Monday, February 21, 2011

Living with a shy dog: clicking with Jenny

I am clicking everything with Jenny now! The click marks the behavior which I want to reward. If I just toss her a treat when she does something I want to reinforce, she has a harder time knowing exactly what she did right. Of course, I could mark the behavior verbally (when I don’t have the clicker on me I will say “yes”), but research has shown that animals learn faster with a clicker, perhaps because it takes less mental processing.

The click is obviously not rewarding itself; it is rewarding because it is always followed by a treat, so that she has a strong association between the click and food. The rule is that you must always reward after clicking. If you click the wrong thing by mistake, tough; you still have to reward. With Jack, who is more savvy at this game, I sometimes reward by throwing his favorite toy for him.

What am I clicking Jenny for?
  • Coming into the kitchen while I am making food
  • Touching my hand with her nose while I am holding out her harness open as if to put it over her head
  • The Boy clicks her for responding to him saying her name. Because he is a martial arts instructor, he has a very good sense of how to reward small progressions in physical responses, so he is clicking just as she starts to sit up in response to him.
  • Eye contact with me when scary things happen

Jenny on her second day with me

Jenny today: “Why did you put the clicker away? I was having fun.”

Go go clicker training!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What vet students talk about with their boyfriends

Me: So I’m trying to schedule this dairy farm welfare elective, but the day all the interested students are free to do it, the faculty member has a herd check scheduled. He thinks it will be fine, we can use the herd check as a starting point, but you know how these things go.

The Boy: No. What’s a herd check?

Me: Rectalling a hundred cows to tell if they are pregnant.

The boy makes a face.

Me: It’s not so bad, it’s just kind of boring, and I’ll be doing plenty of that on my Ambulatory rotation, I don’t need to be doing it during my elective week.

The Boy: So all the cows get bred at once, that’s why you do a hundred?

Me: Well, it depends on how you run your farm, but no, for this particular farm, Dr. Maolain visits them every week. So he’s checking a hundred cows a week. Well, I don’t know that it’s a hundred, actually.

The Boy: So he’s checking all the cows?

Me: Just the ones who were bred recently. Actually, knowing when to breed them is a whole Thing. They come into heat every 21 days, but they are only in heat for less than a day. The best way to know when to inseminate them (which almost everyone does artificially) is to watch them to see when they are in heat. But it is a real pain to watch all your cows all the time. So you can also use hormones to sync them, and to narrow the window for when they will come into heat.

The Boy: How long after you breed them can you tell that they are pregnant?

Me: That was a test question. It was a lot of tests ago, though. I don’t remember.

But I have looked it up for you (and as a review for me). There are four positive signs of pregnancy in a cow that you can feel per rectum: fetal membrane slip (day 30), the amniotic vesicle (day 30), placentomes (day 75), and the fetus (starts at day 65, but by mid-gestation may be too deep in the abdomen to reach with your arm). If you can feel at least one, you can say that the cow is pregnant.  The fetal membrane slip is supposed to feel like the seam on womens’ stockings; it is the allantois inside the uterus. The amniotic vesicle is the sac enclosing the fetus (and it is apparently not recommended for veterinary students to go poking at it, but people who know what they are doing are OK).

Placentomes are where the cow uterus connects to the placenta, and there is seriously not a Wikipedia article on it for me to point you at! Bizarre. Different kinds of animals have different ways of getting nutrients from the mom to the baby during pregnancy, and that is why cows have placentomes and we don’t. (If you want to know more about that, comment! I might could write a post on it.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Euthanasia Day

Euthanasia is so depressing that at my school, they just teach you about it all in one day to separate it from the rest of the curriculum. Apparently it was originally students who came up with the idea for Euthanasia Day; the curriculum at the time did not directly address these issues. Students organized and ran the first several euthanasia symposiums before the school subsumed it into the core curriculum as a requirement. There will be no tests on what we learned on Euthanasia Day, but attendance was taken.

We started the day with the definition of euthanasia, according to the Animal Welfare Act: “the humane destruction of an animal accomplished by a method that produces rapid unconsciousness and subsequent death without evidence of pain or distress, or a method that utilizes anesthesia produced by an agent that causes painless loss of consciousness and subsequent death.” I wish that we had addressed the current debate about use of the term “euthanasia” for anything other than the destruction of an animal for relief of pain or discomfort. I try to refer to “sacrifice” when I am talking about the destruction of research animals in pursuit of research, and “slaughter” when I am talking about the destruction of food animals for food. I have read a book by a dog trainer in which she insists that destruction of a dog for aggression should be called “execution,” which I think is an interesting argument but an awfully charged choice of word.

