Does this Smell Funny to You?

Are dogs self-aware? Do they recognize themselves as individuals, distinct from others?Other Animals Have It: Although rather tricky topics of study, animal self-recognition, self-awareness  and consciousness have been examined by scientists for decades. Animal consciousness is neither a new idea, nor is it a radical way of thinking. Lucky for us, we no longer live in the age of Descartes when animals other than those of the human variety were viewed as non-thinking automatons who lacked both consciousness and the ability to feel emotions. (Though, personally I can think of a few humans who may fit that description).

Evidence for at least a rudimentary sense of self-awareness is available in a wide range of non-human animal species. A leading theory of the evolutionary benefits of this trait is that the ability to distinguish self from other helps social animals (including humans) to recognize their place within their social group, to cooperate successfully with others, and to identify individuals who are outside of their  group. Dogs, also members  of a highly social species, are now known to have much more complex inner lives than we once gave them credit for. They readily follow the gaze of another dog or person, understand pointing, attend to the emotional states of others, and demonstrate rudimentary aspects of perspective taking (knowing what someone else can see or know). Having a sense of self as distinct from others is an additional cognitive talent that dogs may possess given their highly social nature and the functional benefits of self-recognition and self-awareness.

Mirror, Mirror: The classic test used to study self-recognition has been the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test. Using this method, the subject animal examines her image in a mirror after an area of her body has been surreptitiously marked with a spot of dye. The animal’s reaction to this alteration is observed and if  the subject uses the mirror to examine the spot on her body, this attention is interpreted as evidence for recognizing the image in the mirror as oneself rather than simply an image of a like-looking animal with a funny spot on her head.  Species that regularly pass the MSR test include the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans), dolphins, a single elephant, and even some bird species, such as the Magpie. Oh yeah, and most humans pass, as long as they are older than 2-years of age.

MAGPIES PASS IT

What about Dogs? Dogs however, have routinely failed this test. Dog folks are now certainly muttering, “Well of course, dogs do not use vision as their primary special sense – they use olfaction – their noses“. This difference is significant, since dogs believe what their nose tells them first and foremost, compared with primate species such as ourselves, who perceive the world primarily through vision. Additionally, because of anatomical and social differences, dogs do not regularly self-groom in the same manner that primates do, so are not as apt to care about an unexpected spot that suddenly shows up on the top of their head. For those who study dogs, clearly, another type of test was needed.

Enter Alexandra Horowitz and her team of dog pee researchers at Barnard College in New York City.

The Significance of Pee: Dogs regularly investigate the urine scent of other dogs. There is evidence that they spend more time investigating the urine markings of other dogs and less time sniffing their own urine, which suggests that dogs distinguish their own scent from that of others. Using this knowledge, Horowitz devised a new type of mirror test for dogs – this one based upon their primary sense – smell. She reasoned that just as a chimpanzee notices the sudden change in appearance when a spot of dye shows up on her head, if dogs recognize their own scent, then they too should be surprised to find an unexpected change in that smell and attend to it (sniff it) for a longer period of time. She devised a pair of controlled experiments that asked, using their sense of smell –  “Do dogs recognize themselves?”

The Study First, the team of researchers collected the pee of a group of volunteer dogs (well, okay, the owners volunteered their dogs’ pee. We are not really sure how the dogs felt about that part). The author also collected urine from her own dog, who would serve as the “unfamiliar dog” sample. Each dog was tested individually with a set of three scent canisters for three separate trials and comparisons. One canister contained water only (decoy sample),  one contained the subject dog’s urine (self), and the third contained either (1) the subject dog’s adulterated urine (marker self), (2) the urine of an unfamiliar dog (other), or (3) the scent of the adulteration substance alone (marker). Two experiments were conducted, with the only difference being the way in which the subject dog’s urine was altered. In Exp. 1, a tissue sample of dog spleen was added to the urine. In Exp. 2, a small amount of anise essential oil was added.

Results: Similar to mirror tests, the researchers expected dogs to pay more attention to a scent of themselves that was unexpectedly altered compared with their reaction to their unaltered urine scent. Here is what they found:

  1. Who’s this guy? As earlier research has shown, dogs spent more time investigating the urine of an unfamiliar dog compared with the time that they spent sniffing their own urine. (“Hmm…. Smells like I was here earlier……whoa…..hello….who is this new dude who peed here too?)
  2. Hey Sally! Interestingly, dogs did not spend more time investigating the urine of a known dog (their housemate) compared with time spent smelling their own urine. (Looks like Sally was visiting at the same time I was. Funny, I don’t remember seeing her here….”)
  3. Does this smell funny to you? Last, dogs spend significantly more time investigating the canisters that contained their altered urine scent compared with how long they investigated their unadulterated urine. This difference occurred with both types of marker substance – spleen tissue and anise oil. Dogs also returned to the canisters more often when their urine was compared with their adulterated urine.  (“Wowza. This is weird. Did I eat something odd last night? Maybe I am getting a cold? What the heck IS that smell on me???”)

The authors conclude that these results support the use of their newly designed (and quite ingenious, if I may add) “smell test” as species-relevant analog to the MSR test. The fact that the dogs spent more time investigating their own urine when it had been unexpectedly changed supports some level of recognition of their own odor and by extension, perhaps a rudimentary “sense of self”. Similarly, dogs were highly interested in the scent of unfamiliar dogs (Hey! Who’s this guy??) but not to the odor of their housemate.

Yeah, I have an opinion on this one. First though, I have to say that this is one of the most creative and clever studies that I have read in some time. (Not to mention it being ripe for witticisms and puns……).

The results of this study suggest that dogs may possess one of the cognitive traits, self-recognition, that humans have historically co-opted for our species and our species alone. In past, we have worked diligently to make clear cognitive distinctions between human animals (us) and non-human animals (everyone else). A wide range of traits have been used for this purpose, many of which have fallen like a house of cards as they are discovered to exist in other animals. Examples include the expression of emotions, perspective taking, tool use and tool making, existence of culture, ability to reason, and the demonstration of altruism. We also know that humans do not hold exclusive rights to the expression of self-awareness and consciousness and are not the only species capable of complex thought, internal representations of the world, planning, intention and deception. Yeah, we do have language and we are capable of “meta-thinking” (thinking about thinking), but many types of cognition and complex thought have been demonstrated to exist in some form in a host of other animals, including dogs. So what is the big deal? Is there really anything to argue about here? Well, yeah, as a dog trainer (a clicker trainer, I must emphasize), I think that there is an important point to be made.

It is this. Behaviorism alone can no longer be enough. The science of behaviorism and its application in dog training no longer can adequately capture and address all that is dog. Sorry to all of you purists out there, but there it is. (And remember, I am a clicker trainer).

