25 Apr 2017

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren
APA Fellow Stanley Coren's research on dog behavior has brought him worldwide acclaim. (Photo: SC & Ripley UBC photo)

He wrote the textbook on sensory processes, published hundreds of papers on wide-ranging neuropsychological topics—and wrote a groundbreaking book on problems associated with left-handedness.

But it was his 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, which ultimately brought psychologist and APA Fellow Stanley Coren, PhD, worldwide acclaim.

The Intelligence of Dogs was the first popular book to apply multiple intelligences to dogs—including instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence—and it blended colorful personal anecdotes with a scientist’s understanding of the dog’s natural history, evolutionary relationship to humans, and trainability.

Notably, the book included data Coren collected from North American dog obedience judges that ranked 110 breeds by intelligence. (Unsurprisingly, Border Collies topped the list, while beautiful, but pea-brained, Afghan Hounds rounded out the bottom.)

It also employed aspects of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories to begin measuring canine language comprehension, an innovative adaptation of human psychological testing.

Speaking from his home in British Columbia, with his Toller pup Ranger whining for attention, Coren reflects on the meandering pathways his scientific explorations have taken him on, and the new concepts of canine research his work has unleashed.

“It used to be the case that you didn’t do research on dogs . . . because they were not considered a natural species,” says Coren, adding: “After my book came out, people began to see . . . what a wonderful genetics lab dogs could be because the breeds have been kept so pure that you actually can have genetically determined behavior differences.

“And then the later books that suggested that dogs have a mind of roughly a human equivalent of a 2- to-3-year-old began to impel people to think that maybe dogs are an important species to study.”

The dog book wasn’t his first brush with renown. Just a year earlier, Coren had published a bestseller on left-handedness, The Left-Hander Syndrome, which included nearly a decade of work on handedness.

His research indicated that left-handedness might be associated with birth stress and could cause some psychological and health problems—a highly controversial assertion that spurred new research in the field. Eventually, it also led to design changes in machinery to reduce hazards for left-handers, an accomplishment for which Coren enjoys obvious pride.

The book shot to the top of the bestseller list and landed Coren a spot on talk show couches from Oprah to Larry King to Charlie Rose. “I had been teaching monster-sized classes, hundreds of kids. That’s basically show biz, so I had lots of practice,” quips Coren.

What the two books shared was a deft, natural writing style that blended extensive scientific research with colorful personal anecdotes, examples from history, mythology, physiology and, in the case of handedness, advocacy. “All of my [popular] books are written as though I’m sitting across the table telling a story to my Aunt Sylvia,” he says, laughing. “She had a short attention span.”

Coren says he always knew he wanted to study the human-canine bond even as an undergrad in the 1960s, but in those days there was no precedent for “studying the critter at either end of the leash.”

“Anybody who claimed they wanted to study the human-animal bond at that time was looked at as if they had just gotten out of a flying saucer with a beanie [and] propeller on top,” says Coren. “There was no way for funding for that sort of thing.”

And so Coren pursued research in sensory processing, publishing his first paper in Science before earning a doctorate in psychology from Stanford. He established a prolific research career, publishing on wide-ranging topics that included vision and hearing, perception, laterality, birth stress, sleep, handedness, behavior genetics and cognitive processing.

“I always believed that a good scientist had to follow his interests and the questions which intrigued him,” notes Coren, who has amassed roughly 300 publications in publications including The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and American Journal of Public Health.

His body of neuropsychological work earned him the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed on a scientist. But even then, Coren was dogged by his “other” life.

“At the induction ceremony the governor general—who is the queen’s representative in Canada—shook my hand,” recalls Coren. “And all she wanted to do was talk about her Golden Retrievers. But, they’re the fourth smartest dogs in all of dogdom and they’re kissy-faced . . . so it’s an irresistible package.”

Coren has heard tales by besotted dog owners from movie stars to presidents. George Bush, Sr., once told Coren that First Dog Millie, his famed Springer Spaniel, routinely took showers with him at the White House.

