Do you believe in dog?

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

Thursday, 18 June 2015

#SPARCS2015 Canine Science for Everyone is 19-21 June - Watch Online Free!

#SPARCS2015, the canine science conference we're hosting in Phoenix, is taking place almost now, June 19-21. 

You can watch the live broadcast for FREE just by going to

Watching SPARCS2015 is THIS easy
No login, just free access by going to the website. It seems too easy, but it's true!

The conference begins at 9 AM Pacific Time on Friday, June 19th, and speaker talk times and titles are listed here. Stay with us each day until 7:00 PM Pacific Time through until Sunday, June 21. Convert to your local time zone here

For a basic idea of starting times in your part of the world, we made a list:

Last year, over 40,000 people joined the second SPARCS initiative conference from all around the world. This year, we're expecting to top those numbers! 

This year the conference will feature daily themes of Learning & Memory; Dogs Around the World and Stress: Physiology, Cognition & Behavior - Full program available here.

Hear from some of the best minds in canine science from the comforts of your own home whether that be in your pyjamas from bed, sipping wine on the couch, or while dancing on your kitchen table, we don't care. Your choice.

We know it's really Phoenix - relax!

Through the 3-day event, follow the presentations, and join in using #SPARCS2015. You can share your comments and questions on Twitter by including #SPARCS2015 on your tweets.

Part of our role as hosts is bringing the online audience into the conversation, so get on Twitter and join in!

Canine Science For Everyone!

Mia & Julie

If you'd like to support the initiative that share leading canine science to you live for free, you can get a SPARCS membership, or make a donation (as big or little amount as you like!) from the 'donate' tab that will be on-screen during the broadcast. SPARCS aims to help fund future research in canine science through a series of grants, and this will only be possible with the support of those watching. If every person watching donated $5, it would count.

Here we are! In Phoenix! Cacti! Dogs! Science! We have all!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Set SPARCS to your brain: canine science for EVERYONE! (With ticket giveaway)


The goals of the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science are simple: 
SPARCS is an initiative to promote research and education in canine science. Their profits fuel research grants and education in canine science.
There's a lot to love right there. And we do!

We're excited to announce that Do You Believe in Dog? founders, Mia and Julie, will be hosting the annual SPARCS event again. Catch up here to revisit our experiences of #SPARCS2013 and #SPARCS2014. We hope you'll be joining us too, wherever you are in the world, because the event will be live streamed online, for free! 

Each year, SPARCS holds a three-day canine science conference with each day dedicated to a different dog behavior topic. This year's topics are: Learning & Memory, Dogs Around the World and Stress: Physiology, Cognition & Behavior. The wide range of excellent speakers can been seen, along with their bio's in detail on the SPARCS website:

19-20 June  |  Phoenix Convention Centre  |  Arizona, USA

How can you get involved?

If you'd like to join us in Phoneix, Arizona (USA), there are a few ways to get there:
  1. Join SPARCS: GOLD membership gets you a free ticket to the conference and unlimited access to the recordings of the broadcasts for one year. SILVER membership gets you a ticket to one day of the conference and unlimited access to the recordings of the broadcasts (from ALL years) for twelve months.
  2. Attend the conference: You can purchase access to the conference directly through the SPARCS website here
  3. Tune in to the FREE live stream of the conference from ANYWHERE in the world: You can sign up to be notified when the live stream is active here
  4. Follow the conference on social media: We'll be making sure people can follow the action on Twitter (follow #SPARCS2015)

Want to win free registration to #SPARCS2015?

We want you to! We're thrilled to have two free registrations for the 3-day #SPARCS2015 event to give away to members of the Do you Believe in Dog? community. 

To enter, let us know why YOU want to attend this major canine science event
and who will benefit if YOU attend.

You can make your submission here on the blog, or over on Facebook, or Twitter.
Mia and Julie will select who receives a free registration to #SPARCS2015 at the Phoenix Convention Centre, 19-21 June 2015.

Tag your comment with #SPARCS2015

Competition closes: 07 June 2015

Winners announced here: 08 June 2015

Competition is for SPARCS 2015 conference registration (valued US$399) only.
Travel and accommodation expenses to attend not covered. Judges' decision will be final. 
If selected, but unable to attend, please contact so another person can be selected.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Less Talk More Touch: What's Your Dog Saying to You?

Guest post by: Erica Feuerbacher, PhD, of Carroll College Anthrozoology Program (Facebook)
via Flickr creative commons

Hi Mia and Julie,

Like you and your readers, much of my energy is devoted to my dogs’ happiness. I can identify a plethora of things they do that make me happy and I want to know what makes them happy; I explore this in my research. What types of human interactions do dogs prefer and under what circumstances? Knowing this might help us understand how to produce and maintain better bonds with our dogs. 

