Archive for February, 2011

Is there a gene for stupid?

Maybe. Maybe not.

An article in the February 15 edition of Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reported that pharmacologist John Hepler and associates recently discovered a gene in the brains of mice that codes for a signaling protein that “significantly boosted brainpower with seemingly no negative consequences.” Jabr writes:

People have this gene, too, and it is active in the same brain area. In other words, we may have a gene in our heads that is actively making us dumber.

Hepler et al were studying the CA2 section of the hippocampus when they discovered that neurons in that area appeared to be blocked from participating in learning and memory processes when they were saturated with signaling protein RGS14.

When they bred mice who lacked the gene for RGS14 the CA2 neurons were no longer blocked and the mice exhibited some interesting differences in learning and behavior. Scientific American reports that:

The genetic tweak affected more than physiology—it changed how the mice performed on memory tests, too. The experimenters presented two identical objects to knock­out mice, which lacked the RGS14 gene, and to normal mice. Four hours and again 24 hours later, the researchers switched one of the objects with a new object. The knockout mice spent far more time exploring the new object than the normal mice did, indicating that the altered rodents had a better memory for distinguishing familiar and strange objects. Knockout mice also learned to navigate a water maze and locate a submerged platform faster than normal mice did. The scientists observed no detriments from removing the RGS14 gene.

“Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” asks Serena Dudek, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “We don’t know. But if the gene is conserved by natural selection, there must be some reason. Intuitively, it seems there should be a downside to having this gene knocked out, but we haven’t found it so far. It may be that these mice are hallucinating, and you just can’t tell.”

And this is where I get frustrated that I don’t have unlimited access to journal articles (or an unlimited budget to buy it with) because based on what they’re saying here it sounds to me that while the gene may have something to do with spatial learning, it might also have evolved as a safety mechanism controlling neophobia – not stupidity.

I suppose that one might be able to test this by looking at the action of CA2 in young animals during different stages of development when neophobia typically ebbs and wanes, but since mice reach maturity within weeks of being born, I’m not sure they’d be viable candidates for this.

Either way, I’m sad to say that I don’t think they’ve discovered a genetic cure for stupidity.

Altered rodents

February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

Personal Coach

If you looked at this photo and guessed that the Chuckster is not thrilled about being dressed up in a blond wig and forced to hold a sequined rose in his mouth you’d be right. The boy’s pinched expression and somewhat whale-eyed glare clearly express annoyance and stress.

If I’d been foolish enough to try this with the boy in the first months he was here, I’d have been in stitches. Literally. Today it just took a few seconds of firm, gentle insistence to get him to agree to it.

Why do I insist on torturing a dog who was seized as part of an animal cruelty conviction?

I do it because if I let Charlie take the easy no-stress route and stay in the deeply dysfunctional place he inhabited when he first came here, he’d still be a miserable, lonely, filthy, unsocialized little wretch. You see, the problem with comfort zones is that they’re such nice, safe, warm comfortable places that if we’re never pushed out of them, we just settle in and stay there. And when we’re allowed to indulge in that kind of intrinsically rewarding avoidance behavior our comfort zones don’t shrink – they get bigger.

Because of a severe lack of early socialization, when I first met him there were a lot more things that Charlie feared or otherwise didn’t like than things he liked (or was even willing to put up with). The boy had also inadvertently learned that he could use his evil, evil teeth to make things he didn’t like go away. When faced with any kind of new or even mildly stressful situation his default reaction was a screaming, spitting, biting tantrum. So it was my job to regularly, fairly – and yes, sometimes forcefully – push Charlie out of his comfort zone so he could develop the coping skills he hadn’t had a chance to acquire in the first months of life.

Basically, I need to act as his personal trainer. It was my job to design a safe and effective mental exercise program to help this dog reach his potential. And I couldn’t always be his buddy when I did it. A good personal trainer must be prepared to push her clients relentlessly.

A lot of people will try to convince you that incorporating any stress or aversiveness in handling or training a dog will make him vicious, fearful and/or neurotic. These people are wrong. Working with dogs like Charlie has convinced me that the idea that we should only share ‘positive’ interactions with our dogs is a deeply flawed one.

Despite what the main stream media tells you, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural thing. Stress is a natural – and necessary – part of every life (seriously, even plant life).  Stress drives evolution, it builds strength and it even enhances some forms of learning. Because stress is absolutely essential to life, the key to dealing with it successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it’s found in developing the strength to cope with it.

