Breed, Behavior, and Mutt Genomics

Note: the author of this summary is second author on the paper

This paper describes multiple studies, which assess the effects of genetics and breed on canine behavioral traits; assess the difficulty of visual interpretation of mutt breed ancestry, and the morphological traits people use to guess breed ancestry; and find new genomic regions associated with behavioral traits in dogs.

As is typical of papers published in the prestigious journal Science, this paper contains several related studies that inform each other.

The researchers collected and analyzed:

  • 16,000+ owner surveys on their dogs' physical and behavioral traits, through the website darwinsark.org
  • 2000+ genetic sequences of dogs with surveys (a subset of the first, larger set of dogs)
  • Guesses from the public via the website muttmix.org about the top three breeds in a set of 31 highly mixed mutts, based on images, video, and short descriptions of the dogs
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Managing Errors in Behavior Chains

Clarity is critical for any learner. Whether we use an errorless learning approach, or we use a method of training that incorporates highlighting errors to our dog, it is still essential that we maximize the likelihood of success through careful set ups. It is also necessary to always be prepared to rapidly change strategies, as soon as we notice our dog is not becoming more confident, and more successful, throughout our training sessions.

Before we dive into the specific issues that can occur in our attempts to create successful and confident complex behavior chains, let's look at the broader area of managing errors.

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1453 Hits

The Lemonade Conference Free Lunch Panel on Mental Health for the Reactive Dog

 On Feb. 11th, 2022, the first day of The Lemonade Conference, our free lunch panel was on Mental Health for the Reactive Dog. Melissa Breau was joined by Amy Cook, PhD; Sarah Stremming; and Sophie Liu, DVM. The recording from the live stream is available below. 

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947 Hits

Reactive Trainer? And Why Does it Matter?

This is something that many people new to positive reinforcement (R+) training struggle with: Why can 'fixing' behavior problems (or any training problem) seem so much harder using
positive techniques than using punishment or force? I mean, you're rewarding the hell out of the behaviors you want so why are things still turning to custard? 

Because using positive reinforcement to change established behavior requires that we become PRO-active rather than RE-active trainers – and that is the challenging bit.

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1680 Hits

Building resilience: effort, reward, and coping with stress

Stress resilience is the ability to effectively respond to stress. In humans, higher levels of stress resilience are associated with decreased susceptibility to mental health disorders. Poor stress resilience is associated with mental and physical health concerns and decreased quality of life.

Basically, stress resilience is key to living a good life.

Dogs that have better stress resilience will be happier - and therefore less likely to develop behavior issues. This is all well and good, but is this something we actually have the ability to change? As more and more research comes out on this topic, the answer is increasingly becoming "yes"!

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The benefits of appropriate challenge for our dogs

We talk about enrichment in the dog world all the time. How important is it, really? It turns out that it's very important! In fact, the very definition of enrichment states that it improves animal welfare and wellbeing. Today I am going to focus on the topic of cognitive enrichment, which Clark defines as "an appropriate cognitive challenge [that] results in measurable beneficial changes to well-being" (Clark, 2011).

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Could Play Post-Training Help Improve What Your Dog Learned?

We put a lot of sweat and tears (hopefully no blood!) into training our dogs. So, we want to make sure they retain as much learning as possible between sessions. 

Both sleep and positive emotional states have been shown to enhance mental performance and memory in dogs when they occur immediately after learning a new task. Research also shows that emotional arousal can enhance memory. 

We often think of this occurring in conjunction with negative events—such as September 11th. But can it happen with strong positive emotions as well?

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1791 Hits

Understanding Fear in Dogs

The emotion of fear, and the associated fear response, are both completely normal components of any healthy animal. All dogs will show a fear response at some point in their life. It is particularly common to see fear responses in puppies and young dogs, as they learn about novel objects and situations.

A true fear response is a response focused on one or more specific and present stimuli. 

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How to Be Successful with Your Sporting Dog

The sporting dog group encompasses many beloved breeds, including some of the most popular. Whether you already own one of these wonderful dogs, or are considering a breed from this group, it's important to understand what these dogs were bred for so you know what to expect.

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Choice in Dog Training Part 2: Increasing choice to prevent and address behavioral issues

So, last week in Part 1, we discussed all the situations where we may consider limiting our dog's choices. Now let us look at some situations where increasing choice (or even offering unlimited choice) may be useful.

Offering choice and control remains a cornerstone of animal welfare. However, it is a harsh reality that many of our dogs have little control over their own lives. 

