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2010 National Animal Interest Alliance Conference: Enhancing the Bond
Posted on 12/09/2010 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

In early October, I headed out to Denver, Colorado for the annual National Animal Interest Alliance conference. NAIA
is an association of business, agricultural, scientific, and recreational interests dedicated to promoting animal welfare, supporting responsible animal use and strengthening the bond between humans and animals. The membership is comprised of pet owners, dog and cat clubs, obedience clubs and rescue groups as well as breeders, trainers, veterinarians, research scientists, farmers, fishermen, hunters and wildlife biologists. The membership roster of NAIA includes some of America's most respected animal professionals, advocates and enthusiasts. NAIA is our answer to HSUS and PETA, and is a group I would STRONGLY recommend all dog owners to support.
This year’s conference was a bit of a departure from previous ones I have attended—typically they have been more legislatively oriented, but this year the conference was all about the human-animal bond. As I have experienced every year, I learned a ton, and the speakers were all fantastic. The conference was entitled “Enhancing the Bond: Preserving our working, performing, and companion animals” and covered a wide array of topics, from the history of the domestication of dogs to circus animals to genetics. While all of the speakers were fascinating, I’m going to cover and summarize some of my very favorites in this month’s column.

Meg Olmert is the producer of many documentaries for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, and PBS and also author of “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond,” which was the topic of her talk. Studies have shown for years that having a pet has a great many positive benefits, such as reducing stress and lowering blood pressure, but when Meg began asking various scientists and doctors, no one knew WHY. She wanted to find the biology and science behind these health benefits, and so began her journey of research. Meg found that anthropologists are more closely examining the influence of animals on human evolution. Looking back to the Ice Age, humans were NOT at the top of the food chain at that time. We were basically scavengers that were outnumbered and outsized by animals. Humans very closely watched and observed animals for survival—we became animal behavior experts! This tireless scrutiny of animals triggered a profound sense of attachments to animals. That attachment and bond developed as animals became domesticated, and it’s a bond we still have today.

What Meg found to be the key to this bond is a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is best known for its role in female reproduction. It is released in large doses during labor and breastfeeding, and is a very powerful anti-stress hormone that facilitates maternal bonding. It also plays a role in many other behaviors, including orgasm, pair bonding, anxiety, and social recognition,. Some studies have shown that it can be released when looking into the eyes of strangers—instead of creating a fight/flight reaction, it causes a social out-reaching reaction, or social recognition. Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness. Oxytocin probably played a major role in domestication, not only on our part but the animals as well. One example is barking. Emergence of the bark in dogs came with domestication, as wolves don’t bark. We are very visual creatures and can’t see in the dark, and as domestication evolved, dogs barked to alert us. Barking made us feel safer, more oxytocin was released, and we evolved faster.

Caring for and nurturing animals releases oxytocin, which in turn relieves stress, lowers heart rate, and is a powerful antioxidant. During the industrial revolution, we walked away from the animals we had bonded with and come to depend on over the centuries and we headed en masse to the cities. This in turn took away the stimulus that created oxytocin and we then had less biochemistry with animals. There is even less contact between humans and animals now—therefore less oxytocin, higher fight/flight reactions, and higher stress. Not only did Meg Olmert very thoroughly explain the biology of the human animal bond, she also demonstrated the importance of that bond to our health and very being, and the impact it has had on the development and history of humans.

Another speaker I truly enjoyed listening to was Ken Ramirez, the senior vice-president of animal collections and animal training at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. He’s a biologist and animal behaviorist that has worked with everything from owls to big cats to bomb and narcotic dogs. Ken uses positive reinforcement with all animals he trains, and is proof that positive reinforcement works. Ken grew up on a cattle ranch, working with horses and herding dogs, and later got into working with guide dogs in high school. From there, he entered the zoological field and broadened his training horizons.

