What goes on in puppy brains during the socialization period?

Puppy cuteness!
Ever wondered why puppies make and generalize associations so much more easily than adult dogs? Why it is so important to socialize puppies during their first three months -- what is different in their brains after that?

Me too, and I am going to undertake to try to give some answers (as best I can given there's a lot we still don't know about this stuff).

So come listen to me hold forth on socialization, one of my favorite topics, this Wednesday October 28, 8-9 EDT at a Pet Professionals Guild webinar. It is worth 1 CEU for those who keep track of that sort of thing. I promise to do my best to make it a lot of fun.

Learn About the Biology of Socialization with Dr. Jessica Hekman.

If you can't watch live on Wednesday, you can watch the archived version after (but not before, we don't have time travel yet).

Questions about whether it's up your alley? Feel free to ask in comments on this blog!

Heroes of the Zombieverse: Ed Yong

I had intended to cover some more researcher heroes of my world before switching over to the brilliant science communicators. But then Ed Yong posted about the most recent dog domestication research, and he did it so brilliantly that I had to write about him now instead of later.

Ed Yong (image from Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Most people aren’t going to read the original studies for all the science they’re interested in. This is partly because it’s hard to keep track on your own of everything that's happening in the world of science and partly because not everyone has access to all the brand-new studies and partly because not everyone can understand them. (I understand some of them in some fields, but there are certainly more out there that I don’t fully get than that I do.)

So we rely on science journalists (and video makers and podcasters and others). We rely on these people to find the interesting stories. We rely on them to tell us why the stories are interesting. And we rely on them to put the right spin on the story: to not blow it out of proportion.

Ed Yong excels at all three of these things. He says that he covers “the wow beat,” meaning stories that are weird and unexpected. But he covers the usual fare as well, and he does so exceptionally well. He finds the humor and keeps you reading, but he doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to suck you in by over-hyping the story he’s covering. He puts the story in the right context, and that’s just really hard to do for someone who isn’t a researcher in the field. Ed isn’t a researcher in any field and yet he manages to cover many fields with insight and panache.

Yesterday Ed published a story in which he covered a recent paper about where dogs were domesticated. Most journalists cover these papers (which come out several times a year) with the breathless report that now, finally, we have found the birthplace of the dog! Ed, however, takes a step back and tells us how this newest paper fits into the long history of other papers which have pinpointed the origin of the dog on several continents and across tens of thousands of years.

I forwarded the story to a fellow graduate student, who reads dog papers every week with me and who does her own research into canid domestication. She commented: “He is my new favorite science writer - totally nailed it.”

100 per cent puggered

Poster at the the KC's Discover Dogs this weekend

The 100% real brachycephalic obstructed airway syndrome

The 100% real pug dog encephalitis

The 100% real hemivertrebrae

The 100% real corneal ulcers

The 100% real stenotic nostrils

The 100% real skin fold dermatitis (take a peek under that nose roll..)

The 100% real deformed mouth and teeth

The 100% real pigmentary keratitis

The 100% real inbreeding

The crossbred Pug?

Not so much.

Oh, and a Pug cross is 50% cheaper to insure than a 100% real Pug through the Kennel Club's own pet insurance.*

Say yes to crossbreeds.

*comparison drawn 19/10/15 between purebred Pug and "small crossbreed"

Save the Jack Russell... sign the petition!

Please sign the petition here

The Kennel Club seems intent on continuing with its plans to recognise the Jack Russell  - despite opposition from those who fear for the future of the breed if it is swallowed by the Kennel Club's lean, mean inbreeding machine.  (See my previous article here)

So today I am launching a petition that asks that the KC reverses its decision to recognise the breed - the first petition actually in PDE history.

You can sign the petition here.

Now petitions are a risky business - if people don't share your passion you're left looking a little foolish.  A few people have already asked me "what's the point... it's already a done deal". But on this occasion I'll risk it as I feel really strongly about this and feel a line in the sand needs to be drawn. I also hope it will help bring the debate to a wider audience.

It could be fairly claimed that in the UK the Jack Russell has been under the stewardship of the Jack Russell Club of Great Britain for the past 40 years. It vehemently opposes KC registration - and, indeed, successfully prevented a previous attempt at a steal by the Kennel Club.

On that occasion, the KC went ahead - but was forced to call its new breed the Parson Russell Terrier, leaving a large population of Jack Russells outside of the grasp of the Kennel Club.

In the US, meanwhile, the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America has successfully prevented the American Kennel Club from taking the breed under its dubious stewardship there, saying:
"Recognition, it is believed, will be detrimental to the preservation of the Jack Russell as the sound, intelligent strain of working terrier it has been for more than 100 years.
The AKC was forced to call the breed they adopted just the Russell Terrier.

