By Dr. Carmen L. Battaglia
Surprisingly, it isn’t capacity that explains the differences that exist between individuals, because most seem to have far more capacity than they will ever use. The differences that exist between individuals seem to be related to something else. The ones who achieve and outperform others seem to have within themselves the ability to use hidden resources. In other words, it’s what they are able to do with what they have that makes the difference.
In many animal breeding programmes, the entire process of selection and management is founded on the belief that performance is inherited. Attempts to analyse the genetics of performance in a systematic way have involved some distinguished names such as Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. But it has only been in recent decades that good estimates of heritability of performance have been based on adequate data.
Cunningham (1991), in his study of horses, found that only by using Timeform data, and measuring groups of half brothers and half sisters, could good estimates of performance be determined. His data shows that performance for speed is about 35% heritable. In other words, only about 35% of all the variation that is observed in track performance is controlled by heritable factors; the remaining 65% is attributable to other influences, such as training, management, and nutrition. Cunningham’s work, while limited to horses, provides a good basis for understanding how much breeders can attribute to the genetics and the pedigrees.
Researchers have studied these phenomena and have looked for new ways to stimulate individuals to improve their natural abilities. Some of the methods discovered have produced lifelong lasting effects. Today, many of the differences between individuals can now be explained by the use of early stimulation methods.
For centuries, humans have tried various methods to improve performance. Some of these methods have stood the test of time, while others have not. Early researchers in this field believed that the period of early age was crucial for stimulation due to rapid growth and development. Today, we know that early life is a time when an organism’s physical immaturity is susceptible and responsive to specific stimuli. Many studies have focused on the first few months of life.
Newborn pups are distinctly different from adults in several ways. When born, their eyes are closed and their digestive system has limited capacity, requiring periodic stimulation by their dam, who routinely licks them to promote digestion. At this age, they can only smell, suck and crawl. Body temperature is maintained by snuggling close to their mother or by crawling into piles with other littermates. During these initial weeks of immobility, researchers noted that these immature and underdeveloped canines are sensitive to a restricted class of stimuli, including thermal and tactile stimulation, motion and locomotion.
Other mammals like mice and rats are also born with limitations and have demonstrated a similar sensitivity to the effects of early stimulation. Studies have shown that removing them from their nest for three minutes each day during the first five to ten days of life causes body temperatures to fall below normal. This mild form of stress is sufficient to stimulate hormonal, adrenal and pituitary systems. When tested later as adults, these same animals were better able to withstand stress than littermates who were not exposed to the same early stress exercises. As adults, they responded to stress in a “graded” fashion, while their non-stressed littermates responded in an “all or nothing way.”
Data involving laboratory mice and rats also shows that small amounts of stress can produce adults who respond maximally. On the other hand, non-stressed littermates exposed to intense prolonged stress easily become exhausted and are near death. When tied down so they were unable to move for twenty-four hours, rats developed severe stomach ulcers, but littermates exposed to early stress handling were more resistant to stress tests and did not show evidence of ulcers. A secondary effect was also noticed: sexual maturity was attained sooner in the littermates given early stress exercises. When tested for differences in health and disease, the stressed animals were found to be more resistant to certain forms of cancer and infectious diseases and could withstand terminal starvation and exposure to cold for longer periods than their non-stressed littermates.
Other studies involving early stimulation exercises have been successfully performed on both cats and dogs. In these studies, the Electrical Encephalogram (EEG) was found to be ideal for measuring the electrical activity in the brain because of its extreme sensitivity to changes in excitement, emotional stress, muscle tension, changes in oxygen and breathing. EEG measures show that pups and kittens, when given early stimulation exercises, mature at faster rates and perform better in certain problem-solving tests than non-stimulated mates.
The effect of early stimulation exercises has also been studied in higher-level animals. The use of surrogate mothers and familiar objects were tested by both the Kelloggs and Dr. Yearkes using young chimpanzees. Their pioneering research shows that the more primates were deprived of stimulation and interaction during early development, the less able they were to cope, adjust and later adapt to situations as adults.
While experiments have not yet produced specific information about the optimal amounts of stress needed to make young animals psychologically or physiologically superior, researchers agree that stress has value. What is also known is that a certain amount of stress for one may be too intense for another and that too much stress can retard development. The results show that early stimulation exercises can have positive results, but must be used with caution. In other words, too much stress can cause pathological adversities rather than physical or psychological superiority.
