-three new companion dogs learned “sit” and “lie down” to new words (again, English). Dogs were then put in one of four different post-learning groups, spending the next hour either sleeping, walking, learning more (learning new behaviors via the luring training method), or eating from and playing with a Kong dog toy. When the hour was up, dogs were retested on the English commands they’d just learned.*
The type of post-learning activity seemed to affect dog performance in the short term, but not exactly as the researchers had expected. In the short term, both sleeping and walking improved subsequent performance, while more learning and Kong play did not.
On the other hand, when dogs came back a week later, presumably after many sleeps, dogs in the sleep, walk, and Kong play conditions showed marked improvement with the English commands. Dogs who had done more learning did not improve.
Values >0 indicate a performance improvement at the given occasion, while values <0 indicate a decreased performance. Figure 3 Credit: Kis et al. 2017
Dog lovers often think about learning and obedience in terms of dogs doing it “right” or “wrong.” Factors surrounding learning, this study reminds, can affect memory consolidation and later performance.
Kis recommends: “Learning a new command should be followed by an activity that does not interfere with this new memory trace (e.g. sleeping, walking, playing–but not learning other things) in order to achieve the highest subsequent performance in the long run.”
At the same time, Kis noted that dogs in the sleeping condition might have performed even better if the nap extended beyond an hour (possibly for memory consolidation to fully take place), or if, after waking up, the dogs had a few more minutes to shake off their sleepiness before performing the tasks again. Human-sleep scientists refer to this latter phenomenon of decreased cognitive performance in the few minutes after waking up as “sleep inertia.” Don’t pretend you’ve never woken up, walked to the bathroom, and tried to brush your teeth with your comb. Since no sleep inertia interval has been established for dogs, Kis says, they can’t rule out the possibility that the dogs were still sleep zombies when they were retested.
Non-invasive studies of dogs and sleep are new. We haven’t yet studied whether your dog is dreaming of your face or your glorious smell, but if you care about learning in dogs, this study suggests you give sleep a chance.
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* Maybe you’re wondering why there wasn’t a condition after learning where dogs simply rested—rather than slept—and then had their memory tested. This ‘resting’ awake condition is typically found in human memory consolidation studies because it’s the closest match to the ‘sleep’ condition. But this condition was not included for dogs, the researchers explain, “as preventing dogs from falling asleep while requested to stay in a laying position for one hour would presumably induce stress in the animals. Stress is known to have an impact on memory, and also raises animal welfare issues, thus we decided to avoid such a condition.”
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
News: Guest Posts
Dog's name and age: Izzy, 6 years old Izzy is extremely sweet and in touch with your mood often comforting when you're sick/hurt. It took years for her to get over loud noises and to trust. It's comforting, knowing that she has trust with us and we count on her as much as her with us. Her silliness is evident and her smile makes everyone smile. Favorites: Izzy loves running in the field, swimming in the pond, riding in the car, or anything her people are doing.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Removing them makes play safer
It was one of the worst moments of my professional career. During a supervised play session in a group class, the buckles on two dogs’ collars got stuck together. Being attached at the neck caused both of these sweet social dogs to freak out. (That’s a better description than any technical term.) It’s hard to say what they thought was happening, but both of them were receiving a lot of pressure on the neck and the more they struggled, the more panicky they got. Neither was choking, but it was not a safe situation. After a quick attempt to release both collars while several guardians tried to steady the dogs, I ran to the supply closet to grab a pair of blunt-edged scissors, and ran back to the dogs to cut off one of the dog’s collars.
The dogs were safe, and we could then attend to their emotional condition, which wasn’t great. One was whining and the other was shaking. Luckily, neither dog appeared to hold a grudge against the other, and they remained friends. I did encourage the guardians to take their dogs to their veterinarians to make sure that they did not have any injuries requiring medical care. (The dogs were a little bruised but fortunately neither of them suffered any serious damage.)
Why did we have blunt-edged scissors in our supply cabinet? Because one of our trainers had once had a similar situation that was even worse than the one I faced. If a person in that class had not had a Swiss Army Knife and used it to free the dogs, it could have been disastrous. After that, we were always prepared for such worst-case scenarios, and it is now my preference to remove all collars before playtime.
Collars are helpful to dogs in many ways, but also pose dangers. On the up side, collars hold tags that have been responsible for the safe return of countless dogs. They allow people a way to prevent a dog from running into the street or getting into less serious but still dangerous trouble—with a leash or as something to hold onto directly in a pinch. They are stylish, in the opinion of many.
On the down side, they are attached around a dog’s neck and therefore pose a danger. Dogs have been injured, even fatally, when collars have caught in things as random as heating vents, fences, crates, branches and other collars. The most common accident that I have heard about involves another dog’s lower jaw getting stuck in the collar during play and causing strangulation.
