I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
To be released 11/09/2018, we'll be talking to Linda P. Case, well known for her work in nutrition and focus on the science of dog training, about those two topics!
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we’ll be doing something a little differently. I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
The previous one was with Sara Brueske, and for this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Dr. Jessica Hekman.
Dr. Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Sciences in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics, so very on-topic for us.
Previously, she graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on behavior and the cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.
Hi Jessica! Welcome to the podcast.
Jessica Hekman: Hey Melissa. Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you mind just reminding everyone a little bit about who your current pups are, and maybe share where they came from and at what point in their lives?
Jessica Hekman: Absolutely. We almost heard from them while you were in the middle of your intro. I think somebody went by outside and they both ran to the door and started squeaking a little bit, and I was like, “Shh, shh, dogs. I’m on a podcast. Be really quiet!” This is their downtime.
So I have two. My older one is Jenny, that’s short for Guinevere, and she is a mixy-mix. I had her tested with Wisdom Panel, turns out she’s probably Labrador/Samoyed. She came from a shelter, and we know from the shelter that she is at least part Lab, so that much is true. She’s a very, very cute little blonde, 35 pounder. She looks like a little Border Collie who’s Golden Retriever colored, so she’s super-cute.
And Dash, which is short for Dashell, is an English Shepherd and he is a little bit over 2 years old. I got Jenny when she was 13 months old, and Dash was my first puppy ever, so I got him at 9 weeks.
Melissa Breau: There are, I think, lots of good reasons to have you on, but before we get into some of the professional stuff, I was hoping, as somebody who has one dog that was a rescue and one that you got from a breeder, if you’d talk a little about that piece. With Jenny, my understanding is you adopted a dog, you knew there was some serious stuff going on there, you’d have to work on it from a training perspective. Can you talk a little bit about where she was when you brought her home, where she is now, and what kind of work you put in to get her there?
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, sure. Jenny definitely has a long and interesting story. I had just finished up my Master’s and was going back to finish up veterinary school. I was a third-year vet student and I had a lovely, behaviorally very healthy Golden Retriever named Jack, who I adored, and I wanted to get a second dog.
So I was looking around at shelters, and a really close friend of mine was doing her shelter medicine internship and came across this dog. I later found out she was actually joking when she emailed me to say, “There’s this dog, maybe you want her,” because she was like, “This dog’s crazy. Clearly you wouldn’t want this dog, ha ha ha.” I got the email and I was like, “Oh, that sounds great,” and afterwards she was like, “I don’t know what you were thinking.”
I like to say she comes from an “oops” litter, except it was the “dogs do that sometimes” litter. She was from a farm that was in rural upstate New York outside of Ithaca. I think they had some number of dogs they just knew were going to have litters sometimes — not so much of an “oops” litter as “oh yeah, that happens.”
At some point Animal Control came to that farm and said, “You have nine dogs and that’s too many, and you need to give some up.” So they took the two 10-month-old puppies from their most recent litter, I gather, and took them in to Tompkins County Humane Society and said, “Here, you can have these, and that will get us back down to seven dogs and everyone will be happy.”
Apparently the owner was surprised to discover that these two dogs were super-shy. They hadn’t noticed anything behaviorally wrong with the dogs, but due to the fact, I think, that the dogs had never, ever been off their farm at all, and I don’t believe any socialization had been done with them at all, then the dogs had thought that their whole world was this little farm, and when they came into the shelter discovered the world was much larger than that, they were horrified.
There was one woman working at the shelter at the time as a behavior consultant, had a Master’s in behavior, and she referred to them as “toxically cute.” They were these ridiculously, looked like identical twins, girl and boy, cream colored, so cute, 10 months old, and she said they had people lining up to adopt them, but they knew that they were going to be behaviorally really challenging.
So they gave these two dogs to a pair of guys who tried really hard with them but apparently didn’t have so much the dog skills necessary and did some stuff that we know is not the best way to convince a shy dog to like you, such as luring them close with canned cheese and then trying to pet them when they had lured them close, which then taught the dogs that cheese was terrifying, for example.
After a month or so of that, the dogs were not warming up to them at all, and so Jenny came back into the shelter, but they kept her. She was fostered by this behavior consultant, and that was when I found out about her. Shortly after I took her, her brother came back and moved in and took her spot with the behavior consultant.
