Friday, December 21, 2012

Wittgenstein, Sheep Thieves, and the Dog Who Knew 1,000 Words

Ludwig Wittgenstein begins the Philosophical Investigations by quoting St. Augustine’s description of how he had learned to speak, where adults would point out objects and give them names, so that Augustine “grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered.” This is, Wittgenstein says, “the idea of a language more primitive than ours.” He explains how this language would work:

“Let us imagine a language for which the description given by Augustine is right: the language is meant to serve for communication between builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass him the stones and to do so in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they make use of a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’.  A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.”

This primitive language is fairly similar to how we train dogs and then expect them to behave. (As Kingsbury Parker pointed out to me, Wittgenstein's description is closer to the way a surgeon works with nurses in the operating room than how masons actually work.)  Dogs fetch something for us after we have identified what we want fetched. It must also be noted that dogs communicate with us by commands, which are not verbal but may be vocal.  If my dog needs to relieve herself, she paws a bell we keep on our front door.  If she wants to take a walk, she brings her leash.  Some dogs will bark near a door to make make such requests.   

Eric Krieger, in reviewing a draft of this blog, pointed out to me that an initial command might also be the trigger a series of actions from both sides.  He describes a game he plays with Kenai, his Mackenzie River Husky:

“In the evenings about an hour before Kenai sacks out for the night we like to have a play time. She has a few toys that she's played with since puppyhood. A stuffed monkey and a couple of nylon-bone keys (chew toys). When a say, "get your monkey, or get the key" she runs around the house, finds the requested object, runs to the bedroom door and takes about a seven foot leap onto the bed, where we play tug.”

Of course, times, places and circumstances may also vary how either the handler or the dog will act and react.

The Sheep Thieves

How much complexity can be introduced into this shared language given the dog’s mental capacity?  Consider the following passage from Edward C. Ash (1927, p. 271):

Sheep Dog (Hamilton Smith, 1840)
“[Sydenham Edwards] tells a story of a sheep-stealer visiting a flock with the presumed intention to purchase.  His dog went with him, and on this inspection he secretly gave the dog the hint as to which of the sheep he wanted, to the number, we read, of ten or twelve, in a flock of some hundreds.  That night, from a distance of as many as twelve miles, he would send back the dog, who picked out the individual sheep, separated them from the flock, and brought them to his master.” 

Additional detail might be necessary to say whether this could really have happened, which Ash doubts.  How did the thief “hint” at the sheep he wanted?  Did he point? Touch the sheep he wanted to steal?  Were they the largest sheep in the group, or the smallest?  Ewes of a certain size?  The black-faced sheep?  The sheep on one hill as opposed to another?  Leaving aside the legendary flavor of the story, recent research may say something about the limits of a dog’s ability to identify specific objects of a master’s interest and follow a command with respect to those objects.  Research is also saying more and more about how dogs learn such skills.  

How Many Words Can a Dog Learn?

In 2004, three scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call, and Julia Fischer (Kaminski et al.), published a paper on Rico, a Border collie, whose owners had taught the names of over 200 items, mostly children’s toys and balls that he could fetch on command. 

Two researchers at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Austria, Ulrike G. Griebel and D. Kimbrough Oller (Griebel and Oller, 2012) tested a Yorkshire terrier named Bailey that had been taught the names of about 120 toys by her owner, Noreen Yuki, and would fetch the correct one if commanded to do so.  Bailey’s toys often had names of two or more words:  Frosty the Snowman, Red Rose, Football, Nemo, Ladybug, Green Bone, Rocco Raccoon, Ozzy Ostrich, Beatrice Bat, Heidi Hippo, Iggi Iguana, Long Legged Leopard, Victor Vulture, Suzie Sunshine, Louie Lobster, Cat in the Hat, Mushy Mushroom, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer.  Griebel and Oller also found that Bailey did well in fetching objects regardless of whether the command was given by her master or someone else, and also did well if someone with a German accent gave a command. 

The record, at least of dogs described in the scientific literature, appears to be held by Chaser, a female Border collie that, over a period of three years, was taught the names of 1022 objects, over 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 frisbees, and about 100 plastic items.  Chaser lived in the home of the researchers, and worked with them four to five hours a day on learning the names of the objects.  The training stopped, according to John W. Pilley and Alliston K. Reid (2011), not because Chaser had reached some cognitive limit but because they could no longer invest four to five hours a day training her. 

Commands Relative to Objects

Wittgenstein, elaborating on his example of the two builders, noted that in his simple command language, the command, “Bring me a slab!” may be a longer version of “Slab!”  If a dog performs a single command, fetching, with regard to an item, does the dog have any concept of the item separate from the command?  Paul Bloom, commenting on Kaminski et al. in the same issue of Science in which the article about Rico appeared, argued that when children learn a word, such as “sock,” they do not interpret is as “bring the sock,” or “go to the sock.”  Bloom said that children “appreciate that the word refers to a category, and thereby can be used to request a sock, or point out a sock, or comment on the absence of one.”  He doubted that Kaminski et al. had established that Rico understood reference. 

Pilley and Reid used three different commands, take, paw, and nose, and combined these words with three different objects.  “Take” required picking up the object with the mouth. “Paw” required touching the object with a front paw.  “Nose” required touching the object with the nose.  Chaser was 100% accurate across 14 trials, performing the correct command to the correct object.  This indicated that, to Chaser, the nouns referred to objects.  These researchers said that Chaser had demonstrated “combinatorial understanding” of two-word phrases, at least similar to the way children do. 

Daniela Ramos and Cesar Ades (2012) of the University of Sao Paulo worked with a female mongrel dog, Sofia, who obeyed two commands, “point” and “fetch,” which were combined with four nouns, “key,” “ball,” “stick,” and “bottle.”  “Bear” was an additional noun added later.  Point and fetch commands were also given as to objects (toothbrush, rubber teether, etc.) as to which Sofia had not been given a name.

After learning the names of the objects and the commands, trials involved both objected and action requests: ball ... fetch, ball ... point, key ... fetch, key ... point, bottle ... fetch, and stick ... point.  After first hearing the name of the object, as Sofia approached it the action request was added, but if Sofia approached the wrong object, the trainer blocked her and said “no.”  Sofia then returned to the initial position and the object request was repeated, followed by the action request.  The number of object requests was progressively increased.  Object choices were correctly made between 64% and 79% of the time, and command requests were between 93% and 98% correct.  As to Sofia’s higher performance for commands as opposed to selecting objects, Ramos and Ades state:

“This intriguing difference which deserves a more thorough examination, may relate to the history of dog breeding, during which many breeds were developed for herding, tracking, etc., cooperative tasks in which commands for action (not for object discrimination) prevail.”

Although not part of their current paper, Ramos and Ades mention that in additional research they combined several commands in sequence, turn right or turn left, with fetch and point.  They report that in this experiment Sofia was also highly successful, confirming her “capacity to take into account and combine information items of a different nature.” It should be noted that combined commands are commonly used with working and sport dogs.  In field trials, a dog can be given a fetch command, followed by a right or left signal given by voice, arm movements, or a whistle.  Similarly, sheep dogs will be guided during a task of moving sheep with additional commands: stop, forward, left, right, back, and others, alone or in rapid combination.

These researchers purposefully did not give two object-action requests through most of the experiment, stick fetch and bottle point.  They wanted to see if, at the end of the experiments, Sofia would perform as well to unfamiliar pairings of commands and items as she had to pairings that had been used many times.    

