Ethology and Working Dogs with Kim Brophey

Today I have the joy of talking to Kim Brophey about ethology. If you listen to dog podcasts the way I do, you’re probably already a bit obsessed with Kim. Today we’re going to dive into how we can use ethology to better select and meet the needs of our working dogs.

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Where to find Kim Brophey:

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dog, breeds, ethology, dopamine, border collies, behavior, terriers, herding dogs, hounds, malinois, handler, canine, conservation, species

Kayla Fratt (KF)  00:07

Hello, and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast, where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every other week to discuss ecology, odor dynamics, dog behavior and everything in between. I’m your host, Kayla Fratt, and I run K9 Conservationists, where I train dogs to detect data. 

Today I have the absolute joy of talking to Kim Brophey about ethology. If you listen to dog podcasts the way I do, you’re probably already a bit obsessed with Kim. Today, we’re going to dive into how we can use ethology to better select and meet the needs of our working dogs. Welcome to the podcast! 

Kim, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself? 

Kim Brophey (KB)

Hey, Kayla, and thanks for having me back. Or I should say, on one of the newest episodes of your redesigned podcast. I am an applied ethologist, ethology being the study of animal behavior, in their natural habitats from an evolutionary perspective. 

Applied ethology is studying animals that are under some form of human control, some type of captivity, so farms, zoos, laboratories, and then of course, our companion animals, who many of us don’t think of as captive animals, but they actually are – captive and domesticated. We study the intersection of human and animal behavior largely from an evolutionary perspective, which gets a lot more complicated with domesticated animals because of artificial selection and fun stuff that we’ll be talking about today. 

I’m a behavior consultant in practice, and do a lot of professional education in the field right now to bring ethology into the dog training and behavior world.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  01:48

I think by now, people are going to understand a little bit about why we’re so excited for this interview. Before we dive into it, I have to remind all of our listeners that the field vehicle repair fundraiser is ongoing. As I record, the van is getting its engine reworked. And hopefully, we’ll be ready to go by the end of May in time for our field season. If you want to help support that, you can either join our Patreon, which has a couple of really exciting new options we’ll talk about in an ad break, or you can support directly on our GoFundMe link. Both of those will be linked in our show notes. 

Kim, as we were doing our pre-interview, we were talking about arousal in different dog breeds and how that can look different and how that could apply to this field. Let’s dive back into this. We were picking on Malinois a little bit, and then you brought up bloodhounds. Let’s talk a little bit about why a bloodhound may not be an ideal conservation detection dog, and we can always circle back to our Malinois, which is a slightly more fraught conversation, because they are a little bit more popular in the field.

Kim Brophey (KB) 02:57

Just upfront, I don’t do canine conservation work. I am interested in it, and it’s one of those bucket list things I’d love to do later on in life when I have some more time to get into some special, personal interests. But I would love to hear about your own experience working with conservation dogs in different environments for different species. 

Bloodhounds, like all scenthounds, have amazing odor detection abilities – even more so than other breeds, because of their selective pressures from people breeding them to track animals for hunting, as opposed to for conservation. But when you’re tracking an animal for hunting, oftentimes the dog is going to be a further distance away from the handler. They were developed to bay upon arousal in order to help the hunters figure out where the dogs were, and therefore, where the prey was. This is long before we had GPS devices to know exactly where the dog is in the field, so historically, that baying was really helpful. I imagine that depending on what kind of species you were using the canine conservationist for, that might actually be tricky, because you might be trying to locate an animal that would be very sound sensitive to the baying and might run when the dog located that particular species. 

We’ve bred all these specialist breeds of dogs to respond in specific ways to specific conditions. You’ve got that interplay between the environment and those releasing stimuli. We can affect what some of the releasing stimuli; we can funnel it this way or that and say, “Hey, this particular scent, not this one,” but it’s really hard to affect what type of arousal response that particular type of dog will have. You were talking about a Malinois being kind of bitey upon arousal, which is, of course, what we’ve bred Malinois to do upon arousal as part of their behavioral repertoire. While we can work with those behaviors, there are limitations in terms of exactly what we can modify with their behavioral software.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  05:35

When I’ve talked to people about hounds, people will say, “I’ve got a young, blue tick coonhound,” or a basset, or whatever it is, “do you think we could get into this, this line of work?” We don’t do much with hounds in this line of work because of the difference between scent trailing dogs and air scenting dogs. 

It gets a little bit technical for people who aren’t in this line of work, and I tend to get some people with their eyes glazing over, but the difference with a trailing dog is that they’re usually doing some amount of a match to sample sort of thing, where they sniff the hairbrush, and then go follow to find the missing child, or they sniff the rhino horn and then go track down that individual rhino. There actually have been a couple dogs that have been trained to do that sort of thing, likely for health checkups, or something like that. 

But getting out of the car and telling the dog to search and the dog is actually searching the air and spending a lot of time scenting for the odor molecules that are available in the air and then following that odor cone is very different from starting the dog on a track where you kind of know that someone once was there. And that tracking is much more so what hounds are bred for. I’m sure that people have successfully trained hounds to do more air scenting, but they do tend to be very, very tracking focused. 

The baying is also a great point. Just yesterday, I was interviewing Esther Mathieu from South Africa, and she was talking about this amazing project where she’s trained her Border Collie to find this highly endangered species of rabbit. Because they were locating the live rabbits, the handler had to be close enough when the dog located the rabbit that when the rabbit flushed, the handler could confirm whether or not it was the correct species of rabbit. An independent dog that bayed at the target species would not work well for that particular project. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 07:52

That expands my understanding and my thoughts about how those kinds of things would come into play in your particular line of work with dogs. Getting on scent is very arousing, whether it’s something that we build up to be arousing, or something that’s just naturally arousing for them, and a good scenthoud will get consumed by that. A good scent hound gets on that trail, and come hell or high water, doesn’t come off of it. That perseverance is really fantastic if you’re trying to track an animal over long distances. But for work where we’re needing a little bit more give and take, interplay, nuance, flexibility, the ability to work in closer partnership, and even proximity with the person – those things are going to matter.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  09:04

Absolutely. There’s a guy in South Africa who has a pack of hound dogs, I believe they’re trained by a guy in Texas. I’ll try to find both of them. And if they’re not connected, they do similar work tracking poachers. And I believe they release this pack of hounds, and then they follow them in a helicopter, which is the 2021 version of chasing after your hound dogs on horseback.

