Choosing Kindly – An Excerpt

This week’s Science Dog essay is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“.

I introduced the previous chapter with a story about starting each orientation class at AutumnGold with a version of the training game. While I emphasized that our students are usually impressed by these demonstrations and immediately catch on to the power of positive reinforcement, I would be remiss to not mention that we do see the occasional “frownie-face” in the audience during these demonstrations.

What I am referring to is the human version of this:

That face, human form, tells us that the student expressing it is not convinced and is usually taking umbrage with the use of food treats to train dogs. Mr. or Ms. Frownie-face invariably raises a hand to utter some version of the following:

“I don’t want to use food with my dog to train him because I want him to work for me out of love [or respect, or because I am alpha, or because I am King Tut, ruler of the world]”

Okay, maybe I made that last bit up. But you get the picture.

While we get the frownie-face and the resistance that accompanies it less frequently than in the past (thank you positive trainers!), we still see it now and again. So, in this chapter we explore evidence for staying, as much as possible, within the positive reinforcement (+R) quadrant of Skinner’s four consequences. I also will provide a means for communicating this information to the doubting Joes, Josephines and Frownie-faces of the world when you encounter them as clients, in classes, or as your neighbors.

Training in the +R Quadrant: I don’t think it is an outrageous claim to assert that the vast majority of people do not want to harm their dogs, either physically or emotionally, in order to train them. Unfortunately, a substantial number of dog owners continue to think that using punishment is the only effective and reliable way to train dogs. These beliefs may arise from continued reliance upon “dog-as-wolf” myths that tell owners they must establish dominance over their dogs, or upon the view that using positive reinforcers in training is synonymous with bribing. (These beliefs are false, as Joe finds out at the end of this chapter). For now though, let’s look at what we know to be true about the aversive control of behavior, commonly referred to as “correction-based” training, versus training methods that focus primarily on positive reinforcement, commonly referred to as “reward-based” training.

Correction-Based Training: Aversive training methods, even if “balanced” with positive reinforcement, rely upon a dog’s natural desire to avoid pain and discomfort. The dog pulls forward into his leash; a collar jerk occurs; the dog moves back into a loose-lead heel position to avoid the discomfort. If a consequence is not sufficiently unpleasant, the dog has no reason to change his behavior to avoid it and learning does not occur. Therefore, by its very definition, a training approach that relies partially or fully on aversive consequences involves causing some level of discomfort or pain to the dog.

In addition to the discomfort that this approach relies upon, there are emotional costs. The basic emotions associated with pain and discomfort in dogs (as in humans) are fear and anxiety. Although proponents of correction-based methods argue that anxiety and fear can be minimized by using the mildest intensity of an aversive that is necessary, there is no evidence that such a level exists. Rather, all of the studies that have examined the use of aversives to control behavior in dogs have reported signs of stress and/or fear as direct results of these training methods (see following section in this chapter for details).

A third problem with reliance upon aversives in dog training is that the exact nature of a dog’s response is not always predictable. Although some dogs move away from an aversive stimulus if there is an escape route available (for example, a dog stops pulling into a corrective collar), others may freeze in place, panic, attempt to run away, or become aggressive. As a result, the risk is that the response of the dog is not always what was intended by the trainer. This is a common problem because applying an aversive only provides the dog with information about what NOT to do, but does not provide information about what TO do. Essentially, the dog is forced to learn through the process of elimination. Negative reinforcement relies on the dog’s ability to select the desired behavior that will allow her to escape or avoid the aversive. Because a variety of behaviors are often equally successful in avoiding an unpleasant consequence – for example, running away or showing aggression – the behavior that is elicited each time a correction is applied may not be the behavior that the trainer was expecting to see.

Finally, because stress is often introduced with the use of negative reinforcement and punishment, the use of correction-based training as a humane approach to training is questionable. In addition to the potential for intentional or unintentional abuse, aversives that are associated with the owner have the potential for damaging the relationship between the dog and his owner. The overuse of aversives or using corrections that are too harsh can cause generalized fear and avoidance as the dog may learn that one behavior that will allow him to avoid discomfort and fear is to simply avoid being near his owner.

No one wants this. Why take the chance when there are better ways? (In the remainder of this chapter, we explore these better ways along with the evidence that supports their use).

“Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” by Linda P. Case (2018)

 

 

 

Get Help! Pony is in Trouble!