Methods of Stimulation
The U.S. Military, in their canine program, developed a method that still serves as a guide to what works. In an effort to improve the performance of dogs used for military purposes, a program called “Bio Sensor” was developed. Later, it became known to the public as the “Super Dog” Program. Based on years of research, the military learned that early neurological stimulation exercises could have important and lasting effects. Their studies confirmed that there are specific time periods early in life when neurological stimulation has optimum results. The first period involves a window of time that begins at the third day of life and lasts until the sixteenth day. It is believed that because this interval of time is a period of rapid neurological growth and development, it is of great importance to the individual.
The “Bio Sensor” program was also concerned with early neurological stimulation to give the dog a superior advantage. Its development utilized six exercises designed to stimulate the neurological system. Each workout involved handling puppies once each day, with five specific exercises:
- Tactile stimulation: Holding the pup in one hand, gently stimulate (tickle) the pup between the toes on any one foot using a Q-tip. It is not necessary to see that the pup is feeling the tickle. Time of stimulation: 3 – 5 seconds.
- Head held erect: Using both hands, hold the pup perpendicular to the ground, so that its head is directly above its tail. This is an upwards position. Time of stimulation: 3 – 5 seconds.
- Head pointed down: Holding the pup firmly with both hands, reverse the head and point it downward towards the ground. Time of stimulation: 3 – 5 seconds.
- Supine position: Hold the pup so that its back rests in the palm of both hands with its muzzle facing the ceiling. Allow the pup to sleep while on its back. Time of stimulation: 3-5 seconds.
- Thermal stimulation: Use a damp towel cooled in a refrigerator for at least five minutes. Place the pup on the towel, feet down. Do not restrain it from moving. Time of stimulation: 3-5 seconds.
These five exercises will produce neurological stimulations that do not naturally occur during this early period of life. Experience shows that sometimes pups will resist these exercises, while others will appear unconcerned. Regardless, caution is advised: do not repeat them more than once per day and do not extend the time beyond that recommended for each exercise. Overstimulation of the neurological system can have adverse and detrimental results. These exercises impact the neurological system by kicking it into action earlier than would be normally expected, resulting in an increased capacity that later will help make the difference in its performance. Those who play with their pups and routinely handle them should continue to do so because the neurological exercises are not substitutes for routine handling, play socialization or bonding.
Benefits of Stimulation
Five benefits have been observed in canines that were exposed to the Bio Sensor stimulation exercises. The noted benefits are:
- Improved cardiovascular performance (heart rate)
- Stronger heartbeats
- Stronger adrenal glands
- More tolerance to stress
- Greater resistance to disease
In tests of learning, stimulated pups were found to be more active and exploratory than their non-stimulated littermates, over whom they were dominant in competitive situations.
Secondary effects were also noted regarding test performance. In simple problem-solving tests using detours in a maze, the non-stimulated pups became extremely aroused, whined a great deal and made many errors. Their stimulated littermates were less disturbed or upset by test conditions. When compared, the stimulated littermates were more calm in the test environment, made fewer errors and gave only an occasional distress sound when stressed.
As each animal grows and develops, three kinds of stimulation have been identified that impact and influence how it will develop and be shaped as an individual. The first stage is called early neurological stimulation and the second stage is called socialization. The first two stages have in common a window of limited time. Lorenz (1935) first wrote about the importance of the stimulation process, emphasizing imprinting during early life and its influence on later development. One of the first groundbreaking studies involving larger animals was achieved by Kellogg & Kellogg (1933). Their study involved raising their own newborn child with a newborn primate, raising them together as if they were twins. They aimed to demonstrate that there are significant differences in the speed of physical and mental development among mammals. Some are born relatively mature and quickly capable of motion and locomotion, while others are very immature, immobile and slow to develop. For example, the Rhesus monkey shows rapid and precocious development at birth, while the chimpanzee and other “great apes” take much longer. The human infant is the last and slowest to develop.
One of the earliest efforts to investigate socialization in canines was undertaken by Scott-Fuller (1965). They demonstrated that the basic technique for testing the existence of socialization was to show how readily adult animals would foster young animals or accept one from another species. They observed that hand-rearing made it easier to transfer social relationships to a new species, indicating that socialization had occurred. Most researchers agree that a lack of adequate socialization generally results in unacceptable behaviour and often produces undesirable aggression, excessiveness, fearfulness, sexual inadequacy and indifference toward partners.
