Let’s Limit the Tethering of Dogs: Anti-tethering Legislation in Washington State

A bill has been introduced into the Washington State Legislature to limit long-term, unsupervised tethering of dogs in the state.  Specifically, the current form of the bill (and these bills change frequently before final passage, so this is just the latest that I understand) seeks to: ban outdoor tethering of dogs for more than 10 hours in any 24 hr period and between the hours of 10PM and 6AM, require tethered dogs to have constant access to shelter and water, ban the use of choke, prong, shock or pinch collars in tethering, and limit the size and weight of tethering equipment.  This bill, in one form or another, is in hearings before the legislature right now (Jan 2012) and will hopefully come to a vote in the current session.

I was asked to submit testimony in support of this bill, which I was, of course, happy to do, as I strongly support these efforts, here and in other states.  It was interesting, as a scientist and one who explicitly advocates for the use of science, not hearsay and old wives’ tales, in training and dealing with behavior problems, to be placed in the position of not having good science to back up my position.  Is long-term tethering really bad for a dog?  As described below, there really is no science that directly addresses that question.  But it illustrated for me the degree to which people, even myself, can sometimes OVER-rely on science as an answer: sometimes common sense is enough.  While I was disappointed at the lack of good science in this situation, it seems obvious from so many different angles that long-term, unsupervised tethering of a dog is not good social policy.  And I am happy to add my voice to the many that are working hard for passage of this legislation.

I thought that the readers of Behind the Behavior might be interested in my thoughts on the topic, and so I reproduce my written testimony here.  Let me know what you think!

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Statement on Tethering Bill

James C. Ha, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

University of Washington and Companion Animal Solutions, LLC

I am a research biologist, university professor, and certified applied animal behaviorist, one of only about 22 in the country at my level of training and education.  My world is about science, facts, experiments and data.  I approach my research, my teaching, and my work with some of the most dangerous dogs in the Pacific Northwest, from the basis of science, and I ignore the hearsay, the “common knowledge,” and the popular opinions which are so often contrary to the facts.  Animal behavior is a well-developed science, with a rigorous methodology, appropriately intense peer review process, and long-standing professional organizations, standards, and professional research journals.

 

So when I am approached to express an opinion on a topic that clearly relates to animal behavior, like long-term tethering of dogs, my inclination is to head for the library, to search the databases of scientific literature to find out what we know about the effects of tethering from scientific studies.  In this case, I was disappointed: the only publication that refers directly to possible involvement of tethering in aggression is an in-depth analysis of 16 severe attacks by dogs.  In 8 of these 16 cases, the dogs had been tethered.  While indicative and thought-provoking, this does not constitute science: how many tethered dogs were not involved in a severe attack?  If half the dogs in that part of the world were routinely tethered, then this finding tells us nothing.  But it is concerning.

 

So can I say that there is hard science which clearly points to the negative effects of long-term tethering on dog’s psychological well-being, health, and safety?  No.  Is that a real need in the scientific literature? I think so.  But we need to address this issue here and now.  My scientist side was disappointed.

 

But then, as I thought about this issue more, I began to realize that at some point, common sense has to be involved in all such human issues.  Science cannot substitute for all human intuition and understanding.  I realized that it was obvious that long-term tethering was not only harmful to the dog, but to society in general.  Long-term tethering of dogs clearly does not protect them from the changing weather conditions, does not prevent pregnancies in the case of reproductively intact animals, does not prevent children or other dogs from encountering a dog that is unfamiliar to them, and potentially aggressive.  There are even more obvious reasons to limit tethering: while outside on a tether, the dog is not under human control or supervision and can suffer physical injury and death, can be deprived, even accidently, of water and food, and may suffer from lack of stimulation and social contact, both among the most common causes of behavior problems in dogs.