In the next phase, object and action requests were given as single commands, so that Sofia, while looking at the experimenter, was given a ball point command and then released to respond.  Objects were increased from two to four as the sessions proceeded. Sofia chose the correct object 85% of the time for two objects, 68% for three, and 49% for four, but action terms were obeyed correctly 90% of the time or better regardless of the number of objects.  Various control tests involved introducing novel conditions, such as the experimenter wearing sunglasses or covering her face with a cloth band, but Sofia continued to perform above chance levels. 

Sentences were now inverted, with actions preceding objects, so that Sofia would hear fetch ball, point ball, fetch key, etc.  The researchers believed that inverted requests would not lead to correct performance if a single-stimulus hypothesis explained canine behavior.  The researchers found that item reversal did not affect Sofia’s performance.  Correct responses, however, decreased from 80% at the first session, 70% at the second, and 60% at the third. (Falloffs in performance may be explained by experiment fatigue or other problems.  See Jezierski et al., 2012, on training cancer detection dogs.)

A teddy bear, a novel item, was then incorporated into Sofia’s repertoire in simultaneous object-action requests, bear fetch and bear point.  Additional objects were added so that the bear had to be selected from among other objects.  Sofia had 75% correct responses for bear fetch and 60% for bear point. 

As noted above, Sofia was not exposed during the first phases to two object-action requests, stick fetch and bottle point.  Now these were given but Sofia did not do well at all.  She had only three correct responses out of ten for stick fetch requests and 3 out of 10 for bottle point requests.  This was not a successful level of responding, which the researchers could not explain.  They note that previous training for stick point and bottle fetch might have effectively trained Sofia only to perform one action with each item.  

Pointing vs. Naming

When an adult points to an object, infants as young as 13 months expect that the word she is saying is the object’s name.  (Gliga and Csibra, 2009)  Susanne Grassmann, Juliane Kaminski, and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig designed some experiments to determine how dogs react to pointing when an experiment involves objects whose names they have learned.  They used two Border collies, Paddy, who knew about 60 object names, and Betsy, who knew 300.  The researchers lined objects in a row and first asked the dogs to fetch familiar items.  They then pointed to a new object and gave it a name while asking the dog to fetch it.  “Fetch the blicket,” or some other nonsense term.  The dogs relied on pointing when they had not been taught the name used before. 

But what would happen if the verbal command to fetch was in conflict with the name the dog had been taught?  The researchers found that the dogs first approached the object the experimenter was pointing at, but fetched the object whose name they knew.  The researchers believed that pointing is helpful to dogs in finding an object whose name they know, and that they take the pointing as a “spatial cue that leads them to walk in the indicated direction.”  While spoken labels “are directly mapped to individual objects through the dogs’ word training," “dogs may interpret pointing as some kind of directive ordering them where to go instead of informing them about/referring to objects in the vicinity.” 

Grassman et al. noted that prior research had indicated that for humans, pointing and words are both referential, i.e., human infants interpret the object pointed to as being given the name spoken simultaneously.  Children even rely on pointing when pointing and naming conflict.  For dogs, the pointing may tell them where to begin the search, but may not be interpreted as an attempt to name the object pointed at.  The researchers, referring to the study by Pilley and Reid, note that pointing was used in training Chaser the names of objects, and acknowledge that “Chaser’s experience with pointing and naming might be more similar to children’s experience.” 

Do Dogs Understand Categories of Objects? 

Pilley and Reid sought to determine if Chaser could understand that a noun referred to a category of objects, whether, in other words, she could understand a common noun as opposed to a proper noun.  They therefore designed an experiment to determine if Chaser could correctly indicate that her toys belonged in three categories, “toy,” “ball,” and “frisbee.”  Balls and frisbees (disk-like objects) were categories within toys.  Toys were objects that Chaser was allowed to play with.  Non-toys were objects around the household that were on shelves, desks, tables, and in closets, and Chaser was not allowed to play with these items. 

For training, eight toys were placed among eight non-toys in a room.  Chaser was told to fetch another toy.  If what she brought out of the room was not a toy, she was told, “No, that is not a toy.”  If she retrieved correctly, she was reinforced.  Training continued until Chaser only retrieved toys.  The researchers argued that the fact that Chaser was soon able to retrieve eight toys correctly, and leave eight non-toys untouched, indicted that she comprehended the common noun “toy” as a label for the toy category, even though she also knew each object by its proper-noun name.  She was also perfect in selecting balls and frisbees. The researchers state:

“Thus, Chaser learned that names of objects may represent categories with many exemplars – for each of the three common nouns, she mapped one label onto many objects. Membership in two of the categories, ‘ball’ and ‘Frisbee’, could be discriminated based on common physical properties [shape, in particular]. For example, all balls had similar round shapes, and all Frisbees were shaped like a disk. The toy category required a more abstract discrimination. The ‘toy’ and “non-toy” objects did not differ in terms of common physical characteristics. Thus, discrimination of whether an object is a toy or not was unlikely to be based upon identifying physical ‘toy-like’ features. However, Chaser learned that she could play with toys, but she could not play with non-toys – they differed in functionality. While this study was not designed to assess how Chaser created categories, it seems likely that the common noun ‘toy’ reflected a more abstract type of categorization than did ‘ball’ or ‘Frisbee.’” 

It is perhaps to be noted that balls and frisbees do not differ only in shape.  Their movement characteristics are somewhat different.  Balls bounce and roll, which makes them easy to chase, but frisbees are more easily caught in mid-air. The two types of toys are also held differently in a dog’s mouth.  In any case, Chaser understood that an object may have more than one name, and in some cases three.  Thus, an item could have a proper name, but also be a ball and a toy.

This is an interesting study and needs to be broadened.  Can dogs form categories of things that they cannot pick up but only go to?  If Chaser were told to select a ball in the first part of a trial, then a frisbee, how successful would she be if told to fetch a toy when the only objects were balls and frisbees? If a dog were told to get an object from Room A, while the same object was in Room B, and in a field outside the rooms, could the dog learn to recognize a specific room but tell rooms from the field?  

When Learning to Identify an Object, What Features Are Most Important to the Dog?

Griebel and Oller, the Yorkshire terrier who had been taught the names of 120 objects, noticed that Bailey, upon first encountering a new item, could act in several ways. They describe the difference between two new toys, Triceratops and Dora the Explorer:

“Bailey’s relationship with Triceratops seemed to be different from that with Dora the Explorer, because she would often refuse to give Triceratops up after a retrieval and would carry the toy around as well as shake it as if in a predator-prey interaction. She never did these things with Dora the Explorer, which she simply dropped in front of her owner after each retrieval. This difference in behavior resulted in longer periods of initial informal training for Triceratops than for Dora the Explorer….”

I have noticed that in playing with stuffed toys of squirrels, rabbits, and a large frog, my dog sometimes shakes in this predator-prey manner.  Is this a visual recognition of potential prey, since the toy would presumably not smell any different from other stuffed objects?  Most of the research on name recognition in dogs has not considered this kind of qualitative difference in learning names.  As a dog like Chaser learns more and more names, does this learning take on a routine nature where such variation disappears? 

