The Canine Science Symposium Returns to San Francisco

Posted on Mar 3, 2014
The Canine Science Symposium Returns to San Francisco

: from The Labs :


Chances are, if you are a regular visitor to this page, you enjoy books and writing on animal behavior (as well as great photography and illustration 😀 ). Maybe you spend a great deal of time and energy on building a better bond and understanding with your dog. Others might say you are a bit of a nerd, a Dog Nerd that is. If that is the case, you are one of my people, and you are certainly in the right place.

If you missed out last year on the first Canine Science Symposium, organized and hosted by the kind folks at Pawsitive Tails, you hopefully have your ticket to this year’s! If not, don’t worry, with the help of the amazing Lisa Gunter, we are able to give you an insight into this year’s lectures. If you would like to know more about this fantastic event, or buy your ticket, you can do so HERE. If you have a chance to go, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. To read about last year’s Symposium, click HERE.

Last year, we had a fantastic line up of speakers, and this year is no different. With familiar and new faces, the lecture topics are fresh and fascinating, and sure to get you thinking.
For each speaker, I asked 4 questions about their lecture. Below, I have included their replies and added some notes of my own
(Nat Notes).
So let’s dig in!


From Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova, MS, CPDT-KA
What do people want in a dog? My line of research explores this specific question – namely, why is it that some dogs get adopted quickly, while others stay for months without anyone paying much attention to them? Are the looks of the dog the only thing that matters? My research from the past few years says no. In fact, I have found that behavior plays a big role in determining the likelihood of adoption both in and out of the kennel. In the upcoming presentation, I will describe my findings on what behaviors are important to adopters and how we can train or change the environment to facilitate an increase in these desirable behaviors.

I was always interested in animal sheltering from a behavioral perspective, but I didn’t start conducting research until my advisor, Dr. Clive Wynne, pointed me towards the Luescher & Medlock (2009) paper that suggested that we can actually change adoption rates through training. With 10% of dogs in the US living in shelters, this seemed like an incredible idea: we can improve welfare for a huge number of animals. Research in animal shelter welfare is still a very new field, so there is much we don’t know and a lot of work to be done. This field is especially appealing to me because I get to meet and work with many passionate people. And, of course, there is the great appeal of a direct applied benefit: saving lives.

Many people chose to volunteer (or even work) at animal shelters throughout the world. However, we don’t always know what it is that needs doing when it comes to improving the chances of adoption for individual animals. The goal of my research is to provide the information necessary for these dedicated individuals so that they can maximize the benefit of their work with these animals.

I, just like many professionals who work in sheltering, had preconceived notions on what people should want in a dog. There are certain beliefs that are spread through the sheltering world on what we should be training dogs at the shelter. For example, one of the most common beliefs is that training the sit command will improve the dog’s chances of getting out of the shelter alive. Volunteers and staff will often encourage the dog to sit for a treat when they are walking past a dog’s kennel as well as when they are interacting with the dog outside. However, my research has shown that sitting in the kennel has no effect on the dog’s chances of adoption. Furthermore, even obeying the sit command when given by a potential adopter has no effect. We cannot rely on assumptions when it comes to animal lives; instead, we have the highest chances of success when we base our decisions on actual data.

What’s next for Sasha: When it comes to animal sheltering, there are always new questions that arise. When we answer one, twenty more come to mind! I am currently working on experimentally changing the behavior of dogs and seeing what effect it has on shelter visitor behavior. For example, do people stand in front of the dog’s kennel longer if the dog is exhibiting appropriate behavior? I am also excited to start a project on giving dogs a “voice” when it comes to interacting with their potential adopters. Instead of trying to mold every dog to some standard, we are now working towards letting the dogs tell us which type of interaction they like best and using that information to guide the potential adopters during their first meeting. I am also working on a project together with researchers from ASU to evaluate programs that decrease the return rates of newly adopted dogs.

Nat Note: Volunteering for Sonoma Humane Society’s Behavior and Training Department, and photographing countless shelter pets as members of HeARTs Speak, I too had preconceived notions and questions regarding adoption. Is it really that black dogs and cats have the longest stay in a shelter when their more colorful counterparts get adopted sooner? Are senior or special needs pets likely to have a longer stay because of their age or ailments alone? By teaching our shelter dogs polite behaviors and even tricks, are we helping them create that connection with a potential adopter? I too was surprised to hear that knowing “sit” didn’t really make a difference. I am fascinated by the notion of using data to help save lives, and get more animals into loving homes. If you have ever been on the adoptee side, you know there is that certain something, a magic connection that allows for that bond to start forming, I would be curious to know, where did it start for you? Was it love at first sight, or was it something you felt or the animal did that convinced you to adopt?