 

Further, tethering is obviously a form of restraint, and there is a well-developed scientific literature, in mice, rats, primates, dogs, and humans, on the effects of long-term restraint.  Long-term restraint, or prevention of access to stimuli, can also include dogs which live their lives behind fences, or worse, in crates (as in puppy mills).  This is well-documented to produce various forms of arousal and eventually, aggressive behavior.  While this has not been documented specifically for dogs on long-term tethers, it is my professional opinion that we can safely extrapolate from the wide literature relating to this type of restraint.

 

In summary, I strongly support legislation to limit or eliminate the use of unsupervised tethering, especially for long periods.  I believe that the elimination of this type of dog handling will reduce animal abuse, decrease unwanted canine pregnancies, and make for a safer environment for dogs and people alike.  Tethering dogs outdoors for long periods is a form of neglect, and animals deserve better from their caretakers.  I hope that the Washington State Legislature can pass this bill and place Washington State among the more enlightened states in our country that have passed similar legislation.

 

I welcome questions, and would be happy to provide more information if needed.

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Wild dogs, Feral dogs and Pariahs

I recently gave a presentation on applied animal behavior to a wonderful animal advocacy group on the Micronesian island of Guam.  I was on the island on behalf of my wife’s (Dr. Renee Ha, UW Psychology/Animal Behavior) research on the endangered Mariana Crow, and I offered to meet with the local shelter group, GAIN (Guam Animals In Need:  http://www.guamanimals.org/index.html) to do a little education… and ended up getting an education myself.

I started out talking about the principles of animal behavior, and of learning, and of treatment of anxiety in the shelter environment, and all of the information that is so widely useful to my clients and audiences (speaking and blog, in-home and shelter-based) here in the States.  But that’s not what they really wanted to talk about… they had different issues, like how to lay their hands on the animals in the first place.   We had to talk for a while before I realized what we were talking about: truly feral dogs.  These are not household pets that had escaped, and were running loose for days, or weeks, or even months.  These were not the offspring of family pets that had been dumped for lack of energy or motivation to find homes.  These were multi-generational, wild-living dog packs.

Now, we should be clear about our terms when it comes to these sorts of animals.  Wild dogs would refer to species not yet domesticated, living in the wild, like African Wild Dogs, wolves, and so on.  At the other extreme are free-ranging household pets.  In between these two extremes falls two groups recognized by wildlife experts (these terms apply to any formerly domesticated species but we’ll stay focused on dogs here): feral dogs and pariah dogs.  Pariah dogs, as an ecological term, was coined by Lehr Brisbin, a biologist in Savannah GA many years ago in his work on abandoned dogs at a Federal facility in the area (nice article about him here: http://www.carolinadogs.org/smith.html).  The term Pariah Dog has now been adopted by a number of breed groups as a name for a type of dog formerly occupying the “pariah niche” in ecology-speak, and now returned to domestication (human controlled breeding).  But the original pariah-type in ecology referred to dogs who were breeding freely, without human intervention but reliant on humans for food (and probably predator avoidance and reduction too).  Many areas of our country have resident pariah dog packs, groups of varying social composition, dependent on human handouts and refuse, and protection from their physical and biological surroundings.  Feral dogs, on the other hand, are truly wild packs, able to fend for themselves in the wild, no longer dependent on humans at all.  These packs are much less common, and what appears to exist on Guam.

Now, this issue of pariah groups consisting of loose and dynamic, let’s say, aggregations of dogs, as opposed to feral, not dependent on humans, reproductively stable dog packs is interesting from an ethological perspective.  It is in these pariah groups that canine aficionados opposed to the concept of social hierarchy among dog find the lack of a social hierarchy like wolves.  And this makes sense, since the social structure is quite different: in wolf packs, or packs of truly feral dogs, the pack is an inter-related extended family group, whereas in pariah aggregations of dogs, there are no, or few, close genetic relationships.  And as we know from ethological studies, kinship is a major force in the determination of social organization and hierarchies.  So it would be fascinating to study the social organization of these (fairly unusual) truly multigenerational, feral, reproductively-stable groups of dogs.  Based on the existing literature, I predict we would find strong male and female social hierarchies as we do in wolves and most other canids.