Three scientists at the University of Lincoln in the UK, Emile van der Zee, Helen Zulch, and Daniel Mills (Zee et al., 2012), asked whether dogs learn names of objects similar to the way children do.  Earlier research (Landau et al., 2008) had concluded that when young children learn to connect a name with a new object, they generalize the meaning of the name to objects that are similar in shape, but not objects that are similar in size.  Thus, when taught that a specific U-shaped object is called a DAX—a name made up for purposes of the experiment—they will identify other U-shaped objects as DAXES.  They do not identify objects of the same size or texture, but not the same shape, as DAXES. This team, working with a male Border collie named Gable, concluded that dogs initially generalize to size, but after becoming more familiar with an object, texture becomes more important.  Gable had learned the names of at least 43 different objects from his owner. 

In the experiment, Gable was taught new objects and names by holding the new object in view and saying its name several times, after which the dog was allowed to play with the object while the name was repeated again.  He was then asked to fetch the object.  Next, the object was placed among five to 15 other objects for which Gable knew the names and Gable was told to fetch the new object from the set.  Objects used in the experiments were made from foam swimming boards, sometimes covered with different cloths to provide different textures. 

After being taught that a DAX was a U-shaped object of a certain size (over a ten-minute period), Gable was then told to “get dax” and given a choice between two objects, one of which was the size of the object on which he had been taught, but not its shape, and one of which was U-shaped, but larger.  The researchers found: “Gable linked the word dax to DAX-sized objects in ten out of ten cases in which he was given the choice between a DAX-sized object and a larger object …, thus confirming that Gable generalized the meaning of the word dax to other objects that were of the same size as the DAX object, irrespective of their shape or texture.”  During this phase of the experiment, Gable did not demonstrate a preference for objects that had the same texture as the standard DAX object. 

Four months after these experiments, Gable took the DAX home for 39 days and was taught to link the word “dax” with the object on a daily basis.  Now, however, when the earlier DAX experiment was repeated, Gable “tended to generalize his word knowledge to objects of the same texture … but not objects of the same size.”

The researchers asked:

“Why do object names refer to object shape for humans and to object size or even texture for Gable? In order to answer this question it is necessary to establish that objects can only be named if they are categorized or identified. Although touch can give humans reliable information about object identity, we primarily rely on vision for object identification. Visual object shape is the most important feature which makes categorization or identification of solid objects possible, and our cognitive system therefore relies mostly on shape for object naming. The evolutionary history of our sensory systems – with vision taking priority over other sensory systems – seems to have primed humans to take into account visual object shape in object naming tasks.”  

When we ask a child, "Show me what a frisbee looks like," the child may take a crayon and draw a circular object.  The child will replicate what comes to mind.  It appears that with a dog, the dog will think of texture first if it knows the object well, then of size, and may never imagine the object's shape at all.  Although the dog's smell was on each object it learned, this does not mean that the objects did not have separate smells which might also have figured in how the dog selected an item to obey a particular command. And how do we explain Bailey's shaking of Triceratops?  Is it possible that in learning names, in identifying objects with human words, dogs use behaviors and neural pathways that are distinguishable from how they perform functions such as hunting or killing prey once it is apprehended? 

The results of van der Zee et al. may explain something about why Grassman et al. found that the dogs follow pointing gestures in looking for an object they have been verbally directed to find.  Since they are not looking for the shape of the object, they have to get close enough to determine texture, size, and probably smell.  The shape is of less significance, so that pointing cannot be ignored until they identify other features.  

Perhaps sophisticated brain neurology may be necessary to specify the order of attributes that mean most to a dog in creating such references as are used by the animal. 

Exclusion Training and the Question of Fast Mapping

One of the most dramatic conclusions reached by Kaminski et al. in 2004 was that their results indicated that dogs, like children, could learn the meaning of a new word after a single or very few exposures, a process called “fast mapping.”  The “exclusion experiment” that led them to this conclusion was described by the researchers as follows:

“To assess Rico’s ability to fast map, we placed a novel item together with seven familiar items in an adjacent room…. In this so-called identification task, we conducted a total of 10 sessions in which we introduced 10 novel items. In the first trial of a session, the owner always asked Rico to bring a familiar item, and in the second or third trial asked him to bring an item using the novel name…. Rico retrieved the novel item from the first session on and was overall correct in 7 out of 10 sessions…. Apparently, he was able to link the novel word to the novel item based on exclusion learning, either because he knew that the familiar items already had names or because they were not novel.”

Four weeks later Rico correctly retrieved a target item he had not seen since the original experiment in three out of six sessions, a retrieval rate “comparable to the performance of 3-year-old toddlers.” 

Pilley and Reid provided some support for Kaminski et al., finding that Chaser could select a novel item whose name she had just learned from a group of object that included three novel and four familiar objects.  They noted, however, that in exclusion choice trials, retention was reduced when Chaser was tested after ten minutes and was “essentially non-existent” after a 24 hour delay. They observed that “additional pairings with the name (playing with the object) were necessary for retention intervals of an hour or more.”  Although these researchers referred to mapping, they avoided a claim for fast mapping. 

Griebel and Oller doubted that the research with either Rico or Chaser demonstrated fast mapping.  They suggested instead that Rico and Chaser, and even children in similar experiments, may have succeeded by what they call “extended exclusion,” with no fast mapping at all.  That is, the dogs may have succeeded in retrials because they retained the names of items they had been taught as well as the one item whose name they had heard once but for which they had been rewarded, excluding the objects whose names they had never heard and for which they had received no reward.  If so, the novel name might not be a referent in the way Rico’s and Chaser’s researchers had argued. 

These researchers attempted to use exclusion tests with Bailey, but found when asked to retrieve a new toy from a group that included seven known toys, she was not successful above chance.  She clearly did not like this type of task:

“During these trials, Bailey showed signs of agitation, barked often, and refused to go to retrieve the requested new item several times, and this occurred selectively on the trials with the new items. Reviewing the video of these sessions, we saw that in two cases Bailey handled the new toy for a while and even carried it a few steps before dropping it and picking up one of her known toys to bring to her owner.”

Griebel and Oller argued that the research on Rico and Chaser had been “over-interpreted as indicating fast mapping.”  They state:

“There clearly remains the logical possibility that success on the tasks can be based on exclusion alone (choose the novel item) plus an extended kind of exclusion (choose the relatively novel item, the one that has been recently seen or rewarded).”

Issues for Further Research 

Some of the papers described mention that Border collies may be exceptional in terms of their abilities to learn names of objects.  They have been bred for identification and separation of objects from groups of often similar objects.(L.E. Papet agrees with the high assessment of the intelligence of Border collies, but notes that "the pitfall with the breed is that it is not uncommon that intelligence of the dog allows it to outsmart the handler.")   It is to be hoped that more types of dogs, and more dogs with other specialized skills, such as pointers and retrievers, bloodhounds and beagles, will be tested for their name-recognition and other specific abilities as well.  

For instance, what does a bloodhound do when it reaches the end of a track?  How does it know that it has found a match?  A forensic scientist might say that the size and tread pattern of the shoes of the individual the dog led to match shoeprints at the crime scene.  The dog, however, may be satisfied at the end of the track that the objects found on the individual's feet, shoes made of rubber and leather and sufficiently porous for a certain amount of seat to seep through, must be what was being followed and are all that will be found. At least no stronger odor seems to be available.  Is size significant as well in the dog's decision not to search further?  Shape is not as relevant as it is to the forensic scientist, but is it irrelevant?