Next up was the pharmacology of euthanasia: which drugs to use and how. We covered the debate about human execution by lethal injection as it related to veterinary medicine: the AVMA’s euthanasia guidelines have been used in court cases about lethal injection, to the extent that the AVMA chose to edit its guidelines to point out that they were intended for discussion of animal euthanasia only and not human execution. The issue seems to be the difference between mixing three drugs, including a sedative and a paralytic, in one syringe, which the AVMA finds unacceptable for animal euthanasia (what if the paralytic took effect before the sedative? That would not be humane), and the triple injection used in humans, which uses similar drugs. In humans, the three injections are given separately, so there is no chance of the paralytic taking effect before the sedative. However, the AVMA statement that this particular approach is not humane has been taken out of context.

Then we covered the issues in euthanasia in various species.

Horses: It is alarming when they go down! They are big animals, have a long way to fall, and do not often do so gracefully. Do you want the owner to be present for that? Secondly, what do you do with the body? It takes a backhoe to bury it. There are disposal options, but they are expensive and limited. My school lives in fear that the single disposal option available to us will disappear if that company goes out of business.

Wildlife: If you find an injured wild animal on the side of the road, do you bring it in to the clinic knowing that it is too badly injured and will be euthanized there? Is it better to leave it, so as to avoid the stress of being handled by humans? (The veterinarian mentioned all the things you might want to take into account, such as, predators probably won’t come finish it off until evening, so what time of day is it?) We also discussed the emotional difficulty of being a wildlife veterinarian and having to euthanize a wild bird for a damaged wing. If the wing can’t be repaired, the bird can’t be released, even if saving the bird’s life would be easy. Some birds can be placed in educational facilities, but no educational facility is interested in a red tailed hawk, an incredibly common species in this area which makes up the bulk of the birds coming in to our wildlilfe clinic.

Exotics: I almost hesitate to relay this tidbit, as I feel like I must remember it incorrectly. We were told about research in which brain activity was measured in turtles up to 72 hours after decapitation. (Did I remember the number wrong? But you know, even one hour would be pretty incredible.) So how do you humanely euthanize a turtle? Another issue is their extremely slow respiration rate, so that euthanasia in a gas chamber takes a long time too.

Cows: We got to see a video of a cow dying by gunshot and another of a cow dying by injection. Both appeared extremely quick to me. Farmers do often choose the gunshot route, because they like to dispose of the cow’s body under the manure pile. It is obviously not a good idea to have a carcass full of euthanasia medication on your farm: one of our faculty members says that he had to return to one farm after injection euthanasia of a cow to treat the farmer’s dog for pentobarbitol toxicity.

We also had a talk by a certified animal grief counselor. She asked us to do a little role playing. Now, I have been in role playing games for fun and profit (okay, not the profit part), and I had some issues with how poorly structured this role playing was. This has been a recurring issue for me in vet school. I should start a gaming group for faculty.

Finally, we had a panel discussion with local small animal practitioners, which was completely open ended: we just asked questions. As we were wrapping up for the day, the final question was “Can you tell us about the best euthanasia experience you had?” The practitioners sort of looked at each other blankly. Then one volunteered, “I have an experience to tell you about.” She relayed the story of the euthanasia of a long-term patient, an older dog whom she had treated for years. She got a little smile when she said his name; she was clearly very fond of this dog. The owner chose not to be in the room, so it was just her and her tech. They injected the solution and the dog relaxed and was gone. They waited to see if his body would have any last reflexes; sometimes you see a last gasp for breath after the animal is already really dead. And what they saw was a tail wag, a thump thump thump in the same rhythm, she said, as when you come into the room and your old dog greets you. The tech said in amazement, “Did you see that?” And the vet replied, “I think he likes where he’s going.” It was the perfect end to an interesting but emotionally difficult day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Living with a shy dog: target training with Jenny

When last I reported on the state of my shy dog Jenny, she was submissively urinating every time I went to put a leash on her. We nicely solved that problem when she volunteered to go outside and come back inside on her own and no longer required a leash. She is extremely responsive to my indications about what it is time for dogs to do next, and the elder dog in the household helps instruct her as well. So while I have continued to desensitize her reactions to the leash (by showing her leashlike things and then giving her treats), I have been focusing on other things with her lately. This is my greatest failing as a trainer: I get bored with one program and move on to the next.