Aaah, so many interesting research studies, so little research money!!  And eventually we come back to the issues of the GAIN volunteers of Guam.  Truly feral dogs are wily, smart animals (you don’t survive in the jungles of Guam, exposed to other predators like large monitor lizards, venomous brown tree snakes, and most critically, other feral dog packs, without becoming very reclusive and cautious, like, say, wild wolves and coyotes!  What could I tell them?  These were not the black labs, pit bulls, and Yorkies that I am used to treating.  These dogs all knew, or were learning quickly, exactly where their next meal came from, and all knew exactly where they were sleeping that night, and for whom capture meant holding out a treat and grasping them firmly by their collar!  These folks needed to know how to set live-traps in the jungle, and how to deal with truly wild canids when they were found injured or hit by a car.  So they had fascinating academic questions here, but they needed real, practical help.

So I switched gears, began to think more about my training as a wildlife biologist, and about how to deal with the very most extreme cases that I have seen in shelter animals, dogs raised in environments with a total lack of socialization (rare, in our world, thank goodness), and hopefully, was able to provide some suggestions that might help.  It was a wonderful meeting, an enlightening one for me, and I promised the GAIN team that I would remain in touch, and look for possibilities to fund some very exciting research in their world.  I’ll be back to the Mariana Islands later this summer, and if I can make it to Guam, I look forward to interacting with all of them again!

 

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The Behavior Wellness Exam

In dealing with dog and cat behavior cases in the home, I have to attempt to diagnose the cause of a behavioral issue, like aggression, based on the reports of the owners and the assessment that I can make of the pet.  In many cases, there is a clear history of a traumatic incident resulting in the problem behavior (a dog who is hit by a car may act aggressive towards cars, or be fearful of them).  In other cases, there are clear behavioral histories that lead, more often than not, to the behavior issue (a puppy raised in isolation in a back yard reacts poorly to other dogs as it gets older).  But in other cases, it is a mystery.  There is no available history that leads us to a conclusion about what might be going on.

On the flip side, in a (to me) surprising number of cases, I arrive to see a dog (or cat) which is obviously ailing.  The clearest example is a dog with a limp, although frequently it takes a keen and very subtle eye to detect a limp that a dog is trying to hide.  I suspect that an aggressive dog with a limp is in pain.  Or it becomes clear to me in my assessment that the animal is vision-impaired, or of extremely low weight. Another common one is inappropriate urination in a pet with a urinary tract infection.  These have become a veterinary issue, and I immediately stop and request a “behavior wellness” exam of one form or another.  No amount of behavior modification, or even psychoactive medication is going to relieve a behavior issue with a “physiogenic” cause.

What are the exams I request?   A very common one is, of course, testing for urinary tract infections.  In fact, we require one, or more, of these before we even see these cases for the first time.  In cases of malaise or serious weight loss, we ask to have the pet examined for infections, cancer, or parasites: basically, back to the vet to figure out what’s going on, before we try to tackle the behavioral consequences of the problem.

Another very common exam is what I refer to as a musculo-skeletal exam: a thorough exam of the skeleton and especially the joints: I see a not-insignificant number of cases of aggression in dogs with arthritis.  Sometimes, but not always, we see a sensitivity of the dog to handling of its hindquarters or rear legs (hip issues) but we also see (too many) cases of sensitivity to the neck region, resulting from overly enthusiastic use of “leash pop” punishment techniques.  These often reveal themselves to be bulging or herniated cervical disks or arthritis.

Another assessment that I occasionally ask for is a sensory system evaluation: vision and hearing.  Animals that are losing their sensory system sensitivity frequently become much more anxious, resulting in a lower threshold for aggression or fearful behavior (eg. inappropriate urination).   I have “discovered” a number of cases of (usually partial) deafness or blindness in my patients.

