Free Book Offer!

If you read (and liked) “Beware the Straw Man“, this offer is for you! The newest Science Dog book, “Only Have Eyes for You” will be available on August 1st. Here is your chance to receive a complimentary (i.e. FREE) Kindle version of Linda Case’s newest book!

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AVAILABLE AUGUST 1, 2016

Here’s the Deal: All that you have to do is write and submit a short review of “Beware the Straw Man” on Amazon (click on book, below). After you post your review, copy and paste it into the contact form below and submit that to The Science Dog. Once your review is published on Amazon, you will be eligible for your FREE Kindle version of “Only Have Eyes for You“. You will be notified via email when your book is available for download. This offer is limited to the first 50 reviewers and is available until August 15, 2016. Books will be available during the first week of August.

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CONTACT FORM (THANKS!)

 

 

 

 

I Feel Your Pain

Many people who live with multiple dogs have had the pleasure of experiencing two dogs who become great friends. Call the relationship what you will – bonded pair, social partners, housemates, doggy pals – I personally prefer friends, but hey, tomato/tomato, agreed? Regardless of what you label it, it is without question that dogs are highly social, that they bond with others in their social group, and that some dogs bond very strongly to each other.

dog friends

SOME MIGHT CALL IT LOVE

The emotional lives of dogs: It is (finally) accepted by scientists that dogs, like many other species, express a wide range of basic emotions. These include, but may not be limited to, fear, anxiety, jealousy, pleasure, playfulness, and happiness. (I would also add joy and silliness to these, but then, I live with a Toller).

Chippy Wet and Happy

THE WORD “JOY” COMES TO MIND

What about empathy? Seeing that dogs are highly social and that they bond closely to their companions, it is not a big jump to ask whether or not they are capable of feeling concern for others. At its most basic, empathy refers to the ability to share the emotions of another individual. However, there is debate over whether or not the expression of empathy must involve the capacity to take the perspective of the other, a level of cognition that requires at least a rudimentary “theory of mind”. One approach to resolving this debate has been to classify empathy into several types, each requiring different levels of cognitive complexity.

  • Emotional contagion, at the lowest level, refers to simply being affected by and sharing another’s emotional state. This form of empathy has been found to exist in a wide variety of species, including dogs.
  •  The next step up, sympathetic concern is expressed through comforting behaviors. The subject not only feels the other’s emotions, but attempts to provide comfort to alleviate the other’s distress. This level of empathy as well has been demonstrated in a wide range of species. Chimpanzees, some species of birds, and dogs all have been shown to demonstrate comforting behaviors towards others in distress.
  • At the peak of the cognitive scale is empathic perspective, which requires the capacity to understand and appraise a situation from the other individual’s perspective.  An example of this is prosocial helping. a talent that dogs have indeed been found to be capable of  when they are made aware of their owner’s goal. (We looked at this research in “Lend a Helping Paw“).

All about us: So, one might be inclined to stop here, seeing that there is certainly evidence of empathic responses in dogs. But herein lies the rub. All of this work has examined not if dogs respond empathically to other dogs, but rather, how dogs recognise and respond to the emotional state of humans. This is all very cool work, for sure, but it is rather odd seeing that all of the research with other species such as Chimpanzees, Bonobos, birds, and even elephants have examined empathic responses among con-specifics – members of their own species. Most of the results in those animals have also reported that individuals are much more likely to demonstrate empathy (at any level) for a close relative or a member of their social group than for an unfamiliar individual.

Do dogs care about their friends? Do we know anything about how dogs react to the distress of other dogs? If they do show empathy, will they react more dramatically to a known dog friend versus an unfamiliar dog? Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria and at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest Hungary asked exactly these questions (1).

The Study: Sixteen pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same home for at least one year were included in the study. Within each pair, one dog was randomly assigned to be the subject and the other to be the “distressed” partner. The partner’s stress whine was pre-recorded and used during the experiment. Each subject dog was studied under three conditions, spaced apart by 2-week intervals: (1) the whine of their (absent) household partner; (2) the whine of an unfamiliar dog; and (3) a recording of computer-generated sounds with a cadence and frequency similar to dog whines (the control). The subject dog’s physiological response (heart rate and salivary cortisol levels) and behavioral response (stress signals) were recorded before and after listening to the recorded sounds, which came from behind an opaque screen. At the end of each period, the partner dog was immediately brought into the room, apparently from behind the screen (the reunion phase) and the subject dog’s behavior upon seeing his or her housemate was also recorded. (You can imagine how this would feel…..”Dude! What were they doing to you back there??!!!”)

