Nutrition, Training and Evidence-based Decision Making

New Podcast! Listen as Melissa Breau of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy interviews Linda Case (aka “The Science Dog”) about nutrition, training and evidence-based decision making.

For more, sign up for Linda’ upcoming FDSA webinar, “Canine Athlete or Couch Potato: Feeding Dogs to Meet Their Exercise Needs“!

CLICK THE TOLLER TO LEARN MORE AND REGISTER!

New Science Dog Webinar!

Greetings Science Dog Followers,

I am pleased to announce that the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is sponsoring a new Science Dog webinar.

“Canine Athlete or Couch Potato? Feeding Dogs to Meet Their Exercise Needs”

Date: Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Time: 6:00 pm Pacific Time

Fee: $19.95

Presenter: Linda P. Case (aka “The Science Dog”)

Description: This seminar begins with an examination of the prevalence of canine obesity, its associated health problems, and the importance of both diet and exercise in keeping dogs fit and healthy. We then review several types of dog sports and activities, including forms of exercise that owners participate in with their dogs. This section of the seminar includes an examination of the ways that exercise duration, intensity, and frequency impact a dog’s metabolism and nutrient needs along with comparisons of the differences between endurance and sprint activities. Specific feeding management for dogs with different activity levels and lifestyles will be discussed.

In the second half of the seminar, we examine a variety of dog foods that are formulated and marketed as weight management diets and as performance diets. Attendees will learn to identify nutrient matrices that best match a dog’s activity level and/or weight management needs and to compare and contrast commercial performance diets and diets designed to manage weight. Attendees will complete the seminar with a deeper understanding of the importance of nutrition and feeding management in maintaining a dog’s optimal weight and condition and how to select food that best fits the needs of the canine athlete, weekend warrior, or couch potato.

Note: A recorded version will be available in all registrants for ~ 72 hours after the live presentation.  Please see the FDSA’s FAQ page for additional information.

Questions? Feel welcome to comment below or email me at lcase@autumngoldconsulting.com.

HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

COOP, WHO BELIEVES THE BEST EXERCISE ALWAYS INVOLVES A POOL

A Science Dog Webinar: “Understanding Evidence-based Dog Training”

Greetings Science Dog Followers!

I am pleased to announce that the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) is sponsoring an on-demand Science Dog webinar.

Understanding Evidence-based Dog Training – Why One Dog (or Anecdote) does not a Study Make” is available to all interested dog owners, trainers and dog professionals.

Description: As dog owners and trainers, we are responsible for making numerous decisions for our animals on a daily basis. Some of these decisions are simple and easy to make, while others are of much greater importance to our dogs’ emotional and physical well-being. In today’s world, the amount of information that we are exposed to and influenced by is vast and often overwhelming.

In this webinar, students will:

  • Learn to identify and critically evaluate the many sources of information that influence our training and behavior practices and examine the role that science should play in our dog training decisions
  • Review the scientific method and understand its application to research studies of canine cognition, behavior, and training
  • Explore a detailed (and fun!) case study with dogs to better understand research study designs, the selection of study groups, use of controls, data measurement and collection, inclusion of statistical tests, compilation of results, and drawing appropriate conclusions.

Following completion of this webinar, participants will:

  • Understand the way in which the scientific method is applied to studies of dog behavior and training
  • Be able to identify and assess the essential components of a well-designed research study
  • Have the skills to critically evaluate different types of information sources for reliability
  • Discuss the role that evidence-based training and behavior knowledge play into their own training practices.

Class fees and CEUs: This on-demand (self-study) webinar begins on the student’s sign-on date and remains available for 6 months.

  • IAABC member fee: $30.00
  • Non-member fee: $45.00
  • 1.75 CEUs for IAABC & KPA; CCPDT CEUs pending.

Register on the IAABC website: 

Questions? Comment below or email me directly! Hope to see you there!

The Heart of the Matter

In mid-July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an alert to veterinarians and pet owners regarding reports of increased incidence of a heart disease called canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This disorder is characterized by weakening of the heart muscle, which leads to a decreased ability of the heart to pump, and if untreated, to cardiac failure. The reported cases occurred in breeds that are not considered to be genetically predisposed to this disorder.

Further, a significant number of the dogs were found to have reduced levels of circulating taurine in their blood and have responded positively to taurine supplementation. It is speculated that these cases are related to the consumption of foods that negatively affect taurine status, leading to taurine-deficiency DCM. Foods containing high levels of peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes were identified by the FDA as potential risk factors. These ingredients are found commonly in foods that are formulated and promoted as “grain-free.”

As these things go, there followed a lot of hype and a fair bit of hysteria in response. Let us avoid this type of reaction and instead look at the evidence – what do we currently know about the role of diet and taurine in the development of DCM in dogs and how is it that “grain-free” foods have been recently targeted as a possible dietary cause?