That the KC now believes it can step in and take over the breed shows considerable chutzpah given the strength of feeling.

Make no mistake about it, the KC's move is a hostile takeover. And it will be the ruin of the breed - as it has destroyed so many others.

Again, you can sign the petition here.

The Kennel Club, meanwhile, is trying to present itself as some kind of saviour of the breed. In the Kennel Club's press release, KC Secretary Caroline Kisko even claimed:
"By recognising the Jack Russell as an official breed, we can help cement its heritage and protect its future as a much-loved traditional working dog and popular pet. By encouraging the bulk of the population of these dogs to fit a Breed Standard we can help to ensure that puppy buyers get a dog with predictable characteristics that is suitable for their lifestyle and that they are bred to be healthy, with good temperament and are fit for function."
It's bollocks of course.  The Kennel Club doesn't award rosettes for work. The dogs are judged for trotting round a show-ring. The Jack Russell in the UK has managed perfectly well without the Kennel Club's help and its great strength is its diversity - in looks and genetically. It comes in short and tall; in short and rough coats and this has helped keep the dog robust.

The KC goes on to to say that the Jack Russell will be "joining other well-known breeds such as the West Highland White Terrier."

But the poor Westie, once a scruffy, game little dog,  has suffered terribly under KC-recognition - a real shadow of its former self; beset with immune problems, including the often intractable "Westie Itch" - a skin condition sometimes so severe that the dogs have to be euthanised.

Here's what the show Westie has been reduced to - strung up on a table at shows and smothered in a product called Ducky White because nature didn't give them a white enough coat for a show judge.

Here's what they looked like 100 years ago, when they used to be able to see.

Then there's the Fox Terrier... look what Kennel Club registration did to that. Today's dog has had a rear-end shunt - and the dog's neck is as long as its back. 

As I reported recently, according to the Kennel Club's own data,  almost half of all Kennel Club recognised breeds are in trouble genetically - and a quarter are so genetically compromised that they may not survive. This is directly attributable to breeding practices promoted by the Kennel Club system. And whatever they may tell you, very little has changed.

There are conflicting reports as to how the KC is to manage the registration of Jack Russells should it really go ahead. The breed - well a version of it -  is already recognised in Australia and FCI countries where there has been little or no opposition from the working side of the breed.  The Australian dogs have a bad reputation for being horribly inbred though as the breed was developed on only a handful of founders.

The real Jack Russell deserves better.

Please sign the petition here.

Talking about shelter behavior assessments

Today I presented at APDT's 2015 conference on shelter behavior assessments. It's incredibly important to be able to identify dangerous dogs when they come into shelters so we don't put them on the adoption floor, and to be able to identify dogs who we can perhaps help improve their behavior while in the shelter.

Or is it? I talked for three hours -- well, not quite three hours; my amazing audience helped out with some really fascinating discussion -- about how shelter behavior assessments aren't really all that good at identifying dogs who are just sorta likely to be aggressive. They're great at identifying really aggressive dogs and they're great at identifying really safe dogs -- but then again, we don't really need their help at that as it isn't all that hard to do. What neither these tests nor us humans are great at is identifying the in between, hard to categorize dogs.

I argued that we should continue to perform shelter behavioral assessments on dogs because those interactions with dogs give us more information about the dogs' personalities, and that information is useful. What we really should not do is use these tests as yes-no decision making tools for deciding the dogs' fate. They are not decision making tools; they are information gathering tools. One of the other main themes of the talk was that assessing a dog's personality is something that should be done by someone with plenty of dog experience, not the shelter staff member who read the behavioral assessment guidelines once and figures that's all she needs.

After the talk I said hi to Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council and she basically said, Hey, fun talk, but I really think we shouldn't be doing behavior assessments on shelter dogs at all. I've asked lots of competent shelter staff if they know which of the dogs in their shelters are dangerous, and they say sure they do. I've asked if it was a behavioral assessment that helped them figure that out and they say it never has been. It's been the dog's interactions with staff and volunteers.

I replied that we really need to collect as much information as possible about shelter dogs, not to identify the easy to identify extreme cases, but to identify the harder to identify in between cases -- the dog who isn't aggressive to all dogs, just certain dogs, for example.

She said sure, but she still thinks a better way of collecting that information is through careful, possibly structured documentation of the interactions of the various shelter staff and volunteers with the dog during its time in the shelter. That's what we should be focusing on.