This year, for her birthday, Alice got a pony. She named him……Pony.

ALLY AND PONY

Pony has rapidly become Alice’s favorite toy. She carries him everywhere, wrestles with him, wrangles him, growls at him, and generally treats Pony quite badly. (Apparently, Ally has not yet been convinced of the benefits of reward-based pony training). Regardless, Pony and Ally have become inseparable.

Until the day that Pony became lost.

It began like any other morning. Mike and I were getting ready to head out the door for a hike with Ally and Cooper. Pete the cat was underfoot asking for his breakfast, and Cooper was waiting by the door.

Ally? Not around. When Mike called her, she came running into the kitchen, stared intently at Mike and then raced back into the living room.

Ahhh……there was the problem. Pony was stuck between the wall and the back of the couch. Ally could not fit back there to reach him. Looking back and forth from Mike to Pony, Ally communicated the seriousness of the crisis and her need for assistance (someone with thumbs). Mike retrieved Pony, there ensued a loving reunion, and all was again good in the world.

ALLY VOWS TO NEVER AGAIN ALLOW PONY OUT OF HER SIGHT

For most dog folks, a pretty normal morning, eh?

Yet, the act of Alice telling Mike that Pony was in trouble, that she knew where Pony was, and that she needed Mike’s help, is considered to be a complex form of communication. It is called referential gesturing and involves both motivation (“I WANT Pony!!”) and intention (“I need your help to get him!”).

Referential Gestures: For a gesture to be considered referential, it must possess these five attributes:

  1. It is directed towards an object or an objective (Pony).
  2. It is mechanically ineffective (Ally running from Mike to Pony cannot save Pony)
  3. It is directed towards another individual (Mike)
  4. It results in a voluntary response by the receiver (Mike saves Pony).
  5. It has intention (Obvious. Pony is in trouble and must be saved).

Pointing: Pointing is one of the most frequently used human referential gestures. Dogs understand and respond to all types of human pointing, such as hand points, foot points, and gaze. (I review these studies in detail in my newest book, “Dog Smart“). However, to date, research studies have focused on the dog’s ability to understand human gestures, rather than the use of these gestures by dogs and our ability to understand and respond to them. Of course, anyone who lives with multiple dogs knows that dogs are masters at signaling the location of a bit of food on the ground, a favorite toy, or (unfortunately) something smelly and suitable for rolling upon to other dogs in the family. Similarly, I bet that any dog owner reading this piece can easily identify one or two ways that their dog uses referential signaling with the humans in their life.

However, most of us probably have no idea exactly how good dogs are at this. They are really, really good……We have some new research that tells us so. Here it is:

The Study: Researchers at the University of Salford in the UK recruited a group of 37 dogs and owners, and used the Citizen Science protocol developed by Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht to collect data. For a period of several weeks, owners filmed their dog performing “everyday” acts of communication with them. Examples included, but were not restricted to, requesting food, asking for a toy, or requesting that a door be opened. A total of 242 communication gestures were recorded and submitted for analysis. The researchers coded and analyzed communicative gestures according to the dog’s perceived goal, frequency of use and interaction outcome (whether the goal was achieved or not). Results: 47 different forms of referential gestures were identified from the submitted video footage. That is a LOT. (Can you think of 47 distinct ways in which you gesture to signal a need to others?). They also found:

  • A Conservative Estimate: When the researchers applied all five of the features identified above, the initial group of 47 gestures was distilled to 19 that were solid and indisputable examples of referential gesturing. That is still a LOT. Altogether, these were used over 1000 times in the collected videos of 37 dogs.
  • What Dogs Ask For (and Get): The four most commonly used and most successful referential gestures were requests for petting/scratching, food or water, to go outdoors, and to retrieve a toy (Pony!).
  • Gaze Alternation: Among all of the dogs, direct gaze and gaze alternation, looking back and forth from the owner to the goal, were by far the most common gestures that were used. Almost 400 instances of referential gaze were recorded, with dogs using eye contact to communicate a wide range of goals.
  • Gesture Portfolios: Dogs varied tremendously in the number and type of gestures that they used to communicate. It was not uncommon for a dog to employ several different gestures (gaze, head turn, pawing, barking) for a single goal and to switch to a new gesture if the first was not successful. Interestingly, dogs who lived with more than one person tended to use a larger repertoire of gestures, perhaps having developed customized ways of communicating with each person.

