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News: JoAnna Lou
Prosociality in Canines
Dogs may show co-species cooperation in a similar way as humans and primates.
Many scientists consider cooperation to be a unique aspect of human cognition and culture. Voluntary actions that benefit others, also known as prosocial behavior, had only been previously observed in humans and primates. But new research suggests that canines are also capable of prosocial behavior.

Researchers at the University of Vienna were interested in studying prosociality and dogs because of their high level of sociability and the presence of cooperative behaviors in puppy rearing, joint territorial defense, and group hunting. Also, since domestic dogs have been selected for social skills, that could also make them more likely to show pro-social behaviors.

In this study, dogs had the choice to pull one of two levers. One delivered a tray of food to a second dog and the other delivered an empty tray. The experiment was run with both strange and familiar pups (from the same household). As a control, the researchers also performed the test where the the receiver dogs were too far away to actually access the food or the receiver enclosure was empty.

The scientists found that the dogs were more likely to pull the lever for the food tray when they were paired with a familiar receiver. The dogs pulled the lever less when the receivers were too far away to access the food and they hardly ever pulled the empty tray.

According to lead researcher Friederike Ranger, this prosociality between dogs has never been experimentally demonstrated before. The team was most interested in how the degree of familiarity among the dogs influenced the behavior.

I'm curious to know how my dogs would respond to this experiment. If it were a decision between giving a treat or getting a treat, I know they would be much more selfish! What do you think your pups would do?

News: Editors
2015: The Bark’s Year in Review

As the year comes to a close, we look back at some of the ideas in dogdom that caught our attention. The world is forever changing with new health and science discoveries, advances in technology, and evolving ideas that impact our communities and relationship with animals. One thing remains constant though, the comforting companionship of our dogs and the bond we share … thankfully, some things never change.

Considering the big themes that had us talking (and writing) about in 2015, two topics rose to the top and suggest important shifts in thinking. The first combines new findings that tie together nutrition, health and science—nutrigenomics or the study of how foods affect our genes and how individual genetic differences can affect the way we respond to nutrients. Canine nutrigenomics is further evidence that good nutrition matters, and our conversation with leading researcher and author W. Jean Dodds, DVM, explains why. Dodds and Diana Leverdure also explored the importance of “brain food” or good nutrition for senior dogs. The microbiome ecology found in our dogs’ gut may prove the pathway to better health (and behavior). Bark contributing editor Jane Brackman, PhD, investigated these microscopic worlds with fascinating results. Scientific research and popular theory (gutbliss) are creating a new awareness of the importance a healthy gut to a dog’s well-being.

As dog lovers, we’ve always known that dogs enrich our lives in countless ways. New research continues to build that case empirically, none more important than a special report from Harvard Medical School. Get Healthy, Get a Dog is the first publication to compile hundreds of research studies from around the world that document the physical and psychological benefits of dog ownership. Taken together, these studies provide the most complete picture yet of the many ways in which dogs enrich human life: from lower cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health to weight loss, companionship, defense against depression and longer lifespans. Twig Mowatt delved into this landmark report and its importance.

The second big idea gleaned from 2015: If dogs are proving good for us, they can be particularly beneficial to children. A recent study reports that kids who live with a dog are less likely to be anxious than their peers living in homes without dogs. Other studies show that children with dogs at home were healthier overall, had fewer infectious respiratory problems, fewer ear infections and were less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers considered these results supportive of the theory that children who live with dogs during their early years have better resistance throughout childhood. Innovative education programs like Mutt-i-grees curriculum are testing the many ways in which dogs can aid in learning. 

Space does not allow us to list every worthy book, film and exhibit from the past year (and there were many), but we would like to note these special, memorable works:

George the Dog, John the Artist: A Rescue Story by John Dolan

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

Heart of a Dog, a film by Laurie Anderson

Rescue Road by Peter Zheutlin

News: JoAnna Lou
Can Dogs Improve Your Sleep?
Studies are conflicted on the benefit or disadvantage of sharing a bed with pets.
Many animal lovers sleep with their dogs by their side despite the fact that past studies have found the habit may not be healthy. One 2011 study claimed that allowing pets in bed could put people at risk for certain diseases, such as meningitis or parasites. A 2014 Mayo Clinic study found that more than half of the patients at their Center for Sleep Medicine were people who claimed that their pets disrupted their sleep.

