Archive for April, 2010

Dog Friendly

We got a nifty new coffee table. The dogs have decided that they own it.
No coasters required.

April 28, 2010 at 5:02 pm 4 comments

See no evil. Read no evil. Cite no evil.

The internet hosts hundreds of articles warning you about the dangers of electronic training collars (e-collars). Ruth over at Spot Check recently summarized a few of the most often cited studies in a post on the heated rhetoric surrounding the recent ban on the use of e-collars in Wales. Her post was the inspiration for this one.

The literature is full of references to studies by Schalke et al., Schilder and van der Borg and more recently, Herron et al. whose authors warn us that e-collar training (and indeed, any use of aversives) is unpleasant, painful, frightening — and pointlessly ineffective.

If you spend some time reviewing these articles, as I recently did, you might assume that no research supporting the use of e-collars is currently available.

And you’d be wrong.

Given the widespread references /cites to studies that support the idea that e-collars are not only cruel and abusive, but that they can also elicit aggressive behavior — imagine my surprise when I came across an article providing strong evidence that e-collars were astonishingly effective in rehabilitating aggression in dogs.

Daniel F. Tortora’s study, titled “Safety Training: The Elimination of Avoidance-Motivated Aggression in Dogs,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 1983. The article is only available by purchase but is well worth $11.95 if you have an interest in this area. (Note: the article was also published in Australian Veterinary Practitioner in 1984, 14 (2), 70–74.)

Tortora took an elegantly simple approach to treating what he referred to as “avoidance-motivated aggression”. He proposed that because avoidance-motivated aggression is learned and maintained as an avoidance response, the most effective way to counter-condition it would be to teach the dogs nonaggressive avoidance responses.

Tortora defines avoidance-motivated aggression as “a form of instrumental aggression that involves attacks or threats of attack directed toward one or more of the dog’s human caretakers”. Avoidance aggression typically starts out as aggressive avoidance responses to things like physical discomfort (such as from grooming), intrusions on areas that the dog views as his territory and commands he doesn’t want to comply with. According to Tortora, these dogs usually suffer from a lack of training and predictability in their lives and therefore feel like they lack control over their environment.  They behave like they expect bad things to happen and the only way to prevent the bad things is through aggression. When their frustrated owners resort to after-the-fact punishment, the dog’s expectations are reinforced, a feedback loop is created and the dog’s aggression escalates.

Tortora’s proposed remedy for this common, dangerous and difficult to remedy form of aggression consisted of teaching the dogs “nonaggressive, prosocial habits” such as AKC’s CDX level obedience exercises. He predicted that the probability of post-training aggressive behavior would be inversely proportional to the number of obedience exercises a dog gained proficiency in. The program also included teaching the dogs a conditioned safety signal that was used to reinforce good behavior and build the dogs’ confidence.

All exercises were introduced with the slip collar, then e-collar training was overlayed onto the introductory work. The e-collars used could emit two different tones, and tones and stimulation could be delivered separately or in conjunction with each other. The dogs were trained to perform 15 different commands at increasing levels of difficulty. These included: stand, down, come, go, hold, drop, sit, off, place, fetch, in, stay, play, no, heel, and hup. As commands were mastered, they were practiced in environments of increasing distraction. The dogs were initially trained by experienced trainers (Tortora doesn’t describe their qualifications but all were apparently able to train the dogs to a minimum of CDX level around significant distractions) in a board and train environment. Once the dogs were able to consistently perform the exercises under distraction without the e-collar, training was transferred to their owners, who used the e-collar only as needed to proof exercises.

Tortora stated that the dogs could be safely returned to their owners because: “Safety training with companion dogs, however, produces changes of long duration, perhaps even permanent changes. These changes in behavior readily transfer readily from the trainer to the dog’s owners and others.”

Many people are concerned that the stress of e-collar training will make dogs fearful or aggressive. While the dogs developed an initial conditioned anticipatory fear reaction during the escape training portion of Tortora’s program, their fear was extinguished during the subsequent avoidance and proofing stages. Upon reviewing these results, Tortora stated “It seems that the impact of safety reinforcement is to make the dog less fearful generally and better able to withstand trauma.”

How effective was this work? Well, in the abstract Tortora states that the program:

… resulted in complete and permanent elimination of aggression in all of the 36 dogs tested. In addition, it produced extremely extinction-resistant prosocial avoidance responses, significant increases in the dogs’ emotional stability, an avoidance-learning and safety acquisition response set, and improvements in measures of the dogs’ “carriage.”

