Saturday, November 7, 2015

Birthday ruminations

I turn 42 today. (This year, I will be the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.) Jack, my golden retriever, is 14 or 15 — an old man. When I got him, he was “two or three,” and I was 29. When I turned thirty, I asked him if I was still cool, and I still remember how he replied that I was obviously the coolest person in the world. Back then, I figured he was the mental equivalent of a young adult, like a human in their early twenties, just getting comfortable with being a grown-up, but still having days when you realize you were a kid not all that long ago.

A few years later Jack and I were the same age: I was in my thirties and he felt like he was too. He needed a lot more exercise than I did but both of us had bodies that mostly worked fine (modulo some back problems for me and some minor seizures for him). We got much of our exercise together on long walks.

Jack in his "thirties."

Then one day I realized he was ten and getting older. He didn’t have as much need to run as he used to. I panicked at the thought of losing him, something that had seemed so far off and suddenly had started to loom. So I got a second dog. (A lot more thought went into Jenny’s arrival, but that was part of it.)

Jenny was a year old when I got her, a baby with an adult sized body. She had been poorly (or not at all) socialized and had a lot of learning to do about the world. We bonded closely and I felt so much like her mom in a way I hadn’t felt about Jack for a long time. He and I were more like peers.

Jenny shortly after she came to live with me.

Today Jenny is 6 and I’m realizing she is finally starting to get close to my mental age. She’s physically in her prime and needs lots of time to run. I’m trying to stay fit and noticing that it’s a little harder to do than it was in my twenties. Jack is fighting off creakiness. For a 15 year old golden he’s doing great, still enjoying coming to the park (at a walking, not running, pace). He recently started underwater treadmill sessions at the local veterinary hospital and has experienced a surge of energy as a result. But his body is starting to betray him: his allergies have progressed as his immune system ages, he’s more and more deaf, and he’s not as eager to wrestle with Jenny as in times gone by.

Time passes. I love these dogs so much.

Jack and Jenny in 2015.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What goes on in puppy brains during the socialization period?

Puppy cuteness!
Ever wondered why puppies make and generalize associations so much more easily than adult dogs? Why it is so important to socialize puppies during their first three months -- what is different in their brains after that?

Me too, and I am going to undertake to try to give some answers (as best I can given there's a lot we still don't know about this stuff).

So come listen to me hold forth on socialization, one of my favorite topics, this Wednesday October 28, 8-9 EDT at a Pet Professionals Guild webinar. It is worth 1 CEU for those who keep track of that sort of thing. I promise to do my best to make it a lot of fun.

Learn About the Biology of Socialization with Dr. Jessica Hekman.

If you can't watch live on Wednesday, you can watch the archived version after (but not before, we don't have time travel yet).

Questions about whether it's up your alley? Feel free to ask in comments on this blog!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Heroes of the Zombieverse: Ed Yong

I had intended to cover some more researcher heroes of my world before switching over to the brilliant science communicators. But then Ed Yong posted about the most recent dog domestication research, and he did it so brilliantly that I had to write about him now instead of later.

Ed Yong (image from Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Most people aren’t going to read the original studies for all the science they’re interested in. This is partly because it’s hard to keep track on your own of everything that's happening in the world of science and partly because not everyone has access to all the brand-new studies and partly because not everyone can understand them. (I understand some of them in some fields, but there are certainly more out there that I don’t fully get than that I do.)

So we rely on science journalists (and video makers and podcasters and others). We rely on these people to find the interesting stories. We rely on them to tell us why the stories are interesting. And we rely on them to put the right spin on the story: to not blow it out of proportion.

Ed Yong excels at all three of these things. He says that he covers “the wow beat,” meaning stories that are weird and unexpected. But he covers the usual fare as well, and he does so exceptionally well. He finds the humor and keeps you reading, but he doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to suck you in by over-hyping the story he’s covering. He puts the story in the right context, and that’s just really hard to do for someone who isn’t a researcher in the field. Ed isn’t a researcher in any field and yet he manages to cover many fields with insight and panache.

