Archive for December, 2009

Happy – or Just Hyper?

It annoys me when someone sees a spastically out of control dog and gushes about how “happy” he looks. I’ve always suspected that this kind of hyperactive, mindless behavior didn’t represent happiness and now it looks like science is there to back me up.

A recent article in Slate Magazine on our growing obsession with the internet provides insights on the important difference between happy and hyper — and why it’s important to find a balance between the two.

Way back in the dawn of cognitive science (1954), psychologist James Olds made a fortuitous mistake when he stuck an electrode in the wrong part of a lab rat’s brain. Olds and his team were surprised to discover that after they applied a low voltage current to the electrode, the rat became obsessed with getting more shocks to his brain.

Slate’s Emily Yoffe writes:

Olds eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.

Olds, and everyone else, assumed he’d found the brain’s pleasure center (some scientists still think so). Later experiments done on humans confirmed that people will neglect almost everything—their personal hygiene, their family commitments—in order to keep getting that buzz.

While others were convinced that Olds had inadvertently found the brain’s pleasure center, Estonian affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp wasn’t convinced. Panksepp noticed that when their hypothalmi were stimulated the rats didn’t look like they were experiencing bliss. Instead of ecstatic, he described the rats’ behavior as “excessively excited, even crazed.”

After Panksepp’s work convinced him that the region in question was not the pleasure center, he knew he needed a new name for it. After much debate he settled on the term “seeking”.

Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

Dopamine drives the seeking system. When they’re aroused, the dopamine circuits in our brains put us in the seeking state where we feel eager and aroused. The sense of arousal makes us want more and drives us to find more stimulation to keep pumping dopamine into our brains.

Professor Kent Berridge from the University of Michigan has also done a lot of research on the ‘pleasure center’ and, like Panksepp, has come to the conclusion that Olds didn’t find it.  In fact, Berridge’s work has identified two different feedback systems in the brain: “wanting” and “liking”.  Wanting is another name for Panksepp’s seeking system, and it arises in the same part of the brain activated by stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Berridge believes that the liking system, which is stimulated by the same areas as opiate drugs, is the brain’s pleasure center.

Wanting and liking work together to control our mammalian sense of motivation. Wanting inspires us to act and liking creates a sense of fulfillment or consummation that lets us stop seeking. If liking wasn’t around to shut off seeking, we’d seek obsessively until we died. These kinds of responses are highly maladaptive.

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore.

When the wanting/seeking and liking circuits fall out of balance, bad things happen. When the seeking circuit is cut off by destroying dopamine receptors, laboratory animals starve themselves to death because they’ve lost all desire to satiate themselves with food. When their seeking circuits are overloaded by flooding their brains with dopamine, animals seek madly for food, but get no pleasure from eating it.

Our brains don’t just seek concrete things like food and sex. Mammals seek novelty because bursts of dopamine are emitted in the wake of unexpected rewards. They also seek information, though some kinds of information appear to affect the system more intensely than others.

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

And so at last we come back to that hyperactive, treat- or toy-obsessed dog. Over-treating, over-rewarding, over-luring and over-cuing dogs is a disturbingly common mistake in dog training today. As trainers become obsessed with “dog-friendly” training methods and keeping dogs in a constant state of happiness, they seem to have forgotten the importance of balance.

Healthy, intelligent animals need to move back and forth between the pleasure states of seeking and liking.  The yang of seeking must be balanced by the yin of wanting or the mind will spin out of control in dysfunctional feedback loops of dissatisfaction or obsession instead of being fulfilled by the strong, intrinsic rewards of fulfillment.

December 30, 2009 at 6:06 am Leave a comment

Local Fishermen

This pair has spent every afternoon for the last two weeks fishing in our backyard.  I wonder if they’ve got a nest somewhere nearby?

In other news, Santa brought me a new video camera and here’s the first crappy bit of video I shot:

December 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm 5 comments

Running With Scissors

This week local newspapers carried the latest in a string of stories about dogs killed by body-gripping or conibear-type traps.