Take a few minutes to let that sink in. If a study demonstrated similar results for clicker or food lure training it would be cited on tens of thousands of sites across the internet. The author would be the darling of popular dog magazines and a regular presenter at dog training conferences. Heck, I bet he’d even have his own television show – and (unlike another popular television dog trainer) there wouldn’t be a torch and pitchfork mob out to lynch him.

While I understand that the literature can be (and often is) cherry-picked to support preconceived notions even in peer-reviewed studies, I am absolutely stunned by the dog world’s shunning of Tortora’s work. His article is very rarely cited in recent studies related to ecollars, aversives, dog training and aggression — and when it is, it is not unusual for him to be misquoted or taken out of context. (details on that below the break)

Given the outstanding success Tortora had in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and the fact that his article appeared in a well-known journal published by the American Psychological Association, why are studies published by Schalke, Schindler and Herron (and opinion pieces written by Pat Miller) touted as landmark studies on e-collar use while his work languishes in anonymity?

Using e-collars to train dogs is a controversial and emotionally-charged issue. This is largely because, as Steven Lindsay writes:

… the word shock is loaded with biased connotations, images of convulsive spasms and burns, and implications associated with extreme physical pain, emotional trauma, physiological collapse, and laboratory abuses.

Shock scares us. Despite the fact that electrical stimulation can now be used to relieve pain, most people simply cannot come to terms with the idea that a ‘shock’ can be used as anything but a terrifying and harshly punitive bolt from god.

Unlike those commonly in use today, early electronic training collars could only  be used in a harshly punitive way – and much of the laboratory research that has been done on shock, aversion, escape and avoidance was horrifyingly cruel. Along with the strongly negative connotations associated with the word “shock”, the ugly history of the use of shock in behavior modification studies also affects our feelings and opinions about its place in dog training.

The current literature on the use of aversives (especially electronic ones) in dog training shows a striking lack of articles that present results that call popular ideas favoring positive reinforcement only dog training into question. And unfortunately, as we recently saw in Wales, the results published in these studies are being used to further a political agenda.

There are far too many cases where great scientific advances were made based on a piece of odd, apparently anomalous or unpopular bit of work that could very easily have fallen by the wayside. Rejecting, ignoring or suppressing data and ideas that don’t fit in with popular thought is a dangerous kind of censorship. And it is crucial that we do all we can to it in a world where science has an increasingly important effect on the personal and regulatory decisions we make.

————————————————————————–

Below the break: Links and brief summaries of recent literature related to using e-collars to train dogs, and some notes on the journals the articles are published in.

(more…)

April 27, 2010 at 10:30 am 39 comments

Linky Stuff

A few things to tide you over while I work on some other projects:

Once again, writers at The Onion scoop real scientists.

Dogs are not allowed to run for mayor in Canada.

Dog rescued from burning home is successfully treated by firefighters. More first responders are being trained in pet first aid and CPR and an increasing number of fire departments are purchasing equipment needed to save pets. This is good for pets and pet lovers.

In some not so good news – as tick populations explode in many parts of the country (including ours) – tick bites are also becoming more dangerous. According to the Grand Forks Herald:

In 2008 and 2009, Minnesota saw its first two recorded cases of Powassan encephalitis, which comes from deer ticks and can cause severe neurological illness. Last year a child from Dakota County also died from a rare case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, most commonly spread by dog, or wood, ticks. The number of tick-borne diseases in Minnesota rose to record levels in 2008.

According to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine:

Like most other arthropod-borne viruses, POW virus may cause no symptoms, or only mild illness, in some individuals. However, when the virus penetrates the central nervous system (CNS), it can cause encephalitis. POW encephalitis is often associated with significant long-term illness and it has a fatality rate of 10% to 15%. Of those patients who survive, many suffer permanent brain damage. There is no vaccine or specific therapy.

[…]

When POW virus attacks the CNS, it causes cell death, inflammation and swelling within the brain (encephalitis). Themembranous coverings (meninges) of the brain and spinal cord may also become inflamed (meningitis). Symptoms usually beginsuddenly 7-14 days following infection, and include headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck, and sleepiness. As the diseaseprogresses, more severe symptoms develop, such as breathing distress, tremors, confusion, seizures, coma, paralysis, and sometimesdeath.

Symptoms of different arboviral infections are difficult to distinguish. Therefore, laboratory tests are necessary to confirm diagnosis. These tests are not commercially available, but testing can be performed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when requested through state public health laboratories. Blood tests that detect antibodies to POW virus are most often used. Occasionally, POW virus may also be isolated from blood, cerebrospinal fluid, or other tissue.

There are no specific treatments or medications for Powassan encephalitis. Therapy is supportive only, directed at relieving the symptoms. This includes good nursing care, administration of intravenous fluids, respiratory support (ventilator), and prevention of secondary infections (pneumonia, urinary tract, etc.). Steroids may sometimes be used to reduce swelling in the brain.