Results: The dogs in this study definitely reacted to the distress calls of another dog. Upon hearing a distressed dog calling, the dogs spent significantly more time gazing towards the source of the cries and moving closer to the source than they did when exposed to the non-dog control sounds. This should not be surprising to anyone who lives with more than one dog, certainly. This study also provided a few interesting nuances regarding how dogs express their concern for other dogs:

  • Dogs care about other dogs: The dogs expressed more anxiety and stress behaviors when they listened to the recorded cries of their housemate  or an unfamiliar dog compared to when they were listening to the control sounds.
  • Expressing their concern: When dogs were reunited with their partners, they spent more time with their friend and showed more affiliative (loving) behaviors towards their partner after having heard a recording of the partner’s whine compared to when they had heard an unfamiliar whine or the control sounds.
  • Feeling stressed: Hearing their friend whining also caused dogs’ salivary cortisol levels to remain elevated during the testing conditions, suggesting that physiological stress was elevated when compared with the control condition.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This study, the first to directly measure dogs’ empathic response to other dogs, provides evidence that dogs are capable of the first level of empathy, emotional contagion. The dogs were clearly affected by and shared the distressed emotional state of a dog who they could hear but not see. The study also showed us that dogs recognize and respond to the distress of a friend more intensely than they do to the distress of a dog who they do not know and that they show strong affiliative behaviors towards their friend upon being reunited. These behaviors suggest that not only do dogs recognize the vocalizations of their friends (which has been demonstrated in other studies) but that they express the second level of empathy – sympathetic concern.

Anecdotes about dogs who love each other and who express distress and concern for their friends abound. Personally, I too carry the belief that dogs, as highly social beings, care for and are concerned for the welfare of their canine buddies. Now we have a bit of research to support this, continuing to expand our understanding of who our dogs are and about what matters to them in their lives.

Empathetic Dog

BUDDY, I FEEL YOUR PAIN. REALLY I DO. RESEARCH TELLS US SO.

Cited Study: Quervel-Chaumette M, Faerber V, Farago T, Marshall-Pescini S, Range F. Investigating empathy-like responding to conspecifics’ distress in pet dogs. PLOS-One 2016; 11 (4):e0152920. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152920.

 

Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay

AUTUMNGOLD STUDENTS USE GESTURES AND VERBAL CUES WHILE PRACTICING DOWN STAYS

All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.

Results:

  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called

COMING WHEN CALLED IS DOTTI’S PREFERRED BEHAVIOR!

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.

I Bow for Your Play

At AutumnGold we have an informal group of trainers and dog friends who get together regularly to do a bit of dog training, go for group walks, and give our dogs free time to play. During play time, we take care that the dogs who are loose together know one another well, are  comfortable together and demonstrate good play manners. We include plenty of “calling out of play” and play pauses to keep things safe and tension free. One of the most enjoyable things about these sessions is that they give us a chance to watch our dogs having fun together and to observe the many ways in which dogs communicate during play.

And there are certainly a lot of ways.

Play 1Play 2

Play 4  Play 5

While many of us learn a great deal from watching our dogs play, there is also a substantial body of science on this topic. Researchers have long been interested in the expression and functions of animal play in a variety of species. Specific studies of play in dogs are not as numerous, but several scientists, such as Marc Bekoff, Nicola Rooney, John Bradshaw and Alexandra Horowitz have published work that examines play behavior in young and adult dogs.

Most recently, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan focused their work on a very specific component of canine play (1).

Play Bow 2

THE PLAY BOW

The play bow is a common and highly stereotyped play signal in dogs (and several other canid species as well). However, the precise meaning of this posture is not completely understood. Marc Bekoff’s earlier work with puppies and young adults suggested that dogs tend to bow prior to making a move that might be misconstrued by their play partner, such as feigning a bite or attack, as a way to clarify playful intent (2). In other words, the play bow is analogous to a dog saying “Hey, dude. Just wanted to remind you that this is all play. I just mention this because the next thing that I plan to do is well…..bite your ear. Remember this is all play, ‘kay?” Other possible functions of play bows are as visual signals to reinitiate play after one or both of the play partners have paused, as strategic moves that allow a dog to position himself ready to either pounce upon or dodge his play partner, or, because play bows are often offered simultaneously, as a way to synchronise play behavior.