What is Taurine? The nutrient taurine is a unique type of amino acid, called a beta-amino sulfonic acid. It is not incorporated into proteins but rather is found primarily as a free amino acid in body tissues and circulating in the blood. Taurine has many functions, but two that are important for this discussion involve its role in normal heart function and its presence as a component of bile acids, which are needed for fat digestion. Most animals obtain adequate taurine to meet their needs by producing it endogenously (in the body) from two other amino acids, methionine and cysteine.

TAURINE

This means that while animals require taurine physiologically, most do not have a dietary requirement for taurine. The exception to this rule is the cat. Cats (but not dogs) always require a source of taurine in their food. If they do not have it, one of the diseases that they can develop (and possibly die from) is……you guessed it…..DCM.

Taurine-deficiency DCM is well documented in cats. We also know quite a lot about the dietary factors that contribute to this disease in that species. In contrast, dogs (usually) do not require a source of dietary taurine. However, we know that some dogs still develop taurine-deficiency DCM. Why does this happen? The history of DCM in cats can help in untangling what may be occurring in dogs.

Taurine-deficiency DCM in Cats: Looking back, I cannot avoid a sense of déjà vu. In the early 1980s veterinarians began reporting increased incidences of DCM in pet cats. By 1987, a role for dietary taurine was suspected. In a seminal study, a veterinary researcher at UC Davis reported low plasma (blood) taurine levels in 21 cats with clinical signs of DCM (1). When the cats were supplemented with taurine, all 21 completely recovered from the disease. This discovery led to a series of controlled studies that supported the existence of taurine-deficiency DCM developing in cats who were fed diets that contained sufficient concentrations of taurine.

What was going on?

It has to do with Bile Acids: Another role of taurine is the body is that it is necessary for normal bile acid function. Taurine is linked to bile acids in the liver to form bile salts. These compounds are secreted into the small intestine during digestion where they function to aid in fat digestion. Animals are very efficient at conserving the taurine that is secreted into the intestine by reabsorbing the bile salts back into the body further down the intestinal tract. This occurs through a process called “enterohepatic reutilization” and prevents a daily loss of taurine in the feces.

Herein lies the problem for cats with DCM: If anything happens during digestion that causes the degradation of the bile salt taurine or that inhibits its reabsorption into the body, more is lost in the feces. If this happens consistently, the cat will experience an increase in his or her daily need for dietary taurine. Simply put – if anything causes the cat to poop out more taurine-bile acid complexes (or their degraded by-products), the cat will be in danger of a taurine deficiency if a higher level is not provided in the diet.

This is exactly what was happening in the cats with taurine-deficiency DCM – and is possibly what we are seeing today in dogs. The difference is that we know what diet factors caused taurine deficiency in cats during the late 1980s. These factors are not yet fully understood for dogs (but we can make a few guesses).

Here is What We Know: The studies with cats found that several dietary factors influenced taurine status (2,3,4). These were the level and type of dietary protein, the amount and type of dietary fiber, and the degree of heat treatment that was used during food processing. These factors could affect taurine status in three ways:

  1. Bile Acid Binding: Certain fibers and peptides (small protein chains) in the food can bind with bile salts the small intestine and make them unavailable for reabsorption into the body. This results in an increased daily loss of taurine in the feces and a subsequent increase in daily taurine requirement to replace that loss.
  2. Increased Microbial Degradation: Thermal processing of protein (extrusion or canning) can lead to the production of Maillard products – complexes of sugars and amino acids and are poorly digested in the small intestine. The undigested complexes travel to the large intestine and provide an intestinal environment that favors increased numbers of taurine-degrading bacteria. An increase in these bacterial populations reduces the proportion of taurine that is available for reabsorption and reuse by the body.
  3. Reduced Taurine Availability: Taurine is found naturally in animal-based proteins but is not found in plant-based protein sources. Therefore, providing diets that include a sufficient level of high-quality animal proteins (that are not heat damaged) should ensure adequate taurine intake. However, protein that is of low quality or that has been excessively heat-treated will be poorly digested, reducing the availability of taurine and of its precursor amino acids, cysteine and methionine. (Note: Cats produce small amounts of taurine from these precursors, while dogs can produce all of their needs from them, if adequate levels are available).

In response to new information regarding the interaction of dietary factors and taurine status in cats (and their relationship to DCM in cats), the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) increased the recommendations for dietary taurine in extruded and canned cat foods in the early 1990s. The current recommendations are 1000 mg taurine/kg (0.1 %) in dry (extruded) cat foods and 2000 mg taurine/kg (0.2 %) in canned cat foods.

