Our New Research on Puppy Temperament

This time around, I would like to hand over the writing to a guest blogger, a former student of mine, Lauren Robinson. Lauren has gone on to graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, but we have continued to pursue a project that she began back here at the University of Washington. As she will explain, this project was to complete a study started some years before by my Master’s Degree student, Becky Skiver-Thompson. It’s done, and a paper has resulted. Here’s Lauren to tell you about it…

Lauren's dog

This is my black Labrador retriever Juneau; I realize it’s a bit strange to introduce my dog before I introduce myself but we’ll get to that. Juneau is a very clever and funny dog but she doesn’t really understand boundaries, such as why she shouldn’t be allowed on the kitchen table! It would be fair to describe Juneau as a dog with a lot of personality, but in fact all dogs have personality… it just depends on what kind. Are they lazy? Friendly? Excitable? These are all terms that we regularly use when we describe our dogs but when we scientifically study personality, we have to change our approach, and that’s where I come in as a scientist.

My name is Lauren, I’m one of Jim’s previous undergrad students and I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of Edinburgh (see the bottom of the blog for my contact info). My work is all about personality, previously in dogs and now in monkeys, because they’re awesome. For me, that line of research started with the project I’m going to tell to you about today.

Going back to Juneau, could I have predicted the deceptively sweet puppy I received would turn into the daringly clever dog I now own? Were her littermates just as clever? What about other retriever breeds? I honestly don’t know but those are the questions that Jim, our coauthor Rebekah Skiver Thompson, and myself explored in our recent publication (https://t.co/zT3RZTRZlW).

One of the things that may come up when you start to look into the animal personality literature is that there’s a debate over the use of the terms ‘temperament’ versus ‘personality’ and if I’m honest, it’s not an overly exciting debate. I use the terms interchangeably as to me they both mean the individual differences in behavior and/or emotional states across the lifespan of an animal. Most of the time I use the term personality because it’s the more commonly used term and I feel like most people have a better idea of what personality is.

There are multiple ways to assess temperament/personality and in our study we used what are known as temperament tests. These tests are when the researcher does something with the animal and scores their resulting behavior. For example, in our study we have eight tests used with puppies across seven breeds including Australian cattle dogs, golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, and corgis (check out the paper for the full list!). These tests including rolling the puppy on its back, throwing a ball to the puppy, and playing with a tug rope, among others. We then scored the puppy’s behavior in response. For example, the puppy may fetch the ball, leave it alone, or even walk away. We did this for all of our puppies and then looked for similarities between them.

Here’s the gist of what we found: You can predict which American Kennel Club (AKC) breed group the puppy belonged to, simply from the puppies’ temperament scores. This means that dogs in the same AKC group, such as herding and sporting, tend to have similar personalities.

The next finding was that you can predict the breed of the dog with the temperament tests. So puppies of the same breed act similar, which makes sense. When you’re looking for a breed, you tend to think of breeds being similar. Golden retrievers love everyone, Aussies (the dog, not the people, though it may also apply) tend to be very intelligent and quick learners. This is a good thing then, when you pick a breed with the personality type in mind, you’re probably going to get something similar to what you’re looking for. However, you have to be careful because we did find that litters, although similar, have different personalities within them.

So now that we knew about the puppies, the next thing we did was to patiently wait six years and then contact the owners. Just kidding, this is where I actually took on the project as an undergrad. All that great puppy data was there and Jim decided he wanted to find out if those temperament scores could predict how the puppies, now six-year-old dogs, acted as adults. We contacted the owners and we got people to fill out an online questionnaire based on our original measures. What did we find? Puppy temperament scores are not very useful for predicting adult temperament. We did find a couple of the tests correlated with some the adult scores but none of the puppy tests correlated with their direct adult counterpart. By this I mean that if a puppy plays with a ball, it doesn’t mean they will act that way as an adult.

So what’s going on? Temperament tests are very reliable when they’re used with working dogs so why didn’t it work with companion dogs? Well, we’re not sure but we think this has to do with the age of testing. We tested puppies at seven weeks and working dogs are usually tested at six months, or even 2 years old. This makes the tests more reliable because the dogs aren’t changing as much. Anyone who has ever had a puppy, or child, knows how quickly they change in those six months so maybe that’s the problem. It may also be that dogs are very adaptable to their environment making it hard to predict their personality at a young age.

