Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.

Fundamental-Attribution-Error

THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR

We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.

soapbox

I THINK I’M GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOX

There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing

ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’

Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:

FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION EXPLANATIONS (THE EXCITABLE DOG):

  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?

SITUATIONAL EXPLANATIONS (UNWANTED EXCITED BEHAVIORS):

  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.

 

 

 

 

The Inhibited Dog (Its not what you think)

We recently started a new Beginner class at AutumnGold, a course designed for dogs who have had little or no previous training. Generally this class is composed of young dogs less than one year of age and a few older dogs who have been recently adopted from a shelter or rescue group. We host a 90-minute orientation on the first evening for owners only. The orientation introduces students to our training principles, provides guidelines for keeping dogs safe and comfortable in a group setting, and prepares owners for what to expect the following week when they arrive with their dogs.

This preparation is absolutely necessary because unbeknownst to the owners, their dogs will be arriving at class ready to party down. New place, other dogs (who are also excited), lots of great doggy smells, toys, and treats (lots of treats). From a dog’s point of view; definitely a time for celebration.

Party Dog

TRAINING CLASS!!! YAY! TIME TO PARTY!!!

Knowing that the energy level in the training hall will be tipping the high end of the scale on the first night (and probably on several thereafter), we emphasize to students that the one hour or so that they spend at class each week is primarily for them to learn how to train their dogs and for their dogs to have an evening out for some socialization and fun. We stress that because the dogs will be excited and distracted, they generally learn very little during class time. Rather, dogs will do most of their learning at home during daily training sessions, when they are less excited and stimulated (an emotional state that is often technically referred to as “arousal”).

While trainers who teach group classes are anecdotally aware of the impact that excitability can have on a dog’s ability to learn, it is only recently that the specific effects of arousal on dogs’ cognitive ability has been studied by researchers. This work is highly relevant to trainers because understanding more about the contextual nature of how dogs learn can help us to more effectively structure our classes, inform our clients and train our own dogs.

The Science: The story begins with the concept of “inhibitory control“, a term that refers to an individual’s ability to resist the impulse to do something that may be immediately gratifying but is  ultimately harmful or counterproductive. (Though not technically correct, dog trainers often colloquially refer to this as “impulse control”). Examples in dog training abound. A dog who correctly responds to a “leave it” command and turns away from the smelly thing on the ground is demonstrating excellent inhibitory control. So is the dog who maintains her sit/stay while the cat wanders past or waits patiently at the open door prior to going for a walk. While we certainly capitalize on our dog’s ability to use this talent and hone it carefully with training, many exercises that allow our dogs to live with us as well-mannered family members would not be possible if dogs did not possess an innate capacity for inhibitory control when learning new tasks.

Inhibitory control has been studied in many species, including our own. A body of evidence in humans suggests that an individual’s ability to forego instant gratification in lieu of a more nuanced and considered response is relatively stable over time and across contexts. In other words, some people demonstrate high degrees of inhibitory control in many areas of their lives.

Other people, not so much.

Impulse control

The same may be true for dogs. Recent evidence suggests that the type of work that a dog has been selected for can influence the strength of a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control. For example, a successful herding dog has a strong chase drive yet inhibits the final bite portion of predatory drive. Similarly, dogs selected for Service Dog or Search and Rescue work must maintain concentration and continue to work in the face of situations that are highly variable and distracting.

However, personality (temperament) alone does not fully explain a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control.

Not just a personality trait: The expression of inhibitory control can also be influenced by a variety of situational or environmental factors. One of the most important of these is an individual’s current state of emotional arousal (think – the excited beginner dog). The emotional-reactivity hypothesis explains this in terms of arousal’s ability to either support or interfere with learning and performance. It is a bit of a “Three Bears” scenario in which too little arousal is not a good thing (the individual is not interested or is not attending to the task), while neither is too high a state of arousal  (the individual is highly distracted and excitable). The “just right” level exists somewhere in the middle – a moderate state of emotional arousal that best supports an individual’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control and learn new tasks.

HebbianYerkesDodson_svg

OPTIMAL INHIBITORY CONTROL (PERFORMANCE) OCCURS AT MODERATE LEVELS OF EMOTIONAL AROUSAL

It appears that a dog’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control may be influenced by both personality traits (temperament) and the dog’s current state of  emotional arousal. This information is certainly not surprising to anyone who trains dogs. However, the interesting part has to do with new research suggesting that emotional arousal can have different effects upon learning in dogs, depending upon a dog’s innate personality.