Kim Brophey (KB) 09:42

Yeah, I saw that, and I thought it was a really cool story. It was also just kind of interesting, trying to separate my emotional self from my more objective self about the situation. I remember when I first heard about it, the breeder in Texas was talking about how they were breeding the dogs for aggression to be a little bit more aggressive in case they find the poachers.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  10:16

Yeah, I think they are supposed to be able to take down the poachers.

Kim Brophey (KB)

That’s a whole interesting dynamic in itself. They have a specialized breeding program for that, and a specialized early socialization and training program for it. And they were talking about some of the dogs from Texas making it and being good enough for the work, and others not. It points out that the shoe’s got to fit, it’s got to be that you have the right tool for the job. It’s behind a lot of the increases in pet dog behavior problems, in my opinion. But in this case, we actually want the working traits, it’s more about getting really detailed about what specific traits you want.

Kayla Fratt (KF)

And, where I know I get nervous – and it’s not just this breeder in Texas, but anyone who’s breeding Malinois for a ring sport, or Dutch Shepherds – where do the dogs who don’t make it in the working lines end up? And how are we making sure that we pair them appropriately?  A dog who maybe couldn’t make it as a dog who tracks poachers over miles and miles through the South African bush and takes those guys down would still be a very, very poor candidate for your average pet home. It’s not necessarily something we’re here to talk about, but it is something that I love thinking about.

Kim Brophey (KB) 12:12

Yes, I do think it’s an important thing to keep in mind because whether we’re talking about Pyrenees, whether we’re talking about those particular dogs in Texas, whether we’re talking about folks developing Malinois for ring work, or we’re talking about the fact that there’s still a bunch of jerks out there that are breeding dogs for dog fighting, and some of those dogs don’t make it. Simon Gadbois brought up that point; if you have all these people breeding for those traits, and then you have one that isn’t aggressive enough, but still they were intentionally bred to be dog aggressive, and be injurious, then what happens when that dog doesn’t make it? Do they end up in the local gene pool, in the shelter? There’s a lot of considerations.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  13:01

Yeah. And I love my neurotic working line Border Collies. They’re not good pets for most people! I’ve had so many dog sitters as I come to collect my dog after a trip, hand them over, and their eyes are wide and bloodshot. They’re just like, “I don’t know how you do it. He looks so good in your YouTube videos!”

Kim Brophey (KB) 13:24

And you’re like, “Oh yeah, they are good,” but they’re permanent crackheads. I got a really hysterical video of my 14 year old Border Collie mix  – probably one half of the ancestry – we’ll get the DNA back soon, and we can chat about that, it’ll be fun. I’ve placed wagers with my husband about exactly what I think is in there. But I would wager working line Border Collie on the one side and American Eskimo, which just makes him nuts and neurotic, on the other side. But my son yesterday was playing basketball, and we were all joking around on Mother’s Day, and the border collie is just herding him because of his crazy basketball moves. The genetics are there.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  14:06

My border collie was herding a pile of firewood yesterday, where he wanted us to throw the stick, and every time we didn’t throw the stick for too long, he did this beautiful, go out, circle around it, lie down. We’ve done a couple herding lessons, and he’s almost 10% Chow! He’s like 86% Border Collie, and then 10% Chow, and 4% lab or something. I don’t know what happened back in the grandparents’ generation. 

Let’s circle back a little bit to our Malinois, and we don’t even necessarily have to pick on Malinois, I lump a lot of our bitey shepherds into this group, so our Malinois, our Dutch Shepherds, bitey shepherds, to distinguish them from our Australian shepherds and our English Shepherds.

Kim Brophey (KB) 14:56

They bred the bite back in, which is important for people to know. They were herding dogs at one point, we had selected against the bite. Then they were developed for human herding; you start talking about use for police and military work and stuff and they bred the bite back in.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  15:10

Yeah, our Malinois, our Dutchies, our Tervs, our Groenendaels, and, of course, our German Shepherds. There’s obviously differences between the breeds, but I find it really interesting, and I think you do as well, to talk about these breed groups and the similarities there, because I think we tend to be more accurate when we zoom out a little bit more. And again, what I’ve seen is that they’re more likely to grab and bite, which can make them painful and frustrating to train. I’ve had more shirts ripped by Malinois than Border Collies by a longshot, even though I spent a lot less time working with the Malinois. But also, with potential prey animals, I know that I have seen concerning behavior that looks more like an intact predatory sequence from our shepherds in this line of work. And that is part of the reason that I personally don’t know if I’m ever going to end up working a shepherd in this line of work even though I love them, and they’re excellent at the job.

Kim Brophey (KB) 16:31

Talking about the predatory sequence is interesting. A lot of people don’t realize that those specific behaviors are modified versions of the predatory sequence for a great many of the jobs that we have artificially selected dogs to do throughout history. With herding dogs, we wanted a really strong “orient, eye, stalk, chase,” but we wanted it to be really sensitive to feedback, have a lot of nuance and flexibility within it. And we did not want a grab bite, and a kill bite, and the dissect and consume, for obvious reasons, because we didn’t want our livestock to be grabbed. A lot of them will fall over and die of shock, even if the bite isn’t that horrible. Those things were a bit mutually exclusive from the original shepherd herding dog purpose. 