So, What about Dogs? Unlike the cat, dogs that are fed diets containing adequate levels of protein should be capable of synthesizing enough taurine from the two amino acid precursors, cysteine and methionine, to meet their needs. Therefore, a requirement for dietary taurine has not been generally recognized in dogs.

Breed Predispositions: However, there is evidence – evidence that we have had for at least 15 years – that certain breeds of dogs, and possibly particular lines within breeds, exhibit a high prevalence of taurine-deficiency DCM. Genetically predisposed breeds include the American Cocker Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Saint Bernard, Newfoundland and English Setter (5,6). Although the exact underlying cause is not known, it appears that some breeds have either a naturally occurring higher requirement for taurine or a metabolic abnormality that affects their taurine synthesis or utilization.

Size: A second factor that affects taurine status in dogs is size. There is evidence that a large adult size and a relatively slow metabolic rate influences the rate of taurine production in the body and may subsequently lead to a dietary taurine requirement. It is theorized that increased body size in dogs is associated with an enhanced risk for developing taurine deficiency and that this risk may be exacerbated by a breed-specific genetic predisposition. For example, when compared metabolically, Newfoundlands have a significantly lower rate of taurine synthesis than Beagles (7).

There is additional evidence that large and giant breed dogs have lower rates of taurine production compared with small dogs. Ultimately, studies suggest that certain dogs possess a genetic predisposition to taurine depletion and increased susceptibility to taurine-deficiency DCM and that this susceptibility may be related to the combined factors of breed, size and metabolic rate.

What is the Role of Diet? The recent spate of cases and media attention to taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs suggests that this is a very new problem in dogs. However, it is not new. A connection between diet and DCM in dogs was first described in a paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2001 (8). What is new is the sudden focus on certain pet food ingredients and the target that appears to have been placed upon the backs of all “grain-free” pet food brands by some bloggers and veterinarians. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the 12 cases of taurine-deficiency DCM described in the 2001 paper were collected between 1997 and 2001, years before grain-free dog foods had arrived on the pet food scene. Rather than disparage one class or type of dog food (or pet food company), it is more important to look at specific dietary factors that may be involved in DCM in dogs.

Generally speaking, these are expected to be the same as those identified for cats, including low protein levels, poorly processed or heat-damaged proteins (leading to Maillard products), and the inclusion of a high proportion of plant-based protein sources such as peas and legumes.

Over the past 15 years, reduced taurine status in dogs has also been alternately associated with feeding lamb meal and rice diets, soybean-based diets, rice bran, beet pulp, and high fiber diets (9,10,11). As with cats, there appear to be multiple dietary (and genetic) factors involved. For example, it was theorized that the perceived (not proven) association between lamb meal and taurine status was due to low levels of available amino acids present in the lamb meal, or to excessive heat damage of the protein, or to the confounding factor of the inclusion of rice bran in many lamb meal-containing foods. To date, none of these factors have been conclusively proven or disproven. Although, the most recent study showed that three types of fiber source – rice bran, cellulose, and beet pulp – all caused reduced plasma taurine levels in dogs when included in a marginally low protein diet, with beet pulp causing the most pronounced decrease (11).

Complicated? You bet. This is why it is important to avoid making unsupported claims about certain foods and brands. Taurine-deficiency DCM has been around for a while in dogs and continues to need study before making definitive conclusions about one or more specific dietary causes.

What DO we know? We know that any dietary factor that reduces the availability of taurine precursors, binds taurine bile salts in the intestine, or causes an increase in the bacteria populations that degrade taurine can reduce a dog’s ability to synthesize taurine or will increase taurine degradation and/or loss in the feces. These changes could ultimately compromise a dog’s taurine status (especially if the dog was genetically predisposed) and affect heart health. In extreme cases, as we are seeing, this can lead to taurine-deficiency DCM (see diagram below).

FDA Report: The FDA report identified foods that contain high amounts of peas, lentils, legume seeds, or potatoes to be of potential concern. The FDA also stated that the underlying cause of DCM in the reported cases is not known and that at this time, the diet-DCM relationship is only correlative (not causative). However, this has not stopped various bloggers and even some veterinarians from targeting small pet food companies and/or grain-free brands of food, and implying that these foods, and these foods alone, are causing taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs. Their reasoning is that peas and legumes are present in high amounts in foods that are formulated and marketed as grain-free. However, the truth is that many companies and brands of food include these ingredients. More importantly, there is no clear evidence showing that a particular dog food type, brand, or even ingredient is solely responsible for taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs.

