Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New research confirms that you are
Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?
A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:
1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations. That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)
2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.
3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.
Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I’m sympathetic to many dogs
We all know that dogs and children can be a volatile mix, and that we must take care to protect kids from dogs. Regrettably, some kids are bitten and even more are scared or hurt by dogs chasing them or jumping up on them. As both a parent and as someone who works with dogs professionally, I see this as an important issue that we as a society must continue to improve.
Still, many times the interactions between kids and dogs leave me more concerned about the dogs than the children. Though far too many dog bites to kids happen, sometimes I think it’s amazing that there aren’t more considering what dogs have to put up with. While I think the majority of kids are kind to dogs, such good behavior is far from universal.
I’ve heard many people over the years praise their dogs by saying, “The kids can do ANYTHING to him.” I always respond by asking, “What are the kids doing to him?” while inside I’m crossing my paws and hoping it’s not too bad.
The answers range from the relatively benign (they follow him to pet him constantly, they dress him up) to the deeply concerning (they make a game of jumping over him, they use him like a pillow, they carry him around a lot) to the truly horrifying (they poke him in the eye, they pull his tail, they scream in his ear to wake him up, they try to ride him like a horse.)
My years working with clients as well as observations of dogs outside of work leave me with tremendous gratitude to the enormous numbers of dogs who react peacefully to kids. Some dogs are dealing with kids who are a bit rough, totally thoughtless or even downright cruel.
Without excusing dogs who have bitten kids, I think we’re asking dogs to put up with an awful lot considering what goes on in many households with kids. Almost every day, I silently thank the millions of dogs out there who have refrained from biting kids who bother them relentlessly. We’re very lucky as a society to have so many amazing canines as pets.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I wonder if it makes them feel bad
Marley had jumped up on our bed, as he is allowed to do, but the rule is that he has to get down if he is asked to do so. On this particular night, he seemed exhausted and eager to go to bed. Once ensconced in his favorite spot, he avoided eye contact with all of us. Wherever our faces were, he was looking the other way.
I proposed the idea that perhaps he was trying to avoid being told to get down off the bed, in an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” kind of way. This was pure guesswork, but the rest of my family thought it was funny because it really seemed to fit.
We began to act like him, looking away, pretending that nobody could tell us it was bedtime or anything else we didn’t want to hear, and we were all laughing. I caught a glance at Marley, and he looked really unhappy, which is when I said, “I wonder if he feels bad because we’re laughing at him.”
In truth we found Marley endearing and funny, and meant no disrespect, but how did he perceive it? Dogs are so in tune with our emotions and actions, and they are obviously intensely social beings, so it seems possible that he felt himself the object of derision where none was intended.
It made me sad to contemplate the idea, and my husband and kids felt the same way. We stopped laughing immediately and began to pet Marley as we usually would when we’re all about to go to bed. Soon Marley looked happy again, though still tired.
It’s no fun being laughed at, and it does happen to dogs, whether our intent is hurtful or not. Do you think your dog can tell if others are laughing at his expense?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs rest in the weirdest positions
I don’t understand how dogs can possibly be comfortable in some of the positions they choose to be in. Take Marley, for example, in this picture. Even with every effort to remember that he is not a human and that I shouldn’t project my preferences on him, this makes no sense to me. He looks like a “before” picture in an ad for a chiropractor.
Over the years, I’ve seen dogs resting with their necks bent at 90-degree angles, with their paws straight up in the air and with their faces smashed against the wall. I’ve seen them sleeping in their food bowls, tangled up with each other and with cats on top of them. Some dogs stretch out completely flat in way that seems impossible for canine joints while others are curled so tightly in boxes that I would have bet good money they would be unable to squeeze into them. I’ve even seen a few who have actually fallen asleep with their bodies suspended between the couch and coffee table.
Marley, and many other dogs, put themselves into what look like contortions on a regular basis. They do it on the floor, on the couch, and in bed. About the only place I don’t typically see dogs in odd postures is in their crates, but there are exceptions to that, too.