But when we’ve bred those things back in for those purposes, to be able to grab the perpetrator or the offender. Even though you still have that herding dog flexibility in terms of staying responsive to our feedback and cues, it’s a little bit harder when you know that there’s a bullet at the end of it, so to speak. Meaning there could be follow through, where if I’m working with a border collie, or an Australian Shepherd, or even a cattle dog, the level of follow through that I’m concerned about is a lot lower.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  18:31

Yeah, when I’m giving talks, I always mention this; any Border Collie that harassed a lamb a little bit too roughly 10 generations ago, or heaven forbid, actually grabbed a lamb, was not bred and in all likelihood, was removed completely, not just removed from the breeding population.

I don’t know enough about predatory sequences to know about the idea of muting things and then bringing it back in with our shepherds, but I’ve noticed that my Border Collies ae responsive to movement in this line of work. When they flush a rabbit, or we’ve got a prairie dog running from one hole to the next across the horizon line in front of the dogs, the Border Collies tend to be highly reactive to that sort of movement. But I’ve been able to call my Border Collies off of that, and generally, I’ve never had a Border Collie grab whatever it is that they were going for, and I have had the Malinois grab things and pick them up. They do tend to be more orally fixated, more mouthy.

For this line of work, and thinking about behavior, I think my dream dog would be something like a Border Collie-Springer. It could create a lot of internal conflict, because I know both of my Border Collies really don’t like spaniels. I’ve noticed they get stressed out by that constant frenetic movement. They tend to be so wiggly, and they do so much pacing and quartering even indoors that I can just see my Border Collie trying to lie down and trying to turn off, but it’s so stressful for him to be around. 

I think an ideal dog for this line of work would have the natural flushing and quartering of a hunting dog with a little bit more independent work and an even less intact predatory sequence. Because if we think about it, our herding breeds are bred to actually chase and control movement. It’s hard for them when they flush a prey animal, or a non-target animal, whereas the labs and the springers don’t seem to struggle with that quite as much.

Kim Brophey (KB) 21:24

Yeah, gun dogs are such an interesting example. We bred a strong pause, almost a stall out in the predatory sequence with the gun dogs, because we wanted to either have the gamebird set upon, pointed out, or flushed out, and then retrieved by any number of different kinds of gundogs, but didn’t want the dog to go and grab it as part of the hunt; that was supposed to be our job, to bring them down with the gun, as opposed to the dog actually catching it. You could destroy a small lowland gamebird with one good bite, because there’s not much meat, and it’s sensitive. You have this interesting ability to intervene at that point without a lot of the chasing that you get with the herding dogs. You have to think about how much flexibility you want. Both gundogs and herding dogs are really receptive to, and interested in your guidance and feedback, and that makes them really ideal for conservation work. 

Kayla Fratt (KF)  23:22

Yeah, there’s no reason that a greyhound or a husky can’t do this work as far as their olfactory capabilities and their conformation and everything, but I will be shocked the day that I see that, because they’re not bred to be highly responsive to our direction. A lot of the breeds that tend to be really independent also have a much higher prey drive, which makes them potentially tricky for this line of work. Do we have a lot of breeds with a much more intact predatory sequence that are also highly responsive to people?

Kim Brophey (KB) 24:31

Livestock guardian dogs have a much lower predatory drive, because we didn’t want them to predate the animals they were guarding, so they’re very independent. But they don’t have a strong predatory sequence. Can you say your question again?

Kayla Fratt (KF)  25:06

I was trying to think of an example of a dog that has an intact predatory sequence, but is also generally described as highly responsive to people.

Kim Brophey (KB) 25:19

The intact predatory sequences would be terriers, both types of hounds – scent and sight – the natural dogs. And then by default, some of the bull breeds because of the terrier.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  25:37

Yeah, I might put pit bulls in the most responsive –

Kim Brophey (KB) 25:41

One of the interesting things about terriers is that they can be super responsive. But once they find something more interesting to respond to, then all of a sudden, we can fall off their radar. And, of course, a lot of that is training. We’re not saying they’re just born this way and it’s completely predictable. 

Simon Gadbois and I were talking about nature and nurture: dogs’ experiences are going to turn certain things on or not, or direct things in a certain direction or not. If you get a beagle, for instance, you might focus on a particular type of animal that you want to hunt with that scent hound. Yes, there’s been certain types of scent hounds that were developed to track particular types of animals, but a lot of them will track and bay at any number of different kinds of wild animals until the person really directs and funnels that drive in one particular direction and tries to minimize the other, because you don’t want that dog to get distracted trailing a deer when you’re out there hunting rabbits, for instance. 

A lot of that is the nurture part interacting with the nature part, so there’s probably some of the Basal breeds, and the natural dog group that were on the continuum towards, say, herding dogs. Take the Samoyed or an Elkhound. They’re almost like a stepping stone breed towards some of the other herding dogs. They’re getting a little more human centric, a little more malleable to our influence and direction, through that process of artificial selection. And I mean, that’s the thing about the 10 genetic groups: even as I talk about them, it’s not like these are in this box, clean, cut and dry. These are in this box, clean, cut and dry. This dog might have a little foot over in this one over here, and it’s not completely black and white. We’re just using that categorization as a point of reference for people to start their expectations. Because frankly, if you got an Elkhound, even if they were a herding Basal breed, and you expected that Elkhound to function like a working-line Border Collie, you’re gonna be really disappointed.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  28:26

One of Niffler’s best buddies in puppy kindergarten was an Elkhound. There was a trio of puppies, and the Border Collie, the Elkhound, and the Husky were best buds. And it was so funny to watch when it came time to catch your puppy and call them to you. It was always Niffler who came first. I’m sure part of that is he’s the one who lives with a professional trainer. The Elkhound would come second. And then the Husky was always the last one to be caught, and half the time his people had to go collect him. It was just this fascinating little continuum of responsiveness in our little Three Stooges of gray and white puppies. 

This might be a question for Dr. Gadbois, who will be on this podcast soon, but one of the other things I’ve been thinking about is dopamine receptiveness in our dogs. I haven’t read any of the primary literature on this, but a lot of the breeds that we really like for this line of work tend to be really high dopamine breeds. Why is that?