So what does this mean for you when picking your next dog? Pick your breed based on what you think will be the general temperament and be open to some deviation within your own puppy. Or better yet, if you have to get a breed, get an adult dog, perhaps from a breed-specific rescue! You’ll know the dog’s personality, you rescue a dog, and it’s the cheaper option. While I wouldn’t trade my too-clever dog Juneau for anything, it wouldn’t have hurt to have known what trouble I was getting myself into!

Anyone interested in contacting me or following my work can check out the below:

Lauren M Robinson

University of Edinburgh


Twitter: @LaurenMRobin

University website: http://www.ppls.ed.ac.uk/people/lauren-robinson


APA citation for our paper:

Robinson, L. M., Skiver Thompson, R., & Ha, J. C. (2016). Puppy Temperament Assessments Predict Breed and American Kennel Club Group but Not Adult Temperament. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-14.





Posted in General Science of Behavior | 3 Comments

“Predatory Drift,” Revisited

I received an email the other day from a reader of my blog entry “Modern Animal Behavior: A Lot Has Changed in the Last Few Decades.”

He said, “I am a volunteer assisting in the training of staff as animal handlers at a dog day-care facility. I am having a difficult time addressing the predatory drift issue, as many young people have learned that some naturally evolved behaviors such as male posturing and threat displays are actually improper, and unnatural behaviors. Would you kindly address this issue in a future blog to help young people understand both the mechanisms underlying what we perceive as ‘predatory drift’, as well as the major misconceptions surrounding it? I am unable to prevent the misperception of posturing, threat displays and the like as pure aggression, due primarily to the fact that most everyone has witnessed or heard of attacks at dog parks on yelping dogs from “aggressive males” preying on what they perceive to be less aggressive, weaker dogs.”

Just to remind you, predatory drift is a concept put forth long ago by Ian Dunbar and championed by Jean Donaldson, for instance, in an article in Dogs in Canada magazine: “predatory drift is the kicking in of predatory reflexes in an interaction that begins as a social interaction.  And, unlike predation, which is predictably elicited in a known quantity by a member of the target group, predatory drift can occur among dogs that had never been predatory before and may never be again.  It kicks in because of specific contextual triggers.”

And so I responded to him, and later, I thought that our conversation (edited a bit and removing identifying information) might be of interest to others as well. So here goes…

It is certainly true that we see true aggression in dogs, and that (very rarely) we see predation, even towards other dogs which are not recognized as “other dogs” due to the massive changes we have produced in their appearance and behavior. A Rottweiler or cattle dog (just to name two of many such breeds), unsupervised with a Yorkie or toy poodle, can sometimes be a very dangerous situation. True or serious aggression, as opposed to anxiety- or submissive-based aggressive displays, is relatively rare but does occur.

My argument in the original blog is that there is no such thing as “predatory drift” in animal behavior: there is no definition of such a mechanism. If you ask a trained, academic, professional animal behaviorist about “predatory drift”, you will receive a blank stare: I know, I’ve tried it.

There is, for instance, play aggression which can, due to hyper-arousal, switch over to true aggression (usually due to either anxiety or dominance aggression). But we don’t call that predatory drift…

There are innate releasers for predatory behavior in a very few breeds: small animal (rat, rabbit, squirrel, small dog, child), moving fast, which can trigger chase behavior, and in rare cases, predatory behavior. But we don’t call this “predatory drift”.

So predatory drift is a created term used by non-animal behaviorists to dump a bunch of actual true mechanisms into one category and give it a single but ill-defined name.

There is no scientific basis to the idea that the yelp of a small dog is an innate releaser for some kind of kill behavior… it IS true that there is an incredible mismatch between some breeds (generally large and small) in their ability to communicate social status, arousal, and intention accurately (due to the selective breeding we have done) and hence, there are many, many incidents of small dogs not being accurately recognized as dogs but more as prey animals. Maulings occur at off-leash dog parks weekly in Seattle, which allows mixing of small and large breeds, and this mix of small and large (or more specifically, more primitive and more derived or genetically-altered) breeds is a real issue.

