Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Loving Dogs and Children
Similarities and differences in brain response

If you’ve read the headlines recently saying that science has proven that we love our dogs just like we love our kids, then you have only gotten part of the story. Yes, we love our dogs and consider them our children, and yes, a new research paper gives details about the similarities in the way our brains view these important individuals. However, there are nuances to the way our brains react to the world around us, and as is usually the case with scientific studies, it’s not that simple.

A study called “Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study” found both similarities and differences in mothers’ responses to dogs and children. Researchers evaluated brain function patterns in women when they saw pictures of their children and their dogs, as well as pictures of unfamiliar children and dogs. The study focused on areas of the brain that are involved in social bonding.

Mothers had similar activation patterns in some parts of the brain when they viewed photos of their children and photos of their dogs. These patterns differed from their responses to pictures of unfamiliar children and unfamiliar dogs. One region that responds similarly to these two types of images is relevant in rewards, emotion and affiliation. Another region of the brain involved in affiliation and reward was activated by images of mothers’ own children but not by images of their own dogs. An area of the brain that is critical to the processing of facial features was activated far more by images of mothers’ dogs than by images of their children.

According to the authors, “These results demonstrate that the mother-child and mother-dog bond share aspects of emotional experience and patterns of brain function, but there are also brain-behavior differences that may reflect the distinct evolutionary underpinning of these relationships.”

If you are a parent to both humans and dogs, do you feel both similarities and differences in those relationships?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Testing Behavior Tests
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?

It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.

In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.

These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?

The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.

To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)

Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?

She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.

This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.

SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.

These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.

While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.

This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.

How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Testing a test is hard because duplicating real-world situations in a research environment is hard. Bennett’s study was well designed, but it was inevitably limited by some realities. It is surprisingly difficult to design a study that truly tests whether a given behavioral assessment succeeds at predicting dog behavior.

Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.

Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.

There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.

Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.

To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.

As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.

Ultimately, we don’t really know which factors make a test succeed or fail in predicting canine aggression. The previously discussed studies all take the results of the entire test battery as a single score; none attempts to understand the individual components of that score. However, each sub-test in the test battery is intended to get at a different part of the dog’s temperament, and it’s possible that some of these subtests succeed while others fail. Perhaps, for example, a test battery successfully predicts food aggression (one sub-test) but fails to predict dog-dog aggression (a different sub-test).

Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.

When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.

This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?

A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.

Asking Better Questions
Research into shelter behavioral assessments seems to have finally found its footing with these recent studies. This new approach—investigating specific behaviors and asking adopters what kinds of behavioral problems really matter to them—may aid in designing more effective tests. Or maybe they’ll just help us better interpret the behavioral assessments we already have. Either way, behavioral assessment researchers have a clear path to follow.

In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.

In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.

Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.

Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.

In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.

There is a lot of work to do.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Who Is That Gorgeous Dog?
Seeing themselves in the mirror

Peanut bounded up the stairs fully of puppy pep and sporting an expression of extreme happiness. She had never been to our house and loves to explore new places. Her light-hearted mood would likely have continued if not for the mirrors all along our closet doors. When she saw her reflection, her entire affect changed. She stiffened and barked, then charged at the mirror.

I have no idea how this dog vs mirror scenario would have played out if Lucy (another of the dogs in Peanut’s household) hadn’t come in and barked at Peanut. The puppy became more interested in Lucy than in her reflection, and came with the older dog out of the room and back down the stairs. Because Peanut seemed distressed by seeing her own image in the mirror, we closed the door to that room to keep her out.

There has been a lot of research on how animals react to seeing themselves in the mirror because it can tell us a lot about their cognitive abilities. If they recognize that the reflection is their own image, it provides evidence that they have a sense of self-awareness. If they don’t appear to do so, the results can be hard to interpret. One of the ways that this idea is explored experimentally is to expose animals to mirrors until they are familiar with them. The next step is to put a mark of paint on the animals and then give them the opportunity to look in a mirror again. If they see the reflection and attempt to touch or remove the spot of paint on their own body, scientists conclude that they are self-aware.

Much work in this area has been done on primates with great apes, but not monkeys, typically showing signs of self-awareness. Dolphins, elephants, and magpies have also “passed” this test. Dogs have not generally done well at the mirror test, though some people, including Marc Bekoff, have argued that dogs are more olfactory than visual so a scent test is more appropriate for investigating whether they are self aware. Bekoff studied his male dog’s reactions to his own urine and to the urine of other dogs and found some evidence that his dog recognizes his own urine. This concept of “mineness”—belonging to me—suggests self-awareness, but it is certainly not conclusive. The research was published in the article “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” The method has come to be known as the “Yellow Snow Test.”

We have to be careful not to assume that a failure to recognize a reflection in the mirror as oneself means a lack of a self-awareness. In addition to vision not being the proper sense to use in such a test, sometimes the problem is that the animal is too young. For example, humans generally pass this test, but babies under 18-months are confused by it.

Have you had the opportunity to observe your own dog’s response to looking in a mirror?

News: Guest Posts
The Difference Between Guide Dog Breeds

In honor of national guide dog month, I'm reprinting excerpts of an interview I did several years ago with seven experienced blind people who've used guide dogs most of their lives.  Here they compare problem solving strategies between 36 dogs representing six breeds.  Compared to my usual posts, it's a lengthy conversation, but if you've lived with a Lab, Golden, German Shepherd, Aussie, Border Collie, Flat Coat,  Poodle or hybrid of these breeds, you'll be fascinated by the comments.

 “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”

Some blind handlers argue that there are marked differences in each breed’s approach to guide work, while others think that the traits that make good guides neutralize the larger behaviors that characterize each breed. 

