Want Flies with that Shake?

Fries with Shake Mod

Well, not actually you, but rather your dog.

Before food purists get up in arms over  this topic, consider that numerous human cultures have historically viewed insects as acceptable and even highly desirable food items. And today, our ever-expanding human population and the increasing need for sustainable sources of food have led to increased consideration of insects as food in almost all human cultures.

Insects for Dinner

So, it’s not much of a jump to ask – what might this mean for feeding dogs?

It’s all about the protein: Protein is the most expensive nutrient in the diet of all animals, including humans. It is expensive both in terms of the monetary cost of its production and its ecological impact upon the environment. In the spirit of sustainability (a buzzword that pet food companies and other corporations love to trot out) and with the goal of reduced production costs (i.e. making foods more cheaply), pet nutritionists at The Nutro Company recently identified a number of potential alternative protein ingredients for dog and cat foods. Bugs, being plentiful, cheap, and protein-replete are included on that list.

And protein is all about amino acids: Although we talk about a dog’s protein requirement and about a food’s protein level or quality, the actual requirement that dogs and all animals have is for the essential amino acids (the building blocks of the dietary protein) and the nitrogen that dietary protein supplies. The reason that the parlance of nutrition centers on dietary protein is simply because foods contain protein, not individual amino acids. It is during the process of digestion that a food’s protein is broken down in the small intestine into its component amino acids, which are then absorbed into the body. So, at the level of an animal’s metabolic needs, it is the amino acids that actually count. This is why one of the first steps that nutritionists take when examining a potential protein-containing ingredient is to examine its amino acid composition.

So, can insect protein supply all of the essential amino acids that dogs require? The nutritionists at Nutro and at the University of California at Davis decided to find out (1).

The Study: A wide variety of different plant, algae and insect species were identified as potential alternative (and sustainable) protein sources for pet foods. Within the group of insects, the researchers focused on the adult and larval forms of various species of flies, cockroaches, and ants.

Cockroach      Ants                    COCKROACHES                                                           ANTS        


           Blowfly adult         Blowfly larvae                          FLY (ADULT)                                                     FLY LARVAE

All of the bug samples were analyzed for total protein and amino acid content. (I will spare you the details regarding sample acquisition and preparation in case you are reading this during your lunch hour). Amino acid analysis included measurement of the 10 essential amino acids plus taurine, a special type of amino acid that is found primarily in animal tissues. Many readers are probably familiar with taurine as an essential dietary nutrient for cats. Because there is evidence that taurine may be needed during periods of physiological stress in some dogs, it has recently been classified as a “conditional essential amino acid” for dogs as well. Because sources of taurine are limited, it is an important essential nutrient to measure when considering new ingredients for dog and cat foods.

Results: Larval and adult forms of five different insect species were analysed. Here are their primary findings:

  • High in protein: Total protein levels in all of the insect species were quite high. When reported on a dry matter basis, concentrations ranged between from 46 % in Black Soldier Fly larvae to 96 % in cockroaches. (Cockroaches? Who knew?).
  • Bugs can do it: All but one species of insect (Black Soldier Fly larvae) were found to contain sufficient concentrations of protein, essential amino acids, and taurine to meet or exceed the NRC requirements for growth for dogs and cats. The finding for taurine was rather surprising because it has been previously assumed that rich sources of taurine included only skeletal muscle and organ meats.
  • Ants and flies are best: Two groups of insects, ants and adult flesh flies, contained the most concentrated sources of taurine. However, these initial results suggest that all three of the groups that were studied – ants, cockroaches, and flies – may be nutritionally acceptable protein sources for dog and cat diets.

Take Away for Dog Folks

Dogs and cats (like humans) require nutrients in their diet, not ingredients. Therefore, if a particular protein ingredient can supply most or all of the dog’s essential amino acids, is nutritious when fed, and is safe and palatable, then it technically meets the criteria (ick factor aside) to be considered as a potential dietary ingredient. Having passed the first test of adequate protein and amino acid content, where do insects fall on these other criteria?

  • Nutritious when fed: This refers to how digestible and bioavailable the essential nutrients of the ingredient actually are, when fed to the dog. For example, some insects and plants contain anti-nutritional factors, compounds that interfere with the ability to digest or use certain nutrients. Some of these compounds can be toxic or so potent as to cause illness, making their presence a clear “no-fly zone” for pets (pun intended).
  • Safety: Many species of bugs have ways to protect themselves from becoming someone’s meal. They produce toxins that cause illness or consume plants whose by-products are toxic to animals. They may also just taste really, really nasty. Clearly, toxic bugs are out.
  • Acceptability: Living with four dogs, one of whom is a notorious poop-eater, I would venture that the acceptability issue is as much about the human side of the equation than it is the dog side. Still, dogs must not just accept a bug-flavored food, they must relish it.
Dogs Watching Eating 2


Will owners accept it? Might Cockroach Recipe for Seniors or Fly Formula for Active Dogs be a hard sell? My (gut) instinct is to say yes, especially in the US. We all project our own preferences and desires onto our dogs – it is our nature to do so. This is why dog foods that depict entire roasted chickens and sirloin steaks on their front panels sell so well (however misleading such graphics may actually be).

Still, seeing that there is a booming market for dog foods containing alligator meat, brushtail (Australian Possum), and Unagi (freshwater eel), along with treats made from dried bull penises, pig hooves and cow tracheas, one must admit that the bar is already set pretty low. Will insect dog food be next up?