Kim Brophey (KB) 29:48

Dr. Gadbois will have a lot more to say on that. He understands the inner workings of behavioral endocrinology, which is another world that I am not an expert in. I do understand that dopamine serves as a motivator and a reinforcer. And that’s really interesting when you think about it, because it makes sense. Two dog trainers, Nando and Jo-Rosie were on Michael Shikashio’s podcast, I think and they explained that when you wake up in the morning, you have elevated dopamine. Or even cortisol; there are these things that are operating that help motivate us to behave appropriately in our environment. Having something in the environment that is something meaningful for you to interact with as an organism should motivate you to have an appropriate action. Dopamine is part of that process, and it’s released to help motivate that appropriate action. 

When I’m thinking about working dogs and dopamine in that sense, and I’m thinking about a motivator, I look at my Pyrenees/Newfoundland, who has ridiculously low dopamine. I can just see why it would be difficult to get her engaged and keep her engaged. She’s got a great sniffer, but I could just see her laying down in the pasture and being like, “I just don’t feel like doing this today.” I think you want a dog that, when presented with the context that we’re trying to train and develop them for, will be motivated to step up to the plate. We want a dog who’s gonna be ready to go and ready to work. 

I would also wager that terriers and scent hounds also have higher levels of dopamine. I would love to be able to do specific studies on all the different groups of dogs, and measure their dopamine in real time when presented with certain stimuli. Scent hounds are one of those that I have questions and theories about, but no studies to back them up at this point. Why are they so on and off? And why do some pitties and bullies have really mellow, chill, seemingly low baseline dopamine?

Kayla Fratt (KF)  32:39

Yeah, for 23 and a half hours a day.

Kim Brophey (KB) 32:41

And then this explosive, high dopamine and athleticism. I just think a lot of it is poking around and asking different questions and maybe creating some hypotheses, knowing that we really don’t have a lot of the answers yet.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  32:57

I’ve been thinking a lot about this dopamine question recently, because I was listening to a human psychology podcast, and they had an expert on who had categorized people based on levels of dopamine, serotonin, estrogen, and testosterone. There was a quiz in the podcast, and while there are more in-depth ways of thinking about this, I personally scored super high on dopamine, and really low on serotonin. It makes sense – I’m on an SSRI, but it’s so interesting to think about why I’m really drawn to these high dopamine dogs. In my friend groups, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been the one who’s the most easily excited, the most enthusiastic, the one who people are always being like, “how do you have time for all of this?” And my brain just needs more. It just always wants more. When I come home, I unwind by doing more work. I think when I joke that my Border Collies and I are the same, I might be a lot more right on a neurochemical level than we are ever going to know.

Kim Brophey (KB) 34:24

Yeah, that makes me think about some of the other stuff that Simon Gadbois and I were talking about. We were talking about Panskepp’s work and the seeking system, and his seven Blue Ribbon emotions. I think he mentioned some other researchers that have looked at that same set of questions. But there’s an idea that there are different channels, if you will, that the brain gets into for evolutionarily adaptive reasons. Some of those things are mutations that are occurring in natural selection as it occurs; you have this wildcard factor where nature’s always throwing that diversity, that variability, back into the ring to see what works in what conditions better. 

I, myself, am a very excitable person and always have been and people will be like, “God, how do you have the energy to do all those things.” I’m like, “My problem is turning it off, not being able to motivate and turn it on.” I’m sure I’m a high arousal person, I’m sure that I do have higher dopamine than my husband does. Dopamine is a reinforcer and the reward center of the brain. It’s thinking about the concept and feeling and urgency of more and more and more, which any one of us who’s ever had a Border Collie can relate to more and more and more, again, again, again. 

In humans, they have identified the gene 7R, what they call the nomadic gene. National Geographic did a really good article about that years ago. This particular gene, 7R, is related to people that are diagnosed with ADD or adult ADHD, and people that are prone to “isms” – the development of things like alcoholism, drug addiction, or exercise addiction, or workaholism – that reward center of the brain and the orbitofrontal cortex that is meant to say, “Oh, that’s enough.” But people who have gene 7R are like, more, more, more. And what about this, and maybe we should do this. 

If you think about it from an anthropological perspective – this is what they were talking about in that National Geographic article about the nomadic gene – it takes both types to make the world go round. If you had people that were gardening and doing agriculture and whatever that are satisfied with, “we have enough food and we’re doing our thing, and we’re living off of the land,” then you have those people that are like, “but what’s over there, what’s over on that mountain?” Or maybe I can invent this, or maybe there’s a better way to do it. And often the people that have that nomadic gene, people with hyperactive, ADD-type personalities, also solve some of the world’s biggest problems, because they’re thinking so outside the box, because their brain isn’t satisfied that we have all the answers.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  37:51

I think I’ve read this article, or read something else that was about it. And yeah, they were talking about people who were willing to make these little rafts and go find Polynesia.

Kim Brophey (KB) 38:08

It’s a little bit crazy, maybe, but at the same time, that’s what pushes innovation and exploration.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  38:18

I’m trying to remember now, they had talked a little bit in whatever article I had read about how you can actually find different levels of this gene variant in different populations. If you look at people who are from island nations that hadn’t been colonized in prehistory, they have a much higher level of this particular gene compared to people in the interior of Russia, who have been there forever and never left.

Okay, we’re gonna take a quick ad break, and then I want to come back and talk about New Zealand, which has a different paradigm for how they do conservation work that I think relates to this. 

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All right, we’re back. I wrote a Fulbright in 2018 to go to New Zealand and study their selection of conservation detection dogs, partially because New Zealand is the country that has had conservation detection dogs the longest. There was a guy in 1890 named Richard Henry who started training his dogs to find endangered ground nesting birds. He moved the birds from one island that was either infested with rats or foxes to another island that didn’t yet have those predators, to help save the populations. So, New Zealand has been using dogs for conservation for a really long time. 

