Canine Ergonomics: The need for a SCIENCE of Working Dogs

I have long been fascinated by the important roles that our canines play in their collaboration with humans. My own personal hero in this area is Dr. Bonnie Bergin, the incredible woman who in 1975  originated the concept of the “service dog.” Seeing waiting lists for service dogs extending to 10 years, and low percentage of dogs making it through the program, she founded the Assistance Dog Institute and Bergin University of Canine Studies. Now providing college programming, and doing research on training and the use of assistance dogs, Dr. Bergin has been a model for us all.

“The dog, we now realize, thinks, feels and reacts in ways very much like humans, which explains its unique ability to fit into human society. And the plasticity, the versatility, the adaptability of the canine species is very much aligned with ours. So the time has come to elevate the dog to take its place beside humans, equines, bovines and other mammalian species as a specific subject of study at the college and university level. No animal does more for us, none share a more intimate relationship with us, nor can any claim more years of alliance with us – than the dog – our partner, our friend, our helpmate.”

Books from several disciplines line my shelves in the attempt to define and explore the nature of working dogs. In this vein, I very much agree with psychology professor, Dr. William S. Helton.

Editor of CANINE ERGONOMICS, the first book on the science of working dogs, Dr. Helton laments over the fact that the “scientific literature on working dogs is scattered across several non-overlapping disciplines and, in comparison to the magnitude of its societal importance, relatively underdeveloped.”

Currently, there is no recognized “science” of working dogs and therefore no recognized, specialized research in the area.

I suspected that Dr. Helton had been personally inspired by a working dog when we read this in the book’s preface:

“I looked up from the paper and there was Kiowa, a black and tan mixed-breed trained signal (hearing assistance) dog. He lay on the floor with one ear up and swiveling around searching for sounds. Kiowa, like a sonar or radar operator, was a vigilant worker, looking for relatively rare target signals among long series of irrelevant noises and sounds. Kiowa, moreover, was an expert, as he had learned to generalize his signaling to untrained but meaningful targets, such as water boiling or a bathtub filling.”

And, of course, I was right. I contacted the good professor in New Zealand and he graciously provided us with more about how his passion developed. Click here to learn more about the book, Dr. Helton’s work, and the assistance dogs he has trained.

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The Dominance Controversy and Cesar Millan

Dr. Sophia Yin, besides being an incredible veterinarian and behaviorist, is a wonderful writer and educational resource. Her articles are so easily understood, and she has the ability to speak wisely to the training of days old and to that of the present day.

We’ve all heard advice that relates dog behavior to wolf social behavior: “Always eat before your dog and go through doorways first because that’s what a dominant wolf would do.” “If your dog growls or barks inappropriately or otherwise misbehaves, put him in his place by doing an alpha roll where you force him onto his back until he submits. That way you can be the boss.”

20 years ago when I started training, this is the type of advice I gave because it was all I knew. At that time, like everyone else, the choke chain and pinch collar and a well-timed correction formed the cornerstone of my methods. And I thought that dominance was the root of all behavior problems. Combined with a strong ability to read aggressive dogs, a lack of fear of being bitten, and fervor for trying to master the techniques of whomever I could, these methods and ideologies served me well. But I am always searching for something better.

Present Day: Since then, our understanding of dog behavior in relation to wolves, as well as our understanding of dominance and social hierarchies have advanced. Wolf biologists now rarely use the term alpha when referring to pack leaders in the wild. Ethologists have agreed that dominant wolves do not force subordinates into an alpha roll. And studies on the process of domestication and on canine communication are making it evermore clear that a dog is not wolf.

Dr. Yin’s HTML has created a one-stop page that effectively addresses The Dominance Controversy and Cesar Millan. I have not seen anyone else provide such a wonderful, thought out, video-enhanced, and educationally stimulating discussion. I only wish the Discovery Channel would listen to her words, or someone would get Dr. Yin and Cesar Millan together for a truly instructional program.

The Dominance Controversy and Cesar Millan page is an imperative MUST READ for anyone who interacts with dogs, such as: dog trainers, veterinarians, veterinary personnel, dog owners and lovers, rescue & shelter workers, groomers, dog walkers, puppy raisers, etc. The little video clip tests that she provides are simply perfect at communicating difficult concepts in an instructional and attention-grabbing fashion.

The page effectively takes you through the following sequence:

  1. Definition of Dominance
  2. Test Yourself on the Definition
  3. Other Facts about Dominance Hierarchies
  4. Science & Psychology of Behavior Modification
  5. Addressing the Underlying Emotional State
  6. Can Giving Treats Make an Animal Aggressive
  7. Positive Does not Mean Permissive
  8. What to Take out of Shows such as The Dog Whisperer
  9. Why some Dogs Improve When Punishment is Used

Please visit our Land of PureGold Foundation site for more on behavior training and management.

blowing bubbles

Dazzle is incredibly talented and this trick is pretty cool. This is how Dazzle was trained to blow bubbles. (We previously showed a video of Dazzling Dazzle. Check it out if you missed it. It is incredible.)

Each dip to black is when we took a break. By “break” I mean I took her away from the dish, walked her around a little, and then came back. Just one to two minutes. I have found that doing that makes our sessions a lot more productive!

At the start of the training I did a lot of quick rewarding. That’s because if I didn’t catch just the nose dip quickly, she would start sticking her paws in the bowl. Using her paws is a behavior she tends to get stuck on a lot – thus the rapid clicking in the beginning!

At one point I saw that she got “stuck” and wouldn’t put her head any lower in the dish (beginning of the third session I think) – in case it’s hard to see, what I did was toss a cookie in the dish so she dunked her head in to eat it. I clicked when she ate the cookie and after that she understood to dunk her nose.

Also, when she first blew some bubbles I jackpotted her and then only rewarded when she blew, not just when she dunked her head.