Take Away for Dog Folks: It is important to put this information in the context of what we know about other animals. The use of referential gestures in species other than humans is considered to be rare. Great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans) use one or two forms of referential gesturing with other apes and occasionally, when in captivity, with human caretakers. There are also a few examples of this form of communication in birds and some fish species. But in all of these cases, the gestures are limited to one or two forms and are used only with members of the same species. Cross-species referential gesturing is not a normal part of most animals’ repertoire. Nor is there anything  even close to the wide variety of gestures that dogs use when communicating with us. While we have known for a number of years that dogs are uniquely capable of understanding human communication signals, this is the first study to demonstrate that dogs use a diverse set of  referential signals when they communicate with us and that, just like our dogs, we understand what they are telling us. This is cool stuff.

So, the next time that your dog loses her Pony, pay attention to the type of referential gestures that she uses with you. In fact, take a moment now. Make a list of the different gestures that your dog uses to communicate his or her needs and desires to you. I am betting that there are a bunch. And, while you probably easily understand these and respond appropriately, remind yourself of the degree of complexity and specificity of the communication that is taking place in those moments when your dog loses his favorite toy and asks you for a bit of help.

ALLY REQUESTING A SECOND SUNDAY MORNING BAGEL

Cited Study: Worsley HK and O’Hara SJ. Cross-species referential signaling events in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), 2018; Animal Cognition,  10.1007/s10071-018-1181-3. 

Becoming Dog Smart

This week’s blog is an excerpt from Linda Case’s newest Science Dog book,

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog.”

I grew up in an animal-loving family. As a young child, I had an auspicious start to pet ownership with Beany the Bird, a parakeet who I trained to fly from his cage to land on top of my head. As a pre-teen, Shelley the Sheltie joined our family, followed shortly thereafter by my horse, Hickory. (Clearly, alliteration and I share a long history). I trained Shelley in 4-H and competed with her in 4-H dog shows and AKC obedience trials. By my teen years, my mom was training and showing her own dogs, first a Belgian Tervuren named Tina and eventually a succession of Border Collies. We shared many years of traveling around the east coast and Midwest together to dog shows, training seminars and conferences. I have wonderful memories of those shared adventures and of our love of dogs. I would not change a thing.

Well, okay. I might change one thing.

I started training dogs in the early 1970’s. In those years, established dog training methods involved choke collars, corrections, and very generous use of the word “NO!.” Another popular aversive was that throat-clearing, grandpa-in-the-bathroom, “EEHHHH” sound.

REALLY? WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR INVENTING THAT?

These methods were standard and accepted training practice, originally developed by military trainers during WWII.

Never look ’em in the eye: Here are two examples from those early training years. When I first began training Shelley in 4-H, the club leader strictly informed her budding group of young trainers that we must “never look our dogs in the eye.” Rather we were instructed to stare out into space, at a spot located somewhere above the dog’s head. I guess the premise was that my sweet and gentle Shetland Sheepdog would suddenly revert back to her wolf-like ancestor and launch for my throat should I make the error of making eye contact and thus challenge her status. A few years later, I attended a weekend seminar with my mom in which the presenter, a nationally recognized obedience competitor, instructed his students to yank on a long lead attached to their dog’s choke collar, immediately after yelling “COME!” The collar correction was intended to ensure that their dogs came running as quickly as possible. This was a time during which dogs were assumed to be in a constant battle for dominance with their owners, negative reinforcement and punishment reigned in dog training, and the use of food was viewed as bribery or even worse “cheating.” Luckily, just a few years later, around the mid-80’s, things began to change for the better for dogs – and for trainers.

Thank you, Karen Pryor: After finishing my undergraduate degree, getting married, and adding two Golden Retrievers to our family, Mike and I spent four pre-graduate school years moving around the East Coast as Mike completed his ROTC commitment to the Navy. (They had very generously paid for his engineering education at Cornell, so he owed them a bit of time in return). During our time in Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to become friends with a group of dog trainers who were as passionate as I was about dogs and training. We would meet regularly to train and walk our dogs together in area parks. One day, one of these friends excitedly showed up with a new training book in hand. This book was “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. We all read it. Devoured it, really.

As dog trainers, we never looked back.