The yelp is a ‘stop behavior’ signal which is being ignored in high arousal situations… in these incidents, the yelp should immediately halt the behavior but does not, since the predator is over-threshold and/or does not recognize the signal. You hear the yelp frequently, even from big dogs, when rough-and-tumble play goes too far for one participant.

Innate releasers is a fine term for these signals, related to the antiquated “fixed action pattern” concept but still appropriate… innate releasers exist for predation, but only for the appetitive (find and chase) part of the sequence, not for the consummatory (kill and eat) part. By this time in the sequence, the predator has already decided that it is chasing prey (which, as I mention, might be a dog who is not behaving, or looking like, a “dog”).

The use of the non-concept of predatory drift to suggest, as my reader documents, that “threat displays, posturing, and stimulation of larger males must be prevented” is non-science. There is no scientific basis for this. However, you SHOULD be concerned about breed-specific communication abilities and possible ensuing confusion (ie, separating ancestral breeds from modern European, highly-derived/altered breeds), and about assessing and monitoring levels of inhibition. Inhibition issues are also widespread with modern inbreeding and lack of training, and lack of proper early socialization (shelter adoptions), and can lead to dangerous situations: the “stop that” signals, or the “I’m ok being submissive” signals don’t shut off aggressive behavior due to lack of inhibition. This is also an issue in young dogs, as full inhibition does not form until 2 years of age.

These two issues, loss of proper communication ability and lack of inhibition, are the PRIMARY causes of dog-dog aggression, other than the more easily-recognized, and more common, anxiety. But there is no such thing as predatory drift.

Posted in General Science of Behavior | 1 Comment

Using Shelter Dogs in Therapy Situations: Not a Good Idea

It is well known that dogs, and other companion animals, can provide a great deal of solace to humans in need of calming, constancy, and contact.  The scientific evidence for the physical and mental calming effects of appropriately behaved dogs is now overwhelming, and includes both physical and psychological effects across short and long time frames.  Wells (2009) provides an excellent review.


Dogs have been purpose-bred, reared under controlled conditions, and trained to standardized criterion for use as assistance dogs for many years.  Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is one such well-known organization with which I am familiar.  These dogs are used in what I refer to as mission-critical situations: situations in which the dogs will be placed in environments which frequently cannot be controlled, where the dog will be exposed to a wide range of stimuli (e.g., darkness, loud children, other dogs of a wide and unpredictable range of socialization and behavior, close quarters, loud sounds, humans acting or smelling “strangely,” perhaps ill or with mental illnesses) and in which the dog must perform its function without fail and more importantly, without exhibiting negative reactions of any kind, including barking, growling, snapping, or biting.  The consequences of a failure of dog in these highly stressful and frequently novel situations would be disastrous, to the targeted individuals, to the assistance or therapy program or organization, to the efforts to use dogs in such situations, and in many cases, to the dog itself.


Widely accepted and highly experienced organizations, like CCI and others, take extreme measures to make sure that these dogs are as “bulletproof” as we can possibly make them, given that ultimately, they are still living, breathing animals.  The behavior, or reaction to stimuli, of all animals, including humans, is at some level, difficult to predict: animals can be quixotic, can learn (to our mind) strange relationships between stimuli and rewarded responses, and experience changes in their responses with age.  Behavior is a result of genetic influences and learned contingencies, all influenced by their internal and external environment of hormones, nervous systems, diseases, aging, new environmental stimuli, and the continuous integration of the behaviors and responses of animals, especially other dogs and humans, around them.


And yet, we ask these animals, these dogs, to go into these “mission-critical” situations, like assisting the blind to cross the street, calming a mentally-ill patient, or minimizing the stress experienced by a child in a forensic interview or court interview.  They must behave “politely”, must not disrupt the courtroom or snap at someone who smells wrong, must not growl in anxiety when forced into close proximity to strangers on a bus, must not be distracted by anxiety when leading a blind person across the street. They need to be “rock-solid”, “bullet-proof”.


