In a recent New York Times, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and the author of the excellent new book, How Dogs Love Us, writes an intriguing and engrossing editorial, “Dogs Are People, Too” (which was the top “emailed” article in the NYT the day it came out!). Berns and his team at Emory University have been testing dogs, the first of which was Berns’ own rescue dog, Callie, using functional MRIs to measure their brain activity, hoping to decode the canine brain. Unlike other researchers at other universities, the Emory Dog Project was the first to do this and the only ones who perform their research with not only volunteer dogs, but also by following a humane protocol that included “only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.” Other researchers also use “purpose-bred” Beagles, an abhorrent practice.
What they discovered was rather amazing. As I noted in the book review in Bark’s Winter issue, “Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and by extension, that the idea that you must be a dog’s pack leader is a mistake.”
In his commentary Berns notes, “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
In making his case for the “personhood” of dogs Berns explains that, “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” And that we can’t hide from the evidence shown in the MRIs, dogs, and other animals (like primates) do have emotional lives, just like us. In his book he describes that the defining traits of dogs is their interspecies social intelligence, “an ability to intuit what humans and other animal are thinking,” and furthermore that, “ Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they probably also have a high capacity for empathy. More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel.”
It is then perfectly understandable that he makes the case for granting dogs personhood, as he wrote in the Times piece, “ If we … granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”
Read the whole article here, and watch this video and we would love to know your thoughts too. Gregory Berns’ post on Psychology Today, is also of interest.
For your listening pleasure—tune into Alexandra Horowitz, author of the bestselling, “must read” book, Inside of a Dog, being interviewed on the “Person Place Thing” radio program by Randy Cohen. You can listen at any time.
As their site notes about Alexandra:
A professor of psychology at Barnard, Alexandra Horowitz is the director of that school’s Dog Cognition Lab. What we particularly admire about her: she is one of a very few scientists who can write about current ideas in her field in a way that a lay audience finds not only comprehensible – dayanu – but intriguing, which she did to great effect in her book “Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell and know,” and more recently in “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Love in the past and present
Many years ago, I acquired a 2½-year old Lab mix from a family who was rehoming him. The conflicts with their other dog had become alarming and had compromised the quality of life for the entire household. My bond with my new dog formed quickly and was strong until he died and beyond.
It’s phenomenal how well dogs can form new attachments and love so many people throughout their lives. Humans can do that, too, though this is far from common in the animal world. I couldn’t help but notice the happiness my dog expressed when we ran into his original family around town, which happened a few times a year.
Whenever he saw them, he went, for lack of a better term, completely bonkers. He jumped straight into the air like he was on a pogo stick, with all four paws nearly five feet off the ground. His face showed pure joy as he greeted them, and they were much the same in their expressions. Though there was so much love on both sides, they chose to place him in a home where he was not at risk of being harmed by fights with their other, older dog. I’m so grateful for that because otherwise he would never have entered my life.
Though my dog was thrilled to see the people he lived with from 8 weeks to 2½ years of age, he never attempted to stay with them. After each reunion, he invariably returned his attention to me and did not hesitate as we walked away. There were no backward glances and he did not seem confused in any way. Though I can’t know exactly what he felt or thought, I can make guesses based on his behavior. I think he was happy to see the people he knew from the past because he loved them. He also loved me and I believe that he naturally felt more connected to me because we were currently spending time together, sharing a home and a life.
I always enjoyed his reaction to his first family because I liked seeing him happy for any reason. I would have been horrified to see him react to them with avoidance, fear or any other negative emotion. A show of indifference would not have been much better as that would have made me wonder if he would be capable of ceasing to care about me, too. It also made me happy because I could see how much it meant to the family to be honored with an over-the-top exuberant greeting from the dog they loved. It had been a heartbreaking decision for them to give him up for the safety of both dogs. They were overjoyed to see that he still loved them, too, and was excited to see them.
How does your dog react to seeing a previous guardian or a foster family? Or, if you were previously the guardian or foster family to a dog you’ve been able to see again, how does the dog act at the reunion?
News: Guest Posts
All barks are not alike
AS YOU PROBABLY KNOW, your dog’s voice is not like a Bret Michaels concert, pumping out a shower of meaningless noise. Although your dog’s vocalizations might be unwelcome at times, those sounds carry way more information and meaning than any of the former frontman’s power ballads can ever hope to do. Well, maybe not as much as “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
In recent years, many studies have investigated the noises made by companion dogs. Now, you (yes, YOU!) can help researchers in a new study where participants listen to and rate different vocalizations. But first, what have we learned about dog vocalizations so far?
