Canine Intelligence: Going into the Mind of Your Dog

February 20, 2013 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
Dr. Brian HareDr. Brian Hare, canine cognition researcher

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Brian Hare on the Working Like Dogs radio show at www.petliferadio.com. Dr. Hare, the Director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, is the author of The Genius of Dogs. Also, he is the co-founder of the innovative website www.dognition.com. This website contains instructional games on assessing your canine’s cognition.

Dr. Hare and his Duke University research team have revolutionized the way we think about canine intelligence. Through their research, they made the following three important discoveries:

  • Animals use many types of cognition to survive (for example, learning skills from others, remembering the location of food, inferring the solution to a new problem or deceiving others during competition).
  • Different animals rely on different cognitive strategies. Asking if a crow is more intelligent than a dolphin is like asking whether a hammer is a better tool than a saw. Each animal has strategies to solve a unique set of problems.
  • Animals rely on a toolbox of strategies that depend on a variety of factors. Just because an animal tends to use a certain strategy to solve specific problems doesn’t mean he or she will always apply that strategy to all types of problems.

After reading The Genius of Dogs and chatting with Dr. Hare, I decided to log on to www.dognition.com and sign Whistle up to complete his Dognition Profile. I wanted a better understanding of Whistle’s thought process and thought Dr. Hare’s inventive series of games would help me to discover Whistle’s particular genius.

The Dognition website was easy to navigate. For a $59 fee, Whistle and I easily began the process of assessing his canine cognition. After paying the fee, I began completing the questionnaire. It took about 15-20 minutes to answer a series of questions about Whistle’s behavior in different situations and scenarios. I was reminded that there were no right or wrong answers, and most importantly, this was not a test. It is a tool to identify how Whistle’s mind works.

After completing the survey, a series of games appeared on the screen. The games were divided into cognitive dimensions such as: Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. Whistle and I needed a human partner to complete the games. Also, we needed some simple household items such as: sticky notes, plastic cups, paper and dog treats.

I asked my husband, Franz, if he would like to participate in the games. He is a scientist so, it was easy to pique his interest and engage him in the process. We realized that the games were going to be somewhat time consuming. So, we scheduled some time during the weekend to begin the exercises.

It took time for Franz and me to become comfortable with the exercises. It helped to read the instructions and then, watch the accompanying videos. Whistle, on the other hand, jumped right in and loved every second of it. Each category had different tasks and instructions. Once trained, we performed the tasks and recorded the results.

As a wheelchair user with minimal abdominal strength and balance, I found some of the exercises physically challenging. However, Franz and I would interchange the roles and responsibilities for each game. As a result, I still felt like the lead research scientist on the project, even though Franz and Whistle performed most of the physical activities.

We began the exercises utilizing my desktop computer. However, we quickly realized that using a mobile iPad would be a lot easier and more efficient way to record our results. We used the iPad for the remainder of the exercises and it made the process much easier to accomplish.

It took us about three hours over a day and a half to perform all the games and record the results. The software was user-friendly and saved the results automatically. We paced ourselves and tried not to overexert Whistle. Whistle had 3-4 outdoor breaks during the time. Although to be honest, we were more exhausted than Whistle. Whistle loved every second of it. I think he was having flashbacks to all of his assistance dog training.

Once the exercises were completed and our information was logged into the www.dognition.com site, we received a simple report that explained Whistle’s cognition style and the strategies he relies on to solve a variety of problems.

It was no surprise that Whistle was identified as a “Charmer”. The report stated Whistle is, “a smooth operator, the Charmer relies on his secret weapon – you!” It went on to explain that Whistle has excellent social skills which means he can easily read my body language. The report described how he has a keen understanding of his physical world, but he prefers to depend on me as his ally and partner. Based on the results of Whistle’s actions during the exercises, it was determined that he will rely on me for help before he tries to figure out a problem on his own. We are extremely bonded.

It was interesting to read all the information the report provided regarding Whistle’s cognitive dimensions of Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. The results validated many of my perceptions of Whistle’s behavior. It also enhanced my confidence in Whistle and the bond we have developed. I knew he and I were bonded, but it was nice to see it documented in the results of these interactive exercises.

