Too Much Nurturing?

Jana, a white golden retriever, wears a mortarboardReading about this study will make you want to go back to college.  A team of undergrad researchers had the best job ever: Watching hundreds of hours of puppy videos.

They were looking at the differences in how moms at The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school in New Jersey, treated their pups. Some were very attentive, constantly licking and cuddling their newborn pups. Others spent as much time as they could out of the whelping box, away from the babies. Some lay down to nurse, making it easy for the pups to gorge themselves. Others stood, perhaps longingly eyeing the happy hour menu just out of reach. The researchers not only studied the moms’ behavior, they also measured their levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress. Moms with higher anxiety tended to spend more time with their pups and coddle them more.

Guide dog puppies are set up to succeed. They have great genetics and prenatal health care, as well as top-notch vet care throughout their lives. They get early enrichment and socialization, lots of training. Even so, many don’t make it. A dog who is nervous or fearful makes a poor guide, as does one who can’t think independently and solve problems. Puppies who learn faster, solve puzzles faster, or figure out how to contend with obstacles naturally make better guide dogs. So do puppies who are confident and unafraid of new or potentially scary objects or situations. Temperament tests for puppies abound, but it’s still hard to reliably predict adult temperament or success.

It might seem that pups with attentive moms would be more confident and therefore more likely to succeed. But that’s not what the research indicated. The pups who had to work a little harder to eat and those who were less coddled by their moms turned out to be more independent and better problem solvers — scrappy, tough little dogs who had higher success rates in guide dog school. The coddled pups showed higher anxiety and less problem-solving ability. Even these pups are far ahead of the average pet dog in terms of temperament, ability to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and general health, though. But helicopter moms seemed to put their pups at a disadvantage.

It’s hard to determine just how much of the pups’ success or failure is linked to maternal behavior and how much is genetic, so more study is needed. But the attention to maternal behavior could help shape early training and enrichment. It could also point to ways that we could more successfully help our older puppies and adult dogs cope with anxiety (less coddling?).

Anyhow, doing more research is so appealing. Sign me up to watch those puppy cams!

The early study on maternal behavior is available online: Characterizing Early Maternal Style in a Population of Guide Dogs.

The abstract of the later study is available here: Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success.

It’s Genetic

Cali relaxes on her dog bed.

People love to speculate on when, how, and why dogs and people became friends. A study published on July 19 shows that it might just be genetic.

Here’s the story. A condition in humans, Williams-Beuren Syndrome, is the result of a missing section of genetic material, a section of DNA that contains about 27 genes, according to an article in Inside Science. The syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, the article says; these individuals are “hypersocial,” with bubbly, extroverted personalities, as well as some other traits.

It seems that someone else’s bubbly, extroverted personality (I’m looking at you, Cali) might be related to a similar genetic hiccup.

In the course of studies of domestication and how it has caused doggy genetics to differ from wolf genetics, Bridgett vonHoldt, the lead author of the study, tested the friendliness of dogs and 10 hand-raised, tamed wolves. They measured how much time the dogs and wolves chose to spend in close proximity to humans and whether they worked at a challenge or sought human assistance. Predictably, the dogs both spent more time with the people and sought their help in solving the puzzle. Dogs do enjoy having staff.

However, the results had some variation, and in looking for reasons that some wolves were more sociable than others, the researchers found a clue: The genetic area that showed differences in the more- and less-social wolves corresponded to the genetic area that is missing in people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome. Friendly dogs and wolves had similar genetic variants; unfriendly wolves had genetic variants similar to each other and different from the dogs and the friendly wolves.

The researchers looked deeper. They examined the corresponding genes in dogs from 13 breeds. Breeds known to be friendly had profiles similar to the friendly members of the initial research group, while breeds known to be more standoffish had profiles that looked more like the unfriendly wolves. The study says that this genetic region is “known to be under positive selection in the domestic dog genome” — over generations of breeding, people have selected for the “friendly” genetic variation; these mutations are rare in wolves and even rarer in coyotes, which tend to be far less social than dogs and wolves. The same genes had been linked to friendliness in mice in earlier research.