One blind handler who has worked with a German Shepherd for 10 years, a Lab for seven, two different Golden Retrievers for 15 years, and now has two years’ experience under his belt working with a Golden-Lab cross says that there are some physical characteristics that are different among breeds, such as the gait and how the dog feels through the harness. “Even so, the dog’s unique personality, combined with the person’s — how they work together and what they expect of each other — that’s where the differences are.” 

“It’s a 50-50 relationship,” says a handler who’s worked with one Lab, two mixed-breed Labs and two Goldens, and now is partnered with a Lab-Poodle cross. “Neither one of us is in total control at any given time. Both of our lives depend on what the other one does. Neither of us may be able to make a safe street crossing alone, but together we do it gracefully."

“How my dogs dealt with obstacles isn’t, in my opinion, a function of breed-specific differences,” says a seasoned 25-year guide dog user who has partnered with an Airedale, a Border Collie mix, an Australian Shepherd and, briefly, a Siberian Husky. “My Airedale, as I recall him, was quick to generalize about the concept "obstacle” but wasn’t particularly good at scoping out his environment and making decisions in advance.” The Aussie and the Border Collie mix seemed to generalize quickly.

“The Border Collie mix had very high head carriage and was by far the very best dog I've worked when it came to overhead hazards,” he said. “The Aussie has been harder to teach naturally occurring overheads like tree limbs, but whether that's a breed thing or a result of their tendency to work with their heads a little low, I'm not sure.”

Another woman who has worked with two Shepherd guides and one Lab-Golden cross said, “In my opinion, you might say that the retrievers’ style provides more information about the specifics ofthe environment, but the Shepherds’ style makes for more efficient travel. My Shepherds, in comparison to my retriever, both typically looked farther ahead as they guided. They corrected for upcoming obstacles from a distance and our travel path was typically a smooth line. Sudden turns or stops happened only in response to an obstacle that unexpectedly crossed our intended path. My retriever cross clearly does not take the same approach. In general, this dog will stop and show me the obstacle, and he will almost always seek prompting from me on which way to go next.”

Another typical difference between dogs, explains a blind handler is their approach to routes.“Personally I find that my retrievers enjoyed familiar routes. In comparison, my Shepherd gets bored with routine, so you have to get creative with routes and mix things up,” she says.

She adds that retrievers are looking to please the handler, as if asking, “Did I do what you wanted, am I making you happy?” whereas her shepherds have been motivated by doing the job and solving the problems. “With Shepherds, it’s not so much about what pleases me as it is about pleasing themselves,” she says.

A guide dog handler who has worked with three Labs, a Lab mix, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd explained, “If I were to generalize,” she says, “I’d say my Labs often worked up to an obstacle before deciding what to do about it, while my shepherd would decide in advance what to do, perhaps starting the turn more gradually as we approached the barrier. My Golden would stop to show me before trying to work it out.”

Eight guide dogs and 34 years later, a handler  contemplated her experiences with four Labs, two Goldens, one Shepherd, and one Flat-coat Retriever. “My Flat-coat solved problems by coming to a full stop. Sometimes he would just stand there and I could feel his head moving. People said that he looked like he was weighing all the possibilities. Then he would make his decision. And in nine years of partnership he never made a mistake.”

One woman got her first German Shepherd in 1996 after working with three Labs. She says she had to learn the body language that was unique to the Shepherd. “At first I thought when my Shepherd would insist on going a certain way and I wanted to go another that she was being stubborn or willful. I soon discovered that if I acknowledged her for what she was showing me, and then asked her to go the direction I wanted to go, she was totally fine with that. My second Shepherd is the same way.”

Regardless of genealogy, each dog takes a unique approach to problem solving. “I noticed that the Aussie I’m working with now had a very strong preference for traveling on one or another side of a street when we walked home from work,” explained his handler. “Eventually, I figured out the preference stemmed from whether it was or had recently been raining. One side of the street was commercial, the other had lots of trees with branches that hung low when wet.”

“My Goldens were much more attuned to my reactions to things. If I did hit a branch, I needed only to flinch and they both acted as if they had been corrected. I would describe my Labrador as being solid, but she had the attitude that things would move for her or she would move them. She was careful, generally, but also had no compunction about moving me through some tight gaps. It wasn’t always pretty, but she would get you where you needed to go safely and with enthusiasm.”

Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class, then deepens and broadens over time. Says a guide dog user with 35 years of experience, “I think developing trust is incumbent on the person. That’s who sets the tone of the partnership so that the dog learns to be, in essence, not just a guide, but responsible for the person’s safety.”

A blind woman who has traveled with guides since 1968 said, “My assumption is that my dog is acting to keep us safe until he proves to be distracted or is putting his agenda ahead of mine. Sure, if that sudden plunge proves to be because my Lab dove for a French fry, the appropriate correction needs to be made. Extra work to minimize that behavior may be called for, but ‘follow your dog’ has to be the first response if we are going to learn to trust and read each other. My safety depends on my ability to read their reactions and go with it and figure out the ‘whys’ later.”

“Working a guide dog is like dancing,” she explains. “And being responsive to my partner’s moves is how it works best for me. I've had had two very large Labs both with a lot of initiative. They seldom asked for my input, made quick swift movements and expected I would be able to keep up and go with them. They were more likely to try to interpose their bodies between me and muscle me out of the way or into safety. My Golden, and my small Lab were likely to be cautious and refuse to leave the curb until they determined that a car they watched was not going to move toward us.”

One man described all his dogs as having been keen observers.“They’ve all had similar complex personalities,” he says. “They enjoyed their work and have been more than willing to guide and do things such as squeeze into small spaces and stay for hours, only because I have asked them to.”