In what unfathomable position have you found your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Gentle help from Charlie the Beagle
I strongly believe that when you have a new baby, you should accept all assistance available to you. “Turn down no offer of help” was some of the best advice I ever got, and I frequently pass it on to other parents.
One family’s dog is able to offer rocking services to keep a baby swinging gently in her crib. In this video, you can see that the dog looks at the camera operator, who I presume is the guardian, after each push to the crib. He seems to be checking in, and I like to imagine him asking, “Did I do good?” (I never imagine that dogs consistently speak with proper grammar.)
This activity combines a happy baby and time for the dog to work on a specific skill, which is no different than training any other trick or action. It looks to me as though the dog is being cued to rock the crib each time, based on how he continues to look at the person operating the camera. I hope the dog gets reinforced for responding correctly, because he really does a nice job gently contacting the crib so it rocks in a controlled way.
The dog does look nervous, but it could be that it’s the camera rather than anything else about the situation that is upsetting to him. Even if the dog showed signs of being completely relaxed, I would never want this to be an unsupervised activity. There’s too much risk of the dog overdoing the swinging or of the baby reacting with crying or other distress. It’s hard to say how the dog would react. It is easy to say, though, that this behavior is cute as well as having a practical component.
News: Guest Posts
I’ve got the ‘dog play’ bug, arguably one of the better winter bugs to have. I recently covered which toys dogs prefer (the answer: new ones, although old ones can be reinvigorated), as well as the unfortunate finding that when a dog’s not “playing right,” it could be you, not them. But toys and people are only part of play. I haven’t said anything yet about the huge topic of dog-dog play!
Fear not! Enter a new study on dog-dog play published just this month inBehavioural Processes as part of an open access Special Canine Behavior Issue. The study focuses on a particular behavior that you’ve probably seen countless times — rolling onto the back during play. The scientists came to a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion, and if you’re like the people I hear chatting at the dog park, you might not be spot on about what it means.
Before we get to the new study, investigating what behaviors mean during dog-dog play is not new. For example, you’ve probably heard of play signals that help clarify play from not play. Play signals help say something like, “Hey, when I just bit you in the face, I didn’t mean it like I’M BITING YOU IN THE FACE. It was just for fun. See! Here’s a play bow for additional clarity. All fun here!” Play signals — like exaggerated, bouncy movements, or presenting a “play face” — start or maintain play, and they occur around potentially ambiguous behaviors — like a bite, tackle, or mount — or anything that might be misconstrued as ‘not playing.’ Play signals reinforce, “Woohoo! We’re not fighting! We’re playing!”
But not all behaviors that appear during dog-dog play are as well studied. Here to demonstrate today’s play behavior of interest is Theodore, or Teo for short. Prior to bringing his play skills to an international audience (he has his own Facebook page,Pibbling with Theodore), Teo was one of 367 dogs rescued from the second largest, multi-state dog fighting bust back in 2013. He currently lives a very different life alongside his four-legged siblings and Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Loehr Animal Behavior in Weaverville, North Carolina. Teo enjoys playing, making art with household items, and recycling.
Without further ado, Theodore in a video of slow-motion play with his “sister,” Lili (and Lili is making the slow-mo dinosaur noises).
Theodore shows many excellent play behaviors, but it’s ‘rolling onto the back’ that’s the focus of a new study by Kerri Norman and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge and University of South Africa. Their question is something you may have wondered yourself: when a dog rolls onto his or her back during play, what does it mean? Is it an indication of submission akin to a person tapping out or screaming “Uncle,” or is it instead “a combat maneuver adopted as part of an ongoing play sequence”?