Of course, a small segment of genetic material is not the only thing that influences social behavior. And theories about the domestication of wolves abound. But evidence is accumulating for a theory that basically says that that wolves chose to hang out with early humans. The friendlier, or less timid, wolves started scavenging near human camps and trash heaps. Over time, young pups and friendly adults inched closer to actual contact, until a great partnership was formed.

I have always been skeptical of the various human-centered narratives that had humans capturing and holding captive and bending to their will fierce wolves, all thousands of years before humans had metalworking abilities and tools that would make it possible to hold onto a wolf who didn’t want to stick around. I doubt that those unfriendly wolves, even the hand-reared ones, would stay put if tied to a tree with a leather strap. There had to be something else going on.

That the roots of friendship could center on food makes sense (again, looking at you, Cali). But even that explanation is not enough. While dogs and wolves are opportunistic — which means they will eagerly take advantage of opportunities to help themselves to a snack — early  humans were unlikely to have huge quantities of extra food available to just hand out to large-toothed scavengers skulking on the periphery of camp. On the other hand, if the scavengers were friendly and potentially useful …

An explanation that includes a choice on the part of the wolves, or at least some wolves makes more sense than the whole deal being human-instigated and controlled. And, as more people study the human-canine connection, more bits of information point to dogs playing an active role in establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with people, like this suggestion that some wolves were genetically inclined to be friendly and seek human company.

An additional reason that this study could be important is that researchers have long sought genetic explanations for complex behavior; this could be an important first step.

None of that really makes a genetic mutation a truly satisfying explanation for that waggy tail, wriggly, “let me show you my toy” greeting I get at the door … but the bottom line is, the dog-human friendship is pretty wonderful. If that’s where it started, well, I’ll take it.

 

Bit by Bit

Her motto is “don’t fence me in”; she needs a reliable recall!

For a little over a year, I have been writing for an online “magazine” that covers online learning. Some of my articles touch on various learning theories and how these might be applied in “eLearning” or online training and performance support. Every so often, a source talks about “spaced learning” or “spaced repetition.” It’s funny to me that many of them think they’ve stumbled on a new secret weapon.

Spaced practice is simply practicing a skill or recalling information, maybe by taking a quiz or using flash cards, at short intervals over a period of time. It’s long been known to be effective both in the education of children (and adults) and in the education of dogs.

I first learned about spaced repetition in my first dog training classes. Particularly when working with very young puppies, we paired very short training sessions with spaced practice on the same set of skills. Hmmm, did we also discover microlearning, another current hot topic in eLearning? Maybe so.

Microlearning — very short lessons — certainly worked with our 4-week-old puppies. Two five-minute sessions a day (even one, if we got busy) were enough to teach one puppy I worked with about 15 cues by the time she was 10 weeks old. I’ve used the approach, with great success, with dozens of other puppies and adolescent dogs, but my training skills are becoming rusty from disuse.

I’ve been thinking about both microlearning and spaced learning for two different reasons this week.

One is a conversation I had about a friend of hers who wants to train her dog to help her with some aspects of her MS. The dog already has some foundational skills. The friend, due to her MS, has limited stamina and would only likely have enough energy to work with her dog for a few minutes a day. I found myself telling my friend that that was not an insurmountable obstacle. If she were able to spend a few minutes a day practicing a skill, the dog could learn it very well.

The second reason is my own lapse in spaced practice. When Cali was a puppy, I was very diligent about practicing her recall and working on her willingness to accept grooming, especially handling of her feet and nails. I did everything by the book, practiced almost every day, sometimes two or three short sessions. Cali was a great student. Then life got in the way and I stopped practicing. She now has a mediocre recall and hates having her feet handled. Great.