Two common ways of interacting with our dogs are petting or verbally praising them. My collaborator, Clive Wynne (@caninecognition), and I decided to ask dogs which of these interactions they prefer. 

Schematic and dimensions of the room arrangement for concurrent choice procedures. The drawing is approximately to scale and the room dimensions based on those of the room at the shelter.

We gave dogs a choice between two concurrently available options and measured whether they spent more time with one than the other—and how much more—as common way to measure preference. One assistant provided petting whenever the dog was near her, and another assistant provided vocal praise whenever the dog was near her. The dog was free to interact (or not interact) with either person for ten minutes. To test whether the dog really preferred the specific interaction and not just that specific person, we had the two assistants switch interactions halfway through the session. That is, the person providing petting switched to providing only vocal praise and vice versa. If the dog preferred petting in the first five minutes of the session, would the dog switch to the other person who was now providing petting? 


 Twinky, a shelter dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the left, but soon alternates to the assistant on the right who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting.

We tested shelter dogs and two groups of owned dogs: in one group both assistants were strangers, which was the same as the shelter dogs, but in the second group, one assistant was the dog’s owner. This allowed us to test whether the owner providing these interactions would change dogs’ preferences.

Across the board, dogs preferred petting to vocal praise. This difference was most pronounced in shelter dogs (out of the first five-minute period, dogs spent an average of 3.5 minutes with the petting person and only 7 seconds with vocal praise person). This result, however, held up across groups, even when the owner was one of the assistants and even when the owner was the assistant providing vocal praise. Additionally, when the assistant providing petting switched to vocal praise, dogs left …some immediately! When they found the other person was now providing petting, they stuck with her. Dogs even left their owner when the owner switched to vocal praise! 


Patsy, a shelter dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the right but soon alternates to the assistant on the left who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting. 
Dogs clearly prefer petting to vocal praise, but what if vocal praise was the only game in town? Maybe vocal praise is good as long as there isn’t something better available. We tested this by giving dogs only one alternative at a time and measuring how much time they spent when the person provided petting and when the person provided vocal praise. The results were the same: dogs remained with the person providing petting but spent very little time when that person provided only vocal praise. In fact, we found that dogs spent as little time with the person for vocal praise as when the person was ignoring the dog! To dogs, vocal praise was equivalent to being ignored. On the other hand, we also tested dogs that received eight three-minute sessions of petting and those dogs spent almost all their time with the person providing petting, even in Session 8. There was no evidence that dogs get tired of petting; as long as you are willing to pet them, they are willing to be petted!

Our results point to the importance of touch or our pets and for us. Petting is an easy way to relate to a dog and help build a relationship. One thing to note is that in our study dogs were free to approach or leave the assistant—that is we never forced the dogs to receive petting. So, as much as dogs like petting, don’t rush out and pet every dog you meet! You need to allow the dog to come to you to be petted and to leave when it wants. 


Scorch, an owned dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the left who is Scorch's owner. When his owner switches from providing petting to providing only vocal praise, he soon alternates to the assistant on the right, a stranger, who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting.
It was surprising that dogs did not prefer vocal praise—even when it was the only interaction available. We often get the comment from people, “Well, my dog loves when I talk to him!” We have to remind them that we only praised the dogs whereas most people praise the dog and simultaneously do something else really fun (like petting). We also praised the dogs for a long time—as long as the dog stayed near the assistant. This is harder than it sounds and worth trying—a few dogs did spend a good amount of time with the vocal praise assistant and that poor assistant had to praise the dog for few minutes on end!

Now it's your turn... Put YOUR dog's preferences under the Microscope
You can certainly do a mini version of our research at home: talk to your dog for an extended period without doing anything else—don’t grab the leash or pet him or reach for a treat. Does he stick around? Does he wander off? Dogs do learn to love certain words, like “walk,” “cookie,” or “good girl,” but those are only meaningful because they are usually associated with other good things—like going for a walk, getting a treat, or being petted.

What I enjoy about my research is it gives us the dog’s perspective and asks the dog, “what do you like?” rather than assuming we know what they like. Our results regarding vocal praise are really interesting given how much we talk to our dogs; perhaps all our chattering is more for us than for them and if you really want to communicate with your dog, you should try petting. 

~ ~ ~

Dr. Erica Feuerbacher joined the faculty of the Anthrozoology program at Carroll College in 2014, after completing her Ph.D. at the University of Florida in the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab. Her research goal is to enhance our understanding of the dog-human relationship to improve the welfare of both.       
Further reading:
Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice proceduresBehavioural processes110, 47-59.[Open Access PDF until Jan 2016]

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). Most domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer food to petting: population, context, and schedule effects in concurrent choiceJournal of the experimental analysis of behavior101(3), 385-405.