Finally, and less often, some very characteristic forms of aggression can be a sign of an endocrine disorder, usually either Addison’s or Cushing’s disease.  In cases in which I suspect this, I request an endocrine panel, which is a somewhat involved procedure, requiring fasting and repeat visits.  I reserve these requests for situations which have not been responsive to behavior modification, where I was really convinced “be-mod” should work.  The syndromes are more common in older animals, and I use that information to make my decision about the request as well.

In every case, if I make a request to the client to return to their veterinarian for additional assessments, I am always happy to discuss my concerns with the vet, to listen to their suggestions, and integrate my observations and suggestions for changes with theirs.  Only through a team approach to these issues: owner, vet, and behavior specialist, can we provide the best service and make the life of the companion animal the very best that it can be!

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Response to My Blog on “Modern Ethology”

Well, what a wonderful response to this blog!! It’s so nice to know someone is reading these!!

 

Let me respond to several of these comments in one response here:

FAP’s or MAP’s: the terms are being misused in either case, in the example provided by LC.  In either case, as pointed out O’Heare, these terms refer to a sequence of behaviors, performed in stereotypical fashion, triggered by a specific and characteristic stimulus called a sign stimulus, and having a strong genetic basis.  The term Modal Action Pattern was suggested to replace FAP in 1986 by George Barlow, to imply a less rigid requirement for stereotyped patterns of behaviors, given that we could not identify any behavior sequences that fit the definition of a FAP.  Here is the definition from Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior Sixth Ed.: “A Modal Action Pattern is a series of interrelated acts found in all or nearly all members of a species. Resemble reflexes, and have a strong genetic basis.”

 

The more recent term which has replaced a FAP or a MAP is simply a stereotyped motor pattern or an even more up-to-date term, a motor pattern with a high heritability.  But in the case of humping, this behavior does not fit the definition for several reasons: it does not constitute a sequence of behaviors, there is no triggering sign stimulus, and it is unlikely that there is any genetic basis to the behavior.  Just because the behavior is stereotyped does not make it a sequence of stereotyped behaviors or genetic in basis.  In fact, it is not likely to be genetic, or most animals of that species would perform the behavior… which they don’t… thank God!

 

Humping is a pathological behavior, resulting generally from anxiety due to lack of proper early socialization and is used to self-soothe in stressful situations. It’s NOT a FAP or a MAP, but a stereotyped behavior (as most behaviors related to reproduction are) triggered by internal anxiety levels… quite different.

 

The term “instinctive drift” was coined many decades ago by comparative psychologists, and refers to what we call today phenotypic plasticity.  That is, animals are constrained by their genotype and early experience, their biology, in what they can learn and the degree to which they can learn it.  Thus, an animal may not be able to learn certain associations, or may not be able to retain some associations as long as others: there are biological predispositions, as we say today, for certain behaviors, including learning.  So again, a once-useful term has been updated.

 

But the real discussion is about “predatory drift.”  There is no such concept in ethology, and the term doesn’t even fit with the idea of instinctive drift in my mind.  Are the users of this term suggesting that the default behavior for domestic dogs is predation, that when play or social behavior is performed for a while that the tendency for dogs is to revert to predation (as animals are supposed to revert to innate behaviors in instinctive drift)?  This whole concept fails for me.

 

Regardless, there are numerous reasons why a dog might “appear” to be playing or behaving socially and suddenly attack a smaller dog, reasons that may or may not include predation.  A major reason is that many (most?) small dogs do not communicate in the same was as more primitive breeds of dogs, a point driven home in Erik Zimen’s excellent work with wolf and poodle comparative behavior (and more recent studies) and reinforced by our modern knowledge of genetic relationships among breeds.  When you are interacting with another dog, you throw a lot of body language at them, to check them out, to determine their emotional state, to anticipate their intentions, and when you receive nothing coherent back, or perhaps even (inadvertent) signals of anxiety, aggression, or weakness, a dog of certain temperament might react with defensive aggression… this is just one common example that I have seen in my cases.