Cited Study: McCuster S, Buff PR, Yu Z, Fascetti AJ. Amino acid content of selected plant, algae and insect species: A search for alternative protein sources for use in pet foods. Journal of Nutritional Science 2014;3:e39;1-5.






How Reactive is Your…….Lysine?

I imagine that the word “reactive” caused most readers to think of this:

reactive dog


However, what we will actually be talking about is this:



Yeah, not quite so dramatic, I admit. However, the reality is that the amount of  reactive lysine present in your dog’s food is much more likely to have an impact on his health and wellness than is the somewhat lower risk of meeting Mr. Crabby Pants pictured above.

The reason? Well,  its all about the protein quality of commercial dog foods –  the good, the bad, and the reactive.

Reactive lysine: Lysine is one of the 10 essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that must be provided in a dog’s diet. The term essential means that dogs cannot produce these amino acids endogenously (in the body) and so they must be supplied by the protein in the food. Of the essential amino acids, lysine is rather unique in that it has a reactive amino group (the blue H3N+ in the graphic above). This group hangs out into space waving its H+ around, which is ready and able to engage and link up with other molecules. And, just as with reactive dogs, these encounters do not always end well.

When food proteins are subjected to heat treatment and other processing conditions, some of this lysine binds to certain sugars and amino acids. When this occurs, the modified form of lysine is not available, meaning that the dog is unable to use the lysine, even after it has been digested and absorbed into the body. Some of the altered lysine may be modified further to produce compounds called “advanced Maillard compounds“. Maillard products are actually quite well-known to most people – they cause the browning of the toast that you eat for breakfast, on the onions that you caramelize, and form the grill lines on your hamburger.



Reactive lysine in dog foods: Tasty toast aside, for dogs and commercial dog foods, measures of the amount of reactive lysine and Maillard compounds provide an indication of a food’s protein quality. This goes above and beyond digestibility (which we discussed in an earlier blog, “Scoopin’ for Science“), because the amount of reactive lysine reflects the actual nutritive value of the protein once it has been digested and absorbed into the body.

Processing damages protein: The heat treatment that is used to produce commercial dog foods has many benefits – it functions to improve a food’s overall digestibility, enhances shelf life, and assures food safety. However, heat and mechanical processing can also result in damage to the food’s protein. The good news is that the degree of this damage can be measured using laboratory procedures that analyze reactive (available) lysine (RL) and total lysine (TL). A ratio is then calculated between these two values (RL:TL). A high ratio value reflects more reactive lysine, less protein damage and higher quality protein. Conversely, a low value signifies greater loss of lysine during processing, more damage to the protein, and lower quality.

Cool, right? Well, yeah. Really cool. Because measuring reactive lysine ratios provides us (dog folks) with an indication of how processing such as canning, extrusion, rendering, and even dehydration or freeze-drying, might damage food protein and reduce the overall quality and nutritional value of a dog food.

Too bad this information is never reported by pet food companies. (To date, they are not required to report any measures of food digestibility or protein quality to their consumers).

Even though pet food manufacturers are not reporting these values, a group of scientists have been.


The Study: Researchers with the Animal Nutrition Group at Wageningen University in The Netherlands have been examining reactive lysine content and Maillard reaction products in a variety of commercial pet foods. In a recent paper, they collected 67 different brands of dog and cat foods, formulated for different life stages (1). Lysine levels were measured for each, and RL:TL ratios were calculated. The researchers also compared available lysine levels in the foods to the minimum lysine requirements reported by the current NRC Nutrient Requirements for Dog and Cats.

Results: A wide range of RL:TL ratios were reported, suggesting that protein damage in commercial foods is highly variable and may not be dependent simply on the type of processing that is used:

  • Processing type vs. ingredients: Overall, as reflected by the RL:TL ratio, canned foods had less protein damage than extruded foods, which had less damage (surprisingly) than pelleted foods.  However, the range of values within processing type was very high with the three types of foods showing a lot of overlap. This suggested that source and type of ingredients may matter as much as or even more than processing type.
  • Ingredients: Many of the ingredients that are used to produce pelleted and extruded foods are pre-treated with heat, drying and grinding. For extruded foods, this refers primarily to the production of meat meals (see “What’s the Deal with Meals” for a complete discussion of protein meals). It is speculated that this processing and how well it is (or is not) controlled is the most important determinant of changes in protein quality.
  • Meeting lysine requirements: Of the foods that were examined in this study, up to 23 percent of a product’s lysine could be damaged and made unavailable to the dog. When these losses were considered while accounting for expected protein/lysine digestibility, some of the foods were expected to be at risk to not meet the minimum lysine requirement for growing dogs.

The authors conclude: “Ingredients and pet foods should be characterized with respect to their reactive lysine content and digestibility, to avoid limitations in the lysine supply to growing dogs” I would add to this that these measures should be available in some form to consumers, as a measure of the protein quality of the food that they are considering buying.

Detractors might argue that RL:TL ratio is “too complex” for consumers to process and understand. I disagree. A simple classification chart, such as “poor, moderate, and high” quality could be derived from the range of reactive lysine values that are reported. Knowing this information, along with the type and source of ingredients, would allow owners to make meaningful quality distinctions among foods.



I have argued elsewhere that pet food producers should be required to provide digestibility information about their products, when requested. This is not too much to ask, seeing that manufacturer’s claims of “Complete and Balanced” promotes the feeding of their products as the sole source of nutrition to our dogs.  And now, according to the results of research coming from Wageningen University, there are additional measures of protein quality that can differentiate among poor, adequate and superior foods.