“For a psychologist like me it was absolute proof of just how strong our bonds can be with our dogs . . .  that we would talk about these intimate moments with people we don’t know all that well when they involve our dog,” Coren chuckles.

Naturally, Coren has been a lifelong dog owner and longtime competitive dog obedience trainer—several of his dogs have won obedience titles. His books are filled with stories of pups he has loved and trained, and he even devoted an entire book to a clever Cairn Terrier, Flint, who could perform counting tasks and operate an answering machine.

Probably not surprising in the often siloed world of science, Coren’s success as a scientist-communicator would eventually undercut his work as a researcher.

“When I published The Intelligence of Dogs I was told by my colleagues it would be the end of my career,” says Coren, who nonetheless balanced his popular writing with neuropsychological research, until funding dried up in 2001. Undaunted, he continued research with his own funds before retiring from academics in 2007.

Coren has made peace with the price of success. He harnessed his own devotion to dogs to publish more than a dozen books on the subject. He writes a regular column on dogs for Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to the Canadian TV show “Pet Central.”

Coren says he’s excited about the explosion of dog research taking place internationally since his first book was published and the growing understanding of capabilities of service and therapy dogs. “In 1972, I remember there were 16 assisted-animal programs in all of America. In the year 2000, when I stopped monitoring, there were well over 1,000.”

All of Coren’s dogs are certified therapy dogs, he says, and he also trains them for competition-level obedience trials, whether they compete or not. But even in his household, dogs will be dogs. He confesses: “When my wife is not around they sometimes sneak on the sofa.”

At this Coren lets out a roaring laugh, which Ranger answers with an urgent whimper. “Okay puppy,” he says. “Okay. Time to go out.”

Dog Tips

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08 Mar 2017

Norweeta Milburn Wants to Prevent Teenage Homelessness

Norweeta Milburn Wants to Prevent Teenage Homelessness
APA Fellow Norweeta Milburn, PhD, has developed a psychosocial behavioral program to help homeless adolescents.

Chronic homelessness among young people often is traced to factors such as family violence, substance abuse and negative peer pressure—issues that are difficult to address and whose impact is hard to measure.

Leading community psychologist and APA Fellow Norweeta Milburn, PhD, thinks she may have developed a surprisingly simple intervention: She is teaching teenagers and their families how to fight fair.

Milburn and colleagues at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center have developed an innovative, on-the-ground behavioral intervention that brings together young people and their parents/guardians for training on some basic communication and problem-solving skills.

“We argue that when a young person leaves home there is an unresolved conflict,” says Milburn. “The intervention is devised so that young people can argue with their parent or guardian in a more effective way so that they don’t have to leave home. We’re teaching them how to communicate better.”

The five-part psychosocial behavioral program, called STRIVE (Support to Reunite, Involve and Value Each Other), is highly adaptable and can be delivered on the teenager’s home turf—it’s been field tested in living rooms, teen centers and fast-food restaurants—wherever a client agrees to meet up with his or her guardian and a trained facilitator.

A STRIVE facilitator helps individuals identify family strengths while pinpointing sources of conflict. The facilitator introduces tools for emotional regulation, such as feeling thermometers, to help them gauge their levels of emotional arousal.

By setting small, winnable goals, the family members learn to identify a conflict, apply some problem-solving strategies, and work through concrete solutions. In the process, they often create a more positive family atmosphere—as evidenced by the “before” and “after” photographs facilitators take of participants, the latter often showing parents and children with their arms around each other.

Parents need the skills just as much as the kids, notes Milburn. “It may be a mother who is really exhausted, and part of her homework is to just get an hour of her own space. We’re trying to help them be the parent, be in control, but to do it in a way that is positive for their child and age appropriate.”

The idea for the intervention came out of her years of research on homelessness. Milburn, currently Professor-in-Residence at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, was among the first social scientists to establish differences among homeless young people.

