Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs sniff urine for different lengths of time
The information available in canine urine is astounding. From a proper sniff, dogs can learn about the sex, reproductive status, diet and stress level of dogs who have been there before. Urine is used to communicate about territories, to mask the smell of other dogs, to detect females who are likely to be reproductively receptive and to compete with other individuals. It’s no wonder that our canine friends find urine so compelling that they are irresistibly drawn to it. As anyone who has spent even a little time with dogs knows, urine sniffing is a favorite pastime.
A recent study called “Length of time domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) spend smelling urine of gonadectomised and intact conspecifics” was conducted to investigate whether gonadectomy (being spayed or neutered) affects urine-sniffing behavior. Since gonadectomy has significant impacts on body chemistry, it has long been suggested that it disrupts the flow of information available through urine that dogs have evolved to detect over many generations.
Researchers tested the affects of gonadectomy in urine sniffing by recording how long dogs sniffed urine from intact versus gonadectomized individuals. They found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from spayed or neutered dogs than from intact ones. One possibility is that the dogs are spending a longer time sniffing such urine because they are trying to figure out the information it contains. Because it may have a combination of chemicals that is different than the range of compounds that the dogs have evolved to understand, it may be harder for them to make sense out of it.
Interestingly, this study contradicts the findings of Lisberg and Snowdon, whose 2009 paper also analyzed the investigation patterns of unfamiliar urine and found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from intact dogs than from gonadectomized ones. One possible explanation for the difference may be that for the current paper, the dogs were tested indoors, but for the 2009 paper, the study took place outside. (Fewer distractions inside may also explain an average sniff length of nearly 13 seconds in this paper compared with just over 5 seconds in the older study.) Another difference between the results of the two studies is that the recent research found no difference in sniffing time related to what kind of dog was doing the sniffing (male or female, intact or gonadectomized) but Lisberg and Snowdon found that neutered males and intact females both spent more time sniffing urine from intact males than from neutered males.
More research is definitely needed if we want to understand the complicated behavior of urine sniffing, which may involve many interactions between environment and individual traits of the dogs—both those who are the sources of urine and those who sniff if. Research is time intensive and can be costly, which is why I’m so impressed by this particular study. It was conducted in a single home in which the 12 dogs recruited to be sniffers all live, there was no funding source for the study and all of the urine in the study came from out of state to insure that the urine came from unfamiliar dogs. Kudos to the authors for taking the initiative to conduct a cool and clever experiment!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Intense mothering associated with puppy failure
We all know human mothers who dote excessively on their kids, depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to handle life’s challenges on their own. New research suggests that canine moms who are overly attentive may be causing the same harm to their puppies.
In a study of 98 puppies at a New Jersey facility that breeds, raises and trains guide dogs for the visually impaired, researchers found that high levels of maternal care were associated with failure. About 30 percent of puppies don’t make the cut, and too much mothering may be part of the problem. Puppies whose mothers were excessively attentive were more likely to fail out of the guide dog program.
Attentiveness involved many behaviors, such as the amount of time spent in contact with the puppies, time spent licking the puppies and time in the box with the puppies. Additionally, the mothers’ postures when nursing their puppies may have influenced their development. Some mothers lie on their sides while nursing, which gives puppies easy access to milk. Other moms remain standing, a posture that requires puppies to work harder for the milk. Puppies whose mothers stood during nursing were more likely to succeed as guide dogs.
The scientists who conducted the study assert that facing and overcoming minor obstacles—such as difficulties acquiring milk from Mom—may be important for developing independence and key life skills. The opportunity to succeed despite facing challenges may allow puppies to develop confidence, self-reliance, frustration tolerance or other qualities that made success as a guide dog more likely.
Interestingly, this study’s conclusion that excessive mothering is problematic contradicts the results found in a previous study of the effects of maternal care on working dogs. In that study, higher levels of maternal care were associated with success in a program for raising working dogs for the Swedish Armed Forces. It may be that different mothering styles are best for raising working dogs of different types—guide dogs versus military dogs. Another possibility is that we’ve got a Goldilocks situation in which some dogs mother too much and some dogs mother too little, but others provide the amount that is just right.
