Saturday, May 30, 2009

DVD Discusses Weakness in Dominance Theory of Training

Friend and dog trainer Elizabeth Stroter seems to read every book that comes out on the subject of dog training, and watches DVDs on the subject as well. Recently I asked her to recommend something on the philosophy of dog training. She sent the following about a DVD: “Fighting Dominance in a Dog Whispering World,” by Jean Donaldson and Ian Dunbar (DogTEC, November 2007) (retail generally around $39, available on, etc.). Liz is an APDT member, TDI evaluator, and AKC/CGC evaluator, and dog trainer in the mid-Hudson Valley. She refers to herself as a cross-over trainer, i.e., a trainer who’s been around long enough to have started using hierarchy-based methods, but who has moved on the other philosophies. Here’s what Liz tells us about the Donaldson and Dunbar DVD:

Six out of ten dogs in the USA will not live to see their second birthday but will be surrendered to a shelter and euthanized (per stats recently reported on National Public Radio). Why? “Behavior problems.” Translation: the dog is being a dog again, and we can’t have that. Training dogs to co-exist with us comfortably involves asking them to modify their instincts and behaviors so we can all live together under one roof. Dog trainers know there is a good chance a problem dog will not live a long life if the dog doesn't shape up in a six to eight week training session. That’s enough of a challenge. A 30 minute TV show, the Dog Whisperer, unfortunately makes it seem like whipping the dog into shape should happen in a few hours by giving the dog a strong dose of the master’s dominance. When it doesn’t work, the dog is taken to the pound, often, unfortunately, without any attempt to find a good local trainer. A trainer getting new dog owners that have no other background than this TV show inevitably feels the stress of facing a life-or-death challenge. Donaldson and Dunbar don’t want to see the dogs lose, or watch burnt-out trainers give up. They are particularly riled by the emphasis on DOMINANCE pushed on the Dog Whisperer and even by some old-school trainers. To behaviorists, dominance is a behavior trait to gain access to best resources, not to describe a relationship, and in any case, doesn’t work as well as a more positive approach.

Donaldson, in Part A of the DVD, describes dominance as a behavioral trait that helps an animal get the best food, best mates; essentially providing priority access to the best resources, thereby improving reproductive fitness. But how helpful or useful is it as a base concept in dog training? To be helpful it should at least do three things: (1) explain more observations with fewer assumptions than competing theories; (2) enable valid predictions, and (3) point to practical applications that work. Donaldson argues that dominance fails as a theory of dog training under these standards, and that it assumes that all dogs want the same thing and that to control them it is necessary to prove to them that without obedience to the dominant individual (the trainer) they will never get it (whatever it is that they all want). The fact is that different individuals want different things. Some need these things more than others, and those that don’t want them as much are not necessarily submissive. They may just not be interested in the specific objective. Donaldson says: “It’s the humans who love the status/dominance oriented ideas, so much so we can’t imagine any creature being anything else but like us.” Although dominance figures prominently in descriptions of wolf pack behavior, Donaldson notes that wolf pack interactions do not necessarily provide good analogies for dog training. Wolves tend to be nomadic, with packs which form and dissolve according to needs for hunting and protection of the young and pregnant females. Their environments are very different from those in which domesticated dogs live. Donaldson questions all hierarchy-based types of dog training theory, but acknowledges that, unfortunately, “scared dogs make some people feel good.”

Part B of the DVD is by Ian Dunbar, who seems like an old friend/guru to me. I have wondered all along why National Geographic didn’t make him the dog whisperer. He's charming and funny, has been getting great results for more than 20 years using positive training, and was a key figure in it's development. He doesn’t want to alienate the dog owner but entice him to listen. As to dominance, Dunbar notes that while adult male dogs tend to have first dibs on resources (saves a lot of fighting), this isn’t true of all interactions between dogs. In mating, for instance, dogs have social preferences, just as humans do. Often it is the bitches who decide on which suitor to accept. Puppyhood socializing also pre-decides much of later behavior in dogs. Desire for a resource may be fairly consistent in males, but varies from day to day in females who make many amendments to the male hierarchy structure and have less respect for it.

