E109: Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD. - What Makes Dogs' Brains Tick

This week we bring back Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about what the science says on topics like when or if you should spay and neuter, how socialization actually works, and more!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I'm talking to Dr. Jessica Hekman.

Dr. Jessica Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Studies in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics.

Previously, she graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on the behavior and cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Hi Jessica! Welcome back to the podcast.

Jessica Hekman: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you just remind everyone who your current pups are and what you're working on with them?

Jessica Hekman: Yes. I have two. I have Jenny, who's a 9-year-old mixy-mix. She's this very cute little 35-pound thing. She looks like a tiny little blonde Border Collie. She's behaviorally challenged, very shy, so for a long time that was all we worked on. But after I got my new dog, she indicated that she might be interested in learning to do some sports just in the house — not going out and having other people see her doing sports, but just in-house sports. As you know, you and I are playing around with her doing some treibball, and I haven't gotten back to you on that recently because I'm a bad mom.

Melissa Breau: You're busy! You've got lots going on.

Jessica Hekman: I am busy, that's true. And then I have my 2-and-a-half-year-old English Shepherd, Dashiell, known as Dash. I got him to be an agility dog, and then he had this orthopedic issue that took me such a long time to finally get someone who could diagnose and fix it. So we are doing nosework at this point and debating whether we want to go back into agility or not.

But I've also realized that I'm sort of a … I shouldn't say I'm a crappy handler. I'm a green handler, but I'm a little bit not fantastic at being clear about what I want him to do. He loves nosework because he can be in charge of going and finding the yummy things. So I am working on myself right now, taking Sue Ailsby's shaping class to try to be a better handler. Hopefully we'll get back to agility. We'll see how that goes.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know your background and your day-to-day work is a bit different than most of the other instructors at FDSA. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jessica Hekman: Sure. What I'm interested in is what makes dog brains tick, like, what's different in the brain of a dog who's really fearful compared to a dog who you can take anywhere, one of those "Go anywhere, do anything" dogs.

I work in a laboratory that studies pet dogs, and we use citizen science to do it, so we don't go kidnap people's pet dogs and do things to their brains. What we do is we have a website, DarwinsArk.org, and people can come and they can answer a few hundred questions about their dog's behavior, which is actually more fun than it sounds. Sometimes when I'm watching the site logs I can see people going through and doing it all at once, and I'm always amazed when people do that. Then we can send them a saliva swab to get a sample of their dog's DNA, and we use that to try to figure out what genetic differences are there in this dog that make its personality the way that it is. So that's my job.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. What was it about research that pulled you in? What led you from working to become a vet to choosing to dedicate your career instead to research and that piece of it?

Jessica Hekman: It's interesting that you say "instead," because I consider myself a veterinary researcher. I'm still working as a vet; I'm just in research instead of in a clinic. There's not that many of us around. It's certainly true that veterinary school emphasized clinical medicine, but I think of it as a combination of the two, rather than a "this one or that one."

I actually was working as a computer programmer in the mid-to-late '90s, when I got out of college. They were just taking warm bodies, and it was a lot of fun. It was a good job. I got to work from home most of the time, with my dog, which was really nice, but I started getting bored and getting really interested in dog brains. So even from the beginning I was like, What do I want to do? Do I want to be a vet or do I want to get a Ph.D.? What's the best way to learn about dog behavior?

At the time, I talked to someone who was the closest I could get to an animal behavior researcher locally. He studied social insects, so not all that close to dogs, but he was the best I could get. What he said was, "Well, researchers don't study dogs." This was in 2005. "Researchers don't study dogs. They're sort of a constructed species, so they're not interesting. You could study wolves, or you could be a vet and do medicine with dogs, but you can't really study dog behavior."

What he said was sort of true at the time, that there weren't any labs doing that. I figured if I became a vet, then I could prescribe meds, and that would be a good, useful thing, so I went to vet school. As you said, halfway through … I was doing this dual-degree program, so I took the first two years of vet school, then I stopped to do my Master's, so that was the first time that I'd really dug into research. Putting all that together, realizing that clinical medicine was not that interesting to me, being a veterinary behaviorist and trying to fix dogs who were busted — not all that interesting to me. But doing research and trying to figure out why dogs get busted in the first place — super-interesting. That was when I was like, Well, dammit, I guess I need to do the Ph.D. too. So I ended up doing that. I went straight from vet school to the Ph.D. I did do that internship, but I did not do any real practice in between.