A thirty year guide dog veteran summed it up. "I've owned plenty of dogs as pets, but my relationship with the half dozen guide dogs I've worked with was different: All of my guide dogs seemed to own me rather than the other way around.”

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Resembling Our Dogs
It’s all in the eyes

If you are among the many people who have always thought that people looked like their dogs, you have probably enjoyed hearing recent research supporting the claim. Now there’s new information to allow you to bask in being officially correct. Research by Sadahiko Nakajima (Dogs and Owners Resemble Each Other in the Eye Region) not only provides additional evidence for the resemblance between dogs and their people, but narrows it down to one specific facial area—the eye region.

In this study, over 500 undergraduate students were shown photographs of people and dogs. One set of 20 photos was of people and their own dogs, but the other set contained photos of a person with a dog belonging to someone else in the study. There were a variety of breeds represented, and the people were all Japanese men and women.

Over two-thirds of the participants in the study said that the set of photographs of fake pairs of dogs and people showed individuals with less resemblance to each other than the set of photographs that contained the actual dog-person pairs. This level of proper identification was possible even when the mouths of the people were covered by black bars. The students were just as accurate when the only part of the dogs and people they could see was the eye region.

However, if the eye areas of dogs and people were masked by black bars, there was a decline in their ability to determine which set of photographs contained real dog-person pairs, and which were made up of dogs and people who did not go together. In fact, with the eyes obscured, participants in the study did no better at identifying dogs and people who belonged together than if they were just guessing. That is, their success rate dropped to about 50 percent—exactly what would be predicted by chance. This study suggests that dogs and their people resemble each other in the region of their eyes.

An interesting question related to this study is how dogs and people come to resemble each other in this way. Do people tend to choose dogs whose eyes resemble their own, or is there a similarity in expressions such as the type or intensity of emotion that can be seen in them?

I once had a dog whose eyes looked so much like mine that many people who saw us together commented on it, but I never thought about it as a regular pattern. Do you and your dog’s eyes look the same?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
What Dogs are Saying with their Barks
Research explores animal sounds as a form of communication

A sleep-deprived gentleman once asked me, “How is it that dogs can bark so long? When I yell for hours on end, I lose my voice.” Then he went on to describe the dogs in his neighborhood, whose barking bouts lasted longer than all of the Wagner operas combined.

Anyone who’s experienced an epic canine oratorio has probably wondered, “What’s going on? Do dogs just like to hear the sound of their voices?” Until recently, some researchers thought this was the case, taking the position that because dogs bark at almost anything and everything and for hours on end with no apparent reply, dog barking must not be a specific form of communication. Rather, barking is just a loud and obnoxious way for them to say, “Hey! Look at me!” More specific information, it was postulated, comes from reading body expression and olfactory messages.

Given the sparse number of studies on vocal communication in dogs, this contention seemed reasonable until consideration of the ever-expanding research on songbirds, ground squirrels and monkeys provided a very different view.

For decades, while some looked at dogs and pooh-poohed their barks as nuisance noise, others—such as Dr. Peter Marler, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and a pioneer in the field of vocal communication in birds—were taking a closer look at the sounds that animals, including the common chicken, make. Says Marler, “Chickens are an obvious case … to most people, the sounds are a kind of noise, or vicarious vocalizations that have little meaning. But this view could not be more wrong. In fact, many studies show that chickens have a very rich and elaborate vocal repertoire, and that different calls mean different things.”

These studies started with the finding that roosters have specific types of predator-alarm-calls, one for aerial predators such as hawks, and another for ground predators. Play-back studies—in which hens hear taped versions of these calls in the absence of both a predator and visual signals from the rooster—show that the calls deliver specific information. Hens duck for cover upon hearing a recording of the aerial call and extend their necks and look for the danger when they hear the ground-alarm-call. These responses to the respective calls tell us the calls have specific meanings to those who hear them.

And those aren’t the only interesting chicken calls. Roosters also make a particular call when they find a morsel to eat, and this sound, part of the rooster’s courtship routine, serves to attract hens. As with the alarm calls, recorded food calls played back from behind a barrier with a hen on the other side will cause the hen to approach when she hears them. What’s more, states Marler, “If the calls were recorded from a male who had a very choice food item, like a cricket, she’ll approach faster than if the calls are given [for] a piece of grain or peanut. So the calls convey some information about food quality.” And, like the alarm calls, these differential responses indicate the calls have meaning.

But what about those calls, like barking, that go on and on with no obvious response from other animals? Dr. Don Owings, professor of psychology and animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, says, “Call communication can be organized on different time frames, so that you don’t see an immediate response to each vocalization. You have to look at the effect of signaling in a time frame that is appropriate for the signaling behavior.”

This longer time frame reveals interesting things. For instance, California ground squirrels respond to mammalian predators by uttering a chatter vocalization. Other squirrels respond by running to their burrow or standing up and looking around. If the predator lingers, the calling ground squirrels move from an erratically spaced, episodic chatter to a highly rhythmic “deet-deet-deet.” Observation reveals that individuals who hear the vocalization don’t startle or respond to each vocalization, and often return to their feeding and previous activities. However, Owings’ student, Jim Loughry, looked more closely at the overall activity and body postures over a longer time period and found that squirrels listening to this rhythmic vocalization were more vigilant overall. Even if they were eating, they would eat while sitting upright as they scanned their surroundings.

So what possible functions could vocalizations that carry on for hours at a time have? Well, male songbirds sing for hours at a time to attract females and to defend their territory. Additionally, during breeding season, wolves howl for hours at a time with no detectable reply. This howling may function as a beacon to attract females from neighboring packs. Perhaps prolonged canine vocalizations have a long-term function as well?