The Study:  Emily Bray and her colleagues at the Duke Canine Cognition Center theorized that dogs selected for different types of work might differ in their natural state of emotional arousal and subsequently how changing their arousal state might either enhance or inhibit learning – as expressed as inhibitory control. Specifically, they noted that Labrador Retrievers who have been selected and bred to work as Service Dogs (assistance dogs) undergo intentional breeding selection for low levels of emotional arousal and high trainability. Conversely, the absence of such selective breeding pressures on pet dogs suggests that, as a group, pets would be more emotionally reactive and thus more innately (and easily) aroused by comparison. Given the inverted U-shaped curve for performance, they predicted that assistance dogs, having a more placid temperament by nature, would demonstrate their best inhibitory control when purposefully aroused (to move them from the left tail of the curve to the right a bit), while pet dogs would benefit from a bit of calming experience to move them from the overly aroused tail on the right side of the curve, toward the left. Put another way; they expected pet dogs to be more prone to errors in inhibitory control due to over-arousal and assistance dogs to be more prone to errors caused by under-arousal.

They tested this in a group of 30 pet dogs and a group of 76 Labrador Retrievers who had been bred as potential assistance dogs by Canine Companions for Independence. A standard fence detour task was used to measure problem-solving ability (performance). This tasks requires that dogs demonstrate inhibitory control because while they can see a dog treat behind the apex of a transparent barrier, solving the problem requires the dog to move away from the treat and walk around the end of the barrier in order to access the reward. Each dog was tested in two states of emotional arousal; low and high. In the low arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog to complete the detour task using a calm and quiet voice. In the high arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog using a high-pitched and excited voice. Dogs’ success and ability to show inhibitory control was measured according to the pathway that they attempted to travel, whether or not they tried to grab the treat directly (through the barrier) and the amount of time that it took the dog to succeed.

Fence detour task

DETOUR TASK AS A MEASURE OF INHIBITORY CONTROL

Results: Statistically significant differences were found between the pet dogs and the assistance dogs and between low and high emotional arousal states. Here is what the researchers discovered:

  •  Pet dogs are more excitable: As a group, the pet dogs had a higher baseline level of emotional arousal (excitability) when compared with the assistance dogs.  This result was expected and supported the supposition that assistance dogs are selected for emotional stability and calm temperaments while many pet dogs, well, are not.
  • Assistance dogs performed best when emotionally aroused: During the detour tasks, the assistance dogs performed significantly better (i.e. exerted more inhibitory control) when they were aroused emotionally by the excited experimenter, compared with when they were calmed by the quiet experimenter. In other words, excitable encouragement and a high-pitched voice improved these dogs’ ability to problem solve and to show inhibitory control.
  • Pet dogs performed best when calmed: The exact opposite was true for pet dogs. Pet dogs achieved significantly better detour success scores when encouraged in a calming and monotone voice (low emotional arousal) compared with when they were encouraged to succeed using highly arousing encouragement. Therefore, encouraging pet dogs in a highly excitable manner interfered with learning, reduced inhibitory control, and lessened success.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This information should be of great interest to anyone who trains dogs and in particular to those of us who teach group classes – situations that, by definition, lead to high states of emotional arousal in the majority of dogs. While most trainers intuitively know that a highly aroused (excited) dog does not learn efficiently, these data show us that a specific type of problem-solving, inhibitory control, will be impaired in pet dogs who are over-stimulated. Therefore when training an excited dog to maintain a sit/stay, to “leave it” or to “wait” at the door, we will do best to used a calming voice, quiet demeanor, and to manage the dog’s environment (as much as is possible) to ratchet down emotional arousal.

Zuzu and Hannah Sit Stay

HANNAH PROVIDES ZUZU WITH CALM AND GENTLE PRAISE WHILE TRAINING SIT/STAY

Similarly, an older, calm dog who perhaps has “seen it all” and is participating in an advanced training class, may benefit from exercises that enhance, rather than suppress, emotional arousal.  Hence the adage – Active praise for action exercises.

Chip Agility Jumping

CHIPPY GETS EXCITED ABOUT AGILITY TRAINING

The bottom line? Knowing where that sweet spot is on the inverted U-curve for an individual dog in a given situation may have as much to do with who that dog is in terms of his natural state of arousal as it does with manipulating the training environment to increase or decrease that state. An appropriately “inhibited” dog, one whose cognitive faculty of inhibitory control is functioning at its best, may be the dog who is moderately but not excessively emotionally aroused.