They wanted to place her with me because I had this dog who was going to be a really good influence on her and teach her that people were not scary. When I first met her, I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would tremble. She’s not aggressive at all. She just entirely shuts down, so she’ll huddle in a corner and shake. So I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would complete decompensate when I made eye contact with her. I couldn’t touch her.
We were living in Massachusetts, and my then-boyfriend and I drove out to Ithaca to meet her and decide that we wanted her and pick her up, and her foster mom had to lift her into the car for us because she would pee whenever we touched her, and when we got home and getting her out of the car, she peed.
She lived for the first few weeks on her dog bed, and I kept a harness with a one-foot-long tab on her at all times. When it was time to go outside, I would crawl on the floor backwards, not making eye contact with her, to attach a leash to the tab so that I didn’t have to touch her, and take her outside.
After a few days of this, I was going through this ritual of crawling backwards towards her as she stood up and very clearly said, “No. I understand the situation. I can take it from here, and you don’t have to put that thing on me. It’s horrifying.” So we went down outside together, and I had this big, safely fenced yard, but it was almost half an acre, and I remember thinking, Am I ever going to get this dog back inside? I was like, Well, let’s just see what happens. So I let her out and she did her business and came back in. And that’s very Jenny, being terrified of the world but really wanting to make her way in it, and thinking outside the box to try to figure out what’s going to happen.
She did not let my husband, my then-boyfriend, touch her for about the first six months that we had her. It took a week before I could touch her. The first time I ever had a stranger in the house after I got her, she hid in a corner, pooped, and sat in it, so that was lovely. It took her weeks to stop submission-urinating.
I still remember the first night that we were sleeping in the bed and she was on her dog bed at the other end of the room, didn’t want to sleep in the bed with us but was willing to be in the room with us, and I had given her a pig’s ear. Whenever I gave her food, she’d tuck it under her chest and be like, “I’ll eat this later when no one can see me and it’s safe.” I remember around midnight, after we’d been in bed for a couple of hours and it was dark, she felt safe enough and I could hear her start to crunch on the pig ear. I remember lying there in the dark, smiling to myself and thinking, Oh, she’s doing better.
So what did I do with her? She came to me on fluoxetine, which is a behavioral medication that is effective in a lot of dogs, but it is the one behavioral medication that general practice veterinarians tend to feel comfortable with, and it was a general practice veterinarian who had prescribed it. So I took her to a veterinary behaviorist. I was a vet student at the time, so I had a friend who was doing her behavior residency. I had Jenny go meet with her. and she prescribed a different medication that she thought would be more appropriate for Jenny’s particular issues, and she has done very well on that. She has continued to improve. I’ve had her for nine years now. Our Gotcha Day anniversary is coming up on New Year’s Day this year. She’s just continued to improve.
At first, it was really, really hard. When we let her outside, she had trouble coming back in if there had been a stranger in the house over the last few hours. If I was out and my husband let her out, sometimes she wouldn’t come back in. He’d call and say, “Can’t get her in,” and I’d say, “You have to leave the door open and walk outside and get behind her so she’ll go in,” and he’d say, “But it’s January in New England, can’t you come home?” I’d say, “No, I’m on clinics in vet school, they won’t let me leave for another twelve hours.” So it was really hard.
She gradually started being able to make friends. I needed to have someone who could come let her out to pee when I was working these fifteen-hour days, so I had to pay this dog walker to come five or six times while I was there and pay her to come get to know Jenny, and then she was able to start coming and Jenny was able to warm up to her, so that was really nice.
When I finished vet school a year-and-a-half later, and I moved down to Florida for my internship, had to drive the dogs down there, Jenny hadn’t ever taken a long car trip before or really been off the property all that much. We’d been to the vet a couple of times, but I was minimizing it because it was so traumatic for her. So we drove down to Florida, a five-day drive because we took it slow, and she didn’t pee for the first 48 hours, so that was terrifying, but she eventually did. She has continued to improve and to change, and so while we were in Florida, we got to the point where instead of huddling in a corner and shaking when people came over, she would roo, which is not the behavior I was aiming for in the end, but showed that she was feeling more confident.
When we then moved to Illinois for my Ph.D., I still remember the very first day that she was willing to go to sleep in the middle of the floor, just stretched out laterally in the middle of the floor. She’d always slept on couches before. I had never seen her sleep in the middle of a floor. When I first got her, she wouldn’t go into the kitchen. She’d run from the kitchen really fast. Now she’s comfortable in any room of the house.
