Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!


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 All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. She had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.


Minding Their Manners

I recently read a study that compared wolves’ and dogs’ ability to solve a “puzzle” — opening a plastic box with a piece of sausage inside. The wolves did much better than the dogs, and, from the articles I read about the study, it seems that many researchers are interpreting that to mean that the dogs are dumber than the wolves, at least when it comes to problem-solving. The comments were rather unkind to dogs, and, I think, wrong.

One comment, in the New York Times, came closest to “getting it.” This person suggested that perhaps the dogs had been taught not to take human food or open food containers. Paired with the fact that most dogs’ food is handed to them by humans, while most wolves must find their own food, I’d say the dogs were set up to fail.

The study was published in a British journal by an Oregon State University researcher, Monique Udell. In her own analysis, she paid more attention to the fact that the dogs spent more time looking at the familiar human (who was present for some trials of the test and who provided encouragement in some trials) than at the box. Various commenters’ interpretations of the dogs’ looks ranged from “seeking assistance” to “slavish.”

Half the dogs tested were pets; the other half were shelter dogs, but no information was provided about how many of those had spent part or most of their lives in homes before landing at the shelter. The wolves had been socialized to humans, but even a tame wolf is still a wolf, not a domestic pet.

It makes sense that the dogs would have been taught not to take food or been punished for taking food. It also makes sense that, if a familiar human were present, they would seek help, information, or even permission before helping themselves. When I give my dogs a particularly spectacular treat (a 2-inch piece of sausage would certainly qualify), they often look at me, look at it, look at me — going back and forth a few times, seemingly questioning whether this bounty is truly meant for them. They are polite. They know the rules. They are also quite happy to indulge in exceptions to those rules, once they’re sure they won’t get reprimanded for doing so.

I would have been much more surprised if the dogs didn’t look to the human for permission or help. After all, thousands of years of living together has resulted in close partnerships and, at least on the dogs’ part, exquisite ability to read human’s communication. We humans are less successful at reading the dogs, sadly. Their survival depends on reading humans’ cues and behaving accordingly. Wolves have no such hangups (nor should they).

Some comments on the study went so far as to suggest that training dogs has made them dumber and less able to solve problems, that their social connection to humans puts them at a cognitive disadvantage. I disagree. While some training approaches do discourage dogs from thinking, modern approaches to training that use motivation and reward actually encourage problem-solving. Far from dumbing dogs down, their enhanced social sensitivity to humans enables them to thrive in our world and, in many cases, enjoy comfortable lives and strong connections with their adopted families.

And if those strong connections compel dogs to ask before eating your food, what’s wrong with that? Many people wish their roommates were as considerate.

For more about the study, see these articles:

OSU study: Have we made dogs lazier or dumber than their ancestor wolves?, the Register-Guard, Oct. 2, 2015

Why Is That Dog Looking at Me?, The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2015

The study, “When dogs look back: Inhibition of independent problem-solving behavior in domestic dogs,” by Monique Udell, was published in the British journal Biology Letters on Sept. 16, 2015.

See also my related post on the PPG Barks blog.

Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.


Hoping for a Doggy Sequel

I’ll admit it up front: I might be just a bit obsessed with figuring out what goes on inside a dog’s mind. But many of you more “normal” dog lovers might appreciate a movie that helps by way of metaphor.

If you haven’t seen it yet, get yourself to the next showing of “Inside Out.” Stay for the credits. “Inside Out,” a summer blockbuster, is an animated movie that takes viewers inside the head of 11-year-old Riley Anderson. The main characters are her five primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.

The metaphor should be obvious: Of course dogs experience these emotions. The real question is: How is their experience similar to (and different from) ours?

I’ve always been sure that dogs experience their own versions of joy, sadness, anger, and fear. I was on the fence about dogs and disgust for a long time, though. I’ve seen dogs eat and/or roll in many, many things that certainly trigger my disgust. Their concept of disgust, if it existed, was a mystery.

Then we offered Wylie, a fussy German shepherd, a peanut butter treat. The expression on his face: Pure disgust. He actually flinched. Then he wrinkled his nose, curled his lips, and backed away. That, and the accompanying reflexive gag, couldn’t be anything else. Peanut butter was clearly a human attempt to poison him.

Then there’s Jana’s priceless, very teenagery, eye-roll when Cali and Dora get too wild. Yep. Pure disgust: Puppies. Ick.

“Inside Out,” which I personally think is meant for adults — the best stuff goes right over the kids’ heads! — explains the necessity for and connections among all of those complicated emotions. Fear makes you pay attention: It can literally wake you up. Joy helps create the core elements of your personality. Sadness makes happy memories more precious. It can also influence your choices, pushing you to make decisions that allow you to hold onto memories — or connections — that once were joyful. Anger can make you notice injustice, or even speak out against it.

