From Training Chickens to Training Dogs

I’ve known about the “clickers” that are used in dog training, but I had no idea the concept originated with training chickens. Modern Farmer has the details on Ryan’s Chicken Training Camps in Sequim, Washington, which attracts a number of dog trainers and other people every September:

The last decade and a half have seen their methods — most often called “clicker training” — become ubiquitous in the worlds of professional and amateur dog training. Trainers use a marker, usually a toy clicker, as a bridge between a desired behavior and the animal’s reward. “A click is like taking a picture,” explains Ryan. “It takes a shot that shows what gives the animal the reward.”

With a dog, you can take a few seconds noticing a behavior, marking it with a click and offering a treat. Man’s best friend is rather forgiving. With a chicken, the sequence needs to happen more or less instantly. When animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin attended one of the Baileys’ first chicken training camps, she learned to tape a clicker to a measuring cup full of feed. She then practiced clicking, then offering the chicken a quick peck. One click dropped seed, and the chicken would go scurrying off the training table and onto the floor.

If you can train a chicken, you can train a dog:

Clicker-trained chickens can complete obstacle courses, discriminate between colors and shapes, remember routes through obstacle courses and even play simple tunes on a children’s xylophone.

 

How Dogs are Like Humans

A thought-provoking and interesting piece in The New York Times by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, on how dogs are like humans in their thought processes. By teaching dogs to sit still in MRI machines, they were able to trace neurobiological evidence of emotions in dogs which are akin to the ones we experience:

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.

With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

This is truly fascinating.

I have placed Gregory Berns’s upcoming book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, into my Amazon queue.

Rachel Maizes on Aging and Living with a Dog

Rachel Maizes writes about Chance, her aging Australian Shepherd mix in an essay in The New York Times. I sympathize with her struggles trying to live with what she calls a “bad dog”:

Yet in some ways, I am the perfect owner for Chance. An introvert, I identify with his desire to be left alone. I empathize with his feelings of jealousy. When Steve and I married and Tilly transferred her loyalty to him, lying at his feet instead of mine, I could hardly suppress my rage.

It’s easy to love a well-behaved dog. It’s harder to love Chance, with his bristly personality and tendency toward violence. Yet in the end, I measure the success of my relationship with Chance by its challenges, because if I can’t love him at his most imperfect what use is love? 

In his old age Chance has mellowed. When we walk, he attends to what is directly in front of him, a flagpole or a mailbox, barely sensing other dogs. It takes us 40 minutes to go around the block, but when I look at him he grins. It’s his favorite time of day and mine.

I try to be gentle with Chance, hoping when the time comes others will be gentle with me. When I catch myself tugging his leash, I remind myself these are his last days and to enjoy them. 

A beautiful, moving story.

A Desert, a Smiling Dog, and a Revelation

A hasty engagement and subsequent marriage turned into anguish for Liesl Schillinger, who realized she was incompatible with her husband. So she goes off to the desert in New Mexico and has a revelatory experience:

I continue amending my idea of fulfillment as I go. I have no regrets except for one: I am not allowed to own a dog in my apartment building. I travel too much to have a dog, anyway. Out of curiosity, though, I sent the photo of the big white dog to a breeder, who told me what kind it was: a Samoyed.

The breed, also known as “the smiling dog,” is famous for its friendly temperament. The dog I met in Taos would have shared its good mood with any creature it happened to encounter on its run. I’m so glad I was that creature.

I wish I still had the picture, but I will never lose the impression bestowed upon me by that generous, exultant animal on that long-ago day, when I most needed to be reminded that happiness is not an intellectual choice, it’s an instinct, and a good in itself.

A beautiful conclusion in this Modern Love story.

Jim Buck, The First Professional Dog Walker

I had no idea that dog walking could be pinpointed to one person. But according to this New York Times obituary, the claim belongs to Jim Buck, who professionalized dog walking in New York City, and by extension in the United States, in the 1960s:

Starting in the early 1960s, Mr. Buck, the scion of a patrician Upper East Side family, rose each morning at dawn to walk passels of clients’ dogs, eventually presiding over a business in which he and two dozen assistants walked more than 150 dogs a day.