While we were in Urbana, there was a lovely, really big dog park, really nice dog park, and I was able to go at off hours when there weren’t many other dogs there. She was able to do that and be off-leash, and make dog friends, and eventually even make human friends. She even had some human friends that she really liked there.
Now we’re back in Massachusetts. She’s able to hike off-leash with us in the forest, she is able to go to her chiropractor — she has chiropractic problems, probably from being so tense all the time — and she’s able to handle that and not completely decompensate, and when people come over she now understands that while she thinks that all people are axe murderers, some of them do come with cheese, of which she is no longer scared, and so when people come over, she’s nervous at first, they toss her some cheese, and now she’s at the point where she’ll sit and make cute faces at people to get cheese, which is really nice.
The huge thing recently was I have a dog walker come now for her and Dash, and I tell the dog walker, “Let them both out to pee, that will be fine, but only take Dash for a walk. Jenny won’t go for a walk with you.” I got this text message from the dog walker saying, “I asked Dash if he wanted to go for a walk, and Jenny was really excited about it too. Can I take her?” I was like, “Sure, just be prepared to go home if she freaks out.” But she didn’t, and I got these great photographs of her on the walk really happy. So she’s made massive progress. She’s a really different dog than she used to be.
So a lot of behavior modification, a lot of management, a lot of time, and a lot of her trying as well. She really likes people, and she really likes being near people. She’s just scared of them, and I think she’s really made an effort because of that. If she wasn’t so people-social, I don’t think she would have overcome everything as well as she has. But she continues to improve. I thought she’d plateau after a couple of years, but she has not. Nine years and she continues, she’s better this year than she was last year. It’s amazing. She’s a fabulous little dog.
Melissa Breau: Now on the flip side of that, with Dash you did all your homework, and I know you originally had some hopes to do agility with him, but now you’re not sure that that’s the path he’ll take you down. Are you willing to talk about that a little bit?
Jessica Hekman: When I got Jenny, I was interested in fearful dogs and I got sort of a sad project. When I got Dash, I was like, “I want a dog that will be fun, and I want to learn about what it’s like to raise a puppy.”
I was interested in socialization as part of my job and my research, but I also really wanted to do dog sports, and agility in particular. So I went to a breeder who did agility and nosework and some other stuff with her dogs and got Dash. She said, “He’s a very confident puppy and he’s going to be ideal for agility,” and he did start out that way. He then started around 6 months of age to have some fearfulness and to have off and on lameness. I’m a veterinarian and I am not afraid to take him to specialists. I took him to a bunch of specialists trying to figure out what was up with the lameness, and it took a year to find somebody who could diagnose him. It was a complex problem, and so when he was a year-and-a-half old, we finally figured out that he had a tiny little chipped bone in his right elbow, and because he’d been on it for so long now, that that elbow was really painful and his shoulder was showing changes as well because he’d been compensating.
I’d been doing agility foundations and early levels of agility, not jumping full height, and I’d been doing this and hiking him, he’d been running in the woods, and we were doing parkour, so he was doing all this stuff with his broken bone basically. The vet said it probably was similar to walking with rocks in your shoes, clearly more and less painful at different times. He had also pretty clearly learned that when other dogs approached him, if they bumped into him, it was going to hurt, so he had learned to warn other dogs off proactively.
When we finally had the surgery, got his elbow repaired — the elbow injury, by the way, pretty clearly a traumatic injury. I know the day that it happened. He was 5 months, 5-and-a-half months, running in the woods, and there was ice and snow. He came up lame that evening, and it kept coming and going ever since then. He probably had what the orthopedist called a “jump-down injury,” probably jumped off of something too high that he shouldn’t have and chipped that bone. Had the surgery, was a six-month recovery, and he is fully recovered, so technically I could go back to agility.
There’s a couple of things stopping me. One is that given that he had this issue in that leg, it means that he’s going to develop arthritis earlier than he would have otherwise. The rehab that I was working with put it to me as, “You may only have so many jumps in him, and he’s going to be doing some jumping on his own — into and out of the car, on and off the bed — so maybe you could conserve the amount of jumps you’re asking him to do, so that you put off the arthritis as long as possible,” and that sounds reasonable to me.
The other thing is that he had learned to be very slow and cautious in agility, and I think a lot of that was that it hurt, and also that I’m a green handler, and so we’re doing some stuff that he can learn to really enjoy. So we’re doing nosework right now, which he thinks is fabulous. It’s very low-pressure, there’s none of my expectations, there’s none of anything hurting, and so possibly we’ll go back to agility at a later point, certainly not anything that I would push him really hard to do a lot of jumping.