Body gripping traps are designed to prevent game from escaping and to kill animals quickly.  Bait lures game to the trap and a wire trigger springs it closed.  The trap crushes the neck or body of the animal and kills it quickly by suffocation or fracturing the vertebra.  This is a good thing when your goal is to kill wildlife humanely.  It is a very bad thing when a beloved pet takes the bait.

Because they’re often set on public lands and baited with the kinds of things that dogs find attractive, conibear traps are a potential danger to any dog running at large.

Sixteen years ago one of my dogs lost his life in a conibear trap.  It was a horrible experience.  A beautiful dog died in my arms because I didn’t know how to save him, so I’m going to tell you how to protect your dog:

  • Don’t turn your dog out and let him run loose.  He doesn’t need that kind of freedom and a free-ranging dog that gets caught in a trap is a dead dog.
  • Learn how to open a trap and carry the equipment you need to do it (two light leashes or strong boot strings) with you every time you go into the field with your dog.
  • If your yard isn’t securely fenced and you live in an area where you may have neighbors that trap, talk to them about trapping.  If there is any chance traps are set near your property, walk with your dog any time he’s off leash during trapping season.  Keep your dog in sight and out of ditches, brushy areas and tall grass on adjacent properties.
  • Since (at least in Minnesota) trapping seasons cover about nine months of the year, if you hike or hunt with your dog it is almost impossible to avoid the woods and fields when traps can be set.  So when you’re out with your dog, make sure you know where he is.  Keep him in sight or use bells, a beeper or GPS to keep track of his location.  Then, if he is trapped, you may be able to release him in time to save his life.
  • Don’t decide that your dog has to be on a leash or in a fenced yard for the rest of his life.  Your dog needs a chance to run loose and risk is a natural and important part of life.  Accept it responsibly.

I admit that for a while after Roy died I was terrified to let Roo run loose.  I imagined threats everywhere.  But the feisty red dog Roy left behind wasn’t about to be denied the freedom she loved – so before long, Roo and I were back on the trail.

I take my dogs for an off leash hike almost every day.  There are risks involved, but we’re ready for most of them.  I carry a small first aid kit with boot laces, tweezers and vetwrap (I don’t need much else on a short hike). My dogs are well trained – they come when they’re called, even when big distractions like deer, people and other dogs are around.  They’re all trained to stop and sit at a distance – a potential lifesaver if one of them accidentally ends up on the wrong side of a road or some fast water.  And while they are generally allowed to run where they want, I make them stay in sight.  Even when they’re not wearing them, I carry a leash for each dog, because I never know when I’ll need one.

I can’t eliminate all risks to my dogs and I can’t be prepared for everything — but I’m sure that the dogs agree that the joy we find in the free-ranging, off leash walks we take together are worth every bit of the risk we take.

December 29, 2009 at 4:02 am 9 comments

Dog People

Since the last time she was here I completely rearranged all the furniture in the living room and painted the kitchen.  After walking in through both rooms – surrounded by a whirling vortex of hooting, happy dogs – my friend notices the 1/8-inch diameter bit of tan gunk on the tip of one dog’s ear and the first thing she asks is “What happened to Zippy?”

Priorities.  She’s got ’em right.

(Note – the source of the ear gunk was a minor scuffle between Zip and Charlie – a tiny little cut on her ear dripped blood across  just about every room of our house before I found the bloody Clotisol.   Note to self: keep first aid kit in a more easily accessible place.)

December 24, 2009 at 2:56 am 1 comment

Are the Eagles Writing for The Onion?

… or did Sick Vick just bully them into it?

Michael Vick holding a gun to the head of Donovan McNabb's prize border collie, Franchise

How utterly ironic – two months ago The Onion published a story mocking “reformed” dog killer Michael Vick.  While The Onion’s writers poked fun at Vick by insinuating that his teammates were as disgusted by his violent past as the rest of us are:

Michael Vick’s pregame pep talk Sunday, in which he recounted the events of a brutal 2004 dogfight between his pit bull terrier Zebro and rival pit bull Maniac, failed to inspire his teammates in any way whatsoever, Eagles team sources reported.

