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See Spot Wait and Wait and Wait

I watched a video online the other day about a dog named Spot; perhaps you’ve seen it.  Everyday, when Spot knows its time for his  master, Buck, to come home from work, he goes to the end of the drive and waits for the familiar sight of Buck’s truck.  Spot is there everyday, waiting and watching but the problem is, Buck was killed by a drunk driver five months prior.  After weeping my face off, I had to wonder; at what point, in our relationship with our dogs, does the mutual existence go from master and pet to solid best friends forever?  I think it happens so naturally that we aren’t aware until a moment in life opens our eyes.  We know devotion but we rarely comprehend it’s depth until we witness it first-hand and, even then, it leaves us breathless.  Those of us who have children have gone through times contemplating the horror of what would happen to them if we didn’t come home but we don’t think about what our pet would go through.  With a child, you can offer an explanation to why Daddy won’t come home anymore but that’s a luxury you don’t have with a dog.  Dogs have almost all of the same emotions we have but they express them nakedly, much as we would if we were stripped of our pretensions.  Maybe that is why we experience such sadness when we see videos like the one about Spot; we see ourselves in our pets.

Has Your Dog Been Labeled a “Toad Licker”?

We know that humans and dogs share many qualities, abilities, and emotional predispositions so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that humans and dogs may also share certain frailties, like substance abuse.  If you’re envisioning dogs slinking down the seedy end of town to buy their drug of choice then hiding in a dirty alley to self-administer it while running the risk of overdose, get the vision out of your mind.  However, dogs are seeking hallucinogens and risking their lives much in the same way as many human addicts.  But, in the case of dogs, the “pusher” isn’t some sleaze ball in gang colors hanging around on street corners…it’s a toad.
It seems certain toads are able to produce poisonous substances as a form of defense mechanism making their skin poisonous.  Additionally, they have parotoid glands behind their eyes which produce a substance when mixed with their sweat or water on their skin, producing a solution poisonous enough to kill a grown dog.  Ingestion of the solution can be fatal because the toad’s venom contains digoxin-like cardiac glycosides.  In America, such a poisonous toad is called the Colorado River toad.  In South America and a number of Caribbean countries and Australia, they are called “cane toads”.
The mixture of toxins includes a hallucinogen called bufotenine and its effects are much like LSD and mescaline.  Humans, who are addicted to the toad venom and ingest these substances are referred to as “toad licking”.  Bufotenine is the hallucinogenic component of the toad venom and is a controlled substance making it outlawed in many places. 
So what does this have to do with dogs?  It seems that dogs are licking these toads and it has become a world-wide problem and is epidemic in Queensland Australia.  Apparently, the toad secretions taste sweet so the dogs lick the toad and, if they survive, experience a hallucinogenic episode.  Some dogs become addicted to these psychedelic effects, increasing the number of canine repeat offenders or “serial lickers”, being treated for cane toad poisoning several times a year.  The dogs deliberately get intoxicated by the cane toads and will come back on a regular basis, licking the toad in such a way as to get a very small dose.  Some dogs are so desperate for a dose that they will hunt down these toads to stimulate the excretion of poison, which they can then lick.  But, like all addicts, these dogs are risking their lives for a momentary cheap thrill.
And you thought all you had to worry about was warts!

Does Your Dog Know He’s a Dog and Not a Parakeet?