These days, Jenny and I are working on target training. The idea is to train the dog to touch a particular object on command, commonly a yogurt container top, which is what I’m using. Target training is useful as a stepping stone for training more complex behaviors. You can use it, for example, to train a dog to close a door on command, by taping the target to the door and then eventually removing it. In this case, I am hoping to use it to encourage Jenny to touch me more, by giving her a way to touch me that is under her control (touching a target in my hand). Of course, we are starting out with the target on the couch next to her, where she feels safest.

The work I was doing with her before was classical conditioning, which is used to change the way an animal feels about something. I was pairing something good (food) with something that I wanted Jenny to feel good about too (the leash). In the case of target training, I am using operant conditioning. The goal here is not to change how Jenny feels about the target (who cares if she likes a yogurt top or not?) but to change her behavior around it (show her that it is useful to touch it with her nose, eventually on command).

Specifically, I am using a clicker for this purpose. I’m not going to explain clicker training in this post, but if you are interested in clicker training with behaviorally challenging dogs, Click to Calm is highly recommended.

So, Jenny is doing great. We’ve had four sessions so far. Session one: I tossed the lid in front of her repeatedly and rewarded her for sniffing it. Then I stopped tossing it, and rewarded her just for looking at it. She sniffed at it again once more before the end of the session (jackpot! Ten treats in a row and end on a high note!).

Session two: I only tossed the lid down once or twice to get her started. I still rewarded her just for looking at it. This time she showed more intention in her sniffing at it, like she was thinking about what she was doing, and she sniffed at it three times.

Session three: I only tossed the lid down once. She sniffed it repeatedly, immediately after each treat (whereupon, obviously, I gave her another treat). When it was clear that this was easy for her, I moved the lid a half inch farther away. This flummoxed her a little, possibly partly because I had moved the lid, which might have suggested to her that I didn’t want her to interact with it. So I went back to rewarding her for looking at it. By the end of the session she was sniffing it again, though not quite as regularly. Good thing I only moved it a tiny amount; she was clearly not ready for more.

Session four: she was nosing the lid so regularly that I started inching it farther away from her every few repetitions. She followed, but on the third or fourth time I moved it away, picked it up in her mouth and moved it back closer to her. Jackpot! (Lots of treats for that, all in a row.) That wasn’t what I had originally intended her to do, but I figure it’s a good idea to reward her for being assertive and really interacting with her environment.

Target training with her has been fun. She is extremely smart, much more limited by her shyness than by her brains, sort of the opposite of working with my other dog Jack, who is very outgoing but of only average intelligence. I think the signs are good that the target training work will be useful in bringing her out of her shell.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cow anesthesia

Instead of blogging, I have been shovelling snow. And sleeping off being sick. Also maybe there was some studying in there too. But I am rallying! I love New England winter! Especially when school keeps getting closed down for snow days!

Last week I had my bovine anesthesia lab. When I learned to do anesthesia on a dog, it was a precise and complicated process which took place in a hospital. The dog got pre-anesthesia medication, had a tube down her throat to help her breathe, and got post-surgical pain meds. The process is very different with a cow.

With cows, mostly you do standing surgery — surgery while the cow is awake, with local anesthesia so they don’t feel the pain. Why? Obviously, part of the reasoning is financial; farmers cannot afford to take their cows in to the hospital for surgery, and the equipment for general anesthesia is not available on the farm.

However, even if you can afford to put a cow under general anesthesia, it might not be the best thing for the cow. Putting a tube down the throat of any ruminant is somewhat more dangerous than with a dog. Ruminants are more likely to aspirate their stomach contents and get aspiration pneumonia, which is definitely something you want to avoid. More importantly, cows have these huge stomachs. The compartment called the rumen is particularly enormous, containing around 25 gallons of material. This is where all that grass (or, in today’s world, corn) marinates in a soup of saliva and bacteria, and the bacteria generate energy which the cow uses. Putting a cow on her side means that the huge rumen is lying on abdominal organs. It can make breathing very difficult.

So in bovine anesthesia lab, I injected lidocaine along specific nerves in order to block areas of the cow’s side. I have not yet seen standing surgery in a cow, but when I do, I will let you know what it is like. Reaching inside a standing animal to move things around and sew things up will definitely be an interesting thing to see.