Rest More, Train Less?

April 24, 2012

A recent article in Time Magazine entitled Shhh! Genius at Work discussed findings on the links between human creativity and sleep. Many sleep benefits were discussed, including its ability to help us to think and learn more efficiently when we’re awake. The article cited a 2009 study conducted at UCLA: a group of volunteers were asked to solve a RAT (Remote-Association Test), where three words are given and the subject is asked to figure out how the words are linked. The volunteers were tested, and then were told to take a 40-minute nap. Some rested, some dozed, and some dozed heavily, entering the depths of REM sleep. Everyone was then retested. On Round 2, those who had gotten some REM sleep had 40% improved scores; the others all saw their scores go down. The conclusion was that deep, restful sleep sharpened the brain’s ability to find links among words it might not otherwise have found.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and training. Now, I’m not suggesting that based on this study alone, that dogs will perform better on puzzle-solving and perhaps training if they get deep, restful sleep first—but it sure is an interesting concept. Here’s a research idea: take two groups of dogs, say, 50 in each group. Test all dogs on a puzzle-style food dispenser such as the Nina Ottoson toys, where sliders must be pushed or other pieces moved in order to reveal hidden treats. Then, keep one group awake while the other is allowed to sleep deeply; the subjects would, of course, have to be wired to measure their sleep cycles. Then, retest using a puzzle toy of equal difficulty (using a different toy would prevent the dogs from doing better the second time due to repetition of a familiar task). It would be interesting to know whether the dogs who slept deeply would perform better. If that conclusion were true, it would also explain how dogs who experience chronic stress—those who are globally fearful and startle at any slight sound, for example—might be somewhat learning-impaired. Not only are they chemically and hormonally unbalanced, but they might not be receiving the optimal amount of deep, restful sleep. And we all know what it’s like to try to focus and learn when we haven’t slept well or are otherwise on edge; just something to keep in mind and perhaps look into when a dog can’t seem to learn quickly or efficiently.

Other factors that can impact canine learning are the length of training sessions, and how often they take place. It’s been proven that dogs and children both learn much more efficiently when they’re taught in small increments. Most modern trainers have ditched those old-style drills (half an hour to an hour on block heeling—shoot me now!) in favor of short-burst sessions sprinkled throughout the day. An article in Wired magazine online discusses researcher Helle Demant of the University of Copenhagen’s study on dog training. Demant divided 44 laboratory-raised beagles into four groups. Training included skills such as jumping into a basket, sitting, and staying. Each group received the same amount of training sessions, but, “…those taught once or twice a week for a short period performed much better by the final session than those trained several times a week for a short time, or those trained one to two times per week for a long time. The dogs coached daily in long training sessions fared the worst, the scientists reported in June 15 in Applied Animal Behavior Science.” I expect that might surprise a lot of owners and trainers alike! As certified applied animal behaviorist James Ha mentions in the article, “…learning takes time. The brain needs to process what it has received.” I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own efforts to learn French; practicing with longer breaks in between sessions seems to help my retention, since it allows my brain to process what I’ve learned. I don’t doubt the same mechanism exists in dogs.

I can only imagine the relief of owners who would much rather train once or twice a week for short sessions than daily—actually, I’m guessing this learning phenomenon explains why, despite the busy schedules of many training clients, the dogs are still able to make progress. The Wired article did go on to mention, though, that even though the short, spaced sessions helped the dogs to learn more efficiently, it did not help in long-term retention. So owners aren’t off the hook for continued training sessions. The best bet seems to be to teach dogs in short sessions once or twice a week, while allowing them to get plenty of deep, restful sleep in between. Who knows, switching to this type of schedule might just be less stressful for both parties, and get better results.


Leaving Town

April 17, 2012

I know it’s superstitious. I know it has no basis in reality. But just as it always seems to be a Sunday or a holiday when a dog has a veterinary emergency, “stuff” always seems to happen when I’m away. Dogs get sick, rattlesnakes show up…it goes on and on.

