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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


26 July 2013

Dog training: How to practice your timing

Hi Mia!

I don’t even know where to begin. You sent another round of Tim Tams, and I am in
chocolate heaven (the only trouble is that they bring out the hoarder in me, and I easily tell little white lies like, “They’re not open yet.” Typically I share my bounty, but this, not so much).

I adore Champagne Cartel! Great voices and a wide variety of topics. I’m very pleased you are part of that gaggle of women. You had a great Q&A with Amy McDonald on Everyday Yoga, and now because of you, I will keep worms.

Go Go Go!

It seems like you and I are in parallel lands of, “Go - Go - Go!” Julie Dog Updates:
  • CHASER: Got to spend time with Chaser (Facebook/Twitter), the wordy dog, and I’ll report more on that soon. She and I see eye to eye (or maybe, I should say, she wants the ball behind my back).
      Read this book
    • CONFERENCES: Just came back from ISAZ and IAHAIO in Chicago. It was a check plus time with Anthrozoology and human-animal interaction researchers. Hal Herzog (Twitter), author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University. He received the 2013 Distinguished Scholars Award. His talk explored the ultimate reasons behind pet keeping -- more on that another time (but in the meantime, his book should be read by all). Over at #SciAmBlogs, I took a moment to explore what Anthrozoology is all about (not the study of Ants, apparently). I got a little pronunciation assistance from your PhD supervisor. ;)
    • MORE CONFERENCE!!: This weekend, I’m back on a plane to Boulder, CO for the 50th Annual Animal Behavior Society conference. On Sunday, July 28 I’m speaking at the Companion Animal Day at UC-Boulder. The topic: Creating Quality Lives for Dogs and Cats Through the Science of Animal Behavior. The event is free and open to the public! Here’s the lineup (who wins for longest title?):
    - Patricia McConnell, Bring Out Your Inner Dr. Doolittle: Communication and Quality of Life

    - Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep, Can We Still Be Friends?: Helping Dogs and Cats Get Along

    - Marc Bekoff, Animals at Play: What We’ve Learned From Dogs and Their Wild Relatives

    - Julie Hecht, Get Into the Head of The Dog in Your Bed, and You’ll Both Be Happier: Updates on Canine Cognition Research

    - Pamela Reid, When Dogs and Cats Have it Bad and It Ain’t Good: Behavior Rehabilitation of Abused Pets

    Do you get the timing right?
    Speaking of excitement, people were incredibly interested in Clare’s research on dog training!! The feedback on the DYBID Facebook was tremendous. Her main finding was, “To teach a new behavior, be fast on your feedback!” 
    Masters research conducted by Lindsay Wood, now at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, had similar findings. In her research, when a dog was acquiring complex behaviors, a click was a better marker than a verbal stimulus such as, “Good.” 

    Wood suggests, “The facilitation of learning provided by the clicker bridging stimulus has important implications for animal training, especially when professionals are confronted with time constraints. The potential of the clicker stimulus to improve animal learning throughout the entire process of a behavior may not only increase the rate of behavior acquisition, but also reduce animal frustration and further enhance the relationship between trainer and animal.”

    MANY PEOPLE working with non-human (and human!) animals get their click on! The Shedd Aquarium, yes aqua-rium, recently added a dog show with shelter dogs trained via positive reinforcement, and I assume clicker training. 

    Ken Ramirez, VP of animal collections and training, explains why they added a dog show: "We also want people to see that the techniques used to care for our dolphins, our wales and our sharks -- those training techniques can be useful tools in having a better behaved pet at home." 

    How to work on YOUR training
    The techniques of learning and training don't just apply to dogs. People can practice their training techniques with loads of other species like chickens and guinea pigs.

    Chicken Camp, Terry Ryan

    Guinea Pig Camp, Roger Abrantes

    Well, that's all she wrote! Let's hear what's on your plate!!

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    18 July 2013

    Dog-eared books

    Hi Julie,

    I loved hearing from Clare Browne about her research into timing of reinforcement in our first guest post last week, and it certainly stimulated lots of great comments and questions on Facebook and Google+

    I know you've been busy Chaser-ing around (lucky ducks, both!) and there's also all those amazing conferences happening this week, what with the ISAZIAHAIO and AVSAB events on in Chicago, so just a very quick post from me this week! 

    You know how we recently put together out list of top ten books for the Science Book a Day team?

    Well, Chaser's upcoming book release reminded me that we should put them all in one place here, so that we (or anyone else looking for a canine science book or fourteen) could find them easily if needed. 

    Science Book A Day

    In no particular order, here they are:

    McGreevy (2009) A Modern Dog’s Life. 

    A fabulous book, written with humour and insight, that offers a modern take on what challenges and motivates our dogs and how we can best meet their needs.
    Search to purchase:

    Horowitz (2009) Inside of a Dog.

