The Animal Behavior Society Meetings 2013
First, a digression: Argh, how embarrassing. Jim just noticed in that last week’s post I wrote “Next week I’ll write a full report of the talks at the Animal Behavior Society 2013 Meeting in Boulder. I was great, lots to tell you about!” I meant, of course, “It was great”. Jim’s very words were: “I’m sure you were great, Trisha, but it’s not like you to say so.” Sigh. I’m not so sure that I was great (I thought my talk was good but not brilliant), but even if I thought I brought down the house I’d never say so. Sigh. But now, here’s what WAS great:
The Animal Behavior Society Meetings were in Boulder, Colorado this year, and they were a joy to attend. There’s so much information to convey that I’ll never manage doing so in one post, but here’s a start.
First off, it has been several years since I’ve been to an ABS conference, and attending was a bit like going home. I saw all kinds of people I hadn’t seen in a long time (Irene Pepperberg of Alex the African Grey Parrot fame for example) and colleagues from UW when I was in graduate school. I had a lovely, long talk with one of my idols, Robert Seyfarth, who along with his wife Dorothy Cheney, did decades of elegant research on the vocalizations of vervet monkeys. Their studies were the first to show that animals of any species had different calls for different contexts of predators (a hawk over head, versus a leopard for example), and that the calls were learned over time during development.
Lots of other Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) where there, making it extra fun to spend time with current colleagues. Especially gratifying was the interaction between those of us working on applied issues and people researching every imaginable type of behavior in a vast range of species. The talks ranged from using targeted sounds to keep Starlings off of runways at airports (brilliant physics involved), to sexual pigmentation as a predictor of reproductive performance in Yellow Warblers, to “Socially induced plasticity in penis morphology, and implications for genital evolution.” (Missed that one, darn.)
Today I’ll give you a summary of some of the best of the talks on the “Public Day,” organized by Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estepp and hosted by ABS. It was free to the public and included some great information (not to mention some belly laughs). I started the day off by comparing the greeting behavior, affiliative behavior and play behavior of dogs, cats and humans. I’ve never given a talk organized quite this way, and it was super fun: Think about the differences in greeting behavior of all three species, for example, when meeting someone new: People (direct eye contact, face-to-face), Dogs (avoid direct eye contact, but approach and begin sniffing) and Cats (do not approach at all, sit quietly while pretending you don’t even see another cat!) I greatly enjoyed adding cats to the mix. I rarely get asked to talk about cats, but I love doing so, they are so often misunderstood.
Next, Suzanne Hetts, PhD, CAAB, gave a great talk about introducing a new dog or cat to your home. It was full of excellent information, including an argument that 1) The behavior and routine of the resident animal should not change substantially when a new dog or cats arrives, 2) Remember that cats only hide if they are scared. It is not normal behavior for a well socialized cat, and should be addressed when possible. 3) Dominance myths allow some dogs to bully others within a household, and it simply isn’t ethical to let it happen . Suzanne also had an excellent section introducing cats, which I’ll summarize by saying “Go Slow!” Because it is such an important topic and something I too have spent a lot of time on, I think I’ll write a blog on this topic sometime this year.
I loved her summary of what she considers to be a healthy relationship between animals in a home:
1. No animal harasses another (ie, continually blocks another animal from moving forward, forces the other to drop a toy, etc.) [Note: I know in many cases, including my own, that some dogs play fetch together and seem to have amenably decided on who gets to bring back the toy. One comment on an earlier blog talked about one dog getting to the toy first, bringing it partway back to a second, voluntarily giving it to that dog who then takes it back to the owner. Sounds like it was a hit at the dog park! Examples like that are not harassment; standing over another dog and growling until it drops the toy is.]
2. No dog is afraid of another dog: All dogs can enter any room, approach an owner or a favored sleeping place at any time. I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve had in which one dog slunk around the house in absolute fear of another dog. Heartbreaking.