So that’s how I got redirected with him down into a slightly different road than I had originally imagined.
Melissa Breau: Personal experiences aside for a moment, you also deal heavily in all of this stuff professionally. Can you share a little bit about how your day job ties in?
Jessica Hekman: I had been a computer programmer for twelve years or something like that, and I decided I wanted to learn about what causes dogs to have different personalities and to behave differently — why some are shy, and some are aggressive, and some are really friendly, what’s different in their brains.
It turned out that the best tools that we have right now for getting at that kind of thing in pet dogs is genetics, because you can look at a dog’s genetics without having to actually cut their head open and get at their brain. It’s a better way of doing things than the other alternatives involving laboratory animals.
I am, as you said, currently working at a research institute. The institute actually focuses mostly on human health, and the group that I’m working with, we use dogs as models for humans to study how genetics interacts with behavior, and how it interacts with diseases like cancer, to try to understand more not just about dogs but also about humans. And that’s great, that’s how we get our funding, saying that this is applicable to human health. I’m obviously in it because I care about dogs, figure there’s plenty of other people looking at human health, I’m really more interested in the canine health, but that’s sort of the focus of the lab as a whole.
What we do, anyone who’s interested in learning more about that can go to DarwinsArk.org and check it out. The main project lets people come, sign up their dogs, answer a whole slew of questions about their dog’s behavior, and then get a kit to have us sample their dog’s DNA, which we do just through saliva, so it’s very easy. And then we run analyses and hopefully find fascinating things, although the project is young so far, so we have not solved all the questions of behavioral genetics quite yet.
Melissa Breau: Quite yet. What CAN we know, what do we know about a dog based on their genetics? What kind of traits does research show us come “hardwired”?
Jessica Hekman: A lot of it is still up in the air, and a lot of people are surprised to find out how much we don’t know.
We do know that things like retrieving and herding and pointing, things that you see that are definite differences between breeds, and things that we know that people selectively bred for, those definitely can come hardwired, and so you can see dogs offering retrieving behavior or herding behavior without having been trained to do it, which I think is crazy. How do you program in the DNA that a dog really likes putting things in their mouth and bringing it back to you, or that they really like collecting sheep into a little circle? I think that’s just insane, and we don’t know what it is that does that exactly. We have some initial ideas, but we don’t know what genes are that do that. So we know that that can be more or less hardwired, although, as a lot of you know already, it certainly is not the case that every single Labrador Retriever is interested in retrieving. So even though a particular breed may have many or most dogs in it be hardwired for one particular skill like that, it doesn’t mean that every dog in the breed will be that way.
When it comes to personality, there’s still a lot of differences between dogs. Every dog is really an individual, even though a breed may have some tendencies. So the kinds of stuff that we’re looking at with the Darwin’s Ark project is, what I’m personally interested in, is personality. I would say that personality are traits that change only very slowly over time, that tend to be fairly static over time. They can change, but slowly. Jenny’s example is … I’d definitely say she has a shy personality but that she has become less shy over time, but it has taken a lot of work.
One initial question that we’re looking at based just on the surveys, not even on genetics, has been, “Are there certain personalities per dog breed?” because we know we feel like most Golden Retrievers are friendlier than most, say, German Shepherds, which are more aloof, that kind of question. The initial work that was done by the last person who had my job suggested that that’s not actually the case, that he wasn’t able to see any personality differences between breeds.
It’s interesting, it has occasioned a lot of debate in the lab, because I was sort of like, “That’s shocking, and I think we have to question whether we’re approaching this the right way, because I’m convinced there are personality differences between breeds.” And my boss, Eleanor Karlsson, who’s the head of the lab, said, “Remember a hundred years ago we told ourselves there were differences between humans with different skin color, and we used to honestly believe that based on someone’s skin color we could make assumptions about their IQ. We now know that that was really wrong, at least genetically it was wrong. People of different skin color tended to get different levels of education, but that there were no real genetic differences in things like IQ or personality.” Fair enough, although I would respond that we have not been selectively breeding groups of populations of humans for particular personality traits, and we have been selectively breeding dogs for different personality traits. So I am in the middle of working on trying to dig into that data right now and see what I can see.