 

I really don’t see how the Bolles work on instinctive drift, or the Breland article popularizing that work, or for that matter, the more modern understanding of phenotypic plasticity (or constraints, if you are a “glass is half empty” type) can support or weaken the compulsion (or confrontational, as we call them in applied animal behavior research) trainers.  The concepts would apply equally to any kind of learning…

 

Now for “calming signals”: another term not part of the animal behavior literature, or certainly not in any form similar to how they are used by trainers and poorly trained behaviorists.  I have heard of all sorts of behaviors in this category: displacement behavior, redirected behaviors, reconciliation (the new form of appeasement) behaviors, vacuum behaviors, behaviors intended to reduce anxiety in the performer, behaviors intended to reduce anxiety in the recipient, just an incredible mish-mash of stuff.  There is no established use of such a term, and in the uses of the term “calming signals” that I have heard, I have not even detected a clear or consistent understanding of what calming signals are, how they are defined or exhibited.  So the term is useless: why not use the terms in standard usage?  In some cases, calming signals are displacement behaviors, in some cases they are redirected behaviors, in some cases they are self-soothing behaviors, etc.  These are established and well-studied concepts in behavior.  “Calming signals” is another good addition to my collection of bad ethology!

 

So I hope that this reveals a bit more of modern ethology… there is a real science out there, as accessible, or inaccessible, as any other science like genetics, organic chemistry, and ecology.  Some evolution of terminology is inevitable but usually reflects new knowledge and new discoveries, and good-quality education, and then keeping up-to-date with ongoing new discoveries, is the key to tapping into that new knowledge to benefit yourself, benefit your clients, and especially to benefit the companion animals on which we are focused.

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A Reading List in Animal Behavior, Part 2

Back in the fall of 2008, I presented a blog which started like this, “I am frequently asked about readings in animal behavior.  One of the nice things about practicing in a region like Seattle is that our audience is so well educated.  So not infrequently I have clients who want to learn more, want to read more about animal behavior.  Most often, they want to read more about what we call Applied Animal Behavior.  Applied animal behavior is the relatively new field which deals with the behavior (and misbehavior) of our companion animals based on a scientific approach that extends from the modern academic field of animal behavior, or ethology.  Ethology was historically based in Europe, and is a field of biology and psychology, that is, it is a sub-discipline of evolutionary biology,” and the blog goes on to define ethology in a little more detail.  You can find that blog [here].

I went on to say, “So here I present a highly personal reading list in ethology.  In this entry, I suggest some reading in basic ethology, and in a later entry, I will focus in readings in applied animal behavior.”

But it never happened.. no follow-up blog on the most relevant material, applied ethology!  So, forthwith, the rest of my list… the disclaimer, as before: this is a personal list.  These are the sort of readings, applied in this case, that I would, and have, “required of students of this field, beginning at the undergraduate level and right on through graduate or board-certification work in ethology.  These are the books that my students, graduate and undergraduate, read.  And these would provide the foundation for an excellent library in animal behavior.”

 

Applied Animal Behavior for the Lay Audience

These are books for the educated owner: I hope that most trainers, veterinarian technician and veterinarian with an interest in behavior have read these.

The first three are simply classic, must-reads: I strongly encourage all dog owners, and all of my behavior-issue clients to read these.

Donaldson, Jean.  1997.  Culture Clash.  James and Kenneth.

(The differences between primate [human] and dog behavior, social organization, and communication]

McConnell, Patricia.  2002.  The Other End of the Leash.  Ballantine Books.  (Dog-primate communication, or the lack thereof.  Based on Trish’s PhD dissertation work and a lifetime of learning about dogs and humans.)

Pryor, Karen. 1999.  Don’t Shoot the Dog!  The New Art of Teaching and Training.  Bantam.