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2012). RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND‐REARED WOLVESJournal of the experimental analysis of behavior98(1), 105-129.

Udell, M. A., Lord, K., Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). A Dog’s-Eye View of Canine Cognition. In Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior (pp. 221-240). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

© 2015 Erica Feuerbacher | Do You Believe in Dog?
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-5 - See more at:
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019 - See more at:
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-5 - See more at:

Thursday, 2 April 2015

51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance” and “Punishment”

Guest post by: Simon Gadbois, PhD, of the Canid Behaviour Research Laboratory at Dalhousie University (@GadboisSimon & Facebook).

Simon Gadbois at SPARCS 2014
Ha the 80’s… So nostalgic of the eighties. Finishing High School, starting University, the best and the worst music of the past 50 years. Speaking of the things we are not missing: mullets and pony tails (I am so sorry mother, everybody was doing it…), parachute pants and stonewashed jeans (please don’t tell me they are coming back), shoulder pads, blue eye shadow, and punitive/coercive dog training methods…

The 90’s were refreshing. We started the Decade of the Brain (the new fixation and obsession with neuroscience), started to focus on dogs as genuine research subjects, and indulged in pretty radical re-thinking of everything having to do with dogs and wolves. A lot of good came out of the 90’s. But a lot of myths were also created. It was also the start of a new appreciation for science in general. Popularization of science and knowledge translation became the focus of some scientists. Some did it well. Very well. Others confused popularization with oversimplifying and polarizing issues between “right” and “wrong”, and encouraged the idea of a “truth” and the wrong idea that science is about “facts” or about “proving” things.

Let’s examine some of those ideas. First, science does NOT prove anything. Science can only be “quite sure” (at best) about something. Mathematics (a tool of science) can offer “proofs”, but the scientific process itself is not about proving anything. It does not matter if you used null hypothesis significance testing, Bayesian statistics, or any other method. If there is one thing we know about research as scientists, it is about what we are not 100% sure about. Unfortunately some scientists and non-scientists want to be convincing, and use very strong language to make their points. Many would defend that strategy by arguing that they have to convince trainers that they are doing it wrong. It seems that there is a new movement now going to rectify some of those created myths and misunderstandings. Some of us engaged in some of these comments (e.g., Roger Abrantes, Marc Bekoff, Monique Udell, myself) are often getting criticized for appearing to go against the current. Interestingly, from a scientific perspective, we are with the current. I will expand on this below.

One thing that plagues the knowledge translation process in canine science is the fact that the public has access mostly to books (albeit written by scientists). A little known fact is that most scientists don’t write books (or blog posts, or Facebook comments)… They write scientific papers, present posters and give talks to peers at scientific conferences. Why? Because many, if not most, are not interested in sharing with the public what they do. They do not have the time to write books, because, after all, peer-reviewed papers, not books, will get you tenure, other promotions, and scientific funding. The result is interesting: Most non-scientists in the dog world have a very biased perspective of who is actually well-known in the canid science world. They will name Coppinger, Klinghammer, Mikl√≥si, Mech, etc. (all truly great scientists, for the record, along with some much less well known ones in scientific circles), and overlook other giants in the field. It always baffles me that individuals interested in wolves do not know Carbyn, Fentress, Frank, Ginsburg, Harrington, Moran, Murie, Paquet, Peterson, Pimlott, Zimen, and so many others that are unavoidable contributors of the field (in number of publications as much as scientific contributions and reputation). Although most of them have not written books, or at least not after the 90’s, they have undeniable clout in the field of wolf research (one of my PhD supervisors, John Fentress, is finishing a book as I write this).

So what are examples of confusions that arose from some popularized canine science? Here is a short list of myths. Let me just comment right away that anybody I know that a) actually worked with wolves or studied animal learning, and, b) actually read the scientific papers, would not make the statements below:

1. Punishment does not work and is always cruel.

2. Dominance does not exist in wolves.

3. Dog evolution has nothing to do with wolves.

There is quite a bit to say on each of these items. Note also that, on purpose, the statements are very black or white. In fact, especially with the corrections, clarifications, and even retractions of the past few years from some individuals, many of you will think I am unfairly dramatic. Well, I agree to some extent, but considering what I read on Facebook and elsewhere, this is at least the “dark” end of the spectrum.