In 2000, armed with the rich body of literature on vocal communication and the support of those already well-established in the field, I decided to pursue the question of barking in dogs. Yes, some dogs do bark incessantly and some seem to bark in any and every context, but was it possible that barks were slightly different in different contexts, so that dogs actually produced bark subtypes? If so, perhaps these vocalizations could be specific forms of communication.

With the advent of improved acoustic-analysis equipment, others had been able to test similar theories in other animals. As mentioned earlier, Owings found that squirrels emit chatters when they see mammalian predators and occasionally with avian predators; they also chatter when having aggressive interactions with another animal and immediately after copulating with a female. Though these findings might lead one to conclude that the vocalization is not functionally specific, modern sound equipment revealed that the chatter calls are structurally different in different contexts.

Similarly, Dr. Julia Fischer, a researcher at the Max–Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found that Chacma baboons have different bark vocalizations for different contexts, including an alarm bark that is structurally different from a contact bark, which is uttered when mother and offspring are separated.

To test my hypothesis about bark subtypes, I found ten barking dogs and recorded them in three different situations. In situation one, the disturbance situation, the dog was recorded while barking at the sound of the doorbell. In situation two, the isolation situation, I recorded the dog when it was locked outside, isolated from its owner. And in situation three, the play situation, I recorded barks as the dog played with its owner or another dog. This sounds simple but surprisingly, even dogs dubbed excessive barkers often couldn’t be used because they only barked in two of the three contexts, which suggests that maybe dogs don’t really bark at any- and everything.

In order to ensure that I had enough barks to give a good idea of the average bark for each context for each specific dog, we set up the dogs in each situation many different times on many different days over a three-month period. Once I’d collected enough barks, more than 4,600 in all, I turned to my collaborator, Dr. Brenda McCowan, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in acoustic communication in animals ranging from dolphins to cattle. Using a sound-analysis program that converts audio to a visual representation of pitch-over-time and amplitude- over-time and a computer macro (a set of instructions for the computer to follow) designed by McCowan, we took 60 sequential measurements over time for one bark, or along the visual representation of each bark.

The data yielded clear results. Dog barks were different in the different contexts and therefore, could be categorized into subtypes. The doorbell-disturbance barks were relatively harsh, low-pitched and with little pitch variation throughout. Dogs blurted these barks out full force and so fast that they were often fused into what I formally dubbed “superbarks.” Isolation barks, on the other hand, were higher pitched and more tonal, with more variation in both pitch and amplitude. Usually, they occurred as single barks, but some dogs definitely learned to bark more repetitively when doing so eventually reunited them with their owner. The play barks were similar to the isolation barks, except that they usually occurred in clusters rather than singly.

Not surprisingly, we also found that dogs could be identified by their barks. This basically means that as you lie in bed listening to the sound of the neighboring canid’s greatest hits, you should be able to identify exactly which neighboring canid is the offending artist.

So what do these findings mean? Well, we can’t tell whether dogs intentionally alter their barks to deliver a message to other dogs or people. The only way to determine this would be to teach the dog English so that he could tell us, “I am now intentionally changing my bark to deliver this message.” Most likely, the variation is a reflection of the internal motivational state the dog is in at the time that he barks.

What we can tell is that because there are specific bark subtypes, barks have the potential to play specific communicative rolls and provide specific information—intentional or unintentional—to the animals, including humans, who are listening. Not specific like, “Timmy’s stuck in the well! The one to the left of the big oak tree on the other side of the creek!” More like, “I’m separated from you! Come get me!” or “Intruder alert!” Furthermore, since bark subtypes occur in specific contexts, we can learn to tell what our dog is saying by listening to his barks and then examining the context. His “woof” for an unknown intruder may be different from his “ruff” when he alerts to a friend approaching the house. And his “huff” to come inside may be different when the desire is more urgent.

But is the barking actually communicative? Well, for a vocalization to be communication, the animal who hears the signal must respond in a specific way. As with the chicken food-call and alarm-call cases, this is usually tested through play-back studies, and such studies have not yet been performed on dogs. However, a study by David MacDonald and Geoff Carr on free-roaming dogs in Italy suggests that barks can have specific effects on other dogs, even when the “barkers” can’t be seen. The free-roaming dogs in this study lived in small groups and scavenged at local dump sites. When the largest group of dogs barked in a group prior to heading toward the dump site from up to one kilometer away, dogs in smaller groups consistently evacuated the site; they apparently knew that they were no match for the larger gang. And on a more familiar note, Marler points out that if we pay attention, it’s easy to notice that barking usually elicits a response from other dogs.

But this is only half the picture. Says Owings, “For the vocalization to be communicative, the vocalizers should be sensitive to social contexts and consequences.” That is, the animal producing the vocalization should adjust it based on the behavior of the listeners. While there is little research in this area, general observations indicate that this happens too. For instance, when one dog barks at the doorbell and another dog, or even the resident human, joins in a barky “No! No!”, the dog responds with louder and more prolonged bark behavior. Take away his back-up and suddenly, the initial barking bout abates. Or then there’s the dog who barks at you until you toss his toy, but barks harder and louder when you’re on the phone because that’s the time when you’re most likely to toss the toy quickly in order to get him to quiet down. These cases provoke the question: What exactly is the role of the human (the primary animal to whom many barks are directed) in the development of bark behavior in dogs?

Clearly, there are an infinite number of questions about barking and its communicative function for the dog, and there’s much catch-up needed to reach the same level of understanding that we have for chickens and squirrels. But it all starts with a simple study showing that dogs have different barks in different contexts, and plugs away, developing and answering one question at a time.

To test your own ability to interpret dog barks, or to read more about barks as communication or as a nuisance behavior, visit Dr. Yin’s “Nerdbook” website.



Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Handler Stress Improves Dog Performance
Detection dogs find explosives faster

Scent detection dogs and their handlers work as a team and the behavior of both of them influences the outcome. It has long been known that dogs take cues from their human handlers and may mistakenly identify a target scent (a false positive) based on the person’s behavior. They may also search in patterns based on instructions from the handler rather than according to their own inclinations.

A recent study (Human-animal interface: The effects of handler’s stress on the performance of canines in an explosive detection task) in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science shows that the handler’s stress level has an impact on the search. Specifically, researchers found that when the people were stressed, the dogs performed better, detecting the explosives more quickly.

In the study, handlers in the Israeli army were presented with two different types of stressors in a random experimental design in which every handler faced the same stressors. One stressor was related to the handling task. Observers, including commanders, were present during a detection session, and as part of the experimental design, they pointed at the handler from a distance and pretended to write down comments during the session. The other stressor was not related to the task. Before those sessions, a handler was told by the commander that the handler would be transferred to another military unit and need to face a military police investigation. Each team also had a control session with no stressors.

Handlers were monitored during their sessions to determine physiological measures of stress. Stressors decreased the handlers’ attention and increased their anxiety levels compared to control sessions.

Dogs found the explosives more quickly when their handlers were stressed, especially by factors unrelated to the task. The dogs also showed more activity in general under this experimental condition. These results support the hypothesis that handlers’ emotional states have an impact on the performance of working dogs.

The researchers propose one possibility for the dogs’ improved performance when their handlers were stressed: Perhaps they were less attentive to the task at hand, allowing the dogs to behave in a less “handler-dependent manner.” They propose that there may be benefits to allowing dogs more control over their own behavior during detection work.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Q&A with Author Laurel Braitman
Author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs Help Us Understand Ourselves
Laurel Braitman Animal Madness

In an engrossing new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman investigates the symptoms, causes and recoveries associated with behavioral disturbances in a wide variety of social animals. Starting with her own dog, Oliver, who suffered from debilitating separation anxiety, she discovered that mental illness in animals looks a lot like it does in people. In a recent conversation on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, she shared some of her insights with us.


Claudia Kawczynska: In the book, you talk about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that not only is one in five Americans on them, but also, increasing numbers of dogs are being given them as well. But there seems to be a divide in the veterinary field on their use. After looking into this subject, how do you feel about it?

Laurel Braitman: Sometimes our dogs need them, or the drugs are used as a band-aid to correct for stressors in a dog’s life that could be changed. Sometimes the drugs don’t work. They don’t always work for people either actually, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them in the right situation. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist, said that if the dogs she sees were humans, most of them would be committed to in-patient facilities. That is why she thinks drugs are useful in really extreme situations—to keep dogs from hurting themselves while giving behavior therapy time to work.

It’s really hard to generalize, though; so much depends on the individual dog. A certain dosage of, let’s say, Xanax, may make some dogs so blissed out that they don’t want a treat or whatever is being offered as an incentive. Other dogs might do really well on the same dosage. And different dogs will react differently to different drugs.

A lot of the behaviorists I spoke with are seeing dogs on dosages that would have calmed most canines, but are in the behaviorists’ waiting rooms because the drug didn’t work for them. There are also cases where a drug causes other issues—such as reducing inhibitions so that a previously-friendly dog becomes more aggressive.

CK: How similar are certain human and canine disorders?

LB: Panic disorders in humans are really similar to canine separation anxiety; when we’re flooded with panic, our first instinct is to escape. The same feeling drives the behaviors seen in many dogs anxious at being left alone; in my own dog’s case, he fled by jumping out of a window.

With humans, we assume that the roots of the disorder have to be dealt with in therapy over time—that we need to understand the triggers for someone’s panic. The approach for nonhumans should be the same.

Drugs are helpful when a dog is so upset, so distressed or suffering so much that the behavioral things that experts such as Ian Dunbar suggest just aren’t possible. Pharmaceuticals act like panic buttons; they can help the animal tap into the physical and emotional resources they need to be able to learn.


CK: It seems like there are at least two approaches to calming an anxious dog. Some veterinarians (such as the late Mel Richardson) believe that soothing an anxious dog isn’t the best approach—that petting only rewards the panicked behavior. But others, including Patricia McConnell, make a compelling case for the opposite approach. This is an important difference.

LB: McConnell is right! Dogs are complex thinkers and will not automatically equate you petting them with positive reinforcement. If they did, dog training would be a hell of a lot simpler! The example that Mel gave, and I included in the book, is different, however. A patient of his came in with a dog who acted scared in her living room, ever since a plate dropped off a wall during a fight the woman had with her boyfriend. The woman may have been rewarding her dog for hugging the sides of the room, not necessarily comforting him for something that was stressful. We do at times unwittingly positively reinforce our animals for behaviors we then find undesirable; but soothing your dog during thunderstorms or fireworks displays makes a lot of sense.

I always comforted Oliver during thunderstorms, I didn’t ignore him, and clearly if that worked he wouldn’t have had a thunderstorm phobia. I think we approach these problems with an almost patriarchal kind of “tough-it-up” attitude. It doesn’t work with children and it doesn’t work with dogs. It doesn’t account for the fluidity and complexity of the human or other animal mind. Dogs know we are reading their distress and they read ours. No other creature on the planet—including other people in my opinion—is better at reading our emotions than dogs. They’ve spent at least 15,000 years at it.


CK: Oliver was a purebred Bernese Mountain Dog. In your research, did you find that abnormal behaviors were more, or less, likely to be found in purebreds?

LB: I wish there were a good answer to that. Every behaviorist I spoke with, and many trainers, were familiar with breed-specific manifestations of mental illness. Tail-chasing, shadow-chasing, OCD. Oliver suffered from an extreme case of separation anxiety, but I didn’t find that was something frequently seen in Berners.

