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.

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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.

Animals can tell time!

Almost all pet owners have noticed that their pet seems to know what time it is. The dog or cat that waits for a family member to arrive home from school or work. Or they let you know exactly the time they normally get fed. They also let you know when it is time for any other daily routine. In the past it was assumed that they saw signals in the behavior of their human house mates. Or the theory was that they recognized the sound of your vehicle and knew that you were near. All of this can be part of the explanation for some events. But then there were those events that did not fit with the theories. Events that had no logical explanation, except that somehow, animals knew what time it was. Over the years, I have seen all of my pets, dogs, cats and birds indicate that they knew when things were supposed to happen. Not only the time of the day, but the day of the week.

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Researchers have discovered strong evidence that animals can tell time. A study led by Daniel Dombeck, an associate professor of neurobiology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience explains the discovery.

According to Dombeck “As the animals run along the track and get to the invisible door, we see the cells firing that control spatial encoding, then, when the animal stops at the door, we see those cells turned off and a new set of cells turn on. This was a big surprise and a new discovery.”

What I can share with you from personal experience and supports this discovery is this: I am profoundly deaf, and cannot hear an alarm clock, (I can barely hear without hearing aids). If I need to get up at a certain time in the morning, I only have to decide what time I want to get up and I will wake up at the exact minute, no matter how tired I may be. As far as I am concerned, Dombeck’s discovery is the only explanation about how I can do this.

According to Dombeck, “So this could lead to new early-detection tests for Alzheimer’s, we could start asking people to judge how much time has elapsed or ask them to navigate a virtual reality environment — essentially having a human do a ‘door stop’ task.” Again, animal research has the potential of helping people. Because many people suffer from Alzheimer’s, it could help a vast number of people.

 

Dogs understand words

Scientists are one step closer to unraveling how and if dogs understand specific words in human speech. Research has provided evidence that dogs can understand basic words that they have been taught and know the difference between words they know and words they do not know.

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What scientists are trying to determine is if you say “squirrel” does the dog associate excitement with the word or does the dog actually picture a real squirrel. To do this they did MRI’s on 12 dogs who were taught the name of a specific object. Their studies were not conclusive but did show differences in the dog’s brains when the object they knew was spoken vs the one they were not taught. I think the famous Border Collie, Chaser, is strong evidence that dogs do associate a word with a specific object. But it is fun to keep researching about dog’s minds.

Dog’s use facial expressions to communicate to people

Dr. Juliane Kaminski of the University’s Dog Cognition Centre proved that the facial expressions dogs make are not a result of their emotions, but rather are a purposeful act to communicate.  Her research also showed that dogs make more facial expressions when people are looking at them, further illustrating that dogs specifically use facial expressions to communicate to people. This finding further shows us that dogs make choices and decisions to purposely try to communicate with people.

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One of the most common facial expressions that dogs made was to raise their brow. This facial expression often makes people feel that the dog is sad and is often referred to as the puppy dog look.

Of course, it must be understood that dogs use a whole realm of body language to communicate, not just their facial expressions. Keep in mind that dogs who have excessive facial hair may make it difficult, if not impossible for people to see the raised brow.

Two independent studies show the benefit of dog ownership for children

A study conducted by Darlene Kertes and her colleagues from the University of Florida documented how a pet dog helped children cope with stress. To test this the researchers had children perform stressful things, such as giving a report, or doing a math problem. They compared children who were allowed to have their dogs with them to children who did not and found that the ones who had their dog with them were much less stressed. They also found that a pet dog lowered the stress level of children more than having a parent with them.

Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and co-authors Monique Udell of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences; Craig Ruaux of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine; Samantha Ross of the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences; Amanda Tepfer of Norwich University and Wendy Baltzer of Massey University in New Zealand conducted a study to determine how a pet dog could help a child with disabilities.

They determined that children with disabilities do not exercise as much or join in physical activities the way children who do not have disabilities do. So they developed a physical activity program where the family dog would act as a partner for the child.

Although their study initially only involved one child, based on its success, they have expanded the program. What is unique is that their study was one of the first to evaluate animal-assisted therapy.

It is reasonable to assume that children with disabilities who are challenged to exercise and/or socialize are also stressed. Based on the two studies, it appears that children who are stressed and those who are stressed that have disabilities benefit from having a pet dog. This is a win-win situation.

Scout & Tom

Dogs, wolves and some primates understand inequality

A new study by comparative psychologists at the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna has illustrated that both dogs and wolves understand what it means to be treated unequally.

Previously, the studies that illustrated that dogs understood and reacted negatively to inequality, assumed that this reaction was due to domestication. The current study illustrates that this is not true because wolves  reacted the same way as dogs.

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The tests also showed that higher ranking wolves and dogs became frustrated more quickly when they perceived favoritism. Scientists assumed this is because they are not used to receiving lower quality rewards.

What makes this interesting is that the study illustrates that the animals being tested understand and recognize what a lower quality reward consists of. This means that they observed the differences in the rewards, were able to value the reward and determine that they were not getting as much.

The most exciting information from this experiment is how it illustrates an animal’s ability to think, reason and make decisions and judgements. For pet owners, it shows us that when we train our animals, the reward needs to be something valued by the animal. After all don’t people feel the same way too?

How to Fade Food Rewards for Learned Behavior in Dogs by guest blogger, Mat Coulton

There are a lot of folks that think that if you use food rewards to train your dog, then your dog won’t be responsive to direction unless you have food to “bribe” her.