From Erica Feuerbacher
Radical Behaviorism for the Animal Behaviorist: Optimism, Compassion, Parsimony, and Dog Training
Dog training uses the principles of behavior identified by Skinner’s and others’ work and studied in the field of behavior analysis. The theoretical underpinnings of behavior analysis align perfectly with dog training; while most trainers probably know them implicitly, I want to make them explicit to further point to the power of our procedures and approach to behavior. Behavior analysis gives us a parsimonious explanation of behavior across species, allows for more effective action for behavioral change because of it, and because of the selectionist view of behavior (that the environment selects behavior and that behavior is environmentally determined), it gives us an optimistic and compassionate science and view of other species and other humans. It points to the possibility of change and improvement, and gives us a nonjudgmental understanding of why animals, other humans, and even ourselves behave the way we do.

My research is on human-dog interactions–mainly what human interactions are reinforcing for dogs and which dogs prefer and enjoy. I am really interested in what produces and maintains the dog bond to humans, especially the owner. I think understanding why dogs are social with us and what effects our behavior has on our dogs can help us strengthen positive relationships with them. That is my research and I’ll bring that into my talk, but my talk is really on radical behaviorism and understanding the strength of that world view and how this meshes with dog training. In dog training, we use Skinner’s principles of behavior and I think we implicitly support the theoretical underpinnings and extensions of this view, but I think it would make our approach to training dogs stronger if we understand our position explicitly.

I think really understanding why your dog prefers you, what is important to your dog is essential. I want to make my dogs happy and understanding what they prefer and under what conditions is essential–additionally understanding which interactions function as reinforcers can allow us to be better, more effective trainers, and understand how problem behaviors develop.  Understanding this cohesive scientific view (in discussing radical behaviorism) will hopefully underline how powerful our procedures for behavior change really are, why certain training communities have philosophical issues with other training communities, and what an optimistic view behaviorism provides us.

In my research, I found that sometimes dogs will prefer petting over food, particularly shelter dogs, suggesting that petting is a really important interaction, especially for dealing with stress. I also found that dogs have little interest in us talking to them–they enjoy food and petting, but if all we do is talk to them, they have better things to do than hang out with us! In all of the preference studies, I have found context (familiar vs. unfamiliar) effects and owner effects–dogs prefer different things in different contexts and from different people. It again points to the importance of the owner for dogs.

What’s next for Erica: I am completing my dissertation and graduating this summer, and will hopefully find a faculty job where I can continue teaching behavior analysis and researching the dog-human relationship. I am really interested in how attachment behaviors to one particular person develop–what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that produce owner preference. I think this will help us make adoptions more successful and less stressful for both the dog and adopter. I also want to continue to evaluate how separation related problem behaviors develop and whether we can set up preventive contingencies for adopted dogs so that they don’t contact the contingencies that produce that problem behavior.

Nat Note: Many things peeked my interest about Erica’s work. The world of dog lovers, enthusiasts and trainers is a very passionate one, and where passions run wild, disagreements are bound to be strong. Why is there such a strong divide within some training communities other than just the “way to train”? I think Erica is about to strike gold here by asking the dogs what they prefer; how they prefer to interact with people could potentially guide us into how they prefer to train with people. Dogs are individuals after all, similar to people, there are no two identical personalities. So if I as a person, prefer to learn a new language through games rather than repetition and grammar; how is that different from a dog who finds joy in learning new things by playing or doing by trial and error?
If I could ask my dogs, who they prefer to hang out with, Bill or me, though the answer might hurt our feelings a little (Corbin is very clearly Bill’s and Willow is very clearly mine), I would still love to know the answer, in case that might better my relationship with them, and any other dog I share my life with in the future.


From Julie Hecht MSc
How Canine Science Can Enrich Quality of Life for You and Your Dog

My talk is not specifically covering research that I did in Hungary — with the Family Dog Project — or at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab. Instead, I’m pulling studies done by a number of different research groups that give us a better sense of dogs’ outlook on life. For this talk, I’ll focus on vocalizations, taboo behaviors and olfaction.

My background is in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare (Masters from The University of Edinburgh), and I’m interested in research that explores the dog’s perspective and from there, noting where our interpretations or impressions might be off. Ultimately, my argument is that attending to dogs and their unique way of being could enhance dogs’ quality of life and our relationships with them.

I think a lot about how important it is for people to know about this when working/living with dogs. I recently had the chance to speak with Paul McGreevy on that topic and he offered this as a common misconception people have about dogs:

McGreevy: That dogs want to please humans—almost as though dogs are hard-wired to makes us happy. This beguiling notion paradoxically excuses all sorts of abuse when people interpret training failures as willful disobedience. Dogs want to have fun with us, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they get their kicks from being slaves to our needs, wants, desires and foibles.

I love this point because there are so many reasons why dogs may or may not act in accordance with humans, and people can get incredibly frustrated with dogs, especially if reading the events on our terms and not theirs. Having the underlying expectation that ‘dogs are here for us’ and should be acting in “accordance with us” can be detrimental.

What’s next for Julie: At the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab we’re continuing to look at the complexities of interspecific play. Recently, we asked anyone in the world to send us video clips of themselves playing with their dog, (Nat Note: I sent Julie a video of Bill playing with Willow and Corbin!) and we received such a wide range of play! We’re now attempting to categorize and characterize the play bouts to get a better sense of what play means for dogs and their people.