When he began that business, Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, it was the only one of its kind in New York. Today, the city has scores of professional dog walkers.

During the 40 years Mr. Buck ran his school, he was an eminently recognizable figure: an elegantly turned out, borzoi-thin man of 145 pounds, he commanded the leashes of a half-dozen or more dogs at a time — a good 500 pounds of dog in all — which fanned out before him like the spokes of a wheel.

Jim Buck, the man who professionalized dog walking.

Jim Buck, the man who professionalized dog walking.

Jim’s school is no longer in existence. But his legacy lives on: some of the city’s professional dog walkers are his former employees.

The Exclusive Lives of Dogs, NYC Edition

I enjoyed reading this piece in The New York Times about Ruff Club, a social place for dogs. Not every dog gets in, and the interview process can make the dog owners anxious.

Over-the-top dog spas are not all that new, of course. And the focus on exclusivity suggests the same competitive urges of urban parents obsessed with getting their toddlers into the right schools. And just as the nursery-school-age population in Manhattan has surged since 2000, particularly among wealthy white families, the pet population in New York City is now estimated at 1.1 million, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, with a 30 percent increase in the pet care industry from 2000 to 2010.

At any rate, it wouldn’t be the first time that dog care has been compared to child-rearing. “Treating your dog as a person can be a kind of aesthetic error, albeit one that’s becoming ever more common,” writes John Homans in “What’s a Dog For?” which explores the history and sociology of human-canine relationships.

The Ruff Club seizes upon this zeitgeist. “But we won’t infantilize dogs the way other spas do,” Ms. Simon Frost said. “We won’t give out report cards or talk in high-pitched voices.” She makes a point of calling her place “dog” day care not “doggy.” And unlike other high-end dog spas, the Ruff Club, which costs a competitive $29 for day boarding and $49 for overnight, doesn’t offer yoga, massage or any forms of coddling.

I think NYC is a prime spot for dog catering services like this to take off. What other cities have something similar to offer?

On an unrelated note, what kind of dog name is Zoloft? Depressing, no?

Fiona Apple’s Poignant Letter about Her Dying Dog

Last week, singer/song-writer Fiona Apple posted a handwritten letter addressed to “a few thousand friends I have not met yet.” In the letter, Fiona Apple announced that she is postponing the South American leg of her tour because of the ill health of her beloved dog, a pit bull named Janet. Janet is a 13-year-old rescue dog suffering from Addison’s disease (as well as a tumor on her chest), and Fiona Apple, acknowledging the inevitable, wants to be there for Janet’s final breath.

Fiona Apple’s heartbreaking letter to her fans.

The letter is one of the best things I’ve read ever read on the love humans have for dogs. A must-read in its entirety, presented below:

It’s 6pm on Friday, and I’m writing to a few thousand friends I have not met yet. I’m writing to ask them to change our plans and meet a little while later.

Here’s the thing.

I have a dog, Janet, and she’s been ill for about 2 years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly. She’s almost 14 years old now. I got her when she was 4 months old. I was 21 then — an adult, officially — and she was my kid.

She is a pitbull, and was found in Echo Park, with a rope around her neck, and bites all over her ears and face.

She was the one the dogfighters use to puff up the confidence of the contenders.

She’s almost 14 and I’ve never seen her start a fight, or bite, or even growl, so I can understand why they chose her for that awful role. She’s a pacifist.

Janet has been the most consistent relationship of my adult life, and that is just a fact. We’ve lived in numerous houses, and joined a few makeshift families, but it’s always really been just the two of us.

She slept in bed with me, her head on the pillow, and she accepted my hysterical, tearful face into her chest, with her paws around me, every time I was heartbroken, or spirit-broken, or just lost, and as years went by, she let me take the role of her child, as I fell asleep, with her chin resting above my head.

She was under the piano when I wrote songs, barked any time I tried to record anything, and she was in the studio with me, all the time we recorded the last album.