Like all captive animals, we mostly control what they eat, when they eat and how much they eat; they are mostly confined to a space that we dictate (our home, fenced yard, etc.); we control when they get to leave our property and for how long; and we mostly control where they go and what they do. In many homes they also have limited choice as to whether they are inside or outside; where they rest / sleep; and many even have no independent choice of when they toilet. These are adult creatures, independently capable of many tasks, with amazing cognitive skills, and we control their lives far more than even a captive zoo animal (who at least can toilet at any time and is only very rarely confined to a crate).

Much of this control is necessary for dogs to be safe and healthy, and for them to exist successfully within our society and especially within our homes. Fortunately for the most part dogs are amazingly adaptive and enjoy the life they are given. However sometimes it is worth objectively considering just how "unnatural" their lives are, and how little true control they really have. 

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Choice in Dog Training Part 1: Reducing choice can be a good thing!

For many years we have understood that choice and control are imperative to the welfare of all living organisms. However, once this phenomenon was discovered, it was assumed that if choice is good, then more choice would be even better!

Many human studies have proven this to be incorrect. Indeed, too much choice may lead to ambivalence, frustration, confusion, anxiety, stress, drained psychological energy and reduction in self-regulation. Although this seems counter-intuitive, the phenomenon can be observed in even the most basic of marketing experiments.

When researchers open a mini-shop offering over 20 flavors of a particular product, and then close and re-open offering less than 10 flavors, the shop with less choice will sell far more product overall. Having greater choice, does not result in improved decision making; rather, reducing choice can be seen to facilitate the process of decision making and, in many studies, has been linked to a reduction in associated stress.

Some of the reasons for this are quite specific to humans, as we are able to feel ongoing regret for a perceived poor choice, and we have the capacity to continue to compare our selection to all of the choices we didn't select.

However, there are also some underlying principles that can easily be applied to our dogs. If we offer only a very limited number of choices in a given circumstance, then the decision process is less difficult, is likely to be made more quickly, with less frustration and/or ambivalence, and the "right" outcome is far more likely to be selected. We know this. We implement this in many of our training strategies. We set the dogs up for success. We limit the other options available (e.g., the item we want the dog to interact with is the only item in the training environment initially). Then of course in conjunction with this strategy we heavily reinforce the behavior we desire.

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Superstitious Behaviors: What does your dog have in common with these famous celebrities?

Is there anything that you do or carry with you when you want good things to happen? A number of celebrities do. According to InTouch Weekly, actress Jennifer Anniston always enters a plane with her right foot first, and after tapping the outside of the plane. Singer Taylor Swift has a strong belief in the power of 13. She paints it on her hand before every show because, "13 is my lucky number; for a lot of reasons," she explained in an article to MTV in May 2009.

"It's really weird … I was born on the 13th," she continued. "I turned 13 on Friday the 13th. My first album went gold in 13 weeks. My first #1 song had a 13-second intro. Every time I've won an award I've been seated in either the 13th seat, the 13th row, the 13th section or row M, which is the 13th letter … Basically, whenever a 13 comes up in my life, it's a good thing."

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1756 Hits

Simplophile or Complexophile: How you say things matters.

These two words were recently added to my vocabulary by a fellow dog trainer. In a nutshell, the idea is that people have a natural tendency to make topics either simple or complex as a personality trait.

I am a complexophilephobic. My third newest word!

And I have friends who are theoretical complexophiles with applied simplophile tendencies.

How long did it take you to read those words, break them into pieces, and then process what I was trying to say? Was it intuitive and obvious or are you still puzzling them out?

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The Number One Reason Teaching Duration Behaviors is Hard (And A Simple Trick to Make it Easy)

Are you one of the lucky few who find duration easy to train? Or are you like the majority of us, and struggle with getting duration on behaviours?

Because it's an abstract concept, duration can be quite a challenge to teach. Often we can get it for certain behaviours, but not others. And we have no idea why!

We end up with a dog who barks, fusses, repeats the behaviour, offers new behaviours, or just gives up and quits.

If this is you, help is here. I'm going to explain why the most common way to teach duration so often backfires, and then share the method I use that makes teaching duration a snap.

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5284 Hits

Does Your Dog Feel Threatened (And Would You Really Know)?

Can you tell when your dog is uncomfortable? With experience, most people can figure it out. They get to know their own dog well and tend to notice when he's not being himself.

There are some typical stress-related behaviors most of us easily pick up on, but just like people, dogs might sometimes exhibit some less common or downright unusual signs of stress. I have a friend who laughs uncontrollably when she feels intense pain, and another who succumbs to giggle fits at really inappropriate times, like during a funeral or, once, while getting fired from a job she loved. Under very stressful situations, these friends respond with some rather unexpected behaviors.

