Tag Archives: training

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

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

Wiggles gets his wiggle on

Wiggles, an aging Boxer, is a new admission to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.  We didn’t know why he was surrendered, but we noticed during our assessment that he had signs of arthritis including some lameness in his left foreleg.  Wiggles would also benefit from weight loss.

Our job was to do some initial training with Wiggles, who proved to be a clever (as well as cute) boy.  I particularly found his under bite adorable.

Wiggles

Wiggles

And before I tell you more…here’s why Wiggles’ name is appropriate:

Working on 'sit'

Working on ‘sit’

Success!

Success!

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

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

Get Healthy, Get a Dog

The Harvard Medical School has published a special health report entitled Get Healthy, Get a Dog:  The health benefits of canine companionship. 

The report details the many ways that dogs can improve the lives of humans.

Get Healthy, Get a DogIn promoting the report, the School says:

There are many reason why dogs are called humans’ best friends: not only do they offer unparalleled companionship, but a growing body of research shows they also boost human health. Owning a dog can prompt you to be more physically active — have leash, will walk. It can also:

  • help you be calmer, more mindful, and more present in your life
  • make kids more active, secure, and responsible
  • improve the lives of older individuals
  • make you more social and less isolated

Just petting a dog can reduce the petter’s blood pressure and heart rate (while having a positive effect on the dog as well).

The report can be purchased in print (US$20), in .pdf electronic version (US$18) or both (US$29) from this webpage.

I’m pleased to see this type of publication coming from such a reputable institution.  Dogs and humans both benefit when  humans take responsibility for a committed and healthy relationship.  I particularly like that the report also covers grief, since we all will face grieving the loss of beloved pet (given the odds – since we live a lot longer than our dogs do).

The chapters in the report include:

  • Our dogs, ourselves
    • Benefits of dog ownership
    • Service dogs
  • How dogs make us healthier
    • Physical activity
    • Cardiovascular benefits
    • Reduced asthma and allergies in kids
    • Psychological benefits
    • How human contact benefits dogs
  • SPECIAL SECTION
    • Nutrition guidelines for dogs
  • Exercise for you and your dog
    • Exercise whys and wherefores
    • The exercise prescription for people
    • Exercise guidelines for dogs
    • Help your dog avoid injuries
    • Walking with your dog
    • Hiking
    • Running
    • Biking
    • Swimming
    • Playing fetch, Frisbee, or flying disc
    • Agility training
    • Skijoring
    • Playing inside the house
  • Adopting a dog
    • Deciding on the qualities you want
    • Breed considerations
    • Finding your dog
  • How to be a responsible dog owner
    • Basic equipment
    • Veterinary care
    • Dogs in cars
    • Providing for your dog while you’re at work
  • Raising a well-behaved dog
    • Obedience training
    • Housetraining
    • Keeping dogs off furniture … or not
    • Soothing the anxious hound
  • Grieving a loss
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

Electronic training collars are a welfare risk

Animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln (UK) have published a study that supports the use of positive reward-based training methods over the use of electronic shock collars.

Shock collar

The immediate effects of training pet dogs with an electronic collar cause behavioural signs of distress, particularly when used at high settings.

The study involved 63 pet dogs referred for poor recall and related problems, including livestock worrying, which are the main reasons for collar use in the UK. The dogs were split into three groups – one using e-collars and two as control groups.

The trainers in the study were industry approved and fully familiar with the guidelines for use of e-collars which are published by collar manufacturers.

Trainers used lower settings with a pre-warning function and behavioural responses were less marked than during a preliminary study (the results of which have since been discounted because the trainers did not follow collar protocols). Despite this, dogs trained with e-collars showed behavioural changes that were consistent with a negative response. These included showing more signs of tension, more yawning and less time engaged in environmental interaction than the control dogs.

Following training most owners reported improvements in their dog’s problem behaviour. Owners of dogs trained using e-collars were, however, less confident of applying the training approach demonstrated.

These findings indicate that there is no consistent benefit to be gained from e-collar training, but greater welfare concerns compared with positive reward-based training.

Lead author Jonathan Cooper, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said: “e-collar training did not result in a substantially superior response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behaviour.

Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice, as suggested by collar manufacturers, presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal.”

The peer-reviewed journal article for this research is:

Jonathan J Cooper, Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman, Hannah Wright, Daniel Mills ‘The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training’ PLOSone http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102722

Source:  University of Lincoln media statement