However, a new survey from the Mayo Clinic indicates that there are at least a few benefits to our furry sleep buddies. In a sampling of 150 sleep center patients, 56 percent of the pet households (about half of the 150 surveyed) allowed their pets to sleep with them at night. Of the co-sleepers, 41 percent reported that their pet ether did not disrupt their sleep or actually helped improve sleep by providing warmth, contentment, or relaxation. Only 20% said that their pets had a negative effect on their sleep. Some also noted that having their dog in bed made them feel a sense of companionship when sleeping alone due to a lack of partner or a travelling partner.

These benefits probably come as no surprise to pet lovers, but it's nice to have some positive studies added to the literature.  

Does your dog disrupt your sleep at night?

   
News: JoAnna Lou
Toxic Christmas Ornaments
A homemade salt dough ornament causes neurological damage.
When I was a kid, each Christmas we would make homemade ornaments made of salt dough. We'd use cookie cutters to create star and tree shapes, paint them red and green, and bake them in the oven to harden. It's a simple craft that remains popular with families today.

But it turns out that these ornaments are potentially dangerous, a lesson that a Pennsylvania family learned the hard way. Earlier this month the Pospisil family's dog, Lexi, snuck downstairs before everyone was awake and ate one of the salt dough ornaments on the Christmas tree. The couple had made them earlier in the season with their daughter, Alice.

The two year old pup was okay at first, but later started shaking uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth. The Pospisils immediately brought Lexi to the veterinarian, but it was too late. The high salt content of the ornament caused irreversible neurological damage and raised Lexi's body temperature to a dangerous 107 degrees. The poor pup had to be euthanized.

Heartbroken, the Pospisils took to Facebook to share their story and warn others about the danger of salt dough ornaments. So far their post has been shared over 80,000 times.

Some of my salt dough ornaments are well over 20 years old and are quite sentimental. Fortunately, we keep our Christmas tree behind an exercise pen, safe from the dogs and cat. However, I did move the salt dough ornaments to spots high up on the tree just in case. And for future crafts, I plan on switching to a clay recipe without salt.

Do you have salt dough ornaments on your tree?

 
News: JoAnna Lou
Comforting Stressed Passengers
United Airlines employs comfort dogs during the hectic holiday travel.
The holidays are one of the most stressful times to travel, especially if you're going by air. However, if you were traveling through one of United Airlines' hub airports this week, you may have found a furry friend ready to make your day a little brighter.

For the last three years, United Airlines has been providing comfort dogs during peak travel times through their United Paws program. The pups have been so popular that they expanded this year's holiday program to seven airports. Over the last three days, comfort dogs have been greeting passengers at the boarding gates in the Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, and Washington/Dulles airports.

According to veterinarian Dr. Walter Woolf, petting a dog releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and affection. It decreases stress levels, helps us breathe easier, and lowers our blood pressure. This probably comes as no surprise to animal lovers!

United works with comfort dog organizations in each community to provide the pups. About 60 dogs cycled through the United terminal in Denver International Airport alone this week, provided by Denver Pet Partners. To make the experience even more interactive, when travelers posted their photos on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedPaws, the airline donated one dollar for each picture to the local comfort dogs' organization.

What a cool program!

News: Karen B. London
Does Santa Dislike the Smell of Dogs?
A new commercial puts forward this idea

A new commercial implies that being nice instead of naughty is not enough to entice Santa to give us gifts. In addition to being more angels than devils, we have to make sure that our homes smell pleasant so that Santa does not go right back up the chimney without delivering our presents.

This ad suggests that Santa finds the smell of dogs so disturbing that he cannot bear it. He can’t even handle it long enough to put Christmas gifts under the tree. This is nuts because we all know that in order to visit every household that celebrates this holiday in a single night, Santa can only allocate fractions of a second to each home. Surely, he can put up with air that has been infused with a canine scent for such a brief period of time. The alternative is to consider that Old Saint Nick isn’t as jolly and tolerant as his reputation would lead us to believe and that he finds canine odors truly disgusting. That’s really saying something, because this is a man who spends a great deal of time around reindeer, and they don’t exactly smell like roses.