The era of reward-based training methods had begun. Karen’s book was based on the science of behaviorism, encouraged positive reinforcement and strongly discouraged punishment. She promoted using food treats as a primary reinforcer and introduced the concept of using a marker word as a conditioned reinforcer. Karen’s seminal book and those that followed caused a paradigm shift in thinking and led to the development of an entirely new philosophy of dog training. Out went confrontational and correction-based methods that assumed dogs must be dominated to be trained and in came a gentler, kinder approach to training that also happened to be firmly grounded in learning theory and the behavioral sciences.

Animal rights, animal consciousness and social cognition: The changes of the 1980’s were followed by another remarkable development – this time in the academic world. After decades of being completely ignored in almost all fields of scientific study, the domestic dog was suddenly becoming a hot topic for scientists in a host of disciplines. It began with programs in canine and feline nutrition (upon which my own graduate studies centered), and was rapidly followed by studies of the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs, by new examinations of canine behavior that challenged previously accepted dog-as-wolf archetypes, and most recently, with studies of the dog’s unique talents in social cognition and emotional complexities. Although not focusing on dogs per se, the 1990’s also witnessed the serious philosophical consideration of animal consciousness, animal welfare and animal rights at universities around the world.

Collectively, these many areas of study expanded our understanding of and appreciation for the inner mental lives of non-human animals and directly challenged many long-held beliefs about how we should view and treat other animals, including dogs. While in graduate school and later, when teaching at the university, I read and studied the work of these scientists and philosophers. I brought their studies to my students for review, for group discussions, and as examples to practice their critical thinking skills. More personally, the evidence for complex animal minds and the arguments for changes in the ways that society has traditionally viewed animals had the effect of further modifying how I lived with, trained, and cared for my own dogs.

AutumnGold: In 1989, Mike and I built a dog training facility on the land adjacent to our home and opened AutumnGold Dog Training Center. I had just started teaching in the Companion Animal Science program in the University of Illinois. I taught undergraduates during the day and obedience classes at our school in the evenings. In its early years, when we were still competing in obedience trials, AutumnGold offered both competitive obedience classes and basic manners classes. Today we employ a group of talented trainers and instructors and teach classes that are primarily designed for pet dog owners. These include puppy and adult manners classes, a set of dog sports (for fun) classes, and a series that we call “LifeSkills” for teaching behaviors that promote harmony between owners and their dogs and help dogs to be well-behaved and comfortable in many situations.

STUDENTS REINFORCE DOWN/STAY AT AUTUMNGOLD

This new book,  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog is a product of my years owning and developing classes for AutumnGold, teaching, researching, and writing about dogs during my work at the University of Illinois, and training, living with and loving a long succession of beloved dogs. It focuses on solid, scientifically acquired knowledge about dogs and attempts to dispel many of the prevailing myths that continue to persist, even among professed dog lovers. It is also a testimony to just how far we have come in our understanding of and empathy for the amazing dogs who are in our care and with whom we are privileged to share our lives with. I hope that you will enjoy reading this book as much as I have enjoyed these many years of training, learning, and writing. Happy Training!

 

Be There.

We switched to a new veterinarian  last year. We made the change on a good friend’s recommendation and could not be happier. Our new vet is thorough, compassionate, smart as a whip, and an outstanding diagnostician. Her staff members are also competent and welcoming. An additional virtue of this clinic (All About Animals, in Mahomet, IL) is the topic of this essay. Dr. Koss’s standard policy is that owners remain with their dogs and cats for physical examinations and for all health care procedures that good veterinary practice allows.

Here is an example.

Last summer, Cooper (aka Coopa Doopa Doo) developed an ear hematoma.

HOW COOPER SPENDS HIS SUMMERS

I was away, so Mike took him into the clinic. After examination, Dr. Koss recommended a relatively new approach to hematoma treatment in which the site is drained with a large gauge needle and an anti-inflammatory agent is directly injected into the remaining pocket. It is out-patient, does not require anesthesia, and is less invasive than traditional treatment protocols. Because it is a sterile procedure, Cooper would need to be treated in the clinic’s pre-surgery room. Dr. Koss told Mike, who was holding and talking to Coop during the examination, that the room has a large observation window and so Mike could watch as Cooper was being treated, if he so desired.

Mike did so desire. As Coop looked back at him through the window (wagging his tail the entire time), Mike witnessed both the procedure and the gentle way in which Cooper was handled and spoken to throughout treatment.  After the procedure, Caleb, the veterinary technician and Cooper’s new best friend, brought Cooper back out to Mike, and they were good to go. Throughout the entire examination and treatment, Cooper was either with Mike (for weighing, examination and diagnosis) or Mike could see him through the window (during treatment).