Does a pointer stop and point because of the bird's shape and smell?  How much does the quarry's size figure into the signal of recognition?  Does such a dog have a learned sense of movement?  Movement in the experiments described here was part of the dog's training when the owner played with a new toy.  When the owner told the dog to fetch or point, however, the object was idle.  Does a sighthound identify shape better than other breeds?  Did Bailey, the Yorkshire terrier, shake Triceratops because he shares in such a characteristic? Or does a sighthound have a heightened sense of movement when it pursues the hare, a unique understanding of trajectory that is only vestigial in other dogs? Learning to find objects that have been given verbal identifiers by people is an aspect of interspecies communication, but hunting need not be.  Have the researchers in these studies always considered the ramifications of this difference in their interpretations? 

Questions can be imagined regarding identification patterns in any functional breed, whether there are heightened sensory skills and parts of the brain more developed than in other breeds.  Neurology will eventually have to contribute to answers where experiments can identify behavioral differences (hopefully avoiding some of the horrors of earlier brain research). Of course we also have to be concerned that as breeding becomes dominated by show dog objectives, behavioral and neurological differences correlated with ancient functions are actually disappearing, as Kenth Svartberg has demonstrated.   


Dogs can be taught to retrieve a great many objects by name.  They can be taught to perform a number of different actions with respect to an object the name of which they have learned.  Whether they can do so quickly, in a manner that demonstrates fast mapping, must be considered as open to doubt at the moment. It appears they learn names of objects by first identifying the object’s size and later its texture. 

Could not the different smells of objects have been useful in distinguishing objects in these experiments?  In all the studies described here various controls were used to assure that the dogs’ own scent was present on each item or otherwise eliminated as an identifying factor, but many of the objects undoubtedly contained materials that produced odors.  Given the number of objects involved, however, the experimenter's human sensory limitations prevented considering how smell operated.  Besides, the general purpose was to determine if dogs could identify objects with words, not so much how they did it. In the one study that focused on the identification process, the researchers sought to avoid scent cues by covering objects with the same types of materials, two layers of cloth, and the materials were stored together.  Assuming this was effective in eliminating scent as a possible identifier for the dog in that set of experiments, it does not eliminate the likelihood that dogs would probably rely heavily on scent were this factor not controlled. (Just consider the research on volatile organic compounds in cadaver dog and cancer sniffing work.)

It also appears that dogs may be able to learn some categories, toys, balls, frisbees, but this may depend on the objects fitting into a category being within a certain size range, or it may require that the dog learn to play with items in the same category in the same way (balls that bounce, frisbees that float in the air).  Additional research will be needed to more precisely delineate the categorization skills dogs have.

The Shepherd's Dog (Edwards, Cynographia Britannica, 1800)
So what can we say about the sheep thief?  Is the account possible?

It seems unlikely that merely pointing from outside a fold would have supplied the thief's dog with enough information to come back later to separate and herd away the indicated animals. Even if the thief pointed as he walked, saying “A … B … C” and so on, moving his arm each time, it seems beyond the ability of dogs that the indicated sheep would be remembered hours later. It would only be possible if the thief’s dog, like Chaser, had been taught to use pointing as more than a helpful direction in which to go and look for an item, but identification would seem to require a more extended process. Even if that were true the dog would have needed exceptional skills.  If the thief touched the sheep, particularly if the thief had grease or some other pungent substance on his hand, the transferred scent becomes possible as an identifier. 

It is easier to postulate that there was some categorization of the sheep to be stolen, such as younger ewes, which had been part of the combined criminal enterprise such that the dog knew the master’s wishes.  Either that or the dog understood that his task was to take as many sheep from the flock as he could drive quickly to the rendezvous point, perhaps a road at the end of a stretch of common land where flocks of various owners grazed.  Presumably the dog followed his own and his master’s tracks back to the location of the particular flock, one without guard dogs living with the sheep, separated out a dozen or so, then herded them to his master.  All of these tasks are well within the repertoire of a sheep dog.

Thanks to Eric Krieger, Richard Hawkins, L.E. Papet, and Kingsbury Parker for comments and suggestions.

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  13. Ramos, D., and Ades, C. (2012). Two-Item Sentence Comprehension by a Dog (Canis familiaris). PLoS ONE, 7(2): e29689. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029689).
  14. Smith, C.H. (1840). Dogs: Canidae or Genus Canis of Authors.  W.H. Lizars, Edinburgh.
  15. van der Zee, E., Zulch, H., and Mills, D. (2012). Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important?  PLoS ONE, 7(11): e49382. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049382.
  16. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations.  Basil Blackwell.  The fourth edition (2009) has been published by Wiley-Blackwell after John Wiley and Sons’ acquisition of Blackwell in 2007.  Sections 2 and 19 particularly discussed here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Secretary of the Army Affirms Outsourcing of Service Dog Qualification

Let us start with an analogy that will bring this home to lawyers.  I graduated from Hastings College of the Law, an accredited law school that permitted me to take the bar examination in New York State.  I passed and was admitted to the bar. 

Now suppose that New York State decides that it is too expensive to maintain a court administration system that involves employing bar examiners, renting space to conduct exams, hiring proctors, etc.  Instead, New York decides to privatize the admission of applicants to the bar by designating a particular association of law schools whose graduates will be the only ones allowed to practice law. 

Also suppose that Hastings is not a member of the association of law schools.  It might be supposed that I would be grandfathered in some way because I have been practicing for 37 years, but this is not the case.  New York gives the association of law schools—let us call it the Association of Eastern Law Schools with Endowments of Over $100 Million—complete authority from January 1, 2013 forward to determine who may practice law after that date. 

I go to the Association of Eastern Law Schools with Endowments of Over $100 Million and ask if there is any way that I can continue to practice law.  I point out that I went to a very good law school, though it is not one that is a member of this Association, and that I have been practicing for a long time.  They are sympathetic but say that my law school has not applied to be a member of the Association, and even if it did, there is a five-year admission process before Hastings can become fully accredited. There is no guarantee Hastings will have the requisite endowment at the end of the period or that it will satisfy the examiners of the Association.  Graduates of provisional members cannot practice law, only graduates of full members.

I ask if there is any other alternative.  The Association tells me that one of their law school members has a program that will allow me to practice law in New York after two years of refresher courses.  It will cost me $100,000 per year.  Of course I will have to pass all the tests in subjects that I took and passed decades before.  That is my only option. 

This is essentially what the Army and the Veterans Administration have done with regard to service dogs, and despite objections from dozens of trainers who have trained service dogs for active Army and former military members, as well as from hundreds if not thousands of current and former military personnel who have trained their own dogs, the Army and the Veterans Administration continue to insist their way is the only way things will be done in the future.  Their way is that service dogs are dogs trained by nonprofit training schools that are members of either the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) or Assistance Dogs International (ADI).  Any other dogs are not service dogs, regardless of who trained them, what skill level they have achieved, how long they have been service dogs, or what resources the owners of the dogs have. 

I must acknowledge that my law school association analogy is not perfect in that I hypothesized an American organization as having the authority to determine who could practice law.  Rather than outsourcing service dog qualification to a domestic organization, the Army and the Veterans Administration have chosen two associations, whose governing boards are dominated by foreign training organizations, to determine what makes a service dog.