I’m the first to admit that a certain “eau de dog” aroma can be a bit off-putting. I have had homes and cars that, due to the presence of dogs, did not compare favorably to the smell of, say, my family’s feet after a camping trip. Yet, I think that Santa is being unfairly accused of disliking the smell of dogs. I can’t help but believe that such a good and giving man who is used to being around animals loves dogs AND the way they smell. Still, I suppose it’s worth avoiding the risk of turning Santa away this year by cleaning and bathing our dogs—just in case. (And if Santa doesn’t appreciate it, perhaps your other houseguests will.)

News: Karen B. London
Mastiff on Agility Course
I want to stand up and applaud for him!

An English Mastiff running an agility course is well-received by an enthusiastic crowd. So many dogs competing in agility are a blur of feet and fur, presenting a serious challenge to their human handlers to keep up. This dog is more mellow and a great deal slower than a lot of other dogs, but his efforts are appreciated. His body is not perfectly suited to the sport, but he does it anyway, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.

It’s a bit like watching a weight lifter compete in figure skating or a shot putter attempting to run a marathon. It’s clearly not the perfect match between body type and event, but just participating is admirable. In this case, the English Mastiff is not breaking any speed records, but he completes the course.

I love how the handler works to build the dog’s enthusiasm with patience and an upbeat energy. The dog continues at his pace, not looking overly exuberant, but showing no signs of reluctance either. My favorite part is the slow, methodical approach he takes with the weave poles. I imagine that for many handlers whose dogs tend to miss a pole or two, this surefire approach has its appeal.

I love seeing a dog from a rarely-represented breed competing in agility. As long as a veterinarian approves a dog for the activity, I’m all for it. (I mention this because not all large, big-boned dogs can safely handle the jumping and other demands of agility.) A good quality of life is about participating and having fun, NOT about being the fastest or most skilled out there.

I’ve seen tons of Border Collies and other herding dogs compete in agility, along with a variety of other breeds. I have fond memories of teaching a beginning agility class years ago with both a Newfoundland and an Italian Greyhound attending. It was fun for all the humans to see different breeds negotiate the obstacles and show clear preferences. The Newfie loved the table most of all, while the IG was a huge fan of the tunnel.

Agility is for every breed, including mixed breed dogs, but it’s certainly the case that not all types of dogs excel in the same way at the sport. It’s a joy to watch any dog take part if they have a willingness to do so.

News: JoAnna Lou
Canine Drinking Techniques
Dogs lap water in a precise way to maximize intake.
I wouldn't use the word efficient to describe the way my dogs drink. It's always a noisy and messy process, with liquid splashing outside of the bowl. But researchers at Virginia Tech College of Engineering have discovered that the technique is far from random. They found that dogs drink in a way that maximizes the amount of water per lap.

Dogs lap water because they have incomplete cheeks and can't create the suction we use to drink liquids. This means that they have to use their tongues to raise water upwards. But they aren't the only animals that need to do this. Cats also have incomplete cheeks, but are much neater when they drink.

To explore this mystery, the researchers used photography and laboratory simulations with 19 dogs. They showed that the pups plunge their tongues into the water and curl them down towards their lower jaws. Then they quickly retract them, forming a column of water up towards their mouths, while creating a ladle with their tongue. The dog bites down at precisely the right moment to swallow, then immediately repeats the process.

In comparison, cats lightly touch the surface of the water without fully immersing it. The messiness of the dogs' style comes from the backward curl of the tongue, which increases the size of the water column, enabling dogs to drink more per lap than with a straight tongue.

While measuring tongue motion, recording water volumes, and observing lapping techniques, the researchers ended up creating a physical model of the tongue's interaction with the air-fluid interface, giving the team a tangible way to explore the method, and finally ending the mystery of why dogs are such messy drinkers.

News: Karen B. London
Dogs Give Their Friends Food
Familiarity affects their generosity

Do dogs act in a way that offers no benefit to themselves, but helps out other dogs? A new study called Familiarity affects other-regarding preferences in pet dogs addresses this question. The term “other-regarding” comes from the field of economics. Actions based only on the material benefit to oneself are called “self-regarding.” Actions that take into account the effects on other individuals are called other-regarding, and are often based on kindness or a sense of fairness.