Happy Training!

Cited Study: Bray EE, MacLean EL, Hare BA. Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:1317-1329.

The Perfect Dog

Well, not perfect actually, the word that is being thrown around is ideal. In three separate studies, people in the UK, Australia and Italy were polled and asked to describe what they believe to be their ideal dog; the dog with whom they would like to share their love and their life. Kinda like being asked about the ideal man, I guess.

Ideal man 2

The first survey, conducted in the UK, was not scientific, but rather an informal poll conducted by a popular Sunday paper. The Express asked 2000 dog owners about what they considered to be the most desirable physical characteristics in a dog. After collecting the surveys, the editors combined the most popular answers to create this:

Ideal Dog UK

GREAT BRITAIN’S “IDEAL” DOG

Pretty adorable, even if he is mythical. The ideal British dog, a chimera of breed types, is purportedly of medium size with the coat of an English bulldog, the ears of a King Charles spaniel and the happy, wagging tail of an Irish Setter.  Other attributes were borrowed from Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Beagles. They even specified the type of bark that the perfect pooch should have – must be “mid-range, not high-pitched”. (I guess that rules out Tollers).

Admittedly, this boy is pretty cute.  However, the newspaper survey did not ask about behavior or temperament, which are really the most important features to think about in one’s ideal canine companion. Lucky for us, researchers in Australia and Italy asked exactly these questions (1,2).

What Australians Like: A group of almost 900 Australian citizens were surveyed regarding both the physical and the behavioral characteristics of their perceived ideal dog, using an on-line survey tool. The majority of respondents were current dog owners (72.3 %) and female (79.8 %). The researchers used a statistical technique called principal component analysis (PCA) to identify consistent clusters of responses among available answers. Results: The ideal dog for Australians, as measured by this survey, is medium-sized, short-haired, and “de-sexed” (i.e. neutered/spayed).  Behaviorally, he is house-trained, friendly, good with children, obedient and healthy. Also of importance were reliably responding to “come” (and its corollary, not running away), and showing affection to one’s owner. Oh yeah, and a majority of the respondents said that their perfect dog was not a poop eater.

We Eat Poop

YOU TWO ARE SURE CUTE…..BUT SORRY,  NOT IDEAL

Italians are Going For:  Recently, one of the researchers in the Australian study (PC Bennett) collaborated with scientists in Italy and administered the same survey to a group of 770 Italian citizens. Results: Participant demographics were similar to those of the Australian study and behavior traits of the perceived ideal dog were almost identical. The Italian perfect pooch is house-trained, safe with children, friendly, obedient, healthy, and long-lived. There were a few differences between men and women in the two studies, however.

The Gender Gaps: Australian women valued dogs who are calm, obedient, sociable and non-aggressive, while men in that culture went for dogs who are more energetic, protective and faithful. Italian men were significantly more likely than women to prefer an intact (non-neutered) dog, and Italian women were willing to spend more time with their dog than were men.

Conclusions: The researchers placed emphasis on the fact that most dogs who live as companions today are of breeds or breed-types that were originally developed for a specific purpose and work, such as herding, hunting or protecting. However, very few dogs continue to be used for those functions which may contribute to a disconnect between what people perceive the ideal dog to be and  the reality of how dogs behave and respond to modern-day lifestyles. The results of both studies reported that participants valued a dog’s behavior and health more than they do physical appearance. However, the specific behaviors that were strongly valued suggested unrealistic expectations regarding a dog’s needs, behavior and training.

Unrealistic Expectations

OR AS A DOG OWNER?

The study’s authors make two recommendations regarding how this information should be used:

  1. Education: The study results show that the general public continues to require education regarding normal and expected behavior of dogs, along with dogs’ needs for training. This education can help to reduce the obvious gap that exists between what is perceived to be an ideal dog and real dogs living as companions.
  2. Selective breeding: Because dogs live primarily as companions in homes today, the authors state that breeders should be focusing their efforts on producing dogs that meet owner expectations regarding behavior as opposed to breeding for physical appearance.

My opinion on this research and on the authors’ recommendations? Yeah, I got one. Big surprise, I know.

soapbox

UP ON THE OL’ BOX

The fact that people identified their ideal dog to be one who is house-trained, friendly, obedient and good with kids should hardly come as a surprise. The last time I checked, there are not many people who are seeking a house-soiling, anti-social, disobedient baby killer as their next canine companion. I think we can all agree that most people (probably not just Australians and Italians) value, at least to some degree, the traits that these studies reported.