Here is my argument: Although dogs respond well to the laws of behaviorism (just as humans do), the fact that we successfully use operant and classical conditioning to train dogs should not be confused for evidence that dogs are lacking in a host of mental skills that fall higher on the cognitive complexity scale. Behaviorism and social cognition are not mutually exclusive sciences (though to listen to some trainers and some scientists, you would think they were disciplines existing on different planets).

The reason that I bring up this particular issue in this particular essay is because self-recognition and self-awareness seem to be a current “hot spot” in this debate between behaviorism and cognitive science. Pure behaviorism has its benefits – mainly it works great when applied as a training technique. However, given the boatloads of research published by cognitive scientists that demonstrate the social complexity of the domestic dog (and now – self-recognition!), we cannot discount as trainers evidence showing that dogs pay attention to the social cues of humans and of other dogs, that they possess some level of perspective taking, that they regularly learn through observation of others, that they can recognize one another and understand intent by the sound of their barks, and that they can recognize one another and themselves through smell. It is time for trainers to embrace both of these important and enlightening bodies of science. We should support and use behaviorism because it provides simple and elegant rules for training that work, and we must also encourage studies of canine social cognition because they continue to teach us more about the internal lives, experiences and perceptions of our canine best friends.

Off of soap box. Back to pee jokes.

Cited Study: Horowitz, A. Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test. Behavioural Processes, 2017; In Press.

Do Dogs Have a Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the  phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

It’s hardwired: We cannot easily escape negativity bias. Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones.

Why do we have it? Our negativity bias is thought to have evolved as a method for keeping ourselves and those we love out of harm’s way. Think about it like this – your chances of survival are greater if you have a natural tendency to pay more attention to things that may be harmful to you, than if you exist with a more rose-colored view of the world and attend more readily to things that are pleasurable and harmless. Missing the lethal stuff can be, well, lethal (which means that you did not stay around long enough to reproduce and pass along your rosy view of the world to your offspring). In addition to wreaking havoc on our self-esteem, the negativity bias helps to explain why humans love to gossip and why we have a tendency to remember (and sometimes repeat) negative information about others.

NEGATIVITY BIAS BAGGAGE

We tilt towards negative because it was a trait that enhanced survival. The psychological baggage and tendency to gossip came along for the ride.

Negativity bias with dogs: Negativity bias also rears its ugly head during interactions with our dogs, most commonly when owners react only to their dog’s undesirable behaviors (jumping up, chewing, barking) and ignore desirable behaviors. This mindset puts the owner into the position of having to do something to stop, change, or redirect the unwanted behavior. And yet, the same owner often neither notices nor reacts to her dog when he is sitting (not jumping), enjoying his own chew toy (not destroying the TV remote), or lying quietly (not barking). Many trainers, including myself, encourage our students to resist this tendency and focus on attending to and reinforcing the desired behaviors that their dogs offer throughout the day. However, this is a lesson that we must repeat again and again because of the negativity bias – it is our human habit to be more sensitive to negative information than positive, and this includes experiences with our dogs.

Do dogs have it? Since it is theorized that negativity bias evolved as a survival trait, we would expect to see it in other animals. So, do dogs have it? A group of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab of the University of Vienna published a recent paper that offers some clues.

The Study: The researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs, a basic form of empathy in which an individual unconsciously matches the emotional state of another. Previous work has shown that dogs express emotional contagion with both other dogs and with humans. They also can show sympathetic concern, a form of empathy that is one rung up on the cognitive complexity ladder (see “I Feel Your Pain“). However, all of the previous studies with dogs have focused on their reactions to distress signals only. In this new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether dogs emotionally differentiate between vocalizations that signify distress (negative emotional state) and those that reflect happiness or joy (positive emotional state).

What they did: A group of 51 pet dogs and their owners participated in the study and were tested individually. In each session,  four different acoustic (sound) recordings were played to the dog with the owner present. The test recordings included positive and negative human vocalizations (laughing and crying, respectively) and  positive and negative dog vocalizations (play barks and isolation whines, respectively). The control recording was sounds recorded from the dogs’ natural environment. During the testing, dogs were off-lead and allowed to roam freely in the room while the owner sat quietly in a chair, reading a magazine (i.e. not interacting with the dog). The dog’s behavioral responses to each sound recording were videotaped and analyzed.

What they found: The design of this study allowed the researchers to compare dogs’ responses when exposed to recordings of both humans and dogs and when they heard vocalizations that expressed positive (laughing, play barks) or negative (crying, whining) emotions:

  • Presence of emotional contagion (empathy): When exposed to any of the four types of emotional sounds, the dogs became more attentive to the direction of the sound, moved toward the sound, approached their owner, and showed signs of arousal. They did not react in this way to the control sounds.
  • Dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information: When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog. Species did not matter – the dogs were more sensitive to distress sounds than they were to happy sounds. They also “matched” the negative emotions with their own stress, with both humans and other dogs.
  • Negativity bias? In addition to these data showing that dogs are capable of distinguishing between positive and negative vocalizations and reacting accordingly, they suggest the presence of a negativity bias in dogs, similar to what we experience as humans.  The authors state: “…it is plausible that the contagious effect of negative emotions, which indicate aversive or dangerous situations, affect others’ behavioral responses more than positive ones“.

Take Away for Dog Folks: The dog training implications of these results are pretty obvious. After all, we know that the fallout of living with negativity bias is not pleasant. Evolutionary benefits aside, this is a bias that most humans would be happy to be rid of.

Knowing that dogs  are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

Like us, dogs may suffer from the fallout of negativity bias.

MARGE SHARES THE LATEST NEIGHBORHOOD GOSSIP WITH MABEL

Cited Study: Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.

Missing the Point

Dogs are talented observers of human body language. Dog folks attest to this via boatloads of anecdotal stories and home videos that we are happy to share (and over-share) with others. But more importantly for the purposes of The Science Dog, it is the results of an additional boatload of controlled research studies that support our belief that dogs are paying attention to us.

Getting the Point: Human pointing gestures have emerged as a research litmus test for measuring the dog’s ability to understand human communication signals. To date, there are more than 50 published papers that report about this talent in dogs. Researchers have compared pointing comprehension between dogs and socialized and unsocialized wolves, between dogs living as pets and those living in shelters, among puppies and dogs of different ages, using various types of pointing (hand, eyes, body position) and when the pointing person is either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. Though results vary and there are a number of nuanced points (literally) to be made, there is no longer any doubt.

Dogs are good at this pointing stuff. We point to something, they will look there.