Rather, it is more reasonable and responsible to speculate that one or more of these ingredients, their interactions, or the effects of ingredient quality, heat treatment, and food processing may play a role. Furthermore, the underlying cause could be the protein, starch, or fiber fractions of these ingredients. As plant-source proteins, peas and lentils and legumes include varying amounts of starch (both digestible and resistant forms) and dietary fiber. These protein sources are also generally less nutritionally complete and less digestible than are high quality animal source proteins – additional factors that could influence a dog’s ability to both produce and use taurine. Potatoes, on the other hand, provide a digestible source of starch in an extruded food but also contain varying levels of resistant starch, which is not digested and behaves much like dietary fiber in the intestinal tract.

The Heart of the Matter: Because any or all of these dietary factors could be risk factors for taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs and because peas, legumes, and other ingredients identified by the FDA report have not yet been fully studied, the heart of the matter is that no conclusions can yet be made about the underlying dietary cause or causes of taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs. Given what we do know, a recommendation is to feed a food that contains sufficient levels high quality, animal-source protein, does not include plant-source proteins as its primary protein source, and does not contain high levels of dietary fiber. If you are worried about your dog’s taurine status or heart health, see your veterinarian for a complete physical examination and if needed, to measure plasma levels of taurine.

Cited Studies:

  1. Pion PD, Kittleson MD, Rogers QR, et al. Myocardial failure in cats associated with low plasma taurine: A reversible cardiomyopathy. Science 1987; 237:764-768.
  2. Earl KE, Smith PM. The effect of dietary taurine content on the plasma taurine concentration of the cat. British Journal of Nutrition 1991; 66:227-235.
  3. Hickman MA, Morris JG, Rogers QR. Effect of processing on the fate of dietary taurine in cats. Journal of Nutrition 1990; 120:995-1000.
  4. Hickman HA, Morris JG, Rogers QR. Intestinal taurine and the enterohepatic circulation of taurocholic acid in the cat. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 1992; 315:45-54.
  5. Freeman LM, Rush JE, Brown DJ, et al. Relationship between circulating and dietary taurine concentrations in dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy. Veterinary Therapeutics 2001; 370-378.
  6. Backus RC, Ko KS, Fascetti AJ. Low plasma taurine concentration in Newfoundland dogs is associated with low plasma methionine and cysteine concentrations and low taurine synthesis. Journal of Nutrition 2006; 136:2525-2533.
  7. Ko KS, Backus RC, Berg JR, et al. Differences in taurine synthesis rate among dogs relate to differences in their maintenance energy requirement. Journal of Nutrition 2007; 137:1171-1175.
  8. Fascetti AJ, Reed JR, Roger QR, et al. Taurine deficiency in dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy: 12 cases (1997 – 2001). Journal of the American Animal Veterinary Association 2001; 223:1137-1141.
  9. Delaney SJ, Kass PH, Rogers QR, Fascetti AJ. Plasma and whole blood taurine in normal dogs of varying size fed commercially prepared food. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 2003; 87:235-244.
  10. Torres CL, Backus RC, Fascetti AJ, et al. Taurine status in normal dogs fed a commercial diet associated with taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 2003; 87:359-372.
  11. Ko KS, Fascetti AJ. Dietary beet pulp decreases taurine status in dogs fed low protein diet. Journal of Animal Science and Technology 2016; 58:29-39.

Dogs and Carbs – Its Complicated

The question of how best to feed dogs stimulates great debate and evokes strong emotions among dog folks. (Yes, this an intended understatement). One of the most contentiously defended viewpoints in recent years is that dogs should not be fed diets that contain digestible carbohydrate (starch). Two primary arguments are used to defend this position.

These are:

  1. Dogs are carnivores and have no dietary requirement for carbohydrate; and
  2. Dogs are unable to efficiently digest starch. Therefore, including starch-providing ingredients in dog foods is unhealthy and provides no nutritional value.

Like many persistent beliefs, there is both truth and falsehood in these claims. Let’s start with the first.

Dogs are carnivores and have no dietary requirement for carbohydrate: The first bit is false; the second bit is true. Dogs are classified within the taxonomic order of Carnivora but like many other species within this order, dogs are omnivorous. The term omnivore simply means that an animal consumes foods that are of animal and plant origin (dogs do this) and can derive essential nutrients from both animal and plant foods (ditto). Based upon this definition, animal nutritionists consider the dog to be an omnivore. By contrast, the domestic cat, along with other felid species, is classified as an obligate carnivore. This classification means that cats cannot derive all of their nutrient needs from plant foods and therefore have an obligate need for foods of animal origin in their diet.

The fact that dogs are omnivorous does not signify that they are not predatory (they are), nor that they do not seek out and enjoy eating meat (they do). All that it means is that dogs can consume and derive nutrients from both animal and plant matter. If we consider the dog’s feeding behavior, it is clear that the majority of dogs enjoy and probably prefer to consume meat in their diet. However, they also scavenge and consume a wide variety of food types, including starch-containing foods. Nutritionally, just like bears (who also preferably seek out animal source proteins), dogs are omnivores.

