Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
News: Guest Posts
Pups as a Work Perk
For dog lovers, being able to bring our pups to work is a huge perk. Most companies don't allow pets in the office, but that is slowly changing. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, seven percent of employers now allow pets to come to work—up from five percent five years ago.
Many companies see this as a way to help with retention and work-life balance at no extra cost. It's often people's favorite perk.
At North Carolina based Replacements Ltd, there are about 30 animals that join their 400 workers on a regular basis. Their policy is probably one of the most liberal—the office has even been visited by a duck, potbellied pig, and possum. Public Relations manager, Lisa Conklin, even hopes to bring in her horse, Azim, one day.
The pets have always been on their best behavior. Although on a number of occasions the human employees have broken the fine dining dishes that Replacements sells, no one can remember an animal ever being responsible for an incident before.
Bringing our pets to work is a fun perk, but it has tangible benefits as well.
In 2012, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Randolph Barker led research that measured levels of cortisol in workers' systems. His team found that people whose animals came to work saw a decrease in stress throughout the day, while those who didn't have a pet saw their cortisol increase. Randolph says that pet friendly companies typically report more coworker cooperation and interaction as well.
But there are some challenges with having a liberal pet policy. Not all animals like being in an office environment and it's up to the individual employee to make the best decision for their pet. There are also other considerations for organizations, such as allergies and finding a building that is pet friendly.
However, provided that a company can make it work logistically, the benefits seem immeasurable!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Important enough to be a featured story
I’ve been a dog trainer long enough (almost 20 years) to see a massive change in the perception of the field. It used to be considered more a hobby than a job, even though many of us were already making a living doing it full time. I remember someone once telling me that it was “almost as though you have a real career”. Now, dog training is recognized as serious business and as a valuable contribution to society. In fact, it’s so legit that the CIA discussed its top 10 dog training tips in a featured article alongside articles such as “The Korean War Controversy: An Intelligence Success or Failure?” and “The Spymaster’s Toolkit”.
What’s even more exciting to me than seeing how seriously the CIA takes its dog training is realizing that the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips are absolutely spot on. The first tip is “Make it fun” and the last one is “Always end on a positive”. Everything in between is just as likely to make your typical dog trainer nod, smile or click. Dogs who work for the CIA begin their training as part of civilian training programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or programs in which inmates in jail train puppies in basic skills.
Dogs in the CIA aim to do what other members of this agency try to do—keep people safe—though their specific job is primarily sniffing out explosives. In addition to that detection work, dogs may be involved in apprehending suspects and educating the public. The K-9 program at the CIA emphasizes training as well as lots of exercise and plenty of time to play.
It was news to me that the CIA’s methods of developing great working dogs combine consistent and positive training with making sure the dogs have happy, balanced lives. Did you already know this?
News: Guest Posts
9/11 SAR Dogs honored with commemorative statue
The service dogs that responded to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks have not been forgotten. However, monuments to their service are few compared to those devoted to two legged responders. On Wednesday August 17, New Jersey officials gathered at the Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial in West Orange to do their part to change that. They dedicated a new commemorative statue honoring the Search and Rescue Dogs of 9/11.
The four-foot tall bronze dog sits atop a 12-inch slab of granite, and weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. It was designed by Oregon artist, Jay Warren and paid for by corporate donations. The West Orange 9/11 Memorial opened in 2002, almost exactly one year after the attacks. The park overlooks Manhattan across the water. Citizens once gathered there, helplessly witnessing the chaos at Ground Zero.
In September 2001, countless heroes emerged from obscurity to aid their country in its time of need. Men and women of law enforcement and fire rescue courageously faced the devastation alongside everyday citizens. The new West Orange monument stands as a reminder that not all 9/11 heroes were human.
Roughly 350 Search and Rescue Dogs worked tirelessly in the tragic aftermath searching for survivors; and after, searching for human remains. Sifting through the jagged rubble and blinded by smoke and debris, the dogs battled exhaustion and emotional distress.
After hours of searching and finding no one alive, some handlers would ask for a volunteer to hide amidst the rubble to be “located”, helping to raise the dogs’ spirits. Even when the search mission became one of recovery instead of rescue, the dogs carried on diligently, providing what little peace they could for the families of the victims.
In a press release for the commemoration of the new statue, Newark Public Safety Director, Anthony Ambrose said:
"Search dogs covered 16 acres of land at Ground Zero covered with metal and debris, and went where humans could not go. This is a fitting way to remember how many families gained some sort of closure because of the work by dogs."