Dunbar recommends that trainers listen to dog owners and, when an owner insists that his dog is Alpha, he suggests not to argue with the owner even if the dog is obviously not of high influence in any group setting. The owner may want to make his dog out to be big and bad, but at least he is coming to class. He suggests using the dog owner’s dog for a quick demo, even slipping the dog a few treats even if they owner says he doesn’t use them. If the trainer quickly makes the owner and dog look and feel good, the trainer may be able to save the dog and hook the owner. The #1 thing is to make the relationship work, but there’s no need to waste time discussing training philosophy in class. The guy who came to class hanging the Rottie on a choke collar can be told that we used to do that 60 years ago but have found it takes too long to get the dog to be obedient. There’s a faster way. Telling the Rottie’s owner that hanging the dog is cruel will only make him angry. He leaves and the dog gets euthanized. The important thing is to keep the owner coming back by encouraging him or her and providing tips that can be used at home. Dunbar’s sees the trainer’s plight and is a great cheerleader for the trainers in the trenches. Trainers must know how to coach people as well as train dogs.

This DVD provides useful discussions of why dominance theory in dog training has become so popular without having nearly the solid theoretical basis that its proponents claim. The most important thing is to have a happy dog that you can happily live with, and these two trainers provide ample evidence that positive training is not only a desirable alternative to hierarchical training methods, but actually gets better results, and yields happier, long-lived dogs. Such dogs are willing to work and keep trying, rather than be scared or forced to comply.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mine Detection Dogs Can Work Remote

Mine detection dogs usually move across minefields, sniffing for TNT and other substances used in mines. This endangers both the dog and the handler, but a remote system, using air vacuumed from an area and passed through a filter, can be remarkably effective, even more effective than some machines that can search an area. A Norwegian scientist, Rune Fjellanger, has developed a system called Remote Explosives Scent Tracing (REST), in which dogs learn to recognized very small amounts of explosives captured in filters. In one circuit of a room, the dog can smell up to 12 filter caught air samples in boxes on a training apparatus consisting of a circular stand with stainless steel arms. A dog alerts to a filter by sitting or lying down. After four to five months of training, dogs can reach a 95% accuracy level or higher and errors can be reduced further by using several dogs on the same samples. If a dog alerts to a filter from a specific area, that area is designated as requiring clearance. Trainers use a reward-based "clicker training," but replace the clicker with a whistle. This system contains significant cost-benefit values over other approaches. A pilot study suggested that this approach be used in Bosnia. R. Fjellanger, E.K. Andersen, and Ian G. McLean, “A Training Program for Filter-Search Mine Detection Dogs,” 15 International Journal of Comparative Psychology 277-286 (2002).

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Time To Update Tax Law on Service Dogs

Two weeks ago I sent the following email to certain officials of the Treasury Department and the IRS. To those of my colleagues in the dog world who say that the deductibility of service dog expenses has not been a problem and that I should not flag the issue, I would respond with three additional points: (1) the IRS is aware that there are ways of getting service dog certifications (at least one website will send you an official-looking certification if you check some boxes online and give them a few hundred dollars); (2) many people whose disabilities are primarily mental are undoubtedly being advised by their accountants that their service dogs do not qualify under IRS parameters, and (3) modifications of IRS policy and procedures are often better designed if industry takes the initiative in describing the issues and presenting possible solutions. As to the first point, admittedly part of the Service's awareness comes from my conversations with officials. Although people generally get bogus certifications in order to get their dogs into restaurants, it would not take long for someone to realize that the maintenance expenses of a “service dog” are even better than having an additional dependent. As to the second point, I would note that current IRS provisions are, in terms of the service dog world, ancient and it is time for tax law in the area to catch up with developments that the Departments of Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development have been struggling with for years.

Anyway, here is what I sent:

TO: ____
The following summarizes my argument that psychiatric service dogs should be deductible medical expenses. I also believe that guidance could appropriately require a correlation between the functions of a service animal and the physical or medical condition of the individual being served.