What does seem clear from both studies is that there are strong effects of early experiences on adult behavior in dogs. Impulse control, aggression, neophobia, motivation and anxiety and a host of emotional and cognitive traits are influenced by the type and amount of maternal care they receive in the first few weeks of life. Any program would likely benefit by considering this factor when deciding which individuals to breed.
There is much to be gained by understanding which factors are predictive of a successful working dog. As the authors of this recent research wrote, one element involves the “enduring benefits of maternal care—in moderation”.
An article today in The New York Times takes aim at temperament testing in animal shelters hopefully this article will get the attention it deserves from the shelter community. The effectiveness of these kinds of tests, that can result in a dog being swiftly killed if she doesn’t score a passing grade, has long been under examination by humane advocates. Back in 2003, our article, Dog Is In the Details, by Barbara Robertson, looked at this very issue. And more recently Jessica Hekman, DVM, wrote an indepth piece about more recent studies that, “could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.”
All these articles noted that testing an animal in a shelter setting is fraught with problems. Even the most modern of shelters can be a place for many dogs, as Dr. Sara Bennett, a vet behaviorist, detailed in the Times piece:
“Dogs thrive on routine and social interaction. The transition to a shelter can be traumatizing, with its cacophony of howls and barking, smells and isolating steel cages. A dog afflicted with kennel stress can swiftly deteriorate: spinning; pacing; jumping like a pogo stick; drooling; and showing a loss of appetite. It may charge barriers, appearing aggressive.”
But there are more and more studies, such as the one done co-authored by Dr. Gary Patronek, adjunct professor at the veterinary medicine school at Tufts, and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council suggesting that shelters should instead devote limited resources to “to spent the time in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training).”
“The tests are artificial and contrived,” said Patronek, who roiled the shelter world last summer when he published an analysis concluding that the tests have no more positive predictive value for aggression than a coin toss.
“During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction,” he said. “And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?”
Plus in many of the overcrowded shelters, the assessments are left up to staff members, who aren’t well trained, and who certainly aren’t behaviorists, to make the final say. “Interpreting dogs, with their diverse dialects and complex body language — wiggling butts, lip-licking, semaphoric ears and tails — often becomes subjective.” As Dr. Hekman noted, she had “observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff and was euthanized.”
So when space is such a limiting factor, as it is in many shelters, those dogs that attack a fake hand, just make space available for another dog.
The Times pointed out that one of the tests that is most disputed is the one involving the food test. Research has shown that shelter dogs who guard their food bowls, do not necessarily do so at home. And even Emily Weiss, the A.S.P.C.A. researcher whose SAFER behavior assessment is one of the best-known has stepped away from food-bowl tests, saying that 2016 research showed that programs that omit them “do not experience an increase in bites in the shelter or in adoptive homes.” And is study of this study, showed a stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression in the shelter, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
Tests that try to assess dog-on-dog aggression using a “fake” dog also have been shown to be less that ideal, a 2015 study showed that shelter dogs responded more aggressively to a fake dog than a real one.
Good news is that the A.S.P.C.A is reporting that annual adoption rates have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011. Euthanasia rates are down, although they still say 670,000 dogs are put to death each year. Some veterinary schools, like the University of California, Davis, Tufts University and Cornell University (that was the first one to offer such a program) are offering shelter-medicine specializations. And more and more shelters are employing more humane, and effective methods such as programs like Aimee Sadler’s Dogs Playing for Life that matches dogs for outside playgroups.
As Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the HSUS has noted: “There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort. Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show.”
What is important is to get the word out to your local shelters about the unreliability of behavior testing, it is surprising how many still employ them, including the Sue Sternberg’s “assess-a-pet” and the food bowl test. And while the Times piece is valuable because of the large audience it will receive, it did feature a behaviorist who used the fake-hand and food bowl test, but at least accompanied by a more thoughtful examination about the overall behavior of the dog. That dog was saved, but many who fail that test, in most other situations, without the benefit of expert opinion, would not have been. This is a complex situation that no one approach can truly fix. But it is important to heed the findings from Patronek, "Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general."
