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!

 

Spring into Learning – Come to IAABC in Boston!

2018 is already shaping up into a great year for dog training conferences and courses! Starting in February, two friends from across the pond, Sarah Whitehead and Oli Juste attended Dr. Susan Friedman and Steve Martin’s  Contemporary Animal Training and Management  course and returned with great stories and rave reviews of this intensive week-long workshop. If you are a dog trainer and interested in both the science and the art of training whilst expanding your expertise to working with new species, this is the course for you!

     

                    Sarah Whitehead                                                           Oli Juste

And just this past weekend, we had Clicker Expo in St. Louis, MO. I attended with three of our AutumnGold instructors and returned feeling challenged, inspired, and motivated. If you are a training geek and have never been to a Clicker Expo, put it on your bucket list. These are simply not to be missed.

         

           Clicker Expo Begins!                                    Ken Ramirez & Bob Ryder 

Still looking for a great conference to clear out the winter cobwebs and jump into spring?

Fear not! April has something great to offer as well!

Friday – Sunday, April 19 – 21, 2018, the IAABC Animal Behavior Conference, Burlington (Boston), Massachusetts

 Noteworthy Features:

  • Multi-species Tracts: IAABC offers Dog, Cat, Parrot and “All Species” tracks, along with concept-based topics such as genetics, nutrition, animal welfare, applied behavior analysis, best practices for businesses, and resiliency building.
  • Flexible Scheduling:  The conference is organized to allow for attendees to learn about a variety of species, using an a la carte menu rather than requiring commitment to a single track or species.
  • Focus on Science: IAABC is dedicated to evidence-based training. Speakers focus on best practices and present the latest science of their fields.
  • Fear Free: A full day (pre-conference) is dedicated to fear-free certification, aimed at veterinarians and behavior professionals.

Details:
• Single and multiple day registration is available
• Discount rates for hotel rooms; discounted registration fees for IAABC members
• Location: Burlington Marriott Hotel, Boston, MA.
• CEUs for RACE, CCPDT, KPA, IAABC, IACP, NADOI, PPG, Fear Free

Hope to See You There!

The Science Dog Hits the Road!

Hello Science Dog Readers,

Just a quick note to let you know that the Science Dog (aka Linda Case) is going on the road for several upcoming speaking engagements, starting in October. If you enjoy reading The Science Dog blog and reading my books, this is a chance for us to meet in person and talk about the topics that we all love – Dogs and Science!

Here are details and links for more information:

Saturday, October 21, 2017 – Sarah Whitehead’s Clever Dog Company’s Annual Inner Circle Conference, London, England

Sunday, October 22, 2017 – Clever Dog Company Conference, Masterclass (full-day seminar):

Friday – Sunday, January 19 – 21, 2018 – Animal Events UK Puppy Conference, Birmingham, England:

Friday – Sunday, April 19 – 21, 2018, IAABC Animal Behavior Conference, Burlington (Boston), Massachusetts.

HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

Does this Smell Funny to You?

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

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

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

MAGPIES PASS IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off of soap box. Back to pee jokes.

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

Why We Click

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

More and more animal trainers are using it.

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

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

PUPPY COOPER HEELING FOR CLICKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICKER TRAINING IS REPORTED TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION WITH OUR DOGS

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

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

PROFESSIONALS ONLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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!