Now, I am absolutely down with recording as much data as possible about a shelter dog's behavior. But advocating against formal behavioral assessments, even in shelters that have the resources to do them? My heart isn't quite there yet, but it's an interesting idea. If you have opinions, feel free to weigh in in the comments or on Twitter!

Still bluffing it re co-efficients of inbreeding?

It was at Crufts 2008, five months before Pedigree Dogs Exposed broadcast, that the KC's then-genetics advisor Jeff Sampson told me: "We will never give breeders COIs (co-efficients of inbreeding). They wouldn't know what to do with them."


Three years on, in May 2011, the Kennel Club launched Mate Select - giving breeders, owners and researchers access to inbreeding data (and health info) on individual dogs and breeds for the first time.  The KC has claimed several times that, at best, PDE sped up reform and didn't instigate it. But of course it had had plenty of opportunity to tell me about Mate Select if it had really been in development pre-PDE and it didn't.

(One day, I'll blog what they sent me regarding the breeds on the then high-profile list pre-PDE too... absolutely pitiful.)

Now, Mate Select has its flaws but there's no doubt that it's a fantastically useful tool - as is its sister utility MyKC, which gives access to more detailed breeding data. Both are free, too - all kudos to the Kennel Club for that and the other data it is now making available.

So... for those of you still struggling with COI is, here are two guides.

The first is this very simple explanation written by me a while back - how hosted on Carol Fowler's dogbreedhealth.com website:


And here's a comprehensive guide from Carol Beuchat at the Institute for Canine Biology:


Britain's favourite dog? A doodle...

Yesterday, the UK's Telegraph revealed that the nation's favourite dog is a doodle.

Well, actually, it was the "Cockapoo/Labradoodle etc"

Pedants among you will point out that this is actually rather more than one breed - although, in fairness,  the Telegraph also offered "Spaniel", "Setter" and "Labrador/Retriever" as options covering whole breed types there, too.

The purebred pedants, meanwhile, will point out, in capital letters and with a lot of exclamation marks, that THESE ARE MONGRELS NOT BREEDS!!!!!!

But the poll was telling. The purebred Poodle only managed 22nd in the poll in which 30,000 readers voted.  (Good to see too that Telegraph readers don't rate the Pug and Bulldog either  - 19th + 20th in the poll respectively)

The scruffy poodle crosses are massively popular in the UK - and the good news is that there are an increasing number of good breeders of them.

The Cockapoo Club of GB actually sets higher standards for its breeders than many purebred breed clubs.  It has... wait for it... 12,000 members.

The UK Labradoodle Association also has a Code of Practice and minimum health requirements for its breeders.

The basic rules for prospective doodle buyers are:
• make sure the pup's' parents have been health-tested for the problems that afflict their component breeds. 
• walk away if a breeder guarantees you a hypoallergenic pup. (Some are low shedding, but many are not).

Also, remember that the much-touted 'hybrid vigour' health benefits are more evident in the first cross (known as F1) pups. The F2/3/4 generations are less predictable health-wise and in looks too - although there are some very nice dogs.

In fact, they have in the main fantastic temperaments. Some of the big Labradoodles are a bit full-on, but I've never met a nasty one. I went to a big Labradoodle event a couple of years ago and was quite astonished at how well dogs that were perfect strangers played with each other - and there were literally dozens of them running around off-lead.

Beware of the coats, though. Every groomer I know whinges about them - although some of that stems for new doodle owners under-anticipating how much care the coats need; something most purebred Poodle owners know enough about to ensure the dogs don't get too overgrown/matted.

I confess I am not a fan of poodle/shaggy coats myself. I keep my "pretend" doodle (the imaginatively-named Curly) - clipped down most of the time, especially during the autumn/winter burr season here in Wiltshire.  Curly is three-quarters Irish Water Spaniel and a quarter Collie. My dog trainer says she's one of the smartest dogs she's ever known - and I'm very much hoping that the mixed blood will protect her from the cancer that kills purebred Irish Water Spaniels in their droves.

Jack Shit

It is a very sad day for dogs today in the UK.

Breeder and judge Geoff Corish announced on his Facebook page this morning that the Kennel Club has agreed to accept the Jack Russell Terrier as a Kennel Club breed.

This is the man who campaigned THIS dog to top French Bulldog of 2013.

For Corish, it is a day of celebration. One comment on his Facebook page referred to to the announcement as "historical".

Sure - as in the sinking of the Titanic.

And such bitter irony. The Reverend John ("Jack") Russell himself was fiercely opposed to conformation dog shows - and the Jack Russell Club of Great Britain has campaigned against KC registration of the breed. It's constitution even states:

  • History has shown Kennel Club recognition to be detrimental to the physical structure and working capabilities of a variety of working breeds. Therefore this club is opposed to Kennel Club recognition of the Jack Russell Terrier.
One wonders if they were even consulted.

