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Posts Tagged ‘dog whisperer’

Dogs have been in close contact with humans for thousands of years. Estimates range from 9,000 to 30,000. Due to this long association dogs are thought to have the ability to not only understand but to communicate with humans. Many researchers in this field attribute these communication skills to the manifestation of unique traits that enables dogs to be acutely sensitive to cues supplied by their humans.

 

Recent research in canine cognition has shown considerable variability, depending upon the design of the experiment(s) and probably the agenda of the person(s) doing the research but it seems clear that at least some dogs can and do follow pointing and gaze cues, can fast map novel words and according to some studies have emotions. Since they cannot communicate with us with spoken language researchers have mostly had to closely observe behavior in a wide variety of experimental designs and infer how the canine brain functions by speculation.

 

Now we can use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain function. Gregory S. Berns, MD, PhD is a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University. He recently published a book entitled: HOW DOGS LOVE US: A neuroscientist and his adopted dog decode the canine brain. He describes in this book and in articles published in scientific journals how his group trained dogs to lie still in the MRI machine while fully awake and found that the reward-prediction error hypothesis of the dopamine system provided a concrete prediction of activity in the ventral caudate of the dogs studied, i.e. the dogs were able to respond to specific hand signals associated with either giving a food reward or withholding it. During the experiment the dogs were not given the reward, just the hand signals they had been conditioned to. The results demonstrated the specific areas of the brain that anticipated the pleasurable reward. These same brain locations have been associated with dopamine release in many studies conducted in awake humans and primates. There was significantly less dopamine sensitive response when the withholding reward signal was given. The interpretation of these results indicates the dogs brains responded THINKING they were going to receive the treat.

 

Dr. Berns and his research group believe they can extend these studies to characterizing many questions about our ability to communicate with dogs including their ability to respond to human facial expressions and how dogs process our spoken words. Perhaps we are on the verge of understanding how dogs respond to our emotional state and perhaps if and how they grieve for a lost loved one. Maybe we can even find out if they really do love us or just manipulate us so we will feed them.

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Seems I can’t stay away. I’m back in Denver visiting old friends who have made a special effort to welcome and include me in their lives even after a fifty plus year hiatus of minimal contact. Some of their friends are people I knew back when CSU was still Colorado A & M and we were all young and unbelievably ignorant of life.

Denver is now a cosmopolitan city and my friends participate in many of the activities that make it so. Their lives seem very different from mine in quiet, artsy Edmonds. I’m certain I cannot live here full time. I have come to rely on the moist air, overcast days and lush green, not to mention my son and his family who I am already missing after only twelve days, but the Mile High City is a great place to visit. Maybe I am destined to just wander then return to Edmonds only to wander again. Not so terrible a thing to contemplate.

During the last few months Charlize has developed some troubling behavior. When she is on leash she is extremely aggressive to other dogs when we encounter them while out walking. I have been using the techniques promulgated by the Dog Whisperer on his TV show and we are making good progress. If I spot another dog before we are too close I put Charlize in a “sit” and make her pay attention to me. This prevents her from getting her “ruff” up, snarling and lunging at the other dog. What is remarkable about this aggressive behavior is that when I take her to a dog park she is not aggressive to the other dogs at all.

My host recently adopted a Maltese/Pomeranian that might weigh five pounds before she shakes off her bath water. When we introduced Charlize and Chloe I put Charlize in a “down stay”.  She wagged her entire hind end and although Chloe was a little apprehensive and slightly aggressive at first they are now getting along with no problems and have started to play together when the spirit moves. Chloe hides under a chair or couch, where Charlize can’t reach her, then launches preemptive strikes with a quick retreat to safety. Charlize seems mostly bemused at this behavior but seems to be getting the idea that it is a game. Occasionally she responds and lands one of her big paws knocking Chloe off balance, but only for an instant. The little dog is almost cat-like in her ability to ability to instantaneously regain balance, change directions in the air and leap onto surfaces twice her height. A couple of mornings ago the two of them shared a plate with a taste of leftover quiche, fun to watch.

A few days ago I went on line and found an off leash dog park not far from my host’s home. Charlize and I have been there several times now. This morning it was already in the high eighties, supposed to reach mid-nineties today, bright sunshine, clear air and high altitude. There were a dozen or more dogs when we arrived shortly after eight AM, some of them already old friends. As usual Charlize was completely focused on her ball. She races after the ball when I chuck it more than a hundred yards using the plastic throwing stick. She ignores the other dogs and if not the fastest she is the most focused on the ball. So far she has outraced all other dogs to retrieve her ball. She also ignores the other dogs as she retrieves but holds the ball in her mouth until she catches her breath then drops it for me to throw it again. If someone throws a ball for one of the other dogs or even if they intercept her ball and throw it, she ignores all but her ball and only if I throw it for her. When she brings it back she continues to ignore the other dogs even when they try to interfere with her progress back to me. No aggressive behavior at all in response to the challenges by any of the other dogs. Good girl!

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