Tag Archives: behavior

Picking puppies most suited to guide dog training

Animal behaviour experts at the University of Nottingham have developed a new tool which can be used to predict a young dog’s likelihood of successfully completing guide dog training.

Guide dog

Working dog organisations like the charity Guide Dogs, who funded the research, need to regularly assess the behaviour of the dogs they breed for training as not all of them turn out to be suited to the role. The charity is the largest of its kind in the world, breeding around 1,400 dogs for possible guide dog training every year.

As part of a wider £500k epidemiology research collaboration with Guide Dogs, the researchers in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science have created and tested a questionnaire-style decision tool which could help trainers from Guide Dogs to monitor and evaluate their dog’s behaviour. The tool successfully predicted training outcomes in 16.9% of young dogs of 5 to 12 months old to an accuracy of 84%. The tool is called the Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire (PTSQ).

The aim is to identify dogs who are not suitable to a guiding role early, before they enter time-consuming and costly formal training. The PTSQ is also intended to improve the understanding of a young dog’s behaviour, which Guide Dogs will use to inform their future training processes to give the best chances of success. The full study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Naomi Harvey, said: “Predicting working dog suitability in puppies has been a huge challenge to organisations for many years. If you’ve ever owned dogs you will know that every dog is different. They have their own characters and personality, which are heavily influenced by their life experiences. We were really pleased that this questionnaire-style behaviour assessment was able to effectively identify the dogs who were most, and least, suitable to guiding work, from a young age, and help to highlight those in between dogs who were at risk of failing training.” 

Chris Muldoon, Guide Dogs Research Development Manager, said: “The Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire is part of a suite of tools developed by the University of Nottingham for Guide Dogs. This tool, and the wider research project, is increasing our understanding of dog behavior and temperament to make informed decisions that will shape and improve our training processes.” 

The new behaviour assessment has been designed to be completed by training supervisors of young dogs at the age of 5, 8 and 12 months old. Questions were sourced either from previously published literature or created from suggestions from Guide Dogs staff surveys and feedback. This large study revealed seven reliable and interpretable character scores for measurement by the questionnaire. These were:

  • Adaptability
  • Body sensitivity
  • Distractibility
  • Excitability
  • General anxiety
  • Trainability
  • Stair anxiety

The research also evaluated aspects of the questionnaire’s reliability and accuracy. The results of the questionnaires completed by the training supervisors – 1,401 in total – showed consistency of individual dogs’ scores over the three age ranges. Of the dogs included in the study, 58% went on to qualify as guide dogs, 27% were behaviourally unsuited to guiding work and the remainder were unsuited for health reasons. Within this number there were also dogs with exceptional character and temperament who were selected for breeding.

The researchers say the work could be extended in the future to follow up the dogs’ working life as a guide dog. They say this could help shed light on why some dogs are retired early for behavioural reasons and the human and dog factors which contribute to this unique partnership’s success.

Source:  University of Nottingham press release

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The behavior connection – some lessons

Just a few thoughts in this post about the need to investigate behavior changes in our dogs.

Since our dogs can’t communicate with us in our language, behavior changes can be an indicator of an underlying physical condition.

A few instances from my practice just within the last couple of weeks…

a)  I have been working with a client in my nutrition practice to isolate the food ingredients that her dog will tolerate.  He’s been a very itchy boy.  Working in combination with a vet, we’ve isolated both the foods he can’t tolerate and also environmental factors that need to be managed.  He was still gnawing at his feet, however.  So this very good owner called in a dog trainer who pointed out that her dog was anxious – needing more boundaries at home.  His condition continues to improve as his owner implements a training program and I am now working on recipes for the homemade portion of his diet.