I know that I can find five minutes a day to work with Cali, and I know that, with the right treats, her recall could again become speedy and eager. That matters here in Montana, where there are many places that Cali could run off-leash.

I’m less sure about the feet, but I could probably get her to be a little less skittish and a little more cooperative. It’s certainly worth a few minutes a day to try. I have a new bag of very desirable treats; maybe I will use them for some remedial training. Wish us luck!

 

It’s Teaching, Not Training


Jana peruses several cards, then chooses "tug," asking to play tug.

Someone whom I admire greatly, though I have never met her, wrote a wonderful column a while back. It was emailed to me recently, and I’d like to bring it to readers’ attention. She describes an approach to educating dogs that she calls “Non-Training.” I’ve called this “Cognitive” dog training.

Whatever you call it, the idea is the same: Treat the dog as a partner and student, not as a robot who must obey.

It is a positive, motivation-based approach to teaching dogs that relies on their intelligence and problem-solving ability — not rote memorization of specific, inflexible responses to commands barked at them by an “alpha” human.

It starts with giving dogs choices. Teaching dogs a simple “yes” or “no” response is pretty easy. You can use your hands or ask the dog to do a different response, such as raise a paw or nose your knee. It’s up to you (and your dog) what response works. But once the dog gets the concept of a choice, the sky is the limit.

You can ask your dog whether she wants to go out, wants water, is hungry (use caution if you have a Lab or a golden!), wants the ball or the tug toy, wants a walk or a ball game, wants to rest, is hurting somewhere … Really, as in so many areas of our relationships with dogs, the limitations are imposed by our lack of imagination, not the dogs’ lack of ability or willingness.

Cognitive training goes beyond simple choices, though. It is about teaching dogs to think and solve problems, rather than waiting for us to tell them what to do. It is about shared goals, rather than humans ordering dogs around. It is a dramatic re-imagining of the human-dog partnership. It requires letting go, once and for all, of the idea that dogs “have to” obey humans, just because we have thumbs, or that they do stuff for us out of unconditional love.

A relationship with a dog is just that: A relationship. It takes work, mutual respect, a two-way avenue of communication that acknowledges what each contributes and what each needs from the other.

I won’t go so far as to say that it is or should be a completely equal relationship. Sometimes — often — the human gets to make the decisions. Much as some people loathe the comparison, it is like parenting in that way. The adult human is in charge, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to respect and encourage the dog’s (child’s) individuality, allow for expression of preferences, and allow the dog to make choices when appropriate.

I encourage you to read the column, “Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No: The Art of Non-Training.”

 

Where’s Cali?

Cali hides in tall grass

Cali has started a new game. When she doesn’t want to leave someplace (Jacob’s Island Bark Park in Missoula, for example), she hides. She’s really good at hiding, too. See if you can spot her in the photos.

I could get angry with her, say she’s misbehaving, that she’s a willful adolescent. I could also admire her intelligence, strategizing, and ability to read my intentions.

It takes a lot of thought and awareness to hide. Her ability to do so shows that she can think about what I can see and figure out where she can go that I won’t be able to see her. She can anticipate going home, decide that that’s not what she wants, and come up with a way to foil my intentions. She can plan and decide not to respond when I call her, and she understands that she has to be very still so I don’t see or hear her moving.

Cali hides deep in some thick bushes

She has to get the timing right, too. She wants to avoid going home, but it would be self-defeating to hide while I was still willing to play ball with her. So she has to read my body language carefully, in addition to parsing the verbal cues I give her. Finally, she also has to know when to resurface so as not to be abandoned (this would not happen, but how can she be sure of that?) or really get me angry.

