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?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Helped Humans Hunt Mammoths
New evidence from archaeological sites

Archaeological sites with hundreds of dead mammoths posed a puzzle to scientists: How could humans kill so many of these massive animals with the weapons available at the time? The answer is that one of the “weapons” used was not made of stone like the other tools of the time, but was made of flesh and blood. It was the domestic dog.

According to new research by Pat Shipman at Penn State University, humans may have been cooperating with some of the earliest domesticated dogs, which improved their mammoth hunting success considerably. The dogs could have contributed in a number of ways. They may have helped people find prey more quickly and more often. It’s possible that they held prey by charging and growling until the humans moved in to make the kill. After the mammoths died, dogs’ role in the hunt may have continued in the form of guarding the meat from scavengers or helping to carry it home.

Shipman developed several testable hypotheses about these new ideas. Based on analyses of what types of bones were present at the site (both dogs and wolves) as well as the cause of death of the mammoths, the idea that dogs were important in mammoth hunts about 45,000 to 15,000 years ago was supported. It is interesting that it was only during this time period that such large groups of hunted mammoths have been found, as humans (and their ancestors and extinct close relatives) began hunting mammoths over a million years ago.

A further piece of evidence that dogs were involved in mammoth hunting is the finding of a dog skull with a large bone, likely from a mammoth, that had been put in its mouth not long after it died. (That skull is shown in the photograph.) The find suggests that there were special rituals to acknowledge the dog’s role in mammoth hunting.

Knowing that modern dogs can suffer catastrophic injuries when hunting bears and wolves, I wonder how often dogs were wounded or killed in mammoth hunts.

News: Guest Posts
You are Invited to a Canine Science Conference
with free live streaming

If you think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, Thank You!

That means you stopped by Dog Spies in May 2013 and read a post with the same title. But that was #SPARCS2013, and this is #SPARCS2014; same concept, different location, topics and speakers. During this year’s 3-day event, June 20-22 2014, leading canine researchers will cover three general areas of research that get at the core of what it’s like to be a dog:

Topics that many dogs are sometimes better acquainted with than their humans:

SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training and Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory. From June 20-22, 2014, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action — either in-person in Newport, RI, or via free Live Stream to your living room (or bathroom, if that’s where you prefer to take your canine science).

SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the conference goals: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science. It is an international initiative to discuss what is known (and not known) about dog behavior, biology and cognition. No hooey included.

As a new addition to #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? — featuring myself and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb — will moderate. In conferences, I find that all the great info being discussed moves very fast. A question pops into your mind and you need clarification, but the speaker is already on the next topic.

At #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? will act as your pause button, fielding questions and expanding on speaker content. We’ll monitor questions and comments on social media, moderate the daily panel at the end of each day (posing your pressing questions and diving into hot-button topics), and we’ll hold post-talk interviews with each speaker (of course, speakers should be prepared to field questions on Ryan Gosling and his dog). We’re putting a large emphasis on engaging both the live and online audiences, so follow along at @DoUBelieveInDog and #SPARCS2014.

Here are the #SPARCS2014 featured speakers along with their respective talks topics. Visit the conference webpage for talk abstracts and learning goals:

Ray Coppinger, PhD
Aggression: Not a unitary behavior.

Why do breeds of dogs behave differently? –> Julie comment: No simple answer here!

Simon Gadbois, PhD
The neuroscience, ethology and semiotics of social behaviour: Get your ethograms and semiograms ready! –> Julie comment: If you know what an ethogram is (without googling it!) I’ll give you a gold star! Here’s a brief introduction to ethograms at Do You Believe in Dog?

Applied canine olfactory processing: What trainers need to know beyond learning theory.

It is not what you like, but what you want that counts: The neurochemistry of behaviour and motivation.

Sam Gosling, PhD

Overview of research on temperament and personality of dogs.

Kathryn Lord, PhD

Barking and conflict.

Patricia McConnell, PhD

 I see what you’re saying: Translating conflict-related visual signals.

Coyotes, Koalas and Kangaroos: What the behavior of other animals can teach you about your dog –> Julie comment: I haven’t seen a talk with this scope before!

