Update on Canine Cognition Research

Over the weekends of August 21 and 22; and August 28 and 29, canine volunteers and their humans came to visit When Hounds Fly after classes ended to participate in the first set of canine cognition research experiments, conducted by Krista Macpherson from the University of Western Ontario.

It’ll probably take quite a while before any sort of paper or findings are produced, so here’s my lay-person’s attempt at describing what went on, and what I anecdotally observed.  (Krista will have to analyze hours and hours of video footage to actually see if anything meaningful happened)

Krista was interested in determining whether or not dogs understand the concept of timing – so this is the experiment she designed:

Two Manners Minder remote training devices were setup to dispense food on different intervals – one was set to dispense every 15 seconds, and the other was set to dispense every 60 seconds.  After multiple repetitions, were dogs able to figure out how frequently each one paid off, and proactively move towards the machine that was ready to pay off next?

Soley the Icelandic Sheepdog
Soley the Icelandic Sheepdog getting conditioned to the Manners Minder

At first, the dogs were introduced to the Manners Minder machines.  The machines are set to produce an audible tone prior to dispensing (the tone is normally used as an event marker, i.e. clicker, for training).  Relatively quickly, each dog learned that the tone meant that the machine was going to pay.

Next, the machines were moved over and placed on mats created by taping different colored bristol boards together.  The bristol boards serve as a visual indicator for analyzing the position of the dog relative to either Manners Minder during the task.

The owner and the dog start at a chair placed in between the two machines.  The owner is wearing sunglasses, as dogs often can pick up on where humans are looking at for cues and information (i.e. the owner might start staring at the next machine to pay, and the dog will very quickly learn to go to the machine the owner is looking at).

What I found particularly interesting was something that Krista said about the differences between dogs and other animals.  When doing these sorts of tests on rats or pigeons, the variance in behavior is relatively small.  What was particularly interesting to see is the wide range of behaviors and strategies that each dog used.

Some dogs were very thoughtful and deliberate in when they chose to move back and forth between machines.  Others used brute force and just simply went back and forth between machines almost non-stop.  Many dogs (especially ones trained using shaping) initially believed that behaviors they performed could influence whether a machine would pay out (common behaviors included intense staring, pawing, mouthing, nose-targeting different parts of the machine – my Beagle, Petey, offered a play bow to the 60 second machine; Arlo, Emily’s hound, offered a favorite trick – the armpit sniff – to the machine; Farley, Jenn’s Beagle, howled at the machine as if to say “Feed me now!!!”).

A handful of dogs appeared to really be “thinking about it” and there were times where it seemed like they went over to the 60 second machine to get their payout right on time.  My Beagle, Petey, just decided to pick up one machine and drag it closer to the other so he didn’t have to travel as far!

Some of the dogs are highly trained (agility dogs, advanced obedience, or just a really well trained family dog) and others were pretty raw (brand new rescue, zero training) – since the activity has nothing to do with performing behavior, it seemed to me that trained dogs did not necessarily figure things out faster or better.

Here’s a few more photos I took of some of the dogs that volunteered in August.  If your dog tells you they’d like to participate, just email me at andre@whenhoundsfly.com and I will include you in future calls for volunteers.  Krista is going to be running another set of experiments on the weekend of the 18th and 19th.

Farley the Beagle
Farley the Beagle's first taste of Roll Over!
Arlo the Hound
Arlo and Emily getting ready to start
Ruin the Rotty
Ruin doing a practice run while wearing his Thundershirt
Petey the Beagle
Petey frantically running back and forth on a practice run
Kaiya the Siberian Husky
Kaiya's "thinking about it"

Adding Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) to the Tickle Trunk

As many of you may know, my rescue Beagle, Duke, is dog reactive.  Initially, he was fearful and aggressive towards dogs in all settings (off leash, on leash, at the dog park, anywhere!) and before we began working with him, the mere smell of a dog (a dog’s scent lingering in the hallway of our condo even thirty minutes earlier) would trigger a howling fit.

At the time, the commonly prescribed approach to address dog reactivity was to train alternate behaviors (Watch Me, ignore the dog) and also desensitize and classically counter-condition new feelings towards dogs.  Books like Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell and Karen London, Fight! by Jean Donaldson, and Click to Calm by Emma Parsons covered these protocols in great detail and are very well-read in my library.

Next, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt introduced another tool – rewarding the dog for looking at the scary/hated dog and putting that on cue with “Look at That!”.

Along the way, we got Duke’s reactivity down to a point where walks became sane again and Duke was able to return to attending group obedience classes.  But, after nearly four years of working with him, his reactivity is reduced, but not cured, and he is what I’d call “manageable”, but still requires a lot of management.  Many dogs (including ones I’ve been hired to help with) DO become “cured” from this work but Duke isn’t there yet.