The brain’s stress coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles, you’ve got to use ’em or you’ll lose ’em. So in a direct analogy to resistance training, we can use mental training to increase an animal’s ability to deal with stress. The basis of this training consists of a program of controlled exposure to moderately stressful things that increases a dog’s ability to cope with stress. This is strikingly similar to the goal of resistance training which, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute, is to “gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so it gets stronger.”

If your dog needs a bit of personal coaching follow these rules:

  • When possible give the dog some choice in how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag him toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and then show him how to earn it.
  • If the dog has completely and absolutely made up his mind that he cannot approach that particular scary thing, don’t quit and reward his refusal, just move on to an easier thing.
  • Keep the dog’s mind and body active during the exercise. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to stress responses and they’ll work against you.
  • Increase the difficulty in steps. Watch the dog. His response will tell you how big to make those steps.
  • Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If he has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller or easier. If he rebounds immediately, make it bigger or more difficult.
  • Work in small bits at first. Increase time as your dog increases his mental resources.
  • The last bit of the work you do will be the piece that the dog will remember most clearly, so it is very important to end the work on a successful note. Even if this is only a small success.
  • Don’t overdo it. Once the dog’s confidence is aroused – end the session and give him a break to process what he just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.
  • It is important to realize that if you are working with a genetically shy dog or one who had severe deficits in early socialization – you will need to continue these kinds of mental strength training exercises for the rest of your dog’s life. Maintenance training will be much less difficult and time-consuming than your initial training program, but your dog has to use these skills or he will lose them.

In my experience, when done well, this kind of program will result in geometric rather than arithmetic progress. So while you will probably need to begin by taking tiny steps you should begin to see significant changes as your dog’s resources are built up. Be aware of this and don’t fall into the rut of walking in baby steps throughout your training program.

After many months of regular structured mental resistance training young Charlie has progressed beyond baby steps and significantly increased his ability to cope with stress. He’s gone from a dog who pitched a major fit any time a new person came into our house to a dog who, with just a bit of help, now likes to hop into visitors’ laps to cuddle.

Note the big, relaxed smile. Chuck is really happy to be in Nancy's lap.

Pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone wasn’t always fun, and in the beginning it was very stressful for both of us. But every day he gets stronger. The boy still needs a bit more work, but this crazy, bitey little dog is learning to roll with life’s punches. And more importantly he’s also beginning to recognize the rewards that go along with those skills.

February 20, 2011 at 11:52 pm 7 comments

But is he humane?

From Thursday’s Telegraph we learn that in the United Kingdom:

It is legal to kill grey squirrels and most people do it by trapping and shooting. But it must be done in a humane manner or you will be fined under animal welfare laws.


However the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals argue that most people will be incapable of killing a squirrel without causing “unnecessary suffering” and will therefore be in breach of the law. They recommend taking the animal to the vet to be put down for around £30 or calling in pest control experts who will shoot the animal or kill it with a blow to the head.

So we have a law that does much to discourage residents from killing grey squirrels. This, despite the fact that:

The grey squirrel is having such a profound impact on British wildlife that the IUCN have now listed it on their list of the 100 worst invasive species globally and several other conservation groups are calling for radical steps to be taken to prevent irreversible damage being done (Lowe et al., 2000).

In the spirit of diplomacy, Audie would like to know what  he needs to do to be licensed as a pest control expert in the UK.

Pest Controlled

February 19, 2011 at 10:16 am 10 comments

Punctuation is everything

For instance there are sheep herding dogs and sheep, herding dogs. To whit:

February 14, 2011 at 9:25 pm 7 comments

Play and pornography

The Puppy Lingerie Bowl - Play and porn mixed up in one sick, but very amusing little package

Like pornography – while I can’t really define exactly what play is, I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize it when I see it.

An article over at The Scientist where Jef Akst writes about play in “lower” animals caught my eye a while back. Akst discusses controversy over what play is and why it evolved.

There’s no broad agreement on how to define play. While most of us will agree that sprightly spaniels and rollicking retrievers are enjoying a kind of play that very much resembles the kind of recreations we humans enjoy, it can a bit more difficult to see that reflection ourselves in the actions of ‘lower’ creatures like reptiles.