Play Bow 1

PLAY SYNCHRONIZATION?

The Study: Because it is quite possible that play bows are highly flexible signals and may have multiple functions, the researchers searched for evidence for all of the aforementioned possibilities. They presented four hypotheses regarding the function of the play bow: to clarify play intentions, to reinitiate play after a pause, to position oneself for escape or attack, or to synchronize play behaviors. They also studied the role of the play bow as a distinctly visual signal, which if true, would mean that play bows are only offered when a dog is within the visual field of his or her play partner.

The team analyzed a set of videotaped play sessions of 16 dogs playing as pairs. The dogs were playing in large enclosed backyards or a public area. All of the dogs were well socialized, played well together, and varied in their degree of familiarity with one another. Some had just recently met while others were well-acquainted friends. Play behaviors were coded according to a previously developed ethogram of adult dog behavior and were independently recorded by three reviewers. The number of play bows, their context, and each dog’s behavior before, during and after play bows were recorded. Results: A total of 414 play bows occurred during 22 separate play sessions. Four play pairs were responsible for the majority of the play bows (76 %). By comparison, no other pair accounted for more than 5 percent of total bows, suggesting that play bows vary dramatically among individuals and play pairs. There was no indication of an influence of age, sex or size influencing the number or form of play bows. However, this may be due to the relatively small sample size and are factors that could be examined in future work.

The collected data suggested the following regarding the function of play bowing for adult dogs during play:

  • Both bowing dogs and their partners showed an increase in active play behavior following a play bow, supporting the hypothesis that play bows function to reinitiate play following a pause.
  • The type of behaviors that dogs showed prior to and immediately following play bows tended to be similar within pairs, suggesting that play bows also help play partners to synchronize behavior. These results are corroborated by another recent study showing that dogs who use play bow mimicry tend to play together longer than those who do not (3).
  • More than 98 percent, virtually all, of the play bows occurred when the two dogs were within each others’ visual fields, providing strong support for the hypothesis that play bowing is an intentional visual signal that dogs only use when they know that their partner can see them and respond.
  • Although the researchers did not find support for Bekoff’s theory of  the play bow as an intention clarifying signal, they note that his work was primarily with puppies and young dogs, and used a different methodology. It is possible that the bow serves this function for young dogs while they are initially learning to play and to inhibit their bite, but is less necessary for adult dogs.
  •  Of the 16 dogs in this study, a single individual, a Belgian Tervuren named Tex, played with five different dogs and was responsible for more than 40 percent of the total play bows counted in the study. In contrast, several dogs showed just one play bow in a session or did not bow at all.

Take Away for Dog Folks

For dog folks, play bows are a welcome sight during paired or group play among adult dogs because we seem to intuitively grasp their use as a non-threatening and friendly signal. This new research, coupled with the earlier work of Marc Bekoff, suggests that bowing during play is not a random event that is just part of play, but rather that it is used to communicate specific information. For adults, this seems to be an invitation to continue play –  “Hey pal, let’s start playing again!” – as well as perhaps a way to coordinate and synchronize movement “Okay Charlie, let’s bow together and when I say GO, you shall zig and I shall zag”. And for young dogs and perhaps some adults, it may also serve to clarify playful intent.

An additional important piece of information from this work is that play bows may be highly individual. Just a few pairs in the study used multiple bows and a single dog, Tex, apparently was bowing all over the place. I bet many of you are nodding right now. Because anecdotally, many of us have seen this in our own dogs or in dogs we work with. In the play group at my school, Colbie, a young Pit Bull, is a champion play-bower. She offers not only multiple play bows during paired and group play sessions, but she offers them at record speed, seemingly as an invitation to chase. My five-year-old Golden, Cooper, also bows during play, but (again anecdotal here), he seems to bow most frequently when he plays with dogs who he knows well such as his housemates, and is less likely to play bow during group play.

Coop Ally Colbie Play

PLAY TIME FOR COOPER, ALLY AND COLBIE

Ally, on the other hand, prefers to chase and to be chased.

Colbie and Ally Chase

Ally and Colbie Chasing

Like all good research, this new study stimulates thought and additional questions to ask about the play bow. For example, what factors might influence a dog’s frequent use of the bow – is it age, personality traits such as level of confidence or degree of playfulness, degree of familiarity among the dogs? Are there possibly learned components, such as training the play bow on cue? Does the use of a play bow ever “end badly”? In other words, do some dogs misinterpret this ubiquitous signal?

