The Many Faces of Resource Guarding

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

Ally and Treat & Train 2

TEACHING ALLY “TABLE’ USING A MANNERS MINDER

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

Oops.

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

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

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

foodbowlguarding3

NOT THE ONLY FACE OF RESOURCE GUARDING

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

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

Results: Several interesting findings were reported:

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

Take Away for Dog Folks

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

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

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

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

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

(Field) Dogs on the Beach

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

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

linda-mike-karen-dogs-on-beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

beach-with-karen-bob-and-dogs

FINAL MORNING ON THE BEACH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Away for Dog Folks

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

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

ally-jumping-in

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

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

Happy Training!

Cited Studies:

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

 

 

Digestibility Matters

In  “Dog Food Logic” and “Only Have Eyes for You“, I have emphasized (okay, some might say “harped upon”) the need for pet food companies to provide digestibility information to consumers. It is not a difficult value to determine and most pet food companies already conduct feeding trials that measure this (yet keep the results to themselves). As one of the most basic measures of food quality, digestibility provides essential information that can help dog owners to select the best food for their dog.

What is digestibility (and why does it matter)? To refresh, digestibility reflects a food’s ability to deliver essential nutrients to the dog who is eating it. This ultimately affects not only defecation quantity and quality (how much your dog poops and how the poop looks and smells), and a dog’s propensity for flatulence (no explanation needed), but more importantly, a dog’s longterm health and wellness. This graphic, presented in the essay, “Scoopin’ for Science“, summarizes how digestibility is measured using feeding trials with dogs.

Digest Trials

In case you have not noticed, it is that last step, “Provide Results to Consumers” that is glaringly absent from the dog food scene. But, I harp (again).

Onward. There is good news to tell.

Good vs. Poor Digestibility: The term digestibility coefficient refers to the percent of a food that the dog absorbs into his or her body during the process of digestion. As a rule of thumb, dry dog foods with digestibility values of 75 % or less will be of very poor quality, those with values between 75 and 82 % are classified as moderate in quality, and foods with digestibility values that are higher than 82 % are of high quality. If you see products with 88 % or more reported digestibility, you have a rock star.  (For a more detailed explanation of dog food digestibility, see “Dog Food Logic“).

The paradox lies in the fact that while many pet food companies routinely measure the digestibility of their products, they are not required to report this information to the people who buy their foods. Most do not provide this information even when it is directly requested. Digestibility matters (a lot), but we cannot judge foods with information that we do not have.

The good news is that two research studies measuring the digestibility of dog foods formulated with different types of protein sources were recently published by a group of animal nutritionists from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark (1,2). The first compared the digestibility of dog foods that used three common animal protein meals and the second compared the use of fresh chicken meat (aka “chicken first”) with poultry meal as protein sources in a dry food. Because all of the protein ingredients that the researchers examined are frequently found in commercial foods, their results may be helpful to you in your search for a quality food.

Like me, you may be surprised by what they found:

Lamb, fish, or poultry meal? In the first study, the investigators compared the protein and overall digestibility of three dry (extruded) dog foods that were formulated containing equivalent amounts of either lamb meal, fish meal or poultry meal (1). Because one of the objectives of their work was to determine if mink provide a suitable model for assessing pet food quality, they tested the foods in growing mink, adult mink and adult dogs.

Results: As a protein source, lamb meal showed significantly lower values for multiple measures of protein quality and essential amino acid content when compared with both poultry meal and fish meal. Even though all three diets were formulated to provide complete and balanced nutrition, the lamb meal diet was found to be deficient in the essential amino acid methionine, when digestibility was taken into account. Although differences between poultry and fish meals were not as dramatic, poultry meal was of lower quality than fish meal. As a protein source in dog food, fish meal had the highest values on almost all quality measures, including digestibility and essential amino acid content. When tested in adult dogs, the protein digestibility values of the three foods were 71.5, 80.2, and 87.0 for lamb meal, poultry meal and fish meal, respectively. Overall, this study suggests that, at least for the sources used in this work, the order of protein quality was lamb meal (poor), poultry meal (moderate), and fish meal (high). Additionally, although the reported level of lamb meal in the diet exceeded the minimum methionine requirement for adult dogs, the actual amount of methionine that was available to the dogs (i.e. was digested) was less than their minimum requirement for this nutrient.

lamb-meal-vs-poultry-vs-fish

LAMB MEAL IS SIGNIFICANTLY LOWER IN DIGESTIBILITY THAN POULTRY MEAL AND FISH MEAL WHEN INCLUDED IN AN EXTRUDED DRY DOG FOOD

Is fresh chicken better? The team’s second study is groundbreaking. It is the first to examine whether or not there is a demonstrated benefit to including “fresh” (frozen, actually) chicken in an extruded, dry dog food. This is important because the promotion of “fresh first” on pet food labels is frequently used as a claim for higher protein quality in the product. The researchers tested the digestibility and amino acid content of fresh, raw chicken (technically referred to as “raw mechanically separated chicken meat”) before processing (cooking) and then again after it was included in a dry dog food to replace about 25 percent of the product’s poultry meal. Because raw meat has been shown to be more digestible than dry rendered protein meals, it was hypothesized that including raw chicken in the dry food would indeed improve the foods digestibility by several percentage points. (Note: Because mink had been previously shown to be a suitable model for dogs, adult mink were used to test the diets).

