Archive for January, 2010
My previous post was about robot dog trainers. Today I’m following up with some observations on an interactive canine art exhibit that might make me re-consider my opinion about robot dog trainers.
SNIFF is an interactive projection created by artist Karolina Sobecka and software developer Jim George. This high-tech virtual dog interacts with passers-by in real time. From the artists’ website:
As you walk down the street you are approached by a dog. He is on his guard trying to discern your intentions. He will follow you and interpret your gestures as friendly or aggressive. He will try to engage you in a relationship and get you to pay attention to him.
Sniff is an interactive projection in a storefront window. As the viewer walks by the projection, her movements and gestures are tracked by a computer vision system. A CG dog dynamically responds to these gestures and changes his behavior based on the state of engagement with the viewer.
Video tracking data collected from infrared sensors allows SNIFF to interact with observers in real time. The positions of moving objects on the sidewalk outside the installation are tracked and a simple gesture recognition algorithm interprets them. Fast, big movements are interpreted as threatening and slow, approaching actions are interpreted as friendly. SNIFF’s software stores a history of its interactions with viewers to form “relationships” with them over time.
SNIFF’s behavior strikes me as unnaturally awkward and stereotypic. Like a severely under-stimulated zoo animal. Note the eerie similarity between SNIFF’s movements and those of the caged Thylacine in the video below:
What makes SNIFF tick? According to the developers:
SNIFF is composed of two main components, a video tracking system and a game engine for real time graphics. The video tracking system is built in openFrameworks; for the game engine we chose is Unity3d.
People on the sidewalk are monitored by an IR camera in openFrameworks. In oF each individual person is isolated and assigned a unique id for the duration of their interaction. Each persons’ position and gesture information is continually sent to Unity3d via OSC networking protocol. In Unity, an artificial intelligence system representing the dog forms relationships with the individuals. He chooses which person to pay attention to, is able to move towards them or back away, responds to their gestures and initiates gestures of his own. Based on the interaction he gets excited or bored, friendly or aggressive, which is reflected in his behavior.
SNIFF’s algorithm includes a mood module that is constructed based on how each observer’s friendliness and enthusiasm changes over time. Like many real dogs, SNIFF reacts in a wild and unpredictable way when he gets over-stimulated. And when he gets bored with you he lays down or wanders off to investigate something else. SNIFF’s behavioral repertoire is currently very basic, but his developers plan to use data on how he reacts to his human audience to program him to engage in more complex interactions in the future.
So – if we can create a simulation that behaves like a dog – is the next step a virtual dog trainer? Perhaps, but I think that success with both projects still lies some time in the future. SNIFF only acts enough like a dog to provide us with a transient bit of entertainment. A simulation that reacts in a stilted and highly repetitive way to a few broad types of physical motions will need a major upgrade to evolve into a system that can consistently read canine body language, interpret it correctly, determine how the animal’s behavior should best be modified to achieve a specific goal and then respond to the dog in a way that correctly elicits the desired response. And, of course, the incorporeal nature of a simulation could also present problems in applying punishments and rewards.
Still – SNIFF’s ability to read and react to basic gestural behavior in real time could lead to some interesting developments in a lot of areas.
I think that even if we can build a canine training simulator with super-human observational skills and perfect timing – dogs will still prefer to work with flawed flesh and blood dog trainers because the dog is, and always will be, our first friend.
When the Man waked up he said,
“What is Wild Dog doing here?”
And the Woman said,
“His name is not Wild Dog any more,
but the First Friend,
because he will be our friend
for always and always and always.”
— Rudyard Kipling
How did I miss this?
Back in April of 2009, Wired.com reported that the United States Department of Defense wants to replace dog trainers with robots. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research to “Develop and validate a portable device that automates the training of complex behaviors in animals without human intervention”
DARPA says they want robot dog trainers because:
Animal training currently requires long hours and the involvement of a human trainer. The development of an automated mammalian training device would significantly reduce the need for human involvement. In addition, it may enable the ability for remote on-site training in potentially limited access areas. This device would also have the ability to better and more rapidly train an animal through the collection of performance metrics that indicate subject intelligence, capability, and progress. Animal use is anticipated under this topic.