One of the first approaches I took … Labradors are a great example for us because they’re the most popular dog in America, and so we have a lot of examples of them, and they’re also kind of behavioral freaks because they have really low risk of being fearful of things and tend very much to be friendly and outgoing. So they’re behavior outliers and there’s also a zillion of them. I look to see what questions in the questionnaire Labs scored really different from breeds of the same size on, and unsurprisingly one of the questions was, “Does your dog like bringing things to you?” Labs statistically, very significantly, were much more likely to want to bring things to you. Whether you want to call that a personality trait or not, I don’t know, but it was a good place to start.
And again, very interesting, not all Labs wanted to bring things to you, but they were much more likely to want to than other dogs. So we’re starting to try to do an analysis of if all these mixed-breed dogs we have, if they have more Labrador in their ancestry, are they more likely to enjoy retrieving. So that’s one of the things that we’re working on right now.
Melissa Breau: Digging into this stuff a little bit more, I think a lot of the time people will have their perfect puppy, and then something goes wrong. The dog becomes reactive or obsessive or … something. And then they decide, “OK, it must be genetic.” Is that true? Is that the case? Is there evidence to the contrary?
Jessica Hekman: I would say that any behavior or ongoing behavior or personality trait is genetic. They’re all genetic. So the puppy being perfect was genetic and the puppy not being perfect was genetic, because it’s all about how genetics interact with environment.
What I caution people against is imagining there’s this pre-programmed switch in the dog’s brain that’s programmed genetically that says, “Around 6 months this dog is going to become fearful, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” I don’t think that’s true, at least not in our pet dogs.
When we talk about some laboratory populations, where we’re selectively breeding animals, there’s a study with fearful Pointers where they were really, really heavily selecting for super-fearful dogs, and those dogs were never going to be normal. There’s the tame fox study that I used to work on, where they have for many, many decades been selectively breeding some foxes to be very tame and some to be very aggressive, and those, that’s all they breed for. They don’t breed for anything else.
But in our pet dog populations, where we’re breeding for a lot of things, you just don’t see that genetics is going to force an animal to be a certain way in the sense of there being a switch that, “OK, the behavior appeared around 6 or 8 months and I don’t know what caused it and therefore it’s genetic.” I would say that genetics causes risk, and so genetically an animal may be at increased risk of developing fearfulness, for example, and that that risk is going to interact with the animal’s environment. So there may have been something … if you didn’t see the cause … if you see the cause, you sort of know what’s going on — he was just a puppy, and some dog came out of nowhere and bowled him over and bit him, and so of course he was traumatized by that and now he’s fearful of other dogs. You know what happened there.
But sometimes … I think Dash is a fabulous example of I didn’t know what was going on with him. I was very lucky to get to figure out what was going on with him, but I started seeing this reactivity to other dogs. It was never terrible, but it was a real change from how he had been when he was younger and I wasn’t able to perceive that he was in pain and that was why it was.
And it can be much more subtle than that. It can be this stuff that goes on in the environment that sets dogs up to develop in certain ways, can happen while the dog is still in the uterus, it can happen while the dog … super-important stuff happens during that first eight weeks when the dog is with the breeder, and again, stuff that we don’t necessarily have control over. It could be interactions with the other littermates. It could be this is the smallest dog in the litter, and the biggest dog in the litter bullied him and that’s how it turned out. Not the fault of the breeder, not the fault of the owner, but also not a genetic switch, but perhaps that dog was genetically at risk of becoming fearful and that experience made him or her more fearful.
I also feel like we don’t fully understand always … it’s hard for us to grasp quite how complex this concept of environment is, and so you might say to yourself, “Just because two dogs are both in the same environment …” Dash and Jenny, they’re both living in our house, so it’s the same environment, but I would point out that their perception of what environment they’re in differs from each other.
There’s been a lot of research in humans, when we look into how different siblings growing up in the same household basically perceive very different environments, certainly if they’re of different ages. One had been an only child for a while and also maybe was being raised by parents who didn’t make quite as much money early on, and then the parents started making more money and at the same time also had another child, and so the second child experiences a very different environment. They are not an only child, parents are much more affluent now because they’re older, maybe they’re being raised in a house instead of an apartment, so they have very different environments. Even twins, who you think, Well, they’re born at the same time, but they can have very different environments as well, based on just their interactions with each other where one starts being the bossy one, one starts being the more submissive one, they can have different friends in school and different interactions with that environment.
And I think it’s really the same for our dogs, that we just don’t realize what tiny little differences there are that they have this whole world that they perceive that we don’t.