Good Dog: Studies & Research
A new approach allows further study
The influence of genes on personality and behavior is of great interest to people who love dogs as well as to scientists studying the genetics of animal behavior. Since dogs’ personalities play a major role in their ability to function as our companions as well as to carry out a variety of tasks as working dogs, it’s important to understand the contribution of genetics on behavior. It is well established that genetics plays a large role, as evidenced by behavioral differences between breeds. Even substantial differences in behavior within breeds can be accounted for by genetic variation.
One of the challenges to studying behavioral genetics is that large sample sizes are required because there are so many factors that influence behavior (e.g. early environment, training methods, various lifestyle factors). To achieve adequately large sample sizes in research is both expensive and time consuming, sometimes prohibitively so. A recent study called “Genetic Characterization of Dog Personality Traits” took a creative approach to meet this challenge.
The scientists were interested in genetic contributions to personality, defined as “individual consistency in behavioral responsiveness to stimuli and situations”. Researchers took advantage of the substantial knowledge people have about their own dogs’ personalities to explore genetic contributions to personality traits. Their work shows that it is possible to detect genetic variation in dog personality traits by using questionnaires to collect large quantities of useful data.
In this recent study, researchers used the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment Research and Questionnaire) as well as a separate questionnaire about demographics to study 1975 UK Kennel Club-registered Labrador Retrievers. The C-BARQ allowed each dog to be scored for the following personality traits—Agitated When Ignored, Attention-Seeking, Barking Tendency, Excitability, Fetching, Fear of Humans and Objects, Fear of Noises, Non-Owner Directed Aggression, Owner-Directed Aggression, Separation Anxiety, Trainability and Unusual Behavior.
The additional questionnaire collected data about the dog’s age, coat color, sex, neuter status, housing, health status, exercise, daily exercise and the role of the dog. (The various roles were gun dog, show dog and pet dog.) To gather genetic information, the study took advantage of the dogs’ pedigrees, which involved 29 generations and 28,943 dogs. Further genetic data on the dogs were obtained as part of a different study using standard genomic methods and genetic markers, with 885 dogs from that study also participating in the C-BARQ portion of the research. In the analysis, the researchers estimated heritability of personality traits based on both the pedigree and on the genomic data.
The researchers found that fetching has a higher heritability rating than any other personality trait. Interestingly, some previous studies have lumped trainability with fetching ability, which results in lower heritability scores for both of them. This study also revealed a considerable genetic component to the fear of noises. Aggression directed towards owners showed no genetic component at all, while aggression towards strangers had a moderate genetic component.
Many behavioral traits are polygenic (influenced by a large number of genes, with each one often having a small effect) and also have significant environmental influences, which means that it is difficult to determine genomic associations. Estimates of heritability are likely to increase with technological advances in genetic work.
The importance of this study is that it shows that genetic variance can be detected and studied with the use of questionnaires filled out by owners. It also reveals that grouping responses into behavioral factors may make it harder to detect the genetic influence on various traits.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A soft mouth can be the difference between life and death for dogs.
All dogs come equipped with powerful jaws and teeth capable of inflicting injury, but they vary in their willingness to use them as weapons. Most save them for marrow bones, chews or Kongs, a quality that makes for good pets and great friends. The degree to which dogs learn not to use the full force of their mouths on people and other dogs is called “bite inhibition,” and it is the most important part of a dog’s education.
Unfortunately, all dogs are likely to experience unpleasant or stressful incidents, but those with proper bite inhibition will not cause much (if any) damage in response. That’s why bite inhibition is so valuable. If an injured or terrified dog air-snaps or inhibits his bite so effectively that contact with another dog or person causes no pain or injury, that’s a manageable problem by most people’s standards. If a dog with poor bite inhibition is in the same situation and inflicts serious damage, it’s a potentially disastrous problem from a physical, emotional and even legal standpoint.
Consider the following incidents from my own case files.
A visiting child loses his temper when the family dog distracts him during a game of ping pong by yawning and whining. The child hits the dog in the face with the ping-pong paddle, and the dog runs away yelping. A teenager tries to dress up her dog to match her own outfit, and the dog resists. As she continues forcing the clothes on him, he whines and struggles. After several minutes, the dog growls and snaps at her face but makes no contact. An elderly man trips and falls onto his dog while the dog is eating. The dog bites the man on the leg, leaving no mark. A toddler tries to climb on her sleeping dog to ride him like a horse. The dog stands up and begins to walk away, but when she tries once again to get on his back, he bites her on the shoulder, causing a bruise. When a man reaches to pet his friend’s dog, his watch catches on the dog’s collar. He gently tries to disentangle himself, and the dog bites him on the leg, leaving two puncture marks and some bruising. A woman walks into her dining room, sees a dog toy under the table and reaches down to get it. Her dog races in from the living room and bites her arm repeatedly, resulting in multiple punctures along with fractures to her wrist and arm that require several surgeries to fix.