Lessons:  A good owner keeps observing and bringing the right skills and people into their dog’s care team.  Problems are often multi-layered and they need different skill sets.  Rarely does one professional tick all the boxes.

b)  I was contacted by a dog owner who has had their dog on pain medication for a while and wanted to know what I could do for him since he didn’t respond to acupuncture.  They returned from an overseas vacation and were told that there dog was happy and playful at the boarding kennels.  But, to them he was withdrawn and unhappy.  My recommendation was to get back to the vet for x-rays to help with a diagnosis before taking a ‘shot in the dark’ about what to try.  The x-rays have proven a number of structural conditions with his spine and tail.  We now have a better chance of getting together a management plan that will work.

Lessons:  It’s understandable that owners are reluctant to put their dog under anesthesia in order to have tests done.  But if a condition isn’t improving, pain medication alone isn’t the answer without knowing the rest of the story.  Your dog deserves a solid diagnosis and you need it to have the best chance of success in managing their health.

c)  Another itchy dog.  This time, much more than usual.  He’s had a history of food reaction.  The owners introduced a new treat that marketed itself as having high levels of antioxidants as a way of augmenting his homemade diet.  Who wouldn’t give this a try?  But the change in behavior – itching not only his ears and feet but also constantly licking at his private parts – was marked.

I read the label on these new treats, which use wheat.  I am 99% sure that his previous intolerance to commercial foods was caused by the grain content.  My recommendation – ditch the new treats and move onto other solutions.  We’re doing this now.

Lessons:  Just because the label says the product benefits health doesn’t mean it will for every dog.  Be willing to withdraw products in favor of new ones.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

The Most Desirable Traits in Dogs for Potential Adopters

Note from DoggyMom:

Shelters need all the help they can get to increase rates of adoption.  This latest research from Texas Tech University may help them do that and the results may surprise you – traditional ‘training’ may not be the answer.


Alexandra Protopopova has performed extensive research trying to increase the adoption rates and decrease euthanasia rates for animal shelters throughout the country.

Walking down the long rows of pens at any animal shelter reveals a veritable smorgasbord of canine variety.

Big dogs. Little dogs. Outgoing dogs. Shy dogs. Hyper dogs. Calm dogs. Happy dogs. Sad dogs.

But finding which one is right for a potential adopter is a big challenge for animal shelters throughout the country. The way to find that right fit between adopter and adoptee has almost always been about matching personalities and has never really had much scientific theory behind it.

Until now.

Alexandra Protopopova, a behavioral analyst and assistant professor in companion animal science in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences at Texas Tech University, has turned what started as her doctoral dissertation into a major research focus. She is attempting to determine what behavioral traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters and then working with shelters to train dogs to exhibit those traits when an adopter shows interest.

“Currently there are numerous pets living in animal shelters, not only in Texas but in the U.S. and around the world,” Protopopova said. “The problem is that a lot of these animals are living for quite some time at these shelters, even if the shelters are well-funded. Because of space restrictions, the animals are typically socially deprived, they are housed in single or very small groups without a lot of human interaction, and the euthanasia rates are still very high across the country.

“Can we figure out a way to train dogs in the shelter so that when people come in and see the trained dogs, it will improve their adoption rate and decreases euthanasia rates?”

The answer, through her research, appears to be a likely, yes.

But finding that answer not only meant discovering and displaying the most attractive traits in a dog, but also breaking down some of the myths that have, over time, seemed to determine the most attractive qualities in a canine companion.

Breaking assumptions
Determining what traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters involved not only observing canine behavior but also breaking away from some of the traditionally held assumptions from the past.

These are traits that Protopopova said she has been investigating since her time as a graduate student. Many shelters have training programs that are based on these assumptions, and it took going back to the basics and avoiding the widely held assumptions to determine what true traits in dogs were most and least attractive to potential adopters.

Kennel dog“A typical assumption was that training dogs to sit and not jump or bark would result in higher adoption rates, since that is what we had assumed adopters wanted in their dogs,” Protopopova said. “I also had my own assumption that people really like a dog that would gaze lovingly into their eyes, when in fact we saw no evidence of that in our research. So why don’t we take a step back and systematically figure out what it is people want to see in a dog? We approached it from a marketing perspective, and from there we could see, after knowing what behaviors are favorable to people, what programs we needed to work on to improve behavior and ultimately increase adoption rates.”