You see, science is about shades of grey. Science seeks a consensus. Science seeks converging evidence. That rarely translates into “black or white” statements. Science is about synthesis, open-mindedness, even compromises. Pitting theories against each other is part of the process. But the point is to get to a golden middle. To that idealized “truth” that some promise you. Regardless of what they say, scientists are idealists (and human). Sometimes they get carried away by their convictions and opinions. My father gave me a gift early in my life as a young scientist. In the 50’s, he was a graduate student of Jean Piaget at La Sorbonne. From what I understand, my father struggled very much in trying to reconcile North American and Continental European psychologies. In the process though, he became quite a dialectician, something he taught me through his careful consideration of any argument I would try to make or idea I would put forward (although I was not fully aware of it at the time). The process is simple: State a thesis (e.g., “punishment does not work”). Find the “evidence” for it, argue for that point. Then, state the antithesis (e.g., “punishment works”). Same process, gather the data, argue for that point. Finally, and most importantly, formulate the synthesis. It likely won’t be black (thesis) or white (antithesis), it will be something in the middle, in the shades of grey. His gift was to teach me to be a relativist and never accept dogmatism, in science, or in anything else in life.

Source: Flickr/Col and Tasha Two
Very quickly, the statement, “punishment does not work”, is easy to deconstruct. Obviously (and sadly) punishment (mostly) works. If any of you try to use science to make the statement “punishment does not work”, you are in trouble. There are literally thousands of scientific papers and hundreds of scientific books (e.g., the classic Handbook on Operant Conditioning, Honig & Staddon, 1977; Domjan, 2003*) that will confirm this: Using punishment can suppress, if not inhibit completely, behaviours (it is, after all, the definition of the term). The question in this case is about the statement itself. The statement misses the point: What are the side-effects of punishment? That is the question! And as I often argue, then we fall into ethical arguments more so than scientific ones. I often find scientists and dog trainers not courageous enough in just making an ethical statement. My approach is to ask the question “what kind of relationship do you want with your dog, one based on coercive and punitive interactions, or one based on friendship, communication and mutual understanding?”. There is another important issue associated with the arguments against punishment. Not all punishment is “punitive” and coercive. The scientific definition simply suggests that a punishment will at least reduce the frequency (count per unit of time), duration or intensity of a behaviour. Nothing here suggests the necessity of using shocks, or hitting, kicking, yelling, etc. Somehow, the connotation of the scientific term took a dark turn.

Any student in experimental psychology has done at least one cognitive computer task where the computer gives feedback for accurate (sound A) or inaccurate (sound B) responses. This is typically done so the subject can update its knowledge of the task and change its response pattern to increase performance. Is it not fascinating that the same idea will repulse many trainers? The idea of saying (softly) “no”, or “nuh uh” or use a non-reward marker (a very fancy terminology to say “punishment”) seems to get people all up-in-arms. Why? Well, technically, if “no” means “that was not the right choice” or “don’t do that again”, and the dog does not repeat the behaviour… it was a punishment. It is actually what I like to call information. Simple. We like information as humans, because it accelerates learning, it helps us make sense of the world, it helps us make sense of a set of rules in a game. When I was learning classical guitar in the 70’s, I was very happy to have my teacher tell me what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong. It was less frustrating to know about my mistakes, than trying to guess what I was doing wrong. He was paid to tell me this. Why do we deprive our dogs of that information? In my lab we work a lot with border collies. I have seen border collies go nuts if they are told only what they do right, and are ignored when making a wrong choice (for example, in a matching-to-sample task). In fact, ignoring wrong responses becomes very aversive, without really telling the dog what to avoid doing. Interesting, is it not? That will sound familiar. Positive reinforcement-only trainers will often make the argument that punishment won’t tell the dog what to do. Mmmh… that’s right… but it won’t tell the dog what to avoid doing either. This becomes very obvious in some complex tasks with multiple choices, meaning multiple possible mistakes or misses. But again, you are not “punishing” (with the modern, non-scientific connotation), you are informing.

To summarize this discussion on punishment:

1. Punishment works… but if punitive and coercive, it does not make it good or ethical.

2. Punishment is not necessarily punitive or coercive.

3. Information (feedback) about good choices (positive feedback) and mistakes (negative feedback) accelerates learning and decreases frustration… even if technically the negative feedback part, by definition, is “punishment” (as it gets the dogs to reduce or eliminate responses).

As for dominance… ugh… what a mess that one is… and the confusion between dominance (as status vs. as a trait), dominance hierarchies, aggression, aggressiveness, agonistic behaviours, rank, status, etc. People citing papers that are supposed to reject the dominance concept when they actually simply redefine the alpha role (not roll) and in fact even suggest parents have a firm hold on the pups (i.e., being quite disciplinarians)… yes, that Mech paper (1999). The same author that more recently published on dominance in wolves (e.g., Mech, 1999; Mech, 2000; Peterson, Jacobs, Drummer, Mech, Smith, 2002) because he actually never denied the existence of dominance hierarchies, and the same author that writes to Marc Bekoff about Bekoff’s great piece “Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and Other Animals” published in another blog platform in February of 2012: “… a quick scan of the (name removed) article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like (name removed)’s has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance.”