Personally, I am baffled as to why “omnivore” has become a fighting word among dog people. Really? This label does not turn the dog into a carrot-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, canine hippie.

PEACE DUDE. I’M AN OMNIVORE, NOT A FIGHTER

Rather, it simply describes what the dog eats and is capable of deriving nutrients from – meat and veggies. That’s all. Time for us all to calm down about this one. Let’s move on to the second part of this claim – that dogs have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates.

So what about carbs? This part is correct. Dogs, like other animals, do not have a dietary requirement for carbohydrates. However, cooked starch provides a highly digestible energy source to dogs when included in their diet. From a nutrition standpoint, dietary carbohydrate spares protein. This means that when a body uses carbohydrate to provide needed energy, dietary protein is conserved from being used for this purpose and continues to be available for use to provide essential amino acids, build and repair body tissues, and support a healthy immune system. Therefore, including at least some digestible carbohydrate in the diet of dogs is generally considered to be beneficial. The controversy about starch in dog foods revolves more around how much starch is in the food and where that starch comes from, rather than its absolute presence or absence. Dogs can thrive on low-carbohydrate diets provided such diets are balanced and contain all of the essential nutrients. Diets formulated in this way are often highly palatable because of their high proportions of protein and fat. These foods are also generally very energy dense (lots of calories packed into a small volume of food), which means that portion control is important to ensure that dogs maintain a healthy weight.

Let’s move on to number 2 – the belief that dogs are unable to digest starch.

Dogs cannot digest starch. Unequivocally false. Dog efficiently digest cooked starch, just like humans. They cannot digest raw starch and neither can we. Cooking results in the expansion of the small granules that make up starch, which allows digestive enzymes better access and increases digestibility. This is true for humans as well as for dogs, and this fact explains why we generally do not munch on raw potatoes. We actually know the exact degree to which cooking increases digestibility of various starches. Ground grains such as rice, oats, or corn are about 60 percent digestible when fed raw to dogs. Cooking these ingredients increases the dog’s ability to digest them to almost 100 percent! This means that if you feed your dog 100 grams of uncooked oats or rice, only 60 grams will make it into his body to nourish him; 40 grams ends up in the large intestine where microbes ferment some of it, and a lot of that 40 grams ends up in your yard, as feces. Conversely, when cooked, almost the entire 100 grams are digested and absorbed to nourish your dog. Again, not to put too fine a point on this, but the same holds true for humans.

Meet AMY2B: Dogs also have an enhanced ability to digest starch-containing ingredients, a change that has been directly tied to domestication. In 2013, a ground-breaking paper by Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden identified a host of genetic changes that occurred as dogs evolved from their wolf ancestors (1). Three of these changes were alterations of key genes that code for enzymes involved in starch digestion, most notably and consistently, one labeled AMY2B. This gene codes for the production of pancreatic amylase, an enzyme that functions to digest dietary starch.

Although variation exists among individual dogs and breeds of differing geographic origin, the increased copies of the AMY2B gene correlate with higher levels of circulating pancreatic amylase in a dog’s blood, which means that higher AMY2B leads to more efficient starch digestion (2,3,4).  On average, dogs have a sevenfold higher copy number of this gene compared with present-day wolves. These changes in the dog’s genetic makeup coincide with the expansion of human agricultural practices and increased reliance upon starch-providing plants in both human and dog diets.

What do dogs choose? It is a fact that domestic dogs are better adapted to scavenging and to a diet that is higher in starch-containing foods than were their wolf-like ancestors. However, just because dogs can consume and digest starch, it does not necessarily follow that a diet that contains a high proportion of digestible carbohydrate is the healthiest way to feed them. One way of approaching this question is to ask the dogs directly.

Historically, nutritionists have viewed diet selection in animals principally from the standpoint of energy balance. The basic assumption was that all animals, including dogs, eat to meet their energy (caloric) needs first. However, in recent years this premise has been challenged. There is evidence that a wide range of species, including many birds, fish, and mammals, will self-select diets containing consistent proportions of the three major macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrate, and that they regulate and balance their nutrient intake to maximize lifespan and reproductive fitness. The recognition that macronutrient selection can be a driver for appropriate diet selection has led to several new studies with dogs and cats.

Domestic cats were studied before dogs and were found to consistently select a diet that was high in protein and fat and low in carbohydrate (5). This profile is consistent with that of other obligate carnivores and with the cat’s wild feline cousins. Interestingly, a very recent study with cats found that cats preferentially balanced their diets to a set protein:fat ratio, even when offered foods of different flavor preferences and containing animal- or plant-based protein sources (6). Although flavor and smell were important influences, the strongest factor for food selection appeared to be the total amount of protein in the food, rather than its source.

