TheOtherEndoftheLeash Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals. Wed, 20 May 2015 13:37:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can Your Dog “Smell” Your Emotions? Mon, 18 May 2015 22:43:47 +0000 As often happens, a study on human behavior got me wondering about how it might relate to our relationship with our dogs. The study in question asked if emotions could be conveyed through body odor. The researchers asked 12 men with pads in their arm pits to watch videos that designed to elicit fear, happiness or a neutral reaction. After confirming that the videos did indeed influence the men’s emotional states (the fearful videos induced “negative emotions” and happy ones elicited “positive emotions”), the pads taken from their arm pits were then presented to women. (Insert bad joke here about what emotion the smell of a man’s arm pits would elicit automatically.)

An analysis of the women’s facial expressions found that the “happy sweat” induced more activity in facial muscles related to happiness (the Duchenne smile). On the other hand, their medial frontalis muscles, associated with a fearful expression, were more active after “fearful sweat.” That’s an impressive finding that suggests a kind of “emotional contagion” based on the sense of smell alone. However, the women did not score as expected on a task that objectively measures internal emotions (rating Chinese symbols as happy or sad), which does not support the “emotional contagion” hypothesis. The authors speculate that there might be different responses based on whether language is involved or not (not for the facial expressions, yes for the symbol analysis).

Either way, we know that people are far better at responding to scents than we imagine. In the chapter “Planet Smell” in  The Other End of the Leash I explain that women can tell whether clothing had been worn by a man or a woman, identify the smell of their own infants, and discern whether something had been worn by a child, an adolescent or an adult. Impressive.

If we can do that, it seems reasonable that dogs could be able to detect changes in our emotional states relatively easily. You’d think we’d have at least some research that attempts to answer this question, but if it’s out there, neither I nor my colleagues can W scents handfind it. (If you know of any, please fill us in.) There are many people in the world who work scent detection dogs who know far, far more about this topic than I, so I turned to expert colleagues who work with scent detection dogs. Susannah Charleson (Scent of the Missing) and Cat Warren (What the Dog Knows) have a vast range of experience with working scent detection dogs, so I asked them what they thought.

Susannah answered that her Search and Rescue dog Puzzle behaves differently when approaching a person she has been searching, depending on the victim’s state at the time. Long before she makes visual contact, Puzzle approaches people who are in pain, fearful or despondent quietly, even “puppy belly-crawling” toward them. On the other hand, if she has found training volunteers who are calm or excited, Puzzle is all perky and prancy as she approaches. Once Susannah and Puzzle found a lost and very drunken gentlemen who was happily gazing up at the stars, and Puzzle approached as happily as the lost man seemed to be himself.

Cat Warren, who works cadaver dogs (usually called HR dogs for “human remains” I believe), knows a lot of Law Enforcement dog trainers, and tells me that many handlers believe that dogs can distinguish people who are in a high state of fear or arousal just based on their scent. (Which sometimes results in the dogs circling back and targeting a cop who is probably as aroused as the guy being chased!) Apparently there is even speculation that bomb sniffing dogs are not just searching for the scent of bomb-making materials, but for the nervous sweat deposited on the bombs by the people who made them. (We’re talking about home-made bombs here.)

To take things even further, apparently some handlers of dogs taught to search out human remains believe that their dogs can tell and indicate if the person died by natural causes or because of some kind of violent trauma. Cat and Susannah label this as “woo woo nonsense,” and I have to admit it seems equally far fetched to me.

These questions are important to those of us with companion dogs, because of the profound impact our own emotional state can have on dogs. Of course, there is no profit in us trying to pretend to be happy if we’re not, but it does raise some interesting issues related to how our own internal state effects that of our dogs. So many possible implications: If we’re afraid another dog will surprise our dog-dog reactive dog, how much does that influence our dog’s behavior? (Even if they can’t see or hear us.) What about therapy dogs? (I use that term loosely to include dogs who do all kinds of Animal Assisted Interventions.) My colleagues and I at Pet Pals talk about how tired our dogs are after just an hour interaction with patients, and their families, at American Family Children’s Hospital. Could it be in part that they are picking up on stress, not just through voice and movements, but through smell? Given the abilities of a dog’s nose, it seems likely that they are picking up on an entire world that we are often unaware of.

What do you think? Can you think of any event in which you felt confident that a dog was responded to the emotional state of a person only through smell? As usual, I will love reading what you have to say. I spend so much time thinking about visual and auditory clues that I have much to learn about scent discrimination, so send in your experiences and we’ll all learn from it.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Weed, plant new plants, work dogs, check on lambs. Weed, plant new plants, work dogs, check on lambs. Do not rinse, but repeat relentlessly. Besides the obvious interludes of work (how dare it interfere!), cooking and taking care of the rest of life, that’s pretty much what is going on at the farm. In other words, I’m in heaven, even though I am barely able to move at night.

Four of our five lambs are thriving, as you can see in this photo. That’s Lady Baa Baa in the front with her twins, (with her mouth open, yelling at me to give her grain), her mom Lady Godiva in the back with her huge single ewe lamb, and yearling Pepper with her little single male nursing away.

4 lambs 5-15

However, things are not so good with Cupcake, who finally had a single male lamb last week. All seemed to be going well, but a few days later Cupcake’s udder has hardened. There is little doubt that it is what’s called “hard bag, caused by a nasty, untreatable virus. She is giving some milk, but not much, so we have taught her little guy to drink out of a bottle. Cupcake gets regular sessions of warm, wet compresses and lots of massaging with mint udder cream (smells great!). It’s such a shame, because Cupcake is a wonderful, attentive mother, and her lamb sticks beside her as if they were leashed together.