In each instance, it’s easy to see why the dog was distressed. Yet, the seriousness of the responses was not directly related to the injustice or pain suffered by the dog, but rather, to the dog’s ability to exercise proper bite inhibition. It’s no exaggeration to say that bite inhibition can be the difference between success and failure in treating behavior problems, and even between life and death for the dog.
When evaluating risk, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the worst that could happen if for example, a gate is left open, a leash breaks or a person barges in unannounced. If the answer is, “Someone could get really spooked and be furious with us because our dog may bark, lunge or snap,” many people would be willing to take that chance. If instead, the answer is, “Someone could be badly and even permanently injured, require medical care such as surgery or be deeply traumatized,” far fewer would be able to live with that risk. The answer is really important because it will generally determine how willing people are to live with the risk, which in turn influences how committed they are to their dog and working to improve his behavior.
Some dogs develop the bite inhibition so essential for navigating life’s tricky and unexpected events while others don’t. Both genetics and learning influence the process. Though there’s genetic variation among individual dogs, some types of dogs are famous for soft mouths. It’s not surprising, for example, that dogs bred to retrieve game use their mouths gently to avoid damaging that game. Retrievers are also well known for being “mouthy,” meaning that they use their mouth, including their teeth, often. Though there are cases of dogs who are gentle with their mouths while retrieving but do not have good bite inhibition in social situations, it is more common that dogs who are able to exercise control in one situation are able to behave similarly in others. That does not mean that dogs with good bite inhibition won’t kill squirrels or tear up their chew toys. Bite inhibition is all about exercising control in social situations, but that does not necessarily apply to predatory behavior or to play with objects.
Experience with play biting and mouthing often leads to better bite inhibition, and like anything else, those who practice become the most skilled. Littermates are a puppy’s first teachers, one of several reasons that it’s beneficial for puppies to stay with their litter for about two months. As the young dogs play, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on their siblings’ ears, tails, paws and loose skin. If one puppy mouths another too hard, the puppy who got hurt will yelp, stop playing and move away. This teaches puppies that hard bites, even if not intended to cause pain, result in an interruption in play. Singleton puppies and those taken from their litter before the age of five or six weeks often lack proper bite inhibition. It seems that puppies need their littermates’ feedback to learn to control the pressure they exert with their mouths.
Once puppies head to new homes, their education needs to continue, and that includes socialization with other puppies and dogs. This does not mean throwing a puppy into the dog-park scrum and hoping it will all work out. In that setting, puppies are far too likely to be overwhelmed and to experience it as we might experience a gladiator pit. Rather, it means supervised play dates with carefully selected and well-behaved canines.
Lessons from people are also useful in teaching bite inhibition. Though using their mouths on our hands, arms, legs, hair and clothes is natural behavior for them, dogs must learn to interact in ways that are appropriate in our world. An effective technique, one based on puppies’ earlier experiences with their littermates, is to startle and then redirect the young offender. If a puppy mouths too hard, yelp with a puppy-like sound (Aaarp! is the closest description of this sound that can be spelled), which often interrupts the puppy’s biting. Take advantage of that pause in the behavior by immediately giving the puppy something appropriate to chew on. Good options include bones, chew toys, Kongs, squeaky toys and stuffed animals.
A common mistake when using this method is to make the yelping sound and then fail to redirect the puppy. In most cases, although the sound will startle the puppy into a break in the mouthing, he or she will go right back to it unless given another, more appropriate object to focus on. Many people begin by doing both steps (startle and redirect), but as time goes on, they switch to startling without bothering to redirect. They then report that the technique doesn’t work.