Which of course, begs the question, how do dogs attain this very special talent in the first place? Are they born with it or is it primarily a learned phenomenon? Two general hypotheses have been put forward. The first emphasizes the importance of genetic preparedness and domestication while the second leans more heavily upon the influence of an individual dog’s life experiences:

  • Domestication Hypothesis: This explanation focuses on the genetic basis of social cognition and posits that the processes of domestication plus natural and artificial selection have resulted in a species that is genetically predisposed to attend to and comprehend human behavior and communication cues. Studies showing that dogs out-performed socialized wolves in  cue-following tasks and unsolvable problem paradigms provide support for this theory.
  • Two-Stage Hypothesis: This hypothesis posits that a dog’s relationship with his or her human companions and opportunities to learn about human communication signals are essential for cue-following success. While followers of this theory agree that dogs have a genetic predisposition for bonding with humans, they maintain that the ability to understand and respond to our communication signals is gained primarily through living with and learning from human caretakers. Studies showing that some highly socialized wolves actually outperform some dogs in their ability to understand our signals support this view.

One of the biggest challenges in parsing the influences of domestication/selection and ontogeny/learning on the dog’s social cognition skills is finding truly representative samples (groups of dogs). For example, studies that have compared shelter dogs with dogs living in homes have been used to examine the influences of socialization and learning. The supposition is that shelter dogs are less socialized and have had few opportunities to learn from humans and so represent a group in which genetic influences would prevail. However, the background of shelter dogs is often unknown and a substantial number may have lived in homes and have had previous training. Similarly, a dog who lives in a home may receive widely varying degrees of human interaction and opportunities to learn social cues. These difficulties are probably responsible, at least in part, for the inconsistent results that studies comparing social cognition in shelter dogs and pet dogs have produced.

Representative samples: A newly published study by Biagio D’Aniello’s team at the University of Naples controlled for this particular problem by studying a group of dogs who were exclusively kennel-raised and who had experienced very limited opportunity to learn from human caretakers. (For more information about the importance of representative samples see “Your Face is Gonna Freeze Like That“).

The Study: Two groups of dogs were studied. The first included 11 Labrador and Golden Retrievers living at the FOOF kennel in Naples, Italy (kennel dogs). Although well cared for and socialized with other dogs, the dogs had very limited social interactions with people, no training and no daily opportunities to learn from humans. Each of these dogs was age-, sex- and breed-matched with a dog who had lived with a family in a home from puppyhood (pet dogs). During the pre-test period, all of the dogs learned to anticipate the presence of a food morsel in a small bowl. During the test phase, an experimenter pointed to one of two possible bowls while either kneeling close to the bowl (proximal test) or standing approximately 2 feet away from the bowls (distal test). The study used dynamic pointing, which means that the experimenter continued to hold the pointing gesture after the dog was released and allowed to make a choice of one of the two bowls. Trials were repeated 16 times with an additional 8 control trials. Dogs were scored as either correct (choosing the bowl that the experimenter was pointing to), incorrect (choosing the other bowl), or no-choice (not approaching either bowl).

Results: The pet dog group greatly outperformed the kennel dog group in their ability to understand both types of pointing gesture:

  • 10 of 11 (91 %) of the pet dogs performed at greater than chance levels (i.e. chose correctly more than chance would predict) when the experimenter was in either position (kneeling and close or standing and further away).
  • In contrast, only 1 kennel dog (9 %) performed greater than chance when the experimenter was close to the bowls and none of the kennel dogs were successful when the pointer was standing further away.
  • A relatively high number of “no-choice” responses were observed, with these occurring at a much higher rate in kennel dogs than in pet dogs.  When a separate analysis was conducted that removed “no choice” responses from the data, the success differences between the two groups of dogs were maintained, although a smaller number of trials were analyzed.
  • Comparisons between the two groups of dogs in overall success at understanding human pointing gestures showed that the pet dogs were significantly more successful at understanding both types of pointing (proximal and distal) than the kennel dogs.

Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that human socialization and learning are necessary for dogs to comprehend human pointing gestures. Very low degrees of human  socialization, even in dogs who are well-cared for and socialized to other dogs, results in dogs who do not understand or respond to pointing gestures. The authors conclude that while the influence of domestication on the dog’s ability to understand our communication cues is not insignificant, socialization and having opportunities to learn from human caretakers is essential.

PET DOGS PAY BETTER ATTENTION TO HUMAN POINTING GESTURES THAN KENNEL DOGS

Take Away for Dog Folks

It is the dogs who missed the point that I want to talk about.

Here’s why: Consider how frequently during a given day that you communicate with your dog via gestures and pointing signals that are not formally trained cues. These body language cues function in daily life to provide your dog with information (“Look Ally, you missed that piece of muffin on the floor“), communicate direction (“Chippy, we are going to the car, not out to the pool”) or about current plans (“Com’on Vinny, time to cuddle on the couch”). These cues are informal and often times completely unconscious on our part, but our dogs pay attention to them, understand what they mean and respond appropriately. These are our dogs – the dogs who “get the point”. We all co-develop a common language with our dogs that is made up of pointing gestures, body cues, facial expressions and key phrases. Take a moment to think about these and identify a few that you know that you use often in your home and that your dog readily responds to. There are bunches.

Now, consider dogs living in shelters: Some shelter dogs will definitely “get the point” if they had prior opportunities to bond with people and learn about the significance of human body language. Others, however, may lack this background and will miss the point. I would venture that the previous group are going to fare better in adoptive homes than the latter group.  A shelter dog who has learned that human communication signals are worth paying attention to is likely to be perceived positively by his or her new owner because the dog will be aware of the significance of human body language, gestures and non-verbal communication cues. Subsequently, the new owner is likely to perceive such behaviors as a dog who is being sensitive to the family dynamics, is bonding well, and is trainable. End result – a good match and dog stays in home.

Conversely, the shelter dog who has not had an opportunity to learn about human communication cues will be at real disadvantage when he enters his new home. He will be less likely to attend to his new human’s gestures and body language cues simply because he has never learned that such gestures are worth paying attention to. While the new dog owner may not think of this in terms of his dog “attending” to his body language or communication cues per se, he will most likely notice that his dog is not paying much attention to him or responding to him. Subsequently, the new owner may perceive this as his new dog being too independent, not loving enough, aloof, or even untrainable. End result – the dog may not stay long.

If the direction that these data are pointing is correct and dogs need opportunities to learn about human communication skills (i.e. they are not purely a by-product of domestication), then it is quite possible that the benefits of shelter socialization and training programs go well beyond producing better mannered dogs who sit or lie down on command (not that there is anything wrong with those things, of course). I would expect that these less tangible benefits of shelter training and socialization programs, specifically dogs learning the significance of paying attention to human communication cues, may be more important for dogs in the long run than the more obvious benefits of teaching dogs manners and responses to cues.