3. Somewhat related to #1, No dog dominates the toys IF the other dog also loves toys. [A note from my situation: Willie and Tootsie got chews last night, Tootsie on the couch and Willie on a mat on the floor. Willie would be happy to snatch the chew out of Tootsie's mouth, but knows that would result in a quiet, low voiced "Willieee" from me, and doesn't even try.]
4. Minor conflicts are fine, a growl here or a stare there, but serious or escalating conflicts require intervention. I couldn’t agree more. I simply never “let the dogs work it out.” It DOES sometimes solve things (on rare occasion), but more often results in injury and intimidation. My goal is to teach dogs to be patient and polite, as everyone who lives together should be. I’ve written a lot more about how to do this in the booklet Feeling Outnumbered, and on the DVD of the same name.
Eeeps! There were three more speakers, each of them excellent, how can I tell you about all of them? Here’s a start:
Marc Bekoff, PhD gave another thought-provoking talk. Marc talked about play in many species, but introduced his material by talking about the importance of seeing animals for who they really are. He made compelling arguments that the differences between humans and non-human animals are differences of degree rather than kind (Darwin made the same argument), and that it is more logical to assume that many animals share consciousness, basic emotions like fear and joy, and active mental lives in ways comparable to humans. It is indeed interesting that for decades one could talk about negative motivations in animals without criticism (competitive, pushy, aggressive etc) but woe onto anyone who used positive emotions when describing animal behavior (like love, happiness, etc). He is absolutely correct that for many decades scientists have not been objective when describing non-human animals. That is indeed changing, but there is still a strong bias against truly objective interpretations of the mental life of mammals and birds. I just recently had a discussion with someone who argued flat out that attributing emotions to non-human animals has no benefit and does nothing but confuse our interactions with them. I absolutely disagree, although I do agree that we have to be extremely careful about making assumptions about shared emotional states.
Speaking of problematic assumptions about dogs, the next talk included Horowitz’s and Hecht’s research on the “guilty look,” which turns out to be appeasement and nothing has to do with what the dog actually did before the owner arrived back home.
The talk was by the always brilliant Julie Hecht, MS, who talked about recent research in canine cognition that is theoretically interesting, but also can help us understand our dogs even better. I’m especially grateful to have attended, because I learned some new things I’ll be talking about in Chicago this weekend at the Sense and Sensibility Seminar. Here’s a short sample:
Wells and Hepper 2006 found that newborn puppies preferred food scented with anise if their mothers had eaten that kind of food before they were born, but they only retained that preference after 10 weeks if they had been exposed both in utero and immediately after birth.
Lupfer and Johnson 2007 found that a dog preferred food if he had sniffed the muzzle of another dog who had eaten it. (Which, by the way, was found in rats quite awhile ago, I love that someone just looked for it in dogs.)
Prato and Previde et al 2008 asked dogs to choose between one bit of food versus eight bits. No surprise, the dogs choose the higher quantity BUT, if their owner picked up the small quantity and made a fuss over it, some dogs ended up choosing it.
Julie also talked about Chaser, the dog who learned 1,022 words. She interviewed the owners, the Pilleys, and learned that they spent 4-5 hours a day teaching Chaser to name objects and understand verbs. As importantly, they did hundreds if not thousands of repetitions, tested her memory often and didn’t hesitate to retrain and refresh whenever needed. What I find especially interesting is that the Pilley’s had no luck teaching her the name of objects using discrimination trials (putting down two objects and asking the dog to make a choice based on what word you use), but could teach her over a 1,000 words by teaching one at a time. That is exactly the experience I had with Willie, and if you think about it, exactly how children learn the names of objects themselves. I am reading a pre-pub copy of the Pilley’s book, Chaser, Unlocking the Genuis of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, right now, and will write a full summary/review of it closer to its release date in late October.
Pamela Reid, PhD CAAB gave the last but not least talk of the day by any means, full of inspiring stories about the new partnership between the ASPCA and St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center that created a rehabilitation center for dogs deeply damaged by cruelty or neglect. Pam is the Vice President of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty team, and knows as much as anyone in the country about dogs suffering from hoarders, puppy mills and dog fighting rings. I’m not sure how she works day after day with so much suffering and maintains her upbeat attitude and energy, but both she, and the A itself, deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it.
