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). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2014.12.009


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.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Should dog training be 100% positive?

This dog is clearly enjoying being trained.

There's been an interesting discussion recently on a mailing list for animal behavior consultants and hangers-on like myself. (The group is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, IAABC.) These highly-skilled behavior consultants are knowledgeable in how to deal with behavior problems in dogs and other species, rather than focusing on basic obedience or competition skills like agility.

As you may already know, the modern dog training world can be described as split into two factions: those who advocate methods using dominance theory and/or force, such as alpha rolls or leash popping, and those who advocate methods using learning theory and specifically operant conditioning, such as clicker training.The behavior consultants on this list all fall solidly into the latter category, and all agree that the basis of training should not be founded on punishment-based techniques. They are hashing out the question: Is it ever appropriate to use aversives in training a dog?

Because the two factions split mainly on the use of punishment, it can be easy to fall into black-and-white thinking and assume that any aversive is unacceptable, and equate all aversives with pain and fear. But does “aversive” necessarily mean “painful”?

An aversive is something unpleasant. Give an animal something pleasant (a treat) and it will be more likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (sitting down). Give an animal something unpleasant (a tug on a prong collar) and it will be less likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (lunging at a passing dog). Both techniques work in getting the desired behavior. Techniques using an aversive stimulus may have side effects, however — in this example, a dog who lunges at passing dogs out of fear may learn to associate pain from the prong collar with other dogs. While he may stop lunging, he is likely to develop other unwanted behaviors, like biting when the other dog approaches close enough.

Pain and fear are absolutely aversives, and I think everyone in this discussion is agreed that pain and fear should be avoided — that some aversives are just too aversive to use. Many trainers in the discussion declare that they would never use a shock collar; some say they might, but only under extreme circumstances, after many other approaches have been tried and failed. Where do you draw the line at “too aversive,” though? That’s a very interesting question, and different trainers have different answers. But can you be a trainer who works in the positive training camp, and still sometimes uses aversives? For sure.

And here’s the thing: it’s the dog who determines what’s aversive. So some tools that we think of as very mild, like a head halter, can end up being quite aversive for some dogs. A head halter — that’s nothing like a prong collar or a shock collar or a choke chain, and it doesn’t hurt the dog at all. But it is (according to many dogs, including one of mine) incredibly annoying to have on your nose. Is it aversive? Yes. Is it inhumane? That’s an awfully strong word for such an innocuous device. But if you use a head halter on your dog, you are not engaging in 100% positive training. You are using a (mild) aversive. Not one that probably involves pain or fear, but an aversive all the same.

And it turns out it’s pretty difficult to train successfully using no aversives at all! Even telling a dog “that wasn’t the right choice” by using a marker like “oops!” during your training can be a mild aversive. Is it okay to train with mild aversives? Everyone has to answer that question for themself, but from my perspective, of course it is. Life has its ups and downs and everyone is going to encounter mild obstacles from time to time, even a pampered dog. The question is how big an aversive you want to throw at your dog, where exactly you draw the line between acceptable and not. That line will be drawn differently for every owner and every trainer.

So when you’re choosing a new trainer for your dog, remember that some will advertise that they use 100% positive methods, but they may not have quite thought through the implications of all of their methods. Others may state that they’re not 100% positive, but that they still use mostly positive methods — and that’s okay. As your dog’s owner and advocate, it’s up to you to talk to your potential new trainer about their methods, discover what kinds of aversives they do use, and decide what’s acceptable for your dog. Just work through the language your trainer uses to make sure that the kinds of aversives they use are at a level that’s acceptable to you, and of course make sure that they use scientifically-based learning theory (look for words like “positive reinforcement” and avoid words like “alpha” and “dominant”). As a dog loving community, we can agree that the use of aversives should be minimized, while still accepting that from time to time it’s okay to use mild ones.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A week of tame foxes

“You're checked all the way through to... some place I can't pronounce,” said the woman who was checking me in at my small local airport in Illinois.