Yesterday Ed published a story in which he covered a recent paper about where dogs were domesticated. Most journalists cover these papers (which come out several times a year) with the breathless report that now, finally, we have found the birthplace of the dog! Ed, however, takes a step back and tells us how this newest paper fits into the long history of other papers which have pinpointed the origin of the dog on several continents and across tens of thousands of years.

I forwarded the story to a fellow graduate student, who reads dog papers every week with me and who does her own research into canid domestication. She commented: “He is my new favorite science writer - totally nailed it.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Talking about shelter behavior assessments

Today I presented at APDT's 2015 conference on shelter behavior assessments. It's incredibly important to be able to identify dangerous dogs when they come into shelters so we don't put them on the adoption floor, and to be able to identify dogs who we can perhaps help improve their behavior while in the shelter.

Or is it? I talked for three hours -- well, not quite three hours; my amazing audience helped out with some really fascinating discussion -- about how shelter behavior assessments aren't really all that good at identifying dogs who are just sorta likely to be aggressive. They're great at identifying really aggressive dogs and they're great at identifying really safe dogs -- but then again, we don't really need their help at that as it isn't all that hard to do. What neither these tests nor us humans are great at is identifying the in between, hard to categorize dogs.

I argued that we should continue to perform shelter behavioral assessments on dogs because those interactions with dogs give us more information about the dogs' personalities, and that information is useful. What we really should not do is use these tests as yes-no decision making tools for deciding the dogs' fate. They are not decision making tools; they are information gathering tools. One of the other main themes of the talk was that assessing a dog's personality is something that should be done by someone with plenty of dog experience, not the shelter staff member who read the behavioral assessment guidelines once and figures that's all she needs.

After the talk I said hi to Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council and she basically said, Hey, fun talk, but I really think we shouldn't be doing behavior assessments on shelter dogs at all. I've asked lots of competent shelter staff if they know which of the dogs in their shelters are dangerous, and they say sure they do. I've asked if it was a behavioral assessment that helped them figure that out and they say it never has been. It's been the dog's interactions with staff and volunteers.

I replied that we really need to collect as much information as possible about shelter dogs, not to identify the easy to identify extreme cases, but to identify the harder to identify in between cases -- the dog who isn't aggressive to all dogs, just certain dogs, for example.

She said sure, but she still thinks a better way of collecting that information is through careful, possibly structured documentation of the interactions of the various shelter staff and volunteers with the dog during its time in the shelter. That's what we should be focusing on.

Now, I am absolutely down with recording as much data as possible about a shelter dog's behavior. But advocating against formal behavioral assessments, even in shelters that have the resources to do them? My heart isn't quite there yet, but it's an interesting idea. If you have opinions, feel free to weigh in in the comments or on Twitter!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Heroes of the Zombieverse: Robert Sapolsky

If a rat is a good model for your emotional life, you're in big trouble. - Robert M. Sapolsky

When I first decided I wanted to go back to school to learn about dog behavior, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to study. I just didn't know enough biology to know how to frame my questions. I clearly remember one day talking to a PhD student about my interests, and she said: "Have you heard of the HPA axis?" I shook my head and she said (a bit darkly), "You will."

The HPA axis is the set of hormonal processes that govern the mammalian stress response, and Robert Sapolsky is its king. He didn't discover it (Hans Selye set that train in motion when he isolated cortisol), but he is the great explainer of what it means for your body and brain to have long term stress. His talk on stress, depression, and neurobiology is a dizzying hour in which he weaves together the effects of hormones and neurotransmitters on different brain regions and leaves you with a deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying depression and how much we have left to learn about how to cure it.

He brings a dry sense of humor to his work, making even his peer-reviewed publications a fun read. I tweeted last week about the latest Sapolsky offering in which he discussed the role of connections between neurons in the amygdala in anxiety disorders: "The road to a crippling anxiety disorder is paved with perky amygdaloid synapses." First use of the word "perky" in a scientific paper? Perhaps at least its first use to describe a synapse.