This is possible: CCI and others have done so for decades.  How can it be done?  It requires multiple measures to rear a dog to an adult, working age that is as consistent and predictable in its responses as possible.  These include: working with one pure-bred lineage of low innate reactivity (or in the case of CCI, creating a new breed combining low reactivity and high trainability to create a purpose-bred dog); managing the pedigree to maintain low genetic inbreeding; rearing puppies to an age at which their adult behavior (temperament) can be validly evaluated (two years old, see below) in a common, standardized way to maximize positive learning in a multitude of experiences and exposures; evaluating dogs at or after two years old for temperament, especially reactivity and rejecting the large proportion of dogs who don’t meet a high standard; and finally, placing the dogs into a lengthy training program, including training for appropriate behavior in a wide range of real-life situations.  There are a number of organizations which do so.


What’s the issue? My issue here is a major concern of mine: there is an increasing movement to recruit dogs from adoption shelters for use in therapy situations.  Now, I agree that (most of) these dogs need and deserve homes, and I agree that dogs can be used very positively in therapy situations.  BUT I DON’T agree that the vast majority of, if any, shelter dogs should be placed into mission-critical therapy situations, with the mentally-ill, in court rooms, or assisting people-in-need in public situations.


Why is this?  Think about the factors that I listed above that contribute to the highly successful programs in place, like CCI (and I pick CCI only because I am most familiar with their work: there are other organizations following similar processes to similar positive results).  Let’s walk through them:


  1. Working with one pure-bred lineage of low innate reactivity: genetics are a critical component to behavior and to temperament.  Temperament is defined as animal’s consistent individual behavioral pattern: whether an animal is reactive, aggressive, shy or bold, curious, or social.  These are quantifiable temperament traits which help to predict how an animal will react in a novel situation, and genetics explains anywhere from 20-50% of the variability in temperament across individuals.  CCI, and others, have carefully bred for a low-reactivity and low-aggression dog, and maintained that breeding without the (often behaviorally) harmful effects of inbreeding.  With dogs from a shelter, genetics are unknown.
  2. Rearing puppies to an age at which their adult behavior (temperament) can be validly evaluated (two years old, see below) in a common, standardized way to maximize positive learning in a multitude of experiences and exposures: Sam Gosling in his review of canine temperament studies (Jones and Gosling 2005) finds that there are no studies which indicate that assessments of dogs less than two years old predict anything about their later temperament or behavior.  I am completing a manuscript for publication in which we assessed puppies of several breeds, and then reassessed them at two years old: we find a few predictors of later outcomes but they were minor and not powerful, much as others have found.  So to take a dog out of a shelter and “assess” it, and believe that you are predicting how it will behave in other, potentially stressful situations, is not scientifically supportable.
  3. Evaluating dogs at or after two years old for temperament, especially reactivity and rejecting the large proportion of dogs who don’t meet a high standard: if organizations like CCI can purpose-breed a dog, foster-rear it under very stringent protocols, and STILL reject 60% of the candidates for further assistance dog training, imagine what proportion of shelter dogs, of unknown genetic history, unknown and often quite negative early rearing, and at least 6-8 months of post-shelter recovery and stabilization, are truly qualified to act as mission-critical companions.  Shelter experience and their early, usually negative, rearing environments are a major risk factor for moderate to severe anxiety-related behavioral issues later in life.  These animals should NOT be placed into what I refer to as mission-critical situations: it is simply asking too much of them, and risking an incident that could have very bad outcomes all around.
  4. Placing the dogs into a lengthy training program: training cannot entirely overcome temperament, because training, even the thorough years of training into which organizations like CCI place their qualified dogs cannot provide a stimulus-response experience to every possible situation.  This is where temperament steps in: temperament is the default reaction of an animal to a novel or unfamiliar situation, where it DOESN’T have a learned, experiential response.  Dogs from shelters, from poor early rearing environments, dogs exposed to high-risk situations during critical sensitive periods for the formation of temperament, and who therefore develop more anxious, aggressive, or reactive later personalities cannot, and should not, be placed in to mission-critical situations.


In summary, shelter dogs deserve good homes and good health care and much better behavior management than most get, and after a lengthy evaluation, many can act as less-mission-critical Emotional Support Animals, or may be wonderful when placed into very narrow specific, controlled situations.  But I would argue that, for mission critical situations, in support of humans in public places, in emotionally-tense court rooms, with the less-predictable mentally ill, or in situations in which the health and even life of the dog and its human are at risk (e.g., the blind), dogs from shelters should not be used.