After my internship, I went to a Ph.D. program. Basically I'd been hiding out in vet school, waiting for the right program to come around, is one way to think of it. There still weren't any laboratories doing what I wanted to do with dogs, but there was a laboratory studying Russian tame foxes, who are such a great model for looking at anxiety in dogs, so I was really lucky to get to go work in that laboratory. And then, by the time I graduated, a laboratory doing exactly what I wanted to do in dogs had appeared. So I've just been very lucky that at each next step of my path, just the right thing has appeared just in time.

Now I'm working with Elinor Karlsson at the Broad, doing exactly what we talked about just a minute ago. Which reminds me: Good job pronouncing Broad correctly. It's confusing to a lot of people. It took me a while to wrap my head around it. It's named after the people who founded it, and their names are spelled Broad, but it's pronounced Brode, and it's so hard to look at Broad and say Brode, although now I do it naturally, and when people do it the other way, I'm like, "Ah, no." So well done.

Melissa Breau: Thanks. If we could pause for just a second, you were talking about the tame fox thing, and I think a lot of people, probably their ears pique up about that. Do you mind going a little more into how that happened? How did you wind up there and what you were working on there?

Jessica Hekman: Do you think most people listening to this know who the tame foxes are, or do you want me to give a quick overview?

Melissa Breau: It can't hurt to give a quick overview.

Jessica Hekman: Yes, and I can do it super-fast, which is that they are a population of foxes selectively bred to be super-tame and friendly to people. They have been bred in Siberia for the past forty or fifty years at this point. And there's a sister population of foxes bred to be very aggressive and fearful, also kept in the same place.

Where I was working in Illinois, we didn't actually have foxes. We would work with blood samples and brain samples and things like that, brought over from Russia, which getting them over was such a huge pain in the ass, as it turned out. So is fox poop, which is a whole fun story in and of itself. So basically I had been stalking Anna Kukekova for years. She had been working at Cornell, studying these foxes, and I tried to set up to do my Master's with her and that fell through, but I had been e-mailing with her, and so when I was ready to do a Ph.D., I got in touch and she said, "I am just starting my own lab off the University of Illinois. Come be my very first graduate student and we'll have this project for you to work on."

I got to go and study what the difference is in the stress response between the tame foxes and the aggressive foxes. We know, unsurprisingly, that the tame foxes have a much milder stress response. They don't make as many of the stress hormones. So the question is, What's going on in the actual organs in the brain that are involved in that? What's different? So I got to study that, which was super-cool.

Melissa Breau: That is super-cool.

Jessica Hekman: And it was fun.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people think about science and are like, "Well, it's less fun than training." As somebody who teaches science classes, why should people want to take a science class?

Jessica Hekman: It's definitely a different thing. It's a lot less hands-on and it's a lot more in your head. My classes are structured not to be just dumps of science onto people. They're structured about helping people learn to think like a scientist in the case when it's appropriate to do so.

Obviously, in a lot of your life, it's better not to be approaching everything suspiciously and demanding evidence and thinking through how that evidence was found. But it turns out there's a lot of bad science floating around us out there on social media, and we're sort of just swimming in it. Most of us haven't had any real training in how to approach these claims that you see on Facebook all the time, where these tiny little summaries of new studies that have come out and you get this one-sentence summary of it and you're supposed to take something away from it.

So part of why I teach these classes is I really want to have a space for people to go try to get some practice learning how to deal with some of this stuff, and how to approach thinking through these things, and what you want to take from it and what you want to believe and what you don't want to believe. It's giving people tools to do stuff like that. My classes are very much structured in terms of "Go off and read this other resource, and then I'll tell you what my take on it is and we'll talk about it." So it's really about that, and there's not a lot of other places out there for people to get that kind of practice and experience.

Melissa Breau: You guys did a Science Café that was along those themes too, recently, right?

Jennifer Hekman: Yes, exactly. Deb and Amy and I are all trying to provide those same tools for the same practice environment for FDSA students. That was one example of how we did that.