Socialization studies confirm that one of the critical periods for humans (infants) to be stimulated is generally between three weeks and twelve months of age, while for canines, the period is shorter, between the fourth and sixteenth weeks of age. The lack of adequate social stimulation, such as handling, mothering and contact with others, adversely affects social and psychological development in both humans and animals. In humans, the absence of love and cuddling increases the risk of an aloof, distant, asocial or sociopathic individual. Over-mothering also has its detrimental effects by preventing sufficient exposure to other individuals and situations that have an important influence on growth and development.
Socialization in Humans
Over-mothering can result in preventing adequate exposure to other individuals and situations, limiting opportunities to explore and interact with the outside world. In the end, over-mothering generally produces a dependent, socially maladjusted and sometimes emotionally disturbed individual. Protected youngsters who grow up in an insulated environment often become sickly, despondent, lacking in flexibility and unable to make simple social adjustments. Generally, they are unable to function productively or interact successfully when they become adults.
Owners with busy lifestyles, long work hours and tiring schedules can inadvertently neglect their pets. Left to themselves with only occasional trips out of the house or off the property, pets may seldom see other canines or strangers, suffering from poor stimulation and socialization. Loneliness and boredom can manifest in behaviours such as chewing, digging and hard-to-control behaviour.
It’s clear that small amounts of early-life stress followed by early socialization can produce beneficial results. However, the danger lies in not knowing the thresholds for over and under stimulation. Many improperly socialized youngsters develop into adults unprepared for adult life, unable to cope with its challenges and interactions. Attempts to re-socialize them as adults have produced limited gains, reinforcing the idea that the window of time for early neurological and social stimulation only comes once. After it passes, little or nothing can be done to overcome the negative effects of too much or too little stimulation.
The third and final stage in the process of growth and development is called enrichment. Unlike the first two stages, it has no time limit and covers a much longer period. Enrichment involves the cumulative effect of experiences that have a lasting impact on the individual. These experiences typically involve exposure to a wide variety of interesting, novel and exciting experiences with regular opportunities to freely investigate, manipulate and interact with them.
When measured later in life, the results show that those reared in an enriched environment tend to be more inquisitive and better at performing difficult tasks. An example of an enrichment program for children is the educational TV program “Sesame Street.” Follow-up studies show that children who regularly watched this program performed better than those who did not. Additionally, those who regularly watched “Sesame Street” tended to seek a college education and when enrolled, performed better than their peers who did not regularly watch the program.
Similar benefits of enrichment techniques and programs have been observed in dogs. Dogs growing up in enriched environments tend to be more inquisitive and active. Regular trips to the park, shopping centres, obedience and agility classes and play sessions serve as good examples of enrichment activities. These activities provide opportunities for interaction and investigation, contributing to the dog’s growth and development.
In conclusion, it’s evident that early-life stress can produce beneficial results, but the key is to find the right balance. The absence or lack of adequate stimulation generally results in negative and undesirable outcomes. Based on the information above, it is advisable for breeders and pet owners to expose young animals to a variety of experiences, including socialization and enrichment activities. Each stage of development has a cumulative effect and contributes to the individual’s potential for high performance and overall well-being.
- Battaglia, C.L., “Loneliness and Boredom” Dobermann Quarterly, 1982.
- Kellogg, W.N. & Kellogg, The Ape and the Child, New York: McGraw Hill.
- Scott & Fuller, (1965) Dog Behaviour -The Genetic Basics, University of Chicago Press.
- Scott, J.P., Ross, S., A.E. and King D.K. (1959) The Effects of Early Enforced Weaning Behaviour of Puppies, J. Genetics Psychologist, p 5: 261-81.
About the Author
Carmen L Battaglia holds a Ph.D. and Master’s Degree from Florida State University. As an AKC judge, researcher and writer, he has been a leader in promoting the breeding of better dogs and has written many articles and several books.
Dr. Battaglia is also a popular TV and radio talk show speaker. His seminars on breeding dogs, selecting sires, and choosing puppies have been well-received by breed clubs across the country. For those interested in learning more about his seminars, they can contact him directly. Visit his website at http://www.breedingbetterdogs.com.