Cupcake & Lamb 5-2015

We discovered the problem right after I took the photo above, and the poor things are stuck in the barn now, because we need to treat her at least three times a day. Hopefully they’ll be out on the spring grass again soon. Cross your hooves for her.

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I wish my dog knew. . . Tue, 12 May 2015 00:58:49 +0000 I recently happened upon a news story that grabbed my heart, about Denver teacher, Kyle Schwartz, who asked her students to complete the sentence: “I wish my teacher knew…”. Some of the answers are funny, and some will break your heart, like: “I wish my teacher knew sometimes my reading log isn’t signed because my mom is not around a lot.” The project was so compelling that it went viral on the Twitterverse, (#Iwishmyteacherknew).  Which led to an outpouring of answers from students all around the country. (“… that the reason I talk and laugh a lot in class is because school is really the only place I can be happy.”)

This project reminds me of the book PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, initiated by Frank Warren for a community art project. Frank received more than a million postcards from all over the world, full of heart rending confessions, desires and regrets. Seems we all have something inside that we are afraid to say out loud.

You know where I’m going here, don’t you? After thinking about these projects, I began to think about what I wish my dogs knew. If only I could tell them.

Here are a few of mine; I very much look forward to reading yours:

I wish Tootsie knew that I’d give her more food if it wasn’t important to keep her from getting fat.

I wish Maggie knew that she doesn’t need to worry about dogs she has never met, because once she’s met them she always loves them and they have so much fun playing together.

I wish Tootsie knew that sleeping on my head makes my lungs unhappy.

will by barn 2:10I wish Willie knew that I am sorry that I am not the perfect owner for him because sometimes I raise my voice when I am tired and frustrated and the computer isn’t working and I know that he hates it if I yell out nasty words even though they are not directed toward him and I know he wishes that I never spoke in anything but a benevolent quiet voice and I wish I could always be that perfect, quiet person for him because I love him so very, very much.

What do you wish your dog knew…?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We are in lamb heaven, with lambs leaping straight up like popped popcorn kernels. We even call it “popcorn play,” because they leap up vertically from a stand, then twist their bodies and run sideways. Adorable. Three ewes have lambed (one set of twins, two singles) and Cupcake is overdue. Waaaay over due. I’m considering calling the vet. Or just having a martini.

Along with a Mother’s Day visit with his mom, Jim and I spent a heavenly weekend on the farm. Of course, we could barely get out of bed this morning, because we both worked like field hands pretty much sun up to sun down. Jim on fencing, me on gardening, working the dogs and managing the lambs. I swear I did so much digging, pulling and hauling of heavy things that I did it in my sleep last night. But, ah, the rewards! Here are some of the tulips from the little garden over Tulip’s grave. Oh my I love spring flowers!

Tulip's tulips 2015

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Spring Photo Album Mon, 04 May 2015 14:47:41 +0000 It’s all from the farm today: Lambs! Finally! Lady Baa Baa had two healthy, little ewe lambs last week. Yearling Pepper had an all white, frisky male Saturday night. I thought of last week’s post about the healing powers of oxytocin while I watched them frolic this morning. I wish everyone could start their day watching lambs play; if they could I suspect the world would be a better place.

Here is Lady Baa Baa and her two adorsable lambs. (No, that’s not a typo. There’s something about the non-word “adors-able” that fits with baby lambs.) Was I not writing about the power of oxytocin just last week?

LBB & lambs 5-1-15

Willie and Maggie got in a lot of sheep work this weekend. Here Willie stalks up to the flock to get them moving toward me. I love seeing the sheep with the sky as the background.

W brings flock 5-1-15

USZ May 2015On Saturday the University of Wisconsin Undergraduate Society came out to meet the lambs and watch the dogs work.     I love spending time with these energetic young students. I am sure that Jim and I had more fun than they did.

Sunday morning was all about Puppy Up! Madison. Amazing! What an outpouring of love and support. Being there was something special for sure. A dedicated group of hard-working people (including the amazingmob scene at P Up 2015 Beth V) raised a miraculous $121,694! Thanks to friends, Facebook and people like you, I managed to go over my initial goal of $3,000 and contribute $4,380 toward the goal. Wow. Humbling.

Tootsie at P Up 2015

We brought Tootsie, shown here greeting some other Cavaliers at the beginning of the walk. We didn’t bring either of the BCs: A bit too much stimuli for Willie and definitely a no go for Maggie–she would have had a melt down.

Too bad though for Willie–one of his favorite humans in the entire world was there–Courtney Arnoldy, his miracle-producing physical therapist who helped us through over 12 months of rehab after courtney at Puppy UP! 2015his shoulder surgery. I am sure that he never could live the life he does if it hadn’t been for Courtney and his surgeon, Dr. Susan Schaefer. That’s Courtney on the left, with her dog Roscoe and her husband, whose name I can’t remember, because I can remember dog’s names but not people’s. Sigh.

And finally, what spring weekend wouldn’t be complete without some serious gardening? Lots of that, including transplanting Dutchman’s Breeches (a native ephemeral wildflower) from a friend’s woods. Most of the gardening included the unglamorous job of hacking away at raspberries and grape vines attempting to swallow my plum trees like a slow motion frog on a fly, but there was plenty of time to savor the beauty of our tulips. I do love tulips so… no wonder there were wars over them in times past.