It is time to ask for more of pet food manufacturers. Measuring digestibility and reactive lysine levels of foods and ingredients provide measures of product quality that are directly pertinent to nutritive value and to our dogs’ health. Here is your chance, as your dog’s advocate, to be a bit reactive (no – PROACTIVE) with your pet food manufacturer…… Politely request this information about the products that you are buying – let me know what you hear back!

Proactive and Reactive handwritten on whiteboard isolatedCited Study: van Rooijen C, Bosch G, van der Poel AFB, Wierenga PA, Alexander L, Hendriks WH. Reactive lysine content in commercially available pet foods. Journal of Nutritional Science 2104; 3:e35:1-6.


A Science Dog Live Webinar!

Interested in dog training and science? Do you enjoy “The Science Dog”? If so, this webinar is for you!

Beware Straw Man Cover

Beware the Straw Man Webinar; Feb. 23, 3:00 pm CST.  CLICK HERE 

Join me, Linda Case, on February 23rd for a live webinar entitled “Beware the Straw Man: Fact, Fiction & Science in the Dog Training World“, as I examine the role that scientific evidence can (and should) play in our every day training decisions. The presentation is hosted by the Pet Professional Guild and is based on the popular Science Dog book of the same title. An interesting (and fun) case study will be used to illustrate the impact that study design, selection of dogs, use of control groups, and other safeguards can have upon the practice of science and the conclusions that we come to when reviewing training and behavior information. Plenty of time will be provided for questions and discussion (Chippy loves that part). Hope to see you there!


Chippy says he will be there (helping)!




Do You Know What I Can See?

Chippy, our Toller, is a terrible food thief. (Of course, the use of the word terrible is one of perspective. Given his impressive success rate, Chippy would argue that he is actually a very good food thief).

Chip sleeping


Chip has become so proficient at his food thievery that our dog friends all know to “keep eyes on Chippy” whenever we celebrate a birthday or have snacks after an evening of  training. We are often reminded of the now infamous “Birthday Cake Incident” during which Chip and Grace, an equally talented Aussie friend, succeeded in reducing a section of cake to mere crumbs, no evidence to be found. Suffice it to say, we watch food in our house.

Chip and His Cake


Like many other expert food thieves, Chip is quite careful in his pilfering decisions. He will only steal when we are not in the room or when we are being inattentive. The parsimonious (simplest) explanation of this is a behavioristic one; Chip learned early in life that taking forbidden tidbits was successful when a human was not in the room and was unsuccessful if someone was present and attentive to him. In other words, like many dogs who excel at food thievery, Chip learned what “works”.

However, while a behavioristic explanation covers most aspects of selective stealing behavior in dogs, a set of research studies conducted by cognitive scientists suggest that there may be a bit more going on here.

Do Dogs Have a “Theory of Mind”? Dogs have demonstrated that they will alter their behavior in response to whether a person is actively gazing at them or is distracted. For example, in separate studies dogs were more apt to steal a piece of food from an inattentive person and would preferentially beg from an attentive person (1,2). However, these differences can still be explained without a need for higher cognitive processing. A dog could learn over time that human gaze and attentiveness reliably predict certain outcomes, such as positive interactions and opportunities to beg for food. Similarly, inattentiveness might reliably predict opportunities to steal a tidbit (or two or five).

It is also possible that, just like humans, dogs use a person’s gaze to determine what that individual does or does not know. This type of learning is considered to be a higher level of cognitive process because it requires “perspective-taking”, meaning that the dog is able to view a situation through the perspective of the person and can then make decisions according to what that individual is aware of. The import of this type of thinking is that it reveals at least a rudimentary “theory of mind” – the ability to consider what another individual knows or may be thinking.

So, while it is established that dogs are sensitive to the cues that human eye contact and gaze provide, it has not been clear whether they can use this information to determine what the person may or may not know. Enter, the cognitive scientists.

science to the rescue

The Toy Study: One approach to teasing out “theory of mind” evidence is to control what a dog observes about what a person may or may not be able to see. In 2009, Juliane Kaminski and her colleagues at the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology set up a clever experiment in which they used two types of barriers; one transparent and one opaque (3). Dogs and the experimenter sat on opposite sides, and two identical toys were placed in front of each barrier, on the same side as the dog. The dog was then asked to “Fetch!”. They found that the dogs preferred to retrieve the toy that both the dog and the person could see, compared with a toy that only the dog could see.

Barrier Fetch Study


These results suggest that the dogs were aware that their owners could not know that there was a toy located out of their view, and so retrieved the toy that they (presumably) assumed that their owner was requesting. An additional finding of this study was that the dogs were capable of this distinction only in the present, at the time that the owner’s view was blocked. When the researchers tested dogs’ ability to remember what the owner had been able to see in the past, such as a toy being placed in a certain location, the dogs failed at that task.

The Food Thievery Study: Recently, the same researchers provided additional evidence that dogs are able to consider what a human can or cannot see (4).  A group of 28 dogs was tested regarding their tendency to obey a command to not touch a piece of food while the commanding human’s ability to see the food was varied. The testing took place in a darkened room that included two lamps, one of which was used to illuminate the experimenter and the second to illuminate a spot on the floor where food was placed. During the test conditions, the experimenter showed a piece of food to the dog and asked the dog to “leave it” while placing the food on the ground. The experimenter alternated her gaze between the dog and the food as she gradually moved away and sat down. In two subsequent experiments using the same design, the experimenter left the room after placing the food and the degree of illumination were varied. For each experiment, four different conditions were tested: (1) Completely dark (both lamps turned off); (2) Food illuminated, experimenter dark; (3) Experimenter illuminated, food dark; (4) Both food and experimenter illuminated. In all of the conditions, the dog’s response with the food was recorded.