Where things get a little weird (for me) is in the disconnect between what people identified as their ideal dog and the degree to which (if at all) they perceived their own responsibility in trying to achieve that ideal. For example, in both studies, the majority of respondents stated that their ideal dog was acquired as a puppy. Okey Dokey then…….do the math. How exactly does house-trained, coming called, not running away, good with children, friendly and healthy come about if not through consistent training, exercise, socialization, veterinary visits and care, on the part of the owner? There was more evidence that the participants were not thinking this all the way through:

  • In the Australian study, although the majority of  participants stated that the ideal dog was “obedient”, when asked about the trainability of the ideal dog only 3.6 % (or virtually no one) stated that this was important and approximately one-third believed that “some dogs cannot be trained“. So, I guess the obedient dog who comes when called, does not run away, and oh yeah, abstains from poop-eating just popped out of the womb like that.
  • While the Italian respondents did not share the Australians’ views regarding trainability, they made up for it when asked about exercise and grooming needs.  Owners who self-reported spending little time exercising and grooming their actual dog reported much higher frequencies of these activities with their ideal dog. (Perhaps he is more active and has a denser coat?). About 1 in 10 Italians stated that they never walk their dog at all and slightly less reported that they never groomed their (actual) dog.

Who’s responsible? These discrepancies between ideal and actual dogs prompted the researchers to make their two recommendations, listed above.  I wholeheartedly agree with Number 1. Number 2? Not so much. In fact, I would argue that the two recommendations are at odds with each other. Here is what I mean:

  • Change expectations: If one agrees that the studies’ results reflect unrealistic expectations by owners about dogs and that these need to be corrected via education (and perhaps the occasional slap upside the head), it is illogical to follow this by suggesting that breeders attempt to create dogs who meet these unrealistic expectations.
  • Change breeding focus: Certainly breeders should be selecting for stable and appropriate temperaments within the standard of their breed. And, I think most would agree that certain breeds (or breed-types) are better suited for families with children or elderly couples or an urban-dwelling professional than others. However, this recommendation appears to suggest that breeders stop selecting for behavior traits that tilt away from the (mythical) ideal dog. For example, should Border Collie breeders stop selecting for herding instinct so that little Johnny’s heels don’t get nipped at as he races around the living room? Should Golden Retriever breeders stop selecting for active dogs so that their owners have no obligation to take the dog for walks? Must Beagle breeders stop breeding sniff-focused dogs because we all know that excessive sniffiness promotes wandering off? And, perhaps breeders of long–haired dogs with double coats should cut that nonsense out right now and begin selecting for bald dogs who require no grooming (because picking up that brush a few times a week is just too much work for the busy dog owner).

Sarcasm aside, I would argue that not only are “unrealistic expectations” a problem here, but the term “ideal” itself also needs to go. Just as the ideal man does not exist (yes, sad I know, but true), neither does the ideal dog. Border Collies herd, Golden Retrievers chase things and bring them back, hairy dogs shed (and need to be brushed), some dogs are aloof with strangers, some dogs don’t like kids all that much, some bark a lot, and yes, Virginia, some dogs like to eat poop. Rather than catering to people’s unrealistic beliefs about a mythical dog, let’s instead focus on promoting caring for, respecting, and loving the dogs that we have, non-ideal traits and all.

Chippy Wet and Happy

I’M CHIP, A TOLLER. I BARK (A LOT). MY MOM LOVES ME (A LOT) ANYWAY.

Cited Studies:

  1. King T, Marston LC, Bennett PC. Describing the ideal Australian companion dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2009; 120:84-93.
  2. Diverio S, Boccini B, Menchetti L, Bennett PC. The Italian perception of the “ideal companion dog”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2016; (in press).

 

 

 

 

 

Manners Minder and Me

In the previous essay, “Doggie See, Doggie Do?”  I discussed research showing that dogs may be capable of learning new tasks simply by observing another dog being trained. I mentioned that when I work with my own dogs, I rotate among them by training each dog to perform a down/stay on the pause tables located on the side of our training floor.

Ally Learns High Five on her Platform

 CHIP AND COOPER WAIT THEIR TURNS TO TRAIN

In our family, Chippy and Cooper are the most recent in a long line of Case dogs who have learned to “wait their turn” on their platform bed. Admittedly, this is not an easy behavior to teach seeing that my dogs love to train and ultimately view their time on the platform as the “down-stays of doom“.