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The Healing Look of Love? Tue, 28 Apr 2015 15:32:45 +0000 Years ago I did a personal growth workshop (The Hoffman Process: Amazing!) in which we were asked to look into another person’s eyes for minutes at a time. Our “partner” was someone we had just met. At first it felt downright awkward, as you can imagine, but after a bit (30 seconds?), each of us began to feel a sense of overwhelming warmth and empathy for someone who was essentially a stranger.

sunny“Mutual gazing,” as it is called, is a well-known social phenomenon which acts to bond mother to child, and partner to partner in romantic relationships. Indeed, one can evaluate the level of maternal bonding by measuring the length of mutual gazing, and predict the amount of gazing based on maternal oxytocin levels. Gazing and oxytocin levels appear to exist in a “positive loop,” in which gazing increases oxytocin, and oxytocin increases gazing.

You know where I’m going here… We already know that something similar applies to gazes between people and their dogs. In 2009 I wrote about some interesting research from Nagasawa’s lab which found that oxytocin increases as gaze length between a person and a dog increases. They’ve followed up on this work by looking at oxytocin levels after “long” or “short” gazes in both people, dogs and wolves, and administering oxytocin to dogs to see if it increased gaze length. You can read a summary of the work in the New York Times.

The primary findings were that 1) oxytocin increased in both people and dogs who engaged in “long gazes” with one another and showed high levels of touching, 2) that was not true of interactions between people and their hand-reared wolves, or even people and dogs in the “short gaze” category, and 3) spraying oxytocin into the noses of female dogs increased the amount of time they made prolonged eye contact with their owners, but that was not true for male dogs.

None of us are surprised about the results with wolves, given that we already know that wolves look to and at humans at much lower rates than domestic dogs.  However, it is especially interesting that although gazing and touch correlated with oxytocin levels, the duration of gazing appeared to be the factor that drove the increase in oxytocin, not touch. I would have guessed the opposite. It’s also interesting that only T W Smile smallfemale dogs increased gaze time after the application of nasal oxytocin, not males. The NYT article suggests that male “vigilance” might account for this result, but I wondered if it might have more to do with higher baseline levels of oxytocin in female mammals. A close read of the published article in Science suggests just that: That either females are more sensitive to exogenous oxytocin, or perhaps other physiological differences between males and females might apply.

The timing of the news article was serendipitous, because it came out just as I was leaving for a two-day workshop at the National Institute of Child Health and Development on Animal Assisted Interventions (often called Animal Assisted Therapy) but AAI includes both focused therapy and more casual interactions like hospital visits) and Special Populations, or people suffering from PTSD, Autism or ADHD). It was a fascinating two days, in which we focused on state-of-the-artresearch on AAI –what do we know now, and what’s needed in the future? Particularly relevant to this article was a talk by Dr. Andrea Beetz, about possible mechanisms which would explain the therapeutic effects of AAI. She reviewed the literature that has found that oxytocin, in the right dosage, can increase the sense of well-being, increase social interactions, elevate mood, decrease the perception of pain, etc. etc. No wonder it’s my favorite drug.

But she also discussed Attachment Theory, Biophilia (ie, Wilson’s hypothesis that humans have an innate love of animals and nature itself), that animals focus attention (and thus might help people w/ ADHD) and distract people from pain and the feelings of fear. There was lots more to her talk, and several other excellent talks summarizing positive effects of equine and canine AAI for children on the Austism spectrum and those with ADHD.

Here is perhaps the most important set of questions that emerged from the workshop: What is it about animals that creates these positive effects (and increase in oxytocin)? Could you replicate it without real animals? (I myself feel a generalized resistance to that, but think about it: What if you could get the same effect with stuffed Oxytocin3danimals and provide this help to far more patients?) What is the minimum “effective dose?” What conditions are most helped with AAI? Beetz suggested that conditions that involve “insecure attachment” (trust issues in people with PTSD for example) and those needing help concentrating, dealing with pain, social stress or fear. Lots of questions to be asked and answered; it’s inspiring that so many great people are working on it.

My question for you, based on the work published in Science: Do you engage in long “mutual gazing” sessions with your dog? I would guess that it varies greatly, from person to person, from dog to dog. I look into my dog’s eyes a lot, but I have to admit I doubt that it lasts 100 seconds at a time. My dogs often look at me for long periods, but I’ve always thought they were looking for information about what I’m about to do next or where the next dog treat is coming from. You? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

MEANWHILE back on the farm: Eeeps! Crazy busy. I was gone almost a week, first to Toronto and then to Washington D.C. for the NICHD workshop. Meanwhile, spring is busting out all over, tons of gardening to do, and lambs due any minute. Lady Baa Baa is driving me crazy, I was sure she’d have her lambs last night at the latest. Dogs need lots of work on sheep, house is a mess, company coming, 100 papers to grade… you get the idea.

But I’m making myself take time to smell the flowers. Or enjoy them, as I did these cherry blossoms outside of D.C. last week. I loved the contrast of the soft, frilly flowers and the hard, shiny lines of the building in the background.

Cherry Blossoms 2 DC 2015
We’re not so far along with spring here in Wisconsin, but Polly enjoyed the weather this weekend, perched on a post overlooking the orchard pasture.

Polly on Post 4-15

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Positive Reinforcement is Defined by the Receiver, Take Two Sun, 19 Apr 2015 12:04:07 +0000 I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how important it is to remember that “reinforcement” and “punishment” are defined by the receiver. I’m not sure what got me thinking about it. Perhaps it was learning about a study that found cows perceived being yelled at as distressing as being shocked with an electric prod. Or perhaps it was realizing that Willie most likely doesn’t enjoy practicing penning the sheep anymore (the most pressure-filled part of a sheepdog competition) because he doesn’t like the pressure. (Thank you friend Donna for making the suggestion.) Or maybe it was while explaining to friends that getting a free trip to anywhere right now wouldn’t be reinforcement, it would be punishment. This is not the first time I’ve broached this subject.