Vick, who was playing in his first NFL game since serving an 18-month prison sentence, called the 10-minute story “really motivational,” and reportedly failed to understand why his graphic recounting of how Zebro ripped out Maniac’s larynx caused teammates to stagger out of the player tunnel and onto Lincoln Financial Field with their heads hanging.

But today – in a gesture so bizarre that it was unthinkable even to the deliciously twisted staff of The Onion –  Michael Vick was voted the Philadelphia Eagles’ recipient of the 2009 Ed Block Courage Award.  The players on each NFL team vote to give award the teammate who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship and courage.

Apparently Vick’s fellow Eagles really did think that those dog fight stories were motivational…

What next –  shall we give Tiger Woods an award for his dedication to family life?  Honor Nidal Hasan with the Silver Star?

If you’re as disgusted as I am – take a minute or ten to contact the sponsors of the Ed Block award and let them know how you feel about the Eagles’ gesture to “honor” this unrepentantly evil psychopath.

December 24, 2009 at 2:28 am 1 comment

Hunte Corp Fined for Chemical Violation

Apparently profits in mass-produced maltipoos and cockadoodles aren’t what they used to be.  According to an EPA administrative consent agreement Hunte willfully acted in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Hunte Kennel Systems and Animal Care will pay nearly $57,000 in fines for putting livestock pesticides in bottles and relabeling mislabeling it to sell as a discontinued flea and tick treatment for dogs.

Prolate/Lintox-HD is used to control flies, mites, mange and ticks on livestock but is not for use on household pets.  Paramite was used to control fleas and ticks on dogs. It was voluntarily taken off the market in 2005 after the Environmental Protection Agency determined its active ingredient was potentially dangerous to animal handlers, groomers and young children, said EPA spokesman Chris Whitley.

Paramite and prolate both contain the same active ingredient, the organophosphate insecticide phosmet.  Organophosphates kill insects by disrupting activity in their brains and nervous systems.  These neurotoxins can also inflict nasty adverse effects on mammals (like humans) – hence their early use as chemical warfare agents.

Toxic or not – what’s the problem if prolate and paramite both have the same active ingredient?  Well… pet products containing phosmet were voluntarily taken off the market back in 2005 after the EPA found they posed an unacceptable risk of dermal toxicity to people who came in contact with treated animals.

Since most of us don’t snuggle or sleep with our pigs and cattle, EPA apparently determined that human dermal toxicity wasn’t an issue in treating livestock, so organophosphates can still legally be used to control fleas, lice and mange on them.

For some reason, the Post-Dispatch seems to think that the mislabeling of the product is the key issue in Hunte’s case.  I think there’s more to it than that, and I can’t help but wonder how many Hunte dogs and puppies were treated with the product.  While it’s currently illegal to produce paramite — it’s not illegal to sell or use it.  I found several places on the web that note that remaining inventories of the product can legally be sold until supplies run out and apparently some veterinarians  still use stockpiled phosmet/paramite to treat severe mite infestations in dogs.

It looks like Hunte found a cheap way to treat their puppies products for fleas and ticks and decided to make a few extra bucks on the side while they were at it.  While they’ve been forced to stop selling illegally relabeled phosmet-containing products to others – the $57,000-dollar question is whether they’ve quit using it to treat their own animals…

The phosmet molecule

December 22, 2009 at 8:13 am Leave a comment

Charlie’s Angels

Charlie and I took a field trip last week.  We went to see a veterinarian whose specialty is orthopedic surgery.

Charlie has had a noticeable limp since he arrived here.  He avoids putting weight on his right leg, his knees turn out in an odd way, and he can only get up on the furniture if we help him.  I waited to take him in to get it looked at for a couple of reasons.  First, he was a snarky, stressed-out little snot and I wanted to wait until he’d progressed to a point where the visit would be only moderately stressful for him and the vet; and second because I had a nagging suspicion that the help Charlie needed would be more than either NESR or I could afford right now.

Last week I knew we were both ready to make the trip — and now I have good news, bad news and more good news to report.