The only regulation dealing with the deductibility of service dog expenses is Reg. 1.213-1, concerning the purchase of a seeing eye dog, and determining that such an expense is not to be disqualified because it is a capital expenditure. This was referred to in a number of revenue rulings—Rev. Ruls. 55-261, 57-461, 64-173, and 68-295—which explained that the acquisition, training, and maintenance of a dog purchased for a blind person, or a signal or hearing dog purchased for a deaf person, was a deductible expense. Publication 502 expands deductibility to include “a guide dog or other service animal to assist a visually-impaired or hearing-impaired person, or a person with other physical disabilities [emphasis added].” The problem with this statement is that it probably excludes a number of functions of service dogs that have been developed in the last 20 years. Presumably a seizure alert dog would be covered because a seizure would generally be regarded as a physical disability. But what about a dog trained to help an autistic child? Dogs have been trained to keep autistic children from engaging in self-destructive behaviors, from walking into traffic, and for other purposes that would not generally be regarded as responses to physical disabilities. The training for some of these dogs takes as long as that for guide dogs (up to two years). What about a dog that brings an Alzheimer’s patient home after he gets lost? The master realizes he is lost and says “Home,” and the dog takes him there, or perhaps does so when the person reaches a certain level of agitation. What about a dog that is trained to keep other people at a distance when the master is suffering a severe anxiety attack or which summons help when the master enters a catatonic state?

There are an estimated 9,000 dogs that are trained and in service to people who are neither blind nor deaf, and an increasing number of the persons served do not have physical disabilities, unless that term is defined so broadly as to include almost any condition that might have a physiological aspect inside the brain (e.g., schizophrenia or agoraphobia). It may be that these issues are often being interpreted broadly by agents in the field, but with the proliferation of service dog functions, some specificity seems to me to be called for. Is training required? Some hearing dogs are formally trained but others gain alerting skills as their masters gradually go deaf. Some seizure-alert dogs begin alerting behavior without having been trained as seizure-response dogs. The proliferation of service dog functions means that a simple requirement that a person be physically disabled will have the effect of both including some dogs that should probably not be deductible (because, e.g., the dog’s functions are not sufficiently correlated with the disability or are more tricks than functions), and excluding some dogs that should probably be deductible (because the condition, though psychological, is quite real and might otherwise have to be treated with massive pharmaceutical intervention, etc.).

The Department of Justice recently proposed substantial revisions to its general access rules and the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have issued final regulations on service and assistance animals in the last two years, all of which raise issues that should be considered by the IRS. (For a discussion of the access rules, see the article I wrote with Fran Breitkopf, president of the Ulster Dog Training Club, that will appear in the Journal of Animal Law that is presently posted on the Michigan State University School of Law website ( While the boundaries between what is deductible and what is not should, I think, bear some resemblance to boundaries described in the access rules, the verification procedures available to the IRS on audit would be very different. The other agencies have written rules that restaurants, transportation facilities, apartment buildings, and countless other types of business apply to verify that the individual’s claim to have a service animal is legitimate. The issue must often be resolved in a very public setting, such as the gate of a theater, and privacy issues become paramount. Inquiry as to the nature of the condition that justifies the services of the dog is largely precluded in the rules of the other agencies, but would not need to be so limited for the IRS.

Thank you for your consideration. – John

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dog Play Between Littermates Includes Self-Handicapping

Determining the success of dogs as guide dogs and as police patrol dogs has sometimes involved studies of puppy behavior in hopes of determining if certain characteristics (aggressiveness, dominance, calmness) are fixed at an early age, thereby avoiding spending time and resources on animals that will ultimately fail. Three researchers, two from the Psych Department at U. Michigan and one from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, looked at videos of puppies in litters between 3 and 40 weeks of age to determine their patterns of play in pairs. Camille Ward, Erika B. Bauer, and Barbara B. Smuts, Partner Preferences and Asymmetries in Social Play Among Domestic Dog, Canis lupus familiaris, Littermates, 76(4) Animal Behaviour 1187-1199 (October 2008). Although this research was not concerned with such a practical application, it should be of interest to the dog training community since it says some very interesting things about the development of dominance and cooperative behaviors in dogs. The researchers disagreed with prior studies that had argued that for play to occur, both participants must win an equal proportion of play encounters, sometimes called the 50-50 rule. They found that play was more symmetrical between very young littermates but became less so as puppies matured. In male-female pairs, males initiated play more often than female partners. Females tended to initiate play with other females. Males self-handicapped (place themselves in disadvantaged or inferior positions) when playing with females more often than females self-handicapped with males. When playing with their own sex, male and female puppies self-handicapped at similar rates. The researchers say: “Perhaps playing with females provides opportunities for males to learn characteristics of female behavior and gain competence in interactions with them. If so, it could translate into greater male reproductive success later in life via female mate preferences.” During some periods of growth, puppies prefer to play with members of their same sex. The authors suggest that “play may serve as training for intrasexual competition between same-sex littermates.” Someone said that life is a high school. Apparently it’s true for dogs as well.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Indiana Prison Canine Training Program Improves Morale Even of Non-Participating Prisoners