Here’s what I wrote in 2008 about it: If you told me I could have an all-expense paid trip to Spain or Paris two weeks from now I’d turn it down. Right now all I want to do is to be home on the farm, with Lassie, Willie, and Sushi the cat. I want to watch the sheep eat apples from our wild apple trees, and savor and process the bounty of local, organic produce from the CSA down the road. As much as I enjoyed the trip, more travel right now would be punishment, not positive reinforcement.

What a good reminder that “positive reinforcement” is always, by definition, decided by the receiver, not by the ‘giver.’ This is easy to forget, especially for novice trainers, and so it deserves discussion in any dog training class or private session. For example, the owner may feel good praising and petting their dog if he came when called away from a play session, but it might be the last thing the dog wanted at that moment. (Getting petted while cuddling on the couch is a far cry from getting pets in the middle of romping at the dog park with one’s buddies. Do you want your sweetie to rub your neck when you’re in the middle of a tennis match?) At seminars sometimes I’ll praise and pet a dog for giving up a toy, and ask the audience to grade my “reinforcement.” If I sound happy and exuberant, I’ll get straight “A’s” from the crowd. But then, I’ll ask them to watch the dog’s face and praise as pet as before. This time they’ll notice, that while I was happy-talking up a storm, the dog turned his head away from the petting (I was doing on the top of his head in that pat-pat kind of way that most dogs don’t like) and didn’t look happy at all. I may have sounded good, but I was actually punishing the dog, not reinforcing him. Food for thought.

I think this concept is important for all dog lovers to revisit on a regular basis. The fact is, it is hard to take yourself out of your own reality; we all need frequent reminders that our assumptions about what is reinforcing and and what is punishing are not always accurate. Who knew that cows would find a raised voice as aversive as an electric shock? How many dog owners try to stop a dog from jumping up on them by pushing the dog away with their hands? (And the dog responds by jumping with even more enthusiasm, because moving one’s paw toward another dog is a play signal. Thus, what the owners perceive as punishment acts as a reinforcer to the dog.) I can’t tell how often I see people attempt to reinforce their dogs with something the dog doesn’t want–whether it’s offering a dog a treat when he is too engaged at barking at the window to have any interest in food, or petting a dog on top of the head with no awareness that the dog’s response is to move away.

Although most of us know the more obvious examples of miscommunication between person and dog about what is, and is not, reinforcing or punishing (remember I am using ‘punishment’ to mean ‘anything that decrease the frequency of a response), we all profit by reminding ourselves to drop our assumptions and let the dog’s behavior tell us what is a “P” and what is an “R” to our dogs. I’d love to hear your examples of times when you realized that you and your dog were defining things differently.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm in 2015: Here’s a photo of  two lambs on the farm we visited in Georgia. They are here to remind me what lambs look like, because my ewes are so overdue I am at risk of forgetting. Perhaps they have forgotten too? In their defense, they were first exposed to the ram King Charles, who turned out to be very ill, and subsequent died soon after mating with Lady Baa Baa. That mating clearly didn’t take, because she is long overdue if it had. After the untimely death of King Charles, Little Big Man swaggered into the picture, with a lot to learn about courtship. No flowers and dinner out for him, and the ewes were not impressed. Cupcake ran away from him, and Lady Baa Baa’s mother, Lady Godiva, damn near tried to kill him for the first 4 days. I had to keep them separated, with brief dates during the day in which Lady G would lower her head and smash Little Big Man into a post. Eventually, everyone settled down. And hopefully, the girls got bred. Cross your hooves, we have usually lambed by now, or at least started, and I’m starting to pace the floor.

But I digress… I ask you: Is there anything cuter than a newborn lamb?

Lambs in GA


We do have spring flowers, lots of them. As well as perfect spring weather, nodding daffodils and Phoebee’s, Chipping Sparrows, Chickadees, Cardinals and Bluebirds chorusing in the background. It’s good to have a reminder of why we live through our ridiculously long and brutal winters!

Daffs close 4-15  Spring flowers One 4-15

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Can Fake Dogs Help Real Dogs? Mon, 13 Apr 2015 19:41:30 +0000 Can we learn anything about a dog’s behavior around unfamiliar dogs with the use of a fake, stuffed dog? That is the question asked by a team of researchers in Massachusetts, who did a study comparing the responses of 45 shelter dogs to a live dog and a fake, plush, stuffed dog. The real dogs were presented with a neutered, male American Staffordshire mix and a similarly-sized, fake dog who was the same size as the real dog but is described as “having the appearance of a pointer breed dog”. Individual behaviors were recorded as occurring or not (approach, sniff, bark, growl, back away, etc.) and were also later lumped into three categories: “aggressive, fearful or friendly/playful”.

The authors summarized the results by saying that “friendly” responses were the responses most likely to be consistent, in that most of the “friendly” dogs were friendly to both the real and the fake stimulus. However, they found little agreement between responses to real and fake dogs for what they labeled as “aggressive” behavior. In total, 17 dogs showed some form of aggressive behavior toward either the real or fake dog; 8 toward the real dog, 12 toward the fake dog, but only 3 dogs shown any kind of aggressive behavior toward both categories.

On the other hand, 32 of the 45 dogs showed fear in at least one of the conditions, 21 to both real and fake dogs,  8 of these toward the fake dog only and 3 toward only the live dog. Thus, fearful behavior was a bit more consistent than what was labeled as aggressive behavior.

I have quibbles about some of the details of the analysis (“tail wagging” was scored as “friendly, ” although their comments in the Discussion section make it clear they are aware this is not always the case), but I credit the researchers for initiating the inquiry. Note that CAAB Dr. Pam Reid has also done work in this area, although has not yet published the results. I look forward to reading them.