Your dog might also display behaviors that are less than "textbook" when he's stressed. It takes practice to pick up on the more subtle clues, especially when they're a little on the unique side.

The good news is that most dogs will display the more easily recognized signs. The faster you can detect your dog's discomfort, the sooner you can intervene. Doing so will help prevent the development of a bigger fear-based problem, and if one already exists, knowing when and how to intervene can help your dog overcome his fear or discomfort. 

About twice a year I teach a class for FDSA on how to use counterconditioning and desensitization techniques to help treat fearful behaviors. Throughout the course I emphasize the importance of preventing dogs from "going over threshold" — that is, from putting them in a position where they are forced to cope with more than they can handle.

So how can you tell whether you've crossed that line? How much stress is too much?

First, we need to understand that signs of discomfort are often much more subtle than the bigger, more obvious signs that our dog is feeling extremely fearful.

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4128 Hits

Understanding Hyperawareness: What Happened When I Showered with a Spider

Today I took a shower with a spider.

It wasn't like I volunteered for this; I hopped in and was well along in the process of getting clean before I saw it in the shower pan. And this wasn't a tiny spider – it was a big one. I'd' say 3″ around or so.

Ok. Maybe it was closer to 1″, including the legs. But it FELT like 3″ when I realized that I was not alone.

I'm not afraid of spiders but I also do not choose to take showers with them. I was particularly unthrilled about the thought of one crawling on me when I shut my eyes to rinse my hair. But I could manage, and anyone watching would not have been aware of the turmoil going on inside of my mind as I kept half an eye on that spider and the rest of my brain on getting done with my shower.

And then my husband unexpectedly opened the bathroom door. I startled, screamed, and am quite lucky I didn't go through the glass.

What happened?

My husband has seen me shower before- after 20 years we're well past any issues there. And I had been showering with that spider for a couple of minutes already so that wouldn't have caused my reaction. But in my hyper aware state I seriously overreacted, likely risking my health a good deal more than anything that spider could have thought up to do to me.

When we are agitated, we are hyper aware. That internal state of awareness may or may not show on the outside, but the effort to continue on in a normal fashion absorbs most of our capacity.

Now let's talk about dogs.

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Language and Dog Training: Do the Words We Use Matter?

Ok, I admit it! At heart I am a scientist. My training is in maths, physics and psychology – I'm proud of my geek status and am happy to own it! However, the people I train on a daily basis are not geeks. They do not get a thrill when confronted with a new scientific bit of jargon to digest; they just want to be able to DO THE THING, dammit! So, wi...
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3190 Hits

The Science Cafe: Oh No! It's the Fourth Again!

For July 4th, we brought together Amy Cook, Ph.D.; Deb Jones, Ph.D.; Jennifer Summerfield, DVM; and Jessica Hekman, Ph.D. for the latest edition of the Science Cafe!  Below is the recording from their hour-and-a-half live webinar discussion of phobias, focusing on noise phobias in particular. The summer holidays can be the absolute W...
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4344 Hits

Will Peeing On Your Dog Fix His Resource Guarding Problem?

Yes, this is something I actually heard a trainer say at a workshop I was giving overseas.

In fact, having the unique opportunity to travel the world, giving talks about working with and modifying aggressive behaviors in dogs, I've been privy to some really interesting viewpoints when it comes to dog training.

"Spitting in your dog's food to claim ownership" is another one that ranks up there in the bizarre — and appetite spoiling — category.

While it would seem obvious that urinating on a dog will not fix a resource guarding issue, there are still a plethora of erroneous recommendations being doled out as gospel online and by well-meaning dog enthusiasts.

Some of these include:

  • Reaching into a dog's food bowl while they are eating so they "get used to it"
  • Taking their food bowl away while they are eating so "they know you own it"
  • Petting the dog while they are eating so they "get used to it"

This "advice" actually creates a lot of business for dog trainers and behavior consultants who work with resource guarding in dogs. A fair amount of my cases involving dogs who guard food bowls or other ingestible items have a history of being exposed to these annoying human attempts of well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed, proactivity. 

Now, there are some dogs who habituate to these interruptions during what should be a peaceful meal time — but why risk it? 

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10883 Hits

The Science Cafe: Science in the Media

Welcome to the Science Cafe! On March 20, 2019, three FDSA instructors with science PhDs hung out for an hour or two and talked science online.

The docs:

The subject: They chatted about a 2017 study on punishment-based dog training and social media coverage of the study. Sometimes, social media coverage is all you get, when studies (like this one) are not open access. How much can we trust this coverage? What does the full study actually say?

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