Novosibirsk. It is the third largest city in Russia, located in south-western Siberia. It is the location of the Novosibirsk State University, one of the best universities in Russia, where the Institute of Cytology and Genetics maintains Belyaev’s tame foxes.

(You may already know about the fox domestication project, but if you don’t, Wikipedia has a good primer, and Jason Goldman has written about them.)

The Institute is actually in Academic City (Akademgorodok), a suburb of Novosibirsk. Academic City is an odd blend of the European — my hotel would not have been out of place in France — and the Russian, with its thick stands of birch and fir. During my early April visit, there was still three or four feet of packed snow on the ground, and mud season was commencing as the temperature rose.

The Institute is in a green-roofed building shoulder-by-shoulder with other university institutes. The farm, where the foxes live, is a ten or fifteen minute drive out of the city. I went to the farm daily to study the socialization period in tame and aggressive fox kits.

Tame fox kit (silver color)

I was working with these kits at three weeks of age, before they were old enough to start venturing out of the nest and interacting with the world. At this point they shouldn’t yet have entered their socialization period. Yet you could already tell the difference between the tame kits and the aggressive kits. Kits within a group weren’t identical in behavior: some complained about being restrained, some yelled, some fell asleep, some were calm and silent. However, the aggressive foxes tended to make more noise, and the tame foxes tended to be more curious about their surroundings. Two aggressive fox kits tried to bite. One tame kit did.

As for the adults, I found more behavioral variation than I’d expected there as well, although the head of the laboratory where I work had warned me again and again that the foxes vary sigificantly in behavior. Tame foxes were curious and wanted to interact with us, but some were shy, diving into their nest boxes or to the far side of their cage and then returning slowly. One fox stretched his body out, low to the ground, so that he could sniff my companion’s face without having to commit himself to coming too close. (When I offered to let him sniff my face, he stole my hat and then carried it around his cage while the neighboring foxes watched in fascination.)

Slightly shy tame fox (Georgian white color)

Other tame foxes could not contain their enthusiasm at having people to interact with. They rolled on their backs and made excited yipping noises and wagged their tails. In their joy, they would hold our hands gently in their mouths, something I saw again and again with them but that I have very rarely seen a dog do.

Fox holding my hand in his mouth (platinum color)

I visited foxes from the control line, who had not been bred for behavior. They were simply afraid of us: when their cage door was opened, they retreated. If cornered, they would bite, but any aggression they showed was entirely defensive.

I also saw foxes from the line that has been selected for aggression to humans. Some of them were afraid and aggressed only defensively. Some were more scary, coming forward to the front of the cage to bite again and again. Certainly they were afraid of humans, but something in their brains or hormones makes them more proactive and less passive in their defensive aggression.

Finally, I met rats and mink selected for tameness or aggression. The tame rat that I met was happy to be held and happy to interact with me, but I don’t have enough experience with pet rats to say if this was unusual. The aggressive rat that I met was terrifying, hurling herself at a gloved hand when her cage door was opened and screaming repeatedly, even after we backed off.

The tame mink were less curious than the tame foxes and didn’t seek interaction with humans in the same way. One let himself be held by his keeper but I wasn't allowed to touch him, in case he might try to bite.

Tame mink

Notice the little white patch on his chin — more white coloration is associated with more tameness in both minks and foxes. Another, all-white mink was tamer and I could pet him. He seemed deeply passive, not seeking interaction, just tolerating it.

Tame white mink

Remember that part of the tame fox story — that as the foxes were selected for tame behavior, they started showing characteristics typical of domesticated species, including white patches and curled tails? Only a small percentage of the tame animals have these features, but I saw several piebald fox kits:

Piebald fox kit (silver color)

...and my host kindly pointed out one fox with a gorgeous example of a curled tail.

Fox with curled tail

What an amazing week. I kept thinking: how strangely my life has turned out!