The presence of the dogs at the recovery sites had an even greater impact than many may realize. Dutch photographer, Charlotte Dumas is the author of the 2011 book, Retrieved featuring the stories and portraits of 9/11 canines. She interviewed Denise Corliss, handler of famous 9/11 FEMA Search Dog, Bretagne. Dumas recounted an emotional narrative from her time with Corliss to Daily Mail UK:
“She told me a touching story of one fireman who was there in the rubble, and how taken he was with Bretagne who comforted him as he sat down to catch his breath. Years later at a Remembrance Ceremony, the same fireman recognized Bretagne and her handler and they had a touching reunion. It developed that even though the dogs couldn't find people still alive, they could provide comfort for the brave firemen and rescue workers of the emergency services.”
Most Search and Rescue Dogs are trained by non-government organizations. Often their handlers are civilians as well. Many of the teams that responded to Ground Zero did so on a volunteer basis, simply because their country needed them. Now these pups are getting the recognition they deserve from the folks in Essex County, NJ.
To learn more about search and rescue dogs and the brave men and women who train them and act as their handlers, visit searchdogfoundation.org or disasterdog.org.
Dog's Life: Humane
Shelter volunteer treats dogs to an outing and a Starbucks snack.
There are many "secret" items on Starbucks' menu, including one for dogs called the puppuccino. Now I don't drink coffee, but I have a friend who regularly takes her pup with her to Starbucks and orders a puppuccino along with her regular drink. The item is just a small cup filled with whipped cream, but dogs love it! In Washington, a few lucky shelter pups are being treated to puppuccinos while they wait for their forever homes.
Kitsap Humane Society volunteer Molly Clark had been taking rescue dogs on her local Starbucks visits for some time, but recently it has become an official program. As part of Puppuccino Pals, Molly takes one lucky pup each Tuesday to get a puppuccino. The local Starbucks pitches in by posting signs telling customers about the dog of the week to pique the interest of potential adopters. Molly also posts photos of the outings on the shelter's Instagram account.
"The dogs love the shelter breaks, and they adore the puppuccinos," says Kimberly Cizek Allen, events and outreach assistant coordinator at the Kitsap Humane Society. "You can see it in their little eyes as they lick the whipped cream out of the cup."
Not all dogs love an outing to Starbucks, so Molly will sometimes bring a puppuccino back and treat a pup to whipped cream and some time in the quiet room or play yard. This is such a fun collaboration between a shelter and their local Starbucks.
News: Guest Posts
A Maryland pup was saved after falling into a dry well.
Earlier this month, a Saint Bernard in Perryman, Maryland found herself in an unlikely predicament—stuck at the bottom of a 30-foot dry well. Her family noticed Mabel was missing when they went to refill a play pool for her in the backyard. After looking everywhere, they decided to reconsider checking their well, which seemed unlikely because of the heavy lid. Too scared to look themselves, a neighbor ended up bringing a flashlight to peer in. To everyone's surprise, there was Mabel staring back up at them.
It's not exactly easy to rescue a dog from a 30 foot well, but fortunately Mabel had some incredible people on her side. First a hazmat team checked the air quality in the well before giving Daniel Lemmon, a firefighter with the Harford County Technical Rescue Team, the go ahead to rappel down. From there he gave Mabel a treat and harnessed her up. Mabel was then lifted her out using a pulley system.
As Daniel says, "It's a whole team effort. Sometimes we forget all those parts, but without them it just doesn’t work."
Although it was a complicated rescue, Mabel made it as easy as possible. According to Daniel, Mabel was on her best behavior. "She was so cooperative the whole time, no issues at all, didn’t snap at me, didn’t bark. If there’s someone who’s the star of this, it’s really the dog."
As soon as Mabel was lifted to safety, she immediately began jumping around, too excited to even drink water. Everyone was in disbelief that she survived the fall without any injuries.
No one knows how long Mabel was stuck in the well, or how she even got in there in the first place. Perhaps she was looking for a place to escape the 100 degree heat that day. Only Mabel will know for sure!
Dog's Life: Events
Partner with the Clear the Shelters initiative encouraging pet adoptions.
Dealing with the media can get in the way of Olympic athletes’ training, but it’s obvious that none of them were complaining about a recent photo shoot to promote Clear the Shelters. This is a nationwide adoption effort to find loving homes for pets in need.
Even paired with such famous Olympians as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams, the puppies stole the show. The expression on the puppy with Nathan Adrian is so cute it almost hurts to look at him! The little guy held by Michael Phelps is obviously in tune with others, realizing that the greatest swimmer of all time is uncharacteristically dry and needs to be licked. Justin Gatlin and Alex Morgan both enjoy a laugh with their puppies.