The benefits of prison canine training programs are so many that it is to be hoped that policy makers will recognize their advantages for both the prisoners, prison personnel, and the public that receives the trained dogs in the end. Some programs train shelter dogs in basic obedience, increasing the chances of the dogs for adoption. Other programs train service dogs, usually for the physically disabled. Many of the studies I’ve read are based on interviews with prisoners, sometimes including guards and prison personnel, but all have emphasized the psychological benefits to the prisoners who are able to participate. A study that recently came to my attention discussed a benefit that I hadn’t seen mentioned much before, which was the effect the programs have on prisoners who aren’t participating in the program. In the paper, written by Professor Wendy Turner, then of The Ohio State University and now of the University of Southern Indiana, much of the story is told in the words of the prisoners. One said:

We have guys that have transferred from different facilities and some of them have been incarcerated for 15 or 20 years and seeing a dog, even though they’re not really considered pets, that’s the closest thing to home that they’ve seen in years. Being able to spend five or ten minutes of their day, getting on the floor and playing with a dog is, that’s the highlight of their day.

The entire prison environment seemed to change as a result of the dog training program. According to one prisoner:

It has changed this place a lot. A lot of people’s, I’m not gonna say soft, but they’re softer than what they was, ya’ know. They let their feelings come out, lay down, play with the dogs, ya’ know, talk real feminine to ‘em and stuff like that… It changed D dorm a lot, ‘cause I was around D dorm before the dogs actually come in here and there was more fights and, ‘ya know, a lot more aggressive stuff going on up there. Now you don’t really see too much of that. It’s like they just go over and pet the dog or something. Their whole attitude changes pretty much.

Professor Turner’s study appears in Federal Probation and is available online through the U.S. Courts website. Wendy G. Turner, “The Experiences of Offenders in a Prison Canine Program,” 71(1) Federal Probation (June 2007). If enough recidivism studies establish that return rates for prisoners that have participated in these programs are lower, it will be hard to find a policy reason for not expanding them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Certification for Tortoise Detector Dogs?

There seems to be no end to what detector dogs can sniff out. A recent article in a scientific journal looks at how well dogs can find desert tortoises, comparing their skills in this regard against a team of scientists, most with between 15 and 40 years of experience. The dogs were each trained for about ten weeks, eight weeks at home with their handlers during which they were familiarized with the target odor (residual tortoise scent) and two weeks at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas. See Kenneth E. Nussear, Todd C. Esque, Jill S. Heaton, Mary E. Cablk, Kristina K. Drake, Cindee Valentin, Julie L. Yee, and Philip A. Medica, Are Wildlife Detector Dogs or People Better at Finding Desert Tortoises (Gopherus Agassizii)?, 3(1) Herpetological Conservation and Biology (2008). There were ten canine teams to begin with, but four were eliminated. The final dog crew consisted of one Border Collie, two German Shepherds, one Australian Kelpie and two Labradors. Each canine team covered one square kilometer a day, using either a zigzag pattern or contour pattern (following the contours of the terrain). A biologist followed behind each dog team to confirm the dog’s alerts. Dogs were highly trained and were deployed off leash, guided by their handlers’ voice commands. The dogs did not discover more tortoises than the human teams, but were better at finding tortoises in vegetation. The dog teams were more expensive as the handlers were paid $120/day (apparently the scientists worked cheap). The dogs found the tortoises more quickly (in two-thirds the time required for the human teams), but the researchers found that the dogs might not have been able to work much longer in the desert heat because of fatigue. One statement in the paper struck me as of interest to the dog world: “There is the potential, once a certification procedure is in place that allows detector dogs to be trained and used by tortoise biologists and permitted by state and federal agencies, that further cost savings may be realized.” Much like a search and rescue canine team, the dog has to be able to follow complex commands and go where the handler directs from a distance. The need to survey various types of endangered species could lead to a new type of specialty, and provide an intermittent income for at least a few dog teams.

