Friday, July 5, 2013

When SPARCS fly, people learn

SPARCS, The Society for Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science

It is common knowledge among those who are in the trenches applying techniques to change challenging dogs, that when many trainers are in a room together the one thing they'll agree on is to disagree.

When scientists get together the same thing happens.  All might agree on many things, but because of their individual experiences, experiments and research also have different ideas, different opinions, ways of approaching things and varying hypothesis.

The world is filled with different opinions and that's what makes life interesting. That's what makes life progressive as new and brilliant ideas unfold. The SPARCS 2013 conference held in Redmond, Washington, brought together eight of the most brilliant minds in canine science. Being asked to volunteer, I count myself as one of the very lucky ones who attended this first SPARCS conference under Prescott Breeden and Patty Howard of Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle, and thank them for it was a pleasure to see the operation from the back end as well as absorb learning front and center.

Patty Howard, Pawsitive Packleader SPARCS creator along with Prescott Breeden (not shown)

The first thing people wanted to know post-conference was what did I learn? 

What I learned was where I put my focus, and my individual focus was like a laser beam pointed at the wisdoms and scientific nuggets found in the behavioral talks. Talks on emotions and stress in dogs interested me, but what I found was I learned a lot more than this from other talks.

It was interesting to note the fact that science has not really pinpointed exactly where the dog derived or when it came on the scene to be tamed by humans. I also learned the difference between domestication and taming and saw behavioral research and comparisons done with village dogs. The one image I cannot remove from my head is the eating habits of the village dogs who aren't fed but have to fend for themselves. Following babies around as they eliminate and eating it was described as a balance to keeping the villages clean, so the dogs serve a valuable purpose. Still it does make one pause.

What were some standouts?

One of my favorite quotes of the conference was by Ray Coppinger in day one's end of day panel discussion. He said,

Ray Coppinger
Professor emeritus of Biology, Hampshire College, MA     
"It's totally unfair to dogs" to use pack hierarchy in training, says Ray Coppinger. "Including methods like the alpha roll. First, we don't even fully understand pack behavior in wolves, and second, dogs are not wolves and are behaviorally very different. And there is no evidence that dogs descended from wolves anyway!" From the panel discussion at SPARCS 2013 International Conference on Dog Behavior

My thought was bah-da-bing!

Michael W. Fox, DVM

My ears perked up when Michael W. Fox talked about a study with heart rate and the potential effect of touch.  Heartbeats in a dog (recorded with a biotelemeter) showed how petting, stroking, grooming etc. slows the heart to a slower rate than when sitting and during contact. Heart rate will go down with physical contact, and oxytocin will go up.

Along those same lines, Clive Wynne talked about "Why your dog loves you so". He did a study correlating the amount of oxytocin released is dependent on how much eye contact a human can make with their dog.  Cortisol was measured in these studies through a saliva test.

Dr. Marc Bekoff
Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder

I loved it when the comment came up that instead of using the word train to describe what we do with dogs, that instead use the word teach. We are teaching our dogs. This was pointed out by Marc Bekoff in his talk "Beastly passions and compassionate conservation".

Adam Miklosi's talk on problem-solving behavior was fascinating. He used a Byrne and Bates (2008) (human) cognition as a hypthesis generating tool.  He stated that "problem-solving behavior reflects changes (decisions) in the animal behavior when it responds to regular states and conditions of its environment."  This interests me, intrigues me even, because this is one of the behaviors my Canine Emotional Detox (CED) strives to uncover, how does a dog solve a problem?

Miklosi demonstrated with a problem solving task called, disappearing objects.

The purpose was object performance to test the dog's ability to follow the movement in case of discontinuous visual perception (Gagnon and Dumas 1992). There were three experiments.

The first simply hiding the object and returning to the dog to see if they were visually watching where the item was hidden. Then they were sent to where five boxes were visible.

The second experiment was an A not B error with a 2-step sequential visible hiding process and the third experiment had a ball on a string and a hidden human provided motion by pulling the ball behind one of the five boxes, no person present.

First was an ostensive-communicative experiment, second a noncommunicative and third a nonsocial experiment.

The experiment outcome showed how the dog's mind operates and allowed understanding the dog's world from their perspective.  This was one of my favorite parts of the SPARCS weekend.

"The natural place of existence for dogs is the anthropogenic environment created by humans" Adam Miklosi

Can you tell, I live for this stuff?

As you are starting to realize by now, there was a lot of learning and information packed into the SPARCS conference and something for everyone.

One of the speakers, Alexandra Horowitz talked about the dog's point of view and was nice enough to autograph her book for me "Inside of a Dog". Of course, she had no choice as I planted myself between her and the doorway, but I digress.  She talked about attribution of emotions. Emotions have been talked about as early as Darwin in his book "Expression of the Emotions". Grieving, being proud, happy, embarrassed, disgusted were some of the attributions to dogs.

Darwin said "There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame."

Horowitz set out to test this hypothesis in 2009 with an experimental examination of the context for appearance of guilty looking behavior, like an averted gaze.

The simple premise was dog owners would show their dog a treat and ask them to leave it. Then they would leave. If the dog ate the treat, they were to act disgusted and maybe say "what did you do?" and if they didn't, they were to praise their dog.  But could the dog owners tell guilt, if they didn't know if the treat was eaten or not?

Horowitz's experiments are to really understand the dog's point of view.

Why do experiments? "The reason we do experiments is because we don't know the answer and you have to be prepared to be wrong," says Clive Wynn.

What would I like to see more of in 2014?

There was some reference to application, but in 2014 I'd like to see the hard science mixed with those who work in the application of scientific research. This year there was a new concept titled "Do as I do", an application theory, but those who work with dogs daily in a teaching capacity often have differing viewpoints and ways of approaching the scientific research.

SPARCS 2013 held June 28th through the 30th contained a wealth of information, networking and conversation hard to capture in one blog. One thing is for sure, it is just another day in the life of this behavior trainer.