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.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dogs and brains link fest

Here's what I've been reading and tweeting about this week (in between scrambling to get an NSF grant proposal submitted):

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dogs and brains link fest

I've been doing a lot of writing, actually, but none of it on this blog. Right now I'm working on an NSF grant proposal. This is really exciting for our lab, but it's a lot of writing! I'm also working on a piece for the writing group I was assigned to as part of attending the upcoming ComSciCon-Chicago, a science communication conference, and I just recently submitted another story to a dog-focused magazine (I'll report here when it's published).

As a result, I haven't found the time to write any new blog posts. But there's lots of other stuff for you to read out there, and I report the best of what I find on my Twitter feed. Here are some recent ones:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Learn Science free online!

There’s lots of science out there to read about on the internet these days (so go get reading)! For people who came to science after their formal schooling is over, it can be hard to know how to get the basics to understand all this stuff. And I do think it’s important to understand the basics — a solid knowledge of biology is invaluable when you’re trying to figure out if the findings that a starry-eyed science journalist is reporting are as important as they sound, and whether the journalist’s coverage of them is critical enough. (Uncritical science reporting? Oh yeah. There is way too much of it in the world.)

So how do you go about learning Science? Here are some upcoming free online courses that I recommend to you. By the way, if you are a certified trainer or behavior consultant, I recommend you ask your CEU distributor of choice to give you CEUs for taking these classes. They are absolutely relevant.

Animal Behaviour, University of Melbourne (Coursera)

Starts: June 1

This course is about the behavior of wild animals and about the academic study of animal behavior. It’s a different perspective than the applied behavior approach that most trainers are familiar with. According to the course web page, it covers the following topics:
  • Behaviour, Ecology and Natural Selection
  • Genes, Environment and Learning
  • Finding food and avoiding predators
  • Communication
  • Sexual selection and sperm competition
  • Mating systems and sex allocation
  • Parental care and conflict
  • Social behaviour
 Coursera courses are free, but if you want a certificate that proves you took the course, you will have to pay $50.

Essential Human Biology: Cells and Tissues (EdX)

Starts: June 10

Cells: the things that send information around the brain; the things that make and secrete hormones; the things that are responsible for every part of our life. Whenever I teach about neurobiology or hormones to trainers, I wish I could depend on them having a solid cell biology background!

Just as above, EdX courses are free but you must pay $50 if you want a verified certificate.

Introduction to Psychology, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School (EdX)

Starts: June 15; self-paced

I loved taking basic psychology. I’m sure this course will be quite human-focused, but some of the concepts are applicable to other mammals as well. Others are perhaps applicable to working with the human side of the equation. This course reports to cover:
  • An understanding of what psychology is and its history
  • How brain structures function and how neurotransmitters influence behavior
  • Concepts of how we learn as well as components of emotion
  • How a child's mind and personality develops
  • Discover classifications of abnormal behaviors
This course is “self-paced,” meaning that you can take it at your own pace over the course of several months if you so choose. Price as above.

If you think you might take one of these, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Can a supplement improve a dog's response to training?

Ah, the sharp focus of a German shepherd.

When I was in veterinary school, my roommate had a dog nicknamed Mr. C who had some focus issues. (She still has him, but is sadly no longer my roommate.) We used to joke that C had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); he just had an extreme case of not being able to keep his mind on one thing for any length of time. Training him was challenging. Hed get excited and then seemed to be unable to absorb new ideas.

I thought of C when a former student of mine, Melissa Hartley, pointed me at this article:

Kano, Masaaki, et al. "Oral tyrosine changed the responses to commands in German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers but not in Toy Poodles." Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research (2015).


Although ADHD isn’t a formal diagnosis in dogs currently, the authors of this paper hypothesized that a dog’s focus during training may affect their learning just as a human child’s focus can affect their learning. Human children with ADHD seem to have differences in levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline in their bodies, and their learning abilities appear to improve when they are given medication to modify those levels. The authors hypothesized further that giving dogs a supplement which is a building block of adrenaline and noradrenaline could improve their response to training by improving their ability to respond to the task at hand.

Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is the hormone that you can feel shooting through your body when you’re startled, during the fight-or-flight response. Noradrenaline (norepinephrine) is a close cousin with similar effects. It seems counter-intuitive that giving a hyperactive child (or dog) a supplement to increase this hormone which is associated with being overly excited should help them focus, and yet this is the pathway that Ritalin (methylphenidate) uses quite successfully to help children with ADHD improve their focus. The brain is a complicated organ, and the effects of moderating particular substances in different areas are unfortunately not always intuitive.

This study looked at the effects of supplementing dogs with tyrosine, an amino acid which is known to increase the levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the brain. The question asked in this study was: would supplementing dogs with tyrosine improve their response to training?

The study methods

Three breeds of dogs were tested in the study: German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and toy poodles. The GSDs and labs were at a training facility for police dogs, while the toy poodles were at a different type of facility. All dogs received three training sessions to learn to sit. Then some of them received a daily tyrosine supplement for three days, and a control group did not. At the end of the three days, both groups were trained again. Urine samples were taken both before and after each training session to test for levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the urine.

The training approach appears to have been based on operant conditioning: capturing the sit behavior via a food reward and associating it with a verbal cue.

The results

Dogs were divided into high achievement versus low achievement groups based on the number of times the dog sat after being given the cue. High achievement dogs sat frequently after receiving the cue, suggesting a better response to training in this group.

The urine of all dogs was tested before tyrosine supplementation. Levels in the urine of the toy poodles were significantly lower than the levels in the urine of the GSDs and labs. The poodles also appear to have responded correctly to the sit cue less often than the GSDs and labs in the initial training sessions, though this data isn’t clearly represented.

After three days of tyrosine supplementation, dogs were trained again and compared to control dogs who did not receive supplementation. Did dogs given tyrosine improve in their response to training, compared to dogs who were not?
  • German shepherds: yes
  • Labrador retrievers: yes
  • Toy poodles: no
And they really did improve: the tyrosine-supplemented GSDs and labs responded to the sit command correctly about twice as many times as did the control dogs. The poodles’ performance actually improved a little as well, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Why the breed differences in response?

Why did the GSDs and the labs seem to respond so well to the tyrosine supplementation, and the poodles did not?

Now, with caveats that looking at urinary levels of adrenaline is not the same thing as looking at brain levels of adrenaline (it’s just a lot less invasive to do), it’s very interesting that the toy poodles had lower levels of adrenaline before supplementation than the GSDs and labs did, and that their response to supplementation was different. If we take as a given that toy poodles are harder to train than German shepherds (and I’m pretty comfortable saying that, just from what I know about the two breeds), could part of the reason be a difference in brain levels of adrenaline making it harder for the toy poodles to focus?

Why wouldn’t the toy poodles respond better to the supplementation, then? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the adrenaline pathways in toy poodles function so differently from those of the other two breeds that the supplementation was just insufficient. It’s also possible, of course, that there were confounding factors in this study — for example, the fact that the toy poodles were being raised in a very different environment from the police dogs in training.

Will tyrosine supplementation help my dog focus better?

Who knows? This was an initial study. If you think that your dog is difficult to train because of focus issues, my first suggestion to you would be to make sure you’re making training fun and providing sufficient incentive (treats, opportunities to play).

I would have loved to have seen video of the training techniques used in this study. Were they good techniques, or perhaps could have different techniques been just as effective as tyrosine supplementation?

Was tyrosine supplementation actually effective in these dogs? I’d want to see another study or two looking at more breeds before I was comfortable with the results of this one. Again, it’s hard to trust just a single study; there could be factors at play that don’t come out until the hypothesis has been tested in more situations.

If you really want to pursue this supplementation, be sure to do so with your veterinarian’s approval so you don’t jeopardize your dog’s health.