To date, only two controlled studies have been completed with dogs. In both, dogs have also demonstrated a similar talent to their feline friends for self-selecting the macronutrient content of their diets (7,8). The studies were conducted by different research teams and used somewhat different methodologies, but both reported that dogs preferentially selected diets that were low in carbohydrate, and high in fat and protein. When expressed as a percent of energy, dogs gravitated to a general distribution of 30 to 38 percent protein, 59 to 63 percent fat and 3 to 7 percent carbohydrate. Interestingly, wolves self-select diets that are even lower in carbohydrate –  only about 1 percent. Initially, the dogs in these studies were attracted to very high fat diets, but over a period of several days reduced the proportion of fat and moderately increase protein. An important finding of the most recent study was that when dogs were allowed to choose these dietary proportions over a period of 10 days, they tended to over-consume calories. On average, the dogs gained almost 3.5 pounds in just 10 days of feeding.

Its Complicated: At this point in time, we know that dogs can better digest starch in their diet compared with their wolf ancestors (and with present-day wolves). This increased capability is at least partially due to increased production of pancreatic amylase. We also know that, like us, dogs digest cooked starches very efficiently, but cannot utilize raw starch. We also know that the  inclusion of at least some level of starch in a dog’s diet provides an efficient source of energy (calories). Finally, most recently, we have learned that when given the choice, dogs preferentially select a diet that is low in starch, and that is high in protein and fat. However, self-selection of this type of diet (if fed without portion control) may lead to overconsumption and weight gain.

Still, none of this information provides evidence for the healthfulness of a diet containing some starch versus a diet that contains very low (or no) starch in terms of dog’s vitality, ability to maintain a healthy body weight and condition, development of chronic health problems and longevity. Unfortunately, this has not stopped proponents of low carbohydrate or carbohydrate-free diets from making such claims. The fact that dogs gravitate to a diet that is high in protein and fat and low in starch  is not to be confused with evidence that such a diet has been proven to be healthier or is capable of preventing illness. We simply do not know.

What we need at this point, is evidence of whether or not dietary carbohydrate is harmful, beneficial or, well,  neither. Dogs are generalists after all. It is quite possible that they, like many animals, are capable of thriving on a wide variety of diet types, including those with some level of starch.

Like I said. Its complicated.

Cited References:

  1. Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt ML, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 2013; 495:360-364.
  2. Arendt M, Fall, T, Lindblad-Toh K, Axelsson E. Amylase activity is associated with AMY2B copy numbers in dogs: Implications for dog domestication, diet and diabetes. Animal Genetics 2014; 45:716-722.
  3. Arendt M, Cairns KM, Ballard JWO, Savolainen P, Axelsson eE. Diet adaptation in dogs reflects spread of prehistoric agriculture. Heredity 2016; 117:301-396.
  4. Reiter T, Jagoda E, Capellini TD. Dietary variation and evolution of gene copy number among dog breeds. PLOSone 2016; 11:e01148899.
  5. Hewson-Hughes AK, Hewson-Hughes VL, Miller AT, et al. Geometric analysis of macronutrient selection in the adult domestic cat, Felis catus. Journal of Experimental Biology 2011; 214:1039-1051.
  6. Hewson-Hughes AK, Colyer A, Simpson SJ, Raubenheimer D. Balancing macronutrient intake in a mammalian carnivore: disentangling the influences of flavor and nutrition. Royal Society of Open Science 2016; 3:160081.
  7. Hewson-Hughes AK, Hewson-Hughes VL, Colyer A, et al. Geometric analysis of macronutrient selection in breeds of the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris. Behavioral Ecology 2013; 24:293-304.
  8. Roberts MT, BErmingham EN, Cave NJ, Young W, McKenzie CM, Thomas DG. Macronutrient intake of dogs, self-selecting diets varying in composition offered ad libitum. Journal of Animal Physiology and Nutrition 2018; 102:568-575.

Choosing Kindly – An Excerpt

This week’s Science Dog essay is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“.

I introduced the previous chapter with a story about starting each orientation class at AutumnGold with a version of the training game. While I emphasized that our students are usually impressed by these demonstrations and immediately catch on to the power of positive reinforcement, I would be remiss to not mention that we do see the occasional “frownie-face” in the audience during these demonstrations.

What I am referring to is the human version of this:

That face, human form, tells us that the student expressing it is not convinced and is usually taking umbrage with the use of food treats to train dogs. Mr. or Ms. Frownie-face invariably raises a hand to utter some version of the following:

“I don’t want to use food with my dog to train him because I want him to work for me out of love [or respect, or because I am alpha, or because I am King Tut, ruler of the world]”

Okay, maybe I made that last bit up. But you get the picture.