So, to those of you who are working with shelter dogs to improve their lives and their chances of adoption, Keep on Keepin’ on – Science is behind you.

SHELTER DOG TRAINING – BENEFITS TO SOCIAL COGNITION SKILLS? (Photo courtesy of the Center for Shelter Dogs, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University)

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Alterisio A, Scandurra A, Petremolo E, Iommelli MR, Aria M. What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures. Animal Cognition 2017; May 15. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1098-2.

 

 

 

Why We Click

There is no longer any doubt. Clicker training is here to stay.

More and more animal trainers are using it.

Although I work with dogs, not dinosaurs, I too am a dedicated clicker trainer, as are most of the instructors who teach for me at AutumnGold. However, while the theoretical underpinnings of clicker training are solid – and date back to Skinner’s original operant conditioning studies of the 1930’s – there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. (There are even fewer studies of its effectiveness for training velociraptors. Huh. Who knew?). Even more surprising is the fact that the results of the dog studies that are available are not unequivocally in the “Yay, Clicker Training!” camp. Rather, their results have been lukewarm at best, with some showing only limited (or no) benefit.

Lucky for us, Lynna Feng, a graduate student at La Trobe University in Victoria, has taken on clicker training as her PhD research topic. I wrote about Lynna’s first paper in the Science Dog essay, “The Meaning of Click“. In her most recent publication, Lynna surveys the popularity of clicker training among dog trainers and asks the question “Why do we click“?

PUPPY COOPER HEELING FOR CLICKS

The Study: Lynna and her team used several approaches to this study. They directly interviewed a group of 13 dog trainers (8 clicker trainers, 3 non-clicker trainers, 2 uncommitted); reviewed a series of 7 best-selling dog books whose primary subject is clicker training; and examined five different click-dedicated websites. Data were coded and analyzed using a validated procedure called qualitative content analysis. This process describes the targeted phenomenon within a framework of predefined questions. In this case, the questions that the researchers were attempting to answer were:

  1. What is clicker training?
  2. Why do people use clicker training [with dogs]?
  3. What methods are generally considered to be “best practice” in relation to clicker training?

Here is what they found. Keep your clicker close by cuz this is really good stuff.

Results – What is Clicker Training? The study generated a lot of information, so I will attempt to distill this into results that are most relevant to dog trainers:

  • Philosophy or Technique? The majority of dog trainers view clicker training as both a training philosophy and a technique.  As a philosophy, the non-aversive and dog-centric nature of clicker training plus dogs’ positive experience of clicker training were emphasized. As a training technique, trainers espoused more practical views, such as “clicker training as a way to identify desirable behaviors in a dog with a clear signal (marker)” and “Using a clicker communicates to my dog that a primary reinforcer will be coming soon“.
  • The Dog’s Experience: Generally, trainers focused more on the communication properties of the clicker (i.e. marking a behavior and communicating to the dog that they are doing the ‘right thing”) rather than on its function as a secondary reinforcer. This is a rather important difference from the results of empirical research which suggests that the primary function of the click sound to an animal is as a secondary (conditioned) reinforcer. However, when applied to dog training, the clicker appears to be viewed first and foremost as an important communication tool that enhances the training experience and promotes learning. (More about this later).

Results: Why Click? The most consistently reported reason to clicker train was the perception that it helps dogs to learn more rapidly and effectively. Trainers also reported a number of additional reasons that they choose this training method:

  • Clicker training promotes active learning and encourages dogs to think for themselves. The end result is a dog who is eager to learn, more attentive, happy and confident. (This benefit was strongly contrasted with traditional training methods that focus more on instilling command compliance).
  • For the trainer, clicker training was reported to be easy to learn, encourages accurate timing and proper technique, and allows the trainer to better understand their dog’s learning process.
  • Many trainers mentioned their relationship with their dog, saying that clicker training strengthens their bond and improves communication (there is that communication thing again….).

CLICKER TRAINING IS REPORTED TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION WITH OUR DOGS

Results: What are the “Best Practices”? Several broad categories of advice were reported:

  • Introducing the clicker: Both “charging” the clicker (repetitions of click-treat [CT] not contingent upon a targeted behavior) and introducing the clicker by using CT to reinforce a simple, known behavior were recommended. There was no consensus regarding which approach was preferred or superior. When asked about the number of repetitions of CT needed to establish the click as a secondary reinforcer, a wide range of estimates was provided – between “a few” to several hundred!
  • How to click: A wide range of opinions surfaced regarding how exactly to use the clicker. Almost all agreed that clear training criteria were essential and that the signal (click) should be applied at the exact moment that the dog is engaging in the targeted behavior. Conversely, there was not consensus about what the dog should be doing immediately after the click. This is the never-ending “click ends behavior” vs. “click during the behavior and dog maintains the behavior” argument. To date, there is no empirical evidence that supports or refutes either approach. (In fact there is no published research that even compares the two). Many (but not all) of the sources agreed that the trainer should maintain “one click/one treat” and “the treat should follow the click as closely as possible”. (Note, this second rule has some supportive evidence with dogs in the literature).
  • When to click: When asked if there were particular contexts in which clicker training was more appropriate than others, a number of sources stated that clicker training is useful for teaching almost any new behavior to dogs, and is especially effective for those that involve multiple steps or that occur at a distance from the trainer. Other sources stated that clicker training should only be used in a “controlled environment” (whatever that means) or only for certain types of training. (My particular favorite response in this section was the warning by some trainers that clicker training should be not be used “unless you are a professional“. Hmmm…Really?).

PROFESSIONALS ONLY

Conclusions: The researchers’ goals with this survey study were to identify specific questions regarding clicker training with dogs that can be addressed through future empirical research. Here are several questions that they identify:

  1. Are the benefits associated with clicker training related to the level of experience that dogs have with this training approach? (It is hypothesized that some of the more pronounced benefits that many trainers noted, such as enhancing the bond that they have with their dog and improving communication, come about as a result of prolonged and consistent clicker training over a period of weeks and months).
  2. How long does it actually take to “charge” a clicker (i.e. to build the association that click always predicts treat)? Is it a few pairings, a few dozen, several hundred? Are multiple training sessions required or can this be accomplished in one session? Related to the previous question – What role does repeated and prolonged exposure to “charging” the clicker play in dogs’ ability to respond to clicker training?
  3. And my favorite: Does clicker training improve communication and enhance the relationship between the handler and her dog? If so, how does this develop and how is it expressed (or measured)?

Take Away for Dog Folks: The point made several times in this paper was that the benefits of clicker training to dogs and to their trainers appear to develop over time as the dog becomes more and more experienced with clicker training. This contrasts sharply with the methodology used in studies of clicker training with dogs, all of which tested the efficacy of clicker training with dogs who had little or no previous experience with a clicker and used a relatively small number of CT repetitions, short training sessions and simple target behaviors. This led me to wonder “Maybe the studies that have been published to date have studied something that is fundamentally different from what we, as trainers (and our dogs) are experiencing as clicker training in the real world“.