An extensive examination of canine behavior in kennels was then undertaken to determine which behaviors were the most and least favorable for potential adopters. Protopopova observed in-kennel behavior and examined everything the dogs did as people walked by.

Behaviors such as barking, sitting and jumping had no effect whatsoever on attracting potential adopters, but a dog that would pace in the kennel, turn their face away from those walking by or lean sadly to one side of the kennel would deter adopters and lengthen the dog’s stay in the shelter.

But the most telling behavior came when there was actual interaction between the dog and potential adopters outside the kennel. It is standard practice at shelters to allow potential adopters to select one or two dogs they might be interested in and allow them to interact in an outdoor area to see if they are compatible.

Two behaviors stood out among all others as the strongest determinants toward whether or not the dog was adopted. If the dog laid down in proximity to the adopter, that increased the likelihood of adoption. Conversely, if the dog ignored the initiation of the potential adopter to play, that decreased quite severely the likelihood of adoption.

Knowing those two key traits in dogs, Protopopova and her fellow researchers were able to develop a structured training program where the shelter volunteer or staff member could go with the potential adopter and guide the dog’s behavior based on its toy preference, knowing the dog would not ignore the toys it likes, or eliminate toys altogether if it was determined the dog did not like playing with toys.

Shelter volunteers and staff also would encourage the dog to lie down next to a potential adopter using treats. All these efforts, Protopopova said, resulted in a discernable increase in adoption rates.

“We also asked people why they chose the dog they adopted and why they did not choose the dog they didn’t adopt after those interactions in the experimental setting,” Protopopova said. “It’s fun to take those words the adopters use, those constructs and figure out what they mean. If an adopter told us they adopted the dogs because it was ‘social and liked me,’ they could simply mean ‘the dog lay down next to me.’”

This training program also is cost-efficient, knowing shelters do not have the resources to afford a professional training staff, which is why Protopopova considers it more behavior management than actual training.

But is it actual training? Or could this be considered more of a way of tricking the dog into behaving a certain way to increase its adoptability? That was certainly something Protopopova considered, though adopters indicated afterward the method was no more intrusive than the control group where the dog was allowed to do whatever it wanted.

“The interactions between adopters and dogs are only eight minutes long because that is how long previous research has shown it takes adopters to decide,” Protopopova said. “The dogs have only eight minutes to show their best side, so if we can do anything to show them off in the best light possible, that is a good thing for the adopter and the dog.”

The next step has been partnering with Maddie’s Fund foundation, which offers grants to shelters that works with community veterinarians, rescue groups and animal control agencies. Through Maddie’s Fund’s help, Protopopova is taking her research to a national scale, trying the same techniques at different types of shelters across the country.

“Will it work in smaller, rural community shelters? Will it work in the big city environment?” Protopopova asked. “Furthermore, will it work in different parts of the country? Our assessment was in Florida, but will it work in Texas, in Boston, in San Francisco? We will take it to six shelters nationally and try it out there.”

Other factors besides behavior
Obviously, factors beyond behavior go into why potential adopters choose the dogs they choose. Adopters can be looking for a certain breed or a certain size of a dog.

Certain breeds such as long-haired dogs, shepherd breeds and collie breeds tend to have high adoption rates, as do toy breeds such as Pomeranians or Chihuahuas. But a second question begged to be asked after the initial research by Protopopova – are some breeds more or less susceptible or accepting of behavioral training?

One problem with answering that question is the majority of dogs in a shelter are not purebreeds, but rather a mix of many breeds or dogs that have never had a purebred ancestor. So determining their trainability based on breed would be difficult.

Age also is an important factor in whether the dog’s behavior can be modified to make it more adoptable. Typically, puppies are more likely to be adopted because of their age and the fact adopters want to find a dog that can be with them for a long time. So training of puppies in an animal shelter setting might not be the best use of limited resources.