While we get the frownie-face and the resistance that accompanies it less frequently than in the past (thank you positive trainers!), we still see it now and again. So, in this chapter we explore evidence for staying, as much as possible, within the positive reinforcement (+R) quadrant of Skinner’s four consequences. I also will provide a means for communicating this information to the doubting Joes, Josephines and Frownie-faces of the world when you encounter them as clients, in classes, or as your neighbors.

Training in the +R Quadrant: I don’t think it is an outrageous claim to assert that the vast majority of people do not want to harm their dogs, either physically or emotionally, in order to train them. Unfortunately, a substantial number of dog owners continue to think that using punishment is the only effective and reliable way to train dogs. These beliefs may arise from continued reliance upon “dog-as-wolf” myths that tell owners they must establish dominance over their dogs, or upon the view that using positive reinforcers in training is synonymous with bribing. (These beliefs are false, as Joe finds out at the end of this chapter). For now though, let’s look at what we know to be true about the aversive control of behavior, commonly referred to as “correction-based” training, versus training methods that focus primarily on positive reinforcement, commonly referred to as “reward-based” training.

Correction-Based Training: Aversive training methods, even if “balanced” with positive reinforcement, rely upon a dog’s natural desire to avoid pain and discomfort. The dog pulls forward into his leash; a collar jerk occurs; the dog moves back into a loose-lead heel position to avoid the discomfort. If a consequence is not sufficiently unpleasant, the dog has no reason to change his behavior to avoid it and learning does not occur. Therefore, by its very definition, a training approach that relies partially or fully on aversive consequences involves causing some level of discomfort or pain to the dog.

In addition to the discomfort that this approach relies upon, there are emotional costs. The basic emotions associated with pain and discomfort in dogs (as in humans) are fear and anxiety. Although proponents of correction-based methods argue that anxiety and fear can be minimized by using the mildest intensity of an aversive that is necessary, there is no evidence that such a level exists. Rather, all of the studies that have examined the use of aversives to control behavior in dogs have reported signs of stress and/or fear as direct results of these training methods (see following section in this chapter for details).

A third problem with reliance upon aversives in dog training is that the exact nature of a dog’s response is not always predictable. Although some dogs move away from an aversive stimulus if there is an escape route available (for example, a dog stops pulling into a corrective collar), others may freeze in place, panic, attempt to run away, or become aggressive. As a result, the risk is that the response of the dog is not always what was intended by the trainer. This is a common problem because applying an aversive only provides the dog with information about what NOT to do, but does not provide information about what TO do. Essentially, the dog is forced to learn through the process of elimination. Negative reinforcement relies on the dog’s ability to select the desired behavior that will allow her to escape or avoid the aversive. Because a variety of behaviors are often equally successful in avoiding an unpleasant consequence – for example, running away or showing aggression – the behavior that is elicited each time a correction is applied may not be the behavior that the trainer was expecting to see.

Finally, because stress is often introduced with the use of negative reinforcement and punishment, the use of correction-based training as a humane approach to training is questionable. In addition to the potential for intentional or unintentional abuse, aversives that are associated with the owner have the potential for damaging the relationship between the dog and his owner. The overuse of aversives or using corrections that are too harsh can cause generalized fear and avoidance as the dog may learn that one behavior that will allow him to avoid discomfort and fear is to simply avoid being near his owner.

No one wants this. Why take the chance when there are better ways? (In the remainder of this chapter, we explore these better ways along with the evidence that supports their use).

“Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” by Linda P. Case (2018)

 

 

 

Get Help! Pony is in Trouble!

This year, for her birthday, Alice got a pony. She named him……Pony.

ALLY AND PONY

Pony has rapidly become Alice’s favorite toy. She carries him everywhere, wrestles with him, wrangles him, growls at him, and generally treats Pony quite badly. (Apparently, Ally has not yet been convinced of the benefits of reward-based pony training). Regardless, Pony and Ally have become inseparable.

Until the day that Pony became lost.

It began like any other morning. Mike and I were getting ready to head out the door for a hike with Ally and Cooper. Pete the cat was underfoot asking for his breakfast, and Cooper was waiting by the door.

Ally? Not around. When Mike called her, she came running into the kitchen, stared intently at Mike and then raced back into the living room.

Ahhh……there was the problem. Pony was stuck between the wall and the back of the couch. Ally could not fit back there to reach him. Looking back and forth from Mike to Pony, Ally communicated the seriousness of the crisis and her need for assistance (someone with thumbs). Mike retrieved Pony, there ensued a loving reunion, and all was again good in the world.

