We have had seven dogs over the years, so I have some sense for what is normal. From the moment he stepped into the house, Cato was different. He didn't wag his tail. There was nothing physically wrong with it. Sometimes his tail arched over his back, and other times it laid out flat in repose. But wag? The best he could muster was an uncoordinated slow undulation. Not only did this make it hard for me to read his emotional state, I think it confused the other dogs, who may have mistook his body language for a threat.
Crate-training was a disaster. Since there is usually a human around our house most of the time, we have housetrained our dogs simply by taking them outside frequently. This way, they get used to doing their business outside. We use the crate for sleeping at night until the dog is old enough to sleep quietly in one of the human bedrooms. But Cato barked and howled in the crate to no end. He wore us down. After the first night, he ended up sleeping in our bedroom.
As he got older, the barking only got louder. I should have known about this. Plotthounds were bred as big game dogs and to track bear and hog. They have a choppy bark that carries long distances so hunters can follow them through the woods of the southern Appalachians. With few bear around the house, Cato directed his energy at articles of clothing, pillows, furniture, and the window casings.
He never seemed to get his footing socially with the other dogs. I believe his lack of a tail-wag made him some kind of canine autistic, and he quickly fell to the bottom of the social hierarchy. Much to Helen's distress, he wriggled away every time she tried to hug him. This was a dog who had trouble fitting in. He would be the kid in middle school most likely to be picked on.
Helen had high hopes that Cato could be trained to go in the MRI, just like Callie. I mean, isn't that what all of us want? To have the means to communicate directly with our best friends? Helen did her best. She practiced with Cato in a mock head-coil to teach him to hold his head absolutely still. But when it came to teaching him to walk up the steps into a tube that simulated the bore of the real MRI, it became apparent that Cato was just too nervous. And forget about the noise or the ear muffs that would be needed to protect his hearing. The dog was already afraid of thunderstorms.
With great reluctance, Helen admitted that Cato was not a good candidate for the MRI and that it would be unfair to make him do something that he so clearly was not cut out for. But it was only after this failure that I began to think seriously about how the MRI project could tell us what was wrong with dogs like Cato.
To be fair, there was nothing wrong with Cato. He was a discarded plotthound whose innate skillset was not well-matched to a suburban lifestyle. There are millions of dogs in the same predicament.
One of the findings from the MRI project is that the part of the canine brain associated with reward can respond to different types of reward. When we began, we focused on how this part of the brain responded to food. But this was just a proof of concept. Since then, we have been measuring how the dog's reward system responds to social signals like the presence or absence of their humans, or the smell of their human. We have even begun measuring the brain's response to pictures of their humans. It is becoming clear that dogs, like people, respond to these types of social signals regardless of the form they come in. And this tells us something important about living with difficult dogs.
Dogs have free will. They make choices. If they do not do what we want them to, then it is because a more attractive alternative has captured their interest. The usual way that humans attempt to bend dogs to their will is by changing the value of the options. With "positive training," the value of the desired action is increased by associating it with food or play. This is very effective for most things that a dog should learn, like walking calmly on a leash or coming when called. However, there are certain circumstances in which no amount of food or praise will divert a dog from his intent. If a dog really wants to chase a squirrel, there may be nothing you can offer that will be of higher value. It is in these circumstances that humans will resort to what many trainers have called the dark side: punishment. By definition, anything that decreases a behavior is a punishment. A leash correction is a punishment. Blocking your dog from running out the front door is a punishment. Yelling, hitting, shock collars are all punishments.
I was tired of yelling at Cato. The barking had become so incessant that neither dog nor human wanted to be around him anymore. There had to be a better way.
Even though Cato was not going to be an MRI-dog, the answer lay in the MRI data we had been collecting in the other, well-behaved, dogs. Although parts of the dog brain look and function just like the corresponding parts in human brains, dogs largely lack a big piece of neural real estate: the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is crucial to complex human cognitive functions like planning, abstract thought, and the ability to inhibit our emotional impulses.
I realized that Cato's problem was not one of misunderstanding what I wanted. I think he knew what was expected of him. The problem was that even with such knowledge he couldn't inhibit the overwhelming urge to bark, tear up clothing, or swipe food off the counter. So I began a new training program.