So I think the answer is there isn’t a genetic switch to make a dog be one way or another. There’s only risk, and so it’s all this complex interaction that gets us there. I hope that answers that question.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely, and you started to talk a little bit in there about how early life experiences can have a big impact on adult personality, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the research or the science? I know you shared some interesting stuff when you did the webinar, and you’re planning on including some good stuff in your class.
Jessica Hekman: I actually talk a lot about the socialization period in my class on The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog, and that’s not yet on the schedule to come back, but I definitely will be offering it again.
I am super-lucky right now to be working in the same laboratory as Dr. Kathryn Lord, who is also a post-doc working in Karlsson Lab, and she is the expert on dog socialization. She did her Ph.D. looking at differences in timing in dog versus wolf socialization, and she has amazing insight, so one of the reasons I love my job so much is I can just go hang out with my friend Kathryn and ask her questions about socialization and she will hold forth and I will learn so much. That has been amazing to add on to, in addition to all the reading that I had done on my own, because socialization is super-super-interesting.
One of the things she really emphasizes is how important that first eight weeks is, how much is going on at that time, and how these puppies need to interact with their environment very early on and try to learn what’s normal and expected in their world. Puppies and other mammals are born without a strong fear response, just “whatever I’m interacting with for those early weeks.” Puppies start leaving the nest around 3 or 4 weeks. They don’t actually start being afraid of things until somewhere between 5 and 8 weeks, depending on the breed.
And so they have somewhere between one and four weeks in which they’re interacting with the world without any fearfulness and just being set up to make good associations with everything that they see, the idea being that they would be carefully under their mother’s care at that time, and that then by 8 weeks they’re starting to venture out farther, and then it starts being really useful for them to be afraid of things, because at that point there might actually be predators and dangers that they need to be able to run away from.
So that means that that really important time before they’re afraid of things, when they’re set up to make these good associations, is happening while they’re at the breeder’s. That’s before you get your hands on them, which is one of the reasons why, when I was looking at breeders, I looked into finding someone who had done a whole lot of work with the puppies, giving them a lot of enrichment and taking them offsite.
One of the things that happened with Jenny was she had never left her farm until she was 10 months old. So with Dash, someone who takes the puppies out for exploratory field trips, and does early scent stimulation and all that kind of stuff, that’s really important to do early on, although I think we also sometimes discount how much interesting stuff is also going on with puppies in the uterus. There’s been a lot of work on that with laboratory rodents, and it turns out that puppies start having different experiences from their littermates even in the uterus, so they’re getting, based on where they are relative to the bitch’s blood supply, they can get fewer or more of her stress hormones, or fewer or more nutrients, just based on how the blood supply goes from one end of the uterus to the other, and if there’s a bunch of puppies, it may be a bit depleted of both stress hormones and nutrients by the time it gets to the puppies at the far end.
Melissa Breau: Interesting.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, a lot of interesting stuff there that we don’t fully understand how that sets dogs up for issues later on, but we do believe that it does.
Melissa Breau: That’s neat, and it’s very different from what some people necessarily think about.
Jessica Hekman: We think about how important it is to socialize puppies when we bring them home, and for sure it is, I’m not discounting that. It is super-important. But there’s a lot that goes on before that first eight weeks that is also really important.
Melissa Breau: I think we’ve gotten into this a little bit already, but thinking about our audience, if you have somebody who’s evaluating an adult dog and they’re not entirely sure where that dog came from, are there things about that dog’s personality when they meet them that they should consider “fixed”? How flexible is that when you’re talking about an adult dog?
Jessica Hekman: Of course, because all dogs are individuals, it’s different for every dog, so it’s really hard to know, when you start working with a dog, how far they’re going to get.
I love using Jenny as an example, as when I got her, I had no idea. I didn’t know. I had been doing rescue work before, and I had known through the rescue there have been some dogs who would come in super-shy, and they made these magical turnarounds in a month or so, when they realized they were in a new home that was safe. So she could have just turned around immediately. She didn’t.
And then, after you’ve had the dog for a year, the question is, How far can she go? At the time, I figured, She’s never going to be a normal dog. I had pretty much given up on being able to take her for walks around the block, even. I thought, I’ll make sure to have houses with big yards, she can exercise in the yard at home, I will minimize trips to the vet and make home visits for her, and that was as far as I thought she was going to go for a long time. She has just continued to improve and that was surprising, and it was powerful to me to see how far some dogs can go.