The approach to training this is pretty simple. I first teach a solid down-stay on the platform with no distractions, and then shape time and distance separately using click/treat. Getting a solid down/stay on the platform is the easy part……the difficulty lies in getting that stay to hold while another dog is out on the floor, having all of the fun. Until recently, I accomplished this by returning to the platform frequently with a click/treat for staying, gradually lengthening the time interval between +R. If the dog frequently jumped off of the platform, I would lower my criteria or put the dog in the x-pen and return to the task at another time.

Enter Alice (aka Alice Bo-Balice), our newest family member.

Ally Coop Chip on Table

CHIPPY, COOPER AND ALLY

With Ally, I decided to change things up a bit and use a remote training device for this task. There are several commercial versions of these available, and I used a “Manners Minder” (now called “Treat & Train”). This device was initially created by the late Dr. Sophia Yin and it functions by providing remote +R in the form of small dry or semi-moist treats. Delivery can be controlled either manually with a handheld control or via an automatic and adjustable reinforcement program. A tone precedes treat delivery and is used as a conditioned reinforcer.

Manners Minder

The Questions: I know that I can teach this behavior to Ally using the same +R approach that I have used in the past with our other dogs. However, I wondered whether training a down/stay on a platform might be more efficient using a remote trainer. As I see it, there could be both benefits and potential disadvantages to these devices:

Potential Advantages:

  •  The remote trainer is a large and physically obvious cue that can be paired with the target area (bed) and which becomes a conditioned reinforcer  (i.e. its presence consistently predicts the arrival of a primary reinforcer in the form of  treats).  This is an advantage in that it quickly signaled to Ally that the bed was “the place to be” whenever the Manners Minder was placed there.
Ally and Treat & Train 2

ALLY AND HER MANNERS MINDER

  • Provides +R remotely that is associated with a particular target (bed) and is disassociated from the trainer (me). [Note: I consider this property both an advantage and a disadvantage – see below].
  • Use of a very precise intermittent reinforcement schedule (I used variable intervals, called the “down stay” setting with the device, but there are several available settings)

Potential disadvantages:

  • Dependency on the presence of the device: I suspect that Ally’s down/stay may, at least initially,  break down when I attempt to remove the device and +R her down/stay in its absence.
  • Device malfunction (this happens relatively frequently, when treats get stuck in the mechanism), leading to poor timing and frustration for the dog.
  • Provides +R that is disassociated from the trainer: One of the best things about training dogs, in my view, is that it enhances communication with our dogs and strengthens the bonds that we have with them. Removing the trainer (me) from this equation therefore removes a number of opportunities for positive interaction and bond-building with Ally.

What does the Science say? To date, there are two published studies of the effectiveness of remote training devices for teaching targeted down/stays with dogs. The first of these was conducted by Dr. Sophia Yin and published in 2008 and the second, using a similar device, was conducted by a group of researchers from Budapest, Hungary in 2016 (1,2). Let’s see what they have reported:

Study 1:  This study was conducted in two phases, each using dogs who had a history of problem behaviors at the door (rushing, barking). In the first phase, six dogs were trained by an experienced dog trainer in a laboratory setting to move to a platform bed and offer a down/stay using the Manners Minder. In the second phase, the same training protocol was used with a group of 15 dogs who were trained in their homes by their owner. A control group of 6 dogs received no training at all. Results: All six dogs who were trained in the laboratory setting successfully learned to maintain a down/stay on a bed for a period of 1 minute, when trained using the remote trainer. In phase 2, although the average amount of training time was longer, all of the owners successfully trained their dogs to complete a down/stay on a targeted bed when visitors came to the door and also reported significant decreases in problem behaviors associated with greeting at the door. (Note: The study protocol did not include removing the device from the targeted bed).

Study 2: The researchers in this study asked whether dissociating the trainer from the +R by using a remote delivery device would influence dogs’ responses to a known command. The study design manipulated how +R was delivered to dogs while owners asked their dogs to “sit” and to “down”. One group of owners directly reinforced their dog with a food treat while the second group reinforced using a remote delivery device that was located next to the dog. After the practice session, the dog’s response to the owner’s commands was measured with the owner either standing next to the dog, 10 feet away, or hidden behind a screen. Results: All of the dog responded well to both types of positive reinforcement. Performance rate during the test phase (no +R given) was similar for the two groups when the handler was standing close. However, when the owner moved away or was out of sight, dogs who had been reinforced with the remote device performed better than dogs who had been reinforced directly by their owner. Performance declined in both groups, but it declined less in the group that had been reinforced with the device. An important note is that while the handler moved away from the dogs, the device did not. Rather, it remained where it had been during training, immediately next to the dog. (This is equivalent to the device remaining on the bed or platform in targeted training).  Therefore, a significant difference between the two groups was that the “opportunity for reinforcement” as represented by the device itself was still very much in evidence to dogs who had been previously trained with it, but the handler was not.  (One is left to wonder again, what would be the results if the device had been moved as well?).