In an online essay by Mech, he also writes "Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food." Ironically, Mech pointed towards more tension between the breeding male and the breeding female, or between parents and progeny, than I believe we ever saw or documented at the Canadian Centre for Wolf Research (a captive pack in a 4 hectare enclosure; e.g., Fentress et al, 1987; Gadbois, 2002). So much for the idea that captive wolves are more likely to show dominance than wild ones! I am still waiting for the evidence (actual data) suggesting that captive wolves are more stressed than wild ones. So far, I see only the opposite trend, or no difference at all.

For my part, I adhere at least partially to “role theory”, proposed by scientists like Bernstein, Fedigan, Gartland, and Mech (Mech, 1999 writes about “division of labour”, a similar concept). In wolves, it is clear that the dominance hierarchy is in place to determine the breeding pair (as only the formerly labelled “alpha male” and “alpha female” typically breed; wolves are “technically” monogamous). This is clearly seen via noticeable peaks in aggression in (captive and wild) packs during the breeding season (January to March). Our main captive pack at the Canadian Centre for Wolf Research rarely displayed significant aggression or dominance conflicts outside of the breeding season (with some exceptions over the 30 year life of that pack). And even during the breeding season, my Master’s student Barbara Molnar re-analyzed my PhD videotapes to find that they still engaged in almost 3 times more affiliative behaviours (e.g., play) than agonistic behaviours during that more “conflictual” time of year!

Photo: Dennis Matheson

We also forget that not all packs (captive or wild) are the same. Some form nuclear family groups (mom, dad, pups of the year). In those groups you are less likely to find any dominance hierarchy. Why? Well, for one, wolves don’t “enter” the dominance hierarchy until they are sexually mature (at puberty). In principle this is not until their first Winter/Spring, and often not until the following breeding season, in other words, well into their second year. So those “nuclear” or immediate family units (like the Arctic wolves of Ellesmere) cannot compare to wolves that form extended family groups that are multi-generational (with cousins, uncles, aunts, even grandparents, being part of the group). In those family units, there will be individuals interested in breeding beyond the breeding pair. This will create conflicts (note that in principle, in larger packs, some subordinates could end-up never having a chance to breed unless they challenge the breeding individuals).

Another forgotten characteristic of dominance hierarchies, in wolves, humans, or any other animal, is that they are in place in order to avoid conflict and aggression, not contribute to it. In fact, wolves use mostly ritualized aggression, not contact aggression.

To summarize this discussion on dominance:

1. Dominance and dominance hierarchies exist in wolves.

2. It is not all about dominance, in fact, they would rather have fun with their buddies.

3. Dogs are not wolves.

Well, that last point raises yet another issue… Actually, modern molecular genetics is pretty clear about this: They kind of are the same… In the past decade, the debate is more about when and where the “split” occurred. But to play the dialectical game here again… they kind of are “not the same”. We spent centuries working on selectively getting rid of aggressive behaviour in wolves and purposively making them more docile… Why insist on still seeing them as wolves? Have we failed our artificial selection (selective breeding) experiment, or are we just obsessed ourselves with status and rank (think corporations, the military, academic ranks, sibling rivalries)? And again, what kind of relationship do you want with your pet? Personally, I would rather have a friend than a competitor or slave. I don’t get the paranoia, or the servitude angle. That is why I pick dogs as pets, and not grizzlies or wolverines.

To summarize our current knowledge on the origin of dogs:

1. Dogs: They are virtually undistinguishable from wolves, genetically speaking. It is certainly easier to see the similarities than the differences. Somehow these days it is trendy to talk about the differences.

2. Dogs and wolves: They are at the very least extremely close in evolutionary terms. Coppinger discusses this in terms of genealogy, Fentress used to refer to the evolutionary bush (as opposed to an evolutionary tree). Great metaphors in both cases.

3. Obviously domestication induced changes. That was the whole point. Pointing out differences to advance the idea that they are different species is forgetting what artificial selection is about (e.g., inducing neoteny).

For people that may have followed some of my posts on the internet over the past 20 years (Facebook, the old “applied ethology listserv”, “human ethology” list, etc.), I know I will sometimes exasperate some with my relativist attitude and (now you know) my dialectical style… But science is NOT about all-or-nones and black or white judgements, at least, not for long. Science is not infallible, nor is it dogmatic. Science is an attitude, a cognitive style, a method. And I do not accept the idea that the popularization of science and knowledge translation mean that you need to oversimplify the information, especially when communicated to people that will educate others about behaviour, dogs and wolves. Maybe some scientists think that the public is not smart enough to be given all the information and nuances necessary. I would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt and let them decide.