This time, traveling to present a two-day lecture in New Jersey, I had to be gone four days. The second night, I called my husband to chat. We were planning to Skype, but my internet connection at home had mysteriously gone down so he couldn’t get online. Maybe it was a good thing, because I didn’t need to see what he described—Bodhi had chewed a dog bed. It was an inexpensive one-ply foam type pad that had been purchased as a travel bed for Sierra back when we only had her. Bodhi had previously torn a small corner of it, and my husband had suggested that since Bodhi had been chewing a marrow bone on the bed, perhaps he’d gotten carried away when snorfling around for the crumbs. I’d been dubious, but had let it go. In my rush of preparations to leave town, I had never gotten around to patching it up, and the foam that was still sticking out would make an understandable target. The incident had apparently happened in the early morning, before my husband had gotten up.

I then learned there had been an extremely intense thunderstorm that had rocked the house and lasted most of the day. Fortunately, the dogs didn’t completely panic, although they did insist on sticking very close by my husband. It also hailed the following day. Those types of things don’t happen often in southern California! Naturally, I wished I’d been around to put Thundershirts on the dogs, give them marrow bones, and otherwise soothe them, but at least they did reasonably well.

But wait, there’s more! Have I mentioned the bobcat? While the dogs were snoozing, my husband had been gazing out the window and saw a large bobcat saunter past. These predator kitties don’t have a fear of much of anything, and in the past, they’ve walked right across our driveway. This one took a leisurely walk across the hillside in back of the house, down a few stairs, through the carport, and down the paved driveway. I was caught between worrying that the bobcat would incite the dogs to riot through the fence or worse, that the bobcat would try to climb the fence, and wishing I’d been home to grab my camera.

The following evening, I learned that Bodhi had torn up Sierra’s dog bed. This really bothered me. There had been no foam sticking out, no bones eaten on the bed; it was just more of Bodhi’s anxiety/overabundance of energy being taken out on the nearest object. I suppose I should be glad it wasn’t the couch again. After suggesting that on days when my husband could sleep in, that he set an alarm, wake up, put the dogs outside, then go back to sleep (which he is somehow able to do), we hung up.

When I returned home after a very long day of travel, the first thing I saw was an Animal Control vehicle parked at the entrance to the long dirt road that leads to our home. I got out and inquired about what was going on, and was told that a dead dog had washed up in a culvert after the storm. I asked what breed it was, and he said a Rottweiler mix. My heart was in my throat thinking that it might be my neighbor’s Rottie mix. Of his three dogs (all of which run loose much of the time), it’s the Rottie who has my heart. Fortunately, a quick call to the neighbor assured me that it wasn’t Suko after all. I did feel badly for whoever owned the dog and was probably still looking for it.

All in all, no major damage was done, unless you count the dog beds. When away from home, of course it’s better to think positive than to imagine the worst happening. But I know I’m far from being the only dog owner who’s noticed that things sure do seem to happen when you’re gone. Maybe I’ll have better luck next month when I travel to Missouri.

Twenty Tips for Finding a Lost Dog

April 10, 2012

The Lost Dog notice you see here was posted recently on Facebook by a wonderful trainer I know. This dog is very special to her, and my heart sank when I saw it. I remember years ago when Soko, my German Shepherd, managed to escape our suburban back yard. I’d been working in an office at the time, and when the call from a neighbor came in saying she’d spotted Soko running down the street, I left so fast that my co-workers must surely have wondered whether my house was on fire! And it is an emergency situation when a dog is lost. Fortunately, we found Soko within a few hours—she was standing outside a yard with a dog in it, blocks from our house. Hopefully Isabella the lost Husky will be found soon as well. As this is such a dire, potentially heartbreaking situation, I want to share some ideas for finding lost dogs. There are some you probably already know, and others you might not have thought of. I suggest holding on to the list for future reference, although I hope you’ll never need it.