(By the way, I’m not saying that shelter dogs won’t have issues; they could have the same or different problems related to abandonment, phobias, or lack of socialization.) We should really have honest talks with breeders about the mental health of their dogs, but we rarely do. Every breeder will say that they breed “family” dogs. But I have to wonder if—once they’ve spent a fortune on breeding pairs, and the pups are potentially quite valuable—they will really take one out of the mix if he or she develops mental problems.


CK: It was interesting to read that Nicole Cottam, who was at Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, thought that jealousy was the leading cause of canine aggression.

LB: Jealousy is an issue for many more creatures than dogs. It came up a lot in regards to other social animals too, like elephants and the other great apes. Why would we, or our dogs, be the only ones to experience it? Our pack, our families, our troops are everything and it can be threatening if we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we may lose someone’s attention.

In the context of elephants, it’s a matter of public safety. Almost everyone I talked to in Thailand believed that most elephant-on-elephant and elephant-on-human violence comes from jealousy. If a young man who works with elephants visits a girlfriend, they say, he has to shower many times before he interacts with his elephant again and, sometimes even that’s not enough. He’ll need to bring a truckload of pineapples or bananas to win back the trust of his elephant.

Elephants can also be extremely dangerous if one of their elephant friends becomes closer to another elephant and ignores them. Or if a person is feeding elephants and doesn’t feed them at exactly the same time—that can be dangerous as well.

Dogs, of course, can be aggressive and protective around food. But perhaps it may also be that the dog is jealous—that he or she feels another dog is getting more of your attention because the other dog is being fed first.


CK: How can we know that dogs experience jealousy?

LB: Jealousy is actually the darker side of a positive emotion. That is, if we build our lives around those near to us and have close relationships with them, and then suddenly those relationships are taken away, we are going to feel bad. Everything in us wants to connect—we are social beings. Most of us are also our dogs’ primary “other” animal.

Clearly, that is what happened in my dog’s case. He went from being the center of his first family’s world to its fringes because there was a new baby in the house. [Ed. note: Oliver’s previous owners moved him to the garage, among other things, when he started to act out.] I have nothing but empathy for the family. They didn’t mean to hurt him; they just didn’t know what else to do.


CK: How do we know that dogs have these complex emotional experiences?

LB: There are many things we can’t test for specifically (even if we’re doing things like putting dogs inside MRI machines), but since we have been living with dogs for thousands of years, we owe them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, talking to friends at the dog park can teach us a lot. That’s how Darwin did it; he collected stories, then amalgamated the stories into a theory. His stories about his dogs are wonderful and clearly anecdotal—really the equivalent of talking to dog park people.


CK: Modern life can be difficult for dogs; most have far too little to do, and few opportunities to express their true “doggishness” or funktionslust (a great German word you use—taking pleasure in what one does best). For many dogs, that would be running, sniffing, chasing and so forth. How can we give our dogs more of what they need?

LB: Most dog owners have the best of intentions, but realistically, can’t pack up their urban lives and move to the country, or get a second dog to provide their dog with a companion.

But going to a dog park and spending most of our time engaged with our phones—emailing, tweeting, posting to Facebook—and then going home and sitting in front of the TV (even if our dog’s sitting with us) isn’t good for either of us. Most of the things that will make our dog feel better are things that will help us feel better, too. Neither humans nor dogs are prepared for many aspects of contemporary life. We spend too much time indoors, seated, by ourselves. . How all of this has affected our canine companions, we still don’t know, but it can’t help but contribute to some of the issues we are seeing in dogs.


CK: Our own dogs are almost always with us; they come to the office, they get long hikes in the local parks and so forth. But when we take them up to the country, they seem to come alive; they’re different beings. It is amazing to see how they behave when they have free access to the outside. They rarely nap during the day, they’re always alert—they just seem more fulfilled.

LB: It’s the stimulation, and we all need that. Dogs who are not as motivated or curious about their environment may need less stimulation, but they still need some.


CK: Behaviorally, there are similarities in canine and human cognitive decline, you point out that in dogs, as in us, it can perhaps be offset by mental stimulation and a diet rich in antioxidants. (As a devoted crossword puzzler and blueberry lover, I was heartened to read this.) Any more thoughts on this?

LB: Avoiding the problems of an aging brain, or at least slowing the process, is really at the forefront of human medicine now, and we ought to be looking into that for other creatures. Adding a miniscule amount of blueberries to dog treats isn’t going to do it, however—that’s crazy. But if we need another reason to stimulate our dog’s minds, this is it.

Puzzles we can solve together are fun. I played hide-and-seek games with my dog—that was a great brainteaser. Talk about memory! He would always look first in the last place I hid. Clearly, he thought, She was behind the fridge the last time so she’s probably there this time, too.


CK: We do this with our three all the time, and what I find interesting is that they never seem to use their noses to find us.

LB:  I wonder if they may be “playing fair” with us, giving us a fighting chance. They might realize we’re so bad at this game, and know that if they use all their abilities, they would win all the time. End of game! No fun!


CK: People don’t seem to like complicated solutions, especially when it comes to dog training and behavior. We want to know the answer now. How do we accommodate that?

LB: I think it’s human nature to want answers, especially when we have an animal who is upset. It feels like life and death, and sometimes, it is; the stakes with this stuff are high. If a dog’s emotional problems manifest in aggression or make life too difficult and we can’t fix them, the dog can wind up at a shelter. People’s sense of urgency though can lead them to absolutes that don’t help them or their dogs.