I prefer to see dogs play without collars because I know that serious collar accidents can happen. If dogs with collars must play together, I advise having something sharp on hand to cut the collars, such as a pair of blunt-edges scissors. (Pocket knives can also be used, but they are more likely to cause an injury during the attempt to help the dogs.) I don’t like metal collars because of the various risks they pose, and they are especially problematic in the case of an accident during play because they can’t be cut off.
Playing without collars is safer because of the risk of collar accidents, but breakaway (also called quick release) collars are also an option. They have a safety buckle that releases when significant pressure is applied to them. The safety buckle has a D-ring on either side of it so the breakaway section can be bypassed for leash walks by attaching a leash to both D-rings.
Have you ever witnessed an accident involving collars when dogs were playing?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Research about dogs should account for that
The scientific interest in studying canine cognition has led to the development of a slew of test protocols—some uniquely designed for dogs and others modified from the field of comparative psychology. Many of them employ visual tasks to test dogs’ capabilities. In order to succeed with touch screens, at discriminating fine details in tests of their abilities to follow gazes or gestures, to understand object permanence, to identify faces or facial expressions, their visual perception is part of the equation. However, most of the studies are designed based on human, rather than canine, visual perception.
Canine vision differs from humans in a number of ways. Their ability to perceive a range of color hues is not as good as people’s ability, nor is their ability to distinguish levels of brightness or their visual acuity. Dogs are sensitive to higher flicker rates than people are, which can affect any studies that use moving items on computers or on televisions. There is evidence that dog vision is even more sensitive to movement than human vision.
Since visual perception abilities are not consistently accounted for in many studies with dogs, it is hard to know whether the test protocols are accurately assessing canine cognition. The results may be affected by visual capabilities instead. Researchers recently tested the hypothesis that visual perceptual differences between dogs and people could affect the performance in visually-based tasks using a free online tool (http://dog-vision.com) that converts images to settings that match what humans or dogs can see best. They report their results in the study “Do you see what I see? The difference between dog and human visual perception may affect the outcome of experiments”.
The test subjects in the study were humans, and they were asked to decide which side was indicated by a person in a series of photos. The photos showed a woman indicating a direction (right or left) by either pointing that way with her arm extended, by turning her head or by moving the gaze of her eyes in that direction without moving her head. People were tested with photos in their original form (set for human vision) and in a form altered for canine vision.
Participants in the study could correctly choose the direction of all three sorts of cues in the unaltered (human vision setting) photos. In the photos that were altered to the dog-vision setting, they could identify the cues in the pointing with extended arm and with the head turn quite well. However, their performance dropped considerably when asked the direction indicated by the gaze of the woman’s eyes in the dog-vision setting.
The results of this study suggest that differing visual capabilities may affect performance in visual tasks. The researchers acknowledge that this study only shows that human performance is influenced when visual tasks are designed for the other species, but it is likely that dogs are similarly affected. Though many experiments that do not account for vision differences between dogs and humans have still revealed intriguing canine capabilities, future research could benefit from doing so. It is likely that researchers could increase the number of unambiguous results and also eliminate the hassle of a large drop-out rate of subjects who do not meet preliminary criteria for inclusion in the study. Potentially challenging visual presentations are a problem in canine studies, and avoiding them will help scientists conduct better research.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Sex differences in people’s affiliative behavior
Investigating sex differences in the role of stress and hormones on affiliative behavior by people was the goal of a recent study. For anyone interested in the influence of hormones on behavior, the results are exciting, but it’s the dog angle that’s most noteworthy to me.
The study measured people’s affiliative behavior towards their dogs after victory or defeat in an agility competition. (A qualifying score of 85 or better was considered a victory. Scores below 85 were classified as defeats.) It’s gratifying that the researchers recognized the truly competitive nature of canine agility and its usefulness for studying reactions to victory and defeat. The main finding was that men and women exhibit different patterns of affiliative behavior based on whether they experienced success or failure, but they did not show different amounts of affiliative behavior overall.
One specific finding was that after defeat, women were more affiliative towards their dogs, but that men showed the reverse pattern—more affiliative behavior after victory. Additionally, the higher their cortisol levels (associated with defeat), the more affiliative behavior the women showed, but men responded to higher cortisol levels with lower levels of affiliative behavior. Their conclusion is that affiliative behavior is a sign of shared celebration for men, but of shared consolation for women. (It’s not clear how this impacts people’s relationships with their dogs as that was beyond the scope of this study, but I would LOVE to see further research that explores that question.)
