How reward-based training can mask intelligence in animals

In a study with rodents and ferrets’ researchers found that using treats could mask an animal’s true intelligence. They found a difference between performance and knowledge and that there are two processes, one for

Embroidered JRT pup by S.B.

Content and one for environment. The study was conducted by Kishore Kuchibhotla, an assistant professor in The Johns Hopkins University’s department of psychological and brain sciences.

The study wanted to explore how reward-based training affects learning verses performance or behavior. Their research showed that reward-based training improved learning in steps or stages but can mask an animal’s knowledge, especially what the animal learned early in life.

The researchers hope that the results of this study and future studies will help people with Alzheimer’s Disease maintain lucidity as well as improve testing environments for children.

Reward-based training is the most humane way to train a pet, but the pet owner must recognize that the pet is more intelligent than the training demonstrates. This is evident when a pet uses the lessons he has been taught in new ways.

Do animals think probabilistically?

We know that rats in studies create new mental maps for new spatial situations such as a new maze. But scientists do not know how the animal decides when a situation is new enough to requires a new map.

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No two situations are ever exactly alike, for animals as well as humans, but how much needs to change to create a new map? The scientists at MIT and Harvard postulate that they can determine this with Bayesian statistics, a mathematical model. This model can take into account individual differences in animals as well as the situation.

Understanding remapping is important because when scientists evaluate a problem or test, they do not know if the rat is thinking about experiment A or experiment B. This will change the results of the test and possibly give scientists false data which leads to conflicting, confusing or surprising results.

Communication is always a problem when people work or train animals. We cannot tell them about the context of an experiment, the animal has to make his own conclusions based on what he sees or experiences. The researchers feel that by using a probabilistic approach, they can determine how uncertainty plays a role when change occurs.

While all of these methods are a good attempt to understand the mind of animals, because if it applies to a rat it most likely applies to other animals as well. However, as I tell my clients, there are only two beings who will know for sure what is in the mind of an animal—the animal and God. No one else, but we need to keep trying.

Dog Training Tips 3

In Dog Training Tips 2 I talked about how the type of dog, its breed(s) influence the dog’s personality and how biddable the dog is. The term biddable means how willing the dog is to obey. Some breeds are much more biddable than others. For example, most of the herding and some of the hunting breeds are very biddable. Some of the breeds classified as working dogs are biddable but some are not. The least biddable breeds tend to fall into the livestock guarding breeds and the hounds. However, this does not mean that they are less intelligent. As a matter of fact, the livestock guarding breeds are very intelligent but as a rule are bred to work independently, and alone. They must make very important decisions to protect the flock that they are guarding. Many people are attracted to these breeds because they are very quiet and calm. However, they do not make good pets. They are bred to repel an intruder regardless if it is animal or human. It takes a special person who understands this type of dog and knows how to train them to successfully own one.

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Created by Bruce Ross

The hounds are another difficult breed to train. Again, not because they are less intelligent, but because they are bred to be very focused. Think of it this way. If a hound is bred and taught to hunt fox, they must only find and follow the scent of a fox. A Foxhound who is side-tracked on the fresher scent of a rabbit or deer, is no use as a Foxhound. But, some of you may say, what about Bloodhounds that look for missing people. Each person has his own unique scent. This is true, but the hound is trained to follow only human scent, whichever human scent his handler indicates. The Search and Rescue (SAR) Bloodhound will not veer off a trail to track an animal.

Because the hounds are very focused, they often block out everything else. For the pet owner, this can be frustrating because as hound owners know, when these dogs go for a walk, their noses are often on the ground taking in all of the scents. Their tendency to focus so strongly on scent, and their ability to block out everything else makes them seem to ignore the commands of their owners. The younger the dog, the harder the hound is to train because he is going to follow his instincts first. This means that the dog’s owner must exercise a lot more patience and realize that it will take much more effort on their part to motivate the hound to break his focus and listen to commands. One way to circumvent this is to use clicker training on the very young, 12-week-old puppy, before he fully develops his ability to focus on scent. All puppies have short attention spans and if you do not want to train your puppy to hunt, then this is a good time to take advantage of the puppy’s short attention span to teach him to focus on you.

Never forget, dogs do not speak human languages. Therefore, it takes patience on our part to teach them and you must take care not  to repeat a command. The dog does not understand that “Sit” is one word. If you say, “Sit, Sit, Sit!” the dog will think it is all one word and never sit until you say it three times. A thought for today, did you ever wonder why dogs seem to be able to communicate to us better than we can to them?

Feel free to contact me if you have questions or if you need a certified canine behaviorist.

Do bigger brains mean smarter dogs?