Posted in General Science of Behavior | 8 Comments

Fishing in the Florida Keys, Part 2

So back to fishing the Keys: aquatic applied animal behavior in action!  In the Keys for a fishing-immersion, 50th birthday trip, I described the offshore trip in my last blog.  But what I was really looking forward to was the flats-fishing: two mornings, out before sunrise (ouch!), and in position on a 2-3 foot deep sand and grass flat, in a boat designed to float in less than 1 foot of water, watching for the characteristic changes in the surface of the water that revealed the movement and feeding of bonefish, tarpon, and sharks under the surface.  It’s a more subtle kind of fishing than offshore running-and-gunning for open-ocean species, and when a bonefish finally slurps that shrimp or lure and accelerates away to peel 300 feet of line off your reel in a matter of seconds, there is nothing like it.  I had successfully fly-fished for bonefish in lagoons on the north side of the island of Cozumel in Mexico (that’s another story altogether), but for the much spookier, more experienced fish here in the Keys, we were fishing with live crabs and shrimp.


So the approach is more like the wildlife photography that I had been doing since I was a teen-ager, and in which my son was quite active now: a stalk, a stake-out, a quiet move to a (hopefully) better location.  Keen eyes (some keener than others) watching for the evidence of an animal’s passage, attempts to predict the movement of feeding animals: again, applied animal behavior in action.  All set in an absolutely gorgeous tropical setting, with exotic birds (frigates, ibis, endangered herons and pigeons) to watch at the slow times.


How’d we do?  Not bad: our guide was Captain Ann Holahan out of Islamorada (boneranger.com), and she first moved us to a channel on the edge of a flat to try for tarpon, the huge, leaping species that has excited so many anglers in the past like Zane Grey and George H.W. Bush, who had caught a 130 pound tarpon a few hundred yards from our location a few months ago.  We dropped a couple of crabs over the side, and watched the sun rise… in what seems now like a very short time, my line was tight.  But no jumping, just repeated high speed runs, each run peeling off a hundred feet or more of line in that, oh, so satisfying whine of the reel that signifies a BIG fish.  Without the characteristic jumps, it didn’t seem like a tarpon: perhaps just a big lunker nurse shark, a relatively unexciting and very common species.  But the speed was too much.  Thirty-five minutes of fight later, and the brilliant silver flash of a very large permit neared the surface: 40 pounds of a beautiful fish, not a record but a very large fish, probably a tournament winner if we had been in a tournament.  A Captain Ann client had boated a 60+ pounder a few months earlier: she’ll need to be careful or she’ll have to switch her reputation from bonefish to big permit.  For those not familiar with Caribbean or tropical sport fish, a permit is a vertically-flattened, high-speed swimming, flats-crab-and-shrimp-feeding fish related to jacks and pompanos.  It’s a sport fish, and we grabbed a very quick photo and performed a smooth release.


Later that morning, we moved to the true flats, about 2 ft of water, and my son watched and waited while small bonnethead sharks (smaller relatives of the hammerhead shark) move up the current towards our boat.  A quick and very accurate cast of a shrimp in front of them and he hooked up for a wild ride.  In this shallow water, the trick during that blazing initial run is to raise the rod as high as you can in the hopes of preventing the fish from wrapping your fragile line around a piece of coral in the sand.  He got it up high, began to gain line, and brought a ten pound shark up next to the boat before it broke away: sharks have such sharp teeth that a thin wire leader near the hook is required to assure a catch, and this would scare off a bonefish (our primary target) and hence we were not using one.  Boating a shark would therefore be a much bigger challenge and he did well to get it close.  Nothing for the rest of the morning, although we saw bonefish and sharks, but none came within casting distance.


Two days later, we are out again, hunting for bonefish again, and again, skunked.  We moved around, and eventually started working on some little sharks, but it was not to be, and we went home mildly frustrated but still riding a high from that permit, and happy to be outside, in the Keys, on the water, and learning a LOT about flats fishing.  We’ll be back soon, we always are, and now we can add flats-fishing to our repertoire.


I hope you enjoyed this little departure from dogs and cats and their trials and triumphs; let me know if you’d like to hear more about animal behavior, science, and field experiences by clicking on the Comments button below.  If you have general animal behavior questions, or questions about the science of animal behavior, send me a note, and I will try to address them in future blogs.  If you have a great flats-fishing story, send it along as well.