Have you ever wondered if dogs recognize that other breeds and variations of dogs are the same species as they are?  Dogs have the greatest variability of the domesticated animals when it comes to size and shape.  The colors of their fur ranges in black, yellow, white, and shades of red and orange.  They can be nearly hairless to extremely long and corded coats, textures from stiff to soft, and curly.  The shape of their heads vary from a narrow pointed muzzle of a Greyhound, to the boxy face of the Mastiff.  It is estimated that there are between 400 and 500 dog breeds, all with their own individual size, color, coat and body form registered across various international kennel clubs.
It might seem like a difficult task to expect a dog to recognize all the different varieties that make up the domestic canine species from other forms of animals.  Our casual observations of our own pet dogs is not enough to establish the point, however, a team of French researchers of the University of Paris decided to experimentally assess whether dogs could tell the difference between their own species from that of others, using vision alone.  They selected nine dogs that were pets belonging to students at the National Veterinary School of Lyon in France.  The breeds were all over the road with many being crossbreeds.
The visual stimuli was massive, involving 3000 images of dogs, and 3000 images of non-dogs consisting of purebred and mixed-bred canines selected from four major morph types:  wolf type, hound type, Mastiff or Greyhound types, including all major different features of head shape hair length and position of ears.  The non-dog set of visuals included farm animals, cats, birds, rabbits, reptiles, wild felines, humans and others.  No faces of wolves or foxes were included.  The heads in the pictures varied from full frontal to ¾ front view to an extreme profile on a background of uniform blue.  Two computer monitors were used to display the test images with a barrier separating them, making the dog clearly choose which side he was going to.  The start of training began with giving the dog the idea that choosing the dog was always the correct choice, giving the image of a dog on one screen and a blank blue screen on the other.  When the dog chose the image of the dog, a clicker was sounded and he was rewarded with a treat.  After some time the blank image was replaced with that of a non-dog image and the dog image was varied through four different images of dogs.  The correct choice was always the dog.
In the general testing session, each of the 12 trials had a new, never seen before, image of a dog, paired with a new, and never seen before, image of a non-dog animal, to determine whether dogs could discriminate between dogs and non-dog species of animals.  The dogs were tested until they reached a criterion of 10 out of 12 correct choices on two consecutive days.  All of the dogs mastered this showing they had a general concept of “dog”.  Then the experimenters reversed the choices, making the non-dog image the correct choice.  This was a difficult task for some dogs, but all of the dogs eventually learned to make the correct choice and achieved criterion.
As a result, this study found that dogs seem to have an idea of what is categorized as “dogs” and which animals are clearly not dogs.  They demonstrated this knowledge by discriminately choosing a dog or a non-dog as required by a particular task.  So what is your take on this?  Do you think the test was flawed?  Was it complete?  Personally, I think my Labs know they are dogs and not water buffalo.

Young Children Think Cats are Cute, but Dogs are Cuter!

The controversy continues as to whether dogs or cats are the more lovable, therefore, better-loved species.  In North America, there are more pet cats than pet dogs, however, surveys indicate that the affection we have for our pet dogs is much stronger than what we have for our pet cats.  Although scientists have tried to find a reason for our stronger canine affection, some suggest it is simply a learned cultural attitude.  But a recent study suggests that our canine preference over felines may be “prewired” in children and our fondness for cats may be learned through experience
Research done at the Istituto Superiore de Sanita, in Rome, Italy, tried to identify the facial features in pets that were most appealing to toddlers and young children; focusing on whether baby-like facial features made the animals more attractive.  The infantile face characteristics, such as a flatter face, rounder head, larger eyes, high and protruding forehead, and less prominent or elongated nose, will change with age but it’s these features that make infants appear “cute” which brings out the nurturing and affectionate responses in adults.  Therefore, do these similar baby-like features make animals appear cuter and do young children respond to those cues?
In the research, the scientists tested 272 children between the ages 3 to 6 years.  A series of photographs of humans, dogs, cats, and even teddy bears, varying in terms of how baby-like their faces looked, were presented on a computer in pairs.  The children were asked to pick which one of each pair they liked best.  The pairing did not include just infantile versus adult looking dog but adult dog versus an adult cat, a teddy bear versus a dog, a human baby versus a kitten, etc.
The results revealed the fact that whenever a dog was paired with anything else, no matter how cute, the dog won out.  The children preferred dogs over cats in almost every comparison.  The researchers checked to see if the children were living with a dog or a cat in their home, thinking that the preference for a cat would be higher among those children who lived with a cat.  Not so, even among those children who lived with a cat, the preference for dogs was dominant.  In addition, the researchers discovered that, within the group of test subjects, the preference for the cat increased with age leading the researchers to believe that appreciation of cats probably needs time to develop.
The data seems to suggest that humans have a bias toward dogs which matures at a very early age.  As for appreciation for other less popular companion animals, the results indicate a learned appreciation developed through age and familiarity.