Conversely, older dogs that are well into their adulthood tend to stay in the shelter longer because adopters don’t seek them. So the ideal group for this experiment was dogs in their adolescence or just into adulthood. The good news is that, contrary to the old saying, old dogs can be taught new tricks.

“It just makes more sense if you’re a shelter volunteer to put your resources in training adolescent dogs,” Protopopova said. “But how does age affect training in general? It doesn’t affect it a whole lot. But, of course, socialization is very important for puppies. If you haven’t socialized your puppy to different people, different sounds, different environments and other dogs, you will have a much harder time young adult dog is much easier on families. Puppies engage in much worse behavior.”

Protopopova said in some cases it’s also difficult to determine how the dog was treated before arriving at the shelter. Dogs in shelters fall into one of three categories – owner-surrender, stray or confiscated due to abuse or cruelty.

The difficulty comes in owners who surrender dogs to a shelter. Shelters charge a fee to owners who give up their dogs, so in many cases, owners tell the shelter the dog was picked up as a stray to avoid paying that fee, or because they are wracked with guilt for giving up their beloved pet.

Those labels not only make a difference to potential adopters, but an owner-surrender dog, somewhat surprisingly, is more likely on a national scale to be euthanized than a stray, Protopopova said.

While the first study involved roughly 250 dogs, the bigger national study will involve many, many more and will involve dogs from a variety of shelter types, from municipal shelters to limited-admission shelters – a term Protopopova prefers over no-kill shelters. Protopopova is anxious to see how the study works on that national scale and how many adoptions encouraged by a dog’s modified behavior result in some dogs being returned.

Given what has been discovered so far, though, Protopopova is encouraged her efforts and those of her fellow researchers have forged a path to increasing adoptions across the board.

“We are very excited about this procedure because this is really the first time we have experimentally and systematically demonstrated an increase in adoption rates through behavioral training,” Protopopova said.

Source:  Texas Tech University media release

Intestinal health can impact dog behavior

intestinal-health-can-impact

Photo credit: University of Helsinki

General fearfulness, sensitivity to noise as well as hyperactivity and impulsiveness are the most common behavioural problems in dogs. At their worst, they can have a very negative impact on the wellbeing of the dog and owner alike.

“Behaviour and behavioural disorders often develop as a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, which makes studying them challenging. Metabolomics, or the study of the metabolism, provides us with new clues on the biological issues underpinning behavioural disorders while promoting genetic research. At the moment, metabolomics research in dogs is rare, and the purpose of this pilot study was to examine new approaches and attain information on any metabolic abnormalities associated with hyperactivity in dogs,” explains Professor Hannes Lohi of the University of Helsinki  and the  Folkhälsan Research Centre.

Ab­nor­mal meta­bolic blood test res­ults in hy­per­act­ive dogs

Determining the blood metabolites in hyperactive and normally behaved German Shepherds revealed a significant link between hyperactivity and lower blood phospholipid levels.

“We knew to expect this discovery from research on the human side, as several studies have recorded lower blood lipid and fatty acid levels in ADHD patients than in control groups. However, the causal relationship is not clear and requires further studies, particularly ones with more extensive research data. Our discovery supports the existing belief that human and canine diseases are similar, which suggests dogs can serve as excellent models for human illnesses,” states doctoral student Jenni Puurunen.

“It is significant that the dog’s age, sex or fasting had little impact on the link between behaviour and metabolites. We also controlled for dietary changes by feeding all dogs the same food for two weeks before testing,” explains Puurunen.

In­test­inal health can im­pact can­ine be­ha­viour

One of the most interesting discoveries in the study was the negative correlation between hyperactive behaviour and the levels of the metabolites of tryptophan, a vital amino acid. This metabolite is only produced when intestinal bacteria process the tryptophan received in food. The discovery suggests differences in the gut bacteria of hyperactive and normally behaved dogs, which is very significant in light of the discovery made a few years ago about the connection between the brain and the intestines.