Here is what I mean: One possible reason that dog trainers, many who believe emphatically that clicker training is a highly effective tool, are at odds with the less than stellar results of the published studies is that perhaps we are not talking about the same things. In other words, the way in which clicker training has been studied with dogs (and, one could argue, with other species as well), is not the way in which clicker training is actually used in practice. Several important differences were identified in Lynna’s study. The two most important are: (1) In practice, clicker training takes place over extended periods of time; (2) It almost always includes an established and positive relationship between the trainee (the dog) and the trainer (usually the owner).

The primary point that I came away with from this paper was that despite some continued attempts  to make it so,  clicker training as applied with dogs is not a purely behavioristic methodology. Rather, if one considers all of the new information that we have regarding the dog’s cognitive abilities, including their well-documented ability to read and understand human communication signals, then it is likely that the actual practice of clicker training involves much more than a rigid application of CT without any personal (relationship), cognitive, or emotional component. Since the studies that are in existence have studied clicker training using highly controlled behavioristic methodologies, perhaps they did not effectively measure or capture the depth and complexity of the phenomenon that is taking place when we use clicker training with dogs.

The results of this paper will hopefully be the impetus for new studies of clicker training that include dogs who have an extensive clicker history and who have established relationships with their trainer. Other elements that require study include the variety of ways in which the clicker is applied during a training session (end of behavior vs. maintain/keep going), and the many areas of training in which it is currently used (complex chains, distance training, different sports and working contexts). Personally, I look forward to reading more about Lynna’s studies and thank her and her team for undertaking work that is of immense interest to dog folks, especially those of us who are dedicated clicker trainers.

So, why do I click? I click because it works, because my dogs love it, and because, like so many others report in this study, it contributes to my ability to communicate clearly to my dogs and enhances the loving bond that I have with them. Happy training, everyone!

Cited Reference: Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results. Pet Behavior Science 2017; 3:1-18.

 

 

 

The Many Faces of Resource Guarding

One of my AutumnGold instructors recently completed a set of in-home lessons with a couple and their young Vizsla. The dog, Sadie, had completed our puppy class last summer and her owners were interested in working on in-home manners. One of the behaviors that Amanda, the instructor, included was target training “go to your mat and down/stay”. We use several approaches to teach this at AutumnGold, one of which employs a remote treat-delivery device such as a Manners Minder or Pet Tudor (see “Manners Minder and Me” for details).

Ally and Treat & Train 2

TEACHING ALLY “TABLE’ USING A MANNERS MINDER

The owners were interested a remote trainer, so Amanda borrowed our device so that they could try it for a few weeks. Sadie responded beautifully and rapidly, but unfortunately, just as rapidly developed another behavior – resource guarding.  She learned to stay on her bed and enjoyed the random delivery of treats, but when her owners approached, Sadie began to freeze over the Manners Minder, growling if they came too close.

Oops.

Prior to the start of the lessons, Sadie’s owners had not identified resource guarding as a problem. However, during their first meeting, Amanda noticed that Sadie stiffened slightly after she gave her a stuffed Kong. This was quickly diffused by teaching Sadie to “make a trade” and Amanda saw no other signs during that lesson. When questioned further, the owners did say that they sometimes saw similar body postures when Sadie was approached while eating. Amanda talked with them about the body language signs of resource guarding and cautioned them to watch for similar signs (or an escalation) after introducing the Manners Minder to Sadie. And sure enough…..there it was.

Amanda is a skilled trainer and quickly intervened with a behavior modification program to prevent and treat Sadie’s resource guarding. However, what Amanda and I found interesting about this episode was that the owners had not previously mentioned a specific problem with resource guarding to Amanda. Granted this is a young dog, the initial guarding behavior was subtle and there was no bite history. Still, we wondered, was this because the owners had not been consciously aware of Sadie’s stiffening body posture previously or that they had noticed it but were not sure that it implied a problem?

Identifying resource guarding: Most dog owners think of resource guarding as overt aggression (and certainly that is how it manifests at its most severe). Additionally, rather than being viewed as a general pattern of behavior, owners typically report the specific items that are guarded;  i.e. “she is not good around her food bowl” or “he does not like being approached when he is chewing on his favorite bone“. However, there can be several more nuanced signs that suggest a dog may be highly invested in toys, a food bowl or a resting spot. These include becoming “still”  (stiffening/freezing), abruptly changing body position to block access, hiding or running away, or rapidly ingesting food (or a stolen item) when approached. It is these more subtle signs that may be unnoticed or misconstrued, and that in some cases might be precursors of later aggression.

foodbowlguarding3

NOT THE ONLY FACE OF RESOURCE GUARDING

Do we notice other signs? The question of how much attention dog owners generally pay to the other faces of resource guarding was recently examined by a team of researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada.

The Study: They asked a group of almost 1500 dog owners to view short video clips that portrayed dogs who were approached near their food bowl or when chewing on a rawhide chew toy. For each clip, participants were asked to classify the behavior that they viewed into one of these five categories: Aggression (snaps, bites or attempts to bite); Threat (freezing, stiff or tense body posture, hard stare or growl); Avoidance (moves head away and actively avoids removal of item, runs away with item); Rapid Ingestion (increases speed of ingestion, gulps at food rapidly); or No Resource Guarding (relaxed, loose, wiggly body posture).  Each of the behavior categories had been previously validated by a team of behavior experts.

Results: Several interesting findings were reported:

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants, all dog owners, were highly capable of correctly identifying overt aggressive behavior associated with resource guarding. They were similarly adept at knowing when a dog was relaxed and friendly and showed no signs of guarding behavior.
  • Conversely, owners were less likely to correctly identify the more subtle signs of resource guarding such as avoidance, rapid ingestion and even threatening behaviors (freezing and staring).
  • When the three types of non-aggressive behaviors were compared, owners were better able to recognize threatening behavior than they were to recognize avoidance or rapid ingestion. The authors speculated that owners are more sensitive to behaviors that they think of as being potentially threatening than those that appear to be benign, such as running away or eating rapidly.

Take Away for Dog Folks

At AutumnGold, our potential clients complete a four-page behavior profile form for their dog prior to being admitted into class. The form includes questions about their dog’s behavior during mealtime, around their food bowl, with toys and when resting. It is not unusual to receive profiles that report  dogs who run away or avoid interactions with high-value toys, or who becoming still/stiff when approached while eating or resting in a favorite spot. We always respond to these applications with a phone consultation. In some cases the avoidance behavior is simply a (learned) game of “catch me if you can” or the avoidance that the owner reports is just an untrained dog who has not been taught to come when called. However, is some cases, we identify these behaviors as a form of resource guarding and are able to intervene and provide early guidance.

