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!

 

Congratulations, “Dog Smart” Raffle Winners!

Congratulations to the winners of the “Dog Smart” raffle. Each of our five winners will receive a free copy of Linda Case’s newest book,

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

  • Clarinda Arsenault, Oregon, WI, USA
  • Cathy Hughes, Amissville, VA, USA
  • Nancy McPhee, British Columbia, CA
  • Jo Sellers, Guildford, UK
  • Karen Warda, Asheboro, NC, USA

Gift copies have been ordered and should be received within a week to 10 days.  I hope that you enjoy the book. If you like it, please feel welcome to include a review on its Amazon Page! (Description and Table of Contents are below).

Book Description: Anyone who lives with and loves dogs knows that they are smart. Really smart. They understand our body language and emotions, can be trained to perform important services, are devoted companions, and enjoy walks, tricks, dog sports or just hangin’ out on the couch. So, how “Dog Smart” are you? What do you know or wish to know about the dog’s history, perceptions, understanding of humans, and responses to different training methods? These topics and more come under the scrutiny of the Science Dog in Linda Case’s latest myth-busting book. Learn to separate fact from fiction about the relationship between dogs and wolves, whether dominance should be a factor in dog training, what forms of reinforcement work best, and how to apply evidence-based training methods. “Dog Smart” will not only help you to be a better trainer, but will give you the tools for communicating the most current information about dogs to others – including the popular Science Dog character, neighbor Joe (who happens to know a lot about dogs).

About the Author: Linda Case is a well-known author and dog trainer who speaks world-wide about evidence-based dog training, behavior and nutrition. She taught at the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine for 20 years and owns AutumnGold Dog Training Center in Illinois. She writes the popular blog, The Science Dog (https://thesciencedog.wordpress.com/).

  

Science Dog Meets Clever Dog

In October, I had the opportunity to travel to the UK and work with Sarah Whitehead and her dog training school, the Clever Dog Company. Mike and I traveled together for the first half of the week and spent time  enjoying the sights of London (I was bizarrely fascinated with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace), and hiking along the Thames Path.  The week finished with two days of conference speaking and talking dogs with our training friends across the pond!

 

The Conference: On Saturday, I spoke about canine nutrition at Sarah’s annual Inner Circle Conference, where her school’s certified trainers met to network, learn, socialize, and of course, trade dog stories and experiences. On the second day, I presented a Master Class to a group of area trainers, veterinarians, dog walkers, pet sitters and dog enthusiasts about the science that supports our present-day training practices.

It was a fabulous weekend of sharing knowledge and learning about the exciting work that Sarah is accomplishing with local trainers and through Clever Dog Company’s on-line dog instructor training and certification program.  I loved meeting so many enthusiastic (and fun!) trainers and instructors and hearing about the many ways in which they are providing innovative training and other dog-related services in their communities. I came away excited, invigorated, and looking forward to going back!

Conference activities included an author’s book exchange. I was thrilled to receive Sarah’s book “Clever Dog: Understanding What Your Dog is Telling You” (review below) and her new booklet about training the wee ones, “Small Paws”. I gave Sarah copies of “Beware the Straw Man” and “Only Have Eyes for You“.

          

Clever Dog – A Great Read for Science Dog Fans! I read “Clever Dog” on the plane ride home and was immediately captivated by this entertaining, informative, and kind book. Not only does Sarah share her vast knowledge about dog behavior and training, but does so in such a way that conveys her deep love of dogs and consistent respect and kindness towards her clients, their owners. The book is divided into four sections, based upon our emotional and life-stage relationships with dogs – Life, Love, Heath, and Happiness. Each chapter begins with an example story of a client’s dog (I would say “case” but these are much too well-written and personal to be viewed in that clinical sense alone). Many involve problem behaviors and their solutions, while others relate to issues of care, health and daily life with dogs. Sarah provides current and well-founded (evidence-based!) solutions to these issues, always demonstrating compassion with the dogs and their owners, even in some rather tricky (and sometimes humorous) situations. Each chapter ends with a set of “Top Tips” that summarize information about canine behavior, training methods, behavior modification approaches and management practices for dog owners.

One of the many things that I love about this book is Sarah’s ability to interject dog history and science facts throughout her narrative. It is the mark of a great writer who can take academic information and make it interesting and entertaining for the average dog owner. Sarah succeeds at this again and again. This book is written to appeal to dog owners who love their dogs and who wish to understand them better and to train them with kindness. However, because of Sarah’s firm grounding in dog science, human psychology, and learning theory, this book will be of great value to dog trainers and other pet professionals as well. A great fireside read for the holidays!