Standard Operating Procedure? As many dog folks know, this level of clinic transparency and owner involvement is no longer standard practice at many veterinary clinics. It is quite common today for clinics to require that owners relinquish their dog to a staff person while still in the waiting room. All physical examinations, vaccinations and treatments are then conducted out of sight of the owner in a treatment room and the dog is returned to the owner at the end of the appointment.

Disclaimer: I am going to be blunt. I have a strong opinion about this. There is not a snow ball’s chance that I would allow any of my dogs to be taken “into the back” at a veterinary clinic for anything, short of surgery. Our new vet does go up and above with her clinic’s degree of owner involvement, but we have never been clients at a clinic that required our dogs to be taken away from us for examinations. Just as I assume that parents would not accept such a policy from their child’s pediatrician, I think it is not even remotely acceptable to expect owners to not be present during their pet’s veterinary examinations. Yet, this is not only standard protocol in many clinics today, but a requirement of some for acceptance as a client.

YOU MAY NOT WANT TO TRY TO SEPARATE ME FROM MY DOG.

Yeah, not going to happen. I am my dogs’ advocate as well as their source of comfort and security. Our dogs trust us to have their backs and at no time is this more important than when they are nervous or frightened, a common state of mind of many dogs during veterinary visits.

Until recently, this has only been my opinion. However, a new study, conducted at the National Veterinary School of Alfort in France, examined whether a dog’s stress level during a veterinary examination was influenced by having their owner present and providing comfort (1).

The Study: A group of 33 healthy dogs and their owners were enrolled. The dogs were at least 6 months of age and all had previous experience at a veterinary clinic. The objectives of the study were to measure dogs’ physiological and behavioral responses to a standard veterinary examination and to determine if having the owner present and providing comfort reduced the dog’s level of stress. Heart rate, rectal temperature, ocular (eye) surface temperature, salivary cortisol, and stress-related behaviors were recorded before, during and after a physical examination conducted in a clinic setting. Two conditions were studied: (1) Contact; the owner stood next to the examination table at the dog’s side and comforted the dog by talking to him/her quietly and using gentle petting; (2) Non-contact; the owner was in the room, but did not interact with the dog and sat quietly in a chair located ~ 10 feet away from the examination table. A balanced, cross-over design was used. This means that each dog was subjected to both conditions and experienced two visits (timed 1 to 2 weeks apart). To control for an order effect, the sequence of the conditions varied and was randomly assigned. Examinations lasted approximately 5 minutes and included mild restraint, examination of the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth and teeth, palpation of the lymph nodes and abdomen, manipulation of joints, and heart and lung examination with a stethoscope.

Results: Unsurprisingly, veterinary visits are stressful to dogs:

  • Waiting room stress: All of the dogs experienced at least a low-level of stress during the pre-examination period, in the waiting room. As they waited, many of the dogs showed frequent yawning, which is considered to be a displacement behavior during periods of emotional conflict. Some of the dogs also whined and vocalized.
  • Examination stress: The researchers found that all of the dogs, regardless of whether or not their owner was comforting them, showed a measurable stress response during the veterinary examination. Heart rate, ocular temperature, and lip licking all increased during the examination period.
  •  Owner being there: However, when owners stood close to their dogs and provided comfort by talking to and petting,  the dogs’ heart rates and ocular temperatures decreased when compared with the condition in which owners were not interacting with their dogs. Both of these changes are associated with a decrease in stress. Dogs also attempted to jump off of the examining table less frequently when their owner was comforting them compared with when the owner was not providing comfort.

The authors conclude: “The well-being of dogs during veterinary visits may be improved by affiliative owner-dog interactions”.

UP ON MY SOAP BOX

I know, these results are a no-brainer for many dog folks.

Veterinary visits are stressful to dogs and being present to comfort and reassure our dogs reduces their fear and stress. Unfortunately, in my view, this study did not go far enough, since it did not study the condition that I am most interested in learning about – when dogs are taken away from their owners and examined out of the owner’s presence. Interestingly, the argument that is made to support this practice at the clinics that insist upon it is that they remove dogs from their owners because the presence of the owner can cause the dog to be more stressed, not less so. Well, at the very least, these results provide evidence against that excuse.