This is important because some shelters are using fake dogs as evaluative tools to ask if a specific dog is dog-dog aggressive. If you’ve never seen work with “fake” stimuli, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Just as people sometimes respond to statues, stuffed animals or cartoons as if they are real, there are many cases of dogs responding to stuffed dogs, or even large dolls filling in for children, as if they were real. One researcher in France (sorry, can’t remember the name) painted a silhouette of a dog on the wall and noted that dogs approached it appropriately as if they saw it as a dog, and were most likely to sniff its inguinal area as if it were a real dog. I have a quilted fabric with the silhouette of a cat on it, and I can’t tell you how many dogs have looked up and barked at it. Thus, there does seem to be a predisposition of visual animals to respond to what ethologists call “sign stimuli,” meaning that some stimuli are inherently meaningful to the animal who sees or hears them.

I’ve always speculated that fake dogs, being stiff and motionless by definition, are more likely to elicit fear or aggression than a live dog would. After all, real dogs usually respond to another with some kind of action, whether it is looking away, flattening its ears, or lunging forward and barking. Nothing makes me more on guard than a dog who goes stiff and motionless, so it makes sense that until a dog realizes that the stuffed one is fake, it would be more reactive than usual. Note that the fearful reactions to the fake dog were over twice as common as to the real one. (But also note that the sample was very small.)

However, many behaviorists are strongly against the use of fake dogs as predictors of dog-dog aggression in a shelter setting. I concur, at least not until we have a lot more research on whether a dog’s reaction really is predictive.  But to muddy the waters, I can’t resist adding that somewhere deep in a storage closet is a video I made of three of my dogs approaching a stuffed dog, and each was 100% consistent with the way they approached unfamiliar real dogs. (Border Collie Luke approached enthusiastically, tail up but loose and waving, Border Collie Pippy Tay groveled her way toward the dog as per usual, and Great Pyrenees Tulip strode forward, tail, head, ears up and forward, barking what we called her “Announcement Bark.” But that is just one set of observations, and we have to be careful about the predictive value of anecdotes.

There is, though, a very important use of fake dogs, which is using them to train owners how to train their own dog when out walking on a leash. I’ve used my own fake dog often to help owners learn how to respond when they and their own dog see an unfamiliar dog out in the street. We all know how context-depending learning is, and even placing a fake dog on the sidewalk creates enough of a stimulus to begin training both person and dog how to respond. In that context I have found fake dogs to be invaluable.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: How could I resist? I brought the office’s stuffed dog out to the farm to see what would happen. It turns out that Tootsie, Willie and Maggie behaved exactly (or close to it) as they do if a new dog comes to visit.

First, I let Tootsie out, and she ran toward the fake dog, body loose, and sniffed it from the front, just as she does when she greets real dogs. (She always begins her greetings that way, then moves to the inguinal area only if the other dog is paying her no attention.) She always appears  happy to meet other dogs, but then completely ignores them after a first greeting.

Tootsie Fake Dog 2105

Then I let Willie out. As usual, (now, not when he was younger), he went running toward it, tail up, no barking or growling.

Willie Fake Dog 1

As is his habit, he first went to the dog’s hindquarters and sniffed.  (A more appropriate response than Tootsie’s by the way, remember that Toots was a puppy mill dog). You can’t tell by these photos, but his tail went down in between these shots, then up again. After sniffing the dog’s hindquarters, he went around to the front, sniffed again, and then moved away and urinated.

Willie Fake Dog 2

Maggie barreled out, also as predicted, with barking full of both fear and the potential of aggression. (We’re working on it; she is much improved!) Once Maggie greets a new dog she is lovely with it; she actually has some of the best social skills of any dog I’ve ever known. However, she is nervous about new dogs, and you couldn’t miss that when she ran barking (ambivalent barks with lots of high and low notes… I attribute to both fear and being on offense.)

But watch what happens here. As Maggie charged out of the house, barking and growling, Willie begins to move toward her as if blocking her movement.


Maggie Fake Dog 1

Sure enough, that’s what he was doing. He clearly runs between her and the fake dog. She is faster than he is, and after the photo below she pivoted back toward the dog, ran up and sniffed it’s muzzle. She spent the longest time of all the dogs sniffing the model, and even barked at it after I brought her back in the house.

Maggie Fake Dog 2

Interesting stuff. I want to re-iterate that I do not think a similar test in a shelter setting is enough to predict if a dog is dog-dog aggressive, but, I do find it interesting to watch a dog’s response to a fake dog.  What about you? Does your shelter use fake dogs to evaluate dogs? Has your dog ever reacted to a model or statue as if it were alive? I can’t wait to read about your experiences; I find this topic fascinating.

OTHER FARM NEWS: No lambs. Zippo. And Lady Baa Baa was due Saturday. Please explain to her that I’d appreciate it if she’d have her lambs soon! But the flowers are finally starting to bloom! Yeah spring….

spring flowers


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Healthy Dog Play in Georgia, Sweet Georgia Mon, 06 Apr 2015 18:53:53 +0000 We’re just back from a short week with good friends Jim and Peg in northern Georgia. Heavenly! They live on a gorgeous 200 acre farm and we got to enjoy the fun of 80+ new born lambs, and none of the work, thanks to our hard working hosts. Maggie and Willie got to work sheep every day, along with numerous long walks with the seven resident Border Collies on the property. Basically, we ate (Jim A. is the best amateur chef I know), walked (two stunningly beautiful hikes and lots of dog walks) and worked dogs (Peg is one of the top handlers in the country and gave me some invaluable advice). Sounds rough, doesn’t it? Here’s a huge shout out to Peg and Jim for their gracious hospitality.