As Spring is upon us, wolves already think about dens, pups, play and fun and leave the politics behind for another year. I wish you the same, until next time.

Waiting for the testing room to open
Simon Gadbois, Ph.D.
Canid Behaviour Research Laboratory

Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Lab Facebook Page
Lab Facebook Group 

Note: The Dalhousie University Canid Behaviour Research Team uses force-free, positive methods of training dogs for olfactory detection, discrimination, identification, tracking and trailing. All dogs are pets volunteered by their owners and are selected for temperament, trainability, scent abilities, and play drive (i.e., “work” drive). For that reason, 95% of our volunteers are border collies or border collie mixes.

* Domjan writes in fact, in this popular textbook (p. 302, 2003, 5th edition) “On the basis of a few experiments Thorndike (1932) and Skinner (1938, 1953) concluded that punishment was not a very effective method for controlling behavior and that it had only temporary effects at best (see also Estes, 1944). This claim was not seriously challenged until the 1960’s, when punishment processes began to be investigated more extensively (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Campbell & Church, 1969; Church, 1963; Solomon, 1964). We now know that punishment can be an effective technique for modifying behavior (Dinsmoor, 1998)."

Images via Canid Behaviour Research Team photo and Facebook pages.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our guest post by Cat Reeve, a member of the Canid Behaviour Research TeamCat and Dogs: seeking solutions with sniffing canines and science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Domjan, M. (2003). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Thomson - Wadsworth.

Fentress, J.C., Ryon, J., McLeod, P.J., & Havkin, G.Z. (1987). A multidimensional approach to agnostic behavior in wolves. In Frank, H. (1987) Man and wolf: Advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research: Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Gadbois, S. (2002). The socioendocrinology of aggression-mediated stress in timber wolves (Canis lupus). PhD dissertation, Dalhousie University.

Honig, W. K, & Staddon, J. R. (1977). Handbook of Operant Behaviour. Prentice-Hall.

Mech, D. (2000). Leadership in wolf, Canis lupus, packs. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 114, 259-263.

Mech L.D. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77 (8) 1196-1203. DOI:

Mech, L.D., Wolf, P.C., & Packard, J.M. (1999). Regurgitative food transfer among wild wolves. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77, 1192-1195.

Peterson, R.O., Jacobs, A.K., Dummer, T.D., Mech, L.D, & Smith, D.W. (2002). Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 80, 1405-1412.

© 2015 Simon Gadbois | Do You Believe in Dog?

Monday, 9 March 2015

How dogs get the point: what enables canines to interpret human gestures?

Guest post by: Lucia Lazarowski, PhD candidate. Her research is available via free promotional access in the journal Behavioural Processes until February, 2016.

Hi Mia and Julie,

As a long-time fan of the blog, it is an honor to be a guest contributor! I am especially excited to tell DYBID readers about this research because it was somewhat of a pet project (pun intended). I am now a PhD student at Auburn University, but this study was done while I was working at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. At NCSU, I worked with a team of veterinarians and animal behaviorists on a several projects aimed at improving selection and training of military working dogs, and I was primarily involved with studies related to explosives detection. 

Meanwhile in the canine cognition world, a hot topic was that of dogs’ ability to follow human gestures. Several studies have demonstrated that dogs are able to use human gestures, like pointing, to find hidden treats. An interesting finding that fueled a lot of the research in this area is that dogs perform better on these tasks than chimpanzees, our closest relatives, and wolves, dogs’ closest relatives. Is it possible that dogs are able to read and use human gestures because they co-evolved with humans, endowing them with a specialized human-like type of social cognition that their ancestors missed out on? Or, is it that dogs are such an integrated part of our lives that through our daily interactions they learn that paying attention to our body language pays off?

These two viewpoints have sparked a heated debate among canine scientists. In order to tease apart the roles of domestication and experience (or the nature/nurture debate, as your high school psychology teacher would call it), researchers have tested canines of different species (domesticated and wild-type) and different life histories (human-reared and feral). The domestication hypothesis, which suggests that point-following is an innate skill that dogs have acquired in a case of convergent evolution with humans, predicts that domestication alone is sufficient for point-following. The learning hypothesis, on the other hand, contends that dogs must learn through experience to follow human gestures, regardless of domestication status. 