While more than 90 percent of puppies will respond to this method if it is used correctly and consistently, there are indeed dogs who seem to get worse in response to high-pitched yelps, becoming even mouthier and more revved up. For those dogs, it’s usually effective to startle the dog with a deep-voiced “Hey!” or “Ouch!” Otherwise, the technique of interrupting the behavior and then redirecting the dog to an appropriate object is the same. If the puppy fails to respond to either sound, walk away so that he learns that biting brings an end to the fun.
It’s important to begin by startling and redirecting the puppy only in response to the most forceful bites. Employing this approach with every instance of mouthing can be overwhelming to the puppy, who is, after all, doing what comes naturally and exploring the world by mouth. So, the first goal is to teach the puppy not to mouth so hard rather than not to mouth at all. When the hardest bites have been inhibited, the next step is to startle and redirect after medium-force bites. Finally, once the puppy has learned to mouth people with only the gentlest of pressure, teach him not to do this at all by employing the same technique in response to any occasion in which his teeth touch delicate human skin, hair or clothes.
There are many recommendations out there for stopping puppy mouthing and I advise against most of them because they are inhumane and generally ineffective. For example, do not hold the dog’s muzzle closed, yell at the dog, jam your fingers into the dog’s mouth or swat the dog. Basically, it comes down to one piece of general advice: Don’t do anything that involves any kind of physical punishment that causes pain or frightens the dog.
Proper bite inhibition is incredibly important, and developing it requires lessons early in life. The normal process of learning bite inhibition is linked with puppy development and it can’t usually be learned later in life with the same degree of success. Dogs without this essential skill may cause severe damage—punctures, painful bruising and even broken bones on occasion. Learning bite inhibition is one of the first and most essential lessons for puppies, because it is about safety as well as being a well-behaved, polite member of society.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Adults don’t always understand dogs’ behavior around kids
Supervising children and dogs when they are together is an important part of preventing dog bites as well as of protecting the well-being of both kids and canines. However, even carefully monitoring the interactions will do little to prevent trouble if the adults watching aren’t knowledgeable about dog behavior. Research has shown that adults often underestimate the risks of dog bites to children, and that children tend to engage in riskier behavior around dogs when an adult is present.
According to a study called "Adults' Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog-Child Interaction", misinterpreting the body language of dogs during interactions with children is quite common. Three videos of young children and dogs interacting were used in this study to assess adults’ ability to understand canine body language. A panel of behavior experts considered the dogs in all three videos to be fearful and anxious, emotionally conflicted, and lacking in confidence. However, approximately two-thirds of the subjects in the study considered the dogs to be relaxed and a similar percentage thought their behavior indicated confidence.
The subjects of the study came from four different groups: 1. People with dogs and with children, 2. People with dogs but no children, 3. People with children but no dogs, and 4. People without dogs or children. Interestingly, people without dogs were more successful at interpreting the emotional states of dogs than people who are dog guardians. Dog guardians were more likely to think the dogs were relaxed than people without dogs and less likely to label their emotional state as conflicted. Parents and non-parents did not differ in their ability to interpret the emotional states of the dogs in the video, to determine the dogs’ response to the situation, or to categorize the predominant behavior of the dog (e.g. play, friendly behavior).
Previous work has yielded conflicting results about whether people with dogs are better or worse at interpreting canine body language and emotional expressions. This study suggests that experience with dogs without any theoretical knowledge of dog behavior may not enhance people’s ability to recognize signs of trouble in interactions between young children and dogs. Perhaps people with dogs are more likely to give dogs the benefit of the doubt and assume they are friendly. Similarly, people without dogs may be more cautious when observing dogs, especially around young children, and may therefore be more receptive to the possibility of danger.
The general conclusions of the study are that people have great difficulty interpreting the signs of fear and anxiety in dogs who are interacting with young children and that it is important to educate people about dog body language in order to minimize problems when dogs are interacting with young children.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Puppy mill dogs have more behavioral problems
“We found that across all behaviour categories, including trainability, dogs from less responsible breeders had significantly less favourable behaviour and temperament scores than puppies from responsible breeders.”
The above statement by researcher Catherine Douglas sums up the study “Do puppies from ‘puppy farms’ [puppy mills] show more temperament and behavioural problems than if acquired from other sources?” More extensive results were presented at the annual conference of the British Society of Animal Science.