On the other hand … so I don’t consider personality completely fixed, but it’s also about how hard you want to work on it, and Jenny, obviously, it was really a welfare issue for her. She was terrified of the world, and it was really important to me to make her feel more comfortable in her own skin. I had taken her on knowing that was going to be a project and a learning experience for me that I really wanted to work on.
In terms of sports, there’s this question of, if you get a dog who’s wrong for a particular sport, as it turns out — like I got Dash really wanting to do agility, and it turns out it may not be the best sport for him. Now could I get him to where he was competing successfully in agility and was really enjoying it? I probably could, if I put in the kind of time working just on that that I put in with Jenny. I’m sure that I could get him to where he relaxed more and figured it wasn’t going to hurt so much, and improve my own handling skills so that he’s more confident. I think I could get him much farther than I have so far. But is it worth it? It’s not a welfare issue for him. He doesn’t miss agility. He loves nosework, he loves parkour, so I’m focusing on that stuff.
So there’s this tradeoff, definitely, of how much effort do you want to put into it, and are you doing it for yourself or are you doing it for the dog?
Melissa Breau: Assuming that most of our audience is probably trying to determine whether or not a dog is suitable for sports, evaluating an adult dog most likely, from that angle, what things would you look at? What things would you consider?
Jessica Hekman: For sure, it’s going to be easiest in an adult dog to evaluate how good their structure is, whether they are the right size and shape and conformation for the sport that you’re interested in, and whether they’re medically healthy.
Assessing behavioral health is going to be another important thing. Depending on where they’re coming from, it can be harder to tell behavioral health. So if a dog has been in a shelter for months and is really shut down, it can be hard to tell if when you bring them into your house they’re going to open up. And then some dogs of course the opposite, that you have them in the shelter and they stress up, and so they become really jumpy, mouthy, crazy, and it’s hard to know if once you start working with them they’ll be able to have more self-control or not. It would be very rare to find a dog coming out of a situation where they’d been in a shelter for some period of time where they appeared behaviorally healthy, and it’s hard to know how easy it’s going to be to turn them around.
Definitely looking to see if a dog has an interest in humans is going to be super-important, and that, for me, I think was Jenny’s saving grace was that she was really, really interested in humans and wanted to be around humans. Obviously Jenny is not the kind of dog that any of you I think would go and pick up as a sports prospect. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to compete. I mean, she’s 10 now, so I’m not looking at her being able to ever be a competition dog, although I am actually hoping to put some parkour titles on her, because we can do that at home just on video.
But for a dog who has their act a little more together than Jenny did, making sure that the dog is interested in people. If you go into the room and the dog is just not interested in you — they should want to check out the new environment first, that’s fine, but if after they’ve had a couple of minutes to sniff around, they should also want to come and check in with you. If a dog is just not interested in interacting with you, that is a major warning sign for me that that is going to be a difficult dog to work with. It’s also ideal obviously to try to assess right away whether the dog has some interest in toys and in food. But again, all of it can change when you bring the dog home.
It’s too bad that there’s no way to a hundred percent guarantee that you’re going to get a dog that is really good at the sport that you’re interested in. It’s something that upsets everybody. We’d all like to have the guarantee that before we commit and tell the dog that they’re going to be our dog for the rest of their lives and we’re going to take care of them, and we become emotionally attached to them, we’d like to know that they’re going to be a good partner for the sport that we want as well, and there’s just not a way to a hundred percent tell about that, unfortunately, either route that you go, whether it be getting an adult dog that somebody else has had, or whether it be getting a puppy from a breeder. You can minimize your risks, but there’s always going to be some risks.
Certainly when you get a dog as an adult you should try to take advantage of all the opportunities that you have to get information about how that dog was in its previous environment. So definitely if you’re getting a dog from a shelter, I would ask them, “Are there staff members who like this dog, who know this dog, who worked with this dog?” A lot of shelters will even have training classes that they do just for enrichment with their dogs, and they’ll be able to tell you some stuff about how the dog has responded to that. But even failing that, if you ask around, you’ll often find people who clean the kennels will say, “Oh, I love this dog, she really got to know me, she’s always so glad to see me.” That’s useful information. Or “She barks, and she seems really nervous of me and was unable to warm up to me, even though I tried to offer her treats.” That would be useful information too.
If you go the rescue route and a dog has been in somebody’s home for a couple of weeks, that’s fabulous. That is just a goldmine of information. Hopefully you all know this already, but definitely sit down with those people and grill them for whatever they can tell you about that dog.