Rolling onto one’s back is classically seen as a submissive gesture that “curtails active aggression.” Passive submission describes an individual voluntarily or “spontaneously [rolling] onto its back.” In a classic 1967 paper in American Zoologist, Rudolf Schenkel describes passive submission as “[expressing] some kind of timidity and helplessness.” Like coming out with your hands up or waving a white flag, passive submission is thought to prevent aggression.
Some have suggested that the rollover is still about ‘preventing aggression’ even when performed during dog-dog play. Owners observing playing dogs from the sidelines often take this a step further — the dog spending more time on its back is labeled ‘submissive’ or ‘subordinate’ while the dog on the top is ‘dominant.’ These labels often fit with a person’s worldview about dogs and asymmetries in relationships.
What if rolling over means something different when it’s during play? Norman and colleagues set out to investigate the meaning and function of rollovers during play. They wanted to know whether “rolling over onto the back and adopting a supine position” is an “act of submission” and serves to hinder subsequent aggression, or is instead, “executed tactically, for combat purposes” to solicit play, avoid a play bite (defensive maneuver), or deliver a play bite (offensive maneuver).
The researchers collected data on dog-dog play in two different contexts: staged play sessions where a medium-sized female dog was paired with 33 new play partners of various breeds and sizes, and 20 YouTube videos where two dogs played together — with half the videos including similarly sized dogs and the other half including dogs of different relative sizes.
Why the roll?
For dogs who did roll over, what did it mean? The researchers examined all instances of rolling over to see whether they were associated with submission — decreasing play, remaining passive, or being performed by the “smaller or weaker” partner — or were instead associated with the interactive, combative nature of play, where roll overs preceded “launching an attack (offensive), evading a nape bite (defensive), rolling in front of a potential partner (solicitation) or rolling over in a non-social context (other).”
The findings are stark: the smaller of the two play partners was not more likely to rollover than the larger dog. Additionally, “most rollovers were defensive and none of the 248 rollovers was submissive.” Here is a figure for you visualizers out there:
But once on their backs, maybe this is where submission kicks in? For example, a dog could go on his back to avoid a neck bite and then lay motionless, suggestive of passive submission. But that’s not what the dogs did. The researchers report, “no dog rolled over in response to an approach or aggressive action by the partner and did not remain passive in its back.” Instead, like you saw in the video of Theodore, the Playing Wonderdog, once on their backs, dogs in the supine position both blocked and launched bites at their partner.
What does this mean?
1.13.2015, 9:00 PM Updates
I am happy that so many people are discussing this study! Here are a few more important points about rolling over and dog play:
1) When two dogs are playing, rollovers most often facilitate play. For example, a dog on its back often engages in playful sparring with another dog, delivering or avoiding neck bites, or engaging in open-mouth lunges. The researchers in the above study found that the majority of in-play rollovers were part of play fighting (meaning the ‘fighting’ was itself playful, not real fighting). The important takeaway is that rolling over during play is about play, it is NOT about ‘aggression’ as this Daily Mail headline incorrectly states.
2) Another way to think about rolling over in play is as a self-handicapping behavior because it helps dogs of different sizes or sociabilities play together. Self-handicapping is instrumental to play, and it implies that a dog is tempering his or her behavior in some way. For example, during play, dogs do not deliver bites at full force, and a larger dog might roll over to allow a smaller dog to jump on or mouth him. In Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz describes the behavior: “Some of the largest dogs regularly flop themselves on the ground, revealing their bellies for their smaller playmates to maul for a while—what I called a self-takedown.” The researchers in the above study note that “some of the present data indicate that the bigger dog is more likely to [rollover].” Self-takedowns can be a type of self-handicapping behavior that promote play.
This post is reprinted with permission and originally appeared on Scientific American.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions
Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.
The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?
In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)
The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object. They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.
The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.
What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.
If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Must-have travel items for guests
If you’re traveling with your dog this holiday season to stay with friends or family, you probably have more stuff jammed into your car than if your dog were staying home. I hope you’ve still have some space left, though, because you’ll want to make sure you have those extra items that can help make the trip with your dog a success.