Of course – everybody knows that dog training requires nothing more than the rote implementation of a simple four quadrant operant conditioning algorithm. Even a robot can do it!
DARPA’s goal is to create an automated device that can train dogs to discriminate between objects, respond to verbal cues, retrieve objects, excel at tracking and more. Oh – and they want the doohickey to be cost-effective and portable too.
DARPA may have millions billions to spend, but I’m not planning for my retirement yet. If you’ve done enough dog training to accomplish much of anything, you know that it takes a lot more than well-timed rewards and punishments to train a dog. Teaching a dog how to do complex tasks reliably in the face of distractions is art, not algorithm and I think DARPA’s wasting taxpayer money.
Can DARPA build a computer that can read and correctly interpret canine body language? And can they make a robot that’s capable of using that information to communicate with dogs at a level that will allow it to train them to do complex tasks?
When I train a dog I don’t a complete a task, I enter into a relationship. A relationship built on trust and communication. A machine just can’t do that.
A computer probably has faster reflexes than I do, and it will probably work more hours for less pay – but it doesn’t have a soul. Dog training is an art and it takes years of mindful practice to do it well. When DARPA successfully builds a computer than can compose music or create sculpture, they may be ready to move on to dog training.
A machine won’t see the subtle shift in posture that tells me when a dog is confused and needs help. A computer can’t sense when to speed an exercise up, slow it down, make it simpler, add distractions – or just give the dog a heartfelt word of encouragement. I don’t think a robot will be able to tell how and when to transition between play and work to keep a dog motivated; or know exactly when to give it a break to process what it’s learned.
Most importantly, I don’t think that a creature that evolved to be a helpmate and companion to man will want to work for a machine. My dog doesn’t work for well-timed liver treats or tug toys – he works because he finds joy in the work – and in our relationship. No machine can replace that.
You’ve seen the thought go through your dog’s head “Should I chase the squirrel and risk Mom’s wrath – or ignore the evil rodent invader and get a liver treat?” Frustrating as it can be, your dog’s indecision may represent more than simple disobedience. It could be evidence that he’s self-aware.
An article recently published in LiveScience presents some thought-provoking ideas about what may be going on inside a dog’s head:
J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo notes that humans are capable of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. “Humans can feel uncertainty. They know when they do not know or remember, and they respond well to uncertainty by deferring response and seeking information,” Smith writes in the September issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
And accumulating research, he says, suggests metacognition is not unique to humans.
“The idea is that some minds have a cognitive executive that can look in on the human’s or the animal’s thoughts and problem-solving and look at how its going and see if there are ways to guide it or if behavior needs to pause while more information is obtained,” Smith told LiveScience.
Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Some believe that the ability to reflect on one’s own mental processes is unique to sapient species and some believe it is a hallmark of the capacity for sapience. A sapient being is capable of rational thought and action and Homo sapiens defines himself by being sapient – but there’s a lot of controversy about which non-human animals are sapient.
Studying metacognition in Homo sapiens is relatively simple because we can explain our feelings to each other, but scientists have to get a lot more creative to study these processes in animals. Smith is approaching the problem by studying uncertainty monitoring. As humans we can (usually) recognize when we don’t know something. We have the capacity to be consciously uncertain. Uncertainty monitoring is well-recognized as a form of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Smith believes that evidence that some animals are capable of uncertainty monitoring presents strong evidence for metacognition in animals.
But it’s not the only evidence. Or even, IMO, the most interesting evidence.
While children engage in pretend play, they need to understand their own thoughts and beliefs along with their playmates thoughts and beliefs. Play involves pretense, and pretense implies intention.
Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog a book about how dogs perceive the world (a book I highly recommend). Her 2002 dissertation; The behaviors of theories of mind, and A case study of dogs at play proposes that play “is a good place to look for mindful behavior in animals”. Horowitz writes:
Social play is a tractable, evolved behavior. It is a coordinated, cooperative dance that seems to require negotiation, flexible communication skills, and some ability to distinguish reality from pretend. The study of play has blossomed in the last century, though it was once thought to be unworthy of analysis. While at one time educators considered play to be trivial, “developmentally irrelevant”, now play behavior is strongly implicated in human development: in the emergence of tool use, problem solving, complex thought, and language.