(The original book that defined the new field of positive-approach dog training)

There are some follow-ups to the themes described in the books above:

Donaldson, Jean.  1998.  Dogs are from Neptune.  Lasar Multimedia Productions.

(Dealing positively, and successfully, with aggreessive dogs)

McConnell, Patricia.  Various.

(Trish has an extensive series of How To booklets, all of which are excellent: available from Dogwise [see below] or her website.  These build, in more practical terms, on the ideas developed in her best-seller books.)

Reid, P.J., 1996.  Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How    Best To Teach Them.  James and Kenneth Publishers, Oakland, CA

Ryan, T. 1998.  The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog.  Howell Book House, New York.

(These two books are by leading canine learning specialists, and build on the concepts of a positive reinforcement approach, and understanding the broader behavior of your dog, the context in which your dog behaves.)

Wright, J. C. 1994.  Is Your Cat Crazy?  Macmillan Publishing Co., New York.

Wright, J. C. 1999.  The Dog Who Would Be King.  Rodale Press,  Emmaus, PA.

(And then, how does all this conceptual material come together: first, John’s books bring you into the world of a behavior specialist, an academic bringing the science that we have learned about dogs, and cats, to bear on specific behavior problems… and at the same time, educating about dog behavior and learning in an entertaining way.)

Markowitz, H. 1981.  Behavioral Enrichment in the Zoo, Van Nostrand Reinhold. (Finally, as an ethologist, I find this book to be fascinating: applied animal behavior principles, but with application to exotic animals.  This is the behind-the-scenes story of a series of imaginative, and highly successful, attempts to produce natural behaviors in captive animals.)

Puppies and Puppy Selection

Then how about the big issue: what kind of dog should I get?  Here are two good suggestions for reading on this subject, again based on good science.

Hart, B.L. & Hart, L.A. 1988.  The Perfect Puppy. How to Choose a Dog by Its Behavior.  W.H. Freeman, New York.

Rutherford, C. & Neil, D.H.  1992.  How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With, 2nd Ed.  Alpine Pub., Loveland.

More Advanced and Professional Books

There are many references used by behavior specialists, certified applied animal behaviorists and board-certified veterinary behaviorists: these are a few of the more accessible ones.

Askew, H.R., 1996. Treatment of Behavior Problems in Dogs and Cats.  Blackwell Science, Cambridge, MA.

Bradshaw, J.W.S.  1992.  The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat.  C.A.B. International, UK.

Fraser, A.F.  1992.  The Behaviour of the Horse.  C.A.B. International, UK.

Hart, B.L. 1985.  The Behavior of Domestic Animals.  W.H. Freeman and Co., New York.

Hetts, S.  1999.  Pet Behavior Protocols.  What To Say, What To Do and When To Refer. AAHA Press, Lakewood, CO.

Voith, V.L. and P.L.Borchelt, Eds. 1996.  Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. Veterinary Learning Systems, Trenton, NJ.

Serpell, J., Ed. 1995.  The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.

Thorne, C., Ed.  1992.  The Waltham Book of Cat and Dog Behaviour.  Pergamon Press, New York.

Turner, D.C. & Bateson, P., Eds. 1988.  The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour.  Cambridge University Press, New York.

Waring, G.H.  1983.  Horse Behavior. Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ.

So that’s my reading list in applied animal behavior, from both an academic and a popular view.  Combining the books in this list with the previously listed readings in general ethology would generate an impressive library in ethology with a focus on applied animal behavior.

Feel free to leave me a comment if you have a favorite book to recommend, or a question about a book you’ve seen or read, or a specific topic in animal behavior for which you would like a reading recommendation.  Time to read!

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I must credit my colleague, Daniel Estep, PhD, for developing the original form of these reading lists, which I have modified and annotated considerably.  Any changes and added editorial opinions are strictly my own, unless Dan likes any of them.