Lots to learn, and I am looking forward to seeing more from this team of researchers. Until then, play on, dogs, play on.

100225T114

CHIPPY’S PLAY BOW IS TRAINED – DOES THIS AFFECT HIS SPONTANEOUS PLAY BEHAVIOR?

Cited Studies:

  1. Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, Smuts B. Investigating the function of play bows in adult pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Behavioural Processes 2016; 125:106-113.
  2. Bekoff M.Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 1995; 132:5-6.
  3. Palagi E, Nicotra V, Cordoni G. Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs. Royal Society of Open Science 2:150505; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos/150505.

 

 

 

The Meaning of Click

Hi. My name is Linda and I am a clicker trainer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have been using a clicker for many years. My use began with the common gateway secondary reinforcer, the verbal cue (“Yes!”). While that worked well for a while, I eventually found that I needed more. I wanted a marker that was accurate and clear to my dog and something that could provide that immediate “ah ha!” moment in dog training that we all crave.

Cooper Clicker Training Heel

BABY COOPER HEELS FOR CLICKS

Recently, my husband suggested that perhaps I am too dependent upon my clicker. It is possible that finding them all over the house, in the pockets of my jackets and jeans, in the car, and oh yeah, one in the refrigerator, had something to do with his concern. I emphatically denied this and insisted that I could quit clicker training any time that I wanted to.

He called my bluff and suggested that I try using food alone, no clicker. Admittedly, I did not react well.

cold dead modified

PERHAPS I AM A BIT DEPENDENT

Hyperbole aside, why is it that many trainers, myself included, are so completely sold on clicker training? While the short answer is a forehead thumping “Duh…..because it works so well“, a longer exploration into clicker training, plus a bit of science, is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.

Operant learning: There is a large body of  scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of using consequences to teach new behaviors, a type of associative learning called operant learning or conditioning.  Although the consequences that are used can be either aversive or pleasurable, most trainers focus on pleasurable consequences, or positive reinforcers. For dogs, a universal primary positive reinforcer is food, though verbal praise, petting, and play are also important. (Note: A primary reinforce is a stimulus that is inherently rewarding to the animal, with no need for prior conditioning). Animals learn most efficiently when the targeted behavior is immediately followed by delivery of the positive reinforcer. Even brief delays between the behavior and the reinforcer can slow or prevent learning.

The timing issue: Herein lies the problem. In the practical context of animal training, there are numerous  situations in which it is impossible for a trainer to deliver a primary reinforcer at the exact time that the desired behavior is being offered. Examples with dogs include when teaching retrieving, targeting distant objects, or moving a paw or other body part in a very precise manner. Secondary reinforcers help to solve this problem. These are signals that are clear to the animal, such as a sound or light flash, and which are purposefully paired with a primary reinforcer. For marine mammal trainers, a whistle is used. For dog trainers, it is the click.

clicker-training_gif

Click-Treat: The sound of the clicker is transformed from a neutral (meaningless) stimulus to a conditioned (secondary) stimulus by repeatedly pairing the click sound with the delivery of a food treat (the primary reinforcer). After multiple repetitions of Click-Treat (hereafter CT), in which the click sound reliably precedes and predicts the treat, the click begins to possess the same properties as  the treat itself. Clicker training allows the trainer to precisely target (mark) tiny bits of behavior at the exact moment they are occurring. The click sound becomes analogous to a bridge in time – saying to the dog “That’s it!! That thing that you are doing right this instant is what will earn you the yummy treat that is coming shortly!”

Well, at least that is what we think the click means to our dogs………

The meaning of click: Recently, a team of Australian researchers reviewed clicker training and examined the mechanisms through which clicker training might enhance learning (1). They looked at each of the three functions that dog trainers typically attribute to the click –  a secondary reinforcer,  a marker of behavior, and as a bridging stimulus. Although we typically give equal weight to all three of these functions, the current evidence, collected primarily in laboratory animals and pigeons, is telling us differently:

Secondary reinforcer? As described earlier, once a clicker is “charged” as a secondary reinforcer, it should possess the same reinforcing properties as the primary reinforcer (treat). This means that the click sound alone, without being followed by a treat, is expected to cause an increase in the targeted behavior and help learned behaviors to be resistant to extinction. An unpairing of the connection between secondary and primary reinforce should also lead to a lessening of these effects. All of these outcomes have been tested in rats and pigeons and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a conditioned signal (click), when consistently paired with a primary reinforce (treat) does indeed take on the properties of the primary reinforcer. The researchers also provide  evidence (in rats) of a neuropsychological nature – dopamine release has been shown to occur at times that would be expected if a secondary reinforcer was the driving mechanism for learning.