In the experiment, researchers investigated dogs’ willingness to give food to other dogs. Donor dogs had the opportunity to move a tray that put food within the reach of a receiver dog or to move an empty tray instead. The donors did not receive food or any other tangible reward for giving food to the receiver. The major finding of the study was that dogs were more likely to give food to dogs that they know—their friends—than unfamiliar dogs.

The reason this is so interesting is that most research into this sort of social behavior has been conducted on primates. Little is known about cooperation and other prosocial behavior in other groups. Dogs are an obvious choice for such a study because they are social. Social animals often behave in altruistic ways, perhaps because of the possibility of a potential future benefit. In other words, evolution may have led to kindness towards others because of the benefits to individuals of trading acts of giving over the long term. That could explain why donating food to friends was more common. Those are the individuals who are most likely to be in a position to return the favor another time, making it a good investment for the donor dogs.

News: Karen B. London
Fates of Black Dogs in Shelters
Recent research contradicts prevailing wisdom

It’s hard to make sense of the great number of contradictory studies about the effect of black coat color on the time it takes for shelter dogs to be adopted and the likelihood of them being euthanized. There have been many studies suggesting that having a black coat is bad news for shelter dogs, and some suggesting that black fur is not important in these ways.

It continues to be reported in the media that it is hard to adopt out black dogs, and many spokespeople for shelters and rescues discuss this at length. Yet, the data are not consistent across studies. One study called Investigating the role of coat colour, age, sex, and breed on outcomes for dogs at two animal shelters in the United States that came out recently in the journal Animal Welfare is one of the studies I take the most seriously. The researchers conclude that while age, sex and breed affect adoptability and likelihood of euthanasia, having a black coat color does not.

There are a number of reasons why I think highly of this research. It includes data from over 16,000 dogs from two shelters during a four-year period, which is longer and larger than most studies of its kind. One shelter chooses which dogs it admits and one has an open admission policy, meaning that it takes in any dog that arrives at its doors with no selection based on age, appearance, medical issues or behavior. The data include how long each dog was available for adoption, and whether or not the dog was eventually adopted, was euthanized or died in the shelter. Some studies have included the time that dogs were held for various reasons but not available for adoption, which could introduce biases against black dogs. It looked at euthanasia rates as well as the number of dogs of different colors that entered each shelter. It considered breed, age and size as well as coat color.

It may sound like an obvious way to conduct research, but this study looked at actual data from shelters instead of considering opinions on black dogs in interviews. The difficulty of adopting black dogs that is commonly reported in the media is often based on a study that interviewed people working in shelters and rescues. A majority of the people in that study reported that large black dogs were more difficult to place than other dogs. This is problematic because of the opinion aspect of the study and because of the lumping of size and coat color.

Despite the mixed findings across studies about the adoptability of black dogs, it is no surprise that there is a perception of bias. A number of studies have shown that people have a negative view of black dogs, considering them less agreeable, less conscientious and less emotionally stable than dogs of other colors. Perhaps more alarming, another study found that people selected large black dogs as representative examples of dangerous and aggressive animals. In support of negative views of black dogs, another study found that people were more likely to change their path in response to a black dog than in response to a pale dog, regardless of size. Not surprisingly, there are contradictory studies in this area, too. For example, one study found that people considered black poodles friendlier than white poodles.

Overall, this recent study concluded that the dogs who were more likely to be euthanized than expected if such decisions were random were dogs that were 10-12 years old, male dogs, members of bully breeds, and brindle dogs. The length of time a dog had to wait to be adopted was also affected by many factors. The dogs who were adopted most quickly were females, young dogs, yellow, grey or black dogs, and terriers or toy breeds.

There are so many factors that can influence intake and euthanasia decisions by shelter staff and adoption choices by guardians. The idea that black dogs are difficult to adopt, though the data have been so variable on this point, may actually influence people into adopting a black dog. Many adopters prioritize choosing a dog who may not otherwise find a home, and this may mean that such people are gravitating towards black dogs.

I’m certain that there will be more research about the dogs that adopters choose, so we are sure to learn more about the effect of various factors on both adoption and euthanasia.

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