Ken first spoke about how training is a very important, key factor in any animal’s successful care program. All programs need a foundation of: health care, nutrition, environment (including a social structure), and a behavior management component comprised of training and enrichment. Physical exercise and mental stimulation are primary reasons for training. Positive reinforcement works for many reasons, but it really helps enforce trust and relationship building, which are key to any successful training. Some basic components of positive reinforcement training are:

        · Operant conditioning: Using a marker (clicker, whistle, voice) paired with some kind of reward (treat, toy, etc) to teach the animal that the marker itself is a reward for correct behavior
        · Targeting: Teaching the animal to touch something with some part of its body, useful for building other behaviors
        · Successive approximations: Sequencing different behaviors in baby steps to teach one complicated behavior
        · Discriminative stimulus: Attaching a cue to a behavior—the cue must mark the behavior exactly when it occurs; also called free shaping

Ken showed several videos where these tools of positive reinforcement have been used in many different animals to teach various ‘tricks’ or behaviors, from dolphins performing complex jumps and flips to getting zoo animals such as giraffes to target something. Targeting is very useful in zoo animals as it can be used to redirect their attention while being groomed or having medical procedures performed on them. While the use of positive reinforcement has really grown and become recognized in the professional training world and found its use in zoos, acceptance has been a little slower in the dog world, but it is being used more and more. More trainers are finding that target trained dogs can be more versatile---I’ve found it myself. I use positive reinforcement in training my dogs, and my trick and disc dog du jour, Carly, had basic target training which has made it so much easier to teach new things. She can do a lot of tricks away from me because of her target training, and it’s also been very useful in disc.

Many K-9 units have found greater success with positive reinforcement, and service dogs programs are slowly making the transition as well. It has also found its place in wildlife conservation. The most recent conservation work has been in conjunction with the Gulf oil spill. Scientists found that sea turtles would be amongst the most affected species. The eggs are laid in beaches, and the hatchlings come out in August to head out to sea—right into the oil. It was estimated that 50, 000 turtles were at risk and something had to be done quickly. Dogs were trained using positive reinforcement to find the sea turtle eggs. The USFWS found 12,000 eggs, but with the use of these newly trained dogs, 29,000 more eggs were found and relocated. Ken has proven that any animal can be trained, and that the skilled use of art, science, and relationship can take training to new levels.

Janice Aria was a speaker that, while she was less dog-specific, left a great impression on me. Janice is the Director of Animal Stewardship with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She has 40 years of experience in animal handling and behavior, and in 2005 was promoted to the Director position where she oversees the elephant attending training program, teaches training methods to animal handlers, and is involved in the care of the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere.

Janice was finishing her last semester at New York University when she enrolled in Ringling’s Clown College. Her original intent was to learn and use her experience for troubled kids. However, the very first day of class, she was given the opportunity to ride an elephant, which was the biggest thrill of her life. That was it—she left college and didn’t look back. She stayed on and became an elephant rider/ clown with the circus. She spent most of her time with the animals, and developed a very strong bond with them. The animals involved in the circus are very indulged, and she found training them makes their lives with the circus possible.

She eventually fell into training bears for the circus. Her then boyfriend (later husband) had always wanted a bear, but they couldn’t afford one at that point in their lives. PR for the circus got her onto a daytime show special where contestants could get the one thing they have always wanted. She won, and her boyfriend told the show that she had always wanted a bear cub! She did not in fact want a bear, she wanted a Golden Retriever, and she eventually got one. She and her boyfriend married and moved to Florida to wait for their bear cub. Once they received the bear cub, it was placed with and bonded to her Golden, Peaches. They later bred Peaches, and had 6 puppies left after some were given to family. They found they just could not (they didn’t want to) sell the remaining puppies. So voila, they now had a bear and dog act—The Aria Performing Bears and the Liberty Golden Retrievers. They performed with their act all over the country and the world, with many smaller circuses that are no longer in existence.