Ally’s Training: So, here is where we are with our little gal’s training. Ally has rapidly learned to offer a down/stay on her pause table when the Manners Minder is present. She can maintain a down/stay for 10 minutes or more when I am training another dog, using a relatively “thin” intermittent and variable interval +R schedule programmed on the device (30 seconds or more). The caveat is that she is successful with this provided the training that I am doing with the other dog is not something that is highly motivating to her, such as retrieving or Nosework. Conversely, when training those activities with Cooper or Chippy, I reduce the schedule to ~ 10 seconds and she can (usually) maintain her stay. Since Ally is just 10 months old, is a very high energy field Golden, and literally lives to retrieve, I consider this to be a great success and would say that at this level, I am very pleased with her progress and with the Manners Minder approach.

Ally and Treat & Train 3

ALLY OFFERING DOWN/STAY WITH THE MANNERS MINDER

Next Steps: My goal with Ally is the same as with my other dogs – to have a reliable down/stay on the pause table while she is not currently being trained. Because I interchange dogs often during training sessions, I would like to remove the device altogether and have a solid stay that is “Manners Minder-Free“. To accomplish this, I must shift Ally’s focus for her +R away from the device and back to me (the source of click/treat). I am gradually reducing the frequency of +R from the device by increasing its interval, and then stepping in to +R in the breaks.

Reinforcing Ally

POSITIVELY REINFORCING ALLY’S DOWN/STAY WITH CLICK/TREAT

The results of the 2016 study predict that Ally may have some reduction in response when I move further away from her. However, it also predicts that keeping the device present will mitigate those mistakes. Therefore the big question continues to be one that the research has not yet addressed: “What will happen if/when I remove the device itself?”

Bye-Bye Manners Minder:  Some trainers who use these devices solve this issue by not having it in the first place – they don’t remove the device. They keep it on the dog’s bed or other targeted area and simply modify the intermittent schedule of +R that it delivers. Okay, well, call me a purist, but I would like to teach Ally to offer a solid down/stay without an enormous cue sitting there like a new-age,  belching, vending machine. Maybe I want my cake and to eat it too….but, like her brothers, I would like Ally to have the opportunity to watch training and get some of those demonstrated observational learning benefits that we recently learned about.

And, here it comes……there is something else that has been niggling at me about this device………

soapbox

UP ON MY BOX AGAIN

Is it a down/stay or is it an obsession? I have noticed a clear difference between training Ally to stay using the Manners Minder and my experiences training my other dogs using a more traditional click/treat approach. First, before Device Lovers out there start sputtering and spamming, I totally get that this device works. It actually works almost too well. Ally is less than a year old and I have a steady, if rather frenetic, platform stay with her. However, I have to question whether this stay reflects Ally having an understanding of “I maintain a down/stay on my table until it is my turn to train” versus a more insidious reflection of; “I am obsessed with this little machine that occasionally and somewhat unpredictably burps out a treat at me“.

There are definitely signs of the latter. When Ally sees the device, she gets excited and immediately books it for the pause table. When it beeps, she fixates on the tray with an intensity that borders on that of, well, an addict (hello dopamine). The tiny little treat arrives and she is back at it, staring, staring, hoping to hear that next beep.

We all know that look.

Staring At Phone

In addition to these signs of device obsession, Ally also shows varying degrees of frustration. She becomes conflicted between staring at the device (a look I am starting to loathe) and watching one of her brothers engage in something fun on the training floor. Certainly, my dogs all show some frustration (barking, excitement) when they observe another dog retrieving or finding a scent at Nosework. But this is different in some crucial way because Ally rapidly and frantically vacillates between staring at the device and trying to keep up with what is going on around her.

Bottom Line: My opinion and these experiences are not meant to disparage the use of remote food dispensing devices in dog training. I value the rapid response that Ally has shown to using the Manners Minder to train her pause table stay. However, I do worry about the obsessive nature of her response and I question how things will go when we begin to remove the dispenser from the table. I also wonder if what appears to be a down/stay when we describe it using observable behaviors may in actuality be something else – an obsession with a technology and the absence of learning. Whether this intense focus is something that I can segue into a device-free down/stay that is reinforced and maintained with click/treat with Ally remains to be seen. It also remains to be studied or reported in the research, something that I hope will be remedied in the near future!