Her 1999 study of homeless adolescents in the Los Angeles area showed that newly homeless youth who still maintained some ties to family had fewer risk behaviors than did their more chronically homeless counterparts. More than two-thirds returned home within six months, particularly if they had maintained contact with mainstream peers and with family.

Milburn cut her teeth on social research as a postdoc at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was the 1970s, and she was among the first wave of students working with pioneering social research psychologist Richard Price in what was then the nascent field of community psychology.

“It was the aftermath of the Vietnam War and we were still dealing with the tumultuousness of the ‘60s,” she recalls. “Social action, political action and social movements were important areas. What community psychology did, and part of its appeal, was to really understand people’s behavior in the social context within which they lived or experienced the world.”

In 1977, Milburn contributed several survey questions to the groundbreaking National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA).

The large, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) -funded study was the first to use cutting-edge social research methods to understand the behavior and life experiences of black people in the U.S. and has shaped public policy for decades.

“A lot of work prior to that talked about how dysfunctional black families were, how underachieving black children were,” recalls Milburn. “There was a lot of negative focus in the psychological and sociological literature.”

The NSBA greatly expanded measures relevant to the quality of life for black Americans and identified cultural and social strengths including family relationships, community involvement and religious supports.

“It really shaped my work, even now with homeless adolescents,” says Milburn, adding: “Even in the poorest communities, you still have good things that are going on. How do you capture some of the good, the strength, to build interventions?”

For her work on homelessness Milburn is building on the strongest, and most vulnerable, support of all: family love. It is a bond that too often is obscured in layers of blame and misunderstanding.

“So many are highly dysfunctional families but we try to take them back to their last positive experience with each other, to the point where the love was much more visible,” notes Milburn. “We know it’s there.”

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03 Jan 2017

Suzanne MacDonald Helps Threatened Species Survive

Suzanne MacDonald Helps Threatened Species Survive
APA Fellow Suzanne MacDonald is an animal behaviorist in Toronto, Canada. She studies memory and cognition in primates and other animals in the wild.

At the edge of the northern Ontario wilderness, three orphaned polar bears roam the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, a five-acre tract of woods, rock and natural lake.

Although they are not free to roam beyond the perimeter of the conservation and public education center, the bears are faring better than many of their counterparts in the wild who face starvation as prime seal hunting grounds melt into the warming sea.

Soon, the bears will enjoy even greater freedom. With the use of “smart technology” under development and some new, learned behavior, the bears will be able to control their levels of light, temperature, amount of mist they get in the summer—and maybe even their playmates—with the thrust of a snout in a laser beam.

The brains behind this innovation is APA Fellow Suzanne MacDonald, PhD, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, who has recruited 11 undergraduate engineering students to help develop the unique technology.

It’s just the latest project for the animal behaviorist, who has studied a wide range of animals around the globe in an effort to help threatened species survive.

“Large carnivores particularly have a hard time in captivity because they typically range over many, many kilometers in a day,” says MacDonald. “Replicating their environment in captivity is impossible, so what I think will help is to give them control over what they do.”

Psychologists, she says, have a special role to play in creating and monitoring habitats—be they wild or human-built—where threatened species can survive with a minimum of disruption to their natural behaviors.

 “We can’t just go, oh no this is terrible,” she says. “We have to actually do something about it. We have to go in and take our expertise … and help in the real world.”

For MacDonald that imperative has included a mix of behavioral research and conservationism. She has studied elephants, lions, gorillas, rhinos, marmots, orangutans and hyenas in countries including Kenya, Costa Rica and South Africa. But it may be her volunteer work with animals in captivity that has brought her the greatest satisfaction.

MacDonald has been the on-call behaviorist at the Toronto Zoo for 26 years, where she acquired a deep fondness for and understanding of orangutans. The primates love to be silly, she says, recalling her first shared joke with another species. She hid an object in her hand, then did a big reveal, which sent the orangutan howling.

“They go, ‘Aaaaaah!’ Just like kids do,” she says, throwing out her hands and grinning widely. “To do that for the first time, you go, this is the greatest thing in the world. I’m having an awesome time with this other mind.”