Event marker? Almost all clicker trainers, when asked to explain why clicker training works so well, include some version of “it precisely marks the behavior that I wish to reinforce, at the exact moment that it is happening“.  I agree with this account, given my own practical training experiences. But, of course, belief is not the same as evidence.  What does the current science say about using an auditory signal to mark behavior? As a marker, the signal (click) must draw the animal’s attention to the event. So, if a signal functions to mark behavior, we would expect to see an effect of the signal, though at a lower intensity, when it is not paired with a primary reinforcer. For dogs, this means that hearing the “click” sound, regardless of its pairing with food, should emphasize that moment and thus enhance learning whatever behavior is occurring. Again, though not tested with dogs (yet), this hypothesis has been tested with laboratory animals. The evidence suggests that learning is somewhat enhanced by a marker alone but that the pairing of the marker with a primary reinforcer is decidedly more potent. While “click” may indeed be a marker for behaviors, this function is intricately related to its role as a secondary reinforce rather than marking an event simply by bringing the animal’s attention to it.

Bridging stimulus? The bridging stimulus hypothesis focuses on the “a treat will be coming to you soon” portion of clicker training and applies when the dog is a distance away or there is a temporal (time) delay between the behavior and delivery of the food treat. According to the bridging hypothesis, rather than simply marking the behavior, the signal communicates to the animal that reinforcement will be delayed (but is still promised). A limited number of published studies have examined this function, but the evidence that is available suggests that an auditory signal (such as a click) may bridge the temporal gap between behavior and food. However, all of the studies used a type of training process called “autoshaping” which is a highly controlled and contrived experimental process. Whether or not a click acts as a bridge in the practical and varied setting of dog training remains to be studied.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The bulk of the current evidence coming from other species, primarily lab animals who are tested in highly controlled conditions, tells us that the major way in which clicker training enhances learning is through the click’s function as a secondary reinforcer. As far as event marking and acting as a bridging stimulus, these may be in effect, but if so, they are in a supporting role rather than being the star players. So what might this information mean for we who love to click?

  1. In its role as a secondary reinforcer, the click takes on the pleasurable properties of the primary reinforcer, food treats. Pairing of the click with the treat (charging the clicker) is essential to both establish and maintain these properties.
  2. While clicking without treating will work for a short period of time, repeated uncoupling of the click from the treat will extinguish the connection and the click will stop being effective as it gradually reverts to a neutral stimulus.
  3.  Although most of us refer to the click as “marking” behaviors, the actual marking properties of the click appear to be intricately linked to its function as a secondary reinforcer, rather than having any stand-alone strength in this capacity. Ditto for bridging stimulus.

Bottom line? Given  these three suppositions, if you are a trainer and are in the habit of clicking without treating, you may want to stop doing that (2). The power of the click lies principally in its strength as a secondary (conditioned) reinforce, so maintaining that connection appears to be key.

As for me, this evidence provides further support for the strength of clicker training with dogs. Don’t think I will be going through any 12-step program to reduce my dependency anytime soon.

12 Step Click

Happy Training!

Cited Papers:

  1. Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. How clicker training works: Comparing reinforcing, marking, and bridging hypotheses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; Accepted paper, in press.
  2. Martin S, Friedman SG. Blazing clickers. Paper presented at Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference, Denver, CO, 2011.

 

What’s in Your (Vegetarian) Food?

Here we go again.

It appears that there may be more than what dog owners expect to find in vegetarian dog food.

Hold the Spam, Please: Before all of the  “Dogs are Carnivores (and a pox on your mother if you think differently)” devotees begin posting comments (in all caps ) that dogs should NOT be fed a vegetarian diet in the first place, let me state that this is not what this blog piece is about. So please, don’t even start. The point of this essay is not to argue (again…..) whether or not dogs have an absolute requirement for meat in their diet (here’s a hint: They don’t). Rather, today we examine new information about undeclared ingredients that may be present in dog food and the mounting evidence of regulatory violations within the pet food industry.