Here in the US, conservation detection dogs really took off in the 90s because our DNA analysis from scat finally got good enough that having dogs collecting a bunch of scat became useful. A lot of conservation detection dogs in the US are trained using very similar methods to bomb dogs, search and rescue dogs, the Border Patrol dogs, where it’s very much about using dogs that are absolutely toy crazy. We use toys to teach them what we’re looking for. These dogs will work through insane amounts of adversity to get their ball. In New Zealand, however, they use terriers to find invasive rats, they use bird dogs to find endangered birds, and they do much, much more, and when you talk to some of them and say, “Here in the US, we use Border Collies and reward them with balls.” They’re just like, “What are you talking about? Why would you use a border collie to find a bird?”

Kim Brophey (KB) 43:01

That makes sense in terms of the natural receptivity for the particular species that they’re using, or a particular species they’re interested in finding and using the particular dogs for this particular species. I think it’d be tricky if you have a conservation dog and you wanted to be able to work that dog on a variety of different kinds of species. 

Kayla Fratt (KF)  43:23

Yes, I think that’s part of the difference. But what about choosing the perfect breed to find an invasive plant? We don’t have a dog breed that is bred to find plants as far as I know. Maybe a Lagotto, which are bred for truffles.

Kim Brophey (KB) 43:46

Yeah, that would be the closest thing that I can think of.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  43:51

Which would be fascinating. Oh, my gosh, maybe my next dog is a Lagotto, maybe I need to try this. 

Kim Brophey (KB)

Have you ever worked with a Lagotto before? 

Kayla Fratt (KF)  

I’ve met a couple, but I’ve never worked intensively with them.

Kim Brophey (KB) 44:01

Oh gosh, I’ll just tell you right now, the only ones that I have worked with were absolutely in the top percent of intelligent dogs that I’ve ever worked with. You think a poodle’s smart, and it makes sense, right? Because they’re old school poodle ancestry, but oh, my gosh, intelligent and incredible, sensitive working drive. 

The Lagotto that I worked with the first time ended up being too smart for her own good. She was a service dog that I was training with a client. So, she was training her own dog and I’m guiding her through that process. The dog got everything we were teaching her in a single trial. You get Border Collies and Aussies, and sometimes you show them something and they’re like, “Okay, cool. You showed me.” This dog was so funny, because she’s the only dog I’ve ever worked with that, if she got frustrated with us doing something too many times, she’d pee on the floor to be like, “And that’s to tell you, I’m tired of your lesson,” and it was clockwork. It was hilarious. She was an opinionated, strong-willed dog. But she was so intelligent.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  45:22

What a cool young lady.

Kim Brophey (KB) 45:27

She absolutely was. And very determined. A small tangent there, but the idea of using ethology to think about which dogs are just going to have that natural “key that the lock fits” to the particular things that you’re trying to get them to work with is fantastic. I want to ask folks in New Zealand, “What do you do with that terrier when he finds that endangered rat?” Because most terriers, upon finding an endangered rat, would proceed upon grabbing said endangered rat.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  46:00

They tend to work them in muzzles. And I think the rats are pests; they don’t have native or endangered rats. The terriers are doing the invasive pest side. And then the bird dogs are doing the endangered local birds. 

Kim Brophey (KB)

I got it, okay, that makes much more sense.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  

This is where we really need to get a New Zealand conservation dog handler on to ask all these questions. So, you know where to find us and shoot us an email if you know someone or if you are someone! 

Say you’ve got your terrier going out, you’re trying to find the rats, and you allow that terrier to dispatch the rats at the end. What do you do if the terrier comes upon something that you wouldn’t want your terrier to go after? If you’re going off of instinct, how much malleability do you have with your target species? If you’re not using external rewards, how do you convince them to go for the target odor, and ignore the rest? This is a similar question for our scenthounds – how do you just go for foxes, and ignore deer? I genuinely don’t know. Without some sort of external reward, how do you get much malleability so that you can train your dog from finding ground nesting parrots in New Zealand, to finding kea nests, which are a high Alpine parrot. I would imagine pointers are just going to tell you about most birds. But at some point, then you don’t want to know about the 10,000th rock dove.

Kim Brophey (KB) 47:56

I can see how you could foster and encourage what shows up in the direction that you want it to go using endorsement. For example, any time one of my dogs starts digging a hole, I start encouraging, like, “What is that? What’s in that hole?” And they dig more, so you see the suggestive power of being like, “Oh, it’s in there.” And if you get closer and act like you’re interested too, then they start digging faster. I think about that social layer; if you’re working with a dog or if you were not endorsing the dog pursuing or showing interest in a particular species, that should have some weight, especially with dogs that are bred for that human sociability and partnership working. 

The same could be true that if you’re encouraging and reinforcing the dog for engaging in that particular identification, that’s going to help drive that neural pathway to become more carved out and more fluid, and at a certain point, the frequency with which that neural pathway has been traveled has staying power in itself. If you get enough water under the right bridge for a particular species, that competes with the dog’s distractibility for the other species.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  49:49

Yeah, that’s how a lot of early conservation dogs were trained. A field biologist went out and tried to find a given species of milkweed so that they could tag it, and come back and check it later this season. They were going out and they brought their dog out in the field. Every time they stopped and found a milkweed, they were showing some interest in it, they tagged it, maybe they gave the dog a snack. And it doesn’t take all that long before you have a dog who’s self-taught in conservation dog work, who will just be like, “Hey, were we looking for this over here? Don’t you like these?”

Those dogs may or may not have what it takes to then do this professionally, where you’re asking them to go out and do it for hours and hours every day, species after species, month after month. I don’t know about the individual dog, but as far as them going out and helping you in the field, a lot of dogs that have been able to do that historically. Another thing I tell people when they express interest in this field is that you may not have the dog who has what it takes to do what Barley does right now, where we do different species every couple months, and we’re going out and working his toenails to a stub. But you might have a dog where if you volunteer with your local invasive species weed removal crew, that dog could probably come out into the field with you and be helpful. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 51:33

This made me remember a phenomenon I first learned from Temple Grandin, and then read a really good article about dopamine. One of the reasons that I just love those two things connecting with each other is because both were describing how the dopamine is at its highest, right before actual acquisition of the concrete reward. Let’s say you’re shopping for the perfect black dress: when you see it 10 feet away on the rack, you just want to know if it’s your size. That’s the moment when the dopamine is the highest, it’s not actually the buying the dress part and taking it home. 