Lovely. Now instead of just having a bad case of the heebie-jeebies when I find ticks on the dogs or myself – I can be completely paranoid that we’re going to come down with a potentially lethal, incurable disease.

I hate ticks

April 26, 2010 at 11:03 pm 6 comments

Hakuna matata

I thought things were exciting here when Audie went after a woodchuck in our front yard. And while a churlish chuck may put a few holes in my boy’s dog suit, it isn’t likely to carry him off and eat him for dinner.

It could have been worse. In fact, it could have been a lot worse. On Saturday KSAX reported:

Jessica Dahl saw the lions out her front window after she heard her dog barking.

“I looked out and he was lunging at something.  I looked out the front door and then I saw the lions,” Dahl explained.

Lions? In Bemidji, Minnesota? It’s not unusual for wolves to prey on dogs in Minnesota, but lions are quite rare here. Especially African lions.

Two 6-month-old lion cubs were brought back to Paul Bunyan Animal Land in Bemidji Thursday afternoon after they escaped from their pen and were found reportedly wrestling with a dog in a yard in southern Beltrami County Thursday around 10:30 a.m.

Marjan and Aslan escaped from a temporary pen during spring cleaning. The lion cubs, who are described as being quite tame, played with the dog without hurting it. When staff from Paul Bunyan Animal Land responded with sheriff’s deputies, the lions came when they were called and followed the ‘rescuer’s back to their cage.

This isn’t the first time animals have escaped from the facility, and the Beltrami Sheriff’s will be working with Minnesota DNR to investigate.

I’m not sure what I’d do if I discovered a couple of lions (African or otherwise) playing with my dogs. Fortunately there aren’t any wild animal parks nearby and it’s illegal to own or keep wild animals as pets in Goodhue County.

African lions in Bemidji, MN

April 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm 4 comments

Are We Having Fun?

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

One very dead sucker

When the dogs and I went down to let the chickens out this morning, Audie found a small dead bird and brought it to me. Based on the bird’s size and its bill, I initially thought it was a Hairy Woodpecker, but a glance at the belly told me it was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. One very dead sucker.

Like the Hairy Woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a black and white bird that’s slightly smaller than a robin. The Sapsucker is the only woodpecker with a prominent vertical white stripe down its side. It has a striking red crown and forehead and the bird gets it name from its yellow breast. Both the male and female have red crowns, the female’s throat and chin are yellow-white and the male’s are red. As you can see, this bird is a female.

The white stripe on her side and her red crown are visible here (Audie was really proud of this little prize – and while he held her gently, the boy did not want to put her down, so I humored him and let him hold the bird while I took pictures).

Sapsuckers are common in our woods though we hear them a lot more than we see them. While we’re usually alerted to their presence by the sound of their drilling we’re also amused by their odd catlike territorial calls. And it cracked me up when I read that a group of Sapsuckers is referred to as a slurp.

This pretty little girl was probably killed when she collided with one of our living room windows. She had to hit it hard, because Audie found her a good 20 feet from the window and, based on the profuse bleeding from her mouth, the little bird was probably dead on, or just shortly after, impact. Birds don’t understand that the reflections of world in a window are an illusion and millions of them die from window collisions every year.

Kit Chubb of the Avian Care and Research Foundation published a summary of 397 cases of proven or witnessed window collisions by 80 different species of birds. Birds that died were necropsied, surviving birds were treated. Nearly half of the birds studied had closed head injuries and a third suffered from internal hemorrhaging. Fifteen percent had blood in their mouths and in only five cases did this originate from a brain injury. Over half the birds studied died or were euthanized.

Chubb writes that fatal internal hemorrhages in birds that strike windows often occur through aortic dissection. When the heart decelerates suddenly, the aorta, which is fixed in place, stays put and the two organs are ripped apart (this is same thing that is believed to have killed Princess Di). Death from aortic dissection is almost instantaneous.

No Sapsuckers were included in Chubb’s study, but eighteen Hairy Woodpeckers and twenty Downy Woodpeckers did – and only one of them died. Woodpeckers, Sapsuckers and other piciformes have built in cranial anti-collision systems that protect them from many collisions — but it appears that our little Sapsucker quite literally died of a broken heart…

April 18, 2010 at 9:39 pm 4 comments

Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass is:

An unsentimental elegy to the American West, “Sweetgrass” follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.

Heart-breaking. Beautiful. Brilliant.

Updated with this link to an excellent video interview with the filmmakers on WNYC.

April 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm 8 comments

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