The results of this research suggest that many owners perceive the more subtle forms of resource guarding as being harmless or inconsequential, or they do not notice them at all. For professional trainers, this information encourages us to better understand the perspectives of clients and to proactively teach owners to identify and understand some of the more subtle body language signs in their dogs before they develop into aggressive responses.

As for Sadie, she learned to go to her mat reliably using clicker training and polished up her “sit for greeting” behavior to control her very exuberant personality with visitors. Amanda also provided Sadie’s people with a set of canine body posture handouts and discussed the implications of stillness, freezing and avoidance behaviors in dogs. Sadie’s owners were highly interested in this information and rapidly became talented “dog behavior sleuths” with their girl, recognizing situations in which Sadie felt compelled to guard and managing her life to avoid or prevent those settings. Her owners also regularly practice “make a trade” and “give” with Sadie for all types of items (not just those that are high-value) so that she learns to happily give up toys and other items without becoming stressed or defensive.

All-in-all a happy outcome, with everyone benefiting from this type of research and its application to evidence-based training!

Cited Study: Jacobs JA, Pearl DL, Coe JB, Widowski TM, Niel L. Ability of owners to identify resource guarding behavior in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2017; In Press.

(Field) Dogs on the Beach

Mike and I and our dogs just returned from a week in Florida at a beach community that prides itself on its dog-friendliness. We met our friends Bob and Karen from Virginia, who brought their two Labs, Gus and Sally.

It was an amazing week. We spent hours with the dogs walking the beach, watching shorebirds and dolphins, hiking local trails, and visiting a nearby island preserve that is home to a pair of endangered Red Wolves (no sighting of those, but Bob and Mike did see a Bobcat while out cycling one afternoon).  A perfect winter get-away for all of us.

linda-mike-karen-dogs-on-beach

WALKING THE BEACH WITH TWO GOLDENS, TWO LABS, A TOLLER AND A BRITTANY.

The Dogs: Our four dogs included Chippy (Toller), Vincent (Brittany), and Alice and Cooper (Golden Retrievers). Ally and Cooper are field-bred, from Jackie Mertens of Topbrass Retrievers. We have a 30-year history with Jackie’s dogs and love their athleticism, spirit, and boundless exuberance. They fit with our lifestyle and are a joy to live with and to train. Karen’s two Labs are also from field lines. Sally comes from Cresthill Kennels and Gus from Southland Kennels. Like us, Karen and Bob are active folks who spend a lot of time outdoors with their dogs. They have the added good fortune of living near the water and so they enjoy swimming, retrieving and boating regularly with their dogs.

Field-bred? As many readers know, the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are closely related breeds that were originally created to aid hunters by retrieving game – most commonly water fowl. As a result, they are highly active dogs that love to swim and to retrieve. As the general story goes, both breeds experienced an increase in popularity as family pets during the 1970’s. Because the attributes of a family companion are not always in line with the behaviors one seeks in a hunting dog, the breeds began to experience a divergence in selection criteria, with some dogs bred for their hunting ability and others for conformation and a more easy-going temperament. Over several generations, this resulted in two distinct  types within each breed. Although there is certainly overlap and some purposeful outcrossing between the two types, the term field-bred refers to dogs born within pedigree lines that are selected specifically for hunting ability, while conformation/pet refers to those selected for conformation and suitability as family companions.

Do field-bred dogs behave similarly across breeds? Karen and I had many great dog training conversations during our time together. One topic that interested us was the similarities and differences that we observed between field-bred Labs (her dogs) and field-bred Goldens (my dogs). Similarities included a love of retrieving and apparently inexhaustible energy level. All four dogs are intensely focused on retrieving and will chase toys and bumpers until the sun goes down (and comes back up again). Similarly, all are highly active (an understatement). Alice is known for “orbiting” – circling around us  in wide arcs, veering off on each loop to splash through the surf.  A typical 5-mile hike for us meant at least 10 miles for Ally. Similarly, Gus only slowed down when he fell asleep in his crate at the end of the day and Sally clearly has no understanding of the statement “this is your final retrieve“.

What about differences? A major difference that we observed, and something that will not surprise Lab folks, is that Karen’s dogs were more physically robust than my Goldens. While my guys love to chase and wrestle as they play, the Lab version of this involves a lot more body-slamming and chest-bumping (a play style that Alice made abundantly clear to Gus that she had no interest in participating in).

These were just a few observations from our dog days on the beach.  And of course, they may simply reflect similarities and differences of our four individual dogs. This was an “n of 2” for each breed, after all. Hardly a representative sample.

beach-with-karen-bob-and-dogs

FINAL MORNING ON THE BEACH

So……upon returning home, my immediate Science Dog query was naturally:

Is there any research that compares the behavior of Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers?”

Well yes Virginia, as a matter of fact, there is.

In 2016, a team of behavioral geneticists led by Dr. Pers Jensen at Linköping University in Sweden compared Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) test scores of Labrador and Golden Retrievers (1). The DMA is a standardized and validated behavior profile that is administered by the Swedish Working Dog Club. The researchers’ objectives were to examine behavioral differences between field and conformation/pet lines of Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. They hypothesized that because selection criteria were the same, that the behaviors of field-bred dogs in each breed would be similar. They collected DMA scores and pedigrees for 902 Golden Retrievers (204 field dogs and 698 conformation/pet dogs) and for 1672 Labrador Retrievers (1023 and 649). A statistical test called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was used to identify a set of six primary behavior categories: curiosity, play interest, chase proneness, social curiosity, social greeting and threat display. Results were compared between both breeds and breed types, and pedigrees were used to compute heritability estimates for the behavior categories.

Results: Although the hypothesis was that similar selection criteria (hunting ability) would result in similar behavior patterns in Labrador and Golden Retrievers (two closely related breeds), the researchers actually found several significant differences between field-bred Goldens and Labs:

  1. Labradors vs. Goldens: When compared overall (combining types), Labrador Retrievers scored higher in curiosity, play interest and threat display compared with Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers, on the other hand, scored higher in chase behavior, social curiosity and social greeting.
  2. Field-bred vs. Conformation/pet: Within-breed comparisons showed that field-bred dogs scored higher in playfulness than their non-field cohorts in both Goldens and Labs. Other than this similarity however, there were several breed-specific differences (statistically speaking, this is called an interaction effect of breed and type).
    • Field-bred Labrador Retrievers were less socially curious and less interested in social greeting than their conformation and pet-bred counterparts. These results are in agreement with a 2014 study of hunting Labs (2).
    • In contrast, field-bred Golden Retrievers were more curious and more likely to show social greeting behavior than their conformation/pet cohorts. Field-bred Goldens also had a stronger chase (retrieve) response than conformation/pet Goldens.
  3. Heritability estimates: Analysis reflected substantial (moderate to high) genetic influence on the behavioral traits that were measured, in both breeds. However, results suggest that the genetic influences (called genetic architecture) underlying hunting ability in Labs vs. Goldens may be different.

