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On My Mind: Sparks Flying at SPARCS Conference

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From June 20-22, 2014, I went to a new kind of dog conference held here in New England: SPARCS 2014. The conference was in Newport, Rhode Island, a two-to-three hour drive from the Karen Pryor Clicker Training offices in Boston. Three of us went: me, Lori Gwyr, who is the director of Karen Pryor Academy, and Lily Strassberg, who is designing online courses for KPA.

What was new?

Photo courtesy of SPARCS.

First, the speakers were all scientists, and scientists who study dogs: dog behavior, dog cognition, dog emotions, and the long old bond between dogs and people. Canine behavior and, especially, canine cognition have become very fashionable lately; I personally know several people heading up canine cognition labs in different universities. One scientist went so far as to say "The dog is our new chimpanzee."

Second, the talks were informal and informative in a very human way. At most scientific conferences, people present what they have discovered and show their data. Period. Well, they did that here, but they also talked freely about their research designs, what worked and what didn't, what they are still puzzled about, and what they want to do going forward. Simon Gadbois, who studies scent discrimination, showed us fascinating videos of dogs locating rare snakes and turtles in the wild. He also gave us a great example of a series of lab scent tests where the dog was brilliant—apparently—but where it wasn't smelling a thing, but picking up some invisible cue from the student running the test. The student knew which scent holder was the right one and was unconsciously telegraphing the information. Wow, Clever Hans in action!

(This problem was easy to fix, by the way. Simon set it up next time so the student didn't know which tube was which.)

Third, the data-based science was terrific. There were some wonderful studies. I wouldn't have thought I'd sit still for a long series of very big and detailed graphs, but I loved James Serpell's presentation on a huge study of how behavioral traits differ among a selection of dog breeds. He surveyed breed club members for frequency of occurrence of specific behaviors—thousands of data points. The graphs showed all kinds of interesting fallout. For example, which breed shows the lowest level of responses for almost all of the affiliative behaviors, and almost all of the aggressive behaviors? The Alaskan Husky. Though, oh boy, this breed was king of them all for the behavior of roaming. Speculation among the group: this breed, like some Japanese breeds, is perhaps one of the breeds closest to the original primitive dog.

The level of reactivity and aggression in toy breeds was also interesting. We tend to blame those yappy little dogs on owners not training them, but Ray Coppinger pointed out (in the panel discussion if I remember correctly) that when you change one genetic trait—in this case, size—you may change others without being aware of it. For the breeds on Serpell's list, neurochemicals related to reactivity were more abundant in toy dogs than in larger breeds. Only two of the toy breeds Serpell collected data on were free of this reactivity-inducing side effect: Havanese and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Aha! We have a new Cav puppy in my family and she's a pistol: affectionate, full of energy, and not a bit fearful, yappy, or snappy. So there! Science agrees that you're a fine little dog, Primrose.

The fourth thing about this conference that was different from others was that the whole thing was being broadcast over the Internet in high-definition video to anyone who wanted to watch. Free, no fee. The talks were viewed by about 130 people in a theater in Newport, RI, and by more than 22,000 people around the world. One watcher threw the broadcast up on a big screen and invited all her students for all three days. People in Australia sat up all night and slept all day in order to watch the conference. Amazing.

Here's a fun blog on the SPARCS experience.

How about clicker training? Well, at least four of the speakers use a little clicker training. Some don't go far beyond step one, click means treat, and step two, click ends the behavior, but hey, just as with the neuroscience community, the tools are working their way into these labs, too.

Conference organizer and SPARCS President Prescott Breeden invited me to be interviewed on stage by the hosts, Mia Cobb and Julie Hecht, for 15 minutes during the Sunday lunch break. I talked about the conference itself, a little about clicker training, a bit more about my own present and future research plans. Never spoke to 22,000 people at once before. Awesome! By total chance, the clothes I wore matched the SPARCS colors—I got clicked for that.

Take homes, for me

The talks were so full of new data it was hard to keep them all separate. I'm signing on for a membership, in order to take a second look at the 2014 talks that intrigued me the most. (A Silver membership gets you complete access to the videos of the 2014 talks, and to the 2013 talks as well. A Gold membership gives you all that and a free ticket to next year's conference, as well. )

To sign on, and to learn more about the speakers, the research, and the funding, go to www.caninescience/info. Or, Google SPARCS, the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science.

At last! It's not just the veterinarians who do research on dogs. It's all of us. Click! 

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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