She also spoke a bit about the animal rights movement, as the circus is very much attacked by animal rights groups. Circuses used to traditionally have an animal walk, to move the animals from the train station to where the circus was set up. These walks used to be celebrated parades that the whole town turned out to watch—it was an entire even unto itself before the circus. Now these walks must be done in the middle of the night due to animal rights activists. The AR protesters will follow and try to rile the animals—from throwing rocks at them to setting dogs after them---just so the trainers will be forced to discipline the animals and they can film it to use in their campaigns. She said it is truly not about animal care or welfare to the AR protestors, but about shutting down the circus entirely, with no care as to the means. They don’t care if a stampede is caused and animals injured in the process. It’s very sad that what used to be such a celebrated event must be hidden and secretive now, but the safety and welfare of the animals comes first.

Now Janice works at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Ringling has 53 elephants total, with only 18 of those performing. Ringling keeps all elephants from birth until death. All elephants are trained, but not all perform—it just depends on how they take to it. They have a training program where interns come in for a 3 month paid internship program. Also, they are now conducting artificial insemination as a means of breeding and obtaining semen elsewhere to maintain genetic diversity. It has been successful with the African elephants but tough with the Asian elephants. The first AI baby was born not breathing, and then wouldn’t nurse. After 6 weeks of bottle feeding, he survived. As he was born on the eve of the 44th President’s inauguration, his name is Barack. Janice says he is healthy boy, and was such a ham at his first appearance in the circus that he’ll be a natural performer. Janice spoke with such passion and heart throughout her whole talk, you know the elephants are in great hands with her.

Finally, Patti Strand, the founder and National Director of NAIA, gave a talk entitled “Preserving the Gift of Dog Ownership.” The anti-dog breeding portion of the animal rights movement began in the 1980’s. Anti-breeding workshops were held all over the country with the goal of making “the public think of breeding cats and dogs like drunk driving and smoking.” It had some success as now much of the public believes that dog breeders are responsible for pet overpopulation, diseases, and temperament issues.

What it’s coming to is that the pet supply is at stake. Mixed breeds come from combinations of purebreds, and if purebreds continue to be reduced then dogs in general will be reduced. The US has the highest rate of dog ownership, with France, England, and Germany next in line. There is a continuation of widespread pet ownership, yet there is in reality a downward trend of shelter statistics and euthanasia rates. Puppies are rarely seen in shelters anymore. Shelters have now become not only humane functions, but also a supplier of dogs. In most parts of the country, indiscriminate breeding is becoming more and more rare, and many places have a greater demand of dogs than supply. The paradigm has shifted, and more and more people are spaying and neutering their dogs: an estimated 76-87% of household dogs are altered. This is due to many dogs coming from shelters and rescues where they are already spayed/neutered, and also breeders selling dogs on spay/neuter contracts.

So what will be the future source of dogs? Trends show that the popularity of designer dogs is increasing and that those breeders are having success. Hobby breeders and commercial breeders are another source. Dogs are also being imported, both legally and illegally. The Center for Disease Control reported that 300,000 dogs were imported in 2006. US Customs and Border Control estimates close to 200,000 came across the border illegally from Mexico in 2007. What is truly frightening is the importation of dogs from other countries to fill the need in shelters, and bringing with them new diseases and also old diseases we have eradicated in this country. The Animal Place, a farm animal pro-vegan sanctuary, has assisted in “rescuing” dogs from Mexico, where rabies is still endemic. Save A Sato is an organization that has moved thousands of dogs from Puerto Rico to the Northeast US for the past ten years, bringing in all kinds of diseases and issues. The Potcake Place sends dogs from the Caribbean Islands into the US. In the Northwest and West coast, dogs are now coming in from China and India---10% of all street dogs in India have titers for rabies.

Patti gave a perfect overview of the status of dogs and dog breeding in this country, and that it is in fact threatened. The endangerment of dog breeding coupled with the importance of the bond with animals and new ways to strengthen that bond stresses the importance of our fight. If you’re looking for a way to get organized, and get strength enough in numbers to fight the big machine of HSUS, the National Animal Interest Alliance is it! Not only does it bring all the dog groups together, but also agriculture, hunting, circus, and other animal industries. Check out NAIA today: