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.

 

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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?

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

 

Martin Speaks for “Everydog”

An ABC promotional image for “Downward Dog”

If you’re not watching ABC’s “Downward Dog,” you should check it out before it disappears. (ABC just announced that the show will be canceled after its seventh and eighth episodes air this week.) Martin, the narrator, does a pretty good job of capturing the cynomorphic take on the human-dog relationship. That’s the dog’s point of view.

Martin, a medium-sized mixed-breed dog, shares a home with Nan, a single woman with a demanding advertising career, an unreasonable boss, and a frustratingly immature and undependable on-again, off-again boyfriend. Martin chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship and his days.

While he might not speak for every dog in every instance, a lot of what he says rings awfully true: His assumption that Nan drives around all day in her car and his inability to understand why she’d want to do that without him; his hurt when he finds out the truth. His certainty that he has super powers when he can make the automatic dog door open (one of our dogs seemed to have the same take on it; the others either thought it was magic or just another way the lazy human staff tried to get out of doing their jobs; Cali thought a trainable ghost ran things). His conviction that he makes the rules in the relationship and sometimes has to show Nan who’s boss — by chewing up an Ugg boot.

One of my favorite parts so far is Martin’s soliloquy on why he is compelled to eat trash. I could just see Jana, my ultrafeminine princess who loved to roll in dead things, nodding in agreement. Sometimes, a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do.

The show doesn’t get everything right. For instance it leans too heavily on the assumption that, in a dog-human relationship, someone has to be “dominant.” And Nana’s character embodies way too many clichés about single women. But, though Martin is self-involved — like many dogs — he’s a lovable guide to the dog’s world.

I’ve spent years trying to understand how dogs see our relationships with them; I’ve tried with mixed success to teach students to consider the many angles and nuances of life with dogs from the dogs’ point of view. If I were teaching those students now, I’d use the eight episodes of “Downward Dog” as an imperfect but enjoyable presentation of one dog’s unique perspective.

A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.