The highly flexible and cooperative nature of play may provide a richer and more interesting field to study metacognition in animals than indecision does – but play is also a lot more difficult to quantify than uncertainty is, and that, of course, makes it more complicated to study.
Social pretend play has been said to require the ability to understand both what reality is and also when it is breached: the ability to distinguish appearance from reality. These proponents suggest that participants must recognize what counts as play, must in some sense know what is real and what is not, and must have the ability to move in and out of these states. Markers within play ensure that the players continue to understand that it is only pretend. These include “attenuation or exaggeration” of play behaviors that also might appear outside of play, and expressions such as smiling and laughter.
When we play we purposefully put behavior out of context. Doing this requires imagination, creativity and complex communication skills. Dogs not only communicate with each other about what is and is not play behavior; they also demonstrate the ability to understand whether or not their playmates are paying attention. Dogs display wonderfully sophisticated play behavior – they take turns and engage in self-handicapping; behaviors that appear to require them to imagine what their playmates are thinking.
It’s wonderful that something as poetic and beautiful as play may help us understand metacognition in animals. Because of their uniquely strong tie to Home sapiens, dogs may be the ideal animal species to study the connections between sapience and play. According to an article in the March 2000 issue of New Scientist:
Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado has studied how dogs, wolves and coyotes play. “All animals learn certain codes of conduct about their own species’ morality through play,” he says. “I think dogs learn codes of conduct from humans through dog/human play.” They learn the ground rules for acceptable behaviour, such as how hard they can bite without harming. And, like any animal, when dogs play, they hone the behaviours they will need elsewhere.
There is little research into the evolutionary effects of such interactions between dogs and humans, but Bekoff suspects that they have enriched the mental life of dogs. A study in his lab reveals that playful interactions between puppies are much more varied than those between young wolves or coyotes. He thinks dogs have evolved more varied forms of behaviour because of the sophisticated games people play with their pets and the selection for dogs that are good at such games. “It would feed over into other areas,” says Bekoff. “In general ways it would make the dog more cognitive.”
Living and playing with us may have made dogs smarter. Perhaps it made us a little smarter too…
Slate Magazine has an interesting article on the National Obedience Invitational. Writer Martin Kihn compares competitive obedience to neoclassical ballet. I see it as closer to team figure skating, but along with Kihn, I don’t understand why conformation shows continue to eclipse obedience trials in popularity, or why so many people think competitive obedience is dull.
Yet devotees will tell you that obedience is one of the most exciting spectator sports anywhere and that the absence of big paydays only adds to its spiritual purity. The best teams appear to perform a kind of interspecies voodoo as they glide through intricately choreographed rituals, attached by nothing more than mental moonbeams. The beams connecting Ford and Tyler are among the strongest in the obedience solar system. As a consequence, the dog-trainer duo is staging a quiet revolution on the circuit.
Be sure to check out the video clip of Ford and Tyler’s performance.
A study published this week in The American Naturalist compares the shapes of domestic dogs’ skulls with those of several different carnivore species. The data indicate that variation between dogs’ skulls was as great as that between all other species. According to Science Daily:
This means, for instance, that a Collie has a skull shape that is more different from that of a Pekingese than the skull shape of the cat is from that of a walrus.
Dr Drake explains: “We usually think of evolution as a slow and gradual process, but the incredible amount of diversity in domestic dogs has originated through selective breeding in just the last few hundred years, and particularly after the modern purebred dog breeds were established in the last 150 years.”
In just 150 years of selective breeding we have created a species that now has a range of skull shapes found nowhere else among carnivores.
Dr Klingenberg adds: “Domestic dogs are boldly going where no self respecting carnivore ever has gone before.
“Domestic dogs don’t live in the wild so they don’t have to run after things and kill them — their food comes out of a tin and the toughest thing they’ll ever have to chew is their owner’s slippers. So they can get away with a lot of variation that would affect functions such as breathing and chewing and would therefore lead to their extinction.