Akst writes that:

During a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt decided to peek in on a Nile soft-shelled turtle its keepers affectionately called “Pigface.” Pigface had been a zoo resident for more than 50 years, and Burghardt had seen him before, but this time, he noticed something a bit curious—Pigface was playing basketball.

“It was by itself,” recalls Burghardt, currently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and “it had started to knock around” a basketball provided by its keepers. The year was 1994, and play had only rarely and anecdotally been reported in animals other than mammals, but he thought that might be what Pigface was doing. The 1-meter-long turtle exuberantly pushed the ball around its aquatic enclosure, swimming through the water with ease as it batted the ball in front of it with its nose. “If you saw a dog or an otter going around batting a ball, bouncing around and chasing it, and going back and forth and doing it over and over again, we’d have no problem calling it play,” he says. “And that’s what the turtle was doing.”

Is a turtle capable of play? Is a lady bug? Is an amoeba?

What kind of mental equipment does an animal need to engage in play and how can we recognize play in animals whose lives and thoughts, whose umwelts, are universes away from ours?

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the biggest problems in the study of play is that there isn’t a widely accepted set of formal rules on how to define it. Not deterred by the controversial nature of the topic, Burghardt decided to create a set of criteria to recognize play behavior in non-human species.

Burghardt’s rules for play are:

  1. Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
  2. Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
  3. Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
  4. Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
  5. Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.

I think it’s interesting note that play, as Burghardt defines it, seems to be exactly the kind of behavior that an emotionally-driven, goal-directed organism would engage in when it had a bit of free time to enjoy. And as I wrote in an earlier post, recent work on the emotional regulation of behavior may provide insight on how the immediate emotional reward of ‘positive’ emotions like joy, success and connection could create an innate ‘play drive’ even in very primitive animals.

In her 2009 article, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Maya Tamir wrote:

The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.

If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should have an innate drive to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. And if you’re a well-fed social animal who feels safe and secure – play would be a fun, and potentially highly adaptive way, to spend that time. Play isn’t just fun, it encourages exploratory behavior. It can provide social advantages. It increases confidence and physical prowess.

And if play evolved largely or, for that matter even partly, as an adaptive way to spend free time, that might explain why we don’t see it as often in tortoises (or lady bugs) as often as we do in terriers. According to Burghardt:

These criteria may explain why play appears to be so much more common in mammalian species, than in reptiles, fish, or invertebrates, Mather says. There are few situations where cold-blooded animals are safe, comfortable, and well fed, as they must constantly deal with regulating their body temperature, avoiding predators, and finding food. Conversely, mammals are warm-blooded and often have extensive periods of parental care, which provide a safe and comfortable childhood. Cold-blooded animals in captivity, on the other hand, may find themselves in much more relaxing settings.

This may also explain why dogs who’ve been rescued from severe neglect or abuse often don’t seem to understand the idea of play. Because these poor beasts have rarely, if ever, been in situations where they were safe, comfortable and well fed — they’ve never had an opportunity to learn how to play.

Another parallel between play and pornography is that both activities can sometimes incorporate a dark or disturbing side. In “Taking Play Seriously” an article published in the New York Times back in February of 2008 Robin Marantz Henig writes:

Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ”The Ambiguity of Play,” reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ”being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.” Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ”phantasmagoria,” where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.

Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ”possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.” Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ”the key is flexibility.”

So part of the function of play appears to be to introduce variety and balance to our lives. Given that idea, the fact that play embodies a dark side doesn’t surprise me. There’s no light without dark. Contrast is interesting and it’s informative. You can’t really know what something is until you know what it is not.

Play offers animals a safe way to explore a wide range of the good/bad, gentle/violent, boring/beautiful things in their world. It’s a form of mental feedback that encourages flexible behavior.

And now coming back to the idea of the subjective, value-laden definitions we assign to play and porn – I have to say that now I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what play is…

Akst, Jef (2010). Recess The Scientist, 24 (10), 44-44

Tamir, M. (2009). What Do People Want to Feel and Why?: Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (2), 101-105 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01617.x

February 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm 7 comments

Is Anybody There?

I know she's in there somewhere...

Yeah, I know. I’ve been gone for eons.

Rotator cuff surgery for me. Another luxating patella repair for Charlie. Winter in Minnesota. General suckage resulting in a major case of blogger’s block.

But Chuck and I are both starting to feel better, days are getting longer and I’ve got dozens of unfinished posts ready to polish up and share.

More updates to follow.

February 9, 2011 at 5:44 pm 10 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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February 2011