“We know that the composition of the gut microbiota significantly influences the creation of neurotransmitters, for example, those which regulate mood and behaviour. The effect also works vice-versa, so that a stress reaction in the brain can have an adverse effect on the gut microbiota. Consequently, we cannot tell whether our discovery is the cause of canine hyperactivity or its consequence,” Puurunen says.

A glob­ally unique meta­bolo­m­ics pro­ject is un­der­way

Earlier this year, Lohi’s research group released an article on a study of the metabolomics of fearful dogs, which revealed differences between the blood counts of fearful and fearless dogs. However, more extensive research is required to confirm these pilot-stage findings. The research group has launched an extensive collection of samples to test new metabolomics technology together with the company Genoscoper. If successful, the new system could become a significant tool to speed up genetic research, particularly as it relates to behavioural studies.

The study is part of a more extensive canine behaviour project underway at the research group. The project seeks to determine the environmental and hereditary factors as well as metabolic changes relating to behaviour and behavioural disorders, and map their similarities with corresponding illnesses in humans.

Source:  University of Helsinki media release

Dominance research

The hierarchy in a group of dogs is not based on aggression but on submissiveness, says newly published research.

A dog ranked lower in the hierarchy displays signals of submissive behaviour towards dogs ranked higher. These findings have for the first time been substantiated by means of measurements by dog researcher Joanne van der Borg of Wageningen University and colleagues based in Utrecht.

wo beagles from the group of dogs studied. Communication by means of postures plays a central role in identifying dominance relationships between two dogs. The display of a lowered posture during an interaction by Zwart (the beagle on the right) is an acknowledgement of the higher status of Witband (left), who adopts a higher posture. Both dogs display mutual aggression (Witband by staring fixedly and Zwart by baring his teeth), which was found not to be a suitable measure of dominance. Photo: Joanne van der Borg.

Two beagles from the group of dogs studied. Communication by means of postures plays a central role in identifying dominance relationships between two dogs. The display of a lowered posture during an interaction by Zwart (the beagle on the right) is an acknowledgement of the higher status of Witband (left), who adopts a higher posture. Both dogs display mutual aggression (Witband by staring fixedly and Zwart by baring his teeth), which was found not to be a suitable measure of dominance. Photo: Joanne van der Borg.

In the study into dominance, a group of dogs was placed together on working days, and stable relationships formed between them after a few months. By closely observing and analysing the exchange of seven postures and 24 behaviours by the dogs, the researchers were able to establish a hierarchy. This proved to be linear.

The suitability of signals as a measure of dominance was determined using the exchange of signals between two animals. Suitable signals are postures or behaviours which are only displayed within a relationship from animal A to animal B and not in the opposite direction. Based on the receipt of submissive signals, the dogs were ranked from high to low.

The study supports the view that the dominance in a group of dogs is not determined by aggression, as many dog owners and dog trainers believe. Aggression is found to be exhibited by higher-ranked dogs towards lower-ranked dogs but also in the opposite direction, from lower-ranked dogs towards higher-ranked dogs. For this reason, signals of aggression are not suitable as a measure of dominance.

Not natural born fighters

The idea of dominance in dogs is popular among some dog trainers in various countries. They believe that dogs, like wolves, are natural born fighters with only one aim: to reach the top of the hierarchy. By contrast, a different school of thought among dog trainers holds that dominance is an outdated and obsolete notion which is not applicable to our domestic dogs. There has been much misunderstanding about the interpretation of this view, because until now there was a lack of substantiation by means of hard figures.