A few days ago, she hid at the dog park. I might’ve very foolishly muttered something like “we need to get going” before throwing her ball. She took the ball, ducked under a branch, and disappeared. I called her. Nothing. I waited for about 10 minutes, then called some more. Nothing. I was pissed off. I had seen where she entered the bushes, and I went in after her. She was happy as can be, under some bushes with her ball. I grabbed the ball. That got her attention. We walked back to the car with me giving her an earful about what a terrible dog she was, bad to the bone. She laughed.

Then, the next day, she hid in a friend’s garden. I left her there (with the friend) and figured she’d have a nice afternoon in the grass, playing with dog and human friends. She did, but my friend reported that Cali cried when she realized that I had left. She recovered pretty quickly, though, and had fun; my friend also reported that Cali had a fence-fight with the next-door-neighbor-dog — which Cali instigated. But that’s a problem for another blog post.

I’m not really sure what to do about this new trick. I could just not take her to the dog park, but that’s a terrible solution. I don’t think that telling her to “come out right now or we won’t come back tomorrow” would work. She’s smart, but that is probably too abstract and verbose for her. I could punish her when I find her, but that would only motivate her to do a better job of hiding. I could keep her on a long leash, and risk getting it tangled in trees, picnic tables, other dogs …

She hides with her beloved tennis ball, and when she has her ball, she’s not interested in treats, so stooping to bribery is out. I could just wait her out, but I am not sure that my laptop battery would outlast her, and I do need to work.

Deni suggested letting Cali keep her tennis ball with her when we leave the park so that she’s not worried about losing it. In the apartment, all the time. Ick. Cali loves her tennis ball so much. She is happiest when it is really dirty, so she gets is all drooly and wet, then rolls it in dirt. Sometimes she digs a special pit just to make sure it gets totally covered in really fresh, dirty dirt. I’ve generally not allowed her to have the ball inside. If I get desperate enough, maybe …

Anyone have a better idea?

Too Hot for Dogs!

Graphic image showing how quickly a car can heat up on a hot day from heatkills.org
Downloaded from Heatkills.org

It has been in the 90s pretty much every day since we got to Missoula, Montana, our new home. If it’s this hot here … well. Dogs everywhere are suffering.

I know I don’t have to remind readers not to leave a dog in the car for even a minute in this heat. No way, no how, it is too hot for that.

But what about walking them?

Hot pavement can burn pads and paws. Sand, dry stiff grass, seeds, etc. can poke and scratch. Hazards are everywhere.

When the temperatures are in the upper-80s and above, the sidewalk can get very hot. You might not notice it through your shoe soles, but think carefully about where you ask your dog to walk. This is a huge concern for service dogs, since they are more likely to be out an about in any weather than pets. What to do?

First, avoid blacktop. Let the dog walk on grass or dirt wherever possible. Gravel gets hot, too. Light-colored sidewalks are better than asphalt, but in this heat, they will be hot too. If it feels hot to your feet or the palm of you hand, it’s uncomfortable for the dog. Let the dog stay home if possible. Or walk early in the day, before the sidewalk gets hot.

A recent discussion on a service dog email list settled on two possible solutions for dogs who must go out on hot days: booties and paw-protecting cream.

The best booties, the consensus is, are these: Ruff-Wear Grip Trex. Guiding Eyes for the Blind recommends them, too. These are more suitable than regular dog boots because they have a breathable mesh top. Even so, booties are not an ideal solution. They can be hard to put on and take off, which is an issue for many service dog partners. In addition, and possibly more critical in this heat, is that dogs need to sweat through their paw pads to cool off. These booties let some sweat evaporate, because they have that mesh top, but I still worry that the rubber sole will interfere with the dog’s ability to cool off. If you use them for short outdoor walks and remove them as soon as you get indoors, they are probably a great solution. If your dog tolerates them … and that is the final objection: Most dogs hate booties. Some people begin conditioning very young puppies to wear socks or booties, and they might have some success. Some dogs are just OK with stuff on their feet. But most dogs? Not happening.