I thought you’d enjoy a sequence of dog play that I took with the camera on rapid fire “continuous shooting.” I originally inserted more photos, but then had to make them too small, so I’ve only included a few of the most interesting:

Here’s Willie in the center, playing with 14-month old (intact) Joe. (That’s young pup Henry running off happily in the foreground.) Joe thought mounting Willie was great fun, which is typical for dogs Joe’s age. When Willie mildly objected, Joe responded appropriately with a tongue flick.

GA Dogs Play 1


Immediately afterward, Joe comes up to Willie with tail down, tongue flicking again. Note Willie’s high tail and “on his toes” posture.

GA Dogs Play 3


Joe tried another mount, but this time Willie rises up too (a bit hard to see). Lots of vertical play can be a sign of potential trouble, but I had no worries here with any of these dogs. They all played beautifully the entire time we were there.

GA Dogs Play 4


This play sequence ended when an older male,  Cap, trots over. Note both the older males have high tails, but Cap’s is curled forward and Willie is now doing an appeasing tongue flick. Ah language of dogs! So much has been “said” here, right?

GA Dogs Play 8


Switching taxons (from animals to plants), here are some of the many wildflowers that were in bloom when we visited:

I believe that this is Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia), surrounded by Toadshade or Sessile Trillium (Trilllium sessile). Any local naturalists want to confirm for me?

Foam Flower, Toad Trillium


And here’s a flower familiar to many, White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), which will not make its appearance here in Wisconsin for another month or so.

Trillium (grandiflorum)


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Music to a Cat’s Ears Fri, 27 Mar 2015 16:00:55 +0000  sushi at windowA recently published study has shown that cats are attracted to music that was specifically designed for them. This is important work, given all the claims that are made about effect of music “designed for” dogs and cats. Although there are several interesting studies this issue, the studies have traditionally compared different types of musical genres, always with music that was written for people (“classical” versus “rock” for example). There is some music that has been specifically designed for dogs or cats, but its development was not based on an analysis of the animal’s species-specific vocalizations, nor is there robust scientific evidence that it is effective. Indeed, see my post from 2013, in which researcher Kogan found that slow-noted classical music increased the amount of time that kenneled dogs spent sleeping, while “psychoacoustically designed” music, a piano piece specifically designed to calm dogs, resulted in no significant change in behavior compared to no music at all.

Enter scientists Charles Snowdon (a primatologist who has studied animal vocalizations for decades), and musician David Teie. Previously they collaborated on what they like to call “Cotton Top Rock,” or music designed based on the little monkey’s vocalizations and auditory range. They found that, as they suspected, the 250px-Lisztaffe_-_Cottontop_Tamarin_-_Saguinus_oedipusmonkey’s behavior was affected most by music based on their own calls and hearing range. For the current study, Snowdon and Teie enlisted the help of then- undergraduate student Megan Savage, and together they asked if they could create music that was particularly attractive to cats, based on feline vocalizations. Musician Teie created the music, while Snowdon and Savage designed and carried out the research. You can read the abstract here if you’d like.

In this study, forty-seven cats were tested in their own homes. Each heard the music specifically designed for cats and music written for people (balanced for direction, order, etc.). The music for cats turned out to be about two octaves higher than the music made for people, contained “sliding frequencies” often heard in cat vocalizations but not in human music, and a pulse rate related to purring. (Indeed, when you listen to some of the music you can hear purr-like notes in it. You can listen to the music here.) The cats oriented and approached the speakers significantly more often when the “cat music” was playing, and in some cases walked over to the speakers and rubbed against as they would to a familiar friend.

The authors conclude by making the compelling argument that “auditory enrichment” (for example, in Polly fall colors 9-12shelters, vet clinics, or for cats with separation anxiety) must be appropriate for the intended species and thus be based on an analysis of the animal’s own vocalizations. In addition,  one must be aware of the acoustic features that can affect the emotional state of the listener. (Long, continuous notes slow or soothe, while quick, repeated ones end to increase motor activity, true of all or at least most mammals.) They conclude: “It is not sufficient to simply turn on a radio or play some classical music in a laboratory or shelter and assume that acoustic enrichment needs are being met.”

I was especially interested in whether listening to the music tended to calm the cats who heard it. This, after all is what most shelters and owners of anxious cats need. The research scored the initial responses to the music in two categories APPROACH/ORIENT: Look toward, move toward the speaker, rub against the speaker, sniff the speaker and/or purr. AVOIDANT/FEARFUL behaviors included moving away, leaving the room, piloerection, growling, hissing or arching the back. There was no difference in the number of “negative” responses to human or cat music, but a large different in “positive behaviors.” If sleeping when the cats heard the cat music, they woke up. If active, they became calm.

Those findings are replicated in testimonials that have come in from people who have purchased the music from Dr. Teie’s website. Here are two:

I came across an article about the music you created specifically for
cats, which also featured an audio sample. I played this to our formerly
stray cat, who still after living with us for months is too afraid of
being petted. Upon listening to the music she seemed very relaxed all of
a sudden and was gently pawing at the phone, it was very touching to see. KL

My boys were yowling and carousing the other night, and i happened to come upon your sound file. Quieted them right down, and they ended up side by side on the couch! D

I talked to Dr. Snowdon about this study last week (Full disclosure: He is a friend and colleague, and was integral to my own PhD research), and he described to me, testimonials aside,  how important it was to him to keep a “wall” between any commercial applications of the cat music and the research itself. Snowdon & Savage have no connection to any commercial use of the music, and Teie had no input on the study design or analysis of results. Here! Here! to them all for keeping those things separate.