If you ask me, dogs aren’t “getting away with” anything – but – dog breeders in search of ribbons and unique consumer products are.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune reports that David Wroblewski, author of “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” is working on a couple of new book projects.
One is a nonfiction anthology, he says, based on material he studied during his research for “Sawtelle”: “All these fabulous papers on animal cognition and animal behavior that I think are really interesting and, if they are tied together correctly, would be really interesting for a general readership. But the big thing is the next novel.” Which is still in its formative stages.
I look forward to reading both of them.
Hat tip to the very excellent Sarah Wilson for the link that led to the trailer for the movie Mine:
The Seattle Times reports:
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees broke, many who were forced to leave without their pets endured long searches to find animals that had been ferried to safety without them. You’d think that finding that their pets were alive and well after the storm would be pure joy, but for some, it was more complicated.
The documentary “Mine,” opening Friday at SIFF Cinema in Seattle, tells the stories of people who found their pets in new homes, with rescuers or adopters who didn’t want to give them back.
Our pets occupy a unique niche in our legal system. Dogs and cats aren’t persons under the law and they don’t fit neatly under the aegis of traditional property law. We own them, but we see them as members of our families so we end up with a unique category of living and much beloved property whose legal status is confusing to many of us. It should be interesting to see how the film maker approaches the problem.
The documentary is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Charlie had his right knee surgically repaired yesterday. He had a grade four medial luxating patella.
A dog’s patella, also known as his kneecap, normally rides in the trochlear groove at the bottom of the femur. The femoropatellar (above) and patellar (below) ligaments hold the patella in the trochlear groove. It’s usually a congenital problem (though it can also arise from blunt force trauma injuries) and is most common in small and toy dogs.
There are four diagnostic grades of patellar luxation, each more severe than the previous:
- In a grade I luxation the patella can be manually pushed out of place but it returns to the normal position when released;
- The patella can also spontaneously luxate in a grade II injury and the patella remains luxated until it is either manually reduced (put back into place) or popped back into place by the animal.
- In grade III luxations the patella stays luxated most of the time. It can only be put back into place when the knee is extended.
- Grade IV luxations like Charlie’s are the most severe. The patella is permanently out of place and can’t be manually repositioned. The trochlear groove is shallow or absent, and there is the quadriceps muscles are displaced in the direction of luxation.
Patellar luxations are typically caused by congenital abnormalities of the femur that result in abnormal forces on the kneecap that cause it to ride outside the groove. The groove may be to shallow to hold the patella and the ligaments may be positioned incorrectly on the tibia. It they’re not repaired, patellar luxations in young animals can cause the tibia and femur bones to become twisted.
When the trochlear groove is shallow, it is surgically deepened to create a deeper groove for the patella to ride in. If the tibial crest where the patellar ligament connects to the tibia is in the wrong position, it is surgically repositioned. The bony crest is cut away and then reattached in a position so that the patella can ride in the trochlear groove. Pins fasten the bone in place.
One of Charlie’s many nick-names is Chuckie Ray. Even though he’s turning into a sweet, snuggly puppy, the name fits him pretty well this week. His skinny, shaved, betadiene-stained leg earned him another charming moniker: Chucky Chicken Leg.
The clinic let me take Charlie home late the afternoon of this surgery. They typically keep dogs overnight after this surgery, but he was stressed by the clinic environment and they knew I’d keep a close eye on him. I *heart* that clinic.
He’s been very good – so far. I’m sure that post-surgical pain and the after effects of the anesthesia have a lot to do with this and I expect him to turn into a major pain in the ass in the next week or so.
Charlie and I will have to endure eight weeks of restricted activity. He’s on strict crate / leash rest and I’ve got a physical therapy regimen to follow with him. He’s a very bright, athletic, driven little dog and I’ll have to be creative to keep his mind busy while his body heals. Once he starts to feel better I plan to teach him some stationary tricks and maybe work on teaching him the names of some of his body parts using Kayce Cover’s methods.
I’ve told you a thousand times.
Don’t treat your dog like a baby and ….
(warning – NSFW video with creepy ending)
Don’t treat your baby like a dog.
