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.

 

 

 

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

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New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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I Feel Your Pain

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

dog friends

SOME MIGHT CALL IT LOVE

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

Chippy Wet and Happy

THE WORD “JOY” COMES TO MIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathetic Dog

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

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

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

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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.

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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