The fact that chimps and wolves do not appear to utilize human pointing as dogs do seems to support domestication as an explanation. But, (plot twist!) if wolves are raised with humans from an early age and are tested in appropriate conditions, they can perform as well or even better than dogs.  To recap, groups that have succeeded at human pointing tasks include canines that are domesticated and socialized (pet dogs), non-domesticated and un-socialized (wolves), and non-domesticated and socialized (hand-reared wolves).  Hopefully at this point the missing piece of the puzzle is obvious: what about domestic dogs that have not been heavily exposed to humans? This vital yet untested sub-group of canines would help tip the scales in the domestication vs. experience debate.

At NCSU, we were gearing up to begin a new study investigating factors related to olfactory learning in canine explosives detection. The dogs acquired for this study were mixed-breed males around 1 year old, and unlike our previous studies which used trained military working dogs, these were laboratory-reared dogs. It occurred to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to test a group of dogs that met all of the proposed criteria for the “missing link”: laboratory dogs lack the same experiences that pet dogs living in human homes have (including the possibly critical opportunity to learn about human gestures), but they are socialized to humans at an early age and thus not fearful like feral dogs may be. Another bonus is that their life histories are known and documented, unlike dogs found in a shelter that at some point may have lived with people. If the opportunity to learn about human gestures is critical for point-following behavior to develop and not just domestication alone, these dogs would be expected to perform worse than pet dogs on point-following tasks. 

We tested 11 laboratory dogs and 9 pet dogs using methods established in previous studies in which dogs watched as humans performed two types of point (“easy” and “hard”, for simplicity’s sake).  What we found was that while pet dogs followed the harder point to the correct container significantly higher than chance, the laboratory dogs did not. Both groups of dogs were able to locate the correct container using the easier point, demonstrating that any failures were not due methodological flaws or to an inability to perform the demands of the task (note that success on these easier point trials can be explained by simpler mechanisms like physical proximity to the container).
Our results seem to suggest that exposure to humans and the opportunity to learn about the meanings of gestures plays an important role in dogs’ ability to follow pointing. 

Interestingly, a few dogs in the pet group performed just as poorly as the laboratory dogs, which would lend further support to the idea that individual experiences shape these abilities. Further, failures by the laboratory dogs are not likely caused by cognitive deficits due to an impoverished environment; the dogs received environmental enrichment including daily interactions with kennel and research staff, play-time with conspecifics, outdoor exercise, and a variety of toys (and after completing this experiment, participated in daily socialization and reward-based training sessions to facilitate future adoptions). Though domestication may likely contribute to dogs’ gesture-reading skills, specific life experiences may also be critical for their manifestation. 

P.S.: A happily-ever-after to this story: one of the subjects from this cohort, ‘Captain’, was adopted upon completion of the studies... by me! 

Lucia and Captain - all smiles!

Lucia Lazarowski is a PhD student at Auburn University in the Comparative Cognition Laboratory. They collaborate with the Canine Performance Sciences program at Auburn University (Facebook).

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our guest post by Dr Bradley Smith: Take a walk on the wild side: Dingo science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Images: Copyright Lucia Lazarowski. 

Lazarowski L. (2015). A comparison of pet and purpose-bred research dog (Canis familiaris) performance on human-guided object-choice tasks, Behavioural Processes, 110 60-67. DOI: [OPEN ACCESS until Feb 2016]

Kaminski, J., Nitzschner, M., 2013. Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability. Learn Motiv. 44 (4), 294–302.

Udell, M.A.R., Dorey, N.R., Wynne, C.D.L., 2010. What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions. Biol Rev. 85 (2), 327–345.

Reid, P., 2009. Adapting to the human world: Dogs’ responsiveness to our social cues. Behav Process. 80 (3), 325–333. 

© 2015 Lucia Lazarowski | Do You Believe in Dog?

Monday, 9 February 2015

How do dogs and people respond to a crying baby?

Guest post by: Min Hooi Yong, PhD

Does your dog know when you are sad? Puzzling question, perhaps? 

We get a range of answers from dog owners, from the confident Yes!to Maaaaybe?, and the hopeful I like to think so.... Many dogs are considered to be part of the family, and we expect our family members to empathize with us when we are sad.

A recent study found that dogs showed submissive behavior (licking and nuzzling) when an adult person pretended to cry but not when she is humming1. Does the licking and nuzzling behavior mean that the dog understand that we are feeling sad? (I hear YES-es). Or can it be that because we are crying, we ignore everyone including our dog, and so, our dog will nuzzle us seeking attention and/or comfort?

There have been many studies showing that animals (e.g. rodents, birds, chimps) experience distress or concern (empathic response) when observing either kin or non-kin in distress. For example, giving electric shocks to rats and pigeons. The observer experienced a change both behaviourally and physiologically, and these responses are often considered as an experience of emotional contagion, an elementary form of empathy. Emotional contagion is essentially the spreading of all forms of emotion from one person (or animal) to another (like the spreading of joy or distress through a crowd - think of a flash mob dance effect filtering through a crowd)2.