    What’s it like to be a dog? This book covers the science of how dogs think and perceive the world and is accompanied by personal reflections on Horowitz’s own dog’s behaviour. Get to know the umwelt of the dog.
    Search to purchase:

    Bradshaw (2012) Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

    This recent publication answers the very important question: “What’s good for dogs?” Explore recent research into dog behaviour and cognition and take away ways to make your dog psychologically healthy.

    Search to purchase:

    Lindsay (2000 / 2001 / 2005) Handbooks of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Triptych

    Three enormous books containing so much canine science that even the heartiest of appetites will be satiated.

    1. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 1: Adaptation and Learning
    2. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 2: Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems
    3. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols
    Search to purchase:

    Miklósi (2009) Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition.One of the first books to collate and synthesise the growing primary research on dog evolution, behaviour and cognition. Often used in the classroom, it offers an in depth overview of canine science research methods as well as study findings. Keep a lookout for the second edition!

    Search to purchase:

    Csányi (2005) If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind.

    What does careful observation and documentation of dog behaviour tell us about the canine mind? And how did people and dogs come to share these strong emotional bonds? Readers join Csányi, and his dogs Flip and Jerry, in this scientific exploration of the high degree of mutual understanding between humans and their four-legged best friends.
    Search to purchase:

    Coppinger & Coppinger (2002) Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution.How did dogs come to be dogs, and where does their diversity come from? From village dogs to dogs in our beds, the Coppingers investigate how physical appearances and behaviours develop from both genes and the environment in which they are raised.
    Search to purchase:

    McConnell (2003) The Other End of the Leash.

    Dogs and humans are two entirely different species with distinct evolutionary heritages, yet can walk down the street together, move in synch and seemingly share mutual understanding. But are we always on the same page? Learn how dogs might interpret our human behaviour, and learn how to interact with dogs in ways they best understand. A must-read for anyone interested in enhancing their relationship and communication with canine companions.
    Search to purchase:

    Jensen (2007) The Behavioural Biology of Dogs.
    With separate sections by various experts, this book offers a nice overview of canine behavioural biology. Sections focus on dog evolution and development, basic behaviour and assessment, prevention and treatment of common companion dog behaviour 

    Search to purchase:

    Serpell (1995) The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People.

    An early publication pulling together research into dog behaviour, cognition and evolution. The book dispels many myths and stereotypes about our canine friends and includes sections on dog origins, behaviour and behaviour problems as well as human-dog interactions. A comprehensive overview, rooted in scientific evidence. Keep a lookout for the second edition! 

    Scott & Fuller (1965) Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog: The classic study.

    Often referenced, but probably not so often read, this classic study, spanning twenty years, covers research into the role of genetics and socialisation on dog behaviour.
    Search to purchase:

    Now, we were asked to put together a list of 10 canine science books and managed to squish in 13 there, but if anyone has others they'd have liked to see on this list, PLEASE list them into the comments section and we have have the best list of 15, or 20 or 500 canine science books going round!

    In other news, Julie, I've joined a cartel. A while ago, my clever friend, Carolyn, had the idea of creating a positive space for working mums that offers support and smart ideas on how to get through the day. And now, it exists. Somehow, I'm part of it?! 

    We're called Champagne Cartel and we have a lot to say. Champagne Cartel is a bunch of six working mums who are all doing the best we can with what we've got. Between us we have 11 kids - ranging in age from 21 years to teeny-tiny - and loads of wisdom and experience to offer. We believe in sometimes putting yourself first, which may or may not include the odd sneaky glass of champagne. And we think guilt is for suckers. 

    So if you're ever feeling like a break from canine science, and think you'd like to dip a toe in the champagne, so to speak, you'd be very welcome!

    I've just received some more SUPER EXCITING NEWS, but it will just need to wait until next time!

    Most importantly Julie, what (and how??) does Chaser think?


    Further reading:
    • The books above!
    • Ramos D., Ades C. & Dornhaus A. (2012). Two-Item Sentence Comprehension by a Dog (Canis familiaris), PLoS ONE, 7 (2) e29689. DOI:
    • van der Zee E., Zulch H., Mills D. & Dornhaus A. (2012). Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?, PLoS ONE, 7 (11) e49382. DOI:
    © 2013 Mia Cobb
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    11 July 2013

    Dog training: Do you get the timing right?

    Do You Believe in Dog? is approaching our one-year anniversary (Wow! Yay!!!), and in the coming months, we will be opening up the blog to guest posts from other researchers exploring canine behaviour, cognition and welfare. 