It was the first study in the UK on the behavior and temperament of adult dogs who came from puppy farms, which we call puppy mills on this side of the Atlantic. Dogs were divided into two categories. One set came from puppy farms or other commercial breeding facilities that did not follow the good practice standards of the RSPCA or the Animal Welfare Foundation’s Puppy Contract (less responsible breeders). The other group in the study was made up of dogs who came from responsible breeders who put a priority on the welfare of the breeding dogs as well as of the puppies (responsible breeders).
Dog guardians filled out surveys about the conditions of the facility the dog came from to determine whether the dog came from a puppy farm (or similar) or from a responsible breeder. They were asked such questions as “Were the puppies raised in a home environment? Did you see the mother? At what age did you get your puppy?” They also filled out a standard survey (the CBARQ, or Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire) to evaluate their dog’s behavior. The breeds studied were the Pug, the Jack Russell Terrier and the Chihuahua.
Though there have been many studies about the physical health of dogs from puppy farms, there is far less research about the adult behavior of these dogs. The results of this study overwhelmingly support the common advice NOT to buy a dog from such a place. In every category, the dogs from less responsible breeders were found to have less desirable behavior than dogs from responsible breeders. Specifically, they were more likely to be aggressive to members of the household, more likely to be aggressive to strangers, more likely to be aggressive to dogs, more likely to be fearful of new objects, more likely to have noise phobias, more likely to suffer from separation anxiety, and less likely to be rated high in trainability.
It’s not clear what factors contribute to these extensive differences in temperament and behavior, but there are many possibilities. Stress during pregnancy can contribute to anxiety in puppies and affect their ability to learn in training. Being separated from the mother while very young can also have detrimental effects on adult behavior. There could also be genetic factors that account for some of the differences between the two groups of dogs.
Though the results of this study are not surprising, they do confirm that where we get our dogs matters. Acquiring dogs from puppy farms supports an industry that lacks proper safeguards for animal welfare and also makes it less likely that your best friend will be the ideal companion and family member that we all want.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
“Calming signals” is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas to group a large number of behavior patterns that she says dogs use to avoid conflict, to prevent aggression, to calm other dogs down and to communicate information to other dogs and to people. Since the publication of Rugaas’ 2006 book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, it has been a popular idea that actions such as lip-licking, sniffing the ground, yawning, scratching, looking away, play bowing, sitting down, lying down, softening the eyes, blinking and even sneezing (along with many others) are social signals that help calm down those around them.
Rugaas’ observations are compelling, and many dog trainers and behaviorists, including me, have learned a lot from her work. However, the term “calming signals” entered the lexicon without much analysis, which is problematic. Using a term that ascribes functionality to behavior patterns prior to scientifically testing whether or not that’s true creates challenges, and is a big no-no in ethology. One problem is that claiming that certain behaviors are “calming signals” creates a bias such that people tend to accept that this is, in fact, what they do. The idea that these signals are functioning in this way is an intriguing hypothesis. However, in the years since Rugaas shared her ideas with the dog community, there have yet to be adequate tests of their function, or substantial efforts to determine if the various behaviors have different functions. Rather, the idea that they were calming signals was broadly accepted without being subject to rigorous scientific study.
There is, however, a recent pilot study investigating the function of the behavior patterns that have all been placed into the category of calming signals. The purpose of the study “Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals” was to assess if the behaviors that have been called calming signals are used to communicate, and if they de-escalate potentially aggressive situations between dogs. In the study, 24 dogs were observed interacting two at a time. Dogs interacted with familiar and unfamiliar dogs of both sexes.
Throughout the course of the study, 2130 calming signals were observed, with the most common being head turning, nose licking, freezing and turning away. Dogs were more likely to display calming signals when they were interacting with the other dog compared with when they were not interacting, which does suggest a communicative role. It does not prove it, though, as it is possible that these behaviors indicate stress and that they are performed during social interactions more often than they are performed outside of that context because such interactions are stressful. In fact, most of the signals that Rugaas has called “calming signals” are also considered indicators of stress.
More calming signals were displayed when dogs were interacting closely (within 1.5 body lengths of the dog displaying) than when interacting at a greater distance. Overall, more calming signals were exhibited during interactions with unfamiliar dogs than with familiar dogs, but licking the other dog’s mouth was more frequently observed when the other dog was familiar.