Alzheimer’s Assistance Dogs…Genius!

Assistance and therapy dogs provide a range of services and they have been increasing steadily over the past few decades.  Now, canine services can add Alzheimer’s and dementia assistance to their list of skills.  We are all familiar with guide dogs for the blind and some of us are aware of hearing assistance dogs and dogs that provide help for people with limited mobility but we are only just becoming aware of the fact that dogs provide help for those suffering from mental problems, thanks to media coverage of the U. S. Congress funded study conducted to understand how effective assistance dogs are for veterans of war suffering from PTSD.
People living in developed countries are living longer due to the effectiveness of contemporary healthcare and higher nutritional standards but a major problem with the elderly is the decline of memory and cognitive ability associated with Alzheimer’s and other various forms of dementia.  It is estimated that around 15% of people in the United States who are older than 65 will suffer some form of dementia with an additional 10% who will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease which amounts to around 5.5 million people.
There is no sudden onset in most forms of dementia and people can still have useful, functional, and somewhat independent lives in the beginning and middle stages of the disease if they have adequate assistance and support services in place, however, there are intermittent problems associated with the early stages of memory loss and diminishing cognitive abilities.  Dementia sufferers can forget to take their medications or to eat.  They get lost easily and cannot find their way home.  These experiences leave them feeling frustrated, isolated, angry, and feeling helpless.  They begin to feel they are a prisoner in their own home and depend completely on the assistance of others to allow them to go outside.
In the past few years, projects have been put into place to train dogs to assist people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Unlike guide dogs for the blind, these dogs do not work on a harness but on a six-foot leash in order to be in front of the person to actually lead them in the correct direction.  When the order “Home” is given, the dementia assistance dog’s main task is to get his charge home.  If the patient forgets to give the home order or wanders far from the house and into unfamiliar areas, caretakers can activate an electronic GPS navigation device installed on the dog’s collar which, not only locates the missing pair, but emits a recognizable tone which the dog interprets as an alternative command to lead his patient home.  If for some reason the patient is not able to accompany the dog home, the dog is trained to stay with him and start barking to call attention to the situation.  Should the patient wander from the house without his assistance dog, the dog is trained to track him by scent.
Because dogs love predictability and routine, this forms the base of training for dementia assistant dogs.  They are trained to assist their charge through the day, to respond to other sound triggers in the home and to trip an alarm in the house should the patient fall and not get up within a reasonable period of time or if they hear a choking sound.  But just as important, these therapy dogs offer companionship and friendship for their owner.  They help to maintain a meaningful daily routine which adds quality of life and by walking their dog daily, they promote exercise and encourage social interaction between their patient and other people.  These positive social interactions reduce loneliness and isolation in the dementia patient.  Being out and about with their dog provides the patient with a sense of independence reducing feelings of helplessness and dependency which can led to depression which Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers often encounter.
It’s just amazing how much a dog can do and still look so cute!

Is the Shape of a Dog’s Head Indicative of His Intellect?