1. Search your neighborhood both on foot and by car. Dogs are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk. Search at other times as well, but focus on those two time periods. Cover the paths where you normally walk your dog, as well as surrounding areas. Draw a circle on a map with your home at the center. Extend the radius out a few miles so you can cover the area in a comprehensive, methodical way.

2. Grab a leash, and take along some really stinky, yummy food you know your dog will love. If your dog has a favorite toy, bring that along as well. Toys that make noise, such as ones that squeak or jingle, are best. Whether you’re walking or driving, go slowly and shout out your dog’s name in a happy voice. (If you’re in a vehicle, having someone else drive so you’re free to shout out the window is advised). Assuming your dog is familiar with the phrase, “Wanna go for a ride?” say your dog’s name followed the phrase, uttered in the same tone you’d normally use. If your dog is trained to come when called, try calling their name and then giving the recall cue, also using the tone you’d normally use for the exercise.

3. If you have another dog, or have access to another dog yours is friends with, take that dog along on searches.

4. Bring a photo with you, and show it to everyone you pass. (If your dog is not currently lost, be sure to have a photo handy on your cell phone or printed out, just in case. You might also need it to claim your dog if he’s ever impounded at a shelter or humane society.)

5. If your dog is not friendly with people, you can’t very well ask anyone to try to contain him; in that case, give out the number of your local animal control agency, and your cell number, and ask people to call immediately if they spot your dog. Even if your dog is people-friendly, tell people that if they do see him, not to chase him. Ask that they turn their body to the side (and even crouch down with the body turned sideways) and clap gently, using a happy voice to lure your dog to them. Ask that if they have a yard or other containment area, to coax your dog inside and then call you. Let people know if your dog is dog-friendly, in case they have a dog of their own. And don’t forget to mention the reward; positive reinforcement works for people, too.

6. Be sure all of your neighbors are aware of the situation. If you feel it’s safe, knock on doors in your area, explain the situation, and leave people with a flyer.

7. Post “Lost” flyers all around your neighborhood, using the map you marked up as a guide. Don’t crowd the flyer with text, as it should be easily readable by passing drivers. Include a photo, preferably in color. The word “REWARD” should appear in large letters. It’s also a good idea to add the phrase, “Needs medication.” This not only imparts a sense of urgency, but dissuades those who might believe in a “Finders, Keepers” policy from “adopting” your dog. It’s best to have small tear-off tags with your phone number at the bottom of the flyer, so that people take a tag rather than tearing down the entire flyer.

8. Place a Lost Dog ad in your local papers, and be sure to search daily through the Found ads. Do the same for Craig’s List online, and any other classifieds sites local to your area.

9. Give flyers to your local postal workers, and delivery drivers for services like UPS and FedEx. They’re the ones who are all over your neighborhood daily, so they have the best chance of spotting your dog. Give flyers to kids who are playing out in the street, and make sure they know there’s a reward. Alert local pet sitters, since they too are out and about in the community, and normally have other dogs with them that might attract your dog. Give flyers to anyone you can think of who spends time around your neighborhood—bus drivers, taxi drivers, highway workers, utility workers, etc. Tell local trainers too, in case someone decides to keep your dog and then get him trained. The more people you tell, the better the chance someone will call you when your dog is spotted.

10. Post flyers at your local veterinary offices, emergency clinics, shelters, humane societies, groomers, pet supply stores, kennels, any other dog-related businesses, and dog parks. Post too at laundromats, supermarkets, community bulletin boards, and anywhere else that will allow it.

11. Spread the virtual word! Share your information on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to include a photo.

12. Let local rescue groups know, too. If your dog is purebred, someone might try to turn him in to the breed rescue group rather than dropping him off at a shelter. Even if he’s a mixed breed, make sure local rescue groups have your phone number and a description/photo of your dog.