During the interactions in the study, there were 109 instances of aggressive behavior. A calming signal never came right before the aggressive behavior, but 67% of the time, at least one calming signal followed the aggressive behavior. In over 79% of the instances in which a calming signal followed the start of the aggression, there was a de-escalation in the aggressive behavior. These data are consistent with the idea that these behaviors function to calm other dogs down and lessen their aggression, but the work is too preliminary to conclude this for certain. More research is needed to explore other possibilities, such as the role of stress in these behaviors and their effects, and the potentially different functions of each of the dozens of behaviors that have been lumped under the term “calming signals”.
This is a pilot (or preliminary) study, and though the results are intriguing, they are in no way a definitive test of the function of “calming signals” in dogs, which the authors correctly point out in their paper. Though this research makes an attempt to test the often-accepted hypothesis that many behavior patterns function as calming signals that de-escalate aggression, its biggest flaw is that it lacks a very important control. De-escalation of aggression is quite common, and in this study, the authors report the frequency of de-escalation after a calming signal, but do not report on the rate of de-escalation in the absence of a calming signal. Part of the problem is that with so many possible calming signals, it is quite likely that one will be exhibited as a response to aggression. (Dogs are unlikely to have no reaction to such behavior.)
To evaluate the function of the behaviors, it is necessary to know the frequency with which the aggression de-escalates in the absence of any calming signals. We know that there was often de-escalation in the absence of calming signals because the authors report that in quite a few cases, the dog on the receiving end of the aggression walked or ran away, increasing the distance between the two dogs, which was often associated with a de-escalation in aggression. Fleeing is not considered a calming signal, and yet when the distance increased between the two dogs, there was also usually a de-escalation of the aggression. Future research should explore the differences in behavior in cases in which there was de-escalation and in which there was not.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
People are able to interpret these vocalizations
Research in recent years has shown that our brains can process the emotional content of vocalizations based on acoustic structure, and that various mammalian species share the same brain structures used for such interpretation. That means that we ought to be able to interpret the emotional nature of vocalizations from other species much like we understand those of other people.
Multiple studies of communication across species have found that animals can understand the emotional nature of vocalizations made by members of other species. In a number of studies, experience with the other species enhanced the ability to understand calls from that species.
Cross-species communication is particularly interesting between humans and dogs because of the long history we have of associating with one another, leading to the possibility that we have influenced each other’s vocalizations. In order to investigate people’s ability to understand canine growls, researchers conducted a study in which people listened to recordings of dogs growling and were then asked questions about the emotional state of the dogs.
In the study, “Dog growls express various contextual and affective content for human listeners”, 40 people heard recordings of growling dogs. All of the growls were recording in one of three contexts: guarding food from another dog, playing tug with a person and being approached by a stranger. In the first part of the experiment, the people were asked to rate each growl on a sliding scale for each of the following emotions: fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness.
The emotional profiles based on the 40 ratings of all three contexts were different. Food guarding had the highest aggression rating, followed by the stranger context, and the growls from play had the lowest aggression scores. For the other emotional states, the food guarding and stranger context did not differ from each other, but were rated higher in despair and fear than the playful growls and lower in playfulness and happiness than the growls recorded in play.
In the second test, people were asked in which of those three situations the growl was recorded. Overall, people correctly identified the context of 63% of the growls, which is significantly better than the 33% rate that chance predicts. The play growls were most readily identified, with 81% of them being correctly chosen. The food guarding growls were correctly identified 60% of the time, compared with 50% of the growls directed at strangers. Most of the errors in identifying these two (potentially aggressive) contexts involved confusion between the two of them, rather than with the playful context.
The authors conclude from this study that people can distinguish different types of dog growls, including being able to tell apart growls that are both in potentially aggressive contexts. Previous studies have found that people’s ability to understand canine growls is influenced by the time between growls and the duration of the growls. Based on analysis of the acoustic structure of the growls in this study, the key characters of the growls that make them seem different to people are the rhythm of the series of growls and the length of the individual growls within that sequence. Longer gaps between growls is associated with higher aggression scores. Shorter growls are generally perceived as more positive on emotional scales. In growls recorded in the context of a stranger approaching, the higher the pitch of the growl, the higher the fearfulness score.