    Give a warm welcome to our first guest, 
    Clare Browne from the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

    Hi Mia and Julie,

    As you both know from the last Canine Science Forum, my PhD investigates dog-human communication and how this communication affects dog training.
    I would like to claim that everyone is New Zealand is a fantastic dog trainer and we all communicate brilliantly with our dogs, but alas, we’re just like everyone else. It turns out that when people give feedback to dogs during training, we’re often a bit slow. Let me explain...

    You’re no doubt aware that if we want to increase the likelihood that a behaviour occurs again, positive reinforcement (AKA “rewarding” -- adding something to keep the behaviour going) will achieve this. The types of positive reinforcement that are most commonly used in everyday dog training are verbal praise, food, and patting/petting. My PhD studies investigated two things: a) how fast are dog owners delivering positive reinforcement to dogs; and b) does it matter if owners are slow in providing dogs with reinforcement?

    Not really Clare's gumboots
    To answer the first of these questions, I put on my gumboots and spent many evenings at my friendly local dog clubs, filming owners training their dogs in beginner classes. I collected 1,810 instances where commands were given to dogs. I then went slightly mad and spent months watching videos of people training their dogs. Figure 1 shows how all the dogs responded to their owners, and 44% of the time, dogs did not respond to their owners at all. This one result made me feel like I wasn’t wasting all these years of my PhD – there clearly is a need for research into the efficacy of dog training!

    I used some fancy computer software and measured very precisely (down to 25 frames per second) the time between when the owners said the command and when the dogs performed the behavior, like laying down or sitting. I found that owners varied a lot in the time it took them to deliver positive reinforcement to their dogs. Some owners were almost instantaneous with their praise and then the treat followed quickly, whereas others took ages – the longest time was over 6 s! (That might not sound long to you, but try imagining that you’re a Labrador and having to wait 6 s for a treat, all of a sudden it’s a much more serious situation.) 

    But does this even matter? Had I gone mad watching videos in my darkened office for no good reason?

    To answer this second question, I had to run an experiment. 

    I had each dog work inside a large pen, and I sat in the neighbouring pen. A screen in between us prevented the dogs from seeing my body language. I held a pre-training session where the dogs learned that a “beep” sound came just before a feeding device delivered a food treat into their pen. (This “beep” is analogous to us saying, “Good dog”). Once the dogs were comfortable with this, they were taken out of the pen while I set up the equipment. I put two boxes into the pen. These boxes had held dog treats (but were emptied just prior to the experiment) so that they smelled alluring to the dogs. Each box had an open top, and infrared (IR) beams criss-crossed the top surface of both boxes. These IR beams were connected to a computer, so that whenever they were broken (i.e. when a dog sniffed inside a box), the computer delivered a “beep” and then a food treat came from the feeding device. 
    Click to enlarge image
    There was a catch: when the dogs sniffed inside the ‘non-target’ box, nothing happened. But when they sniffed inside the ‘target’ box, the positive reinforcement food reward was delivered. The dogs, essentially, were being trained to stick their heads inside one of the two boxes (perhaps not necessarily something every owner wants their dog to do, but a good example of a simple behaviour!). 

    Twenty dogs received positive reinforcement immediately, as soon as they sniffed inside the target box – there was no delay. However, for another 20 dogs, as soon as they broke the IR beams, the computer started a timer and positive reinforcement (“beep” + treat) was delayed by 1 second.

    The results were really interesting! Of the 0 second delay dogs, 60% learned the task; but of the 1 second delay dogs, only 25% learned the task – less than half as many with no delay.  

    Check out this video of a dog learning the task with a 0 s delay:

    This suggests that timing of reinforcement is important when training dogs to do something new – so be fast with your praise and treats!!

    A question that always gets asked about this research is “Isn’t 1 second a really short time?” Yes, it is a very short time. But if you really watch a dog (I recommend filming them) – see how much, how fast, how far they can move – a lot can happen in 1 second. In real-world, dog training, in 1 second a dog could be across the room, it could have moved out of position, or we could have reached into our pocket. 

    Finally, I suspect as trainers, we often get away with having sloppy timing because dogs are just so good at attending to our body language. I hypothesise that we are continually giving unintended feedback to dogs – that this feedback may be acting as conditioned reinforcers (much like a body-language-version of the “good dog”). That’s what I suspect anyway ... 

    Overall, the take home message is be fast with your feedback!

    Sending warm regards from Wintry New Zealand,


    Clare with her dogs, Flint & Apple

    Further reading:

    Browne C.M., Starkey N.J., Foster T.M. & McEwan J.S. (2013). What dog owners read: A review of best-selling books, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (4) e38. DOI:

    Browne C.M., Starkey N.J., Foster T.M. & McEwan J.S. (2013). Delayed reinforcement – does it affect learning?, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (4) e37-e38. DOI:

    Browne C.M., Starkey N.J., Foster M.T. & McEwan J.S. (2011). Timing of reinforcement during dog training, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 6 (1) 58-59. DOI:

    More about Clare

    © 2013 Do You Believe in Dog?
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    4 July 2013

    How to make fireworks less upsetting for dogs


    Hi Mia,

    Well #SPARC2013 is over for this year. Great summary and explanation of the value of scientific discourse! Now onto the next big thing!