In this newest pair of studies, a team of veterinary nutritionists at the University of California tested vegetarian pet foods for label compliance and ingredient content.  I have written about this before, and unfortunately once again, the news isn’t good.

25-Foods-That-Seem-Vegetarian-But-Arent

Label Compliance: In the first study, the researchers collected samples of 24 dog and cat food brands that carried a label claim of “vegetarian” (1). The majority of the foods were over-the-counter products purchased at a local pet supply store. Three products were veterinary therapeutic diets. Of the group of products, 19 were formulated for dogs or for dogs and cats, and five were formulated exclusively for cats.  Product labels were examined for their compliance with the Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO) model regulations, which are the basis for most state mandated pet food regulations. Pet food samples were also analyzed for total protein and essential amino acid content. Results: Of the 24 foods, only eight (33 %) were in complete compliance with AAFCO label regulations. This means that 16 brands (66 %) had one or more violations. The most common infractions were the omission of feeding instructions or caloric content, improperly reported guaranteed analysis panels, and mislabeled ingredient statements. Nutrient analysis showed that all but one of the foods met AAFCO’s minimum crude protein requirements. However, six brands had deficient levels of one or more of the essential amino acids. This means that while the total amount of protein that the food contained appeared to be sufficient, essential amino acid requirements, which are more important, were not always met.

Presence of Animal-Based Ingredients: In a second study, the same group of researchers tested 14 brands of vegetarian pet foods (2). They purchased each food on two occasions to obtain samples as duplicates from different manufacturing batches. Six were dry and eight were canned products. Samples were analyzed for the presence of mammalian DNA using an accepted laboratory technique called multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Since all 24 foods were marketed as vegetarian (and in some cases, as vegan), none included animal-based components in their list of ingredients. Results: All six of the dry (extruded) foods that were tested contained DNA from beef, pork or sheep and five of the six contained DNA from multiple animal species. These results were consistent across batches for all 7 products.  Only one of the 8 canned vegetarian foods contained animal DNA (beef) and this finding was not repeated in the second sample. In this study, the researchers also tested for the DNA of dogs, cats, goats, deer, horses, rats, mice and rabbits. DNA from these species was not detected in any of the samples. Similar to earlier studies that have found the DNA of undeclared meats in dog foods, the amount of animal-based ingredients in the foods could not be quantified. The researchers could not speculate whether the labeling violations were a result of deliberate adulteration or unintentional cross-contamination of vegetarian products with meat-containing foods produced at the same facility.

soapbox

Soap Box Time: The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that all pet foods sold in the United States are safe, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and are truthfully labeled (emphasis mine). Perhaps I am being picky, but labeling a food as vegetarian and then not ensuring that the food indeed lacks the meat of cows, pigs and sheep, seems to qualify as not being truthful. (Some might even call it lying, I suppose). Not only are such egregious errors in violation of both FDA and AAFCO regulations, but they seriously impact the trust that dog owners have in pet food manufacturers. And rightly so.

To date, the majority of pet owners in the US continue to feed dry, extruded food. Of the dry-type vegetarian foods tested in this study, all of them, 100 % were, in fact, not vegetarian at all. This leads one to ponder about other products on the market and whether it is more the norm than the exception for dry dog foods that are sold as vegetarian to be nothing of the sort. While the authors note that this was a small number of products and so do not represent all vegetarian foods, the fact that all of the foods failed their DNA tests is alarming.

What can you do as a dog owner? Contact the manufacturer of your food and ask them how they verify the integrity of their products, specifically, the ingredients that they include in their foods. If they are not forthcoming and transparent with their response, find another producer who is. The good news is that the pressure that research studies such as these place on pet food companies and upon the industry as a whole will hopefully encourage increased transparency and improved regulatory oversight – something that we are apparently in dire need of.

Cited Studies:

  1. Kanakubo K, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Assessment of protein and amino acid concentrations and labeling adequacy of commercial vegetarian diets formulated for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2015; 247:385-392.
  2. Kanakubo, K, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Determination of mammalian deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in commercial vegetarian and vegan diets for dogs and cats. Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 2016;  doi: 10.1111/jpn.12506.