I have been struck by an uncommon melancholy all day - which I would normally articulate, but actually, I couldn't do it better than "Terrierman"Patrick Burns - on blistering form on his blog today.

He writes:
Here is a simple truth: you cannot protect and preserve working dogs without working them.
You cannot breed quality retrievers or pointers when your own dogs have never heard a shotgun.
You cannot gauge the sheep-sense and holding power of a good Border Collie by tossing a Frisbee.
You cannot judge the true grit of a Jack Russell Terrier with a rubber ball.
A one-hour cart pull around a farm does not a sled dog make.
People who think otherwise are kidding themselves. They are the reason every working dog breed dragged into the Kennel Club has been ruined there.
These people sincerely believe that if they breed a dog that looks the part, it can do the part. But this misguided belief underscores their ignorance. What makes working breeds special is not what is on their outside, but what is on their inside.
"But why do we need that today," says the matronly show dog breeder. "No one works dogs today."
Really? Well, maybe not in their suburban world of shake shops and one-minute rice. It is true that in their world, there are no hunters, cowboys, Eskimos, or gamekeepers. In their world there are no rats, fox, bear, sheep, cattle, duck, geese, or pheasant.
But these creatures exist outside the suburbs, and these people exist there as well.
In America, Australia, and parts of mainland Europe, dogs are still used to bust, hold and drive wild cattle and hogs.
Retrievers and Pointers are used as bird dogs the world over.
Terriers are still used for pest control, not only in the U.K., but also in America, Canada, South Africa and mainland Europe.
Dogs are still used for transportation in the Arctic, and rabbits are still brought to hand by running dogs the world over.
Is this work being done with Kennel Club dogs?
No. Not usually. And no wonder; form is not function.
No matter how attractive a man in a dress might be, no one who has a clue is going to take that "girl" to the prom.
And yet Kennel Club breeders will tell you, straight faced, that they are sincere in wanting to protect their breed.
And who are they trying to protect it from? Why unscrupulous people who are not show-ring breeders, of course!
And what do they intend to protect the dog with? A scrap of paper!
It is all laughable nonsense. And it becomes nonsense on stilts when people begin to talk about "the standard" as if it were a sacred text delivered to Moses on the Mount.
Check out the rest of it here

Heroes of the Zombieverse: Robert Sapolsky

If a rat is a good model for your emotional life, you're in big trouble. - Robert M. Sapolsky

When I first decided I wanted to go back to school to learn about dog behavior, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to study. I just didn't know enough biology to know how to frame my questions. I clearly remember one day talking to a PhD student about my interests, and she said: "Have you heard of the HPA axis?" I shook my head and she said (a bit darkly), "You will."

The HPA axis is the set of hormonal processes that govern the mammalian stress response, and Robert Sapolsky is its king. He didn't discover it (Hans Selye set that train in motion when he isolated cortisol), but he is the great explainer of what it means for your body and brain to have long term stress. His talk on stress, depression, and neurobiology is a dizzying hour in which he weaves together the effects of hormones and neurotransmitters on different brain regions and leaves you with a deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying depression and how much we have left to learn about how to cure it.

He brings a dry sense of humor to his work, making even his peer-reviewed publications a fun read. I tweeted last week about the latest Sapolsky offering in which he discussed the role of connections between neurons in the amygdala in anxiety disorders: "The road to a crippling anxiety disorder is paved with perky amygdaloid synapses." First use of the word "perky" in a scientific paper? Perhaps at least its first use to describe a synapse.

He's a committed science communicator, publishing books and magazine articles and making his behavioral biology course at Stanford free on YouTube. He seems to be writing somewhat regularly for Nautilus these days. If you want to learn about what stress is and what it does to your body, I recommend his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which was my introduction to the biology of stress lo these many years ago.

So yeah, he studies baboons and he writes about humans. And he talks a lot about the ways in which humans are different from other animals.  But these mechanisms of how stress affects the brain and the body, the health consequences of high stress levels, exactly what is different about the brains of really anxious individuals... these questions are absolutely relevant to dogs. For his work on these questions, for his passion for science communication, and for his quirky personality, Sapolsky gets to be the first of the Dog Zombie heroes in this series.


Heroes of the Zombieverse: the series

The desktop background of our media server (the Linux computer hooked up to our TV set from which we watch videos) is an homage to rock star scientists:
Source: tumblr
(Actually until a few minutes ago it was a much less cool version with only 12 names, but when I went searching for the original to link to it I found this, which I liked a lot better, so I made the swap.)