Results: There were several rather illuminating results in this study (sorry, bad pun):

  • Dogs steal in the dark (when a person is present): When the experimenter stayed in the room, dogs were significantly more likely to steal the food when the entire room was in the dark. (They do have excellent noses, after all). If any part of the room was illuminated while the experimenter was present, the dogs were less likely to steal. Conversely, when the experimenter was not present, illumination made no difference at all and most of the dogs took the food. (Lights on or off; they did not care. It was time to party).
  • What the Smart Dog Thieves Do: Within the set of dogs who always took the food, when the experimenter was present they grabbed the tidbit significantly faster when it was in the dark, compared to when the food was illuminated. This result suggests that the dogs were aware that the experimenter could not see the food and so changed up their game a bit. (I’ll just weasel on over to the food and snort it up…….heh heh…..she can’t see it and will never know…..I am such a clever dog….). Chippy would love these dogs.
  • It’s not seeing the human…..it’s what the human sees: Collectively, the three experiments in the study showed that illumination around the human did not influence the dogs’ behavior, while illumination around the food did (when a person was present). This suggests that it is not just a person’s presence or attentiveness that becomes a cue whether or not to steal, but that dogs may also consider what they think we can or cannot see when making a decision about what to do.

Take Away for Dog Folks

Without a doubt, gaze and eye contact are highly important to dogs. They use eye contact in various forms to communicate with us and with other animals. We know that many dogs naturally follow our gaze to distant objects (i.e. as a form of pointing) and that dogs will seek our eye contact when looking for a bit of help (see Only Have Eyes for You and With a Little Help from My Friends). And now we know that dogs, like humans and several other social species, can be aware of what a person may or may not be able to see and, on some level, are capable of taking that person’s perspective into consideration.

As a trainer and dog lover, I say, pretty cool stuff indeed. Chip of course, knew all of this already.

Chip Jan 2012

Oh, and just one more thing……..




A Caution: I was really excited about this research because these results continue to push the peanut forward regarding what we understand about our dogs’ behavior, cognition, and social lives. Learning that dogs may be capable of taking the perspective of others, at least in the present, adds to the ever-growing pile of evidence showing us that our dogs’ social lives are complex, rich, and vital to their welfare and life quality.

That said, because these studies had to do with dogs “behaving badly”, (i.e. stealing food, Gasp! Oh No!),  I was a bit hesitant to write this essay. These studies provide evidence that dogs have a lot more going on upstairs than some folks may wish to give them credit for. And as can happen with these things, evidence for one thing (understanding that a person cannot see a bit of food and so deciding to gulp it on down), may be inappropriately interpreted as evidence for another (Oh! This must mean that dogs understand being “wrong”).

Well no. It does not mean that at all.

For those who reside in the (ever diminishing) camps of  “He knows he was wrong“;  “I trained him not to do that; He is just being willful” and “He must be guilty – He is showing a guilty look“: These studies show us that dogs understand what another individual may and may not know based upon what that person can see. This is not the same, or even close to being the same, as showing that dogs understand the moral import or the “wrongness” (whatever that means) of what they choose to do. Chippy knowing that I cannot see that piece of toast that he just pilfered is NOT the same as Chippy feeling badly that he took it. Remember, we put the last nail in the guilty dog coffin quite some time ago. (See “Death Throes of the Guilty Look“).

Bottom Line: These studies show us that dogs may be sneaky, but they don’t say anything at all about whether they’re feelin’ guilty.

Cited Studies:

  1. Call J, Brauer J, Kaminski J, Tomasello M. Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) are sensitive to the attentiaonal state of humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2003; 117:257-263.
  2. Gacsi M, Miklosi A, Varga O, Topal J, Csanyi V. Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs (Canis familiaris) show situation-dependent recognition of human’s attention. Animal Cognition 2004; 7:144-153.
  3. Kaminski J, Brauer J, Call J, Tomasello M. Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human’s perspective. Behaviour 2009; 146:979-998.
  4. Kaminski J, Pitsch A, Tomasello M. Dogs steal in the dark. Animal Cognition 2013; 16:385-394.


With a Little Help from My Friends

There is a large body of research showing that dogs are quite capable of noticing and responding to human communication cues such as body language, tone of voice, and various forms of pointing. Dogs also will initiate eye contact with people and respond to human gaze. We are well matched in this respect because humans, of course, use eye contact to communicate all of the time. Some of the reasons that we actively seek out the gaze of another person may be as a bid for attention, to communicate friendliness or animosity, or to request assistance.  Similarly, many dogs will approach and initiate eye contact with their owner when they are asking for something (a walk, food, petting or a game of fetch) and in some cases, when asking for a bit of help.

Use some help

These apparent requests for assistance are of interest because it seems that this is one of the ways in which dogs differ significantly from wolves. One of the earliest studies of canine social cognition compared the response of dogs and wolves when presented with an “unsolvable task” (1). In this test, the subject is first allowed to solve a food puzzle in which a bit of food in a container can be accessed by manipulating the container. After several successful trials, the nefarious researcher, unbeknownst to the dog, steps in and alters the puzzle, making the task now impossible to solve. So, the method that the dog used to previously obtain the food is now futile. (I know, frustrating. Bad researcher.)

When presented with this situation, most dogs work at the puzzle for a while and then turn to look back at their owner, presumably as a request for aid. In contrast, the wolves rarely look back at humans. The initial research showing that “wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do” served as the jumping-off point for a flood of innovative research regarding  dogs’ skills in various forms of social cognition.