Posted in Fishing | Leave a comment

Fishing in the Florida Keys: Aquatic Applied Animal Behavior, Part 1

I just got back from a three week vacation in the Florida Keys.  Even on vacation, I am involved in animal behavior.  I grew up in the Keys and left there when I was about 14 years old, returned several times in the ‘70’s while I was in college on the East Coast, but in 2002, I had not returned since a brief visit in 1982.  In 2002, with a wife and a nine year old son who had never seen Florida, much less the Keys, we returned, and we all fell in love (again, for me) with the string of 142 islands extending south of Miami to Key West, a mere 90 miles from Havana (130 miles from Miami!).  It’s got a laid back Caribbean attitude, the feeling of small towns and islands (those who love the San Juan Islands will know what I mean: I get the same island feeling there), beautiful weather, and yet, U.S. amenities, currency, domestic airfare status, language, and all of the other good (and of course, bad) things that go with being part of the United States.


And it has the best all-around fishing in the world.  I grew up fishing the Keys, of course, where you catch something within minutes (seconds, even) of dropping your line in the water, where you never know what you’ll catch (snapper or grouper one second, a parrotfish the next, and the next, a shark).  There are at least four fundamental styles of fishing from which to choose: flats (the shallow warm-water home of bonefish, permit and sharks), backcountry (fishing the mangrove swamps of the Everglades for redfish, sea trout, and groupers), the reef (home of snapper, grouper, jacks, and barracuda), and off-shore (the big-game fishing of Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway for dolphinfish, sailfish, tuna, and marlin).


My wife and son and I enjoyed our first fishing so much, from bridges throughout the Keys, that we bought a 17-foot boat that we keep in dry storage in Marathon, our favorite part of the Keys.  We have begun to improve our proficiency at reef fishing, the type of fishing which requires the least skill and specialized equipment.  I view, in many ways, fishing as simply aquatic applied animal behavior.  You have to know your species, their typical behavior patterns and haunts, well enough to be able to predict how they will react to certain stimuli, like oh, say, a live shrimp or a feathered lure dangled in front of them.  You need to know a lot about their sensory systems, movement patterns, food habits and triggers for feeding behavior, and of course, you need to apply this information appropriately to be successful.  The same can be said of hunting, or of wildlife photography (another hobby of my son’s).  For a professional animal behaviorist who loves his work, what’s not to like.


So for my recent 50th birthday (aaah, that’s a big one), I promised myself that I would begin to move my fishing expertise to a new level, by hiring a guide(s) to explore some other kinds of Keys fishing on my next visit; indeed, to plan our next trip around some serious fishing experiences.  And thus, three weeks in the Keys, with an emphasis on fishing.  We got our boat in the water, of course, and had a blast fishing the reefs of both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay: snapper of three species, houndfish, grunts, chubs, and more.  Even my mother, in her very spry 70’s, came out and fished (although she says she was along just to watch the sunsets!).  But the big treats included an off-shore trip on a 28-foot twin outboard powerboat rigged with multiple trolling rods and lures, where we did what is called ‘run and gun’ for offshore species like dolphinfish and tuna.  This involves heading out beyond the reef, about nine miles offshore, and watching for ocean birds which have located schools of baitfish.  Where the birds are attacking the baitfish from above, there are usually big-game fish attacking from below (aha, more applied animal behavior!).  We spent six hours from 9-18 miles offshore in the Gulf Stream, in 5-8 foot swells, straining our eyes at the horizon to see feeding birds, running to meet up with them, and trolling our (hopefully enticing) lures nearby.  The result: seven dolphinfish and five small tunas, all 6-8 pounds each and all great eating.  There is NOTHING like tuna salad made with truly fresh tuna!


Two other mornings were early ones: flats fishing, the epitome of stalking in which you are positioning yourself on flats that are 2-3 feet deep, and watching for visible signs of fish to move across the flats: bonefish, rays and skates, permit, redfish, sharks, even tarpon over 100 pounds, all on the flats to feed on shrimp, crabs, and clams and snails.  My experience flats-fishing the Keys in my next blog.

Posted in Fishing | Leave a comment

How Often Should You Train Your Dog?