Melissa Breau: For anybody who's listening who wants to check that out, it's free, it's up on the FDSA blog, it's the recording of the conversation from that night. So it's totally worth going and checking that out. You can get the FDSA blog just by going to FenziDogSportsAcademy.com/blog and it will put the blog up, and then you can find the Science Café there on the list.

Jessica Hekman: It was super-fun to record, so hopefully fun for people to listen to as well.

Melissa Breau: To get into your syllabus a little bit here, you were mentioning your class, and I think you cover some really interesting and applicable topics in your class, not just about how do you look at the science. One thing that jumped out at me in particular was you were talking about how brain wiring changes during the socialization period. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jessica Hekman: Sure. We all know the socialization period is super-important for puppies. It's the time when their brains are soaking in important information, making important associations, and that it's a lot easier during that time to teach them what's normal about the world, and if you miss that window, it's a lot harder to do that important work later on.

The question that I try to address in that part — there's a couple of weeks in my class — is what's different in their brains during socialization, and why is that socialization window special biologically, like, what is it that's going on there.

It turns out there's a couple of different ways of answering that question. One is the way that neurons, brain cells, interact with each other is really different during that window. They're making a lot of connections with each other in some ways that they don't do later on, so we talk about that in a lot of details. The other thing that's different is how the stress response works, that the hormones that are involved in the stress response really tamps down during that early part of the socialization period, and that makes it a lot easier for puppies to interact with new things and not be scared of them, because they don't have that same hormonal response going on. Understanding the timing of how all this works in puppy brains is actually helpful on a more practical level, so that you can understand how important the socialization work is done by the breeder or by the puppy's first home and that some windows are already starting to close even by the time you bring the puppy home. That has been something that people have taken away from the course as something that can help them change how they manage their dogs.

Melissa Breau: How has that impacted what you've done with your own dogs? I know you got Jenny when she was a little bit older, but I think you got Dash when he was pretty young. How have you applied it?

Jessica Hekman: He was 9 weeks old when I got him. I knew I wanted to get a puppy, partly because I wanted to actually see the socialization period for myself. I'm interested in studying it, and I felt like I should live through it. I'm interested in anxious dogs, so I got an anxious dog. That was Jenny. I'm interested in socialization, so I was like, "I need to get a puppy."

It was going to be my first puppy, because I'd always had adult dogs before. It was really important to me that he be super-solid, because Jenny was going to be helping me raise him and Jenny, while she's so much better than she was, she's still quite anxious, and she will rocket up out of a sound sleep screaming that axe murderers are at the door. That's hard for anyone to deal with, but I was really worried that any puppy that I brought home during that really sensitive period would be taught by her that the world is scary, and so I needed a resilient puppy.

I thought about what's the best way of doing that, and because I'd always gotten dogs from rescues and shelters before, that was the first place that I went to look. I was hoping that I'd be able to find a shelter puppy whose mom had been pregnant, but in the home of someone who was fostering her, not in the shelter, and that the puppy had gotten a good, solid start in life, because I thought that was going to be really important. I kept finding these puppies that were like, "Oh, they came in and they were 6 weeks old and they were anemic from all the ticks that were on them, so they were in the E.R. for a couple of weeks." And I was like, "Lord, no. Those puppies are not going to be able to live with Jenny at all. They're going to need special work."

I realized that it was going to be super-important to get a dog from a breeder who had done that such important work of giving him a solid foundation early on, and also that I would be able to meet both parents and assure myself that the genetics going in were solid as well. Not to say that that is the course that everybody should take, but for my specific situation, I really felt that it was important.

Melissa Breau: You needed to stack the deck in your favor.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah. Because Jenny was just going to unstack it, so I needed some big guns going in for that.

Melissa Breau: Once you'd decided that you were going to stack the deck in your favor and you brought Dash home, how did knowing the science impact what you did with him once he was on the ground?

Jessica Hekman: For once he was on the ground, yeah. So continuing to work with him through his socialization period, knowing when it ended. Another really important part of the class, I guess, is talking about spay/neuter decisions, so I definitely took that into account when deciding whether to neuter him or not.