And, an excuse it truly is. Perhaps this sounds harsh, (but remember, I am standing on a soap box…..that is what it is for), but my belief is that these policies are in place more for the convenience of the clinic than for the benefit of the dogs. Reducing client interactions in an examination room no doubt is more expedient and efficient (for the clinic). And, there is also that pesky issue of transparency. An owner who does not have the opportunity to witness how their dog is handled, spoken to, examined or treated cannot question or criticize. There is really no other way to say this – the risk of owner displeasure and complaints is reduced by not having owners present while dogs are being examined and treated.

So, personally, I am happy to see these results, as they can be used as evidence when responding to a clinic that insists it is less stressful for dogs to be removed from their owner during examinations and routine procedures. Petting and talking to our dogs when they are upset during a veterinary visit reduces their stress. We have the data. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but these results also provide more ammunition to combat the still-present [and false] belief that calming a fearful dog “reinforces fear“. I address that particular issue in more depth in “Dog Smart“).

Hopefully, we will see a follow-up study that examines dogs’ responses to “no owner present” policies. Regardless, the data that we currently have encourage us to stay with our dogs during veterinary visits and examinations. It is quite simple really.

Just Be There. Insist upon it.

Study Reference: Csoltova E, Martineau M, Boissy A, Gilbert C. Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being. Physiology & Behavior 2017; 177:270-281.

 

Joe May Be Right (For Once)

Neighbor Joe (who happens to know a lot about dogs) popped by for a visit recently. He came over to tell me that he has a new dog.

“Yup”, Joe says, “Adopted him from our local shelter”. (Good Boy, Joe!) “He’s supposed to be part Australian Shepherd and part Catahoula Leopard Dog.” (Yes, because we have so many intact Catahoula Leopard Dogs running loose and breeding indiscriminately in Central Illinois).

Joe continues, “But, you know, I think there also might be some wolf in there, or maybe some coyote or fox or something.”

“Perhaps New Guinea Singing Dog?” I suggest helpfully.

“Yeah, could be”. Joe is thoughtful. “Reason I think this is that I am pretty sure this dog, who I have named Cujo (Of course you did), is really good at smelling fear in people.

(Say what?)

Joe explains. “Whenever Cujo meets someone who says that he is afraid of dogs, Cujo seems to know it. He starts woofing really loudly at the person and if I let him run up to the person (Bad Joe),  Cujo gets even more upset and barks louder and louder”.

I try to intervene. “Well, Joe, you know there could be a number of reasons that Cujo barks at folks who are not keen on having a large and untrained dog running up to them. Dogs are masters at paying attention to body language in humans, so Cujo may be reacting to these signals when a person is nervous or afraid”.

Joe is having none of it (he does know a lot about dogs, after all). “Nope”, he says. “This dog smells fear. I bet that wolf or coyote or what did you call it, that New Something Yodeling Dog, is the reason that Cujo is so good at this. Wild animals can smell fear in us really well, you know”.

I started to give my usual skeptic’s response of “Not sure there is evidence of that, Joe“, when I realize that indeed, there IS a new paper, sitting on my desk, that examines exactly this question: “Can dogs smell fear?”

I decided that I needed to get back to Joe on this one.

Some Background: Our understanding of the dog’s social cognition and ability to understand human communication signals continues to expand. We have research showing that dogs recognize a wide range of emotions displayed in human facial expressions, are highly sensitive to the tone and pitch of our voices, and are capable of discerning the emotional import of very subtle body  cues. Oddly enough, even though the dog’s extraordinary sense of smell has been known for many years, only a few studies have examined the role that odors play in the dog’s ability to detect emotional states in others. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns’ work with dogs in MRIs showed that the portion of the dog’s brain that is associated with pleasure  is activated by the mere smell of his or her owner. However, this does not tell us if these dogs were reacting to their owners’ emotions. A study conducted in 2011 reported that the smell of a veterinarian’s sweat increased the arousal level in most dogs. Later work by the same group of researchers found that the smell of a fearful human caused increased heart rate in dogs.

This newest study, the one on my desk, was published by Biagio D’Aniello and his research team at the University of Naples in Italy. It is the first to examine the ability of dogs to detect and respond to the emotional signals of human airborne odors in the absence of other visual or auditory cues.

The Question: The authors wondered if dogs who are with their owners would change their social behavior in response to the smell of a human who was experiencing intense emotion – either fear or happiness. Because other research had shown that dogs will seek out their owners as a secure base when anxious, they also wondered if dogs who “smell fear” would become stressed and look to their owners for support.