Many of these are available from Dogwise, a book and supply catalog,  P. O. Box 2778,  Wenatchee, WA  98807-2778,  Phone 1-800-776-2665, on the web at www.dogwise.com

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What a Blockhead! Head Shape and Trainability in Dogs

An interesting paper appeared in a recent issue of Behavioural Processes (2009, vol. 82, pp. 355).  The author, William Helton from New Zealand, examined results from three published studies in which breed and head shape were reported, to answer the question of whether morphology (head shape, in this case) reflected intelligence in dogs.  Now, a little background because there a lot of caveats associated with this work.

First, what do we mean by head shape?  The classic measure of head shape, used here, is the cranial index.  This is the ratio of the width of the skull to the overall length of the skull, and can be easily measured with calipers.  But of course, this is only one possible way to measure a skull shape.  It turns out that dogs are interesting for this kind of question because, through our breeding, we have produced a wide range of head shapes, on a continuum of cranial indices.  So extremes in the cranial index values reveal dolichocephalic dogs (with a long cranium, the running dogs and sight hounds; think greyhound) and brachycephalic dogs (with a very wide cranium, bred for fighting and holding, grasping; think Staffordshire Bull Terriers) and in between, mesocephalic breeds, whose heads are less extreme in length or width.  So we can divide breeds into three parts of this continuum, or ask as the author did, whether dogs of extreme shapes, the breeds that are more specialized in their breeding, might have a lower or higher intelligence.  One hypothesis might be that medium-head-shape dogs, of less specialized duty (historically), might be less intelligent.

Another issue is, “what do we mean by intelligence, and how was it measured?”  A very good, and very difficult, question.  We really have VERY little data on the cognitive capabilities of breeds of dogs (or of course, of most species of animals).  But some work HAS been done on what might be one aspect of intelligence: trainability.  Now, while we have a few studies on this topic, among breeds, we still have very little.  But one way that has been used to “get at this question” has been to survey experienced dog owners, especially those with a broad exposure to breeds, to rank the PERCEIVED trainability of various breeds.  One good source of such information is obedience judges, and Coren has published these very consistent and repeatable results in a number of places.  So now we are no longer talking about intelligence, or even trainability, but perceived trainability… but it’s the best we’ve got, until we do more research!

So now, to the results of this work: what is the relationship between head shape, especially extremes of head shape, and ranking of perceived trainability (our stand-in for intelligence)?  Well, to a degree not accountable by simple chance, medium-head-shape dogs are perceived to be more trainable, and dogs with more extreme head shapes, whether long or wide, are perceived to be less trainable.

There are some other interesting findings to go with this main point.  For instance, what else does head shape tell us?  It turns out that the shape of the head also tells us a lot about the visual abilities of dog.  Breeds with long heads, associated with coursing or hunting by long-distance running, like greyhounds, have a retina designed with a wide area of receptivity: their vision is most acute in the horizontal and at the horizon.  Breeds with wide heads have their greatest receptivity in the center, like primates including us, and thus have their best vision in the center and close up.  So there are differences in the nervous system associated with head shape and there certainly could be differences in other facets of their brains and learning abilities.  Perhaps it is true that highly specialized breeds, so specialized that they LOOK different, might not have needed a broad intelligence to do their job, while your basic, unspecialized, medium-head-shape dog needed more wits to get the job(s) done!

Or perhaps this study tells us more about human perception.  Perhaps there is something in us that tells us that things that look different are (have to be?) different in other ways.  The answer lies in learning more about the actual intelligence, or at least the actual trainability, of dog breeds, a project that we at Companion Animal Solutions have begun, and that other ethologists around the world are undertaking.  The questions never end, and I hope that if you have questions, you will contact us here at Companion Animal Solutions.

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What Do I Do Now: Conflict Behavior in Dogs and Cats

Some time ago, I wrote a [blog about redirected behavior], and started it like this: “Most pet owners are familiar with the situation: your dog or cat is upset about something, perhaps has been challenged or even attacked.  But rather than an understandable response in which the animal lashes out at the challenger, or turns and runs, it will turn and attack someone, or something, else.  That is, it will exhibit an appropriate behavior but toward an inappropriate target.”  I went on to mention: “Redirection of a behavior is one of three forms of conflict behavior seen in animals, and humans.  The other two forms of conflict behavior are “approach-withdraw” and “displacement behavior,” which I’ll discuss in future blog entries.”  But I never did… so let’s talk about the other two now.