Melissa Breau: Right. As trainers, I think we know that behavior modification works, but what does the science say about how that and genetics interact? You mentioned you’ve done so much work with Jenny, and I’d love to hear the other side of that, the research and that piece of it.
Jessica Hekman: As I said, there’s just no guarantee and biology is really complicated. And it’s really early days yet, too, of figuring out how we’re going to be able to use genetics to predict anything.
What we’re looking at right now is working with some groups who breed dogs for guide-dog work and assistance-dog work. They manage populations of dogs, and we’re trying to get to where an initial goal for us is to try to find some markers in the DNA that will help us say, “Dogs with this marker tend to do better on this trait,” whatever trait it is they’re interested in is. They’re interested in things like not afraid of thunderstorms, and not afraid of walking on unstable surfaces, and how easily stressed-out is the dog. We’d like to be able to give them some genetic tests for stuff like that, with the understanding that these genetic tests are useful for a population of dogs, and there’s always going to be this interaction with the environment, and so even if you have genetic tests like that, that’s to help you decide which dogs to breed and to try to make some selections among the litter, and these are the ones that are going to be better guide dogs and these maybe would be more useful going off and doing some kind of tracking work or something like that.
But it’s still very much never going to be a black-and-white “Yes, he passed genetically, he’s going to be a guide dog.” We’re pretty much never, at least with the current state of the technology, not going to be able to say things like that. And it makes it even harder when you’re asking things about individuals. So those groups working with populations, what we’d really like as sports people would be to be able to say, “I don’t care about the whole population of dogs. I just want one for me that will do my favorite sport.”
Genetics is always going to be really hard, so at this point we don’t even have any sort of tests that we can do. But even when we start getting to where we’re going to be able to do them, it will only give you a hint, it will only be a small piece of information to put into the rest of the picture and try to figure out what’s going on with that dog.
Melissa Breau: To bring it back to what you said initially, it’s really about genetics may put a dog more or less at risk for particular behavioral traits, but there’s really quite a bit of flexibility within that.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, and remembering that genetics isn’t a switch. It’s all about risk, and whether a dog is more sensitive to their environment maybe and more at risk for developing some problem.
But I think one thing I didn’t really say enough earlier in this conversation, though, is that if you are raising a dog from a puppy, and the dog does end up developing a shy personality, and you’ve done everything right, I do want to emphasize that it does not mean that it’s your fault. It doesn’t mean that the dog had some switch determining that it was going to be shy. It just means that there’s a lot going on that you may not be able to see, and it definitely means you shouldn’t give up and say, “This is just genetic, it can’t be changed.” It probably can be changed.
You aren’t going to know going in where you can end up.
I didn’t know going in with Jenny where I was going to end up, and she’s much less shy than I ever thought she’d get to be. I didn’t know with Dash going in where I was going to end up. I hoped I’d end up in agility. I ended up in nosework. In both cases I’m really happy with where I ended up. They are fabulous dogs and I love them so much. So working with your dog, I guess, and not giving up, but also being open to different paths is hopefully the answer.
Melissa Breau: Okay, for those interested, where do they go to learn more?
Jessica Hekman: I definitely mentioned DarwinsArk.org. That’s where my work project is. And I mentioned that we were working with guide dogs and assistance dogs currently, and we are hoping to start expanding into sports dogs soon.
I’m definitely going to make so much noise about that on the alumni list when it happens, and I’ll probably call you up, Melissa, and see if we can do another podcast just talking about that. But it doesn’t hurt to get signed up now and be prepared for when that happens.
I am also teaching a class pretty much about all of this stuff in December. It’s a class about the genetics of dog behavior, and with the help of some very creative people on the alumni list, I decided to call it The Melting Pot: Genes, Environment, and Personality. And so it’s very much about genetics, but it’s also about how it’s not just genetics, it’s also environment. That’s going to be in December. I think it should be on the schedule, and I’ll make sure that it definitely is by the time this podcast goes live.
Also I am very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and I tweet and message on Facebook a lot of different stories about dog science. It’s some of the stuff that I’ve written, but more often I find stuff out there and share it. So people who want to know more about this stuff, following me both on Twitter and on Facebook is a good way to do it. Twitter is @dogzombieblog and Facebook is Facebook.com/dogzombieblog, or in either case if you just search for Jessica Hekman or go to dogzombie.com, in all those cases you’ll get links to those things.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Jessica. This was great.
Jessica Hekman: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Linda Case to talk about dog nutrition.
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