I’m not talking about the obvious stuff like food, food bowls, crate, leash, collar, and a brush for daily groomers. I assume those are already packed and ready to go. No, I’m talking about the things that make visits easier for social reasons—the ones that are useful because they help prevent or ease the tensions that so often arise when dogs are guests.
Let’s not kid ourselves—even friends and relatives who love our dogs may not love the extra mud, hair and slobber that they bring or those little behavior gaffes such as counter surfing, barking, crotch-sniffing, trash parties and jumping up. With a little planning ahead and thoughtfulness, you can minimize any feelings of regret they may have about inviting your dog to come with you. Here are some must-have items to bring.
Extra-nice hostess gift. Bring something really special for your hosts and write in the card how much you appreciate that your dog is welcome, too. Consider adding a second gift that is from your dog.
Lint rollers. The hair that you consider a standard accessory to your outfits may not match everyone else’s style. Sharing these clean-up tools helps everyone get ready for family photos and also lets them know you realize that your dog sheds and that you care about how this affects others.
Washcloths and towels. At my house, we have a huge bin of old towels and washcloths that we use for anything slightly gross. At some houses, all linens are fancy and new, which means their owners may not appreciate them being used to wipe muddy paws and bellies, to put on furniture or rugs under a wet dog or to clean up everything from dog vomit to water bowl spills.
The phone number and location of a nearby hotel that accepts pets. It’s wise to be prepared in case it becomes prudent for you and your dog to relocate. Hopefully, tensions will not escalate to the point where you feel compelled to leave, but being prepared for that (just in case!) is always wise.
Thank-you gift. When you leave, let your hosts know that you appreciate them with something like flowers or a bottle of wine. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it shows that you are grateful and includes a gracious note praising your hosts’ hospitality to you and your dog.
I hope you and your dog have a wonderful visit and that you are both invited back again!
News: Guest Posts
One of the most shared recent articles in the New York Times was one about a “wrong dog” and how the op-ed blogger felt she was wronged by agreeing to adopt a young dog from a rescue group. I was going to write about this but then our good friend, and former Bark science editor, Mark Derr, wrote a great post for Psychology Today that brought up all the points, and then some, that I had wanted to make. He kindly allowed us to cross post his article:
The New York Times ran a opinion piece on Saturday, December 13, by Erica-Lynn Huberty on the trauma caused when a well-meaning young couple bring a sweet young rescue dog into their home who turns into a cat-killing maniac. The essay, “The Wrong Dog,” serves as a sobering reminder that not all found dogs fit as seamlessly into their new homes as Arthur, the Ecuadoran stray who joined a team of Swedish adventure racers and traveled several hundred arduous kilometers with them last month. The team captain then sought and won permission to take him home to Sweden, and their story went viral.
Arthur’s story raised several questions in my mind: How frequently can dogs be said to choose their human companions, what criteria do they use, and what is their success rate? I have several friends who literally rescued dogs off the street, in one case the Brooklyn Bridge, and took them home to discover they had a friend for life.
Is it merely random chance that a dog and man or woman should meet and become instant friends? I think that both are choosing—the human to save a fellow creature in distress; the dog to find a loyal companion. Any dog dumped in the road would want that but be suspicious, too, I should think.
People I know with multiple dogs often have dogs dumped near them by neighbors who assume they will take the dog in. They do and if it doesn’t fit into their existing “pack,” they will find the dog a home. The private placements I know of have worked well—on occasion spectacularly. But dogs who go that route are the lucky exception among the abandoned millions.
The apparent ease with which human and dog share affection and respect casts light on why wolves and humans teamed up initially. Though the reasons remain mysterious, they clearly, I have long suspected, have to do with the ability of individuals from both species to form lasting bonds of friendship with someone other than their own kind and to do so voluntarily, as adults, as well as children and puppies.
Whatever mutations governing sociability occurred to make dogs, at least one must have involved fixing them as dominate in the dog genome—or so it appears.