Despite similar genetic origins and intense selection for the same type of work (retrieving birds), field-bred Labradors and Goldens demonstrate distinct behavioral differences. Most notably, field Goldens seem to be more highly social and more socially curious than other types of Goldens, while field-bred Labradors do not demonstrate this enhanced sociability. Equally striking is the evidence that the set of genes in Goldens and Labs that influence hunting ability are not identical and suggested different selective pressures and underlying genetic influences in the two breeds.

Take Away for Dog Folks

These results provide some helpful information to trainers, veterinarians and other pet professionals who regularly advise their clients regarding breed selection. First (and I know this is a no-brainer for those of you who live with these breeds)……a Golden is not a Labrador (and vice versa)…….  Second, a field Golden/Lab is not a conformation Golden/Lab (also obvious)…… And finally, a field-bred Golden is also not a field-bred Lab (less obvious). Even though field-bred Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have been intensely selected for the exact same job over many generations, they still turn out, well, different (ain’t nature something?).

Practically speaking, a field-bred Labrador Retriever should be expected to be highly focused (i.e. less socially curious) and intensely playful (remember – they are the rough-and-tumble guys), and may have a higher propensity to threat responses than a Golden Retriever. And, if you go for the field-bred Golden type, expect a social butterfly who zips around at 100-miles-an-hour (Ally would be happy to demonstrate).

ally-jumping-in

ALLY DOES EVERYTHING FAST. INCLUDING CANNON-BALLING HER BROTHERS.

Most importantly, if you are considering one of these breeds (or types), find and trust a breeder with experience who knows his/her lines. The current research suggests that the behavior traits that were measured in the Goldens and Labs were moderately to highly heritable. A reputable breeder who knows her pedigrees is also going to understand how the temperaments and behavior of her dogs carry from one generation to the next and will advise her puppy buyers accordingly. For me personally, I am thankful for having met Jackie and her co-breeder, Paige, who know their Topbrass Goldens inside and out and who over the years have allowed us to have so many amazing dogs share their lives with us.

Happy Training!

Cited Studies:

  1. Sundman AS, Johnsson M, Wright D, Jensen P. Similar recent selection criteria associated with different behavioural effects in two dog breeds. Genes, Brain and Behavior 2016; 15:750-756.
  2. Lofgren SE, Wiener P, Blott SC, Sanchez-Molano E, et al. Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2014; 156:44-53.

 

 

Consider the (Caregiver) Placebo Effect

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “placebo effect”, the perception of improved health while unknowingly receiving a sham (placebo) treatment that in reality should have no benefit at all. Growing up, my mother referred to this as “giving someone a sugar pill”. The assumption is that because we believe that we are receiving an actual treatment, our mind tells us that we should feel a bit better. Then amazingly, we do feel better. We notice a reduction in symptoms and ultimately conclude that the “medicine” must be working. The irony is that placebos actually can be powerful medicine (or something), at least for some people, for some diseases, some of the time.

placebo-comic

Placebos and Us: The effects of placebos in human medicine are well-documented and are described with human diseases of almost every type. The highest level of placebo effect is seen with diseases that have subjective symptoms that are patient-reported and difficult to measure directly, that tend to fluctuate in severity, and that occur over long periods of time (i.e. are chronic). Examples include depression, anxiety-related disorders, gastric ulcer, asthma, and chronic pain. In medical research, an average placebo response rate of 35 percent is reported, with rates as high as 90 percent for some health conditions. By any standard, that is a whole lot of sugar pill response going on.

placebo

Placebo Control Groups: Although the reasons that we respond to placebos are not completely understood, medical researchers universally accept the importance of considering them when studying new treatments. Studies of new drugs or medical interventions include placebos as control groups to allow unbiased comparisons with the treatment or intervention that is being evaluated. Any effect that the placebo group shows is subtracted from the effect measured in subjects who are receiving the actual medication. The difference between the two is considered to be the degree of response attributable to the treatment. If a placebo control group was not included, it would be impossible to differentiate between a perceived response (placebo) and a real response to the treatment. Today, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are considered to be the Gold Standard of study designs by medical researchers. The “double-blind” part refers to the fact that in addition to having both a placebo group and a treatment group, neither the researchers nor the subjects know which subjects are getting the treatment and which are getting the placebo. (For more information about double-blind research trials with dogs, see “Thyroid on Trial“).

What about Dogs? Can a placebo effect occur with dogs? Possibly, but things work a bit differently where our dogs are concerned. Most obviously, while highly communicative in many ways, dogs cannot specifically tell us what part of their body is in pain, how intense that pain is, if it is abating, or by how much. Rather, we use our knowledge of a dog’s behavior and body language to determine how he is feeling. As their caregivers, we are the recorders and the reporters of our dogs’ health, symptoms, and response to treatments. Similar to human studies, this is most relevant when the symptoms are things that are not easily measured using medical tests and that are more subjective in nature.

A second important difference is that dogs are basically always blinded to treatments. Although they may understand that something different is being done to them (or that there is a strange pill buried in that piece of cheese), most people will agree that dogs do not have an understanding that they are being medicated for a particular health problem or are on the receiving end of a new behavior modification approach. As a result, unlike human patients, dogs lack the specific expectations and beliefs about health interventions that may be necessary for a placebo effect to occur directly. However, because it is the owner who reports many symptoms and changes in health to their veterinarian and also who conveys subjective information regarding the dog’s response to a given treatment, a different type of placebo effect may be in action with dogs. This is called a “caregiver placebo effect”. As with human maladies, the conditions for which this type of placebo effect has been described in dogs are those that involve subjective measures of health (pain, activity level, appetite) and that have a tendency to fluctuate in severity.

Let’s look at two examples – the caregiver placebo effect in dogs with osteoarthritis and in dogs with epilepsy.

Does Your Dog Hurt Less? Osteoarthritis is a painful and progressive health problem that can seriously impact a dog’s quality of life. A variety of medical and nutritional treatments are available today for afflicted dogs. These range from NSAIDS (ex. deracoxib, meloxicam), nutrient supplements (ex. glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate) to alternative medicine approaches (acupuncture, cold laser therapy). Researchers who have studied these treatments use subjective measures of lameness in which dogs’ owners and veterinarians numerically rate their dog’s degree of pain, mobility, and interest in daily activities in response to treatment. Some, but not all, studies also include objective measurements of arthritis that quantify the amount of weight-bearing in the affected legs and weight distribution in the body.