Kayla Fratt (KF)  52:25

Or wearing it the first time or – 

Kim Brophey (KB) 52:27

No, it’s none of that! It’s right at that last moment.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  52:32

Yeah, I’m definitely happiest when I think about buying a cookie, not when I’m actually eating the cookie.

Kim Brophey (KB) 52:37

It’s that moment when I’m gonna take that first bite, right? I wonder if that partly explains the self-reinforcing nature of the neural pathway of seeking and looking for this particular thing. Whether that’s a genetic reinforcement history, like nature, or human artificial selection that has said this thing is meaningful and you should seek it, that’s been bred in on some level with dogs. Then, how do we influence it through that nurture, and our feedback and the environment and training, etc, to become specifically meaningful? At a certain point, you have this response that’s happening internally, where it’s like, “I think I found it, I think I found it!” That in itself continues to reinforce the dog for looking. It’s fun to think about the sensitivity of all of those processes internally for the animal. And how much is going on that is invisible to us? We think it’s the ball that’s reinforcing it. But it could be something else after a while.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  53:55

Exactly. I know, back in, maybe February 2021, Rogue Detection Teams had a bunch of really cool posts on their Instagram where they talked about the difficulty of having a dog who’s made an alert, needing to go over and confirm whether or not the dog is correct. In some cases, if you’re looking for Bumblebee nests, or lizard scat, or something like that, you’re gonna have to dig around in the leaf litter, even if the dog is telling you that it’s within a foot of here. Just the act of the handler coming over and starting to inspect an area as the dog has made an alert can be enough for some of these dogs, and then they start telling you about whatever it was that wasn’t correct. As far as when we’re talking about off-target indications, which is my preferred term for a false alert, it’s not just about whether or not you gave the dog the ball. It’s how much time you spent inspecting it, what your response was as you’re doing that. Or, if the dog was not alerting to something that you wanted, how do you react to that? Certainly not digging around and pulling a ball out preemptively, even if you don’t give it.

Kim Brophey (KB) 55:13

Yeah, this goes back to the social referencing part we talked about earlier – that social psychology component of our endorsement or lack of endorsement for any particular behavior. In this case, indicating that we’ve found that the potential target has real ethological weight. We still think very operantly about behavior, meaning that we assume that we’re rewarding or punishing the behavior, we’re controlling whether or not this is reinforcing or not, and we’re not as powerful as we think we are. That picture is all very real, it’s just not the whole story. I try to explain this to clients all the time; if your dog is barking like crazy at every person that walks by your house, and every time your dog is barking out the window, you come up and look at whatever the dog is barking at, the dog perceives that response as you taking cues from them, which can potentially reinforce the behavior. 

If the dog does a particular behavior, and we come closer to inspect whatever it is that they found, like I was talking about encouraging my dogs to dig, that encourages the behavior, and it’ll increase. It’s the same phenomenon with aggression. We’ll see that a dog is being aggressive, or potentially aggressive, and sometimes when people move in towards that tension, it escalates. There’s something about the increasing sense of other social members coming in that turns on or furthers arousal. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that can be going on beneath the surface that’s motivating and reinforcing for the animal. I would love to hear Simon’s take on that to understand what is going on in those moments step by step. It’s fascinating to say the least, and it’s definitely about more than the ball.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  57:35

Yeah, that could be a T-shirt for us: “It’s about more than the ball!” 

Practically, I don’t know how to fix that as a handler. You do need to go over there, and you do need to confirm. We talked about this with Stacy Barnett on a previous episode, but a lot of what we’re doing when we’re training our dogs is thinking about getting the dog to be working with the odor and paying attention to their body language. It’s not just about the alert; if your only way as a handler to tell whether or not your dog is on target is by them alerting, you’re going to miss so much. That final response, that down for my dogs lying on the target – it’s so easy for the dog when they’re tired or frustrated to just lie down. I’ve seen Barley do this; he just huffs and lies down. And it’s so different from his normal alert, but when I was a newer handler, I had a really hard time noticing that, because I wasn’t watching his tail, I wasn’t watching his breathing set. I wasn’t watching for the crabbing, and the bracketing and all the other fun, sexy body language that I look for now. 

Now, I feel like I can really tell the difference. So much of that for me is about de-emphasizing the alert for the dog so that when you can tell that they’re just downing because they’re tired or they’re frustrated, you can redirect them. And that also is where it’s helpful to be working a known hide if your dog is struggling with this, because then you can know for a fact that you put something out there and the dog’s at the wrong area. But sometimes in the field that’s just not possible. With Barley, I will come over, inspect things in a really neutral voice, and then cue him to search again. And then hopefully be able to put something out so that I can reward him at something that is confirmable.

Kim Brophey (KB) 59:50

Just to emphasize – something as subtle as your tone of voice is significant. Again, that’s the social referencing component. It’s not like, “Good dog,” it’s just your tone.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:00:05

Yeah. It’s just like, “No, search.” I use body language, too – I will turn physically, rotate my hips away and start taking a couple steps. When I was first teaching this with Barley, and definitely with a Malinois that I spent a lot of time handling, I actually sometimes had to have them on leash and gently, physically move them. But it’s so challenging. 