Happy training and stay tuned! 

Cited Studies:

  1.  Yin S, Fernandez EJ, Pagan S, Richardson SL, Snyder G. Efficacy of a remote-controlled, positive-reinforcement, dog-training system for modifying problem behaviors exhibited when people arrive at the door. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2008; 113:123-138.
  2. Gerencser L, Kosztolanyi A, Delanoeije J, Mikosii A. The effect of reward-handler dissociation on dogs’ obedience performance in different conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:103-110.

 

 

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Doggie See, Doggie Do?

At my training center, AutumnGold, it is not unusual to enroll students who live with and train more than one dog. A common question that these clients have is how to arrange their training sessions to allow them to train one dog while the other dog “waits his or her turn”. In most of these cases, the student laments that the dog who is not chosen for training becomes upset, does not enjoy being isolated or confined, and may even show some separation stress or frustration with the overall unfairness (in their opinion) of the entire situation.

Or, if they are clever, as my four dogs appear to be, they attempt to all participate in the training session simultaneously.

Ally, Cooper, Chip, Vinny on Pause Table

I KNOW YOU GUYS LOVE TO TRAIN, BUT THIS DOES NOT WORK SO WELL.

Over the years, my personal solution to this problem has been to teach each of our dogs to stay on a pause table located off of the training floor while they await their turn to train. Although it can be challenging to teach (more about this in my next blog), I like this arrangement because it is convenient and saves me from having to return to the house multiple times to get a different dog. It is also fun for the dogs because they generally receive more training time and also get to play together after the session.

Chip Cooper Pause Tables

CHIP AND COOPER WAIT THEIR TURN TO TRAIN

And it appears that there may be additional benefits for the dogs.  A recent research paper provides evidence for something that I anecdotally have observed with  my own dogs and suspect that other trainers have also experienced – that dogs seem to have some ability to learn new tasks by observing other dogs.  This type of learning is called social learning (or observational learning) and it has been studied in a variety of species and contexts. However, only recently has it been studied with dogs in a training environment.

Ally learning wave dogs pause table

ALLY LEARNS “WAVE” AS HER TWO BROTHERS WATCH (AND WAIT THEIR TURNS)

Social Learning: It is generally accepted that social learning plays an important role in the lives of dogs. Observing the behavior of others helps dogs to learn about their environment, modifies their responses to new situations, and may even teach them new behaviors and solutions to problems.  Within the broad category of social learning, several sub-classifications exist and these presumably reflect different degrees of cognitive involvement. Although there is debate among social scientists about definitons, the types include: social facilitation, local/stimulus enhancement, response facilitation, social emulation and imitation (1). Much of the debate among those who study social learning revolves around what information the dog is actually using and how that information is processed cognitively or consciously to change behavior. For the purposes of this essay, we are most interested in how social learning (of any type) might occur between dogs in training situations.

Mimicry Cooper and Ally

SOCIAL FACILITATION? LOCAL ENHANCEMENT? DON’T KNOW, BUT SURE IS CUTE.

Interestingly, much of the research with social learning in dogs has focused on their ability to learn by observing human demonstrators. Common study paradigms ask dogs to either solve a food acquisition puzzle or to maneuver around a fence after having watched a person perform the correct solution. Dogs have been shown to be quite successful at these tasks, although factors such as the identity of the demonstrator, the dog’s living situation, prior training experience and age can influence success rates.

Studies that have examined the dog’s ability to learn socially from other dogs are fewer in number. There is evidence that, just as with human demonstrators, dogs will show improved performance and problem-solving ability after watching a demonstrator dog successfully complete a detour or puzzle task. An earlier study reported that puppies who were allowed to observe their mother working at a scent detection task went on to become more successful as scent dogs in adult life.

Can Dogs Learn a Trained Task from Another Dog? Most recently, researchers asked whether on not learning would be enhanced in dogs who observed another dog who had been trained to perform a novel behavior (2). This study and its results have relevance to those of us who train multiple dogs and perhaps even for group training classes.