The example that I gave in that earlier blog was: “(conflict) behaviors are methods for resolving internal conflicts: a hungry dog, faced with a bowl of food and an aggressive canine owner of the food might express any of these three ways of resolving a conflict between approaching for food and fleeing the aggressive owner of the food.”  Another example might be a dog which has been severely frightened.  One of the ways of resolving this internal conflict in drives and motivation, in fact physiological and neurological demands, is familiar to most of us: approach-withdraw, or “flight or fight” as it is commonly, but incorrectly, called.  The other, like redirected behavior, is less well known, the least well known and often the most confusing option: displacement behavior.

Flight or fight: I guess “flight” is ok as a term: dogs and cats don’t actually take flight, but the use of the term “flight” to mean a hurried departure is quite correct.  Animals, including humans, placed into a conflict situation, will often attempt to resolve that conflict through a sudden, almost desperate, withdrawal, a “flight” from the conflict, or by a sudden, again almost desperate and totally out of character, attack or “fight”.  Thus, one example of an “aggressive” dog.  Is this an aggressive dog?  Sure, by the strict definition of aggression, a dog approaching a person or other dog, clearly behaving in such a way as to drive away or remove that person or dog.  But what is also important, in establishing risk or in treating the aggressive behavior, is the motivation: if this is a conflict-resolution behavior, that tells me something much different than if I can establish that it is a habit, a learned behavior, a genetic trait, a function of early deprivation, or any of the other myriads of possible causes and triggers for aggression.

One characteristic of this approach-withdraw behavior that I often see in this behavior is perseveration: the animal (and I know a few people like this) will run away, a little ways, stop, gain their nerve, begin to return and “fight”, lose their nerve, back away into a “flight”, and often hit a balance point, almost rocking back and forth in this conflict situation.

Another behavior that I have seen in these situations, and not one I recommend intentionally testing for, is when a dog in this conflict situation does attack, you can frequently turn the behavior off very quickly by simply shifting the behavior back over the balance point into a flight.  A loud “Hey!” in the face of such an attack has generated a sudden stop, turn, and run on more than one occasion.  The dog, and I have had cats like this too, was in a conflict situation, decided to attack (“fight”) but could easily be switched back to the flight decision by an increase in the scariness of the stimulus.  Again, not an effect that you want to count on, just in case it’s NOT conflict behavior, but it can save the day once in a while, and help you to explain what happened to your client.

How about the third form of conflict resolution, displacement behavior?  It’s an odd one, and more controversial as to its value and cause.  Perhaps you have been in a situation in which there is a conflict, some stress, a dog that is unsure of what it should do.  That dog’s body language signals will be in conflict, flicking from fearful and anxious to aggressive.  Suddenly, the dog will… urinate… or stop and eat a flower… or sit up and beg, or do some seemingly totally unrelated behavior.  This is displacement behavior, an outlet to the conflict.  We see it in humans all the time: some conflict, a disagreement at home among spouses, and suddenly one of them will jump up and light candles, or start to fold laundry.

The animal (or husband?) is in conflict and needs to resolve that conflict, and there are three ways of doing so: approach or withdraw from the stimulus perceived to be causing the conflict (“flight or fight”), redirecting behavior towards another target (often aggressively, in dogs and cats), or take your mind off it, by exhibiting a displacement behavior.  Watch for all three of these in the animals (husbands, wives, and kids count) in your life: your dog, your cat, animals at the dog park, or at the zoo.  Examples are common!  And maybe understanding these sometimes-puzzling behaviors can make our lives a little bit better, or at least a little less confusing.

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