So option two, which is also an option for winter, might be a better choice: Musher’s Secret. I just got some. It’s easy to apply, and seemed to absorb very quickly. Cali didn’t object at all, and she really isn’t crazy about having her feet handled. One review I saw online said Musher’s Secret helps dry, cracked noses heal, too. I have noticed that Cali’s nose and feet are dry and rough; I hope this helps get them back to a healthier state. Many online reviewers love Musher’s Secret; a small minority hate it. Stay tuned for a report on the state of Cali’s nose and toes.

Other ways we’ve dealt with the heat? I got out the wading pool for Cali, Mack, and Alberta the other day … and they all ignore the cool water and wondered why I had dunked their favorite toys. Silly girls. Yesterday, Cali finally got to explore Jacob’s Island, a dog park in the middle of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula! How great is that? A sandy-legged, smiling Cali was led reluctantly from the park after a spirited splash in the river with a young Lab mix. We’ll need to do that more often!

Lessons from the Original Thinking Dog

A happy Jana rolls in leaves on a lush lawnI had hoped to be celebrating Jana’s 14th birthday today, July 2. Instead, Cali and I have moved to Montana without her; we marked her birthday with a walk to a place she loved, Mormon Creek. We were with Koala, Storm, Ki, and Django. Quite a few dogs are missing from this group.

Rather than dwelling on the sadness of missing Jana, Ory, Weizer, Gus, Cedar … I am thinking about some of the most important things I learned from Jana during our years together.

Before I met Jana, I knew that dogs were smart and could start learning just about as soon as they opened their eyes. Even so, Jana astonished me.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

I met Jana when she was only about 4 weeks old — not long after she opened her eyes. She came home at 7 weeks and started learning things immediately. First, of course, she learned about treats; that took about 2 seconds. She never met a treat toy that could keep her from her food for more than a few minutes.

As a puppy, and even an adolescent, Jana was an easy dog to live with. For instance, though she was the first puppy I housetrained, Jana learned to toilet outside almost immediately — she was a very clean dog in that way — and she quickly developed a strong preference for grass. She was never destructive as a puppy, though she was always vocal when displeased, starting with my initial (failed) attempt to crate train her.

Very quickly, Jana learned about stairs — mastering them when I left her downstairs and ran up to grab something. Not 2 minutes later, I walked down the stairs to find my tiny puppy hoisting herself up the huge staircase. Though she ultimately learned to accept boundaries and would respect even so flimsy a barrier as a partially closed door, she also wanted to be with me. As a young puppy, this manifested first with the stairs and later, with her flying leaps over the baby gate that was meant to keep her safely enclosed.

And Jana quickly learned to respond to verbal cues — so many that I can’t list them here. She picked up new skills so fast that I had to work hard to come up with new challenges. She would do anything, figure out anything, solve any problem for the chance to earn a cookie. Watching her was amazing. I could see the gears turning as she tackled problems and figured out the names of items she was asked to retrieve, what the laser pointer was indicating for her to do, how to brace herself on a door jamb to pull open a door, how to extract treats from the very small hole on her treat toy …

Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth
Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth

Jana’s intelligence accompanied her fierce independence. Thus, I also learned from Jana that her agenda and priorities might often be misaligned with mine, and having opposable thumbs did not mean that I always got my way. We learned to negotiate, compromise, and respect each other’s differing perspectives. For instance, I was forced to accept her definition of cuddling: Sharing space, perhaps on the same bed, more likely in the same room. Limited physical contact on her terms only. Jana was not like the typical golden; she needed few friends, but if you were a person she’d decided she liked, you had a friend for life. Her chosen people got very warm greetings, and Jana actually chose to spend time with them, even seeking them out. The best compliment was being invited to play a game of tug.

The truth is, Jana and I shared a lot, and I could fill books with what I learned from her. I know that she had a great life, and I am grateful that she had a dignified, relatively quick and pain-free death, but I still miss my princess every day. Happy birthday, Jana.

Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection
Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection