Do Dogs Have a Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the  phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

It’s hardwired: We cannot easily escape negativity bias. Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones.

Why do we have it? Our negativity bias is thought to have evolved as a method for keeping ourselves and those we love out of harm’s way. Think about it like this – your chances of survival are greater if you have a natural tendency to pay more attention to things that may be harmful to you, than if you exist with a more rose-colored view of the world and attend more readily to things that are pleasurable and harmless. Missing the lethal stuff can be, well, lethal (which means that you did not stay around long enough to reproduce and pass along your rosy view of the world to your offspring). In addition to wreaking havoc on our self-esteem, the negativity bias helps to explain why humans love to gossip and why we have a tendency to remember (and sometimes repeat) negative information about others.

NEGATIVITY BIAS BAGGAGE

We tilt towards negative because it was a trait that enhanced survival. The psychological baggage and tendency to gossip came along for the ride.

Negativity bias with dogs: Negativity bias also rears its ugly head during interactions with our dogs, most commonly when owners react only to their dog’s undesirable behaviors (jumping up, chewing, barking) and ignore desirable behaviors. This mindset puts the owner into the position of having to do something to stop, change, or redirect the unwanted behavior. And yet, the same owner often neither notices nor reacts to her dog when he is sitting (not jumping), enjoying his own chew toy (not destroying the TV remote), or lying quietly (not barking). Many trainers, including myself, encourage our students to resist this tendency and focus on attending to and reinforcing the desired behaviors that their dogs offer throughout the day. However, this is a lesson that we must repeat again and again because of the negativity bias – it is our human habit to be more sensitive to negative information than positive, and this includes experiences with our dogs.

Do dogs have it? Since it is theorized that negativity bias evolved as a survival trait, we would expect to see it in other animals. So, do dogs have it? A group of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab of the University of Vienna published a recent paper that offers some clues.

The Study: The researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs, a basic form of empathy in which an individual unconsciously matches the emotional state of another. Previous work has shown that dogs express emotional contagion with both other dogs and with humans. They also can show sympathetic concern, a form of empathy that is one rung up on the cognitive complexity ladder (see “I Feel Your Pain“). However, all of the previous studies with dogs have focused on their reactions to distress signals only. In this new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether dogs emotionally differentiate between vocalizations that signify distress (negative emotional state) and those that reflect happiness or joy (positive emotional state).

What they did: A group of 51 pet dogs and their owners participated in the study and were tested individually. In each session,  four different acoustic (sound) recordings were played to the dog with the owner present. The test recordings included positive and negative human vocalizations (laughing and crying, respectively) and  positive and negative dog vocalizations (play barks and isolation whines, respectively). The control recording was sounds recorded from the dogs’ natural environment. During the testing, dogs were off-lead and allowed to roam freely in the room while the owner sat quietly in a chair, reading a magazine (i.e. not interacting with the dog). The dog’s behavioral responses to each sound recording were videotaped and analyzed.

What they found: The design of this study allowed the researchers to compare dogs’ responses when exposed to recordings of both humans and dogs and when they heard vocalizations that expressed positive (laughing, play barks) or negative (crying, whining) emotions:

  • Presence of emotional contagion (empathy): When exposed to any of the four types of emotional sounds, the dogs became more attentive to the direction of the sound, moved toward the sound, approached their owner, and showed signs of arousal. They did not react in this way to the control sounds.
  • Dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information: When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog. Species did not matter – the dogs were more sensitive to distress sounds than they were to happy sounds. They also “matched” the negative emotions with their own stress, with both humans and other dogs.
  • Negativity bias? In addition to these data showing that dogs are capable of distinguishing between positive and negative vocalizations and reacting accordingly, they suggest the presence of a negativity bias in dogs, similar to what we experience as humans.  The authors state: “…it is plausible that the contagious effect of negative emotions, which indicate aversive or dangerous situations, affect others’ behavioral responses more than positive ones“.

Take Away for Dog Folks: The dog training implications of these results are pretty obvious. After all, we know that the fallout of living with negativity bias is not pleasant. Evolutionary benefits aside, this is a bias that most humans would be happy to be rid of.

Knowing that dogs  are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

Like us, dogs may suffer from the fallout of negativity bias.

MARGE SHARES THE LATEST NEIGHBORHOOD GOSSIP WITH MABEL

Cited Study: Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay

AUTUMNGOLD STUDENTS USE GESTURES AND VERBAL CUES WHILE PRACTICING DOWN STAYS

All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.

Results:

  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called

COMING WHEN CALLED IS DOTTI’S PREFERRED BEHAVIOR!

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.