Science Dog and Clever Dog Working Together! Sarah and I finished our time together with plans for collaboration. I would like to launch our initiative by extending a very generous offering from Sarah and her team at the Clever Dog Company to Science Dog readers. Clever Dog Company periodically offers complimentary educational videos to select folks – and this time, Science Dog fans win! A recording of Sarah’s recent webinar entitled  “Signals of Pre-emptive Aggression is available at the link below. This one-hour presentation examines factors in the progression of aggressive responses in dogs, various pre-emptors for aggression, and tips for understanding canine eye, head, mouth and body movements for a deeper understanding of canine behavior. Both Sarah and I hope that you enjoy this webinar!

 

The Many Faces of Resource Guarding

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

Ally and Treat & Train 2

TEACHING ALLY “TABLE’ USING A MANNERS MINDER

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

Oops.

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

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

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

foodbowlguarding3

NOT THE ONLY FACE OF RESOURCE GUARDING

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

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

Results: Several interesting findings were reported:

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

Take Away for Dog Folks

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the (Caregiver) Placebo Effect

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

placebo-comic

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

placebo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cognitive-dissonance

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

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

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

CITED STUDIES:

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

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

Beware Straw Man Cover

Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge)

Happy New Year from The Science Dog!

To start the year off, I am participating for the first time in The Pet Blogger Challenge that is organized by the travel site, Go Pet Friendly. Many thanks to my friend Eileen Anderson for alerting me to this annual event. Below are this year’s queries and my responses. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about The Science Dog!

  1. When did you start your blog and, for anyone who is just seeing it for first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience? Answer: I created The Science Dog in September of 2013, shortly before the publication of my fifth book, “Dog Food Logic“. The purpose of The Science Dog is to provide up-to-date, evidence-based information to dog folks and pet professionals about dog training, behavior and nutrition. My focus is primarily on original scientific research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals. I try to find studies whose results are relevant to trainers and dog owners and then summarize these in what I hope is a “user-friendly” style. Oh, and yeah, sometimes I editorialize a bit.

    soapbox

    GETTIN’ UP ON THE OL’ BOX

  2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016? Answer: I published the second Science Dog book in July of 2016, entitled “Only Have Eyes for You“. Both writing and promoting it has been a lot of fun! My husband Mike designed the cover for the book (as he did for “Beware the Straw Man“), and I was especially tickled that he used a photo of four of our dogs, posed in our garden. The oldest girl, Cadie, has since passed away, so this photo is very near and dear to my heart.

    Cadie Chip Vinny Cooper May 2013

    CHIPPY, VINNY, CADIE AND COOPER

  3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.) Answer: I enjoyed writing all of the posts, especially the nutrition essays, as I had focused the first two years of the blog on topics related to behavior and training. In 2015, I started to include more essays about nutrition and feeding practices. However, my personal favorite of 2016 has to be “The Perfect Dog“, because it reviews two recent papers that provide some insight into the gap between what people think a dog should be versus who dogs actually are (and also, to some degree, places the responsibility for this exactly where it lies).       Unrealistic Expectations
  4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog? Answer: I use FaceBook quite a bit, and have a FB Science Dog page that gives dog folks access to the blog and allows readers to chat and to contact me directly. I love to hear from readers, especially when they have ideas for new science-based topics for the blog! (hint-hint).
  5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts? Answer: The essay that received the largest number of hits (~ 18,000) was “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it“. Catchy  little title aside, I think that it resonated with shelter professionals because it presents a set of research studies conducted by Alexandra Protopopova’s team that both challenged a prevailing belief about training and adoption rates and presented some unique solutions that may be more effective as predictors of dogs’ chances for adoption.   Sit Ubu
  6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.) Answer: There are a number of dog-related blogs that I follow regularly and enjoy. Two that are among the best are Eileen Anderson’s not-to-be-missed essays about dog training at EileenandDogs and Julie Hecht’s excellent research summaries at Dog Spies.
  7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them? Answer: What my readers may not know (but all of my friends do) is that while I hold a Masters Degree in Canine/Feline Nutrition, I cannot cook a human food meal to save my life. I started volunteering two years ago at our local soup kitchen, The Daily Bread, and the other volunteers quickly learned this little secret. I am now a designated dish-washer and happily report that I excel at that particular task, keeping everyone safe (and well fed).

    daily-bread-people-2

    SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SOUP KITCHEN! 

  8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers? Answer: Not to point any political fingers (interpret this as you like), but my advice to other writers (and citizens) is: Don’t lie and stick to the facts that have evidence to support them.    just-the-facts-maam-2
  9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017? Answer: The biggest challenge that I may have in 2017 is finding enough time to work on all of the writing and dog training projects that I am excited about. I am currently writing a new dog training book that presents evidence-based training and the applications that we use at our training school, AutumnGold, plus developing a few new training courses with several of AutumnGold’s instructors and writing essays for The Science Dog (many of which will appear, in some form, in the new book). Add in training and enjoying time with my own dogs, and it looks like it will be a busy and fun year!

    Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms

    PLATFORM TRAINING AT AUTUMNGOLD!

  10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Answer: Thanks to GoPetFriendly for sponsoring this blog challenge and hop! This is a Blog Hop!