According to a study conducted by Daniel Horschler, a UA anthropology doctoral student and member of the UA’s Arizona Canine Cognition Center, dogs with bigger brains can perform certain tasks better than dogs with smaller brains. The researchers found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.

The tests showed that brain size did not determine a dog’s performance on tests of social intelligence such as being able to follow where a person points or with the dog’s inferential and physical reasoning ability.

What the study did not define is what is considered small and what is considered large? What the study also did not seem to take into account is the difference between the way humans relate, handle and treat small vs large dogs. As a canine behavior consultant and dog trainer I have seen a vast difference between the way owners treat and relate to large vs small dogs. For example, you do not see owners carrying their Labrador Retrievers around in backpacks or pushing them in strollers. Often small dogs are not allowed to act like dogs whereas large dogs are allowed to act like a dog should act. It is interesting to consider.

Do dogs need training to understand human cues?

Dr. Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, India, and colleagues studied stray dogs across several Indian cities to determine if dogs can understand human cues without training.

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They found that stray dogs that were not timid or shy, would respond to a strange human pointing to a bowl. If the dog was friendlier and less anxious, they approached the bowls that the tester pointed to about 80% of the time. This shows that the dogs not only recognized human body language but are able to understand complex gestures.

What the researchers were unable to tell is how much experience the stray dogs had with humans and was it positive or negative. Also unknown is if people had fed the dogs in the past, using a pointing motion to indicate that there was food available.

The study does mention that more research is needed to determine if the personality of the dog is a factor in their response to human pointing. But all in all, it is another piece of information that gives us insight into the mind of the dog.

How animals detect odor

Prof. Nowotny, Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange in the University of Sussex’s School of Engineering and Informatics had determined that animals may not single out a specific odor when they look for a substance. He has found that animals may find it easier to detect a collection of odors instead of a single substance. If this is true, then most of the detection dog training that focuses on teaching a dog to look for one odor rather than a scent picture, may not be the best way to train a dog.

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Scout following scent

One single odor does not exist in a natural environment, rather there are a collection of odors. When you consider that it is impossible to isolate a single odor in a natural environment, this discovery makes sense. Of course it is possible and often likely that a single odor is stronger than the surrounding odors, but still it is not the only odor present.

Professor Nowotny suggests that animal and human olfactory systems may not be made to do analytic smelling of pure odors. He uses the example of how an animal will give off pheromones, a complex set of odors, as a form of communication and that it is important that an animal recognize the entire chemical message and not a single element in the chemical message.

For years I have maintained that when teaching a dog scent work that there is no such thing as an uncontaminated scent article. Professor Nowotny has confirmed this with his latest research. Although more studies need to be done, and we should still train our dogs as we have in the past, it does open the door for a less narrow view of what dogs detect and how they detect it and may lead to new training methods. It is always good to “think outside the box.”

Canine genetics and behavior

Dog owners and breeders know that certain behaviors dominate certain breeds. For example herding dogs have the instinct to herd. Hounds have the instinct to hunt with their nose, some breeds are better guard dogs and the list goes on. This is what makes breed traits what they are. But it has been somewhat of a mystery about how this happens genetically because not all dogs in a particular breed have the same strength of the trait for that breed and some lack it entirely.

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In a new study, James A Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues Evan L. MacLean of the University of Arizona, Noah Snyder-Mackler of the University of Washington, and Bridgett M. vonHoldt of Princeton University conducted a study to try to unravel how genetics affect breed trait behavior.

Their study concluded that genes do play a large part in breed behavior, and those gene most affect the brain rather than other bodily tissues. However, they stressed that there is a large margin to allow for the differences between individual animals.

What this means to the dog owner, and especially the potential dog owner, is that getting a dog from a reliable, ethical and trusted breeder is critical to your dog’s behavior. The genetic tendencies can and do vary from line to line. It also means that if you adopt a mixed breed or purebred dog, you will have no idea what it’s genetically controlled behavior will be.

This is important to understand because if behavior issues arise, you will have to allow for the possibility that it is genetically influenced. The method that you use to alter any unwanted behavior that is genetically influence will be different than simple training methods. Always consult a certified behavior consultant. You can find one at www.iaabc.org.

Also keep in mind that genetically influenced behavior is not limited to dogs but is a part of the makeup of all living beings. Yes, environment and learning also comes into play.

Metacognition in Dogs

Metacognition is knowing when you don’t know. For example, if someone asks you a question that you do not know the answer to, you will know that you do not know the answer. Another way to put it is knowing what you know.