Additional Note. Dogs have reason to be able to find tortoises.  A recent list of candidates for protection included discussion of the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus Morafkai), noting that most occur in Arizona between 904 and 4,198 feet.  Among the threats to the species listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service were feral dogs, drought, and climate change. 77 Fed. Reg. 69994, 69997 (November 21, 2012)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dingoes and Indigenous Australians

One way to look at dog behavior, and to consider the advantages they have provided to us as a result of domestication, is to compare dogs to wolves, their wild and not so distant ancestors (the separation occurring perhaps only 15,000 years ago). There are several lines to this research, establishing in general that dogs have adapted to us in many ways in the period of their domestication, ways that cannot be fully replicated even if wolf cubs are raised by humans in the same way as dog puppies. Then there are certain types of canids, such as dingoes, Canis dingo, which are thought to descend from animals that escaped from seafaring visitors to Australia between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago. How do they compare to domesticated dogs? A fascinating study of the relationship of dingoes to the indigenous people of Australia appears in the summer issue of Anthrozoos (Bradley P. Smith and Carla A. Litchfield, A Review of the Relationship between Indigenous Australians, Dingoes (Canis dingo) and Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris), 22(2) Anthrozoos 111-128 (Summer 2009)). After arriving, the ancestors of dingoes rapidly spread across Australia and some nearby islands, soon forming ties with the human inhabitants. They lived near the camps of the indigenous peoples, perhaps because of the foraging value of being close to humans. Dingo pups began to live inside the camps, but they usually left before sexual maturity, at which point they returned to the wild, never to live with humans again. Evidence that they helped in hunting is disputed, but they did have their uses. Dingo pups, and domestic dogs after them, were found useful as bedwarmers. A “three dog night” is a cold night where you needed three dogs to keep you warm. Dingoes, like dogs, are given names and often treated as children by the indigenous Australians, and early explorers reported that barren women would nurse dingo pups. Dingoes and dogs were not usually eaten by indigenous peoples except in periods of starvation. One burial site included dogs, or perhaps dingoes, at the edge of the burial ground, seemingly protecting their masters in the spirit world just as dogs kept watch over the boundaries of the camp. Yet dingoes were rarely selectively bred, and modern dingoes probably have almost the same genetics as their ancestors of thousands of years ago. They were thus never fully domesticated, as dogs have been. Once European settlers brought domesticated dogs, these were generally preferred by indigenous Australians. While this blog will look at formal legal issues regarding dogs, I’d also like to discuss the anthropology and sociology of our relationship with dogs, which is ultimately necessary to understand the basis of the laws that define the boundaries of this relationship.

See also, Sophie Constable, Roselyn Dixon, and Robert Dixon (2010). For the Love of Dog: The Human-Dog Bond in Rural and Remote Australian Indigenous Communities. Anthrozoos, 23(4), 337-349.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Training To Tolerate Gunfire

Most military working dogs and many dogs that work for federal and state law enforcement are trained at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio in the Defense Military Working Dog School, known in the military and government as Dog School. The Army, Air Force, and Navy all have manuals that describe training standards and objectives of the dogs they obtain from Dog School. Training at Dog School emphasizes reward training, with the dog receive a reward for a correct or near-correct response, but none for an incorrect response. Verbal praise is also emphasized. Handlers are not to hit, kick, or strike a military working dog (MWD) with intent to harm. Use of a shock collar, relaxation collar, or 'Schutzhund' pinch collar, is forbidden. The training is not easy for the dogs, however. Specific requirements include the ability of the dog to work despite gunfire. MWDs must not become uncontrollable in the presence of gunfire and must initiate or continue an attack on command despite gunfire. Personnel involved in gunfire training must never back a dog down with gunfire and only blanks are used in training. When gunfire does frighten a dog or make it uncontrollable, the training manuals recommend moving the shooter far enough away until the sound of the shot does not evoke the negative behavior. Then the distance is decreased, say five yards per day. The dog will be expected to work under gunfire after about ten days of this conditioning. Training begins with small caliber weapons but may work up to mortar, artillery, and grenade simulators. Dogs are taught the command COVER, which means that the dog is to DOWN wherever he or she is. When my dog took the test to qualify as a therapy dog, the tester dropped a stack of pans behind her. If she had spooked, she would have failed. I didn't know how easy I had it.

Additional Note. Aldrovandus, writing at the end of the 16th century, says that war dogs were taught to attack men with drawn swords.