Signals from the dog

The signals of submissiveness from a dog meeting another member of its species can best be read from the lowering of the posture compared to the other dog. Another expression of acknowledgement of the higher status of the other individual is body-tail-wagging. This behaviour, often seen in young dogs when greeting other dogs, involves the tail moving in quite broad strokes, often with the hindquarters (the hind part of the body) moving with it. Both forms of submissiveness are an expression of ‘formal dominance’, because the context (aggression, greeting, play) does not matter. The findings are in line with previous results into dominance among wolves in captivity and Italian feral dogs.
The study contributes to our knowledge about the ways in which dogs communicate their status towards other dogs. This is important for correctly classifying the hierarchical relationship between two dogs, and probably also between human and dog. This in turn helps establish the correct diagnosis in the event of problem behaviour and will therefore improve the welfare of dogs.

Source:  Wageningen University media release

Never give up on your dog: Barney’s story

Barney with his "Most Improved Dog" trophy (photo by Vic Barlow)

Barney with his “Most Improved Dog” trophy (photo by Vic Barlow)

I’ve just updated my Facebook page today with thoughts about why it is important to adopt – and when one dog leaves your life, you may not want to wait too long because another dog awaits…

And then this good-news story popped up.  Barney was a challenging dog with difficult behavior – but his owners hung in there with him.  And he won Most Improved Dog at his dog training class.

Read Barney’s tale here

And if you like Barney’s story, you may have missed my story about Kess:

Kess’ Story – Part 1

Kess’ Story – Part 2

Dogs on Prozac – but not exclusively for best results

Dogs who suffer with separation anxiety become more optimistic when taking the animal equivalent of Prozac during behavioural treatment, according to the results of an innovative new study.

Led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, the research has for the first time revealed how the animals feel during the clinical treatment of behaviours associated with negative emotions.

Jess Cook signed up for the study as her dog Lexi would become so distraught when left alone in the house neighbours would complain about her howling.

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

For five weeks in 2013, Lexi, now seven, took two tablets a day in some butter. She also underwent behaviour management therapy, which taught her to cope better with being separated from her owner.

Miss Cook, who runs Like My Own Pet Care Services in Derbyshire and is studying for her MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Lincoln, slowly built up the amount of time Lexi was left unattended for. It proved successful and now she has come off her medication.

Canine separation-related problems – also described as separation anxiety or separation distress – are among the most common behavioural complaints of dog owners. But the issue of using psychoactive medication to help pets with behavioural problems is a widely debated one.

Treatment with psychoactive medication in parallel with a behaviour modification plan is well documented, but it is unknown if this is associated with an improvement in underlying emotion or mood, or simply an inhibition of the behaviour.

The new study, published in the peer-reviewed veterinary science journal BMC Veterinary Research, has thrown new light on the topic with researchers devising a method to evaluate animals’ emotional state when treated with fluoxetine – the active ingredient in Prozac for humans and Reconcile for pets. Prozac, the trade name for fluoxetine, is typically used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety in humans.

The researchers recruited dogs showing signs of separation anxiety, such as barking, howling, destruction of property and toileting when alone, and used a special behaviour test to determine if they were feeling ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’.

In the test, dogs were taught that when a food bowl was placed in one location it contained food, but when placed in another location that it was empty. The bowl was then placed in ambiguous locations, and the dogs’ response was assessed to determine whether they expected food (i.e. ‘optimistic’) or not (i.e. ‘pessimistic’).

The results indicated that when dogs were treated for separation problems using both a behaviour modification programme combined with fluoxetine treatment that they did become more optimistic, and as their mood improved so did the behaviour problem. The same results were not recorded for the control group.

Research lead Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “For quite a while, I, like many others, have been concerned as to whether drugs such as Reconcile simply inhibit the behaviour and perhaps had no effect on the animal’s mood. With the advent of new methods to assess animal welfare, we were able to answer this question and were pleased to see that, when the drug is used within normal therapeutic ranges, the dogs do indeed seem better.”

“However, it is important to emphasise that animals were treated with both the drug and a behaviour modification programme – with both being essential for effective treatment. Using the drug does seem to bring about a rapid improvement in mood while the animal responds to the training programme. The reality is, whether we like it or not, there are animals who are suffering and we need to take measures to both prevent the problem but also manage it as effectively as possible when it arises.”

Source:  University of Lincoln media release