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Researchers at the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have determined that dogs have metacognition abilities. Their tests showed that dogs checked more often when they did not know where a reward was hidden. This illustrated to the researchers that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden which is an indication that the dogs knew that they did not know where the reward was.

A famous example of this is Chaser the Border Collie when she was asked to find a toy that she was not taught to find. Although it took her longer, she examined each toy in a group and finally, by process of elimination, picked the correct toy. She knew that she did not know the toy she was asked to find.

Scientists must research carefully, eliminating all possible flaws in their research. They must also design tests to prove or disprove their hypothesis which is not an easy task. But those of us who work with dogs and see what they can accomplish, do not need tests to prove their abilities. Dog and animals in general, have many more mental abilities then scientists can prove at the present. However, it is good that they do continue their research.

Do animals grieve the loss of a loved one?

There are many people who have seen what appears to be a grieving process in their pet when a loved one, human or animal, dies or otherwise leaves the home.

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Dempsey

I personally have seen this in both my dogs and cats from time to time. There are no set rules about how a pet will grieve, but the owner or caretaker will see a change in the pet’s behavior.

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Ness

Some signs are:

Panting, pacing, whining, fidgeting, weight loss due to a loss of appetite, becoming clingy when the pet was not that way before, wanting to touch another pet or person more than normal and a general sad behavior. I have had pets look for the lost companion, and generally mope around the house.

I have had more than one dog bond with another dog only to have to re-home the dog or the dog dies. Some people let the pet that is alive see the dead pet. They claim this helps. In my case I have often replaced the pet that passed.

The most dramatic incident that I have witnessed was something that I still cannot explain. Our Rottweiler Dempsey, had hip dysplasia and seemed to be in quite a bit of pain. I called our veterinarian and arranged to pick her up on my lunch hour to take her for x-rays. When I took her out of the front door, our Border Collie, Ness,  did something he never did before or after that incident. When I closed the front door, he threw himself at the door and screamed in a way I had never heard a dog do. I was puzzled since I had taken the Rottie to the groomers on a number of occasions in the same manner, picking her up on my lunch break and taking her for a bath, especially the time she got skunked. So the Border Collie had experienced this before.

Unbeknownst to me, she had very bad bone cancer and upon examining the X-ray, the veterinarian called me at work to tell me what he found. Her thigh bone was completely perforated, and the cancer had spread, so we decided she needed to be put to sleep. How did the Border Collie know? He was not the same after losing his buddy.

About a year later, we picked up another puppy that a friend had brought for me from France. We had the Border Collie with us at the airport when we went to pick up the new puppy. As my husband carried the puppy to the car, the Border Collie gave him a look that would have killed. It was as if the Border was saying, “How could you bring another dog here.” The story had a happy ending because it did not take long for Ness  to accept the puppy and they became fast friends.

What makes it difficult is that we cannot explain to the pet what has happened and why. We have to let them work out their grief in their own way and in their own time.

What we can do to help our pets when they grieve is to be there for them. Try not to change their routine. Let them cuddle if that is what they need. Give the pet extra play and exercise if possible. And in some cases a new companion may be the answer.

It is important to understand that all animals have feelings similar to ours. They understand that someone is missing. In cases where there is a sudden death of a person, the pet may not realize that they are gone right away. This is true if the person spent days away from home due to work or regular vacations. In time the pet will realize that the person is not coming back. That means the caretaker(s) of the pet, or the family left behind must keep an eye on the pet to watch for signs of grief which may not show up right away.

If the family is grieving the pet will react to that and it may be difficult to tell if the pet is grieving or reacting to the emotions of the people around him which can make his own grieving stronger.

There is no easy answer or solution to the problem of pet grief. Although it is a common phrase that is true, time will help, time will heal.

Lifelong learning is important for old dogs and cats

We know that it is critical for humans to learn new things and keep their mind active as they age. It goes a long way to help our minds from deteriorating and creates positive emotions helping to stave off depression.

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The same is true for our dogs and cats as they age. Unfortunately physical limitations may keep an older dog or cat from participating in physical activities or even being physically unable to learn new tricks. However, Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna have developed a form of K9  “sudoku” to help old dogs stay mentally active.

Using a computer touch screen, they have developed a reward-based brain teaser. Once the dogs learn to use the touch screen the ones tested became avid computer gamers. The success of the project in the laboratory has led researchers to hope that industry will be motivated to develop the touch screen games for home use.

In the meantime, dog owners and cat owners (cats have the same mental needs as dogs) can set up treat puzzles or interactive games for their pets. There are some on the market that work well. You can google “treat puzzles for dogs or cats” to find them.

The main thing is to keep your aging pets mentally active. It will enrich their lives and keep their normal skills sharp.