13. Search your local shelter, and any that are within roaming distance, daily. Don’t just call—you must show up in person. Often the office staffer who answers the phones will not know what dogs are in the actual facility. Also, your dog might have been marked down as the wrong breed upon intake. Be sure to search not only all of the runs (they may have misidentified the gender—it happens), but the medical area as well. If your dog was hit by a car or otherwise injured, that’s where he’ll be, and yet most shelter officials won’t tell you to look there. Find out the number of days your shelter holds lost dogs before they become available for adoption (or worse, euthanized), and be sure that you or someone shows up within that time frame on an ongoing basis.

14. While at the shelter, search through the “found” books or postings. Someone might have your dog at home and doesn’t want to turn him in.

15. Search all of the places you can think of that a dog might find attractive. Local dog parks, fields that contain rabbits or squirrels, woods, garbage dumps, and dumpsters behind restaurants are all good bets. When you search on foot, be sure to keep an eye on bushes and under cars, as those are common hiding places for a frightened dog, or one who is napping.

16. There are companies that will, for a fee, search for your dog by generating flyers and employing a voluminous contact list. This can be especially helpful if you work full time or are otherwise too busy to conduct a full-on search effort on your own.

17. This one might seem odd to some, but you might contact a pet psychic. Yes, there are many…let’s say, “non-talented” folks out there calling themselves psychics. But some are talented enough that they can at least let you know the type of setting where they “see” the dog, which could provide the clue that helps you to find him.

18. If you spot your dog on the street, be sure to follow the body language suggested in point #5. You could even try running the other way, encouraging him in a happy voice to chase you, until you get the chance to put a leash on him.

19. For other ideas on how to catch your own dog when he’s off leash, see my blog Stop Chasing That Dog!

20. Think positive. Visualize your dog home safe and sound. Most importantly, don’t give up! I know of a few cases where a dog was lost, and someone took the dog in for a few months and then gave it up to a shelter. Keep looking; organization, hope, and perseverance are the most valuable tools you have. Here’s to your dog getting home safe and sound.

(Feel free to share this post with anyone who might find it helpful–please include at the bottom (c) 2012 Nicole Wilde

The “Kick Me” Sign

April 3, 2012

Years ago, when I worked at a doggy daycare center, I noticed that some dogs were picked on much more so than others. The normal protocol whenever a new dog entered the facility was for those already inside to rush over to the gate and check out the new arrival. They’d sniff and maybe jump on the new dog or invite him to play—it could be overwhelming, for the newcomer, but the group soon dispersed. But when certain dogs would enter, it was different; the meet and greet would be more tense, and would sometimes result in the dog being bullied or even attacked. There seemed to be no consistency regarding which dogs this happened to as far as breed, size, color, or other easily discernable characteristics. The one constant was that these dogs were relentlessly bullied by the others, as though they were wearing a “Kick me” sign.

You might be thinking, Well, of course there was a reason—it was the body language the targeted dogs were displaying. That makes perfect sense, and in some cases the incoming dog’s body language did seem to elicit the bullying behavior. But with some dogs, even to someone accustomed to noticing the minutiae of canine communication and body language, it was impossible to discern anything specific they were doing. They didn’t appear insecure or submissive; they didn’t avoid the other dogs; it really was an interesting phenomenon, and of course, the staff always felt a bit sorry for them.

The scenario makes me think of kids who are constantly bullied at school. Often those kids start out in homes where they don’t receive much parental support, and so they grow up feeling insecure and unsure of themselves. Even if they don’t do anything specific to broadcast that fact, other kids pick up on it and treat the child differently. I believe it’s the same with dogs. If you believe that dogs can pick up “bad vibes” from dogs who are truly dangerous—and I certainly do—then why not feelings of insecurity? There are certain dogs I see other dogs give a wide berth at the park, even though that dog has never done a single thing as far as I can tell to make them wary. It’s not hard to believe that certain dogs seem to invite bullying by their “insecure vibes.” So perhaps either there are signals so minute that humans don’t normally pick up on them with the naked eye (perhaps we would if reviewing video footage), or they just broadcast a certain type of vibe to other dogs. Your thoughts?

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