It’s not kind to either one of them.
So you’ve decided to get a puppy. You did a bit of research, and you’ve fallen in love with the rare and wonderful Peruvian mountain dog (PMD).
Being a savvy and caring consumer, you know you shouldn’t get your PMD from a pet store. You’ve searched local papers and asked all your friends and neighbors but apparently there are no local PMD breeders.
So you hit the Internet. Googling up Peruvian mountain dogs you stumble onto a web site that looks perfect. The site is owner by a breeder who says she’s got puppies from champion bloodlines with impeccable temperament and health. They’re raised in a loving home environment. Her site features pictures of puppies cavorting through fields of clover and snuggling with perfect, smiling babies. And… she’s got PMD puppies ready to go to loving homes right now.
It’s almost too good to be true.
And maybe it is. In a disturbing number of cases, everything you’ve just seen was a lie. The perfect puppies only exist in stock photos (or pictures stolen from another breeders’ website). And their sick, un-socialized parents have never seen the inside of a house, much less a show ring.
It’s awfully easy to lie on the Internet. Because it allows us to carefully control how we communicate with others, the Internet allows dishonest people to present themselves as reputable – and it helps them expose their product to millions of potential buyers. Unscrupulous breeders have discovered they can use Internet puppy sales to present a picture of their operation that’s radically different from the one that actually exists. And through a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act, it’s perfectly legal.
Yup. You read that correctly. Internet pet retailers, even those who breed at very large scales, are not regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While large scale breeders who to sell to pet stores are regulated by the minimal requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, a breeder could hypothetically keep thousands of breeding dogs and be exempt from its requirements if they only engage in direct sales through the Internet. This is a growing problem, and it’s happening right in our backyard.
Kathy Bauck is the owner and operator of Pick of the Litter (aka Puppies on Wheels) in New York Mills, Minnesota. Bauck’s operation was one of the largest USDA licensed commercial dog breeding and brokering operations in the country until she was convicted of animal cruelty. After her conviction last year, the USDA canceled her license to deal in dogs.
Prior to her conviction, Kathy Bauck pled guilty to practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Bauck, who is not a veterinarian, owned and operated a mobile veterinary service advertised online as “Puppies on Wheels.” She was sentenced to jail time and ordered to cease performing all surgeries.
In spite of a documented history of animal cruelty and flagrant disrespect for the law, the court allowed Bauck to keep more than a thousand dogs. And while officials at USDA have stated that they’ll keep tabs on her operation to make sure her dogs are adequately cared for, they can’t stop her from selling puppies online.
The Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966 – before the Internet existed. At that time, legislators assumed that exempting breeders who only engaged in direct sales from the Act would allow them to focus on the large scale operations that bred dogs for profit. The idea made sense at the time, but the growing popularity of the Internet has created a loophole that now allows large scale breeding operations to avoid licensing and inspections.
Unfortunately the problem will probably get worse before it gets better. Internet retailers don’t just avoid the need to adhere to minimum care standards, they also get to increase profits by cutting out he middleman (pet shops) and selling their product directly to consumers. And it’s not a uniquely American problem.
Now before I get inundated by hate mail from the millions of breeders who sell puppies on the internet – I want to point out that not all breeders who sell on the Internet are money-grubbing, animal-abusing, mass-producers of misery. The Internet has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives, that most breeders have websites. So consumers need to educate themselves on how to tell the difference between a conscientious breeder and a retailer.
Here are some things to look out for:
A website where the focus is on things like shipping puppies, accepting credit cards and taking down payments is a site that’s probably owned by someone who’s more interested in improving their bottom line than their bloodline. Avoid this retailer.
A breeder whose emphasis is on rare or exotic sizes or colors of a breed – or worse yet – multiple breeds, is focusing primarily on producing size and color. This is not the way to create healthy, well-socialized puppies. Avoid this retailer.
Google the breeder’s phone number. If they’re selling several different breeds (or worse yet, hybrids*) of dogs and/or have lots of ads on the Internet, this is a big red flag. Good breeders typically don’t need a lot of help selling their puppies. In fact, they often have waiting lists. And since it’s extremely difficult to produce well-bred, well-socialized puppies of more than one breed, nearly all good breeders put their valuable time and effort into a single breed.