Time to Be All Ears
One major finding: dogs bark differently in different contexts, and it’s possible to tell the difference. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, found that “disturbance barks” (e.g., barks in response to a stranger ringing the doorbell) sound different from “isolation barks” (when a dog is separated from an owner) as well as barks emitted during play. In each context, barks have specific acoustic parameters: where disturbance barks are “relatively low-pitched, harsh barks with little variation in pitch or loudness,” isolation barks are “higher pitched, more tonal and more frequency-modulated than the disturbance barks,” and play barks are “similar to the isolation barks except that they usually occurred in clusters rather than singly” (Yin, 2010 Blog Post). Instead of seeing barks as meaningless noise, pay attention. Banjo might be yipping because he’s alone, or he may have noticed that someone uninvited is climbing in through your second floor window.
Dog barks are full of information, but what about growls? Anna Taylor and colleagues at the University of Sussex studied growling and found that, unlike barks, many acoustic properties of growls recorded in a play and aggressive context did not differ. But aggressive growls were longer than play growls, and play growls had a shorter pause between growls.
While growls are thought to be associated with aggression, remember they can also appear during play, so consider growling in a larger context. Additionally, if you come across a situation where growling could be associated with aggression, don’t freak out. Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA and author of The Dog Trainer on Quick and Dirty Tips, reminds: if you punish a dog for growling, you are essentially punishing a dog for giving a warning. Growling is a form of communication related to emotional or inner states in a particular context. If you want to decrease growling, think about what’s prompting the growling. The growling itself is not a problem.
Many high-profile dog vocalization studies were developed by Péter Pongrácz, Csaba Molnár and Tamás Faragó of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. In one notable study, dogs were placed in a room with a bone, and researchers played a recording of one of three growls from a different dog. Dogs responded to the “this is my food” growl by backing away from the bone, and dogs for the most part ignored the “go away stranger” and the play growl because those growls were not relevant to the bone. All growls are not the same, and dogs know it. So let’s try to get on the same page as them.
While we are learning about the noises coming from dogs’ mouths, we still have a way to go. I recently spoke with Monique Udell, an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University and a canine researcher, for an article on dog vocalizations for The Bark magazine (view article here). As Udell pointed out, “Vocal behavior in other species has received a lot of detailed attention. In birds, we’ve looked down to the note sequence and explored tiny variations. Vocalizations are such a prominent feature of dogs, and there is a lot to learn.”
Listen! You Can Help!
Now, back to what YOU can do to advance the science of vocalizations from the comfort of your couch. Tamás Faragó, now a postdoctoral researcher with the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, is exploring how humans perceive emotions in vocalizations. The study asks human subjects (like you!) to listen to and rate different vocalizations on a chart based on how aroused you think the vocalization is and whether you think it’s positive or negative. I promise you will not hear a single note of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Okay, only if you want to. The whole survey takes about a half hour, and as you go along, you’ll you get the swing of it. Check out the details below to participate.
You Can Participate in a Study of the Emotional Content of Sounds
Participants: Anybody in any country
Time commitment: Approximately 30 minutes
Project type: Listen to and rate different sounds
Project needs: Computer with headphones or decent quality speakers
Survey website: http://www.inflab.bme.hu/~viktor/soundrating/index.html
So don’t just stand there. Listen!
Hecht, J. Dog Speak: The Sounds of Dogs. The Bark Magazine.
Nova. The Meaning of Dog Barks.
Yin, S. Barking Dogs: Noise or Communication? Dr. Yin’s Animal Behavior and Medicine Blog. Monday, November 15th, 2010.
Taylor et al. 2009. Context-related variation in the vocal growling behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Ethology, 115, 905–915.
Faragó et al. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour, 79, 917–925.
Yin and McCowan. 2004. Barking in domestic dogs: context specificity and individual identification. Animal Behaviour, 68, 343–355.
About the Author
Julie Hecht, MSc, is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She writes a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Dog Spies at Facebook and Twitter @DogSpies | DogSpies.com
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Find the proper balance in the intestinal tract.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is quoted as saying, “bad digestion is at the root of all evil” and “death sits in the bowels.” What Hippocrates likely meant was that the GI tract, or “gut,” is responsible for much more than digesting food; it plays a vital role in creating and sustaining health. Nearly 2,500 years later, scientists are discovering that Hippocrates was right. You simply cannot have a “sick” gut and be truly healthy!