Another interesting result of this research is the response of some in the media about it. (Can you hear me pulling the hair out of my head?)  One reporter said “In what is surely the worst use of science in history, a Wisconsin psychologist has a mission to make mew-sic for cats.” Tempted as I am to say “In what is surely the worst use of a pun in journalistic history…”, but I’ll leave it that the speaker clearly had done little but read a headline and jumped on it like a cat on a laser pointer. My local paper covered the research, and later published a column deriding the University’s foolishness in releasing news about the study when the university is itself under fire from our governor and legislature. Ah, but if I was to criticize someone, it would be the media, for spluttering over the headline and not noticing that 1) the research was done by an Megan Savage, at the time an undergraduate who was getting credit for learning how to do research (knowledge that no doubt helped her get into a PhD program in clinical medicine, 2) the research was funded by a small $1,000 grant from a private organization, and thus no tax payer dollars were used, and 3) this results ARE important, in that it is important to find inexpensive and practical ways to soothe cats in shelters, in veterinary clinics and in homes in which they are stressed for any other reason.

Thus, my request to you all: Hold journalists accountable when they attack something without understanding what it is about. Science seems to be under attack at the moment in the United States, which is not good for anyone of us. We all need to stand up and push back when the media leaps onto something without doing any, uh, actual journalism about the issue.

For me, I’ll be playing it to Nellie and Polly myself out of pure curiosity; I would love to hear about your cat’s reactions if you have a cat at home.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We have a new flock of sheep. At least, it looks that way. They were shorn a few days ago in preparation for lambing (coming up in a few weeks! oh boy!), and not only do they look different to us, but because much of their scent is in their wool, they smell different to one another. I’ve learned to counter that by dousing them with cheap perfume, which cuts down on the aggression I used to see between them right after shearing. I find it fascinating that they don’t recognize each other once they are shorn. Fascinating too is a barn that smells like a whorehouse. I consider it a highlight of spring.

Here is part of the flock, gathered together not to keep warm (although it got below 12 degrees last night, poor things–they got lots of extra food to provide calories), but to stay away from my scary, big-eyed camera. By the way, the ewe on the front right, Chili, is 100% Katahdin and is a hair sheep. No need to shear her, she’ll shed like a dog all spring.

sheep scrum

And now you know why Spot is named Spot. It’s never clear except right after she has been shorn. And then it is. Ba boom.

spot's spot

]]> 6 All About Dog Poop Mon, 23 Mar 2015 20:14:49 +0000 Because it isn’t necessarily a fun topic, I thought I’d start off with my favorite story about dog poop. Imagine being at a sit-down lunch at two-day seminar I was giving on canine behavior and training. Picture a large room, with 150 people or so, sitting at round tables covered in white table cloths, the food delivered by hotel conference staff. You know the drill. We had finished a good lunch and looked with happy anticipation to what was promised to be a special dessert. Imagine our surprise when we each received a small plate with a perfect replica of dog poop on it. The cook thought it would be just too wonderful to feed us chocolate pudding in the shape of a brown, coiled snake of dog poop. It was impressively realistic. Apparently the chef was shocked that every plate was returned, uneaten. It is perhaps my favorite example of “what were they thinking?” By any chance, were you there? I’d love to hear from you if you were. I don’t remember where it was. Canada? Where ever it happened, it was memorable.

I can’t resist adding that, at the least, we could have gotten a plate of healthy poop, which should have looked like a Tootsie roll, instead of slightly-formed pudding. If by chance you’d like to learn more about healthy poop, check out this brilliant blog on what your cat’s poop is telling you. (Thanks to Julie Hecht for sending it!) The blog is about cats, but it is equally relevant to dogs. Just don’t decide to serve something that looks like it to company. But, on to more important issues:

I was initially inspired to write about dog poop after receiving a question from a friend, whose dog MeMe (photo on the left)  took great pains to scramble up a mound of snow to defecate on top of it. That meant that friend Debbie had to scramble up herself, poop bag in hand, to clean it up. But why was MeMe expending so much energy climbing up a small mountain just to move her bowels? My guess is as good as yours, but I suspect it had to do with scent dispersal. The higher a scent is placed, the better the chance the air flow will disperse it. This is believed to be the reason that male dogs lift their legs, in order to deposit scent as high as possible; not so much to “appear bigger” but to allow the scent to be better dispersed. If you’d like to delve into this topic in more depth, check out a great blog by Koryos on scent marking in dogs, which ends with a good list of studies on scent marking in canids.

TEACHING DOGS TO GO IN ONE SPOT: Speaking of location, for some reason my dogs have been eliminating exclusively in my flower gardens. Not so great healthy when I’ll be spending lots of time digging in the dirt. The only exception to their flower garden preference is the lawn in front of our front door. I didn’t worry about the lawn over the winter, because usually it is covered in snow and the moisture acts to dilute the urine. Not this winter, however, because we have had so little snow, so I now have a front lawn that is more yellow grass than green. I’m not an obsessive lawn caretaker, but I’d still rather not have a polka dot lawn. Here’s what I’ll be doing, which is taking the same advice I have given hundreds of clients about how to teach your dog to pee and poop where you want:

Go outside with a hand full of treats and call your dog to your designated bathroom area. If your dog stares at you (as in “Give me the treat”), just look up and away and walk around the area slowly. Eventually your dog will give up and start to sniff. Continue strolling around slowly until Ginger or Rusty squats or lifts a leg, and give a treat immediately afterward. (Yes, you have to go outside with your dog and go yourself to the area you want your dog to use. Sorry… no standing by the backdoor in your bathrobe.) Continue treating your dog in the preferred area and eventually almost all dogs, by force of habit, will use that area, at least if you go outside with them. (This is why we have slip on boots by the door, and very warm, comfy bathrobes…)

A few caveats however: Most dogs have a preferred type of bathroom. Willie used to prefer bushy or grassy areas, although now that he is older he is more likely to poop in the middle of a trail. (I’ve noticed this pattern with several other dogs, that as they age they are less likely to eliminate away from the traffic pattern. Have you had the same experience?) Other dogs like the wide open spaces–so be thoughtful about what your dog is telling you regarding his or her choice for a bathroom. Also, be aware that dogs identify bathrooms by smell. We identify them by sight… we look for the sign that says “Restroom,” look for the stall, the round white thing, etc.) Dog are looking for the smell of urine or feces, so if you are trying to train your dog to use a new area, you might want to import some grass or soil (or feces) into that area. I’ve suggested that to many a client, and found that it has been helpful in transitioning a dog from the rose garden by the house to the brush at the far side of the garden.