Good news:  Charlie stayed remarkably calm for more than an hour while he was in a strange place surrounded by strange people who did strange things to him.  It was a bit of a hike to the clinic — the kind of drive that would have provoked a frantic, scrabbling, whining, puking reaction in him a couple of months ago — but today Charlie and Audie rode together without incident.  The clinic staff didn’t coo or gush over Charlie (he hates that), and he and I both appreciated the professional, matter-of-fact way this clinic operated.   I stayed with Charlie and held him during the exam.  While I’m sure it was painful, he took it like a trooper and we didn’t need to muzzle him.

Bad news:  Charlie has a grade four luxating patella on the right and a grade two on the left.   The right knee isn’t just painful, if it isn’t repaired soon the misalignment will damage his knee and hip.  The left knee, while not as severely affected as the right, also needs to be repaired.  Net cost – about $3,500.

Good news:  Not only has the surgeon offered to give us a discount — but in a stroke of wild, wonderful, good fortune — an anonymous benefactor (or benefactors) has volunteered to pay for Charlie’s surgery.

This wonderful, beautiful, unselfish, anonymous gift was given in the true spirit of Christmas.  And we will always be grateful.

I’ll call to schedule surgery on Charlie’s right knee this week.  The goal is to stagger his surgery and mine by a couple of weeks to reduce the level of inconvenience involved.   One armed handler and three-legged dog, Charlie and I will rest, heal and work on physical therapy together this winter.   Audie will go back to being my service dog, and Zip will sulk because we’re not focusing on her needs (throw!)

By summer both of Charlie’s knees should be healed.  According to the orthopedic vet, when both of a dog’s knees are damaged as badly as Charlie’s are, repairing them has an almost immediate positive effect on behavior problems like shyness, reactivity and aggression.  So this surgery should help heal his soul along with his body.

Thanks to Charlie’s Angels a truly wonderful little dog who was once tossed out like a piece of trash gets a chance to move on to the kind of life and home he deserves.

Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts —

Next winter Charlie will be leaping through the snow - at his forever home

December 21, 2009 at 9:20 pm 19 comments

Hunting For The Spirit of Christmas

The first time I saw this I thought it might be another
ad from those crazy kids over at PeTA.

…then I realized that they never put out anything nearly this well done.

Happy Politically Incorrect Solstice!

December 21, 2009 at 12:38 am 1 comment

If This Dog Bit Someone…

Press reports would be filled with diatriabe about another “pitbull’ attack.

But – because he’s a hero who took three bullets to save his owner… he’s just a dog.

The linked story is the only one I found that mentioned the dog’s breed (boxer mix).  I’m sure that if this dog had been injured attacking the maid instead of valiantly protecting his owner from her criminal cohorts – news outlets would have taken one look at this photo and featured headlines screaming about another “pitbull attack”.

Best wishes to hero dog Aslin for a speedy and full recovery.

December 20, 2009 at 4:21 am 8 comments

Around the Web

From Davidoss Flickerpage

Hat tip to SouthernRockiesNatureBlog  for this link to the makers of a documentary on the suicide dogs of Overtoun Bridge.  I’d heard the story of Overtoun Bridge before and suspected, as Dr. Sands apparently did, that some unique set of environmental factors was the key to the mystery.  I’ve stolen borrowed loved so many things I’ve read there that I have finally belatedly gratefully added Chas to our blogroll.

YouTube teaser for Suicide Dogs of Overtoun Bridge documentary:

In the “astonishingly stupid holiday gift ideas for pets” category YesBiscuit provides a link to The Fabuleash and ThePoodleAndDogBlog posts on jaw-dropping idea of Rear Gear.  I post these together because I suspect that the same kind of person who’d pony up $375 to walk her precious darling on a Swarovski crystal studded leash might also prefer not to watch Fifi’s bunghole wink as the dog drags her down the sidewalk.

And from Regretsy – quite possibly the worst idea ever conceived in pet-related intimate apparel.

December 19, 2009 at 3:03 am 10 comments

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December 2009