Dog looks back


Since that time, additional studies have shown that a number of factors can influence an individual dog’s ability to seek and understand human gaze. Some of these are a dog’s living situation (homes vs. shelters), the type of relationship that the dog has with people, and the degree and type of training that the dog has experienced.

Naturally, my ears perked up at this last bit – the influence that training can have on our dogs’ tendency to ask us for help.

Cute ears of dobermann dog


While still in the early stages of study, examination of the ways in which different types of training may influence a dog’s inclination to “ask for help” has already provided a number of interesting results. Here are some of the major findings so far:

  • I can do it myself! When dogs were focused on a solvable task such as learning to open a food-box with their paw or muzzle, those who had a history of formal training were less likely to look to their owner as they worked at the task than were dogs who had experienced little or no formal training (2). The types of training included agility, search and rescue, freestyle, hunting trials and schutzhund, but differences between the training types were not examined.
  • Agility dogs ask; SAR dogs don’t: Conversely, when the task presented to the dogs was NOT solvable (i.e. the unsolvable task paradigm), things suddenly changed up a bit. Dogs who were trained in Agility were more likely to look to their owners when attempting to solve the problem, while Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs were less likely (or looked for shorter durations) (3).
  • Water rescue dogs ask (everyone): Another type of training that has been studied is water rescue. The training that dogs receive for this work  is intensive and requires dogs to respond reliably to their handler’s cues during highly stressful situations. A unique aspect is that these dogs must also be attentive to a stranger who may be behaving erratically (i.e. as he attempts to not drown). This suggests that these dogs may possess both a high degree of dependency upon their handlers’ cues plus an ability to respond to a stranger and so to. work somewhat independently. Indeed results of gazing tests have shown this to be true. For example, when faced with an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, water rescue dogs were more likely to look to their owners for help than were pet dogs (4). In another study, when owners and strangers were compared during the unsolvable task paradigm, water rescue dogs looked initially to their owner rather than to the stranger, but overall they gazed at both people longer than did pet dogs (5). In other words, dogs trained for water rescue preferentially looked for help from their owners, but were also willing to ask a stranger to step up and lend a hand.

With evidence showing that the specific type of work that a dog is trained to do may influence a dog’s inclination to seek help from their owner (or a stranger), the same group of Italian researchers decided to look at a very specific type of training that not only requires that dogs work independently of their handlers (like SAR dogs), but in some cases, to “actively disobey”, making decisions for the welfare of their sight-impaired owner.

Guide Dog


The Study: The researchers evaluated four groups of dogs during the unsolvable task paradigm (6). These were 13 guide dogs who had just completed their training program but had not yet been placed with a blind recipient; 11 guide dogs who had been living with their blind owner for at least one year, and two pet dog control groups, one age-matched to each set of guide dogs.  All of the dogs in the study were trained at the same training school and were purebred Labrador retrievers.

Results: The researchers were interested in discovering the differences, if any, between dogs who had recently finished their guide dog training and had been housed in a kennel and those who were working as guide dogs and living with their owner and his/her family in a home. Here is what they found:

  • New guide dogs did not ask: The recently trained dogs spent more time interacting with the apparatus and less time gazing toward the trainer or a stranger than did the older guide dogs who were living in homes (or than the pet dogs). This suggests that the recently trained dogs were more apt to work independently and less likely to “ask for help” when faced with a new and frustrating task.
  • Guide dogs in homes did ask: In contrast, the working guide dogs who had been living in homes for at least a year were as likely to turn to look at a person to ask for help as were the pet dogs. Unlike their younger counterparts, these dogs behaved like pet dogs in that they would turn and seek help when presented with a new problem.

Was it type of training or was it living situation? There was an unavoidable confounding factor in this study. The dogs who had recently completed their training were also living in a kennel, with limited daily access to their trainer. Conversely, dogs who had been out and working for at least a year (and whose training may have lapsed to some degree) were living in homes with people, in settings similar or identical to those of pet dogs. So, the reduced tendency of the young guide dogs to seek help (and their greater inclination to work independently) may have been due to their recent training history during which many of the trained tasks required them to work independently and when they were not reinforced for giving visual attention to the trainer. Alternatively, the young dogs had also been living in a kennel and had not experienced an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with human caretakers. Similarly, the mature guide dogs may have either experienced some lapse in training and/or may have developed a greater dependency on the humans in their home (which included both their blind handler and sighted family members).

Take-Away for Dog Folks: What these studies collectively suggest is that the life experience of training generally promotes increased confidence and independence in dogs when they are presented with novel tasks that are solvable. However, when dogs are experiencing a failure to succeed at a new task (and possibly are becoming frustrated), the type of training that they have experienced may influence their inclination whether or not to look to their owners for help. Dogs who have been trained to work closely with a human partner and to depend upon their cues  (such as agility dogs and water rescue dogs) are more likely to look to their people for help. Conversely, dogs who have been trained at tasks in which they work more independently, such as SAR dogs and young guide dogs, are less likely to ask. Most interesting perhaps is the evidence that a dog’s living situation may trump his or her training history, as seen in the guide dog study. It is possible that living in close proximity with human caretakers and experiencing daily interaction and communication may be more important than training in terms of encouraging our dogs to turn and to ask for a little help from their friends.