We had so much fun participating in the profile exercises, and wanted to continue working with Whistle.

As I came to the end of the written report, I was excited to see a section called Next Steps. It wasn’t the end after all. I was delighted to learn that Dognition offers an ongoing membership where we could continue receiving tips and activities prepared especially for Whistle from Dr. Hare’s canine training experts. We could also receive new findings about how all dogs think and how Whistle’s strategies compared. Based on the valuable information we’ve already gained, we are definitely considering purchasing the annual Dognition membership.

Although I have been partnered with an assistance dog for over 20 years now, I am still amazed every day by the intelligence and devotion these animals exhibit. Dognition.com is another way that we can continue exploring and expanding this incredible relationship.

Whistle and I are up for the challenge. Are you? Please let us know if you and your dog have completed the Dognition Profile. Whistle and I would love to hear about your experiences!

Why do dogs eat grass?

Dog laying on grassWhy do some dogs not only like to lie on the grass, but also eat it?

Everyone seems to have a theory about why dogs sometimes eat grass, but nobody really knows for certain. Some people think dogs eat grass to get more fiber in their diet.  But since modern commercial diets contain enough fiber, that theory has been dismissed by many.

Another theory is that dogs eat grass to induce vomiting when they’ve eaten something bad. This is because people observe their dogs vomiting after eating grass. However not all dogs vomit after eating grass.

Andrea N. Johnston, DVM, DACVIM, a clinical instructor in internal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says that even specialists like her don’t really know. Maybe dogs just like it.

In general, it’s considered that eating a little grass isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it really doesn’t provide much roughage or nutrients.

One caution on grass consumption:  fertilizers and chemicals that may be on the lawn. Another concern is parasites that could be in the dirt and grass.

If you want your dog to have more greens, Dr. Johnston recommends simply feeding them some fresh or cooked vegetables.

Just remember that every dog is different and if your dog is frequently eating grass and vomiting, it wouldn’t hurt to ask your vet about it to make sure he or she doesn’t have some underlying medical condition.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Canine Ear and Hearing Problems

February 5, 2013 · Posted in Doggie Healthcare, Service Dogs · 1 Comment 
Morgan getting an ear exam from his vet, Dr. Armendariz.Morgan getting an ear exam from his vet, Dr. Armendariz.

Sometimes Whistle’s shakes his head and scratches his ears. This makes me wonder if his ears are bothering him.

Cornell University Hospital for Animals sees lots of dogs with serious ear disorders.  While most ear infections can be remedied easily, some are only treatable with complex surgeries. In a recent issue of their newsletter “Dog Watch,” they discussed canine ear disease.

One condition treated by an operation when it is in its advanced stages is a chronic infection called otitis externa, a painful condition that can lead to partial deafness if left untreated.

Just like our ears, dogs’ ears are delicate equipment. Deafness can be congenital or acquired. Noise trauma, or certain antibiotics or anesthetics can sometimes cause deafness. Just like us, canines can also gradually have their hearing affected by aging, particularly if they are eight years or older.

How can you recognize the early signs or ear problems?

An affected dog might:

  • Shake its head persistently and
  • Scratch at one or both ears.
  • Fail to react to voice commands
  • React as if ears are painful when touched

Upon inspection you might notice:

  • Inflamed or swollen skin on the underside of the ears
  • Foul-smelling discharge in outer ear canal.

A trip to your veterinarian, where he or she can use an otoscope to look inside the dog’s ears, might be necessary to diagnosis the condition.  A microscopic examination of what is in the ear canal might also be needed to pin down the type of infection and medication needed.

I took Whistle to see to his veterinarian for a check-up. Luckily in his case, the ear scratching and head shaking were not indications of anything serious. My vet suggested that I used a mild ear cleanser specifically designed for dogs and a cloth to keep his ears clean.

Meeting new dogs: What’s the best approach?

January 27, 2013 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Public Interaction, Service Dogs · Comment 
Service dog Whistle and his friend, BuenoService dog Whistle and his new friend, Bueno, after their first meeting

 

As an experienced assistance dog handler, you may consider yourself to be a total “dog person,” but that doesn’t mean you should assume it’s OK to approach every unknown dog.  For me and Whistle, getting up close and personal isn’t always the best approach.

When I am out alone with Whistle and an unknown dog approaches us, it always makes me somewhat leery until I can discern whether the unknown dog is friendly or unfriendly.

Experts at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine give guidelines on various situations and say that in many cases, it’s best to not approach unknown dogs at all.

  • Is the dog tethered with no person with them?
    An unattended dog on a leash or tether might be more aggressive than usual.  Even a wagging tail is not a surefire sign of a happy dog.  It can also mean the dog is excited or aggressive. If the dog is in “his territory,” such as their yard, it could be an even worse situation, with the dog feeling trapped and that he needs to defend his territory.
  • Is the dog leashed with their owner?
    Always ask permission before approaching any dog, no matter how friendly they might appear. Once you have permission, invite the dog to approach you rather than vice versa.  Don’t pet the dog on top of his head but offer a closed hand for him to sniff. Use a soft voice.
  • Is the dog unleashed with their owner?
    Whether you’re in a dog park or out on the street where the owner just isn’t following the leash law, it is not safe to initiate an interaction with the dog. In this scenario a dog might feel like it needs to protect the owner.
  • Is the dog unleashed with no owner nearby?
    Avoid contact with dogs in this situation. You really can’t always read the dog’s body language. If the dog approaches you and appears aggressive, you should stand still and avoid eye contact.

When I got my first assistance dog, I was trained to use my wheelchair as a buffer between an unknown dog and my service dog. And, in an extreme case, I was taught how to use my wheelchair to protect myself and my dog. Fortunately, I have only had to use this tactic once or twice during my life with a service dog partner. But, I can tell you that the aggressive dog did not like having a 200 pound wheelchair roll over his paw and it was a great diversion to give me and my dog some time to get out of that situation.

In one extreme case, my husband, Franz, had to intervene when a unknown dog came running out of a florist shop to attack Ramona when she and I were entering an outside elevator in Washington, D.C. Franz had to get aggressive with the dog in order to get him to stop the attack. It was a scary experience and it definitely had a negative impact on Ramona’s psyche. After that incident, she became more sensitive to unknown dogs.

Have you had any issues with unknown dogs? And, if so, what tactic worked for you and your assistance dog?

Does my dog need vitamins?

October 31, 2012 · Posted in Dog Food/Nutrition, Doggie Healthcare, Service Dogs · Comment 
vitamins

You may take supplements even though you eat well, so does that mean your dog should take vitamins and minerals also?

Canine nutrition is an evolving field but today’s high-quality dog foods generally make nutritional supplements unnecessary.  So says the DogWatch newsletter from Cornell University.  They asked Kathryn Michel, DVM, professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania about the topic.  Her advice?

Some dogs may require certain nutrients under certain conditions that are not provided in a commercial diet.  For example, a dog with joint pain and arthritis might benefit from glucosamine and chondroitin, but this may not help all dogs.

Other supplements can pose a risk. Dr. Michel warns that people should not give their dogs the same supplements they take in the same doses.  Fat soluble vitamins in particular, such as A, D, E, and K, are stored in the body and can become excessive. Too much calcium can also be dangerous.

Giving your dog a general vitamin-mineral supplement designed for dogs is not necessarily harmful, but not all the experts are convinced they will necessarily help your dog.  Some say more studies are needed and that your dog may not be harmed by them, but you might be spending money unnecessarily.

Vitamin deficiencies are uncommon in the U.S. these days since dog food companies have formulated blends that will take care of “typical” dogs.  But if your dog is a working dog, very athletic, or a puppy, they may have special requirements.

Things to look out for in balancing your dog’s diet can include too many treats or a homemade diet which may not be giving your dog the nutrition he or she needs. If your dog is lethargic, weak, or has a coat which isn’t healthy looking, make sure to consult with your veterinarian to rule out nutritional deficiencies.

I give Whistle a vitamin E every day.  What do you give your dog?

 

Vitamin image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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