Auburn professor working to identify best dogs to offer security at nation’s large venues

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The need for security continues to grow in all facets of American life, and Auburn University is meeting that need with experts in cyber security, public safety, crisis management and odor detection technology. While many of the university’s experts are of the human variety, there are some of the canine variety, too.

Training a dog to become a specialized odor detection expert requires large investments of time and expense. The Canine Performance Sciences, or CPS, program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University conducts research and development to enhance the use of dogs for detection. A component of the CPS research mission investigates how to breed and raise the very best dogs for detection tasks. The dogs produced by CPS go through rigorous testing, conditioning and training to become Vapor Wake® dogs. Vapor Wake, or VW, is an Auburn University patented method for detecting person-borne explosives by dogs trained to sample odors from the aerodynamic wakes of moving persons (vapor trail) and track an explosive odor to its source. An essential part of becoming a certified VW dog involves being able to concentrate on detecting target odors amidst the distractions of crowded, noisy and smelly urban venues such as mass transit, sports stadiums and concert/event arenas. However, not every dog “graduates” from the VW training, which can lead to a tremendous loss of resources. Preventing that loss is where psychology comes into play.

“One of the things we're very much interested in is developing an endophenotype, which is basically looking at behavior and looking at the brains in these dogs to see if we can find predictors early on in their training that will tell us who is going to be a premier dog, a successful dog. And, what dog is not going to be. This is helpful in identifying not only the best dogs, but also as a cost-saving measure since training these dogs costs thousands of dollars,” said Jeffrey Katz, professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University.

Katz worked with his graduate students, Andie Thompkins and Lucia Lazarowski, and Gopi Deshpande, an electrical engineering professor from Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, to identify brain patterns in dogs to use as predictors of success for the CPS program.

Part of assessing the dogs’ thought processes involved showing the dogs photos of their trainers and photos of strangers that varied in emotional content while measuring their responses.

“The dogs lie on their stomachs in the scanner, and while they're remaining still, just like you do with humans, you have a projector screen that sits in the back of the bore, which is the opening where you have your scan done. You're presenting stimuli at certain times, and you're controlling it. The dogs would look at these pictures that we collected and then we'd look to see where the differences were in the brain. We found some really interesting things,” Katz said.

“Dogs can tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces, and they do vary in what parts of the brain respond to the emotional content. There's an area of the human brain in the temporal cortex that is responsive to faces. It's also true in non-humans such as rhesus macaques (monkeys), and it's true in sheep. So there’s this area of the brain that processes faces, and dogs have it too,” Katz said.

Outside of the MRI scanner, working with CPS, the team of researchers assessed 146 candidate detector dogs from the VW breeding and training program. Dogs received identical puppy development and foundational odor training and underwent performance evaluations at 3, 6, 10 and 12 months old. In this study, they found that by 10 months, the Vapor Wake® dogs “express higher overall levels of Hunt, Focus, Possession, Independence and Work Effort” than dogs not able to obtain the Vapor Wake status.

(The specific findings of these experiments can be found in the new research article published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science)

From pigeons to puppies

Katz is no stranger to studying the behavioral patterns of animals. When he began working for Auburn in 2000, he was developing tasks in concept learning across different species – primarily pigeons, monkeys and humans.

“I had the pigeon lab and the funding was becoming more difficult to obtain. Around that time, I had students that were very much interested in working with dogs,” Katz said. “Canine research has really taken off over the last 15, 20 years. I call it the rise of the dogs,” he added.

Among those students was a graduate student named Andie Thompkins, who worked with Katz to develop and build an apparatus to measure concept learning in dogs.

“Building on some of the other projects I had done with all the other animals, we decided to look at dogs. Andie worked with a local vet hospital and got some space there to work with some of the dogs, and that kind of put it all together. That was our first step into canine research,” Katz said. “From there, she got really interested in wanting to do imaging, neuroimaging with non-humans, particularly with dogs. And who doesn’t want to work with puppies, right?”

While Thompkins was conducting the canine research, Katz gravitated towards the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Research Center that was just was completed at Auburn.

“I became actively involved and developed a really great relationship with Tom Denney, the director at the AU MRI Center. I became involved in a bunch of different projects, one having to do with soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and concussions. And that's launched and taken my career in a lot of really interesting and novel ways. And I’m still doing that work,” Katz said.

His passion, Katz said, is to be able to compare humans and non-humans, so when he and Thompkins discovered that dogs could be trained to remain awake and still during a functional MRI (fMRI) scan, it seemed a logical pursuit. And about that same time, Deshpande, from the College of Engineering, said he was interested in researching more than just the olfactory components of canines, and together, they decided to delve into the canine neuroimaging.

To learn more about the research Katz is conducting, listen to his podcast interview.

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The College of Liberal Arts is the intellectual heart of the university and one of the largest colleges on Auburn's campus. The College continues its long tradition of quality education, instruction, and outreach in a number of outstanding departments. The College of Liberal Arts is composed of the School of Communication and Journalism, the University College, and twelve departments which are divided into four academic areas: fine arts, humanities, communications, and social sciences. Our graduates hold a strong record of industry employment and/or acceptance into graduate schools and training programs, both here and abroad.