ALLY VOWS TO NEVER AGAIN ALLOW PONY OUT OF HER SIGHT

For most dog folks, a pretty normal morning, eh?

Yet, the act of Alice telling Mike that Pony was in trouble, that she knew where Pony was, and that she needed Mike’s help, is considered to be a complex form of communication. It is called referential gesturing and involves both motivation (“I WANT Pony!!”) and intention (“I need your help to get him!”).

Referential Gestures: For a gesture to be considered referential, it must possess these five attributes:

  1. It is directed towards an object or an objective (Pony).
  2. It is mechanically ineffective (Ally running from Mike to Pony cannot save Pony)
  3. It is directed towards another individual (Mike)
  4. It results in a voluntary response by the receiver (Mike saves Pony).
  5. It has intention (Obvious. Pony is in trouble and must be saved).

Pointing: Pointing is one of the most frequently used human referential gestures. Dogs understand and respond to all types of human pointing, such as hand points, foot points, and gaze. (I review these studies in detail in my newest book, “Dog Smart“). However, to date, research studies have focused on the dog’s ability to understand human gestures, rather than the use of these gestures by dogs and our ability to understand and respond to them. Of course, anyone who lives with multiple dogs knows that dogs are masters at signaling the location of a bit of food on the ground, a favorite toy, or (unfortunately) something smelly and suitable for rolling upon to other dogs in the family. Similarly, I bet that any dog owner reading this piece can easily identify one or two ways that their dog uses referential signaling with the humans in their life.

However, most of us probably have no idea exactly how good dogs are at this. They are really, really good……We have some new research that tells us so. Here it is:

The Study: Researchers at the University of Salford in the UK recruited a group of 37 dogs and owners, and used the Citizen Science protocol developed by Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht to collect data. For a period of several weeks, owners filmed their dog performing “everyday” acts of communication with them. Examples included, but were not restricted to, requesting food, asking for a toy, or requesting that a door be opened. A total of 242 communication gestures were recorded and submitted for analysis. The researchers coded and analyzed communicative gestures according to the dog’s perceived goal, frequency of use and interaction outcome (whether the goal was achieved or not). Results: 47 different forms of referential gestures were identified from the submitted video footage. That is a LOT. (Can you think of 47 distinct ways in which you gesture to signal a need to others?). They also found:

  • A Conservative Estimate: When the researchers applied all five of the features identified above, the initial group of 47 gestures was distilled to 19 that were solid and indisputable examples of referential gesturing. That is still a LOT. Altogether, these were used over 1000 times in the collected videos of 37 dogs.
  • What Dogs Ask For (and Get): The four most commonly used and most successful referential gestures were requests for petting/scratching, food or water, to go outdoors, and to retrieve a toy (Pony!).
  • Gaze Alternation: Among all of the dogs, direct gaze and gaze alternation, looking back and forth from the owner to the goal, were by far the most common gestures that were used. Almost 400 instances of referential gaze were recorded, with dogs using eye contact to communicate a wide range of goals.
  • Gesture Portfolios: Dogs varied tremendously in the number and type of gestures that they used to communicate. It was not uncommon for a dog to employ several different gestures (gaze, head turn, pawing, barking) for a single goal and to switch to a new gesture if the first was not successful. Interestingly, dogs who lived with more than one person tended to use a larger repertoire of gestures, perhaps having developed customized ways of communicating with each person.

Take Away for Dog Folks: It is important to put this information in the context of what we know about other animals. The use of referential gestures in species other than humans is considered to be rare. Great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans) use one or two forms of referential gesturing with other apes and occasionally, when in captivity, with human caretakers. There are also a few examples of this form of communication in birds and some fish species. But in all of these cases, the gestures are limited to one or two forms and are used only with members of the same species. Cross-species referential gesturing is not a normal part of most animals’ repertoire. Nor is there anything  even close to the wide variety of gestures that dogs use when communicating with us. While we have known for a number of years that dogs are uniquely capable of understanding human communication signals, this is the first study to demonstrate that dogs use a diverse set of  referential signals when they communicate with us and that, just like our dogs, we understand what they are telling us. This is cool stuff.

So, the next time that your dog loses her Pony, pay attention to the type of referential gestures that she uses with you. In fact, take a moment now. Make a list of the different gestures that your dog uses to communicate his or her needs and desires to you. I am betting that there are a bunch. And, while you probably easily understand these and respond appropriately, remind yourself of the degree of complexity and specificity of the communication that is taking place in those moments when your dog loses his favorite toy and asks you for a bit of help.

ALLY REQUESTING A SECOND SUNDAY MORNING BAGEL

Cited Study: Worsley HK and O’Hara SJ. Cross-species referential signaling events in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), 2018; Animal Cognition,  10.1007/s10071-018-1181-3.