Avoid breeders who use registries that cater to high-volume breeders and producers of trendy hybrid dogs** – but remember that a pedigree isn’t a guarantee. AKC papers and “champion bloodlines” are no guarantee of quality.
Avoid a breeder that promises you that he has never produced a puppy with any kind of health problem because he’s either a liar or not following up on the health of the puppies he produces. Dogs, like people, are not born perfect. Some degree of inherited health problems is inevitable in any population of animals. A good breeder is aware of the limitations of his dogs and breeds with them in mind.
If you want a happy, healthy puppy you should look for:
A breeder that invites you to visit her home. If the breeder insists on shipping you a puppy sight-unseen or on meeting you at a different location – she’s got something to hide. Good breeders are proud of their dogs and their dirty houses.
A breeder who involved with, or at least a member of, their breed club. The breed club, whether an AKC parent club or breed-specific registry, is a valuable network to share health information and find new breeding stock. A good breeder takes advantage of those benefits.
A breeder that does appropriate health screening tests and publishes the results of those tests – even when they fail. Breed clubs publish lists of recommended health screening tests on their websites. If the club or registry that your breeder is a member of doesn’t recommend any of these tests – go elsewhere. If the breeder isn’t doing recommended testing – don’t accept his excuses. Go elsewhere.
A breeder who produces working dogs, and can prove it. It’s easy to say you breed dogs who become service dogs, search and rescue dogs, stock dogs, agility dogs or obedience champions. The person whose puppies really go on to achieve these things will be happy to put you in touch with the people who bought them. Don’t fall for vague assurances or photos of working dogs. Remember – it’s easy to lie on the Internet.
Internet sales are a growing problem and I’m not sure how it should be solved. Most of the proposed dog breeding legislation I’ve seen was poorly written. These laws typically use the number of dogs a person keeps or sells as a trigger to require a set of strict specifications for husbandry. One problem with this is that dog breeds vary so much that standards that are appropriate for one breed can be wildly inappropriate for another (think malamutes and xoloitzcuintli).
Another problem is that, even when the trigger is a number that represents just a couple of litters a year, standards are typically written for puppies raised in a kennel environment. Nearly all the good breeders I know raise puppies in their houses. Houses that, understandably, don’t meet commercial kennel requirements. So, unless you’re willing to live in a concrete and steel building with floor drains – raising a litter in your kitchen could become a thing of the past.
Some of these problems arise because most of this legislation is promoted by animal rights groups. Groups that not only don’t understand dog breeding but who also – in some cases – want to end all dog breeding. It makes no sense to let people who want to end a business to legislate it, but – given the problems that exist in commercial breeding and internet pet sales – if breeders, registries, and kennel clubs don’t step up to the plate soon to offer better alternatives we may as well resign ourselves to putting up with what they propose.
* I don’t believe that all breeders of hybrid, or purposefully mixed breed, dogs are evil. There are good reasons to cross-breed or out-cross dogs; but unfortunately the people who are doing this well and conscientiously appear to represent less than 1% of the people actually doing it. If the breeder promises you that the hybrid you’re buying inherits only the best and most wonderful qualities of both the parent breeds – run, don’t walk – away. If the breeder isn’t doing health screening tests on his purebred stock, he’s capitalizing on a trend, not breeding healthy puppies. If he produces more than one kind of hybrid – he’s running a commercial operation. Don’t support it.
** These include, but are not limited to, America’s Pet Registry, Inc. (APRI), Continental Kennel Club (CKC), American Canine Association (ACA), America’s Pet Registry (APR), Animal Registry Unlimited (ARU), Dog Registry of America (DRA), Canine Registration and Certification Services (CRCS), Federation of International Canines (FIC), The International Progressive Dog Breeders’ Alliance (IPDBA), National Kennel Club (NKC), North American Purebred Dog Registry (NAPDR), United All Breed Regsitry (UABR), Universal Kennel Club International (UKCI), World Kennel Club International (WKC) and World Wide Kennel Club (WWKC).