James Serpell, PhD

 Individual and breed differences in aggression

What the C-BARQ can tell us about human temperament –> Julie comment: C-BARQ stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. Get acquainted with it here.

The influence of owner/handler personality on the behavior of dogs

Monique Udell, PhD

Integrating ethology, learning theory & cognition in animal training

Clive Wynne, PhD

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? –> Julie comment: I’m sure trainers and owners want to know, “Do some approaches to dog behavior have more of a basis in learning theory than others?”

Prescott Breeden, BM, CCS

The phenotype of molecules: Why nature vs. nurture is the wrong question  –> Julie comment: And the right question is…

#SPARCS2014 also features short presentations from emerging researchers. Check out the SPARCS Facebook page for speakers and topics.

Each year, the SPARCS conference and initiative is made possible by you. “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated.” Check out donation and membership opportunities.

Stay in touch with the SPARCS initiative on Facebook and Twitter.

Did you catch #SPARCS2013? Maybe you watched the Free Livestream or even attended in person. What was it like? And what are you looking forward to at #SPARCS2014?

This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.


News: Editors
Are There Differences Between Dog and Cat People?

All of the theorizing on the differences between dog lovers and cat lovers has some new research to fuel the rivalry. A new study led by Denise Guastello, an associate professor of psychology at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, suggests that “dog people” and “cat people” are quite distinct in their personalities.

People who said they were dog lovers in the study tended to be more lively—meaning they were more energetic and outgoing. They also tended to follow rules closely. Cat lovers, on the other hand, were more introverted, more open-minded and more sensitive than dog lovers. Cat people also tended to be non-conformists, preferring to be question rather than follow the rules. All within reasonable assumptions, but here’s the kicker … the study shows cat owners scoring higher on intelligence than dog lovers.

Study researcher Guastello attributes some of these personality differences to the types of environments cat or dog people prefer. “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you're more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”

The researchers surveyed 600 college students, asking whether they would identify themselves as dog lovers or cat lovers, and what qualities they found most attractive in their pets. Participants also answered a slew of questions to assess their personality.

More people said they were dog lovers than cat lovers: About 60 percent of participants identified themselves as dog people, compared with 11 percent who said they were cat people. (The rest said they liked both animals, or neither animal.)

Dog lovers found companionship to be the most attractive quality in their pet dogs, whole cat people liked the affection from their cats. Because the study involved college students, it’s not known whether the results apply to other age groups, Guastello said. But previous studies have had similar findings. A 2010 study of more than 4,500 people found that dog lovers tend to be more extroverted (or outgoing), and conscientious (or rule-following).

It is to be noted that we could not find out just how the intelligence differential was measured, but it seems highly suspect considering all the factors that would need to be accounted for to get an accurate IQ assessment.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Dog Food Logic
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.

When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process. 

Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion. 

Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?). 

Inclusion Claims
Inclusion claims are declarations that the food contains a desirable ingredient or nutrient. If you are selecting a dog food based upon an interest in a particular set of ingredients, these claims can be helpful, provided your reasons are sound and evidence-based. This is a significant prerequisite, of course, and one that is often ignored by dog owners and pet food companies alike. Unfortunately, a substantial number of the “We have it cuz it’s good” and the “We don’t have it cuz it’s bad” claims are marketing responses to current feeding fads that are designed to sell more food rather than to impart knowledge or support healthful choices. 

Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients. 

Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods). 

Exclusion Claims
Claims of exclusion can be particularly difficult to interpret and decipher, given the rapidity with which new dietary theories, fads and health-promoting practices arrive on the market and the fervor with which certain ingredients are denigrated. Unfortunately, pet food manufacturers exacerbate these trends expressly to boost sales. When enough dog owners begin to believe a common ingredient is harmful, manufacturers respond by making label claims that their food is free of the targeted ingredient, which, via circular reasoning, appears to confirm that the ingredient is harmful. 

As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term. 

Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence. 

Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience. 

The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency. 

Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
The term “digestibility” refers to the collective proportion of all nutrients in the food that is available for absorption from the gut (intestine) into the body. Because a highly digestible food provides a higher proportion of absorbed nutrients than a less-digestible food, digestibility is a direct measure of nutritional value and quality. The reason that a food’s digestibility is so vitally important to our dogs’ well being is precisely because the majority of commercial foods sold today are developed, tested and marketed as “complete and balanced.” This means that the food provides all of the essential nutrients that, in correct quantity and balance, a dog needs on a daily basis. 

Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.

The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins. 

In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it. 

This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.

Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent. 

It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients). 

Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality. 

In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).

In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.

Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
Today, significant numbers of dog owners are concerned with where the ingredients of their dogs’ food originate and who is making their foods. And, because pet food companies are aware of the importance of this to many consumers, foods that contain regionally or domestically (U.S.) sourced ingredients will make this claim on their labels. Additionally, the claim of “Made in the USA” is found on some products. Although this claim does not really suggest that it applies to ingredient source, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that guide this type of claim require that “all or virtually all” of the parts and processing of a product must originate in the United States. For pet foods, AAFCO interprets this FTC regulation to mean that a food with the “Made in the USA” claim can contain no or negligible foreign-acquired content. 

This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.

The Take-Away on Label Claims
Multiple factors affect each individual dog’s health, energy level and well being. Of all of these factors, diet is the only one over which we as owners exert total and complete control and is quite easy for us to modify. While there’s no single perfect food, there are smart choices. And these you can definitely learn to make for your dog.


Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.

News: Guest Posts
Drop Outs and Bloopers: Behind the Scenes of Canine Science

I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”

The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.

So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**

But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:

A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
– One dog was excluded due to “interference from a squirrel.” Let’s all take a moment and imagine what that could look like.
– Another dog was excluded for “excessive activity.” Which could be code for this.
– Another dog was excluded for food aggressiveness. Obviously not helpful in a study that involved food.
– Other dogs were excluded for experimenter or owner error.

Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
– A pair of dogs “was excluded because one of them (a border collie) tried to herd the partner dog instead of concentrating on the task.”
– Two subjects were excluded because they “refused to cooperate with the experimenter to give the paw 30 times in the assessment session.” I’ll give a high five to the dogs who cooperated. They must be expert patty-cake players (but in all seriousness, raising a paw is often considered a submissive behavior, not a game of patty-cake).
– Another dog “had to be excluded because the owner decided to stop the experiment after her first dog was tested.”
– And finally, “one died because of old age before the assessment session could be conducted.”


So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?


**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!

Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.

Kundey et al. 2010. Domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) react to what others can and cannot hear. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 126, 45–50.
Lorenz, K. 1954. Man meets dog. London: Methuen.
Range et al. 2008. The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, 340–345.


This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Behavioral Predictors of Adoption
What dogs do influences potential adopters

We know that millions of shelter pets are available for adoption each year, but that many are never selected. Most previous research into the choices that people make about which dog to adopt has focused on what the dog looks like and the dog’s behavior in the kennel.

The recent study “Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption” investigated whether dogs’ behavior during an interaction outside of the kennel had any impact on the likelihood of adoption. (Potential adopters chose which dog or dogs they wanted to spend time with in a session out of the kennel.)

There were only two behaviors that influenced adoption: 1) Dogs who ignored people’s attempts to initiate play were far less likely to be adopted than those dogs who played when people attempted to initiate play with them, and 2) Dogs who spent more time lying down close to potential adopters were fourteen times more likely to be adopted than those who spent less time lying down near the people. Dogs who were adopted spent half as much time ignoring people’s attempts to play and twice as much time lying down near potential adopters than dogs who were not selected for adoption.

This research suggests that even in a short interaction—the average in this study was 8 minutes and did not differ between people who chose to adopt the dog and those who did not adopt the dog—people were making choices based on dogs’ behavior. Specifically, they chose dogs who played with them and who spent time lying down near them. This study suggests that people are selecting dogs who act in certain ways and that training dogs to behave in these ways has the potential to increase their chances of being adopted.