Orangutans also love to look at photos on a computer screen, a technology that is increasingly in use at zoos around the world. “They love it,” says MacDonald. “You can get them to scroll through photos and you can tell which photo they like by how long they spend looking at it.”

Number one with orangutans? “They love the babies,” she says.

MacDonald came by her love of animals honestly. Raised in northern Alberta, she grew up with cats, dogs, horses, ducks, rabbits and a constant backdrop of wildlife. “I’m Canadian and animals are kind of in our blood,” she says, adding conspiratorially, “I actually prefer the company of other species. That’s pretty bad!”

After undergraduate studies in zoology and genetics, she earned her PhD in animal learning and behavior from the University of Alberta and began studying the unique quirks of how animals think.

It was during a postdoc visit to a now-defunct zoo in Vancouver that MacDonald first began approaching cognitive research as one way to promote psychological well-being in captive animals.

“The zoo was terrible,” she recalls. “The primates had nothing to do so they used to abuse each other.” Including, apparently, biting each other’s fingers off. “I was so upset by that,” she says. “You can’t just give them food in a lump in the corner and a place to live and expect that primates are going to be happy. They’re like us. You’ve got to give them things to do.”

MacDonald upbraided the zoo owner and made a laundry list of recommendations, including housing them in normal social groups and giving them tasks to do, including searching for food. He incorporated them all, and MacDonald used that work as the basis for some of her earliest primate research studies.

Modern zoos have come a long way since then, and MacDonald says zoo staff has been among “the best people I’ve ever worked with.” Still, she says, each species reacts differently to captivity and requires a depth of cognitive understanding that psychologists are uniquely trained to provide.

“Now that zoos are probably the last refuge for many, many species, we’d better figure out how to keep them at least sane and breeding and as happy as possible,” MacDonald says, adding: “And it can be done, it really can.”

A spatial theme runs through much of MacDonald’s research. She has studied the spatial abilities of a variety of primates—from migrating elephants to raccoons to human babies.

Her ongoing research on roaming raccoons in the city of Toronto has earned her renown in the public press, including a documentary on her research called “Raccoon Nation” on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Nature of Things.

“There are so many more raccoons in people’s backyards than they thought,” she says. “In one backyard I have counted over 50 raccoons in one night.”

She is conducting a new study this spring comparing urban vs. rural raccoons to get data on her hypothesis that Toronto is developing so-called “uber-raccoons,” city slickers who have developed more wiles than their country cousins.

“The differences I’ve already found between the adults in the city and country were quite substantial. So I want to find out if those are innate or not,” she says.

Not all of MacDonald’s research has gone as planned. There was the time in Kenya a couple of years ago when she was testing vanilla as an attractant for elephants. It was hoped that vanilla could be used to entice the pachyderms to migrate away from crops, roads and other human encroachments that might engender danger to either.

Trouble was, she had inadvertently dosed herself and suddenly found a bull elephant barreling toward her. “You go, ‘Oh my, I have misread the situation and now I’m going to die,’” she says, laughing. “I did at one point recite my will into the video camera but luckily the elephant stopped just in front of me and I was fine.”

Watching a woodpecker land on a tall tree in her backyard, MacDonald becomes more serious.

“The wild isn’t wild anymore,” she muses. “The places in Kenya where you go, ‘Wow this is extraordinary,’ is only so because it’s fenced. Places in the wild are becoming like a zoo. And that’s really going to be the way it is.”

This blurring between captivity and the wild, she says, is an irreparable consequence of environmental degradation caused by humans. “I don’t know what to say anymore,” she says. “It seems like you’re trying to drain the ocean with a thimble. Still, you gotta do something.”

She thinks psychologists must play a much larger role: “We learn how to work in a lab, and work with control and variables. And we manipulate them. Well, the wild is becoming like that … we are used to dealing with those settings but we just have to do it in a much larger sense. We can extrapolate and put it into real life.”

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