The last time I came back from tour, she was spry as ever, and she’s used to me being gone for a few weeks, every 6 or 7 years.

She has Addison’s Disease, which makes it more dangerous for her to travel, since she needs regular injections of Cortisol, because she reacts to stress and excitement without the physiological tools which keep most of us from literally panicking to death.

Despite all this, she’s effortlessly joyful & playful, and only stopped acting like a puppy about 3 years ago. She is my best friend, and my mother, and my daughter, my benefactor, and she’s the one who taught me what love is.

I can’t come to South America. Not now. When I got back from the last leg of the US tour, there was a big, big difference.

She doesn’t even want to go for walks anymore.

I know that she’s not sad about aging or dying. Animals have a survival instinct, but a sense of mortality and vanity, they do not. That’s why they are so much more present than people.

But I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can’t leave her now, please understand. If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.

Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes just to decide what socks to wear to bed.

But this decision is instant.

These are the choices we make, which define us. I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.

I am the woman who stays home, baking Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable & comforted & safe & important.

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life that keeps us feeling terrified & alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time. I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest, to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.

When she dies.

So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and I am revelling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel. And I’m asking for your blessing.

I’ll be seeing you.

Love, 

Fiona

What a testament to Fiona Apple’s character. These are words to live by: “I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love & friendship.”

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(via Letters of Note)

On The Diversity and Genetics of Dogs

This short National Geographic piece explains how the enormous diversity of dog breeds can be explained away by a relatively small change in genetic manipulations:

The difference between the dachshund’s diminutive body and the Rottweiler’s massive one hangs on the sequence of a single gene. The disparity between the dachshund’s stumpy legs—known officially as disproportionate dwarfism, or chondrodysplasia—and a greyhound’s sleek ones is determined by another one.

The same holds true across every breed and almost every physical trait. In a project called CanMap, a collaboration among Cornell University, UCLA, and the National Institutes of Health, researchers gathered DNA from more than 900 dogs representing 80 breeds, as well as from wild canids such as gray wolves and coyotes. They found that body size, hair length, fur type, nose shape, ear positioning, coat color, and the other traits that together define a breed’s appearance are controlled by somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 genetic switches. The difference between floppy and erect ears is determined by a single gene region in canine chromosome 10, or CFA10. The wrinkled skin of a Chinese shar-pei traces to another region, called HAS2. The patch of ridged fur on Rhodesian ridgebacks? That’s from a change in CFA18. Flip a few switches, and your dachshund becomes a Doberman, at least in appearance. Flip again, and your Doberman is a Dalmatian.

This is in stark contrast to genes in humans, where something like human height is controlled by interaction of 200 or more genes. So why is there such a difference in dogs? The answer lies in domestication of dogs:

Sheltered from the survival-of-the-fittest wilderness, those semidomesticated dogs thrived even though they harbored deleterious genetic mutations—stumpy legs, for instance—that would have been weeded out in smaller wild populations.

The most fascinating part of the piece is the relevance of dog to human diseases, and how they may be related:

Cornell researchers studying the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa—shared by humans and dogs—found 20 different canine genes causing the disorder. But a different gene was the culprit in schnauzers than in poodles, giving researchers some specific leads for where to start looking in humans. Meanwhile a recent study of a rare type of epilepsy in dachshunds found what appears to be a unique genetic signature, which could shed new light on the disorder in us as well.

Here is the link to the Cornell genetic diversity project in dogs.

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(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Links of the Day (01/24/10)

Here are two interesting articles I read today:

(1) “Moscow’s Stray Dogs” [Financial Times] – a descriptive and insightful look into the population of roughly 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow. The articles goes in depth into the four types of dogs roaming the streets of Moscow (based on the dogs’ character, how they forage for food, their level of socialization to people, and the ecological niche they inhabit). What was most interesting to me was reading about the evolution of the dogs. Most intriguing are the Moscow Metro dogs:

They orient themselves in a number of way…They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their ­biological clocks.

The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles.

(2) “Underwater, but Will They Leave the Pool?” [New York Times] – an interesting look into why the mortgage default rates are so low.