The Study: The objective of the study was to determine if learning a new task (jumping onto a trunk or small slide) was enhanced when dogs had the opportunity to observe another dog performing the exercise prior to being trained themselves.  A group of 33 adult Labrador Retrievers was tested. All of the dogs were enrolled in the training program at the Italian School of Water Rescue, lived in homes with their owners, and had been pre-screened to ensure that the exercises used in the study were novel to them. The dogs were divided into two groups; an observer group and a control group. Observer dogs sat next to their owners and watched another handler and his trained demonstrator dog approach the obstacle (trunk or slide). The demonstrator dog then jumped up and sat on the obstacle. The exercise was demonstrated twice and then the observer dog and handler approached the obstacle and the handler attempted to train the dog to perform the exercise. The control group of dogs were held on lead in the same position but did not have the opportunity to watch the demonstrator dog before being trained for the new task. Each dog’s success or failure to demonstrate the new behavior was recorded.

Results: The dogs who had the opportunity to observe a demonstrator dog perform the new exercises were significantly more likely to succeed at the same task when asked to perform it. Specifically, 62.5 % of the observer dogs were successful compared with 23.5 % of the control dogs. Neither a dog’s sex nor his/her level of prior training experience influenced the probability that they would perform the new task successfully. Age was somewhat important, as older dogs tended to be more successful than younger dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks

On one level, these results are not surprising. Anecdotes abound among dog folks regarding our dogs’ ability to learn from one another through observation. Ask anyone who lives with more than one dog and they will relate numerous examples of their dogs sharing information (and not always in a good way). For as long as I can remember our dogs have learned to “wait” at the door and in the car by watching each other. While I do train this command, our young dogs learn to wait very rapidly when they notice that the entire family is frozen in its tracks. Similarly, because we hike a lot with our dogs, one dog finding something yummy or smelly on the trail is quickly observed and acted upon by the others. Still, these examples may arguably fall relatively low on the social learning scale as they probably reflect social facilitation or simple stimulus enhancement.

What is exciting about the recent results is that they demonstrate, albeit with a small number of dogs, that a dog who has the opportunity to observe another dog who is performing a trained exercise (and by extension, perhaps the training of that exercise itself?) can benefit from that observation. The researchers provide several possible explanations for their positive results, one of which is that dogs may show enhanced learning when they are highly motivated to engage in the task. For example, teaching something that is target-oriented, such as jumping up onto an obstacle or retrieving a toy, may be more successful than training a static exercise such as a down stay. This difference is reflected in the results of a previous study reporting that untrained dogs did not perform well in learning a positional behavior (lying down on command) after watching a trained dog perform it (3). While dogs are often naturally interested in examining and engaging with new objects, most are decidedly less motivated to spontaneously offer a static behavior such as a sit/stay or down/stay.

These results make me consider the relative ease with which both Ally and Cooper have learned platform positions, retrieving tricks such as “put your toys in a basket” and go-outs to a target. Both regularly watch and get excited as the other is being trained in these behaviors. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, I rarely see that level of interest or excitement when I am training sit/stays and down/stays). While I have no control group for my own anecdotal experiences, these results suggest to me that having all of my dogs present and attending during a training session may have benefits that go beyond convenience. Watching the other dogs learn new things may help my observing dogs to learn more rapidly, at least in those exercises that interest and engage them.

And, for my clients who are attempting to train two dogs at the same time, I will now recommend that, if possible, they find a way that the dogs are able to observe each training session with the other dog. They may be very pleasantly surprised at the results.  Happy training everyone!

 

Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms

COOPER AND ALLY LEARN PLATFORM TRAINING TOGETHER

Cited References:

  1. Kubinyi E, Pongracz P, Miklosi A. Dog as a model for studying conspecific and heterospecific social learning. Journal of Veterinary Behaivor 2009; 4:31-41.
  2. Scandurra A, Mongillo P, Marinelli L, Aria M, D’Aniello B. Conspecific observational learning by adult dogs in a training context. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:116-120.
  3. Tennie C, Glabsch E, Tempelmann S, Brauer J, Kaminski J, Call J. Dogs, Canis familiaris, fail to copy intransitive actions in third-party contextual imitation tasks. Animal Behavior 2009; 77:1491-1499.

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

THE BOYS WATCH MIKEY AS HE TRIES THE LARVAE-FLAVORED CHOW

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

REACTIVE DOG

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

Lysine-zwitterion-2D

LYSINE – AN ESSENTIAL AMINO ACID

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.

Maillard-reaction-graphic-062912

JUST TO BE CLEAR

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.

science-header

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.

soapbox

DRAGGIN’ OUT THE OL’ BOX

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.