Letter to Debbie Kandoll

The Veterans Administration has implemented its rules on service dogs through the standard federal regulatory process by issuing proposed rules and then final rules, both of which have been described here.  The Army, on the other hand, began the transition to recognizing only dogs from IGDF and ADI member organizations by first limiting dogs that could be admitted to Army medical facilities, a policy that was then adopted post-wide at Forts Campbell and Bliss, and as I understand it at several other military facilities.  The Army’s approach was not without its critics, even internally, but it may have reached the point where only Congressional interest could achieve any sensible change, and at this time that does not appear forthcoming. 
Letter from the Secretary of the Army

In a letter from Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh, to Debbie Kandoll, a trainer in Las Cruces who has been working with Soldiers at Fort Bliss, it is apparent that the policy can now be regarded as covering all Army personnel and facilities.  On November 5, McHugh wrote to Kandoll:

“I understand your concerns regarding the requirement for accreditation of service dog providers.  However, there are several reasons why the Army will recognize only those service dogs obtained by eligible Soldiers from a source accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).” 

Eligible Soldiers are those who have received command approval to have a service dog, as well as a recommendation from a multi-disciplinary medical team.  The reference to the VA policy made by McHugh is interesting in that it confirms what seemed obvious but was not previously explicit, namely that the Army has been following the VA’s lead on this issue. 

McHugh continues in his letter to Kandoll:

“First, reliance on these sources gives the Army an effective and efficient means to conclude that a service dog is qualified and capable of performing those tasks clinically required to assist a Soldier.  Our garrison and post commanders do not uniformly possess this expertise.”

This “effective and efficient means” is, of course, the outsourcing to the foreign-dominated training associations.  The reference to “clinically required” is an emphasis that the Soldier’s treatment team must make the decision that he or she needs a service dog.  A Soldier cannot make this determination alone or even with only one or two professionals involved in his or her treatment regimen. 

McHugh then gives an additional rationale:

“Moreover, while we are working to provide our Wounded Warriors with every scientifically-supported treatment, we also have an obligation to the safety of our Soldiers and Families on our installations.  As I am sure you know, a child was brutally mauled to death earlier this year at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, by a ‘service dog’ that was not certified.”

This event did happen, and is a reason for concern, but to go back to my legal practice analogy, it would be as if to say that one lawyer from an unaccredited law school misrepresented a client was a reason for outsourcing lawyer qualification to an association of only some particularly well-endowed law schools.  As has been pointed out, negligence in the death of the boy near Fort Campbell does not merely lie with the trainer of the dog. 

Back to McHugh’s letter:

“Finally, the VA currently requires accreditation for service dogs to receive VA-provided veterinary care and medical supply benefits.  Presumably, the Wounded Warriors who require service dogs will be going through the disability evaluation system and could be medically discharged.  If the Soldier obtains a service dog from a non-accredited provider, that dog currently will not be eligible for VA services, and the Soldier will then have the potential financial stress of additional expenses.”

Obtaining veterinary care for service dogs is a concern to members and former members of the military, but many of them who obtained dogs through non-accredited channels would not have dogs at all if they had to wait to receive a dog from a member of an organization blessed by the Army or the VA.  Since the Army and the VA have aligned their policies, it is apparent that if a Soldier obtains a dog that the Army does not recognize, upon leaving the Army he or she will have a dog the VA will not recognize. In my experience, many Soldiers and veterans would much prefer to have a service dog that the Army or VA will not provide care for than not have a service dog at all.  In many locations, such as Fort Bliss, there is no nearby ADI training organization and the possibility of getting a dog from such an organization is little to none. 

McHugh gives Kandoll a solution:

“I urge you to consider pursuing accreditation for your organization, Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes.  As you so eloquently pointed out in your letter, there are definitely Soldiers who have a need for service dogs.  With the training experience you have acquired as you described in your letter, it seems that accreditation for your organization is a natural next step.  It certainly would provide the Army with another wonderful service dog resource for our Wounded Warriors.”

This sounds simple, but McHugh seems unaware that the VA policy does not permit an organization in the long transitional process to obtaining full membership in IGDF or ADI to qualify a service dog.  In response to the VA’s request for comments in issuing proposed rules on service dogs, I had asked whether candidate members of the associations could qualify service animals.  In issuing its final rules, the VA responded to me as follows:

“We clarify for one commenter that VA only intends to recognize those service dog organizations that have full membership in ADI or IGDF, or that are fully ADI or IGDF accredited, versus those organizations in the process of becoming ADI or IGDF accredited.”  (77 Fed. Reg. 54372, September 5, 2012)

Thus, McHugh’s solution ignores the expensive and generally multi-year process of achieving full membership in one of the organizations blessed by the VA and the Army.  Volunteer trainers such as Kandoll, who are training dogs on shoestring budgets, could not in most cases expect to raise the necessary cash to pay the admission price of an exclusive club.  They would rather train dogs with the resources they have instead. 

If McHugh intends that the Army should accept ADI- and IGDF-candidate organizations as able to train service dogs that can qualify for Army recognition, this should be explicitly stated.   Also, since the VA in its final rules declined to cover expenses for dogs that serve veterans with PTSD "based on a lack of evidence to support a finding of mental health service dog efficacy," the Army should state whether it is following this policy position as well. (77 Fed. Reg. 54370) The possibility that the Army does not fully accept the VA's position may be suggested in the first paragraph of McHugh's letter, where he states that he shares Kandoll's "desire to provide our Soldiers with the therapy they need to recover from their psychological injuries." If the Army does not consider that service dogs can help in this regard, both Soldiers, trainers, and the Army medical community are entitled to know.  

It would, in any case, be appropriate for the Army to issue a general directive, as opposed to an internal memorandum or a letter to a private organization, stating exactly what the Army's policy is.

Economics of the Service Dog Industry

An analysis I am working on of IRS Forms 990 filed by U.S. members of the two VA and Army-accepted associations indicates that guide dogs trained by U.S. members of IGDF cost around $89,000.  The cost of non-guide service dogs trained by members of ADI comes in at around $38,000.  (Curiously, $38,000 is exactly the amount that one insurance company values non-guide service dogs at for replacement insurance purposes. I suspect that the actuaries used the same valuation procedure I did to reach the number.)  Volunteer groups, like those started by Debbie Kandoll, operate on much smaller budgets and train dogs for much less.  Although Soldiers and veterans generally have most of the initial costs of obtaining a service animal covered by charitable donations to the training organizations, and from other sources, there are not nearly enough dogs coming out of these organizations to satisfy the need.  The Army and VA policies are exacerbating the problem by making it harder for smaller groups to get service dogs to Soldiers and veterans. 

An article in the American Journal of Public Health, vol. 99(9), 1651-1657) estimated that approximately 40% of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans treated at American health centers from 2002 to 2008 were diagnosed with PTSD, depression, or other mental health issues.  This article did not estimate how many of this 40% wanted service dogs, but about 30% of veterans with spinal cord injuries have expressed interest in obtaining a service dog.  It is safe to say that thousands of psychologically and physically wounded soldiers and veterans would get service dogs if they could.  (See summary and additional citations in The U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, April-June 2012, at p. 64.)


There are more practical solutions.  The Departments of Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development have established criteria by which service and assistance dogs can be distinguished from pets by business owners, airline personnel, and others.  The same could be done here.  I have volunteered to adapt the approaches of other federal agencies to military and ex-military environments, as have others, to no avail. 