Arthritis Studies: In virtually all placebo-controlled studies of this type, a substantial proportion of owners and veterinarians have reported improvement in the placebo-treated dogs. However, when measured using weight-bearing techniques, the dogs in the placebo group showed no change in or a worsening of disease. Michael Conzemius and Richard Evans at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine decided to quantify the actual magnitude of the placebo effect in this type of experimental trial (1). They analyzed the data from 58 dogs who were in the placebo control group of a large clinical trial that was testing the effectiveness of a new NSAID. All of the enrolled dogs had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had clinical signs of pain and changes in gait and mobility. This was a multi-centered design, which means that each dog’s own veterinarian conducted the bi-weekly evaluations of gait and lameness. Both owners and veterinarians completed questionnaires that measured whether the dog showed improvement, no change, or worsening of arthritis signs over a 6-week period. Neither the owners nor the veterinarians knew if their dog was receiving the placebo or the new drug.

Results: Half of the owners (50 percent) stated that their dog’s lameness decreased during the study, 40 percent reported no change, and 10 percent said that their dog’s pain had worsened. When these reports were compared with actual change as measured by force platform gait analysis, the caregiver placebo effect, (i.e. thinking that improvement occurred when there was either no change or an actual worsening of signs), occurred in 40 percent of owners. The veterinarians performed no better. A placebo effect occurred 40 to 45 percent of the time when veterinarians were evaluating dogs for changes in gait or pain. This means that not only were the owners strongly invested in seeing a positive outcome, so too were their veterinarians. This effect occurred despite the fact that all of the human participants were aware that their dog had a 50 percent chance of being in the placebo group or the drug group, and that there was no way to be certain which group their dog was in.

Seizure Study: This study used an approach called a “meta-analysis” which means that the researchers pooled and then reexamined data collected from several previous clinical trials (2). Veterinarians from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Minnesota reviewed three placebo-controlled clinical trials that examined the use of novel, adjunct treatments for canine epilepsy. During the treatment period owners were asked to record all seizure activity, including the length of the seizure, its intensity, and the dog’s behavior before and immediately following the seizure. The pooled results showed that the majority of owners of dogs in the placebo group (79 %) reported a reduction in seizure frequency in their dog over the 6-week study period. Almost a third of the owners (29 %) said that there was a decrease of more than 50 percent, the level that was classified in the study protocols as indicative of a positive response to treatment.

What’s Going On? Well, several things, it appears. The most obvious explanation of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs is owner expectations of a positive response when they assume an actual treatment is being administered to the dog. Whenever we introduce a new medication or diet or training method and anticipate seeing an improvement in our dog’s health, nutritional well-being or behavior, we naturally tilt toward seeing positive results and away from seeing no change (or worse – a negative effect). This is a form of confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see and that confirms our preexisting beliefs. In fact, an early study of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs found that when owners were asked to guess which group their dog was in, the owners who said that they were certain that their dog was in the treatment group (but was actually in the placebo group) demonstrated the strongest placebo effect (3).

Such expectations may be an especially strong motivator when we are dealing with maladies that have affected our dog for a long time, infringes upon the dog’s ability to enjoy life, and for which we feel that we are running out of options. Osteoarthritis and seizure disorders were the health conditions studied in these papers, but I can think of several other problems with our dogs for which we may easily succumb to the power of the placebo effect. These include chronic allergies, adverse reactions to food ingredients, anxiety-related behavior problems and even cancer.

Cognitive Dissonance: Another factor that may contribute to the caregiver placebo effect is finding oneself in a state of contradiction. When we invest time and money (and hope) into a new treatment for our dogs, it follows that we will naturally have high expectations that the treatment will work. Indeed if it does not, we may experience cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradicting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. For example, “I was told that giving my dog dehydrated gooseberry rinds would cure his chronic itching; these rinds are expensive and hard to find. He does not seem any better…… Uh oh. This is not a good feeling….”

Psychologists tell us that our brain reduces this discomfort for us (without our conscious awareness, by the way) by simply changing our perceptions. “Oh look! I am sure that the dehydrated gooseberry rinds ARE finally working. It just too some time – several months in fact. Still the effect MUST be the gooseberry rinds. YAY!”  In this case, convincing oneself that the dog does seem a bit less itchy, her coat is a bit healthier and overall, she does really seem to be feeling better, immediately solves this problem for the brain and for our comfort level.

cognitive-dissonance

The Hawthorne Effect: Finally, a related phenomenon that is common enough to have earned its own name is the Hawthorne Effect, also called observation bias. This is the tendency to change one’s behavior (or in our case how one reports their dog’s behavior) simply as a result of being observed. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people whose dogs are enrolled in an experimental trial may behave differently with the dog because they know they are enrolled in a trial that is measuring many aspects of the dog’s life. In the case of the arthritis studies, owners may have altered how regularly they exercised their dogs, avoided behaviors that worsened the dog’s arthritic pain, or began to pay more attention to the dog’s diet and weight.

The point is that when people are enrolled in a research trial or are starting a new medical treatment, diet, or training program and are being monitored, they will be inclined to change other aspects of how they live with and care for the dog as well. These changes could be as important (or more important) than the actual treatment (or placebo). This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and is another reason why we always need control groups, but the occurrence of the Hawthorne Effect emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the thing that we think is working for our dog may not actually be the thing that is doing the trick.

Take Away for Dog Folks: When trying something new with our dogs, might we, at least some of the time, in some situations, be inclined to see improvement when it does not truly exist? When interpreting our dog’s response to a novel therapy or supplement or training technique are we susceptible to falling for the sugar pill? It seems probable, given the science. It is reasonable to at least consider the possibility that a placebo effect may be influencing our perceptions of our dog’s response to a new food, a new supplement, a new training technique or a novel treatment. This is especially true if the approach that we are trying has not been thoroughly vetted by research through double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. While the development of new medications and foods and training methods is exciting and important, we must avoid the tendency to see improvement from something that is novel simply because we expect and desire it to be so.

CITED STUDIES:

  1. Conzemium MG, Evans RB. Caregiver placebo effect of dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2012; 241:1314-1319.
  2. Munana KR, Zhang D, Patterson EE. Placebo effect in canine epilepsy trials. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 2010; 24:166-170.
  3. Jaeger GT, Larsen S, Moe L. Stratification, blinding and placebo effect in a randomized, double blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of gold bead implantation in dogs with hip dysplasia. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2005; 46:57-68.

Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact and Fiction” (2015).

Beware Straw Man Cover