But there are times human and dog don’t match up well, and unless something is done, the results can be tragic. Many of the failures in that relationship seem to arise from a lack of forethought on the part of the human, a fundamental failure to think through and find ways to meet the animal’s need for exercise, social contacts with people and dogs, consistent treatment and mental stimulation.
The central problem with Huberty’s essay lies in her argument that nothing short of ditching the dog when she first started acting oddly would have prevented the catastrophe that occurred. They would have done that had they known that some dogs are unfit for adoption, and no amount of training, discipline, or coddling will change that.
“We let ourselves believe that beneath our rescued puppy’s strange, erratic behavior was a good, loving pet,” Huberty writes. The truth was the opposite.
The back story is common enough. Having become smitten with a five-month old Lab mix, Huberty and her husband, decide to have her share their home with their three cats, a female dog, and two children.
From her arrival, the new dog, Nina, showed a defensive/possessive aggression that led Huberty to seek more information from the group who rescued her.
Huberty says that she and her husband followed the advice of Cesar Millan, “the Dog Whisperer” to create a “loving but disciplined environment.” Nina responded by attacking a cat and biting Huberty when she intervened.
In response, Huberty called the woman who gave them Nina. She agreed to pay for a trainer, who proved to be the anti-Millan. She advocated a rewards-based approach rather than “discipline.” The essay takes an odd turn here as Huberty calls the rewards-based method ‘coddling” while appearing to indicate that it was working up to a point.
Nina would go along being a normal, playful puppy. But at times, out of nowhere it seemed, she would snap at me or Alex and, once, at our son,” Huberty says, “She would suddenly cower and growl. It was like a switch flipped, yet we couldn’t figure out what had done it.”
Nor do they try to find out. Dogs do not usually change their behavior that rapidly and dramatically without reason. That could very well be an underlying pathology that a thorough examination by a veterinarian might reveal. Indeed, Huberty gives no indication that she ever took the dog to a veterinarian—the first stop a new dog or cat companion should make.
If no physical reason for the behavior can be found, the next stop is to consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. There are not many in the country but your veterinarian should help arrange a consultation.
Huberty blames the dog, the woman who gave her the dog, the trainer—everyone but herself and her husband—and Nina herself for her failure to fit seamlessly into Huberty’s home. From this experience, she draws the conclusion that some dogs are just unsuitable for living with humans. That might be the case but there is no proof of it here.
Maybe we should seek ways to allow more dogs to choose their human companions. I have a notion they would do a better job of it. “And when they don’t fit in they may be saying ‘wrong family,’” said my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff after reading “The Wrong Dog.” “Living with a dog is a two-way street and assigning unilateral blame gets us nowhere and once again leaves the dog out in the cold. This sort of ‘musical dogs’ is bad for the dog, as much research and common sense tell us.”
Nina might pay with her life for human miscalculations and failure to seek professional help.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Singing along to “Let It Go”
This dog sleeps right through Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” featured in “The Fault in Our Stars,” but watch how he reacts when Frozen’s “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel comes on. The way his ears respond first followed by a slight movement of the head, then a head raise and a look directly at the camera makes the sequence look choreographed. The dog acts very much like an actor in a musical at the start of a big number.
I find it especially amusing that the dog yawns and looks ready to sleep again when the music switches from “Let It Go” and returns to “Boom Clap.” This guy knows what he likes. I’m curious about why this dog prefers one song over the other. Personal preference could obviously account for his reaction, but prior experience may play a role, too.
The people who posted the video call “Let It Go” their dog’s favorite song. It certainly makes sense that familiarity plays a role in the dog’s enthusiasm at hearing it. Perhaps, like me, this dog lives with kids in the age range of 4-12, in which case he’s probably heard this song hundreds of times by now.
Whatever the reason, he really has his performance down! Somebody needs his own iPod or a karaoke machine!
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