Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Sage showing appeasement behaviors, photo courtesy of Emily Fisher of Scratch and Sniff Canine Services (https://scratchandsniff.ca/)

You come home from work, open the front door, and see that the garbage has been knocked over and someone has had an all-you-can-eat buffet, or you find the remote control on the couch chewed to hundreds of pieces along with the pair of shoes you just bought. Then your dog comes to greet you, slinking back, cowering, and avoiding eye contact, with his ears pinned back and his tail tucked under. The only plausible explanation for his behaviour seems to be that he is feeling guilty for doing things he is not supposed to do – and you can’t help but feel he should!

We humans base this behavioural assumption on our own behaviour: we behave in a particular way when we feel guilty, therefore because the dog behaves in a similar way in equivalent circumstances, we assume that the behavior we see in the dog is also accompanied by feelings of guilt. This is anthropomorphism: an attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to an animal. Continue reading

My Dog Knows How to Sit but Doesn’t Stay

This article was also published in Speaking of Dogs Newsletter January 2017.

This is a statement I commonly hear from dog owners and to which I usually reply “Have you done any stay training with your dog?” In the majority of cases, the answer is “When I feed my dog I tell him to stay and then release him to the food bowl.”

Well, that hardly constitutes stay training in any context other than dinnertime!

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My biomedical scent detection project

For the past year and a half I have been doing a project at a hospital in Toronto (a collaborative project with researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax) which has been a dream come true in a sense: I have been able to combine my PhD education and 15+ years of experience as a researcher in cell biology and my love of training dogs. The project is in a relatively new and emerging field, biomedical scent detection research, the purpose of which is to investigate whether dogs’ sense of smell can be used to diagnose diseases. In my case the focus is on training dogs to detect a pathogenic micro-organism which is a major concern in healthcare facilities and certain communities. I still need to be cryptic here as the study is not published as we speak, but I want to share some observations and personal thoughts that have been on my mind regarding the training aspect of it.

What did surprise me is that the nature of the research is more or less the same whether you are looking at one cell under a fluorescence microscope or training a whole organism. In both cases you are training the system to obey your will in a way so that you can hopefully prove your hypothesis. On the way there you hit a lot of roadblocks, you take wrong turns and sometimes travel on the wrong path a long way until you realize that you need to backtrack to the previous intersection. It is a lot of fumbling in the dark until you see a glimpse a light. Continue reading

Emotions Are Part of the Learning Process

Blog post also published in Speaking of Dogs May 2016 Newsletter.

As humans we have all experienced how emotions affect our ability to learn. For example, think back to when you were learning a new language at school: if you were feeling happy and your teacher was encouraging and supportive, you put time and effort into mastering the skill so you could put it to good use. And even now, when you speak that particular language it may bring back good memories and feelings.Photo: Aino Mutka

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To tug or not to tug?

Also published in January 2016 Speaking of Dogs Newsletter.

When you grab a toy, does your dog try to get it by nipping, jumping, and barking? Would your dog keep running after a ball forever? If so, you have a reinforcement at your disposal that you can use to train polite behaviours, so don’t give it to your dog for free!

Playing tug is a concept that still occasionally raises eyebrows, as one urban legend in dog training is that a dog can become aggressive if allowed to play tug or (heaven forbid) win the toy. These are concepts that are very much out of date, and, I often use tugging as a reward for behaviours when I want speed and enthusiasm, such as long-duration heeling or recalls.

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What Is Obedience in Dog Training?

This article was also published in August 2015 Speaking of Dogs Newsletter.

We humans expect our dogs to be obedient, but do we actually know what this term means with regard to dog training? Obedience training is a rather traditional term that often refers to obedience competitions and a more formal type of training, but it is synonymous with something called stimulus control.

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Fast Moving Objects Are Back – HELP! My Dog Is Going Crazy!

This article was also published in Speaking of Dogs June 2014 Newsletter:

We had long winter months where most people preferred to stay indoors, the parks were empty, and you could have long walks with your dog in the city and barely see anyone. The warm weather arrived pretty suddenly and has now caught some of us dog owners by surprise. All of a sudden skateboarders are passing us left and right, mountain bikers dive out of the bush right in front of our dogs’ noses, joggers have multiplied by the hundreds, and just as you are about to put that poop bag in the garbage, a cyclist passes you and your dog at the speed of light and at a distance of an inch.

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