While completing my studies with the Karen Pryor Academy, Casey Lomonaco of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training introduced me to a new technique for rehabilitating aggressive dogs called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT).  Created by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, BAT is a protocol that uses operant conditioning to help dogs learn socially acceptable ways to deal with things that scare them (dogs, people, objects, etc.)

Recently, I ordered and viewed Grisha’s first DVD on the subject – Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) for Fear and Aggression from Dogwise.com.  This DVD is a live recording of a lecture she did on BAT in Novato, California, in January 2010.  It is NOT intended for average dog owners (its way too dog-geeky) but is a perfect watch for professional dog trainers and behaviorists that have a solid understanding of operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

BAT for Fear and Aggression DVD
BAT for Fear and Aggression DVD

In a nutshell, Grisha explains that reactive dogs have learned that lunging and barking sends scary things away.  Either the handler, due to embarrassment and wishing to stop the dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors, backs away and creates distance when their dog reacts – or the scary thing (the other dog owner, for example), leaves because they are afraid of the lunging dog.

In dog-geek terms, using the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence model we have:

  1. Antecedent = Scary Dog is approaching
  2. Behavior = Bark, Lunge, Growl
  3. Consequence = Scary Dog goes away

BAT is all about changing this sequence to:

  1. Antecedent = Scary Dog is approaching
  2. Behavior = Any calming signal or distance increasing body language – look away, sniff the ground, turn away, scratch, yawn
  3. Consequence = Scary Dog goes away.

There are three stages of BAT, which I won’t go into detail with here – but in its third, purest stage, no food or toys are used.  The simple functional reward of being allowed to leave by offering an appropriate calming signal is the sole reward.

When I first heard about BAT, I found the concept interesting, but I am delighted to say that with some preliminary exercises I did with Duke, the results have been quite positive.  Today, by coincidence, just before completing this blog entry, I had a chance to work with a reactive dog client with some ad-hoc BAT exercises at the nearby dog park.  Both of us were extremely pleased with the progress we were able to make in decreasing distance and keeping the dog calm and under threshold.  The relaxed body posture and demeanor of the reactive dog was significantly different than when we previously were using traditional food-based classical counter-conditioning techniques.  The dog’s owner commented on our swift progress and how much her dog seemed to “enjoy the game” of BAT.

I look forward to working more with BAT and sharing this new technique with the reactive dog owners in our community.

For average dog owners wishing to learn more, Grisha has put out a second DVD called Organic Socialization that appears to be better filmed and presented in a way that average dog owners can absorb and comprehend the information.  That being said, for this or any other aggression issue, consult a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist that has a solid understanding of operant conditioning and classical counter-conditioning when you get started.

Here is a short clip from Organic Socialization including a brief clip from a real life BAT session:

Learn more about BAT here:

http://ahimsadogtraining.com/blog/bat/

And discuss BAT and similar techniques on this Yahoo! Group:

http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/functionalrewards/

Three Things I Learned at Pet First Aid

I cancelled classes at When Hounds Fly weeks ago so that today, I could complete a course on Pet First Aid, issued by Walks ‘n Wags Pet Care and taught by Renee DeVilliers of All About Dogs.  The course covered topics ranging from preventative strategies, emergency restraint and transport, bandaging skills, bleeding, airway obstruction, mouth-to-snout, CPR, ingesting toxins, overheating, and a lot more.  It was a long day!

Here are pictures of my handiwork applying bandages to my stuffed animal:

Ear / Head Dressing
My ear's been torn off! Ouch!
Paw dressing
I broke my dewclaw... AGAIN
Impaled object dressing
How did I impale myself with this blue pen?

Here, Renee is showing us how to dress a wounded tail.  Cadence is wearing a pair of granny stockings and is handling it quite well.

Tail dressed and immobilized
Mustard is not my color, lady.

It was a content heavy course so I won’t even try to summarize what was covered in any great detail.  But, here are the top three interesting and easily digestible facts that I learned today that I wanted to share with you though:

  1. In the event of a medical emergency where you need to rush your dog to the vet or emergency – call ahead to let them know you are coming and describe the nature of the emergency.  Unlike people hospitals, they may or may not be ready for “anything”, so giving them advance warning allows them to be ready to treat your dog.  Every minute counts.
  2. Hurt dogs can bite (we know this!).  Condition your dog to being muzzled so that later in life, if the emergency calls for it, you can safely muzzle your dog and prevent him from biting you or someone else.
  3. Shaving down long-haired dogs in the summer to cool them off actually can increase the likelihood of them overheating.  Their hair, when brushed out, acts as insulation and allows cool air to travel to and around their skin.

Bonus point!