This is that one of the things that I find most challenging in this field, and it’s one of the things that I hope I’m going to have a better answer for in 5 to 10 years: what do we do when we have unconfirmed hides, or unconfirmed alerts? I’m always picking on this black footed ferret project that I worked on, but they’re a good example. It’s a ferret, so it’s down a hole. They’re nocturnal, they’re mostly solitary, so unless we’re lucky enough to wake it up and piss it off, and it chatters at us, we’re not going to know whether or not the dog is correct in most cases. There are times where we were able to work with a collared ferret, and we knew that the ferret was seen at 5am near this hole, and the dogs alerted to it at 8am, so we could say it’s probably there. But what do we do? You don’t want to give the dog a correction, because you don’t know they’re wrong. And I don’t like entering corrections into my training, period. Especially not within scent training, which I always want to be a fun, enthusiasm filled thing for my dogs. There are times where I do give a verbal redirection, which I think a redirection and a correction are kind of the same thing. But we can get into that some other time. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:02:16

With herding dogs, the “sending away” behavior is such a natural part of their ethology, I wonder if you could create a distance behavior. You would have to work it into your training sequence so it didn’t become punishing for the dog, but if they had an alert, and you don’t know if it’s a false alert, and you don’t want to accidentally reinforce it just by moving in towards it, you could build a cue that was an out, and wait while you inspected. That would buffer against the likelihood that the dog would perceive you coming in towards that particular target as reinforcing.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:03:11

Yeah, I like that idea of just putting them on a station. I could use a towel into the field, throw it down. Barley is beautifully mat-trained, he would go he would station on it,

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:03:23

And if they got it right, you could bring them back in and reinforce it, because that would be like the whole pulling back of the rubber band phenomenon,  like how you’re springing back that excitement and that anticipation. If  they had it right, they’d be chomping at the bit to rush back and get that reinforcement, whereas if they got it wrong, you could just move on.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:03:57

That would work  beautifully. I think I’m gonna have to try that. I would not be able to implement this with Niffler yet, but I think Barley has a solid enough “go to mat” behavior that I wouldn’t have to reinforce it. The tricky thing would be if the dog is working for a couple hours, and they want their ball, but you’re reinforcing them with food for going on to their mat. You could build some sort of behavior chain.

I think with a herding dog, you’d be able to do it relatively easily. I think it would be really hard to get a springer to do that. I think our springer handlers, or our lab handlers listening might need a different solution that is more ethologically valid for those breeds.

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:04:47

I agree, it would work so much easier with a herding dog, particularly a sheep herding dog, where removing pressure from such a sensitive type of flock or herd animal is a valuable and necessary part of their ethogram. Whether you used a mat or whether you did an out or down stay, you could build up a reliability of that. And separately, so you’re not using food for that particular behavior, build that up as part of the sequence. Ultimately, once they’ve got that behavior separately, you could weave it in as part of the sequence, so that they know that upon locating, you indicate it’s right here, you wait till I’ve noticed the alert, and then you’re sent away for confirmation, then it’s self reinforcing to go away and wait. It would be interesting as a hypothesis to see whether it has conditioned reinforcement value to go to the mat in anticipation of coming back to whatever it was.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:05:56

I think I would need the dog to hold its alert until I could walk up and throw a pin flag where they alerted. Unless they’re alerting to the base of a given tree or something, which I have seen before, when I shadowed a jaguar and big cat scent detection dog in Costa Rica, and a lot of times they’re alerting to latrines that are at the base of trees. In that case, I could see that he alerted in between those two roots of a Kapok tree, we’ll go up there. But if we’re out in the field, I need my dog to hold his alert. Because if I put my pin flag, or if I think he alerted two feet away, and he’s alerted to a little rosette of an invasive plant that’s only an inch and a half tall and two inches wide, I really need to be able to put my pin flag and search really close to where he actually alerted. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:06:55

You need a tiny hacky sack at the bottom of the pin flag, so it’s weighted enough that you can toss it.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:07:03

Now I’m imagining my Border Collie thinking that that’s his ball, now I’ve got a dog with a hacky sack pin flag running around.

This is something I definitely want to try and play with and think through. Could I at least walk up while the dog is holding his alert, put a pin flag in, do that nice and neutrally, and then call the dog away to his mat or to his place? That would build less anticipation than him having to be right there as I’m rooting around in the grass. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would let me get close enough to figure out where he’s alerted.

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:07:47

You could be very deliberate about walking up neutrally, and as long as he doesn’t perceive you searching, then that won’t accidentally reinforce it. Again, I’m not in this field, but thinking of weird, creative solutions, you could take a dozen or so fishing weights that had some brightly colored string on them. It’d be small enough that it wouldn’t damage anything that you’re tossing it on.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:08:28

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an inventor, or Jane Goodall or Steve Irwin; those were the three options. And I was trying to think, could I have something on the dog’s collar? Then I could have a remote that would that drop a little poof of colored rock, or drop something that I could know that wherever my dog’s neck is, is probably within a couple feet of whatever he’s alerting to. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:09:04

Oh, that’s genius. You can figure out how to do that. You just have to make sure whatever it was wasn’t accidentally punishing to the dog.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 1:09:09

Yeah, I think the colored chalk idea would be really cool and probably wouldn’t be too punishing to my dog. And then I would end up with a really beautiful purple dog by the end of our session. We’ll have to think about that and see. I know we’ve got a couple engineers in our audience, so if anyone’s listening and wants to brainstorm this further, I think that could be really cool. 

It would also be relatively project-dependent. If we’re going out, and we’re finding elk scat, or bear scat; a lot of scat from animals that are more than like 25 pounds, is pretty easy to go up and confirm, and most of the time the dog is going to be correct. It’s easy enough that you wouldn’t necessarily need to implement this solution. But when we are dealing with tiny things, like – I haven’t worked on a bumblebee project, but I know Conservation Dogs Collective has worked on a couple, they’re really hard and really tiny. 

This will probably be one of our last things as we’re wrapping up, but in my experience, different dogs do better with detail-oriented searching. Some dogs might just be searching a quarter acre a day, which is incredibly small for most conservation dogs, and some dogs really enjoy working a big scent cone of a grizzly bear scat, and they’re searching 300 acres in a day. I’ve really noticed different dogs really prefer that sort of work. And I haven’t noticed a lot of breed specific tendencies as far as that goes yet. But I wonder if there would be ways to figure out with your individual dog might prefer, and then if you’ve got enough dogs, trying to get the right dog for the job. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:11:15

Yeah, how dogs move through space varies so much, depending on the genetics. Going back to our discussion of gun dogs, they have that flushing type of pattern. Even when I’m working with clients’ dogs and we’re working on leash skills, the spaniels and the setters, and the pointers tend to do that weaving walking style when they’re walking through space, which is unique to the gundog group.