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(all photos from pixabay.com)

In fact, this is an often-used excuse for using punishment-based training methods. Although it certainly doesn’t have to be true, sometimes inexperienced owners and handlers make it true by failing to understand when and how to fade food rewards.

If the only time you ever train your dog is with a bag full of treats hanging on your waist, then yes, it’s very likely that you will be mostly ignored in just about every other situation. Dogs are smarter than you think!

In this article you will learn why food rewards are preferred by most reinforcement based professional trainers, some tips on keeping food rewards healthy, and how to move away from using food rewards once your dog is performing a behavior to your expectations.

Why Most Trainers Use Food to Teach New Behavior:

Both reward and punishment can motivate your dog (and people too!) to learn. The benefit of using reward as the “go-to” training tool is that in addition to being effective, it helps to build a bond of trust with your dog.

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Have you ever been punished for making a mistake when you did not understand what it was that you really did wrong? That is how dogs feel, every time they are punished for failing to be mind-readers! When your dog feels safe in the training environment, she will volunteer new behaviors (critical for some training techniques) as well as give you her eager, confident, focus.

Another big plus of using food as a reward has to do with “rate of reinforcement,” a fancy term that just means the faster you can solicit a behavior and reward it, the faster your dog will learn it. Unlike most other rewards, food rewards can be repeated as fast as every single second, making it the top choice for trainers looking to train complex behaviors like running an agility course or training service animal tasks.

What Food to Use for Training:

If you are lucky enough to have an extremely food motivated dog (ahem….like a Lab!), then your canine is likely to work eagerly for their regular kibble. This is a real bonus because it means that you can set aside a portion of his regular feed and save it to be dispensed one piece at a time during training.

If you have a picky eater on your hands, it might be a little trickier. But don’t think you have to go all out and train with nothing but cheese and hotdogs or expensive (and fattening) commercial treats. Instead, use a mix of pea sized safe foods your dog really gets excited about and some of his regular kibble rations. Smush them up in the bag to get the scent of the higher value foods all over boring-old-kibble. This will keep him engaged in learning, while helping you keep his waistline in check.

When to Fade Food:

Knowing when the time is right to fade food rewards is important. Since food is the most effective reward for “shaping” behavior incrementally towards a final goal, it makes sense to wait until AFTER the behavior is exactly where you want it before you start any of the methods listed here to start moving away from food.

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In addition, you want to be sure the behavior is largely “proofed” before taking it out of the regular training routine where food motivators reign supreme. Have you practiced the behavior in a parking lot? Around other people? Around other dogs? Until you have rewarded the behavior in a wide variety of contexts, it isn’t really “learned” so keep the rewards coming.

How to Fade Food:

There are several methods to fading food rewards. Feel free to mix and match these methods…that will keep her guessing!

Randomize Rewards

Once you are getting the right behavior (either on command or in conjunction with a certain stimulus), then you can start choosing only the VERY BEST examples of it to reward with food. For example, if you are working on recall, you can start rewarding only those recalls that are instant, with a very fast speed on that return.

Alternative Rewards

What does your dog love besides food? Once she has a behavior down pat, you can start to reward her with other things such as pets, a toss of the ball or a game of tug. In fact, once you realize the power of motivators, you can start to ask for known behaviors before giving her any of the things she loves.

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Surprise Rewards

Once you are using (mostly) non-food motivators to reinforce known behaviors, it is time to make sure you add in some big-time surprise rewards to the mix. These rewards need to be when he least expects them.

Frankly, they can be food or non-food rewards. Just make them BIG!

The point is, if your canine never knows when he is going to hit the jackpot for giving you the behavior you expect, then he is going to be that much more excited about rolling those dice. (Yes, if you were wondering, this is the principle behind gambling.)

Chaining Behaviors

This technique is perfect for use both in and out of formal training sessions. It’s simple: Instead of rewarding after every single cue/behavior, you can start to ask for several known behaviors in a row, followed by a reward (food or otherwise) for successful completion of the chain. This will get her used to giving you what you are asking for, without expecting food for every single trick.

Conclusion

Just because you are using the power of food to train new behavior, doesn’t mean your stuck with a dog that will only perform when you have treats in hand. By using the techniques outlined in this guide, you can have the best of both worlds: The fastest training method out there, and freedom from food rewards once behavior is learned.

Angus, Canada’s infection sniffing dog

Angus is a Springer Spaniel, trained to sniff out Clostridium difficile (C. diff) an infection caused by a fecal bacterium that can make people very sick. Angus is used in hospitals to ensure that the spores from this illness are not present. He has effectively reduced the spread of infections in hospitals.

Surprisingly, even though rooms are thoroughly cleaned, Angus will sometimes find 5 -6 places where the bacteria are located a week. Hospitals have learned because of Angus, that staff locker rooms and cubby holes used to store items were found to have C. diff often transported on staff worker’s shoes. As a result of these findings, cleaning practices and prevention have been improved.

Although there is another dog in training, I would suspect that specially trained dogs to sniff C. diff would greatly improve cleanliness in nursing homes and other places such as assisted living quarters.

It is always exciting to find new jobs for our dogs that benefit the health and well-being of people.

My Springer Spaniel and Siberian Husky saying “Hi” (many years ago)

Candy and Travis