I am hoping that this book helps people understand why helping dogs can be a little complicated and a lot rewarding. A dog’s social and emotional world isn’t as fixed as most people think it is, and on the positive side, a dog’s resiliency can work in our favor. Even though many dogs have every reason to not believe in the goodness of humans, they often do anyway, giving us chance after chance to help them. That is a magical, heartening thing.

For more insights, see the book review for Animal Madness.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Canine Intelligence: Understand Dogs' Minds
Vilmos Csányi talks about animal behavior and understanding the mind of a dog

The internationally renowned Hungarian scientist Vilmos Csányi studies canine behavior and intelligence at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, where he chairs the department of ethology. We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his recent book, If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (translated by Richard E. Quandt). Much of his book draws upon his astute observations of his own pet dogs, the delightful Flip and Jerry. He makes a convincing case for special social and emotional bonds between dogs and humans, and for the idea that, by observing the cognitive behavior of dogs, we can also learn much about how the human mind works.

Bark: In your book, If Dogs Could Talk, you write that dogs are excellent human ethologists, what do you mean by that?

Vilmos Csányi: A family dog constantly observes human behavior and always tries to predict interesting actions in which he could participate. Dogs can learn any tiny signal for the important actions and is always ready to contribute.

B: You also say that dogs can show empathy, especially toward their owners. Are you familiar with any cases in which a dog has been empathic to a species other than humans?

VC: They are also empathic with each other. On one occasion Flip wanted to go out in the middle of night but I slept too deeply and was not awakened by his murmur; Jerry came and started to bark loudly, which instantly made me awake. I believed that Jerry had the problem, but he went back to his sleeping place and Flip was the one who enthusiastically ran to the door to be let out as soon as possible.

B: You write about the similarities between dogs and humans, including that both species seem to have a genetic imperative to follow rules. What evolutionary advantage does this bestow on our two species?

VC: Following rules is a very important human trait, which is shared with dogs to some extent. In animals, behavior in a group is regulated by aggression and rank order. In humans, in-group aggression is very mild and the rank order is of a mixed type. Not only persons but rules also get a place in our rank order. Our behavior is influenced by persons who have authority over us and rules that regulate certain conduct. Even “alpha persons” have to obey rules, which makes human social groups very complex and adaptive.

An important task for a group can be prescribed by rules, and group members do not have to exert any aggression to fulfill the given task, just follow the rules. It is a human-specific trait and the basis of complex human societies. Its importance is shown by the fact that dogs also acquired the rule-following ability. If a dog recognizes a rule created by the master, he follows it. Sometimes the problem is how to explain the given rule to a dog. They are not able to perceive rules above certain complexity

B: The bond between humans and dogs exists because dogs acquired traits that resemble those of humans in many respects; could you give some examples of this? Also, can the same be said about the humans “acquiring” canine traits, or, at least, evolving differently because of dogs, such as the reduction of our olfactory senses.

VC: Dogs have indeed acquired behavioral traits that have human analogues. For example, dogs form an attachment relationship with their owners, and very likely (to some extent) with other members of their group, that resembles the way human children are attached to their mothers. Moreover, we have shown that even adult dogs [living in dog shelters] can very rapidly form attachment to humans [after only approximately 30 minutes of interaction]. The development of attachment between adults is again a human-specific trait.

There have been suggestions that dogs and humans co-evolve, but at the moment there is little clear evidence for this. One could suppose that at some point of human evolution, human groups sharing their life with dogs had some advantage over groups avoiding dogs. Dogs could have been helpful, for example, in removing [eating] garbage, providing protection during cold nights or alarming people in case of potential danger. Some of these functions can be still witnessed in tribes living at remote places in Africa and Australia.

It is, however, more difficult to provide evidence that such association was the cause for any behavioral or other changes in humans. Such evidence should rely on showing that, for example, there is a progressive trend in the difference in human remains over a long period of time when they are found together with dogs.

B: Your investigations into dogs’ ability to “read” us and having a greater aptitude than chimpanzees to comprehend human signals seem to have been conducted well before those that were reported in Science, which were conducted by Brian Hare in 2004. Why do you think that your studies did not receive the same level of recognition in this country?

VC: We started our research program in 1994. At that time nobody was working with dogs in the ethological community, so we had to develop our research methods basically by trial and error. Our first paper on human–dog communication was published in 1998 after being rejected by a leading journal because they found it “unbelievable.” In other words, the results were “too good to be true.” The editors probably never had dogs. Further, we had a far-reaching research program in mind that took time to develop, and was aimed at finding parallels for various human-specific behaviors, not just in the case of interspecies communication.

We have some connections to Hare’s group in Germany and his team was faster to get an interesting aspect of this work into Science in 2002. We, however, were more careful in our experimental design and analysis (and consequently slower), but were able to publish our observations and provide a behavioral basis for dog-wolf differences in another high-profile journal, Current Biology with our tame wolf “Minka” on its cover-page. (Current Biology 13, no. 9 [2003]: 763-767)

B: You believe that dogs ask questions. Could you give some examples of canine questioning? How do you think a dog ponders an answer to a question about a future action—the example you give is asking your dogs “Which way?” while taking them on a walk.

VC: Questioning is very important in human group behavior. To pose a question is to show interest in the thoughts of someone else. Young dogs also question us: Where do we go? Which way? Who is coming? Who goes down with me? Is it permitted? And so on. If people are careful and answer the questions, it can soon become a regular method of communication with the dog. If questions do not get attention, dogs give up, just like human children.

If I go for a walk with Jerry, at a crossroads I frequently ask a question: “Which way?” If I ask, then he carefully sniffs in both directions and selects the “better” one and starts to go. If I am not posing the question, then he just follows me.

B: I also took delight in your “do as I do,” dogs imitating their humans—could you suggest an example that our readers might try with their dogs?

