The mental exercise of learning something new may help calm a dog with behavior issues, while other dogs have proven the best way to help dogs rescued from puppy mills learn how to interact with humans.

Those were a couple of the many animal behavior tidbits shared at the 50th annual meeting of the international Animal Behavior Society convened today at the University of Colorado. The conference, which goes through Friday, includes lectures, scientific demonstrations and a film festival.

“Sometimes, I think the main reason (dogs) interact with (researchers) is because we're good at giving scratches,” said Julie Hecht, who researches canine cognition.

More than 800 scientists and students from the Americas and Europe are expected to attend the conference. The meeting will include more than 100 scientific presentations by Animal Behavior Society members on the behavior of organisms ranging from spiders, ants and bees to bluebirds, dolphins and baboons.

The conference kicked off today with a series of public lectures by animal behaviorists titled: “Creating Quality Lives for Dogs and Cats through the Science of Animal Behavior.”

“Scientists have a responsibility to share their results with the public,” said Suzanne Hetts, one of the organizers of the public series. “Our goal was to bring the science of pet behavior to pet owners and animal professionals.


Sharon Wirant, one of about 50 certified applied animal behaviorists in the country and a conference attendee from New Hampshire, said misconceptions about animal behavior are rampant.

“It's encouraging people to look at animals as the species that they are and as individuals,” she said. “Just like people who are siblings, every animal is different.”

The talks covered communicating with animals, helping dogs and cats get along, animals at play, canine cognition research and working with animal victims of human cruelty.

Animal behavior specialist Pamela Reid talked about the ASPCA's programs to help animals who are seized from puppy mills, from hoarders and from people who train dogs to fight. The organization recently started a six-week rehabilitation program to try to help animals who score the lowest on their evaluations, making them the ineligible for adoption.

Trainers work on fear of people, fear of handling, fear of novelty and willingness to wear a collar and walk on a leash.

She showed videos of dogs from puppy mills being evaluated who were too scared of people to eat treats, along with videos of dogs trained to fight who were good with people but viciously attacked a stuffed dog used to test aggression toward animals.

She also talked about the rehabilitation of a “fighting” dog named Dragon, who was aggressive toward males but “flirty” with females. With the help of the Longmont Humane Society, she said, he stopped being aggressive toward other dogs and eventually learned how to play with them instead.

“This was a huge breakthrough to see him play with other dogs,” she said.

After his rehabilitation, he was adopted by a family two years ago.

For dogs from puppy mills, who were never socialized, using a second “helper” dog has proven the best way to help them “come out of their shell” and learn to walk on a leash, go up and down stairs and not be afraid of new objects, she said.

“They start out needing that crutch of the helper dogs before they're able to do it on their own,” she said.

Ann Jones, who owns a pet sitting business in Fort Collins, said she attended to learn more about animal behavior — both to better work with the animals in her care and to provide advice to clients who need help with an issue.

"It was excellent,” she said. “I was always learning something new.”

Denver's Daniela Wohlwend, a self described “dog geek,” said she's read articles and books written by the presenters and wanted to hear from them in person.

“I've get a big list of more books to read,” she said. “It was great. I've learned a lot.”

For more information, on the public events, go here.