I would wager that there would be dogs that would be more detail oriented. Terriers come to mind as being very detail oriented; they like the nitty gritty and getting in the weeds of whatever it is that you’re looking for. But some dogs would be more inclined to cover large distances. But I don’t know what everyone’s doing in your field, and particularly in different countries; how many people are using any and every kind of breed to do this work worldwide that you know of? Is it widespread?

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:12:22

It’s relatively widespread. It’s interesting; particularly in the US, most of the organizations are relatively rescue dog based, but different organizations culturally prefer different rescue dogs. Rogue Detection Teams primarily use rescue dogs, and they’re almost all cattle dogs. Working Dogs for conservation is all rescue dogs, and they have a pretty even mix of labs and shepherds. They’ve got a couple Border Collies, but mostly labs and shepherds. And then Conservation Dogs Collective, they do mostly purpose-bred dogs, and they’re almost entirely labs. I think they’ve got one pittie mix. 

And then me, I’ve got I’m 50/50 between rescued and purpose-bred and I’m Border Collies. Handler preference is a significant factor, rather than target difference. We’re all working on similar targets but Rogue Detection teams is nuts for cattle dogs, and Working Dogs for Conservation doesn’t have a single one, even though they’ve got 30-some dogs worldwide.

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:13:36

So interesting. It’s not like you see though like a random sight hound or – Ironically, not a lot of scent hounds, either.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:13:41

No hounds as far as I know with any of the big organizations here in the US. The interesting thing in this field is that there’s a number of larger organizations, like the New Jersey Trail Coalition has a couple of dogs, Conservation Dogs Hawaii has several, but there’s also a lot of people like me in this field, where there’s one person and two dogs. I don’t know everyone in the field quite yet, because we don’t have a conference so I can’t meet everyone!

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:14:15

You guys need a conference! You could have a virtual international conference pretty easily.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:14:22

I just got myself a Twitter this week and one of my first tweets was I do not need more projects!

Going back to this detail-oriented versus not sort of dog, the two dogs that I can think of that were most extreme on this that I’ve worked were both labs, both yellow labs even. One was an absolute freak for detail-oriented work. He loved searching boats. He did insect work and he loved it. As soon as you let him off leash, this dog lost his mind. He would run these massive loops, and you knew for a fact he was running past odor cones because he was just so excited. Some of that is definitely a training thing, but he was such a beautiful search dog when you had him on leash and doing detail-oriented stuff. 

But the other lab did boat searches, you could tell she was plodding, her tail was down, she was just like, “Fine, I’ll check the boat.” As soon as you got her off leash, she had these beautiful search patterns, she was happy. And she was really, really reliable. And they lived and trained with the same handler! And again, they’re both yellow labs. 

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:15:58

Wow. That makes me think about competing arousal. For that one really detail-oriented lab, it could have been that there was a competing arousal upon being off leash that can turned on a different type of searching mechanism.

This is one of the reasons I love talking with you, and so many of these other awesome people who’ve got these podcasts. We’re interested, we’re intrigued, and we don’t think we’ve got all this stuff figured out. We have really interesting questions. It’s so humbling in a field that has been defined by having an answer, controlling everything, like this power dynamic in dog training of, “make it do what I want it to do, make it not do what I don’t want it to do.” That’s just so over-simplistic and minimizes the vastness of what we don’t know. There are so many places to look and explore that give us a more complete understanding, knowing that there’ll always be things that we don’t know, and always new questions to ask.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 1:17:32

There’s so many rocks left to overturn. I need to go to grad school three times, I think.

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:17:44

Yeah, I want to go get four PhDs in a variety of things. And I don’t have enough lives and time to do it. But – 

Kayla Fratt (KF) 1:17:51

Yeah, I’ve had legitimate conversations with mentors of mine of like, “I think I need to go to grad school once for animal behavior and canine cognition, or ethology, and then I need to go back again and do ecology,” rather than doing a PhD in one of the two, at least to start, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. 

As we’re wrapping up here, is there anything else we need to bring up or circle back to? Before we let you plug your online presence? 

Kim Brophey (KB)

No, I don’t think so. 

Kayla Fratt (KF) 

Okay, cool. Well, I’m sure we’ll think of things, and people on our Patreon, of course, can submit questions. Who knows, maybe if our patrons are nice enough, we’ll get Kim on to do a Patrons-only live!

Kim, I know you have a bunch of amazing courses and all sorts of cool speaking gigs that people need to know about. Where can people find you and keep track of all of that?

Kim Brophey (KB) 1:18:57

They can check out our website at Find me on Facebook, it’s just Kim Brophey. You can look at our dog door page that we have on Facebook as well. We have an upcoming awesome course that’s going to be in person at Wolf Park in Indiana in August. And that same course will be offered online starting in September, and enrollment is now open for folks that are already working with dogs professionally, or are thinking about getting into working with dogs professionally, or in some dog-related field. It’s meant to fill in all those blanks and build some bridges and get people’s minds open to this vast amount of science that hasn’t really been integrated fully into the dog training and behavior world so far. And then I’ll also be speaking at APDTt this year. I think that’s in October, so some folks can catch us there as well.

Kayla Fratt (KF)  1:19:55

Awesome. We’ll make sure to link to all of that in the show notes, and we’ll include the NatGeo article on the dopamine gene. You can find our show notes at, which is where you can also find information about our Patreon, which has two new tiers. You can now do a video analysis club at the two highest levels of Patreon, and at the highest level, you can submit videos of you and your dog working together to get some feedback. It’s meant to be constructive and kind, and I’m really excited about that. And you can always, of course, support us over at GoFundMe. We’ve also got merch on our website right now. It’s all over on So, again, thanks so much for coming on, Kim. It was a pleasure as always, and we’ll talk to you again soon.