I had never lived with an intact dog before, either, but there's been some interesting research coming out lately suggesting that while we had always thought that neutering dogs was just this default way that we were going to do things, and everybody who was a responsible owner and not a breeder would obviously spay or neuter their dogs, some research has suggested that there may be some associations, some health risks of spay/neuter, and so as a result of that, as a lot of people know, a lot of people have started not neutering their dogs, and so that was suddenly an option that was open.

So I sat down with that research and really thought about it. Particularly when he hit between 6 and 9 months, he was a little holy terror, as people who have had dogs of that age I'm sure know. He was humping everything in sight, and he would do things like attach himself to a female dog when we were out in public. If he was off-leash, he would be like, "OK, this is my woman now, and no one else can come near her," and stuff like that that was just driving me around the bend. So I did a lot of thinking about what would it mean if I were to neuter him, like (a) If I consider these behavioral issues, is my best bet to neuter him and hope that they will go away because of that, or is my best bet to work on them from a management and modification perspective.

I took a look at what the science was out there on that, and also what are the health risks going to be if I do neuter him. It's a lot to think through. In the end, the answer, of course, is that while there's more and more studies coming out, we don't solidly know what any of the answers are saying. There's some correlations, but we don't know exactly what's going on yet. I think I came down on the side of "You can take the balls away, but you can't give them back."

We got through the terrible teenage year and he's doing better now, and so far, keeping him intact and happy with it. But if the time were to come when I were to feel like it would be better to neuter him, I would also feel comfortable with that decision.

Melissa Breau: Looking ahead, what questions are you hoping that science will be able to help us answer in the next 5 to 10 years? Or a little bit longer, if you want.

Jessica Hekman: I would really love to better understand the risks of what is it genetically that makes dogs be at a higher risk for being really fearful or being really anxious, and what's the biology in the brain that makes that stuff happen, why do dogs turn out that way. I don't honestly know if we'll get there in five to ten years. It may be longer than that. But I hope we're on the cusp of figuring out how to get at these traits, like fearfulness, that are so biologically complicated.

Lots of people on the human side are working on exactly this. It's not just the laboratory where I work. The idea is that there's dozens of genes working together to affect your risk of developing anxiety, so it's super-hard to start to piece that system apart to understand it. There are some tools that we have out there, which my laboratory is using, which people on the human side are using.

We're not making super-significant headway. We're sort of chipping away at this mountain at this point, and so that's what I'm hoping that in the next five to ten years that either we figure it out or that we figure out at least a different approach that will get us to be taking faster steps rather than the little baby steps we're taking right now.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Is there anything that you feel we've learned a lot about recently that you care to share?

Jessica Hekman: Talking as I just did about how complicated it is to understand the genetics of traits like anxiety or friendliness, or things like interest in toys, or even the risk of cancer, things that we call complex traits, it's only been in about the last decade that we've started to realize how hard it is to figure all that stuff out.

Thinking back to around 2000, when we first were able to read the first full human genome and were able to decode the DNA from one person entirely end-to-end, at that point the thinking was, We're all set now. We'll just do this for a bunch of different people, and then we'll compare all the differences, and then we'll find the answers to things like why some people are more anxious than others, or why some people get cancer or diabetes or schizophrenia.

It actually took a while, probably because it took a while for the costs to come down enough that we could collect enough people, to start realizing that doing those studies was not giving us the answers. We just kept not finding the genetic answers to those questions. People were really super-surprised, because we know that things like anxiety are influenced by genetics. We know that your risk for being anxious does have a lot to do with whether your biological parents are anxious or not anxious.

So people have been really perplexed about why we're not finding the answers, and so we're still not really sure, although we think it's because there's lots and lots of genes affecting these traits, and that computers are just not powerful enough to untangle all those interactions, like some genes make your risk for anxiety higher and some genes make your risk for anxiety lower. Some make the risk higher, but only if this other gene is set this particular way, and otherwise it makes it lower. For the thousands and tens of thousands of genes that we're looking at, computers are not able to piece that all apart.

So I guess the answer is the same to both questions. It's what I hope we solve soon, but it also is a question that has appeared recently, like, why is this stuff so hard, what's going on.

Melissa Breau: Alright, so we were talking about your class a little earlier. I want to dive into that a bit more. Do you want to talk about what you cover, and who should take it? What do people need to know?