Results:  As expected, when tested before processing the digestibility of raw chicken meat was significantly higher than that of rendered poultry meal (88.2 % vs. 80.9 %, respectively). However, when the raw chicken meat replaced 25 percent of the poultry meal in an extruded dry food, the digestibility of the food was not significantly improved  (81.3 vs. 80.3, respectively).  In addition, the digestibility of several essential amino acids was actually higher in the food containing only poultry meal than in the food that included the raw chicken meat.

chicken-not-better-than-poultry-meal

WHEN INCLUDED IN A DOG FOOD, FRESH (RAW) CHICKEN MEAT DOES NOT IMPROVE THE FOOD’S PROTEIN DIGESTIBILITY OR AMINO ACID AVAILABILITY COMPARED WITH POULTRY MEAL

Take Away for Dog Folks

Wow. The results of these two studies contradict several previously accepted (if never actually proven) dog food edicts. These are:

  1. Lamb meal is a high quality protein source for pet foods. Um, apparently not. The first study found that lamb meal was poorly digested (70.5 %) and provided inadequate levels of an essential amino acid, methionine after digestibility was taken into account.
  2. Named species meals are always superior to generic meals. This refers to the general rule of thumb that dog folks should always choose a food that uses chicken, turkey, salmon or lamb meals over the less specific meat, poultry or fish meals. At least regarding the animal-based protein sources used in these studies, choosing lamb over the generic poultry or fish may not get you the quality you are hoping for.
  3. Chicken first on the pet food label means higher quality (more digestible) protein: Nope again. While the digestibility of fresh chicken meat was higher than that of poultry meal when tested prior to processing, incorporating fresh chicken (as 25 percent of the protein source!) into an extruded food did not improve digestibility or lead to a higher quality product. The researchers speculated that this may have occurred because raw meat ingredients could be more susceptible to damage caused by the heating and drying processes of extrusion than are rendered protein meals. Regardless of the cause, it appears that “Chicken First’ may not be the marketing holy grail that pet food companies are promoting it to be.
soapbox

UP ON MY SOAP BOX

This is great information for dog folks to have. Many thanks to this team of researchers, among others (all notably at universities, not from pet food companies) who have been publishing scientific evidence regarding the protein quality, amino acid content, digestibility and safety of various dog food ingredients and products. We are grateful to you all and hope to see more of these types of studies. Although these do not (yet) go so far as to provide us answers to the most important question: “What is the digestibility of the  brand of food that I am feeding to my dog?” they provide needed and essential information.

I have said this many times before and will say it again:

If pet food manufacturers insist on telling us that their brands of food are expected to provide “complete and balanced nutrition” throughout our dogs’ lives, then providing a few very simple measures of the quality of those foods is not too much to ask.

The researchers of these papers agree. They finish the abstract of their first paper with this statement: “Furthermore, the study showed that to ensure nutritional adequacy of dog food and to be able to compare protein quality of dog foods, information of AA [amino acid] composition and digestibility is crucial“. [Emphasis mine].

So, pet food manufacturers……..are you listening? Time to step up and provide this information on your labels, websites, or at the very least, in response to direct inquiries.  In the meantime, I will continue to report and promote research studies that provide us with the information that we need to choose smart for our dogs.

Until next time, happy feeding and happy training!

Chip and His Cake

CHIPPY WONDERS ABOUT THE DIGESTIBILITY VALUES OF HIS CAKE

Cited Studies:

  1. Tjernsbekk MT, Tauson AH, Matthiesen Cf, Ahlostrom O. Protein and amino acid bioavailability of extruded dog food with protein meals of different quality using growing mink (Neovison vison) as a model. Journal of Animal Science 2016; 94:3796-3804.
  2. Tjernsbekk MT, TAuson AH, Kraugerus OF, Ahlstrom O. Raw, mechanically separated chicken meat and salmon protein hydrolysate as protein sources in extruded dog food: Effect on protein and amino acid digestibility. Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 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!

When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond

SITS ARE GREAT, BUT EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THEY DO NOT ENHANCE ADOPTION RATES

Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

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

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

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

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