Individual people varied in their ability to identify the context of the growls. Overall, women were better at it then men. Also dog guardians outperformed people who do not have dogs. Whether or not a person had ever been bitten by a dog had no effect on whether people were able to determine the context of a growl. This study shows that although people in general can interpret the emotion in canine growls, experience plays a role in how well they are able to do so.
Can tell what your dog’s growls mean?
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The importance of evaluating the responses
Kids are taught to ask permission before petting a dog with some variation of “May I please meet your dog?” This simple question has the potential to avoid unpleasant interactions, but only if kids are taught how to interpret the possible answers, especially those that are nuanced. The answer might be a simple, “Yes.” It could also be a straightforward “No” for any number of reasons: it’s not safe to pet the dog, the dog will feel uncomfortable if the child attempts to interact, or even that someone is on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time for a meet-and-greet. The person may also seem hesitant but not actually say no, or give an answer that conveys serious concern.
The clear “Yes” answers are easy to figure out. It’s common for people to reply to a request to meet a dog with some variant of “Sure, she loves people!” “He would love that!” or “Absolutely, thanks for asking!” In that case, there is a good chance that the person expects a positive interaction between a child and a dog. They might be wrong, but there’s no sense of worry or concern being expressed, which is encouraging, and it makes sense for kids to approach the dog.
Similarly, a definite “No” from the person is also clear. If a person declines the request, kids should respect that and not approach the dog. Common ways that people prevent an interaction are by saying, “I’m sorry, but she doesn’t like kids,” “She’s too shy, it will upset her,” or “I think not because everything scares her.” They might even say, “No, because she’ll try to bite you.” People who answer in this general way know that the dog can’t handle it and that it would be a mistake to let a child meet the dog.
Unfortunately, there are two general categories of answers that can be ambiguous, and too few children have been taught to understand them. The first set of such answers is generally positive with mild reservations. These usually indicate that the people are not concerned about their dog being aggressive, but they feel embarrassed about some aspect of their dog. These replies are along the lines of, “Okay, but she’s very excitable,” or “Yes, but she may jump on you.” Sometimes people just offer a warning that is not behavioral, such as “If you don’t mind getting a lot of fur on you!” In most cases, these responses are not deal breakers for a meeting, but it does depend on the size of the child as well as the size and enthusiasm level of the dog. If the person expresses that their dog is unruly or shedding, it’s okay to answer, “I don’t mind dog hair,” or “I don’t think jumping up will put a dark blot on her character!” as long as the dog is not so powerful or out of control that someone could get knocked over. This requires a judgment call, and the most conservative approach is for kids not to meet dogs after such replies. At the very least, kids should proceed with caution.
Another set of answers can be more worrisome, and kids need to learn that they should not pet a dog if the people say things along the lines of, “That would probably be okay,” or “Well, she’s shy, but we can see how she does,” or “If she’ll let you. I’m not sure because sometimes she can’t handle it.” All of these replies show that a person is in the hope-and-fear zone. (“I hope it will be okay, but I fear that it will not be.”) There is a great risk that the interaction could be troubling for the child or the dog. Kids should be taught that the correct action upon hearing such remarks is not to approach the dog. A simple, “Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to upset her, but thanks anyway,” is a good phrase to teach kids for such situations.
There are endless possible answers when a child asks, “May I please meet your dog?” The “Yes” and the “No” replies are easy to understand. The former tells you it’s likely to be a positive interaction and the latter lets you know that the person knows the dog can’t handle it and has clearly said so. It’s those intermediate answers that require more careful interpretation. I’m always in favor of avoiding risks and erring on the side of caution when it comes to meeting dogs whose people seem hesitant about having anyone—especially a child—approach. If the answer gives any hint that it might not go well or might distress the dog, it’s best to decline.
Of course, all of this general advice assumes that people have the right read on their dog, and that is not always the case. They may think the dog loves all people, even when the dog’s body language reveals that the dog is terrified and wants a child to go away. That’s why it’s still important for kids to learn how to tell that a dog is behaving in a fearful and/or threatening way. The people’s responses to a request to meet a dog are only one stream of information we can use to decide whether to approach a dog. Still, there’s often a lot of truth in what they say, which is why children should be taught to evaluate those responses and act accordingly.
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