 

A Walk in the Park (or not)

In my view, one of the many benefits of living with dogs are the walks. All four of my dogs love to hike and run and we spend time together almost every morning at our local forest preserve. The dogs enjoy the exercise and have opportunities to explore, sniff and play, while Mike and I exercise, enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with our family.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Linda Cooper Vinny Ally Walking Dog walks can also be social events. A friend and I meet regularly at different parks to go hiking with our dogs. We enjoy exploring new trails and rotate favorite parks so that the dogs get to experience and enjoy a variety of outdoor areas.  Group walks are also a regular part of AutumnGold’s open floor training nights and are great fun for dogs and their people.

Group walk!

For dog folks, it comes as no surprise that this activity is good for us. There is ample evidence that, as a group, dog owners are more physically active than are non-owners and that acquiring a dog often leads to an increase in activity level. Other studies have found that dog owners report physical and psychosocial benefits of walking with their dogs. They get to know other dog walkers in their area, have increased opportunities to meet new people, and develop a sense of community in their neighborhoods. All proven stuff, and not all that noteworthy, since the social and emotional benefits of dog ownership have been known for many years.

However, here is the paradox. Although American dog owners are more likely to engage in regular walking than are non-owners, the actual proportion of dog owners who walk their dogs appears to be quite low. While more than 45 percent of homes in the US have one or more dogs, less than 3 percent of Americans walk their dog for 30 minutes or more per day and between 40 and 60 percent of dog owners do not walk their dogs at all (1).

f6fc810460c239b984c7ef5579da4b36

THE MAJORITY OF DOG OWNERS DO NOT REGULARLY WALK WITH THEIR DOGS

Why should you care? Well, because walking briskly for 30 minutes daily can achieve the current recommendations for regular physical activity for adults – a level that is seriously under-achieved by many Americans.  Knowing this, several public health researchers have recently identified dog walking as a viable approach to improving the physical activity of adults in populations that are notably under-exercising.

And, being researchers, they did what researchers do…….

Going to try science

THEY STUDIED DOG WALKING

How much dog walking does it take? Elizabeth Richards and a team of researchers at Purdue University were the first  to directly measure the frequency and the intensity of dog walking using activity monitors (think Fit Bit) (2). They outfitted a group of 65 dog owners with accelerometers and collected data over a 7-day period. Owners wore the monitors continuously and recorded the time of day that they started and ended their dog walks. Results: Participants walked their dogs at least one time per day and averaged approximately 30 minutes per walk. During dog walks, almost 80 percent of the exercise was classified as “moderate-vigorous physical activity” (MVPA). About 14 percent of the time was classified as light intensity and 4 percent was sedentary (that must have been the poop stops). The majority of the periods of MVPA occurred in bouts of time that were more than 10 minutes. These distinctions are important because current physical activity guidelines for Americans specify 150 minutes of MVPA per week, achieved in bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time. The authors conclude that: “….dog walking is a type of physical activity that merits greater attention from public health officials and practitioners. Increasing the prevalence of dog walking could help the US attain physical activity objectives….”

Who’s walking (and why)? So, the Purdue study (among others) provides evidence that dog walking can be a great form of exercise (for dog and human). Carri Westgarth and colleagues at the University of Liverpool tackled the next question: What are some of the personal and societal factors that impact an owner’s inclination to walk regularly (or not) with his or her dog? They conducted a systematic review of 31 studies that examined dog ownership and dog walking that had been published over a 22-year period (3). Results: They found that the dedicated dog walkers tend to be owners who possess a strong sense of obligation to their dog’s need for regular exercise and who report that their dog is an important motivator, both for the owner to be active and for spending quality time with their dog. Community factors that are most important include accessibility to public areas that are suitable for walking, that allow off-leash exercise for dogs and that are designed to promote social interactions with other people. Most interesting perhaps is the authors conclusion regarding dog walking areas: “The design of areas intended for dog walking and how they fulfill dog and owner needs may be an important consideration for future interventions. In order to encourage more dog owners to walk their dogs, the recreational areas used for dog walking must be both pleasurable and accessible, as opposed to the common phenomenon of relegating dog access only to the few areas left after other user types have been accommodated.”