The “gut”, which is made up of the stomach, small intestine and colon (large intestine), is actually a complex microsystem of “good” bacteria, or microflora. While bacteria also live in our mouths, on our skin and in our urogenital tract, more than 70 percent take up residence in the mucosal tissue lining of the gut, which is known as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. The trillions of beneficial bacteria inside the gut comprise a metabolically active organ—the largest immune organ in the body—and are important for a variety of essential functions, including regulating digestion, producing and metabolizing vitamins and other trace nutrients, and protecting the body from infection.
The gut also contains pathogenic “bad” bacteria, such as E. coli. When the balance of good and bad bacteria goes awry, humans and animals can experience a myriad of digestive disturbances, including bloating, constipation or diarrhea, as well as abdominal cramping, surface erosions, and ulcers. But the relationship between gut bacteria and health extends far beyond the digestive system.
For example, gut microflora serves as a significant barrier to infection from outside pathogens, preventing unwanted invaders such as food toxins, toxic chemicals, bad bacteria and fungi from entering our systems. A condition called “leaky gut” arises when the integrity of the gut’s mucosal lining is compromised, causing it to become permeable, or “leaky.” When this occurs, unwanted molecules are allowed to pass through. Since the body recognizes these molecules as foreign, it attacks them. Science is now learning that “leaky gut” likely contributes to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroiditis.
Other conditions linked to imbalances in the gut’s bacterial ecosystem include:
A recently released study by the Cleveland Clinic exemplifies the important role of gut bacteria. The study found that some gut bacteria produce a compound called trimethylamine- N-oxide, or TMAO, while digesting lecithin found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, beef, pork and wheat germ. The researchers also found that blood levels of TMAO predict heart attack, stroke and death—independent of other risk factors. The fact that gut bacteria can cause heart attack, stroke and death, even in otherwise “healthy” people, is a true testament to their importance!
Obviously, to create and maintain health, we want to keep the gut microflora in tip-top shape. But if the gut is teeming with trillions of good bacteria, what’s the problem?
Many environmental factors can disrupt gut bacteria, throwing the balance between good and bad bacteria out of whack, including:
Fortunately, you can help keep your pet’s gut in tip-top shape by giving him probiotics.
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria. When ingested in sufficient numbers, probiotics colonize in the gut, thereby supplementing the existing beneficial microflora.
Probiotics can provide many health benefits in pets, including:
But don’t just run out and buy any product labeled “probiotic”. The product you purchase should meet strict standards, including:
Contain live bacteria. The product is not a probiotic unless the bacteria are live.
Contain multiple bacterial strains. Different strains of bacteria exert different biological activities. Look for a product containing at least 10 different strains.
Is potent. When it comes to a probiotic, the more potent the better. While some products contain 1 billion beneficial bacteria per serving, I advise looking for a product containing at least 30 billion or more beneficial bacteria per serving.
Is pure. A probiotic is designed to increase gut health. The last thing you want is a product that contains artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, sugar, salt, corn, wheat, soy or other undesirable ingredients.
And please don’t share your probiotic with your pet. An animal’s intestinal tract contains species-specific microflora, so a probiotic that’s beneficial for you isn’t necessarily beneficial for your companion animal. Opt instead for a probiotic targeted specifically to your pet’s species.
Supplementing your companion animal’s diet with a probiotic is a simple, safe and effective way to optimize gut health. You might just be amazed at the positive improvements these “gut bugs” can make!
Wellness: Healthy Living
Some Compulsive Disorders Point to the Gut
Canine compulsive disorders (CCDs) take many forms and are generally considered to be behavioral issues. However, recent studies suggest that at least two of them—“excessive licking of surfaces” (ELS) and “fly-biting syndrome,” in which a dog appears to stare at something and suddenly snaps at it—may be related to underlying health issues. Both studies were conducted by researchers associated with the University of Montréal Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
The first set out to investigate surface-licking behaviors to see if there was a medical component: “The objectives of our prospective clinical study were to characterize ELS behavior in dogs and to examine the extent to which it may be a sign of an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) pathology as opposed to a primarily behavioral concern.”