Nat Note: If you have never read Julie’s work on Bark Magazine or Do You Believe in Dog? I suggest you go there next. I feel a kinship with Julie in the sense that the real significance of compassion, to put oneself in another’s shoes, in this case paws, can open up a universe of knowledge that would allow for a deeper, more meaningful connection. Taking what we think we know to the next level would challenge some of our well established notions in dog culture, but what if, even if those notions turn out to be misconceptions, and through that we gain more of an insight and understanding into this very important human + dog relationship.  We would not be able to take back mistakes we have made, but we would certainly make our future relationships with dogs better, and more of a mutual conversation versus a one-sided chat. That is something I strive for with my own pack. To read Julie’s interview with Paul McGreevy and other great dog thinkers, click HERE. To learn about Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab‘s How Do You Play With Your Dog project, click HERE.


From Clive D. L. Wynne, PhD.
It’s a Dog’s Life: The Impact of Conditions of Living on Dogs’ Understanding of People:
 I shall review (and dismiss) the widely disseminated claim that dogs, in the 12,000 or so years since they split from wolves, evolved unique abilities to understand human actions and intentions. Pet dogs living in human homes are certainly sensitive to people, but so are hand-reared wolves. Part of the problem in understanding how dogs come to be so sensitive to people stems from a failure to distinguish “domestication” – which is an evolutionary process that extends over generations and “taming” which is something that has to take place in the life of every single individual. I look at the greatly reduced ability of shelter dogs to respond to human gestures, but, consistent with the theoretical position I develop, shelter dogs are actually able to learn quickly what people are up to. Much of what makes the difference between wolves and dogs takes place in development, and I also share data from studies on both dog and wolf behavioral changes in development.

At a general level I was drawn to dogs because I have always been fascinated by animal behavior, and by the behavior of people towards animals. Combine that with a love of dogs that goes back to childhood and the result is what you see today. In the specific lines of research I shall be describing in San Francisco, I was concerned that a genetic-determinist view was taking hold and wanted to explore how much of pet dog behavior is genetics (“nature”) and how much individual experience (“nurture.”)

If you take the widely promulgated – but erroneous – view that most of what dogs do is innate, then there is really little point trying to help dogs who do not respond positively towards people, such as a large portion of dogs in shelters. It is important for all people who care about dogs to recognize that you can teach old dogs new tricks. This is a very positive philosophy of dogs.

I hate to admit it, but I was initially very surprised how sensitive hand-reared wolves are to human beings. I hope people will not take from that any desire to keep wolves as pets. There are reasons besides sensitivity to human actions that make wolves bad pets. But it does underscore that dogs’ skills in reading humans are part of a deep evolutionary legacy.

What’s next for Clive: We are working on so many things. One new angle for us is looking at interventions to reduce the number of dogs returned to shelters after adoption. At some shelters returns run over 30%.

Nat Note: I recently heard Clive speak at an online conference, and what struck me immediately was his genuine love of dogs, and how he made hard data and scientific research sound like a storybook. I am very curious about what he has to say about the sensitivity of hand-reared wolves towards humans, because in previous research I have read and documentaries I have watched, I was only aware of the opposite. I wonder if the same can be said for wolf hybrids, how much of that wild behavior is instinct and where does nature end and nurture take over? Funny enough I had never really thought of a dog’s supposed “innate” ability to respond to humans, but now that I think of it, maybe it is because since starting my work with shelter dogs, and more so living with our fearful dog Willow, that response and ability to connect is not something I took for granted, or ever will again. Who knows if Willow has a little something wild in her, if she is some sort of hybrid; but I sincerely believe that unless a connection and trust with a human hadn’t been carefully nurtured and built over time and trust, behaviorally, she likely would be very different today. Something that has struck me even deeper, is that Willow, as an individual, tries really hard to trust people. She is weary of strangers and afraid, but she forms trust over time and she does enjoy and choose the company of people. In recent months however, I have seen cases of other dogs, where other than their person (maybe) they have no interest in anyone else. Why such a marked difference? How much of it is innate and how much is learned? Very interesting questions indeed; this is the sort of research that can place dogs in the right homes and hopefully help them stay there.

Just like last year, I am excited for all these questions being raised. I am so excited for serious scientists and thinkers to be at the forefront of delving deep into the oldest friendship in history. I am overjoyed at the fact that the love of dogs and the love of science are both at play here, to better relationships, to save lives, to improve the lives of dogs…
Just like last year, I can say it again, it is a great time for Dog Nerds.

A huge Thank You to Pawsitive Tails, and especially to Lisa Gunter, for inviting me to write about this year’s symposium and for getting me in touch with all the speakers, to whom I am very grateful for their time in contributing to this post. I cannot wait for next year, and I still have hopes that a Feline Science Symposium might be a reality someday too.

**All the written work and research shared above are property of each individual speaker.
All photography ©Photo Lab Pet Photography 2014. All rights reserved.
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