Since the paper is written mainly for scientists concerned with the role of social stressors and hormones on affiliative behavior rather than for people interested in dogs, they had to explain what agility is and make the case that it is truly competitive. They wrote, “As a rule, contestants take these competitions very seriously,”—an obvious understatement.
With their choice to study human affiliative behavior in the context of agility, the authors demonstrated the ever- increasing recognition of the importance of dogs in people’s lives.
News: Guest Posts
Dog's name and age: Mojo, 2 years old
In February 2016, we said goodbye to a great dog. Uncomfortably dogless for the first time in my life, we started thinking about another dog.
We decided we'd like to get a small, older dog who was calm and quiet. And then I met Mojo! Sixty pounds and only a year old. She was being fostered by a friend who suggested we take her home for the weekend to try her on for size. Needless to say, she never returned to foster care. Within days I had slapped a “Pit Bull Mom” sticker on my car and the rest is history.
Mojo is up for anything whether a country strolls or city walks. Want to head to a dog park or chill on the couch? She's there. She has a fearless and joyful enthusiasm for life that is quite contagious.
National Dog Day is upon us, not exactly sure what that means but if gives us an excuse to celebrate our love for our dogs, it’s a good thing. You know what your dog likes best, right? So just do more of that, but here’s some of our ideas too:
Hugs and Kisses. A long leisurely petting session and deep body massage with stretching exercises. You can also sneak in a quick body scan looking to see that everything is in order, don’t forget to peak inside their ears and check between their toes.
Treats. Stuffing an extra special Kong—perhaps using liver, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter—freeze it and then serve it up. Prep some frozen yogurt cubes, add blueberries, bananas, strawberries, or use chicken broth or other delicious cool licks.
Walks and Hiking. A nice long back-to-nature walk, letting your dog do what they do best, sniff around and discover a fresh scent.
Engagement. Every dog loves learning especially with you, so today teach them a new trick, or practice an old one. Our three dogs each have different talents: one loves to crawl, one prefers to jump up onto rocks, one likes to leap over just about anything. They all love hide-and-seek or finding little pieces of pasta hidden around the house.
Dining Delights. Top off their meals, there’s so many ways to “beef” up a kibble-based diet. Great time to think of trying your hand at making dog meals (but remember to start off gradually, just adding a little to your dog’s usual food).
Let us know what you are planning to do with your dog to celebrate National Dog Day.
News: Guest Posts
It took dog sitting to really get to know her
I thought I knew Harlow, a young Boxer mix, long before she came to spend the week with us. I had worked with her guardian in over a dozen training sessions, and she had visited our home multiple times so she would be familiar with my house and family. (I always recommend a few visits ahead of time so that dogs are more comfortable when they stay with me.)
From my previous experience with Harlow, I anticipated an enjoyable week while her guardian was out of town. She has always been fun to train, responsive, affiliative and friendly. I thought that I knew her quite well, which is why it caught me a little off guard to learn just how incredibly nice she is.
When I say that a dog is “nice”, it is the highest praise I can offer. I’m not using the term as something vaguely positive in lieu of anything more specific to offer as a compliment. I believe that a truly nice dog is a wonder of the universe, and that such angels are not at the end of every leash. All dogs have their fine qualities, each a little different, but there’s a special place in my heart for dogs who are remarkably nice.
Harlow is such a dog, and it’s odd to me that I didn’t realize it in the many months I worked with her. During our training sessions, I came to like her very much and have always considered her a great dog. Yet, it took living together this week to really understand the depth of her sweetness, which showed itself in a number of little ways. When we entered the house from the yard and arrived simultaneously at the back door, she paused as if to say, “Please, after you.” This is not because she has specifically been trained to do this or because she is particularly deferential. It’s a result of being naturally kind. She’s friendly with all of our guests and welcomes attention from anyone, yet she’s not pushy about it. She takes treats gently no matter how excited she is about them.
Harlow walks and runs beautifully on leash, and though a large part of that is due to the training efforts of her guardian, there’s more to it than that. When we run by a spot on the sidewalk that has plants growing over it, she navigates the narrow part carefully so we can both easily fit through. She looks back as we go through and slows down, apparently aware that the length of the leash requires special care when we must go single file. There’s simply a pleasant agreeableness about her that is hard to explain, but easy to appreciate.
Obviously, I adore this dog, but please don’t think I’m seeing her through rose-colored glasses—I’m not. Delightful as she is, she’s not perfect. Like all dogs, she has her good qualities and her not-so-good ones. She is not above throwing herself the occasional trash party, and she even had one such festivity at our house. I don’t consider that a blot on her character—or on any dog’s character for that matter—but it’s not a plus. The enthusiasm with which she barks out the window at any potential dog buddy is loud enough to be objectionable. (Since she can be called away from the window, the ruckus is brief, but it’s pretty exciting while it lasts.) Her drinking habits are so sloppy that I can only watch in wonder and amusement as she dribbles around the bowl and across the floor.