Get by with

Cited Studies:

  1. Miklósi A, Kubinyi e, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, Csányi V. A Simple Reason for a Big Difference: Wolves Do Not Look Back at Humans, but Dogs Do. Current Biology 2003; 13:763-766.
  2. Marshall-Pescini S, Valsecchi P, Petak I, Accorsi PA, Prato-Previde E. Does training make you smarter? The effects of training on dogs’ performance (Canis familiaris) in a problem-solving task. Behavioural Processes 2008; 78:449-454.
  3. Marshall-Pescini S, Pallalacqua C, Barnard S, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. Agility and search and rescue training differently affect pet dogs’ behavior in socio-cognitive task. Behavioural Processes 2009; 81:416-422.
  4. Merola I, Marshall-Pescini S, D’Aniello B, Prato-Previde E. Social referencing: Water rescue trained dogs are less affected than pet dogs by the stranger’s message. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2013; 147:132-138.
  5. D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Prato=Previde E, Valsecchi P. Gazing toward humans: A study on water rescue dogs using the impossible task paradigm. Behavioural Processes 2015: 110:68-73.
  6. Scandurra A, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P, Aria M, D’Aniello B. Guide dogs as a model for investigating the effect of life experience and training on gazing behavior. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:937-944.


Only Have Eyes for You

Eye contact is one of the first things that I teach to my own dogs and is a basic behavior that we teach to all of our students at my training school, AutumnGold.

Cooper Default Eye Contact


In our training classes, we introduce eye contact very early because it is easy to teach and provides rapid and positive results to owners who are often frustrated with their young and exuberant dog’s lack of attention. It is also a great method for teaching targeting and timing skills.

Really, what’s not to like?

Juno and Carrie Default Eye Contact


Well, until recently, I thought, nothing at all. However, a newly published study motivated me to think a bit more deeply about the behaviors that we train dogs to do and how they may, however subtlety, influence our dogs’ social lives. It has to do with tests of social cognition; specifically how dogs may or may not use human gaze as a communicative signal.

Following gaze as a social behavior: The inclination to follow the gaze of another individual is considered to be a socially facilitated response. It makes sense of course because one of the ways that social beings communicate is by attending to what others are paying attention to. Gaze following behaviors have been demonstrated in a number of social species that include chimpanzees, wolves, several species of birds, domesticated goats and of course, humans. Dogs have been shown to be able to follow human gaze and other intention gestures such as pointing when engaged in an object choice test (i.e. when they are being asked to choose between a series of cups holding food). However, evidence for the dog’s ability to follow a human’s gaze toward distant space (i.e. when food choice is not involved) has been conflicting and inconclusive.

Wolf following gaze    Dog Following Gaze in Object Choice                     WOLVES CAN DO IT                                    DOGS CAN DO IT FOR FOOD CHOICE

Why are dogs different from other social species?  Currently, there are three working theories that attempt to explain why dogs may not consistently demonstrate gaze following:

  • Habituation hypothesis: This explanation suggests that dogs who live closely with people gradually lose their innate tendency to follow human gaze because we gaze at a lot of things that are not relevant to them. Over time, the dog will habituate to this and stop responding. (Face it, in today’s world, many of us spend a lot of time staring at things that hold absolutely no interest to our dogs. Consider our use of computers, TV sets and Kindles, to name just a few).
  • Formal training hypothesis: A second theory, and one that is not mutually exclusive of habituation (i.e. they could both be in play here), is that dogs who are formally trained to offer eye contact with their owners, either on cue or as a “default” behavior, are less likely to spontaneously follow the owner’s gaze into space because looking into the owner’s eyes is a behavior that directly competes with turning away to follow gaze. (This is the hypothesis that could put a bit of a kink in my undying love for “default eye contact” training).
  • Lifelong learning hypothesis: A final theory that is in direct opposition to the habituation hypothesis poses that because dogs who live in homes are repeatedly asked to look to their owners for direction in many informal situations, that they actual may become better, not worse, at following our gaze. Examples of this are communicating to your dog that it is time for a walk (looking at the door), time to eat (gazing at the food bowl or towards the kitchen) or time for a game (searching for the favorite ball). So, in effect, the lifelong learning hypothesis works in direct opposition to the habituation hypothesis and predicts that dogs who live in homes should be quite proficient at gaze-following with their humans.

So, which of these theories (or combination) might be in play when our dogs are asked to “follow our gaze”? A group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria’s Clever Dog Lab decided to ask a group of Border Collies.

Multiple Steves


The Study: In a cleverly designed experiment, the researchers tested all three of these hypotheses. First, they selected 147 dogs, all Border Collies living in homes as family pets. The dogs were between the ages of 6 months and 13 years. Using this wide age range allowed the researchers to test the lifelong learning and habituation hypotheses. To test the formal training hypothesis, the degree of training that each dog had received was assessed using an owner questionnaire. Dogs were classified into five categories, ranging from no formal training to extensively trained. A group of 13 additional dogs acted as a positive control group. All of the dogs completed a series of three experimental phases with a familiar trainer (one of the researchers):

  • Phase 1: In the first phase (untrained) the trainer lured the dog into position in front of her and lured or cued the dog to gaze into her eyes. As soon as the dog initiated eye contact, the trainer turned her head quickly away from the dog to gaze towards a door (test condition) or to look down at her feet (control condition).
  • Phase 2: In the second phase, the dogs in the test group were trained to offer and hold eye contact on command. The 13 dogs in the positive control group were trained to touch a ball that was sitting on the ground with their paw. Clicker training was used to teach both behaviors.
  • Phase 3: Following successful eye contact or touch-ball training, the dogs were retested using the techniques described in Phase 1. Instead of luring the dogs into place and to offer eye contact, the test dogs were cued to offer eye contact and the control dogs were cued to touch the ball before the trainer shifted her gaze towards the door or to her feet.
Dog Following Gaze Toward Door