Jessica Hekman: It's great for people who are thinking about getting a new dog and they want to think through what kind of dog they want. It's not just for people who want to get puppies. There's a lot about puppies in there, but if you want to get an adult, there's definitely some stuff in there too.

It's not just about deciding what breeder to pick or whether to neuter your dog. It's also about understanding the consequences for how those decisions were made, even if they were made for you, because shelters will make those decisions for you. But it's still useful to understand, I think, what it means for the dog that you're living with.

We talk about the genetics of health in terms of the tradeoffs between getting a purebred or a sport-bred mix or a super-mixy-mix, a mutt, who wasn't intentionally bred versus a dog from a more outbred breed, and what all of that means. We talk about puppy brain development in really excruciating detail. And then we talk about spay/neuter, of course, what we know about it, what we don't know about it, and how to go about making that decision. So for somebody who has a young dog or who is thinking about getting another dog and wants to think through all of this stuff, that's pretty much the audience that it's designed around.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. Whatever point in the process you're at in terms of getting a new dog, it sounds like it will guide you through the things you need to think about before a puppy comes home, or before a dog comes home, to make decisions.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, looking into the future, a year in the future, it can help you think through, like, When I'm ready to do that, how am I going to do it? We all like thinking about our next dog, I think. I'm several years away from my next dog, but I'm already playing with, Who would it be, what would I get?

Melissa Breau: I get that. We definitely all like to think about that.

Jessica Hekman: Like Christmas every day.

Melissa Breau: Final question here. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dogs and science?

Jessica Hekman: I was spending all week thinking about how to answer the question you always ask about training, and now you ask me about science instead, which is very cool because I am …

Melissa Breau: I'll let you answer both.

Jessica Hekman: I could be like, "No, I'm going to answer that training question," but I'm not at the level of the other trainers you interview, so it was going to be super-embarrassing, like, "Oh yeah, I figured out something basic recently."

But science — I was thinking about it today. It has nothing to do with dog sports, but I was reading about how a co-worker of mine did some important work helping with conservation of red wolves. This is a super-cool population of animals. They developed from intermixing wolves and coyotes, either hundreds or thousands of years ago, and so now that they're their own species based on both wolf and coyote, and they've been very, very close to going extinct. There were only seventeen of them at one point a few years back. So people are trying to figure out how to save them and reintroduce them back into the range that they had been in, in the North Carolina area.

But it turns out that as they had been reintroducing them, there are so few red wolves already there for them to meet with that the animals that are being reintroduced end up mating with coyotes because they're part coyote, and so the project is failing because dogs and wolves and coyotes are so willing to interbreed with each other. It's so fascinating to me that as humans we put our labels on what a species is, and what we want to preserve, and how we want to preserve this thing that we've labeled red wolves, and we have this idea that they should mate with other things that we think of as red wolves, and in this species that we've defined. But instead, these really incredible and adaptable animals are out there finding their own solutions, which are not the solutions we want them to find, which maybe brings us back to dogs, because our dogs are doing that all the time in our houses, finding solutions that we don't want them to find to "I'm bored," or "I'm hungry," or "I need exercise," or stuff like that. So it's cool, it's this ongoing thing that I've been keeping an eye on for the last few years thinking, How is this going to work out? A very interesting situation out there.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, for sure. So I'm curious now what your too-basic training reminder was, so …

Jessica Hekman: Oh, no! I thought I'd get out of it!

Melissa Breau: Can I convince you to share?

Jessica Hekman: Yes, if people don't judge me too much. I've had two different trainers in the last couple of weeks who I've been working with who have explained to me the whole concept of "Click for behavior and feed for position."

As I said, I'm trying to be better about shaping, and better about exactly what to mark, and I was doing that classic beginner's mistake of waiting for the dog to complete the behavior and stand there being, like, "I'm done," and clicking that, rather than clicking while the dog was in motion.

I've had this problem with Dash where he's very slow and he doesn't like to complete the motion that I'm trying to get him to complete. And I'm like, Oh, if you click a little bit earlier before he's done moving, then things will go better. Amazing. That's where I've been the last week or so. But we've been making good progress since I figured that out.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Jessica! This has been great.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, it's been so much fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time with Helene Lawler to talk about herding and living with intact dogs.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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