Hearing a baby cry can be quite distressing. What happens to us when we, the observers, hear the cry? We respond by getting up and checking on the crying baby, increased attention. Our body also releases the stress hormone cortisol when we hear the cry, regardless of age or parenting experience3,4. Also, we can tell if the crying is urgent or not. We do, sometimes find crying aversive (imagine a baby crying non-stop throughout your long-distance flight).
In our study, we wanted to know if dogs and humans show a similar physiological response to a baby crying. We had three questions: 
  1. We know that dogs are attached to humans, so would dogs show increased attention to a baby crying and babbling? 
  2. Exposure to uncontrollable white noise is considered aversive and elicits submissive behavior. If dogs find crying aversive, would dogs show submissive behavior towards crying as well as white noise? 
  3. Do dogs show an increased stress response (measured in their salivary cortisol levels) to a baby crying compared to white noise and a baby babbling, similar to humans?
We had 75 dogs and 74 humans listen to one of three sounds. A human baby crying:

A human baby babbling: 

Or white noise:

Each sound was played at an average volume of 82 decibels similar to chamber music in a small auditorium (not loud enough to cause hearing damage, but it is loud). We collected saliva before and after listening to one sound from both dogs and humans for their cortisol levels. We also analyzed dogsbehavior while the sound was played, and collected sound ratings about how aversive people found the sounds.

What did our three questions reveal? First, we found that both dogs and humans showed an increase in cortisol levels only after listening to crying, but no changes to baby babbling and white noise. Second, dogs showed increased attention to both the crying and babbling sounds, but not to white noise. Third, dogs displayed increased submissive behavior (e.g. the dog’s body and head were lowered, the ears were held flat and back, the tail was lowered and sometimes slightly between their legs or wagging rapidly side-to-side, the tongue pro-truded slightly, or the dog raised one leg in a hesitant or placating manner) to the crying and white noise, but not to babbling. Additionally, human participants rated the white noise as more aversive than crying (see table below for a summary). We also analyzed other possible aspects that might have influenced the dogsresponses such as time of testing, demographic data e.g. neutered status and sex, acoustic features in the sounds (pitch and melody), and even dog ownersunintentional cuing. We found that the responses shown were a result of distress, evident from crying.

You might ask why submissive behavior was shown during crying and white noise. Let’s start with white noise. Our human participants perceived white noise as more unpleasant compared to crying. Humans tend to cover their ears and animals also show similar avoidance, and what better way than to lower your head? On the other hand, with crying sounds, one is generally more subdued (sympathetic concern) especially when you can hear the distress meaning in the sound. The combined behavioral indicators during these sounds (e.g. lowered posture, shaking, stimulus avoidance) points toward submissive behavior.

In humans, an increase in cortisol and attention is interpreted as a demonstration of
emotional contagion3,4. This unique pattern of physiological and behavioral responding to crying in our study is most consistent with (a) emotional contagion in dogs, providing first evidence that dogs, like humans, experience a physiological response to human infant crying, and (b) suggests the first clear evidence of cross-species empathy (i.e. canine emotional contagion to human distress). 

Min Hooi Yong has recently completed her PhD under the supervision of Professor Ted Ruffman in the Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand. You can follow her research, or Prof Ted Ruffman. This study has been published in the journal Behavioural Processes”:

Min Hooi Yong
We would like to thank all the dog owners and their dogs who participated in our study, and to Stephanie McConnon, Mary Saxton, and Barbara Lowen for allowing us to use their dog videos. Mia is a female English Setter aged 3, Annie is a female Border Collie aged 9, and Flack is a male mixed breed (Collie/Husky/Heading) aged 4.

1. Custance, D. & Mayer, J. Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study. Anim. Cogn. 15, 851–859 (2012).
2. De Waal, F. B. M. Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 59, 279–300 (2008).
3. Fleming, A. S., Corter, C., Stallings, J. & Steiner, M. Testosterone and prolactin are associated with emotional responses to infant cries in new fathers. Horm. Behav. 42, 399–413 (2002).
4. Giardino, J., Gonzalez, A., Steiner, M. & Fleming, A. S. Effects of motherhood on physiological and subjective responses to infant cries in teenage mothers: A comparison with non-mothers and adult mothers. Horm. Behav. 53, 149–158 (2008).

Thank you, Min, for discussing your research on Do You Believe in Dog? View other guest contributors here ~ Julie & Mia 

©  Do You Believe in Dog? 2015