  1. Pet First Aid is not just for dog industry professionals.  Sure, there are plenty of dog groomers and dog walkers at the class today, but there were also two couples – one of which was about to get their first puppy.  I think every dog owner could benefit from taking a Pet First Aid course.

Pet First Aid is taught almost monthly at All About Dogs so contact them about getting on the list for the next session if you’re interested!  And if you’d like me to dress your dog’s head like the stuffed animal I did for photos, just for fun, let me know.

Andre

University of Western Ontario Canine Cognition Research

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from Krista Macpherson, a dog cognition researcher from the University of Western Ontario.  She found When Hounds Fly and reached out to us because she was looking to partner with a dog trainer with a sound understanding of science-based dog training.  I was floored!

After meeting with her last week and geeking out over dog cognition and experiments, she shared two published studies she worked on.  The first was a radial maze study that was published in Science.  The other was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology and it asked whether Dogs seek help in an emergency (the popular press picked it up and coined it the Lassie Experiment).  Owners faked heart attacks and also faked having bookshelves fall ontop of them.  Unfortunately, the dogs didn’t go out and seek help like Lassie would.  Oh well, that just means we can train “Get help!” as an operant behavior, put it on stimulus control, and have it handy just in case.

Lassie!  Go get help!  Or just sit there.
Lassie! Go get help! Or just sit there.

I’m so excited about this project for a bunch of reasons.  Firstly, clicker training exists because of the work done by scientists like B.F. Skinner in the 60s.  Without science, we would still be stuck following archaic training methods prescribed by old-school compulsion trainers like Koehler or the Monks of New Skete.  Secondly, having an affiliation with a researcher from the University of Western Ontario will help undecided dog owners make a good decision to enroll their dog in a humane, positive reinforcement dog training school instead of choosing a yank-and-crank compulsion trainer.  Lastly, the geek in me (I trained a goldfish after all) gets fired up at the thought of helping run science experiments involving my students’ and friends’ dogs!

If you’re interested in volunteering and having your dogs help out science, check this article out on our main site and let us know.  https://www.whenhoundsfly.com/resources/articles/75-caninecognitionexperiments.html

Book Review: When Pigs Fly! by Jane Killion

When Pigs Fly by Jane Killion
Training Success with Impossible Dogs

Published by Dogwise Publishing, 2007

198 pages

This is the book that inspired the name for the school!  Years ago when I got my first beagle rescue, I was struggling to get him to hear his name while on walks, nevermind train a loose leash walk.  While walking on King Street, a woman driving by slowed down, rolled down her window, and said “Don’t bother! Beagles can’t be trained! They pull!”

If this sounds familiar to you, and you look in wonder why that neighbourhood Poodle,  Border Collie, Golden Retriever, or German Shepherd are so naturally attentive to their owners, this book is for you.

Even if you happen to have that “naturally obedient” dog, this book is for you.

Of all the obedience training books I have read in the last few years, this is the most concise, clearly written training manual for dog owners of all levels.

Firstly, the book helps you understand why certain breeds are predisposed to handler attentiveness while others aren’t.  Killion coins those dogs (the Collies, Shepherds, etc.) as “biddible” dogs, selectively bred for their ability and desire to pay attention to their handlers and follow instructions.  Conversely, terrier and hound owners have “non-biddible” breeds that have been selectively bred for work that does not require handler instruction.  She gives new meaning to the phrase “Release the hounds!”.

Secondly, Killion gives readers a clear and concise explanation of the laws of operant conditioning and clicker training, and specifically calls out the importance of using shaping techniques, not lure-reward methods, for non-biddible breeds.  Non-biddible breeds are known for being stubborn, and as a result, training using shaping takes advantage of their natural breed characteristic of never giving up.  The truth is, ALL dogs, biddible or not, learn better with shaping, so this is particularly why this book should be recommended reading for any dog owner looking to train their dogs.

Lastly, Killion spends the majority of the book on focus and attention, work ethic, and using real-life rewards to train our dogs.  Some obvious examples are using sniffing for Beagles, jumping in a lake for Newfoundlands, or even jumping up and wrestling.

Hands down, this book is now my top recommendation for dog owners who are new to training.  It is concise and easy to digest for casual dog owners, but without insulting their intelligence by omitting key concepts.

Our first post! Welcome!

Hello there,

This is our first post!  We decided to create a separate blog from the main When Hounds Fly website.  The purpose of this blog is to allow us to more frequently update the community about things that we discover along our journey and mission of helping dogs and their owners live happier lives.

The types of content you’ll see here include:

  • Photos and videos of our students and their dogs doing amazing or cute things.
  • Review of books and videos that help us learn more.
  • Information about upcoming events and seminars on all things related to dogs.
  • New developments from the world of dog cognition, behavior, and training.

We look forward to your return soon!  Subscribe, visit, and comment often!