He's a committed science communicator, publishing books and magazine articles and making his behavioral biology course at Stanford free on YouTube. He seems to be writing somewhat regularly for Nautilus these days. If you want to learn about what stress is and what it does to your body, I recommend his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which was my introduction to the biology of stress lo these many years ago.

So yeah, he studies baboons and he writes about humans. And he talks a lot about the ways in which humans are different from other animals.  But these mechanisms of how stress affects the brain and the body, the health consequences of high stress levels, exactly what is different about the brains of really anxious individuals... these questions are absolutely relevant to dogs. For his work on these questions, for his passion for science communication, and for his quirky personality, Sapolsky gets to be the first of the Dog Zombie heroes in this series.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Heroes of the Zombieverse: the series

The desktop background of our media server (the Linux computer hooked up to our TV set from which we watch videos) is an homage to rock star scientists:
Source: tumblr
(Actually until a few minutes ago it was a much less cool version with only 12 names, but when I went searching for the original to link to it I found this, which I liked a lot better, so I made the swap.)

Sometimes I look at these icons and I think about the contributions each of these individuals made to different branches of science. And then I think, "If I could make my own list of influential scientists, who would be on it?"

Now, time was, this blog was my only outlet for science communication. Every time I got an itch to write about something, it went here. But these days I have lots of places to write, places where I reach a lot more people than this blog. My story about non-surgical cat contraception is on magazine stands right now in a Scientific American special edition; I have two stories at two other magazines working their way through the copy edit/publication process; I'm presenting at the APDT 2015 conference; and I have an upcoming webinar for PPG. So lately when I get an itch to write or talk about something, it ends up elsewhere.

But I miss writing for this blog, and I miss writing in a more free-form style instead of trying to say everything Exactly Right. So I am throwing down the gauntlet to myself: start a series in which I post at least once a week (hopefully more often) about the heroes of the zombieverse. Brownie points to anyone who can predict any of them before I write about them!

And I know we haven't had a very interactive community on this blog, probably in large part because I post so rarely, but if you were so moved as to comment about your personal heroes -- scientists, dog trainers, science communicators, or others -- I'd love to hear about them.

Wish me luck with finding time to write!

Jenny: "Shhh. I'm hunting squirrels."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Living with a shy dog: the house full of spiders

I’m lying on my bed, cuddling with the person I love most in the world, periodically eating chocolates. And yet I’m shaking with fear. Just one flight of stairs away from me, the bottom floor of my house is teeming with spiders. Big ones, small ones, masses of them, crawling all over each other, completely covering the floor in a sheet of black. My loved one tells me not to worry. Why would the spiders come up here? I'm being silly. Yet I can’t relax. Who is to say what a spider might do?

No, that didn't actually happen. What did happen was this: I had my shy dog Jenny upstairs in bed with me and I fed her little smelly meaty dog treats while she shivered in terror. Outside, our tenant was moving out, and burly men were carrying boxes and pieces of furniture down the driveway. I knew none of these men were going to come inside, pin Jenny down, and extract her organs, but somehow she couldn’t believe that. Every time I found myself getting frustrated at her over the top reaction to these men from whom she was completely safe, I reminded myself about my vision of the room teeming with spiders. Who am I to say what will happen? Who am I to say what is terrifying?

Jenny, always alert!

Jenny barks in fear when my husband comes home. She loves him, and after her initial startle, she comes up to him to be petted. My husband sometimes gets (only so slightly) frustrated with her: she knows it’s him! She loves him! So why is she scared every time he comes through the door? I imagine what I'd feel if my loved one had a habit of coming home waving a large gun in my face. Even if I knew intellectually that he had no intention of firing it, I’d still feel deep apprehension. I think that the sound of the opening door is as scary to Jenny as the sight of a loaded gun would be to me. When I’m feeling unsympathetic to her fears, it helps me to translate them into images that are as viscerally compelling to me as her fears clearly are to her.

We continue to give her treats and reassurance when something scary happens, to teach her how to relax in the face of her fears, and to provide her with both daily and as-needed medications to aid her brain in processing her fears. Over the years, she is gradually becoming an entirely different dog. But it’s an ongoing process.

Jenny, learning to relax with a loved one.