If a certification system is deemed necessary, the Army and VA could designate one or two officials each to go around the country to test and certify service dogs.  They could also require that handlers know enough not to leave a large dog alone with a small child so that the Fort Campbell tragedy is not repeated.

Why has the Army not taken such an unbiased approach?  It is cheaper to insist that two international associations do the job for them for free than to train base personnel what service dogs are or hire additional personnel to evaluate the dogs that Soldiers acquire.  Wounded Warriors are, after all, damaged goods. Most of them are on the way out.  Why spend anything to make their short remaining military service more comfortable or the post-military lives more tolerable?   

Hopefully the New York State court system won’t start thinking the same way about lawyers it allows to practice.  

Additional Note: It has been pointed out to me since this blog was posted yesterday that the new Assistance Dogs International website emphasizes the regional chapters of ADI, and that there is a North American regional chapter called Assistance Dog International North America (ADINA). Presumably ADI has delegated the responsibilities for the VA and the U.S. Army to this chapter, though the Army and VA releases use the overall umbrella organization's name. (There appears to be some confusion regarding the distinction in the U.S. between Assistance Dogs International (using the plural, dogs) and Assistance Dog International (singular). There is, or was, an Assistance Dogs International Inc., EIN 13-2946594, which had its tax exemption revoked in 2011 for failure to file Forms 990. Yet publicly available Forms 990 for 2008, 2009, 2011, show that Assistance Dogs International, Inc., with an EIN of 93-0993471, filed 990s.  Those forms were signed by Wells B. Jones, listed as Treasurer, Assistance Dogs International.  That was the position that the prior website had him holding with Assistance Dogs International and which he still holds.  He is also now listed as Treasurer and Vice-President of Assistance Dog International North America. The EIN of 93-0993471 seems to belong to Assistance Dog International, Inc. on some searches and to Assistance Dogs International Inc. on others.  None of the tax forms I have been able to find include “North America” as part of the organization’s name. Since it must be presumed that the VA and the Army are dealing with a single legal entity, they should clarify which one has been designated.  If it is a North American chapter of an international organization, this should be specified.  Since the VA has stated its policy in the Federal Register, any modification should be filed there as well.)

Second Additional Note. Michelle Covert's comment below is incisive and important.  I had discussed the Honoring America's Veterans Act, using its  Public Law Number (112-154) when the final VA rules on service dogs were released.  The situation continues to get worse for military and former military personnel who do not toe the line on this wrong-headed policy. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dying in the Cargo Hold: Is There an Acceptable Level of Loss in Animal Air Transport?

Second Additional Note. The Federal Register of July 3, 2014, includes final rules revising 14 CFR Part 235 concerning reports by air carriers on incidents involving animals during air transport. 79 Fed. Reg. 37938. The new rules will be the subject of a separate blog.     

Additional Note. On October 28, 2013, the Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released a letter to Delta Air Lines imposing a fine of $68,286 for 22 violations of the Animal Welfare Act in the transportation of pets.  A bulldog on a flight from Tokyo to San Francisco died, most probably from heat stroke and/or a lack of oxygen. Another situation was described as follows:

"Delta failed to handle a two-year old Bullmastiff as carefully and expeditiously as possible when it accepted the snub-nosed dog for transport even though the local temperature was 84 degrees Fahrenheit and Delta’s own animal handling policy stated the airline would not accept snub-nosed dogs, including mastiffs, for transport when the temperature was above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It was discovered deceased upon arrival in Los Angeles, California, from Honolulu, Hawaii."

The letter to Delta was redacted and it is impossible to know what was not posted.  

Dying in the Cargo Hold

The Department of Transportation currently requires that airlines report the loss, injury, or death of pets during flights, more specifically of “any warm or cold blooded animal which, at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States.”  The rule requires reporting an incident involving a pet during the entire period an animal is in the custody of an air carrier, from check-in or delivery until its return to the owner or guardian.  Industry sources estimate that about 800,000 pets are transported annually, while the average number of reported incidents per year since 2006 has been 46.  The reporting requirement does not apply to pets and service animals that accompany passengers in the cabin since airlines do not take custody of such animals. 

Now the Department is proposing to expand the reporting requirement to include “any dog or cat which, at the time of transportation, is shipped as part of a commercial shipment on a scheduled passenger flight, including shipments by trainers and breeders.”  In its December report, each reporting carrier would be required to report the total number of animal losses, injuries, and deaths during the calendar year. The December report is to be certified by an "authorized representative" who must affirm that "to the best of my knowledge and belief, this is a true, correct and complete report." 

The Department also announces that it is considering requiring that air carriers annually report the total number of animals shipped during a year.  This would allow calculation of the rates of animal death, injury, and escape per carrier.  It is also considering applying the requirement to airlines that transport only pets. 

The reactions of commenters to the proposed rule say a great deal about the politics of animal transport in the United States.  Organizations that should be concerned with getting and disseminating information about the risks involved—such as some breeders and research facilities—are overly concerned with potential cost increases and pay too little attention to the lives of their animals.  The public is rightfully anxious that committing pets to the hold of a plane should be safe, but many pet owners fail to realize that with aged, sick, or nervous animals, or with certain breeds, the risks involved may be due more to the animal’s ability to tolerate the stress of the flight than from any negligence on the part of an airline. 

Why Do Animals Die in Air Transport?

Animals can die from a wide variety of causes in air transport.  Because an airline reports an incident, this does not necessarily mean that it is responsible for what happened.  It may, indeed, be partially or entirely the owner’s fault, or the fault of a veterinarian who issued an inappropriate health certificate.

Dogs that are old or diseased sometimes die because the stress of being separated from their masters for a long period in a confining and sometimes unfamiliar kennel, during which they are handled by strange people, left in unfamiliar rooms, hear loud and disturbing sounds in the hold, wait on tarmacs and luggage transport vehicles, and so forth.  A review of reported incidents from 2005 to 2012 indicated that a number of animals with serious heart disease expired during flights.  Obese dogs are more vulnerable to heart attacks.  Dogs, such as pugs, English and French bulldogs—brachycephalic breeds—are often vulnerable to pulmonary disease and can die in flight.  Dogs with cancers are less resilient and autopsies often indicated that a cancer contributed to a death. 

Obese Dog (USDA photo)
Stress can bring on other conditions or reactions that can kill an animal. One summary stated that “stress of flying caused the dog to hyperventilate and triggered a cardiac episode.” Hemorrhagic diarrhea, perhaps brought on by stress, was mentioned more than once. One dog’s death was ascribed to “aerophagia, associated with barking (agitation) and hyperventilation.”  Diabetes and hypoglycemia are sometimes listed as contributing factors, as are infections, respiratory conditions, and thyroid and renal diseases. 

Putting a sick or weak animal through a flight, or series of flights, means that part or all of the blame may lie with the owner, or perhaps a veterinarian that issued a health certificate for an animal to fly.  One owner had the bizarre idea of putting antifreeze in the kennel, another applied a homeopathic spray that the animal may have been allergic to, and yet another gave the dog an over-the-counter human allergy medication.  One owner put cheese treats in cellophane wrappers in a kennel, ingesting which choked the animal to death during a flight.  Another dog choked on newspaper put inside the kennel.