    In just a few hours, the banging, crashing and booming of fireworks will start here in the States. In NYC, R&B Star Usher is "curating" this year’s Fourth of July fireworks (I just like saying the words "curating" and "Usher" in the same sentence). As we discussed last December, a lot of dogs are not fans of loud noises, whether from the crashing of something that unexpectedly falls, to thunderstorms and of course, fireworks. Here are our posts on fireworks:
    One of the main points is: There are ways owners can help their dogs:
    • In one study, nearly half of the owners surveyed reported that their dogs were frightened of loud noises. Noise phobia can show itself through both freezing (catatonic) as well as panic (excessive movement) behaviors.  
    • Most owners of dogs showing fear behaviors in relation to loud noises reported that they were unaware that professional help (from animal behaviorists or veterinarians) was available to help. And owners had not not pursued such help.
    • Classical counter conditioning can help dogs change their emotional state, and thereby, change their outward behavior. Here is a video, by veterinarian Sophia Yin, showing a dog learning that nail clipping is not so bad. The same thing can be used for loud noises like fireworks and thunderstorms. 

    • Our earlier posts provide even more suggestions for changing dog emotional states and help dogs be calm and less anxious when exposed to loud noises.
    I hope that by talking about this topic often, people realize that they can help dogs decrease their displeasure with loud noises. Or, possibly even work preventatively and help dogs from developing negative associations with loud noises in the first place!

    Bye for now!

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    2 July 2013

    #SPARCS2013: The Aftermath

    Oh Julie!

    How great was #SPARCS2013? 

    I love the buzz that comes from hearing presentations by experts in the various areas of canine science and what the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science achieved over 3 days, AND SHARED GLOBALLY FOR FREE, was just phenomenal!

    I love that we hung out in little parties in our respective parts of the world - with dogs present! I spent one morning (Australia time, end of a SPARCS day) with my colleague, Kate Mornement (and her dogs, Archie and Joseph!). The other days I spent waking up early and loving hearing from the likes of Adam Miklosi, Monique Udell and Clive Wynne. It was just FABULOUS. I hope everyone who enjoyed SPARCS2013, remembers to donate and/or become a SPARCS member so that this initiative can continue in the future. 

    SPARCS parties around the world!

    Something that was also interesting to me, was watching the twitter-sphere light up in response to the #SPARCS2013 event hashtag. Seeing the canine science communication get further afield (through the free live streaming over the web) than it would usually in a regular scientific conference was interesting, entertaining and above all - BRILLIANT.

    Monique Udell breaking down canine cognition

    There was one thing I found particularly interesting, which was how exchanges of what I would call 'scientific discussion', for example, such as:
    "You're wrong!"
    "What's the source of that data?"
    "It's OK to not have all the answers"
    "We should all be careful of over-generalising our results"
    "I'm not interested in repeating your experiment, because I'm not interested in testing that hypothesis"
    were sometimes perceived as "silo" (divisive) attitudes, rather than people just expressing a professional difference of opinion or seeking further information. I think it's really important that when we communicate our science to a broader audience, we also take time to explain the scientific process and how scientific rigour operates as a self-correcting process, over time. Always advancing our understanding and moving towards the best grasp of concepts that we can have. This process doesn't do a disservice to "the dogs", each other, or our work. It is how we ensure we do the best by the dogs, each other, and our work. Sometimes in science, entire premises can get flipped on their heads, and initially, that can feel uncomfortable, or ridiculous, or really, very right.

    We're not fighting! (Flickr:JesseGardner)

    Clive Wynne acknowledged this toward the closing of his final presentation, when thanking the SPARCS2013 organisers. He said that it is good for the discipline of canine science to have a forum like SPARCS, where the experts can come and speak, listen to each other, discuss, perhaps even argue, because that process - provided we all stay open to the odd premise-flipping idea - drives our field forwards in a healthy direction for the future.

    Thank you #SPARCS2013, to the conference planning team for making this available for free, the live stream tech' team for being so responsive and ensuring we were all able to experience this amazing forum, the Twitter community who participated in the online discussion and to the scientists who shared their ideas and understanding with the world. 

    I am feeling that empty, slightly sad and tired feeling you get after an amazing conference. 
    And I am really looking forward to #SPARCS2014!


    Further reading:

    Allende J.E. (2012). Rigor–The essence of scientific work., Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, 7 (1): Link

    © 2013 Mia Cobb
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