There’s a lot of love on the people’s faces in all the photos. Though a few of the puppies look a little overwhelmed, they were all adopted into loving homes. Gymnast Aly Raisman fell in love with Gibson, the Maltese-Shih-Tzu puppy who posed with her, and ended up adopting him. He was just one of the over 45,000 pets in need nationwide who was adopted thanks to Clear the Shelters.
Dog's Life: Humane
Construction class learns to build dog and cat houses for a good cause.
My memories from elementary school shop class are of making lots of fun, but ultimately useless paper holders and boxes. I'm sure my parents pretended to use them for a few months, and then they got relegated to a box in the attic. Florida shop teacher Barry Stewart had a much more practical idea in mind for his students. Barry wanted his class to learn construction skills while helping a good cause.
About ten years ago, Barry was inspired by a program called Houses for Hounds, which provides dog houses to lower-income residents with pets in North Carolina. As it turns out, building dog houses can be used to teach the basics of constructing a human home.
“The framing technique and terminology for pet housing is the same as for a regular house," explains Barry. "The floor system, wall system, roof system and all the actual parts are identical. So, every part we use on the pet houses we can reference to the correlating part in the home. I realized that it would be easy enough to work into what we were doing in the classroom. It was a good fit.”
Additionally, students are tasked with identifying and rolling out structural improvements as they work on their projects. One adjustment was creating an off-center entrance to shield dogs from being hit directly with wind and rain. They also work on feral cat houses with removable roofs that allow for easier cleaning and access to kittens that need medical attention.
Barry says that this project teaches students to think about the reason behind everything. "Even a really good idea can withstand some improvements,” he says.
Since Barry started teaching his students how to build, they've donated over 600 dog houses and 110 feral cat houses. Currently the pieces are donated to Friends of Jacksonville Animals. This is such a great way for kids to learn new skills while also developing compassion for others!
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Researchers Richard G. Lea and associates published on Aug 9th, 2016, a report entitled Environmental chemicals impact dog semen quality in vitro and may be associated with a temporal decline in sperm motility and increased cryptorchidism. (In Nature, Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 31281 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep31281). Against the background of declining semen quality and rising incidence of undescended testes (Cryptorchidism) in humans associated with exposure to environmental chemicals (ECs) during development they report that “a population of breeding dogs exhibit a 26 year (1988–2014) decline in sperm quality and a concurrent increased incidence of cryptorchidism in male offspring (1995–2014). A decline in the number of males born relative to the number of females was also observed. ECs, including diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and polychlorinated bisphenol 153 (PCB153), were detected in adult dog testes and commercial dog foods at concentrations reported to perturb reproductive function in other species”.
Estrogen-mimicking, endocrine-disrupting chemicals have become virtually ubiquitous in many of the foods we consume, some of which, along with their byproducts, are included in most manufactured pet foods; in the can-linings of moist, and in plastic bagging and wrapping of dry and semi-moist foods. Plastic may also be processed into the manufactured food along with discarded meats, packaging and all.
Food wrappers and other industrial and commercial products from firefighting foam to water-repellant clothing contain poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, detected in drinking water and having endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic properties.
Dioxins, predominantly released as byproducts of human activities such as incineration and fuel combustion, are a most potent class of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They are ubiquitous in the environment, and from the soil and vegetation undergo bioaccumulation in the fat (tallow) of cattle, and sea foods, especially farmed salmon, which are common pet food ingredients. Their adverse impact on wildlife reproduction and sexual development in several aquatic and terrestrial species has been well documented.
Other estrogen-mimicking and endocrine disrupting contaminants of pet (and human) foods include glyphosate and other herbicide residues in corn and other cereals along with phytoestrogens in soy products especially in GMO soy, a widely used pet food ingredient.
Aflatoxin B1—yet another endocrine disruptor-from the mold on corn and other cereals, is often found in dry dog foods which are recalled too late to save many dogs from acute toxicity and death. Aflatoxins, dioxins and other endocrine disruptors, estrogen mimics, carcinogens and obesogens have harmful consequences in extremely low concentrations in the diet over an extended time period with possible synergism operating where one contaminant increases the toxicity of one or more others; and prenatal, epigenetic, developmental effects on the offspring of exposed parents.
For additional details visit www.drffoxvet.net and see review: CHEMICAL-RELATED HUMAN DISEASES IN COMPANION ANIMALS
Statement to appear in Animal Doctor syndicated newspaper column by Dr. Michael W. Fox.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Canine Synchronized Swimming Commercial
The Rio Olympics inspired a Farmer’s Insurance commercial featuring dogs enjoying a flooded home. The five dogs play in the water and perform a synchronized swimming routine.
In a related ad, the same water-filled home serves as the venue for a dog diving competition.
Seeing these commercials provides some compensation for the misery that comes from staying up way too late watching the Olympics every night!
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