When an airline accepts an inappropriate kennel, some of the blame must go to the owner who used such a kennel.  One incident involved an airline accepting a collapsible kennel, contrary to airline rules.  No lock or a poor lock should never be accepted, but they have been on occasion.  Dogs that are sufficiently frantic from the flight experience have been known to chew through even airline-approved kennels.  Sometimes dogs eat part of the kennel in desperation, and this has led to at least one death.  Poorly designed kennels are particularly associated with animal escapes.  Animals that escape are sometimes found alive, sometimes not, and sometimes never found at all.  

Some incidents are definitely the fault of airline personnel.  Putting a kennel on a conveyer belt is generally contrary to policy and may result in damage to a kennel.  Stacking kennels on top of each other may result in one kennel falling and breaking.  Airline staff have been known to break locks, even steal valuable dogs.  Several times dry ice has been placed in the same hold with animals, precipitously lowering temperatures in a cargo hold and releasing carbon dioxide.  A US Airways baggage handler failed to enter into the airline computer system that a dog had been put into a forward bin, so the cockpit did not know to heat that bin, though the rear bin was always heated.  Fortunately, the animal survived.  Overly attentive employees kept watching a puppy they thought was too young so that it missed its flight.  The puppy died from not getting food supplements for too long a period.
Three Senators and the Animal Legal Defense Fund Push for Changes

Although some of the reasons for animals being injured or dying during flights might not occur as frequently in commercial shipments by breeders, there are still risks that can be brought about by airline mistakes.  On August 10, 2010, Senators Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), and Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) wrote to the Secretary of Transportation urging a rule change to require that airlines be required to report all incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of cats and dogs that occur while they are being transported, whether the dog or cat is a pet or part of a commercial shipment. 

The Animal Legal Defense Fund also petitioned the Department of Transportation to require that reports include all species of animals, regardless of why or by whom they are being transported.  Although the Department did not go as far on this as ALDF requested, it does seek comment on whether the reporting requirement for non-pet animals should be expanded beyond cats and dogs. 

Proposal Would Require More Airlines to File Animal Incident Reports

The present rule requires that reports be filed by “reporting carriers,” which are defined to include any air carrier that accounts for at least 1% of domestic scheduled-passenger revenues.  This amounts to 15 carriers that carry about 90% of domestic traffic.  Now the Department proposes to expand the requirement to all carriers that operate scheduled service with at least one aircraft with more than 60 seats.  This would increase the number or airlines reporting on animal incidents to 36, covering about 99.6% of domestic traffic.  The rule would not include foreign carriers since Congress mandated reporting only by U.S.-flag airlines. 

Air Transport Industry Reaction to Proposed Changes

Two airline industry organizations submitted joint comments, Airlines for America (A4A) and the Air Carrier Association of America, Inc. (ACAA).  Airlines for America lists 11 airlines as members (Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Federal Express, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, United Continental, UPS Airlines, and US Airways).  The Air Carrier Association of America includes one airline member, AirTran Airways, but has 16 airport members.   These associations request that the Department withdraw its proposed rule changes entirely and complain that current regulatory burdens are already so high that carriers have had to delay new technology projects that would benefit all passengers.  Thus, the argument is that passenger safety is being compromised by too much concern about animal safety.  Given that only a few dozen incidents occur each year, it is difficult to see why the regulatory burden is so great as to delay other projects that would presumably be far more costly. 

Animal Legal Defense Fund Efforts

Not surprising, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose petition was part of why the Department is proposing the changes, takes the position that the proposed changes do not go far enough. The organization argues that the reporting requirement on non-pet incidents should be expanded to all animals, not just cats and dogs.  It points to the trial of a Miami-based animal broker who was charged with animal cruelty in a case involving the shipment of 25 monkeys from Miami to Bangkok in 2008 where 14 of the monkeys died from starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia in a series of flights, including a round trip from Los Angeles to China and back.  They describe another incident involving Continental in detail:

Tamarin (from petition)
“[I]n February of this year, two cotton-top tamarins, a critically endangered species of primate, were sent to the Pacific Primate Sanctuary in Hawaii from a research facility at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Cleveland. The tamarins were shipped using Continental's Pet Safe program. Both tamarins were certified to be healthy when they left Cleveland, but were dead upon arrival in Hawaii. The receiving agent at Animal Quarantine in Honolulu reported that the tamarins were face down, stiff and cold, indicating that they had been dead for some time. Moreover, there was a small amount of blood coming out of both of their mouths. Pacific Primate Sanctuary believes that tamarins' injuries were induced by mishandling, decompression and/or hypothermia. Continental has refused to provide any information regarding the incident.”

ALDF observes that by just adding the data from these two incidents would result in a nearly 70% increase in reported deaths in an average year, yet these incidents would not be required to be reported or explained even under the expanded rules.  The organization notes that even though not pets, the tamarins were being transported under a program, Continental’s Pet Safe program, designed for pet safety. 

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The ASPCA supports the Department’s proposed rule changes.  Describing an incident involving several dozen rabbits shipped from the Netherlands to Atlanta on Delta Airlines, it says that nine died in transit.  Autopsy results suggested the animals died of asphyxiation.  Delta has received particularly bad publicity in this area, with one news article stating that over half of animal deaths during airline travel occurred on Delta flights. (Because the total number of animals carried by an airline are not made public, it is not certain that Delta's rate of incidents is actually higher than any other airline's.)

Association of Zoos and Aquariums Notes Practical Problems for Certain Species

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums focuses on the Department’s request for comments on whether the proposed rule should be expanded as to non-pet animals beyond just dogs and cats, pointing out some practical difficulties:

“From a practical standpoint, it would be impossible to monitor the myriad species of animals being transported by air. Carriers cannot reasonably be expected, for example, to count the number of pet fish, insects, or amphibians in a bulk shipment when received and again when returned to determine whether any were lost or to determine whether any such specimens were “injured”, a term not defined in the proposed rule. Similarly, how would the airlines handle the shipment of live eggs for birds and reptiles or the shipment of animal sperm or embryos?”

Emaciated Lion (USDA photo)
Zoos, to their credit, often receive animals that have been malnourished or mistreated in previous stages of captivity.  They are aware that flying such animals contains risks, but it is often the best and safest option.  Incident reports involving such animals would be able to indicate that the situation was not one of zoo or airline negligence. 

The Association is also concerned that if reporting requirements were not adequately defined, the “logistical burden placed upon the airlines could effectively force air carriers to completely discontinue the transport of all animals.”  The comment is valid as to the types of animals focused on in the organization’s comments. 

Veterinary Organizations Encourage Tighter Rules

The American Veterinary Medical Association, representing more than 82,500 veterinarians, generally supports the proposed rule, but asks why airlines that have to report must have at least one plane with more than 60 seats.  Also, they argue that incidents should not just be reported as to commercial shipments but should also “cover dogs and cats being shipped by animal shelters, and animal control and rescue organizations. Coverage of the latter animals is important because air transport is increasingly being used to relocate homeless animals.”  This is a good idea and should not meet with resistance. 

The AVMA agrees with an annual reporting summary but suggests that that the annual data should be broken down for each calendar month as this “may reveal whether or not incidents are related to season or other factors associated with air transport.” 