She also described general differences between dogs pulled from mills, hoarders and fighting rings and explained that dogs from fighting rings tend to be super social to people, (more so than some pet dogs) perhaps in part because their owners ruthlessly cull any dog who turns on them while fighting. Not surprisingly, there is a higher probably of these dog being dog-dog aggressive: I suppose that barely needs repeating, but there it is. On the other hand, puppy mill or hoarding-case dogs tend to be highly variable in sociability to people. Some are extremely friendly and docile (my Tootsie is a perfect example of that, having spent seven years in a tiny cage and loving every person she meets). Others are excessively shy around people, but often much more comfortable around other dogs. That has been one of the keys to their rehabilitation: using “helper dogs” to act as social bridges between the shy dog and people. I was especially interested in their findings, because that has also been my experience, but my sample size is much, much lower than theirs.
The day ended with all the speakers on the panel answering questions from the audience. It was a great day, and I’m grateful for Suzanne and Dan for organizing it and the Animal Behavior Society for hosting it. Thanks especially for everyone who came. If you did, I’d love to hear from you about what parts of the day were most interesting to you.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Ralphie and Stud Muffin are settling in inside their new pasture, and we’ve added Stud Muffin’s sister, who has always been very small and never gained weight very well. We moved her there because we can give her more food without the other mob of lambs out competing her, in hopes she will gain more weight. She had a rough few days, having been separated from her mother (who appeared to pay no attention), but is doing well now. All three of them are getting extra grain and hay, as well as lots of yummy grass, but refuse to eat the pieces of apple I also put in their feeding pans.
That is interesting, because my adult sheep adore apples, absolutely adore them. So much so that you can predict exactly where they will go when you open the gate to the main pasture. Lady Godiva leads the way, running, RUNNING, to the closest apple tree where green apples are beginning to fall. However, unless lambs watch their mothers eat apples, they refuse them. I’ve seen this several years in the past when, for some reason, lambs were weaned from the mothers and in a different area. Right now the lambs still with the ewe flock are beginning to gobble up apples as enthusiastically as their mothers, while Ralphie, Stud Muffin and ??? still refuse them. (I guess I am going to have to name this little lamb now. Anyone else old enough to remember Twiggy, the ridiculously skinny model?) . For now I am cutting apples up into tiny pieces and mixing them in with their grain, but I’m also letting the ewes eat apples right beside the three lambs, with just a fence between them, hoping that watching others eat apples will get the three lambs started. It worked with grass–Ralphie wouldn’t eat grass until I was able to take him out to the pasture and sit with him beside the other sheep and he began to notice what they were doing. Hopefully it will work with apples too. Although not critical, it would be great if Ralphie and friends would learn to eat apples, because we have a ton of wild ones on the farm, and they are a great supplementary food for the sheep.
Speaking of apples, here is Lady Godiva eating one. Apparently I have failed to teach her table manners and to keep her mouth shut while she eats.
And here’s Tootsie girl. It seemed appropriate to add a photo of her after talking about dogs from puppy mills. I am still in awe that she is so friendly and loving to everyone she meets, dogs and people alike, after seven years in a mill pumping out puppies twice a year. At the moment there is a Bobcat (the machine, not the animal) working in the backyard, and she is clearly frightened of the noise. She begged me, oh so clearly, to let her out of the house and into the car–the place she appears to define as her “safe house.” She has always loved the car, which seems a bit strange for a mill dog. But perhaps it is the only place, even more than her crate, that feels like the home she had for seven years in the puppy mill. Who knows, maybe she even was in a car for all that time; I have heard of mills in central Wisconsin that stash dogs in hidden locations in trailers, so perhaps she was stashed in an old, parked car. All I can say is that after about a year, she came into her own, discovering what it is to be a dog, and a spaniel at that, using her nose, exploring the world, and loving, as every Cavalier is bred to do, being on your lap. We are so lucky to have her.