Most dogs are nice (that’s why we love them so!) but Harlow is especially so. Dogs can learn to have better manners and trained to perform certain behaviors, but being genuinely nice is an intrinsic quality that can’t be taught.
I’m not sure why, but it took living with Harlow for me to see how nice she is. Have you ever hosted a dog you thought you knew, and only then really gotten to know her?
Monday is the big solar eclipse day. If you are wondering if you need to do anything special to protect your dog’s eyes, luckily most experts say there is little need to worry.
“On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun, and therefore don’t damage their eyes. And on this day, they’re not going to do it, either,” Angela Speck, director of astronomy and a professor of astrophysics at the University of Missouri, said at a news conference with NASA on June 21 in Washington, D.C.
Pet safety expert, Melanie Monteiro also agrees. She teaches online pet first-aid classes and is the author of “The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out,” and she says animals shouldn’t need the same eye protection.
“There’s really no reason to be concerned about that,” she told TODAY. “Dogs and cats don’t normally look up into the sun, so you don’t need to get any special eye protection for your pets.”
But if you are taking your dog out while watching the eclipse, Monteiro said putting them on a leash is important. And make sure if you are looking up at the eclipse (with special eclipse glasses, of course), make sure your dog doesn’t take your cue if you get overly excited and “look” at what is making you freak out.
"Animals are actually quite a bit smarter than we are when it comes to looking directly at the sun," says Michelle Thaller, deputy director of science for communications at NASA, which is including the Life Responds project as part of its citizen science outreach in conjunction with the eclipse.
Some of said though that dogs might appear upset or frightened, and perhaps howl, run away, seek cover—similar reactions associated with fireworks.
Vox, has a great piece on everything to know about eclipses, and posed that question to Bill Kramer, from eclipse-chasers.com, he told them that:
“Some dogs bark at the eclipse,” he says. “Some dogs detect the emotion of the moment, or anxiety beforehand, and react accordingly. Never heard of one reacting like some do to fireworks or gunshots. The eclipse is a silent thing, except for the ambient sounds and cheers. ... Cats, on the other hand, are cats.”
Best bet is to keep your dogs inside, but let us know if you catch your dog doing anything out of the ordinary.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s a skill cat lovers bring to the table
It sounds trivial to say it, but dogs and cats are very different animals. The experience of living with individuals of these two species is not the same in many ways. I know I am generalizing here and ignoring the many exceptions, but the typical cat is more independent that the typical dog, and usually more aloof. (Again, I know there are dogs who lean towards the standoff-ish, and cats who are clingy and constantly affectionate, but that’s not the most common way for members of those species to be. Think of it this way—it remains true that men are generally taller than women even though there are certainly individual women who are taller than individual men.)
My point here, and I’m sure you’re glad I’m getting to it, is that if someone has experience with cats, they may acquire perspectives and skills that are different from those acquired by people who spend all of their time with dogs. (It should go without saying that I have no problem with anyone spending all of their time with dogs!) Those skills and perspectives can be very useful with certain dogs, though I’m not necessarily referring to dogs who are more cat-like in any way.
The dogs who benefit most from the knowledge of cat-savvy people are those who are shy, fearful or nervous. People who know cats well are completely on board with the fact that you can’t push or force a cat to be social with you. (It’s unwise to push or force a dog, either, by the way, but many dogs are easier to convince to engage with us than cats are.)
With cats, it is always wise to take it slow, let them come to you and ignore them until they show an interest in you. That is also true of fearful dogs, but many people who come into contact with a dog who is afraid try to cajole the dog into approaching, or try to lure the dog with toys or treats. People with cat experience are far less likely to try to take shortcuts like this, to the benefit of the dog in question. Cat-savvy people are used to the idea that you have to accept the animal on his own terms and to be patient. To be fair, many dog lovers also know this really well, but I find that it is almost universal among people who have spent a significant amount of time with their feline friends.
I was recently reminded of the wonderful way that many cat lovers have with shy, nervous or fearful dogs when my friend Betsy came over while I was watching a dog of that description. I told her that the dog was very sweet, though easily scared by new people, and that the best thing to do was to toss her some treats and then ignore her. Betsy did exactly that, and within minutes, I took this picture of a very happy dog (the lean one on the left with a tail wagging fast enough to look blurry) enjoying her new human friend. Throughout their initial interaction, Betsy always let the dog control the pace of their progress. She never pushed too hard to pet the dog or encouraged the dog to approach. She just waited and let the dog do what felt comfortable.
Do you have cat experience that has helped you in your interactions with dogs?
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