Which brings us back to disgust. A key role of Disgust, according to the movie is keeping us from being poisoned; toddler Riley is sure that broccoli will kill her. Disgust doesn’t seem to play the same role for Jana, who happens to love broccoli. She also wolfs down acorns every chance she gets, despite the cramps and upset tummy that inevitably follow. She is among the many dogs who eagerly lap up things that could (and do) poison them, ranging from antifreeze to raisins or chocolate. So I am still puzzling out what the emotion of disgust does for dogs — other than convince them that their own humans are trying to poison them.

A key lesson in the film that applies equally to dogs is the link between emotions and memory. Memories without a strong emotional component fade away, turn a dull gray, and are swept into a dump by an army of technicians in Riley’s brain. (The same guys periodically send up an annoying jingle from a gum commercial to bounce around in her head all day for no particular reason. I wonder if that happens to dogs.)

One of the ways that the other emotions kept Fear under control was by creating frequent associations with Joy. This is an essential fact for anyone with a dog, particularly a puppy, to understand. To forestall fears, dogs need frequent association of positive, joyful emotions with things that could be scary — people in hats, loud noises, balloons … Ideally, this happens in early puppyhood, before the dog hits adolescence.

But even fearful adult dogs can be helped. As “Inside Out” shows, recalling a memory while in a different emotional state can alter the emotion associated with the memory. In the movie, this is dramatically illustrated when every joyful memory that Sadness touches takes on her hue of blue … but it can work the other way, too. As trainers who advocate counter-conditioning and desensitization know, we can sometimes change fearful associations to joyful ones with careful, controlled exposure and appropriate positive reinforcement.

OK, so, why should you stay for the credits? I don’t want to give too much away, but the glimpse inside the dog’s mind is enough for me to want a canine sequel. The cat might even be better …


Amazing Restraint

In Alberta’s Marshmallow Test, I described Alberta’s admirable ability to resist temptation in the form of a bowl of dog biscuits sitting alongside a water bowl outside a Michigan store. While I know personally of the hard work Alberta (and Deni) have invested in honing Alberta’s ability to resist food temptations, I also know that all dogs (with the possible exception of Cali) really are capable of learning self-restraint.
This ability is, I believe, evidence of their ability to understand what is the “right” thing to do in particular circumstances. It is certainly evidence that not all dog behavior is hard-wired or instinctive.
Some examples include dogs who learn not to take food from counters, tabletops, and plates, even when those are tantalizingly within reach. I could leave a steak dinner on the coffee table (at Jana’s nose level) and go out for an hour. If she knew that was not her food, it would all still be sitting there when I got back. Leaving it alone with impulsive youngster Cali would be a different matter, however.
An even more important example, and something anyone who lives near a road with traffic or who takes the dog for car rides should work on, is waiting at doorways. When we drive to the dog beach or park, the dogs are very excited. But even Cali, who is probably wriggling with excitement, has learned not to exit the car without explicit permission. And Jana and Cali have both learned never to bolt out the front door, not matter how seductively the park across the street beckons, no matter how many cats, UPS delivery people and mail carriers are passing by … no matter what.
I argue that these are examples of dogs “doing the right thing” because I know that they are not afraid of being punished and that these efforts are rarely rewarded. Well, at the dog beach, they do get to go play — but even when someone slips up, the worst consequence is that she’s sternly instructed to get back in the car and wait, and then released a minute later to play. The girls are not following the rules because they think they will be horribly punished if they do not. They are not expecting any significant reward, especially for resisting the impulse to run out the front door. They are doing what they know is expected of them in these common situations for no reason other than they know that it is the rule.
In fact, we ask dogs to resist behavior that comes naturally to them all the time. We ask them not to chew and lick at their itchy spots. We ask them to resist humping other dogs. We ask them not to bark at the neighbors or the mail carrier, even when he is invading their turf. We ask them to ignore food (and things they consider food) on the ground, to not chase cats and squirrels encountered on walks, and to walk nicely on a leash.
We do ask a lot of them, don’t we? And most dogs, most of the time, live up to our very high expectations. Especially if we practice with them and do reward them sometimes.
I think that we humans take it for granted that dogs should follow our very human-centered rules. I am suggesting that we look at things from their point of view once in a while, recognize how truly counter-intuitive it is for a dog to resist food that is just sitting there or to abstain from chasing that cat out of the yard. We need to recognize that our dogs pass their own marshmallow tests, every day, many times a day — and reward their efforts with praise and pats and, at least occasionally, yummy treats to reward their restraint.