Here’s a question for all of you dog trainers (and that should be just about everyone who has a dog)… how often should you train a dog? Many of us in this business would, of course, say, “as often as possible… please!” But that is not quite what I mean: from a scientific point-of-view, what is the optimum frequency of dog training… once a day, once a week, once a month? Again, many of us would answer, “as frequently as possible, within the attention span of our dog.” But surprisingly perhaps, there is very little information in the scientific literature about the optimum frequency for training, especially for dogs.

A few trainers like Bailey (1995) and Abrantes (2000) have provided some guidelines, generally “from once to several times a day” but provide no scientific evidence for such statements, which seem to me to fall into the “well, the more often, the better seems to make sense” category. And this issue would be a challenging one to test experimentally because most such research is done with dogs from widely varying rearing and training backgrounds, so that very large sample sizes would be required to determine accurately the answer to such a simple question.

In other species, like rats, horses and humans, there is some evidence that in almost all cases (with some interesting exceptions), more widely spaced training (say, weekly training sessions) are more effective (that is, fewer training sessions are required) than “massed” training sessions (multiple/day). The exceptions have to do with training certain behaviors in yearling horses, and in the decline versus the reoccurrence of fear behavior in humans, where prevention of reocccurrence is decreased by spaced training.

So what about dogs? In a recent paper in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, Dutch researchers Iben Meyer and Jan Ladewig tested laboratory beagles, all raised in a very similar fashion (thus removing the differential rearing confounding variable from the mix), on a simple standardized learning task. This task, broken into four stages, was to move one meter from the trainer and touch a pad on the floor with a front paw. The trainer used a clicker as a secondary reinforcer and a food treat as a primary reinforcer, very much as we do in a lot of our behavior counter-conditioning work. Eighteen beagles were divided into two equal groups: one group trained once per week, and the other trained for five days per week. So which group learned the task, to 80% accuracy, in the least amount of time, and which group learned the task in the fewest number of training sessions?

Well, somewhat surprisingly to many trainers and owners, the once-per-week trainees learned the task equally well but in signficantly fewer training sessions, an average of 6.7 sessions, than the 5-times-per-week group, who achieved proficiency in an average of 9.0 sessions. But if the difference in training rate is five-fold (once per week to 5-times-per-week), that should mean that the more-frequent-training group took fewer total days to learn their task: more training sessions but fewer days overall. That was indeed true: once-a-weekers took a total of 46.7 days and more frequent trainees took only 11.4 days, on average.

So this work reinforces, in dogs, some of the basic conclusions that have been demonstrated in rats and horses. It eliminates a huge potentially confounding rearing background problem by using one breed all reared in the same way, but of course, tells us nothing about possible genetic differences among breeds or the longterm implications: do dogs trained over a longer time period (in fewer training sessions) retain that learning better or worse than dogs trained more intensively? We would suggest from limited information from other species (but using a model of common evolutionary descent among mammals) that spaced training should produce longer, better retention of learned material. But we will have to wait for the research study to be done and published to know for sure.



Posted in General Science of Behavior | Leave a comment

New Scientific Findings about How to Treat Fear in Dogs

An important new research article for dog (and cat) behaviorists who deal with fear, anxiety, and behavior modification was published in the premier journal Science during Christmas week of last year (2011).  Let me set the stage, and then describe the findings.


Fear and anxiety is one of the most common sources of aggressive, and other, behavior issues (not dominance and pack leadership, as some trainers suggest).  This is also a widespread issue in the human population: fear, phobia, anxiety, and serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder can be debilitating.  All of these fear or anxiety related disorders stem from a fundamental problem, a disregulation, of the neurotransmitters in the brain.  This may be caused by genetic or developmental issues: anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other related conditions have been shown to have possible genetic causes.  But more frequently, anxiety is caused by an exposure to a fearful, scary, stressful, or (mentally or physically) traumatic situation, or more likely, multiple exposures.


In this case, the neurons in the brain adjust the levels of neurotransmitter chemicals (the communication bonds of the nervous system); if the stressor is repeated, or occurs at a very sensitive time in develop of the brain, this adjustment can become permanent, producing not a passing fear or anxiety response, but an ongoing, hypersensitive response.  In dogs who are traumatized by children at a critical time for brain development, or exposed to repeated punishment, or who receive inappropriate or too little socialization at the right age, this chronic change in the brain can result in fear, and is frequently manifested as aggression, even in inappropriate situations.  That’s where veterinarians and behavior specialists often get involved.


We know that a process called counterconditioning, where positive rewards are consistently and repeatedly linked to sub-threshold exposures to anxiety-producing stimuli can, if done correctly, significantly reduce the fear response.  But we also know that in some cases, it does not work, and in some cases (many cases!), we see a rebound effect, where the fear response reappears after counterconditioning ends.


We also have several families of medications that specifically target these neurotransmitters, altering levels of these chemicals in the brain and thus lowering anxiety in general, and in response to the scary stimuli, whatever it might be.


Finally, we have known clinically for some time that pairing the use of counterconditioning, or what might be called ‘extinction training’ (repeated exposure to the scary stimuli without anything scary happening, or in our case, even with something good happening) with the use of one of these modern anti-anxiety medications has been extremely effective.  But we have not known why!


The research published in this paper gives us the first experimental confirmation that this effect is real, and confirmation of a hypothesis about why this synergistic interaction between training and medication occurs.  In the research described in this paper, biologists induced an anxiety response in mice, and then extinguished that response in the presence or absence of fluoxetine (commonly known as Prozac).  They examined the rate of extinction of the anxiety response, and then later tested the mice for a rebound or recovery of the anxiety response.  Finally, they examined the neuronal cells in the brain of these mice to see what had actually changed.


The results?  Fascinating! First, they found exactly the effect that many of us have seen clinically: extinction of response occurred more quickly in the presence of fluoxetine, while the use of either extinction training or fluoxetine separately was less effective.  The rebound effect was also documented, and was significantly less intense when both extinction and fluoxetine were used together.  In fact, when the two were used together, the rebound effect did not occur.


So why does this happen?  It turns out that the fluoxetine shifts the maturation clock of the neurons backwards to an earlier, more impressionable state.  It is like the brain becomes plastic again; open to input and shaping by the environment.  It’s a Reset button!  Treatment with fluoxetine makes the neurons more amenable to learning and shaping, to responding to the information that the stimulus that the mice had learned was scary is no longer scary.  Now the stimulus is either not scary, or in the case of our counterconditioning, even perceived as positive, and the neurons are in a state in which they can take in or use this information to form (more desirable) permanent connections.  Thus, no rebound effect: in the case of positive training without medication, at least in some cases, we can only bend the neurons to where we want them, and when we stop “bending” them, they return to their previous state: fearful.


So from a practical point-of-view, where does this leave us?  It seems that, for some dogs, the neurons are still plastic enough, young enough, to change simply in the face of extinction or counterconditioning training: no medication is needed.  In other cases, the positive techniques may “bend” the neurons enough to achieve a satisfactory outcome in the eyes of the owner.  In still other cases, whether it’s in the face of initial difficulty or the rebound effect, medication is prescribed and success is a function of re-awakening the neuronal plasticity to achieve long-term success.


This research, as does all good research, leaves us with additional questions and predictions to be tested.  Here are some that I am thinking about: counterconditioning for fear/anxiety issues should be more effective in younger dogs, while the neurons are still (naturally) plastic.  Is this true?  We don’t have any studies which address this.  But these results might really get us thinking even more about trying to get to problems as soon as possible, when the dog is as young as possible.


Does counterconditioning, as opposed to the simpler extinction training used in this paper, truly further accelerate the process of readjusting the neurons?  And of course, the basics: this occurs in mice… does it occur in dogs (most likely, yes!) but how about species or breed differences in levels of effect, or age of “crystallization” of fear responses?  Perhaps you can think of additional questions or predictions: let us know, and I will respond with the best answers that we have!


Regardless of the answers to these questions, which we will have eventually, the research described here is important work.  It will help us understand even further how the brain works, and therefore how we can help those in need, whether our own species or those species for which we are responsible.


Fear Erasure in Mice Requires Synergy Between Antidepressant Drugs and Extinction Training

Nina N. Karpova, et al.

Science 334, 1731 (2011)

Posted in General Science of Behavior, Specific Behavior Issues | 2 Comments