The Study:  A group of eight human “sweat donors” (yes, that really is a thing) were asked to view one of two videos, one that induced fear or one that induced happiness. As they watched, the sweat from their axillae (arm pits) was collected using sterile absorbent compresses. The donors also completed a standardized anxiety profile to ensure that the targeted emotion had been achieved (relaxed/happy versus anxious/fearful). Sweat samples were stored in dry ice and then pooled to provide composite “fear sweat” and “happiness sweat” samples for use in the study with dogs. A group of 40 adult pet dogs (Labrador and Golden Retrievers) and their owners participated in the test and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (1) Happiness, (2) Fear, or (3) Control (no scent). During the pre-test period, a heart rate monitor was attached to the dog and the dog was given ample time to explore and acclimate to the testing room. At the start of the test, an experimenter entered the room and placed an apparatus containing an open vial containing the sweat pads in the middle of the room. The vial was constructed to allow the dog to investigate by sniffing, but disallowed the dog to directly touch or contaminate the vial’s contents. During the test period, the dog was allowed to move freely about the room while the owner and one of the researchers (who was unfamiliar to the dog) sat quietly in chairs, without interacting with the dog. Neither the dog’s owner nor the experimenter who was acting as the stranger knew which condition the dog was assigned to. For a five-minute period, the dog’s heart rate, body language, movements toward/away from their owner and the stranger, and stress-related behaviors were videotaped. The researchers used a statistical procedure called “linear discriminate analysis” to discover whether dogs showed a consistent set of behaviors in reaction to the three conditions (happy sweat, fearful sweat, or control).

Results: Several interesting outcomes were reported:

  • Happy Sweat: When exposed to “happy” sweat, dogs demonstrated fewer and shorter owner-directed interactions and more frequent stranger-directed interactions compared with when they were exposed to “fear” sweat. These results suggest that the dogs in this condition felt relaxed enough to greet a stranger and did not seek reassurance from their owner.
  • Fear Sweat: Conversely, dogs who were exposed to the “fear” sweat demonstrated more frequent stress-related behaviors that lasted for longer durations, in some cases for the entire trial period. Dogs in this condition also showed increased owner-directed behaviors compared with stranger-directed behaviors, suggesting that they were seeking support from the owners while feeling stressed.
  • Heart Rates: Dogs in the “fear” condition had consistently higher heart rates during the testing period when compared with dogs in either the happy condition or the control condition. Increased heart rate is an established measure of sympathetic nervous system stimulation that signifies emotional arousal and was consistent with behavioral signs of stress in the dogs.

Conclusions: The authors concluded that human chemosignals (sweat smells) significantly influenced both the physiological status (heart rate) and behavior (primarily stress) of dogs. Their analysis indicated that the two emotions (happiness vs. fear) that were conveyed by the sweat samples each induced a set of consistently distinct behaviors in the dogs. While dogs are masters at picking up on our body cues and vocal signals, and often  react accordingly, the unique factor in this study was that the transfer of the emotional content of olfactory (scent)  signals occurred in the complete absence of visual (body language) or acoustic (voice) cues.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  The implications of these results for trainers are pretty clear. Not only should we be paying attention to the subtle body cues, facial expressions and vocal cues that our dogs perceive, we  perhaps should also be thinking about, um, how we (and others) smell. A dog who is reacting to an unfamiliar person may not only be paying attention to that individual’s body language, but also to cues that are (in most cases, we hope) completely imperceptible to us. So, if you are going out to train your dog after bingeing on watching Scream sequels, you may be best served to jump into the shower beforehand. Similarly, if you just watched Air Bud or Up, popping out for a bit of dog training after the movie is probably just fine and dandy. And, if you have a dog who, like Joe’s Cujo, seems to be reacting to the smell of fear in someone, well, hard as it is to admit; Joe may be right on this one. Your dog may actually be smelling fear.

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Semin GR, Alterisio A, Aria M, Scandurra A. Interspecies transmission of emotional information via chemosignals: From humans to dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), Animal Cognition 2017; DOI 10.1007/s10071-017-1139.

Read more about Neighbor Joe’s adventures in Linda Case’s newest book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“!

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; 143:17-24.

Read more about dog cognition, behavior and training in Linda Case’s new book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” (2018)

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.