Researchers looked at 19 dogs, 16 of whom exhibited this behavior daily. This group was compared with a control group of 10 healthy (i.e., non-ELS) dogs. Complete medical and behavioral histories were collected for all dogs. The medical evaluation revealed that 14 of the 19 ELS dogs had GI abnormalities; treatment of the underlying GI disorder resulted in significant improvement in a majority of dogs in the ELS group.
The second study examined seven dogs with a history of daily fly-biting behavior. As the researchers noted, “Fly-biting dogs are generally referred to neurologists or behaviorists because the abnormalities are often interpreted as focal seizures or as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
As in the ELS study, these dogs were given complete medical examinations and were filmed to determine if the behavior was perhaps more prevalent after eating. The video analyses revealed a significant finding: all of the dogs demonstrated head-raising and neck extension, which can be an indicator of esophageal discomfort, prior to fly-biting.
All of the dogs in this study were found to have a GI abnormality, and one was also diagnosed with Chiari malformation (a brain/skull disorder). The dogs were treated for their medical conditions, and four had complete resolutions of the fly-biting behavior. The authors of this study concluded, “The data indicate that fly-biting may be caused by an underlying medical disorder, GI disease being the most common.”
As Marty Goldstein, DVM, observed in a post related to this research, “These studies don’t mean that primary obsessive/compulsive behavioral issues don’t exist, because they do … [But] if you have a pet with obsessive/compulsive disorders, don’t jump to psychoactive medications before exploring the use of food-allergy testing, changes in diet, and digestive enzymes and probiotics that can repair a damaged GI tract.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
White House releases official statement
“We don’t support breed-specific legislation.” So begins an official statement from the White House. Breed-specific legislation includes any law or regulation that restricts which dogs people can have based on their breed. The most common breed to be banned is the pit bull. The statement goes on to mention research showing that breed-specific legislation is essentially ineffective at preventing dog bites and injuries, and that it is a waste of the public’s resources. The official statement is presumably a response to an online petition that requests a ban at the federal level on laws that target dogs based on their breed.
It has not been possible to determine accurately bite rates by breeds, and in the absence of reliable data, perceptions are often skewed towards whatever is reported in the media rather than the actual number of bites. At various times, certain breeds have had serious PR problems, and it changes over the years. Decades ago it was rottweilers and doberman pinschers who seemed to face the most discrimination. Now it’s pit bulls who are most often assumed by many to be dangerous just because of what they look like, and not based on any information about specific individuals and their behavior.
The statement from the White House supports the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that in order to improve public safety, we are better off with a community-based approach to dog bite prevention. The laws about dangerous dogs that deal with individuals who have a history of aggressive behavior are far more sensible than bans on entire breeds of dogs. Dogs vary greatly in their behavior and that variation is substantial within all breeds.
Our society has come a long way in stopping discrimination against people based on appearance, origin and who they are related to. It’s encouraging that we are moving in that direction when it comes to dogs, too. I’m so pleased about this big step towards eliminating discriminatory legislation. What’s your take on it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Boy, did I misread the situation!
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.
We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.
I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.
Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.
Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.
From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)
He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.
A Video Pick of the Week
I was rereading John Pilley’s Chaser, a must-read book about his dog, Chaser, the Border Collie who learned to distinguish over 1000 words. One of the aspects of the book I really enjoyed was his appreciation for Border Collie lore, with a nod to others, like Arthur Allen, the “grandfather of Border Collies,” who wrote the seminal Border Collies in America and went on to “star” in a 1955 Disney movie, Arizona Sheepdog. Pilley mentioned that it’s now available on YouTube, so I just watched it and want to recommend it to every dog lover. It’s my video “pick” of the week!
Granted it is a “staged” Disney film but what Nick and Rock, Allen’s dogs do on this film cannot be directed. It was stunning to see how Nick herds a Navajo child’s pet chipmunk and then goes on to rescue sheep that have fallen into a fast moving river. These are amazing dogs who demonstrate that not only can they problem solve without supervision but they also work cooperatively with each other. This short film is a testament to Allen who has said, “I like a dog that is an individualist; one who thinks for himself and will act without orders.” As the film narrator says, Allen had no doubt that Nick would do his job and bring the sheep back to their flock. That is what they expected he would do and he did it. See it for yourself and let me know what you think.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment
I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.
We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.
When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.
I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!
Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?
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