Results: Here are the researchers’ findings:

  • Some dogs follow distance gaze: In the pre-trained phase, about half of the dogs (48 %) spontaneously followed the gaze of the trainer towards the door.  Although the age of the dog did not significantly influence gaze-following, young dogs in late puppyhood and geriatric dogs were more strongly inclined to look at the door than were adult, middle-aged dogs. The absence of a clear age-effect is evidence against both the habituation and the life-long learning hypotheses.
  • Training eye contact interfered with gaze following: Following clicker training to offer eye contact, the number of dogs who followed the trainers gaze towards the door significantly decreased. The dogs who were trained to offer eye contact were also less likely to follow the trainer’s gaze toward the door than were the dogs who had been trained to place their paw on a ball. (In other words, it was not just the training that caused the change – it was specifically training for eye contact on cue.)
  • Formal training reduced gaze following: In both the pre-trained and the post-trained tests, dogs who had received more formal training with their owners were less likely to follow gaze towards the door than were dogs with little or no formal training experience. Because the dogs had a variety of training experiences, (for example obedience, agility, nose work, tricks, freestyle, search and rescue and herding), it was not possible to identify the effects of specific types of training (a subject the authors identify for future study).
  • Study limitations: Yes, the study used just Border Collies, and yes, indeed, as a breed, they are quite the smart little peanuts. Not only are they highly trainable, but they also have a very strong tendency to look to humans for cues. The researchers acknowledge this and open up the question of what, if any, breed or breed-type differences might we expect to see in distance gaze-following behaviors? This is certainly a topic for further (if difficult to accomplish) investigation. A second issue might be the use of a door as the focus point for distance gazing. Certainly doorways are not without meaning to dogs as they are conditioned objects that predict people coming and going and opportunities for walks, which would influence a dog’s tendency to attend. However, it is accepted that individuals tendency to follow gaze more readily toward relevant objects. Of interest in this study is the change in those tendencies in response to training.

Take Away for Dog Owners: The researchers in this study were the first to show that a relatively high proportion of dogs living in homes are likely to follow a person’s gaze towards distant space. In other words, they use our social cues to learn about and respond to our shared environment. Many people know this and probably will say that their dogs demonstrate this daily. However, in my view, the more important implications of these results are what they tell us about our ability to inhibit, albeit with the very best of intentions, our dog’s natural social behaviors. In the study, when the same dogs were trained for a short period of time to offer eye contact on cue, the training interfered with the ability of at least some of the dogs to follow gaze. The data also showed that lifetime formal training has an inhibitory influence upon this form of social cognition in dogs. 


Why should we care?

Personally, these results led me to think a bit more carefully about when and how often I ask for default eye contact with my dogs. If one agrees that social cognition, the ability to understand and respond to the social cues of others, is an important part of a dog’s life quality, then we should make conscious decisions regarding the types of training that contribute to or detract from our dogs’ natural social behavior. I am certainly not advocating an end to training eye contact. For me, it remains an important behavior to teach to dogs because eye contact contributes to strong communicative bonds and facilitates learning. One cannot really teach new behaviors after all, if we fail to have our dog’s attention. Rather, I am suggesting that we consciously strive for a balance between those training activities that require our dog’s undivided attention and those in which we encourage dogs to use their cognitive skills and work independently.

For example, at AutumnGold we offer both Canine Freestyle and K-9 Nose Work as advanced training classes. Freestyle is tons of fun for dogs and owners and  the precise training that it involves teaches dogs body awareness, complex behaviors and chaining. Similar to obedience training, agility and many other dog sports, this training requires clear communication between trainer and dog, and eye contact is an important aspect of that communication. K-9 Nose Work on the other hand, encourages dogs to work more independently, using their scenting abilities to find a hidden object or selected scent. Like many trainers, we have found that there are very few dogs (and owners) who do not absolutely love these Nose Work games.

I am the first to say that I love having my dogs attention via eye contact, especially when we are training complex tricks, obedience exercises and Freestyle moves. However, it is every bit as exciting for me to see them work independently to find  a hidden scent, play tug with their doggy friends, retrieve a hidden toy, or have free swim time in the pool. For me, these data served as a reminder that allowing our dogs to attend to their social environment, to work independently of us, and to practice (and be allowed to show) their social cognition talents are as important (and fun) as are training for good manners and canine sports.

Happy Training!

Chip Nose Work


Cited Study: Wallis LJ, Range R, Muller, CA, Serisier S, Huber L, Viranyi Z. Training for eye contact modulates gaze following in dogs. Animal Behavior 2015; 106:27-35.



Dog Food Marketing – Science Weighs In

Marketing researchers know a lot about advertising strategies that successfully increase sales. This is no less true for pet foods than it is for any other consumer goods. Some of the more obvious approaches to attracting dog owners to a particular brand are advertisements that appeal to our emotional attachment to dogs, capitalize on our desire for expert approval, or that exploit our fascination with the lives of celebrities.

Appeal to Emotion 3    Appeal to Authority 1

                    APPEAL TO EMOTIONS                                             APPEAL TO AUTHORITY


Appeal to Celebrity


One of my personal favorites of the “I love celebrities” category is an ingenious brand of Nestle’-Purina’s in which the celebrity to whom the product refers, supposedly a famous chef, does not, um, actually exist…….