A new analysis suggests that, simply looking at the shape of the heads of various dog breeds, one can determine its intelligence and trainability.  The branch of science called “Physiognomy” is the estimation of the intelligence and personality of people by the shape of their heads and faces.  When referring to someone as “highbrow” or “lowbrow”, we’re not only talking about their cultural tastes and intellect we’re also inferring on measures published in books on physiognomy in the 19th century.  Physiognomy ultimately fell out of favor because of parallels drawn between the shape of the head and face of people and those of various animals.  The thinking was that if an individual had the head shape and face similar to that of a particular animal, then he also must have the personality and intelligence of that animal.
In a study conducted at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, research was done to see if intelligence and trainability were related to the shape of a dog’s head.  There is a wide variety in head shapes among the various breeds of dogs.  There are the “dolichocephalic” or long-headed dogs such as Greyhounds or Borzois, the “brachycephalic” which include wide-skulled dogs such as the Mastiff and Staffordshire bull terrier and the “mesocephalic” or “mesaticephalic” as in the Labrador retriever or Australian Cattle Dog.  In classifying a dog, the “Cephalic Index” is computed by measuring the width of the skull then dividing that by the skull length then multiplying the result by 100.
The rationale for the study is that brachycephalic dogs are specialized for fighting and guarding and dolichocephalic dogs are specialized for running but the mesocephalic dogs are not really specialized therefore might be associated more with cognitive flexibility resulting in more trainable and intelligent dogs.
Believing this reasoning a bit thin, research was conducted involving a number of dog obedience judges in the U. S. and Canada who were called upon to assess the dog’s performance in various learned activities.  Lower levels of competition asked the dogs to sit, lie down, come when called, etc.  Higher levels asked dogs to respond to signals, go over jumps, retrieve objects, and find items based on scent.  The judges used a long questionnaire to rank the dogs they had observed in competition.  The results showed that there are predictable differences of intelligence and trainability of various breeds of dogs.  Mesocephalic dogs ranked higher in intelligence than either the dolichocephalic or brachycephalic dogs with exceptions.
We must be careful in interpreting these results as the cephalic index is a continuous measure which moves gradually from brachycephalic to dolichocephalic.  But regardless of this fact, it’s interesting to think that by simply looking at the shape of the head of various breeds of dogs, we can make a rough guess as to which ones will be easiest to train and learn the best.

Dogs Have No Episodic Memory…Says Who?

Many philosophers and some behavior scientists believe dogs do not have episodic memory, therefore, they cannot successfully serve and assist people with failing memory.
There are many types of memory so psychologists, who wished to understand this belief, divided memory into large groupings call “explicit” memories which are ones that can be described or called into mind at will and “implicit” memories are automatic and not really conscious such as learned skills.  An example of implicit memory is riding a bicycle; though you can remember how to ride it and can easily do it, trying to describe to someone else how to stay upright on the bike is impossible.
Explicit memories are easily brought into consciousness and described verbally.  These memories come in two varieties, “episodic” and “semantic”.  Episodic memory is for what you have experienced personally such as recalling what you ate for lunch, what clothes you wore yesterday or describing a first date.  Semantic memory involves memory for facts such as “Who was Abraham Lincoln?” or “What is the climate like on Mars?”  Episodic memory is based on only once in your life events and are not practiced or repeated.  Episodic memory contains specific data about “when”, “what” and “where”.
Many dog owners have a variety of “Find the object” phrases such as “Where is your toy?” or “Where is your Daddy?” to which their dog responds by dashing to find the object and bringing it back or locating the family member in question.  These are instances of episodic memory as the dog must remember where he saw the item last.  This memory has the required components of “when”, “what”, and “where” since the dog is being asked to locate a particular object based on when it was most recently seen in the dog’s personal experience.
For those suffering the absence of short-term memory, performing simple tasks become nightmares.  This is when the episodic memory ability of dogs becomes important.  A short-term memory sufferer can confidently go shopping with their memory aid dog and not have to worry about forgetting where they parked the car.  The memory assistance dog will lead his master back to the places that he can’t remember like the exit from a building or where his owner has parked his car.
Those suffering from short-term memory loss depend heavily on their memory assistance dogs.  It is the dog’s episodic memory which serves as a substitute for the episodic memories his master has difficulty retrieving.  It would be interesting to hear what these nay-saying philosophers and animal behaviorists might have to say about this.