A separate organization, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, also supports the rule changes, and encourages making them broader to cover all species.  This organization’s comment letter concludes with the observation that “there are reports of animal health certificates declaring puppies to be acclimated to temperatures as high as 95°F and as low as 5°F.”  Since such certificates are being issued by veterinarians, the organization is criticizing some members of its profession.  (Actually, in one incident involving a Delta flight in 2008, the certificate said the dog could withstand temperatures up to 100° F.  Delta relied on the health certificate.  At some point common sense should take over since the issuing veterinarian may have signed a statement provided by the animal’s owner.)

It might be appropriate for the Department of Transportation to specify that when veterinarians certify that animals are healthy enough for travel, they be required to list their licensing boards. A similar requirement is provided by the Department for mental health professionals regarding psychiatric service and emotional support animals and could be useful in determining whether some veterinarians are being careless in approving flights for animals.  

National Association of Biomedical Research Opposes Rule Changes

The National Association for Biomedical Research represents universities, medical and veterinary schools, teaching hospitals, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and major commercial breeders of laboratory animals.  This organization argues that “dogs and cats being transported to research facilities in the United States are not intended to be sold as pets.”  Such animals are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency whose limitations were discussed in a prior blog.  The organization “urges DOT to ensure that any changes to the existing definition of animal recognize that the term should not apply to dogs and cats bred for use in research.” 

Although there might be a tendency to argue that asking the airlines to report on the “walking dead” has little benefit, the animals should not be made to suffer more than will be their fate.

Where Is Jack? Inc. Provides Detailed Analysis

The most detailed comments were supplied by Dr. Mary Beth Melchior, founder and CEO of an organization called Where Is Jack? Inc.  This organization is devoted to trying to obtain a higher level of safety and care in pet air travel. Dr. Melchior raises the issue of who actually handles animals flying as cargo:

“Most baggage handling is not performed by actual airline employees. Companies like Airport Terminal Services, Swissport, and a host of others compete to provide this service – at the lowest cost possible to the airline. If their actions – such as holding a dog back from flying – consistently cost the airline money, renewal of the contract may be in jeopardy. In addition, in many large-city locations, baggage handlers are often immigrants who may have a different view of animals (and particularly dogs and cats) than many middle-class Americans have.”

These baggage handling businesses should perhaps be separately required to report on animal deaths, injuries, and losses.  Correlating this data with air carrier data would be a way of verifying the full reporting of incidents.  This should not be particularly burdensome if the number of incidents is actually under 50 per year. 


The proposed changes are appropriate.  The Department of Transportation, as of this writing, has received almost 5,400 comments on the proposal, many of them from supporters of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The Department has been responsive, and additional reporting requirements appear possible, perhaps even likely.  

The certification of the accuracy of the December report should be made by someone more than an "authorized representative," probably by a member of the board of directors or a senior executive.  It should be as to more than "knowledge and belief," stating that it is an accurate summary of all incident reports filed by personnel of the carrier.  It should also state that the certification is made under penalties of perjury, and should perhaps state that a false oath could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. In other words, the certification proposal needs some real teeth to be meaningful.    

Some organizations, such as those involved in biomedical research, are not so much opposed to information about the transportation of animals, but rather fear that higher numbers of deaths will result in negative publicity, or that additional reporting requirements for airlines will mean additional transport costs to shippers or that some airlines will get out of the business of animal transport altogether.  While this is an understandable concern to the biomedical research industry, it is a little more difficult to justify for breeders who have objected, who should want their animals to arrive safely at stores and other locations.  There is also no reason that shelter organizations that fly animals should want to limit airline reporting responsibilities.  The purpose of the shelter is to save animals, so proper shipment should also involve concern for their safety in transit. 

The organized reaction of the airlines, and the evident frustration with paperwork, is unseemly given the fact that lives are involved. By reporting on breeder shipments, airlines may be able to recognize breeders that do not appropriately prepare their animals for shipment or use dependable shipping containers.  Airlines should dispel any notion that they accept certain levels of losses as inevitable in the air transport of animals.  Part of the reason that so many people are now trying to fake service animal status for their pets is that they believe airlines are sometimes careless with animals traveling in the holds.  The resistance to seeking and releasing information can only increase this concern. 

As air transport of animals increases, it would also be advisable for airplane manufacturers to consider designing special holds.  This might avoid problems that arise when animals are placed in baggage holds.  

Finally, owners should recognize that there are higher risks in shipping pets, particularly animals that are old, have certain diseases, or breeds with frequent respiratory problems.  Risks are compounded if flights involve layovers or transfers. The odds of an animal dying or being injured in a flight, though not high, are much greater than the odds of getting a winning Powerball ticket.  Air transport of pets should remain a last resort, though it must be acknowledged that it is sometimes necessary. 

Department of Transportation, RIN 2106-AE07, Reports by Air Carriers on Incidents Involving Animals During Transport.  77 Fed. Reg. 384747, June 29, 2012.  The comment period on DOT’s proposed regulatory changes was extended into September.  77 Fed. Reg. 53779, September 4, 2012. 

This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. Thanks to Hilary Phillips and Ronald Keats for comments and suggestions.

Appendix: Proposed Rule

The proposed rule would delete the current regulation, 14 CFR 234.13 and replace it with a new Part with three sections:

14 CFR 235.1 Definitions.
For the purposes of this part:
Air transport includes the entire period during which an animal is in the custody of an air carrier, from the time that the animal is tendered to the air carrier prior to departure until the air carrier tenders the animal to the owner, guardian or representative of the shipper of the animal at the animal’s final destination. It does not include animals that accompany a passenger at his or her seat in the cabin and of which the air carrier does not take custody.
Animal means any warm or cold blooded animal which, at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States and any dog or cat which, at the time of transportation, is shipped as part of a commercial shipment on a scheduled passenger flight, including shipments by trainers and breeders.

14 CFR 235.2 Applicability.
This part applies to the scheduled domestic and international passenger service of any U.S. air carrier that operates such service with at least one aircraft having a designed seating capacity of more than 60 passenger seats.

14 CFR 235.3 Reports by air carriers on incidents involving animals during air transport.
(a) Each covered carrier shall, within 15 days after the end of the month to which the information applies, submit to the United States Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division a report on any incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of an animal during air transport provided by the air carrier, including incidents on flights by that carrier that are operated with aircraft having 60 or fewer seats. The report shall be made in the form and manner set forth in reporting directives issued by the Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation and shall contain the following information:
(1) Carrier and flight number;
(2) Date and time of the incident;
(3) Description of the animal, including name, if applicable;
(4) Name and contact information of the owner(s), guardian and/or shipper of the animal;
(5) Narrative description of the incident;
(6) Narrative description of the cause of the incident;
(7) Narrative description of any corrective action taken in response to the incident; and
(8) Name, title, address, and telephone number of the individual filing the report on behalf of the air carrier.
(b) Within 15 days after the end of December of each year, each covered carrier shall submit the following information (this information may be included in any report that the carrier may file for the loss, injury, or death of animals during the month of December):
(1) The total number of incidents involving an animal during air transport provided by the air carrier for the entire calendar year, including incidents on flights by that carrier that are operated with aircraft having 60 or fewer seats. The report shall include subtotals for loss, injury, and death of animals. Report ‘‘0’’ for any category for which there were no such incidents. If the carrier had no reportable incidents for that calendar year, it shall report ‘‘0’’ in each category.
(2) The December report must contain the following certification signed by your authorized representative: ‘‘I, the undersigned, do certify that this report has been prepared under my direction in accordance with the regulations in 14 CFR Part 235. I affirm that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, this is a true, correct and complete report.’’