Chef Michael

The Ad: It’s not just dog food. It’s Chef Michael’s. Crafted with great care, attention to detail and inspiration from our executive chef”

The Disclaimer: In the spirit of full disclosure (and to avoid litigation), the company provides the following response to inquiries about the whereabouts of the personage who is Chef Michael: “Chef Michael is not a real person, but a reflection of the many people inspired to make mealtime special for their dogs”.  I dunno. I think I would still like to get the guy’s autograph.

So, pick your poison – there is a dog food advertising campaign out there designed to appeal to just about every dog owner demographic. And, even though each and every one of us will insist that these schemes do not work on us (and that we select a dog food based solely upon its nutrient content, ingredient quality and suitability for our dog, thank you very much), these campaigns do indeed work very well.

Marketing’s Holy Grail: One category of advertising claims that has been shown to work particularly well, increasing human and pet food sales more than any other, are health claims. Because of the cumulative effects of a series of three laws that were passed in the 1990’s, the regulatory oversight of health claims on foods has been drastically curtailed over the last 35 years. Over time, the loss of regulatory oversight over health claims in human foods has led to labels that look like this:

Health Claims Human Foods

Dog foods quickly followed suit.  And pet foods are no different. As it stands today, pet food companies may include general health claims on their labels with no legal obligation to substantiate those claims. In other words, they neither have to prove the claim nor provide any evidence supporting the claim to any regulatory agency. Marketers must simply word their brand name or advertisement carefully enough to prevent the FDA from considering it a drug claim (which are regulated).

The difference between a general health claim (allowed and no proof needed) and a drug claim (not allowed; regulated by FDA) for pet foods turns on just a few words and phrases, as shown in the table below from Dog Food Logic.

Claims Table


Here are a few product examples:

Skin Coat 3                 Skin Coat 5            Skin Coat 7                        Skin Coat 8

Might these health claims be confusing to pet owners? A recent study asked exactly that question. 

The Study: A group of researchers at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine examined the nutrient profiles and ingredients list of 24 brands of dog food that all were marketed for skin and coat health (1). The objective of their study was to identify consistencies (or inconsistencies) among different commercial products making claims of promoting skin and coat health in dogs.

Results: They examined 15 dry (extruded) foods and 9 canned foods, representing 11 different brand names. Here are their results:

  • Its all in the name: All 24 products included the terms skin, coat plus a descriptor of skin/coat health in their brand name. They also included additional health-related terms on their labels and on websites. The most commonly used were sensitive, skin sensitivities, digestive sensitivity, digestive health, and limited/unique ingredients.
  • Ingredients: If you had thought there would be a handful of specific ingredients that are known to be beneficial to skin and coat, think again. The protein sources in the 24 foods were all over the map and included chicken, fish, egg, venison, beef, pork, duck, lamb, soy, peas, and turkey. A similar cornucopia was found for carbohydrate sources, with rice, potato, wheat, oats,  barley,  millet, corn, quinoa and tapioca all making an appearance.
  • Not so special fatty acids: Thirteen of the 24 foods (54 %) identified fatty acids as nutrients that are important for skin and coat health. While this may be true for certain specific omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (and their ratios), 10 of the 13 foods did not identify these by name but instead used vague (and meaningless) terms such as “omega fatty acids” or “omega oils”. Less than a third of the foods provided information about the amount of any specific fatty acid in the food. When this information was provided, the range in EPA and DHA (two important omega-3 fatty acids) concentrations overlapped with those found in foods not labeled for skin/coat health.
  • More nothin’ special: The essential nutrient content and caloric density (number of calories per cup) of the 24 foods varied enormously and overlapped with other brands that are sold for adult dogs but which are not specifically marketed for skin health. (In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, there was nothing that was consistently special or unique about the nutrient content of these foods. Even omega-3 fatty acid concentrations were all over the map, making the claims of “Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids” essentially useless to consumers).

Conclusions: The researchers were rather circumspect in their conclusions, stating that the wide variety of ingredients and large range in nutritional value of products marketed for skin and coat health make product selection for owners who are interested in these foods confusing. (Personally, I go further than “confusing”).




Up on My Soapbox: I could be wrong, but I rather doubt that a concerned owner, whose dog is experiencing skin or coat problems and who sees a food that is specifically labeled “Sensitive Skin“, stops and ponders: “Well, the company does not actually state outright that this food cures sensitive skin problems. Nor do they say that they have proven that the food supports healthy skin. Therefore, I know better than to expect this food to do much of anything at all to help my dog”.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe this owner is much more likely to be thinking “Oh, look! A food that is designed to help Muffin’s sensitive and itchy skin! I will give it a try because poor Muffin’s skin has been terribly bad lately. I bet this food can help her!”. Ka-ching. Another day, another unregulated and misleading pet food claim, another sale. Poor Muffin.

Take Away for Dog Folks: If your dog is continually or excessively itchy or has skin problems, please make a visit to your veterinarian, not to your local pet supply store. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis for skin problems because the majority of these are not related to food. Rather, the most common causes of excessively itchiness in dogs are allergies to environmental allergens such as house dust mites, pollens and molds or fleas. Only after these causes have been eliminated should food be looked at as a potential underlying cause. (Note – The diagnosis of food allergy can only be made through the use of an 8 to 10 week elimination feeding trial, which is a topic for another blog at another time).

(By the way, if you find Chef Michael, get an autograph for me).

Cited Reference: Johnson LN, Heintze CR, Linder DE, Freeman LM. Evaluation of marketing claims, ingredients, and nutrient profiles of over-the-counter diets marketed for skin and coat health of dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2015; 246:1334-1338.