Here, by the way, is a good post from the ASPCA about helping shelter dogs learn or continue good elimination habits while in shelters. Given how many dogs are returned because of house training issues, this is important stuff.

SPRING CLEANING and POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: Poop had been on my mind in another way when I got Debbie’s query, because it is spring here in the northern climes. Everyone who lives in snow country knows what that means. Dog poop. Lots of it. Everywhere. No matter how much we clean up after our dogs, the reality of life in winter dictates that warm poop melts into snow, and disappears from view in an instant. That means that “spring cleaning” for dog lovers involves a very big bucket and some serious work with a poop scooper. Not a fun job, but someone’s got to do it, right?poop scooper

That reminds me of the importance of using positive reinforcement when dealing with the “gifts” left by dogs in public places. Understandably, people can get upset, even other dog owners, about feces left behind by owners who don’t pick up after their dogs. I well remember a time year ago that a pack of outraged dog owners started a brouhaha about how much feces needed cleaning up in spring in a public dog park. A spring clean up was organized, but the attitude was one of “how could other people be so irresponsible to not clean up after their dogs?” Well, first, as I mentioned, poop is warm and snow is cold, and it takes about a microsecond for the product of your dog’s elimination to disappear from sight. Second, the fact is that *^#! happens and sometimes owners are distracted and don’t notice that their dog has pooped, and others, well, don’t care.

However, rather than expend negative energy on “Ain’t it awful!” (my least favorite conversation abut just about anything), I organized a competition to make poop a high-value resource. Whoever brought in the heaviest bucket during the spring dog park clean up got a prize. A good one. All of a sudden people were racing around saying “Oh look! There’s one!” as if they had found an Easter egg. The next year I told Ian Dunbar about it at an APDT conference, where I was hearing the same “Oh, people are SO AWFUL” energy, and he announced a similar competition. It worked like a charm. Keep that in mind if you live in an area where there have been complaints about dog feces in public areas. Funny how positive reinforcement works on people as well as it does on dogs.

275px-Betty-boop-opening-titleEnough about poop, although I have to admit I could go on and on. For example, I was going to title this post “Poop Poop Pe Doo,” but discovered that 1) many others have used that same phrase when writing about dogs and poo, and 2) some of these posts lead to places that, well, we’d all rather not go. But I did find a great Wiki site on Betty Boop, who coined the phrase. You just never know where curiosity is going to take you, do you?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: No poop pick up today, we got 4 or 5 inches of snow last night. It will melt soon and that will mean more mud, but I’m glad to see it. It’s been a dry winter and spring so far, and we need the moisture. Here’s the snow decorating the cedar tree beside the house.

snow on cedars

Tootsie did her Pet Pals shift this weekend at the American Family Children’s Hospital. I wish I could include a photo of the little girl who had Tootsie in her lap, with her head bowed down so that her body was curled around Tootsie. When the shift was over and it was time to leave I could barely get her to let go. It’s bitter sweet indeed to see how needy these children are, and how much having a dog to pet can mean to them. We’re not allowed to take photos in the hospital, but here is Tootsie getting her obligatory bath before her visit. I trained her to stand in the sink with her paws on the divider between the sinks, which she’ll do now without any assist from me so that I can have both hands for bathing her. You can see she’s just gotten a treat. Whee, baths are sort of fun, aren’t they!

Tootsie small bath

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Fish Falling From the Sky Tue, 17 Mar 2015 00:31:46 +0000 [I had planned to write a blog on poop (stay tuned, who could resist the topic?), but am a tad under the weather, so I’m just going to post this for your amusement…

You’ve heard of fish falling from the sky, yes? Apparently it is more common that one might predict. A quick internet search found multiple references to such events, many of them quite credible. They can even fall by the hundreds, as experienced by the residents of a small town in Australia. But I’ve never known anyone who could beat the story of my veterinarian, Dr. John Dally, who lives on the Wisconsin River, and below the flight path of a Bald Eagle flying between her nest to her fishing grounds on a daily basis. Imagine John’s surprise when he went outside early in the morning to pick up a dish pan, and a fish fell out of the sky into the pan he was carrying. Plop. Apparently he had whistled for his dog when he picked up the pan, and it startled an eagle sitting above him into dropping the fish. The fish hit the gutter of the house, bounced onto John’s forehead and into the pan. Apparently John isn’t the only one who has had a fish fall on his head.

Here’s Dr. John, just moments after his most successful fishing trip and after he told his wife what had happened:

john & fish


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: A lovely weekend, including a long dog walk with friends and a fun open house/pot luck at Dr. John’s while he and his wife Anne (both vets bless them) boiled maple sap to make their own maple syrup. Here’s the sap boiling away:

sap boiling


And here are the resident goats. Yup, they really do eat everything, including paper plates with yummy pie filling on them. (Don’t worry, the plate consumption was carefully monitored. Apparently there is such a thing as “too many paper plates,” even if one is a goat.) But hey, I do make good pie. :-)

dally goats

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