There Are Limits to What an Assistance Dog Can Do

We all extoll the abilities of assistance dogs when seeing, hearing or reading about their near heroic capacity for taking care of their charge.  This leads many to wonder how one trains such dogs without realizing the function of an assistance dog as well as the capabilities and limitations they bring to their jobs.  Take, for example, the guide dogs for the blind.
Dogs selected for assistance need intelligence, willingness to learn, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, and a controllable activity level.  Signs of aggression, nervous temperament, fearfulness, or aggression toward other dogs or animals will get them removed from the program.
All guide dogs are reared in a puppy raising home until they are 14 to 16 months old so they are partially “pre-trained” and socialized upon entering the program.  They stay at the training facility for 4 to 6 months where they go through intensive training using praise, petting, play, and non-food-based rewards.  Clicker training with food rewards is used in the early stages of the training program but then both clicker and food are phased out as training progresses.
Before training even begins, the needs of the handicapped person is assessed to determine which specific actions a guide dog can perform to fill the voids.  Precise, trainable, behaviors must be specified as you can’t tell the dog to help out where needed.  First the dog must learn the basic commands for navigating the environment such as forward, left, right, stop, and backup.  The dog must be able to lead his charge in a straight line from point A to point B, and stop for all changes in elevation like curbs and stairs where he must stop and wait for his companion to feel for the edge and respond.  These stops are important, not only for safety, but to also orient the person as counting curbs is the way blind people know where they are and how close they are to their intended destination.  The assistant dog is required to check overhead for obstructions like low hanging tree limbs, to lead their charge around obstacles and avoid narrow spaces where the dog and his companion cannot walk side by side.
Assistance dogs cannot determine the route to a new destination nor can they read traffic signals.  The blind person must determine when it is safe to cross a street by listening to the sound of traffic.  Every guide dog is trained in “intelligent disobedience” which means that if the dog feels that any command given will result in exposing his companion and himself to danger, he will refuse the command and wait until it is safe to proceed.
In conclusion, as with the guide dog for the blind, the dog is not a substitute for vision but rather to assist the visually impaired person to move safely through the world much like normally sighted people do.

Doggie See, Doggie Do – The Great Capacity for Imitation

Many of us has experienced the situation of owning a rambunctious dog who charged around the house, obeyed no command or escaped through an open gate before you could call the name he suddenly doesn’t recognize.  Yet somehow, these unruly creatures attach themselves to a family member as their best and constant companion.  More often than not, this person has absolutely no experience or knowledge in training dogs but the dog will move when they move, sit or lay down when their companion sits down, all with only an occasional “Good boy” for a reward.  There is no system, only consistency.  Many would refer to this as dog teaching or dog learning.
It is slower than, not as systematic as, other common forms of training such as food rewards, clickers, electric collars and choke chains but the results may be deeper and longer lasting.  There are no number statistics or studies being conducted on dogs educated in this manor but I’m sure it is substantial.  It basically relies on the dog’s instinct of curiosity, the desire to please, and ability to imitate behavior and recognize emotions and words, all of which have been enhanced through thousands of years of living with humans.  This also requires quality time from the human, an interest in being with the dog.  Praise and rewards are given, not by any program or schedule, but according to the person’s nature and it does not have to involve food.  Referred to as the social theory of learning, it views learning as the social endeavor involving imitation of behavior being demonstrated or verbally described.
To further study social learning in dogs, a graduate student in ethology developed the Do As I Do (DAID) method where trainers use standard reward-based techniques when teaching the dogs to associate gestures with the command, “Do It!”  The study compared the speed in learning three sets of tasks which increased in complexity, from simple – knocking over a glass to a complex task – opening or closing a drawer to compound tasks – hopping on a chair and ringing a bell or opening a drawer and removing a purse.  Objects in the tasks were not part of the dog’s normal repertoire so mastering the task could not be considered learning.  There was no difference in performance between the clicker-trained dogs and the DAID dogs in the simple task but as the tasks became more difficult, all of that changed.  The Do As I Do dogs performed better as more of them learned the task in the fifteen minute allotted time frame than the clicker trained dogs.
No one knows for certain how dogs make the connections but what the results really favor is providing trainers with another method from which to choose when providing the training bested suited to their dog’s needs.  The keys to success are home schooling, time, patience, and devotion which come from discipline often needed more for the human than the dog.
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