From this conclusion, it naturally follows that one may ponder………

What about dog parks? One might ask if the increased number of dog parks in recent years has contributed to dog walking frequency among dog owners. To date only a few studies have examined this relationship. Most recently, Kelly Evenson and several colleagues studied the activity level of dog owners at six different dog parks located in North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania (4). They used a validated measurement tool (The Systematic Observation of Play and Recreation in Communities) to count visitors and monitor activity levels over a one-week period. The researchers also directly interviewed 604 dog park visitors. Results: The primary activity of people who were visiting the dog parks was standing without moving. 79 percent of the recorded activity of dog park visitors was classified as sedentary, 20 percent was walking, and 1 percent was classified as vigorous. The majority of owners (70.4 %) drove their dog to the park, even though many lived less than a mile away. These results were in agreement with two previous studies that collectively examined more than 30 dog parks in multiple states. The authors conclude: “This study……revealed that dog park visitors more often engaged in sedentary behavior or standing without moving than did visitors to other areas of the park……”

Dog Park People

DOG OWNERS EXERCISING AT THE DOG PARK

Take Away for Dog Folks

For trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and other dog professionals, the take away from this research is that we should encourage our clients to walk with their dogs, not only for the many benefits that the dogs will enjoy, but to take advantage of the health benefits for themselves. This seems like a no-brainer and is a win-win for dogs and people both. Additionally, we can advocate for more accessible, dog-friendly walking areas in our communities.

By this, I do not mean more dog parks.

soapbox

Up on my box: In case you think this is going to be a rant from an exercise fanatic who thinks every dog park visitor should get off of her duff and start lapping the park periphery with their Border Collie, well, that is not where this is going at all. (Though, I was tempted).

Rather, here is my issue regarding the evidence from these studies. The Westgarth study makes the point that one way to encourage dog owners to walk more with their dogs (or to walk at all with their dogs) is to provide areas in communities that are specifically designed for dog walking. They address the need for areas that are pleasurable places to walk (i.e. have trails and paths), are accessible, and of course are welcoming to dogs. In other words…….parks. Most dog parks provide none of this stuff. As described in the Evenson study, many dog parks are small areas, usually less than a few acres, and are relegated to crappy bits of land that were either not suitable for any other type of use or are adjacent to larger and more attractive public parks.

Evenson’s paper provides evidence of this. All of the 6 sites that they studied were small (less than 2 acres) and were adjacent to parks that were used for other human recreation purposes. Of the six dog parks, the authors noted that three were developed on land that was located beneath or near power lines, and all six were located adjacent to, across the street from, or almost a mile away from the public park. Given their small sizes, none of these dog parks could provide walking opportunities for people and their dogs.  I know that some people are going to respond that they do not go to the dog park for their own exercise, but rather they go so that their dog can play and romp off-lead and can interact (for good or for bad) with other dogs. I completely understand the benefits of allowing dogs to have off-lead play time and personally love to hike with my own dogs off-lead. However, regardless of my opinion regarding the safety of dog parks, my point in this essay is that the over-emphasis of dog parks in communities, parks that are often small and undesirable snippets of land, can lead to the further segregation of our dogs from the rest of society and certainly will not encourage dog walks and the positive benefits that they have for dogs and owners alike.

So, if you love your dog park and are now in a snit regarding this evidence (and my opinion), let me ask this: If you frequent dog parks with your dog, do you also take him walking with you, on new routes around your neighborhood, or to area walking paths and parks, so that you can walk together and enjoy exercising with your dog? If not, you should. Because dog parks ain’t doin’ it for us.

Nuff said. Off box. Going for a walk with my friend Mary and our dogs.

Cited Studies:

  1. Richards EA, McDonough M, Edwards N, Lyle R, roped PJ. Psychosocial and environmental factors associated with dog walking. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education 2013;51:198-211.
  2. Richards EA, Troped PJ, Lim E. Assessing the intensity of dog walking and impact on overall physical activity: A pilot study using accelerometry.  Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 2014;4:523-528.
  3. Westgarth C, Christley RM, Christian HE. How might we increase physical activity through dog walking? A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014;11:83-97.
  4. Evenson KR, Shay E, Williamson S, Cohen DA. Use of dog parks and the contribution to physical activity for their owners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 2016; March 1; 1-9; DOI 10.1080/02701367.2016.1143909

Full Disclosure: If you have been reading The Science Dog for any period of time, it is not a surprise to learn that I am not a big fan of dog parks. Among trainers, I am certainly not alone in this opinion. That said, while I do not frequent them myself, we do have a few clients at my training school who use them and we make sure that they are aware of the safety risks and that they always carefully supervise their dogs if they go.