Sometimes I look at these icons and I think about the contributions each of these individuals made to different branches of science. And then I think, "If I could make my own list of influential scientists, who would be on it?"

Now, time was, this blog was my only outlet for science communication. Every time I got an itch to write about something, it went here. But these days I have lots of places to write, places where I reach a lot more people than this blog. My story about non-surgical cat contraception is on magazine stands right now in a Scientific American special edition; I have two stories at two other magazines working their way through the copy edit/publication process; I'm presenting at the APDT 2015 conference; and I have an upcoming webinar for PPG. So lately when I get an itch to write or talk about something, it ends up elsewhere.

But I miss writing for this blog, and I miss writing in a more free-form style instead of trying to say everything Exactly Right. So I am throwing down the gauntlet to myself: start a series in which I post at least once a week (hopefully more often) about the heroes of the zombieverse. Brownie points to anyone who can predict any of them before I write about them!

And I know we haven't had a very interactive community on this blog, probably in large part because I post so rarely, but if you were so moved as to comment about your personal heroes -- scientists, dog trainers, science communicators, or others -- I'd love to hear about them.

Wish me luck with finding time to write!

Jenny: "Shhh. I'm hunting squirrels."

RIP the Otterhound

Oh great. So now the Kennel Club is celebrating how endangered the Otterhound is?

Like it's some kind of badge of honour?  Like there's some value in the breed's rarity? 

The sad truth is that the Otterhound is about to be consigned to history and the Kennel Club is doing nothing to stop it. Obscenely, the KC has the bald cheek to compare the Otterhound to the seriously endangered giant panda and white rhino while mustering none of the effort we see conservationists make to save wild species.

And how ironic that KC twitter handle... because if the KC really loved dogs, it would be doing so, so much more to ensure their future.

The population data released by the Kennel Club last week revealed that the Otterhound is on its last legs - only 22 puppies born last year in the UK, and very few born abroad.  They're all horribly inbred.  There is no job for them any more. And no demand for a big, shaggy, sometimes smelly dog which - the KC helpfully reveals in its Discover Dogs lowdown here - has a tendency to kill small furry things and can rarely be let off lead safely.  Oh, and they slobber. 

The breed club in the UK has a good health rep in Judith Ashworth and there is a lot of helpful health info/ongoing surveys on the breed club website (you can find them here). But, goodness, they make for depressing reading. 

The reports suggest that the breed suffers from a high rate of epilepsy, cancer and hip dysplasia. The breed's mean hip score is 46.5 - severely dysplastic. In fact, the Otterhound has the worst hips of any breed in the UK and they are getting worse (if you look at just the last five years, the mean hip score has risen to 51). Breeders are continuing to breed from dogs with hip scores over 100 because there are so few dogs they feel they cannot be fussy. There is an increasing number of reports of low-litter sizes; almost certainly due to inbreeding depression. Average COI has risen almost 2% in the last two years (up from 16% to 17.9%) The breed has an effective population size of 33 - genetically unsustainable.

And while there was some talk a couple of years ago of an outcross to save the breed, that seems to have died a death. Like the breed itself is doing.

In 2012, the breed's UK health rep Judith Ashworth said: “Outcrossing is certainly one option that we are very keen to look at, because we do need to increase the number of dogs that are contributing genetically to the very small population of dogs within our breed. We look forward to working with the Kennel Club and the Animal Health Trust to find solutions that will protect our breed in the future.”

Since then? Nada. Zilch. Nothing. I imagine that however keen Janice may be to explore crossbreeding, she has had little or no support from breeders. It is the equivalent of the zoos of yesteryear - happy to parade highly endangered species for the public to see, while doing nothing to protect and preserve them.

That changed. Why can't this change too?

Why aren't the KC and breeders working with conservationists who understand this stuff and have brought many species back from the brink?   Why aren't there specific breed conservation plans? Why aren't you talking to those who are successfully managing rare livestock breeds? Seriously, in breeds like the Otterhound, we are way beyond softly-softly advice to limit the use of popular sires and encouraging breeders to DNA test.

Am I the only one who feels any sense of panic?

Now, I don't have a problem with the breed going extinct. It's the manner of the Otterhound's extinction that sticks in the craw. The dogs are dying fitting, limping and painfully in the hands of breeders who will look you in the eye and tell you they love the breed but who in reality are the agents of their destruction through their obsession with blood purity and their unwillingness to embrace modern science.

RIP the Otterhound. Like all dogs trapped in closed gene pools under the auspices of kennel clubs... you deserved better.