VC: When I tried it first with Jerry, I put a chair in the middle of my room and placed a rubber toy behind him, then I performed one of three possible actions: put the toy on the chair, go around the chair, or stand on the chair. After each performance I asked him to follow. With some help, he was successful after three to four days, three to four trials each day. After this, I moved the chair somewhere else, and requested only one action each time. When he performed the action well, I showed him new actions: place the toy into a bucket, for example. Dogs usually learn this after a week. However, the rigorous scientific training procedure is not so simple. We will have a published paper about this research soon explaining all the “tricks” in detail.

B: What do you think of Rico, the Border Collie in Germany who made the news last year because he could differentiate the names of so many different toys?

VC: In my view, the Border Collie represents a very interesting case, suggesting that dogs indeed have the potential for fast “word” learning. Of course, this does not mean that they could acquire language like children, but they might have some skills for recognizing the connection between a novel vocalization (“word”) and the presence of a novel object.

The performance of this dog resembles that of a 14- to 16-month-old baby; this is in general agreement with what dogs can achieve in other faculties of mind [relative] to human cognition. This study also hints that in the case of “talented” individuals, with special training or “education,” dogs can show an even higher potential for social cognition than has been appreciated so far.

B: Are you familiar with Dr. Temple Grandin? She is the autistic animal scientist, and in, Animals in Translation, she compares the way she thinks and feels to that of animals. Because of her autism she thinks in “pictures” and not in “language,” similar to the way dogs and other animals perceive the world. The perspective she brings to this subject is quite amazing. Can thinking in pictures rather than language explain many of problems that researchers are faced with when they develop language-based testing for animals?

VC: I do think that dogs are thinking in pictures, and even many people are able to do that, not only [those who are autistic]. My best scientific ideas come from thinking in pictures. To some people this is very strange, they feel they can think only in the medium of language. I hope that understanding our thinking processes will get us closer to understanding animals, especially dogs, which are already “more” than animals in the area of thinking.

B: I agree with you about the importance of social intelligence and that the mind needs to be exercised—how can dog people best exercise and enrich their dogs’ minds?

VC: As a result of their unique evolution, dogs have the potential to be humans’ best friends. However, this is not an automatic process, it depends crucially on the human partner. Just as we have a responsibility for our children, dogs require the same attention on our part. They are very much social animals, like humans, and depend in their development on continuous and variable social input from the environment. This means that they do not only need to be walked twice a day, but strive for substantial social interactions, which can take the form of play or joint sporting or even training.

B: What do you consider to be the most exciting research currently in progress about cognitive abilities in dogs?

VC: In my view, the study of dog cognition could still reveal some interesting secrets. Our work on imitation is far from over. At the department we have now a couple of young dogs who are able to imitate simple body movements, so now we can investigate in detail what they really understand from each other’s and their own body movements. We also study their barking, how they express vocal signals and how they interpret such signals.


Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Repetitive Behavior in Dogs
A study with insights into welfare

If you think that having dogs who bounce off the walls is problematic for them and for you, you are not alone. “Wall bouncing” is one of the repetitive behaviors that have long been considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress in the animals performing them. Other repetitive behaviors that are commonly seen in dogs are pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behavior.

Stereotypical behaviors are those that are not just repetitive, but also pointless and occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. That is, when animals are performing stereotypies, they are exhibiting behavior that has no function, and doing it over and over because their living environment is inadequate to meet their needs. A recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior called Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? explored whether all the repetitive behaviors observed in kennelled dogs are actually stereotypies. The reason this question matters is that if their repetitive behaviors are stereotypies, it suggests that animals’ welfare may be compromised, but if they are performing repetitive behaviors for other reasons, then that conclusion may be suspect.

The researchers studied 30 male German Shepherds who are fully trained Police Dogs in the UK and live in a kennel that can hold as many as 40 dogs. They studied their behavior as well as their cortisol profiles (which indicate stress) before and after veterinary exams. They found that all but two of the dogs performed repetitive behaviors, but that very few of them displayed stereotypies. Repetitive behaviors were most commonly induced by a dog and handler walking past the kennel and by witnessing food preparation, which supports the idea that repetitive behaviors are simply a response to situations of high arousal rather than to stress.

The dogs could be divided into four groups based on the pattern of their repetitive behavior and the eliciting stimuli. Twelve of the dogs only exhibited repetitive behavior in response to husbandry events (including veterinary care) or not at all and showed them in less than half of the observation period. Five additional dogs also only displayed repetitive behavior in those same contexts, but they showed it more than half of the time that they were observed. Eight dogs performed repetitive behaviors in response to husbandry and when a person walked by or stood outside their kennel. The last five dogs displayed repetitive behavior in the absence of these and other specific stimuli.

Though all the groups had similar baseline cortisol profiles, this last group had a cortisol profile following the exam that differed from the other groups. These dogs showed a decrease in cortisol immediately after the exam rather than the increase in cortisol seem in the other groups. This suggests one of two possibilities. One is that these dogs are under chronic stress and lack the physiological ability to respond typically to the additional stress of an exam. The other possibility is that these dogs are so attached to people, including their caregivers and the veterinarian, that being with them after a separation is such a positive experience that it balances out the stress of being removed from the kennel and examined.

The relationship between repetitive behaviors in dogs and their welfare status remains unclear, but this study suggests that there is not just one motivating factor behind the expression of repetitive behaviors. Many questions remain about repetitive behavior in dogs who are kenneled. Is it an indication of poor welfare? Could the repetitive behaviors be a result of reinforcement (food or attention) of these behaviors from people caring for the dogs? Why are the cortisol profiles different in dogs who exhibit repetitive behaviors without specific eliciting stimuli?