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Good Dog: Studies & Research
Genes Underlying Social Behavior in Dogs
The same genomic regions affect human social behavior

The remarkable social abilities of dogs include the many ways that they are able to interact with humans. Dogs seek out humans for food, companionship, assistance and information. They have evolved these social skills throughout their recent evolutionary past because of the advantages of communicating and cooperating with people. Genetic changes in the domestic dog over thousands of years are the source of these behavioral changes, but there remains a lot of variation in both canine genetics and canine social behavior.

A recent study (Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders) investigated behavioral and genetic variation in hundreds of Beagles with similar upbringing and similar previous experiences with humans. Researchers studied the dogs’ social behavior by presenting them with an impossible task. Dogs were given a container that held three treats, but only two of them were accessible to the dog. The third treat was impossible for the dog to obtain. Using video, researchers quantified the time dogs spent looking at the people in the room with them, approaching them, and being in physical contact with them. Different dogs showed different tendencies to seek human interaction when they faced an unsolvable problem.

To investigate possible genetic sources of this behavioral variation, the scientists used a process called GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Study). Basically, this means that a large number of parts of the entire DNA of each dog were examined to discover potential genetic variants that were associated with the social behavior. This study shows a strong genetic aspect to differences in human-directed social behavior by dogs. Researchers found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In some cases, specific alleles (gene variants) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact.

Interestingly, the genes associated with variation in dog behavior in this study have been found to be related to various behavioral issues and social behavior complexes in humans. Specifically, autism, bipolar disorder and aggression in adolescents with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) are all variations in human behavior whose genetic contributions come at least in part from the same areas of DNA that influence human-directed social behavior in dogs. This suggests that dogs may be an appropriate and valuable model for studying these aspects of social behavior in people.

 

Dog's Life: Humane
Exposing Puppy Mills
A Rolling Stone reporter takes a look at the horrors of the commercial breeding business.
Sometimes I wonder how puppy mills still exist. A quick internet search uncovers endless information about how you should avoid buying dogs from pet stores or backyard breeders. At the same time, there's been a lot of media attention promoting adoption in recent years. Yet stores continue to sell puppies and kittens, while millions of shelter animals are euthanized each year. It's easy to feel disheartened, but we can't loose sight of the fact that education is the key to this fight. So I was encouraged to see Rolling Stone's incredibly thorough and moving investigative report on puppy mills.

Reporter Paul Solotaroff did a great job sharing stories from the front lines of commercial dog breeding. Paul began his investigation by shadowing Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) workers and the Cabarrus County sheriffs office on a mission to seize dogs from an operation near Charlotte, North Carolina. The breeder, Patricia Yates, had been selling puppies on multiple web sites without a license and had many buyer complaints against her. But even with evidence, busting an illegal kennel is no east feat. As the author notes, "the HSUS is unique in that it has the money and equipment to house and treat puppy mill rescues. When you close an illegal kennel, you're suddenly swamped with sick dogs, often double what had been reported."  

In this case it was 105 dogs, many pregnant or in heat. Paul knew the situation would be bad, but wrote "nothing can prepare you for the house caked in pet fur and waste, damp laundry draped across every flat surface, maze of crates and garbage, and dozens of puppies in dust-cloaked cages." He describes the dogs as "so matted and excrement-mottled it was hard to tell which from which." Despite the horrid conditions, most of these puppies would be destined for pet stores across the country to be sold for top dollar.

As if the puppies weren't bad enough, the older breeding dogs were "in desperate shape: blinded by cataracts and corneal ulcers; their jaws half-gone or missing entirely after their teeth had rotted away. Some were so feeble they couldn't stand erect; their paws were urine-scalded and their wrists were deformed from squatting on wire their entire lives." These pups had spent their whole lives in slavery, never knowing what it was like to bask in the sun or romp in the grass.

As Patricia Yates was arrested, she yelled, "These dogs are the love of my life!" I'm not sure if she's lying or is just blinded by the real situation.

"Most every pup sold in stores in America comes from this kind of suffering – or worse," explains John Goodwin, the director of the puppy-mills campaign for HSUS. "If you buy a puppy from a pet store, this is what you're paying for and nothing else: a dog raised in puppy-mill evil."

Only a fraction of the 10,000 puppy mills in America are licensed by the USDA or individual states, meaning they're flying completely under the radar. But even a license means very little considering low legal standards and short staffing. The internet has only made the problem worse. The HSUS estimates that half of the two million pups bred in puppy mills are sold online, which is almost impossible to regulate.

Paul's next stop was a dog auction in Missouri where he watched 300 pups bid on and sold, many who looked battered and sick after years of producing. Paul describes the unbearable stench that came from the back room every time they opened the door to bring a new dog into the auction room.

It was here that Paul met Wes Eden, a man devoted to rescuing dogs by the controversial method of buying them at auction. Wes talks about seeing dogs with stomach hernia, bleeding rectums, and ears rotted off from hematomas. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

On that day Wes spent $60,000 buying 21 dogs, which would later require thousands of dollars in veterinary procedures. After they recover, Wes helps them adjust to their new life, teaching them how to walk and climb stairs, and eventually finds homes for them. Most rescue groups believe that Wes' methods just puts more money in the hands of puppy mills, but he can't resist helping these poor pups. Who can blame him.

So how can we change the landscape? Putting pressure on pet stores has helped, but it's also driven sales online. Strengthening laws is one tactic, but can be extremely hard to accomplish.

John believes that the answer lies with the buyers. "The only way you end it is choke its blood supply: stop buying purebred dogs, and adopt one instead." He encourages people to look at Petfinder.com, where you can search through thousands of adoptable dogs. "You can find any breed you like. The difference is these dogs are healthy and you won't spend thousands in vet bills"

The raid that Paul shadowed cost at least $100,000, mostly due to medical costs. As you can imagine, it's not realistic to eliminate the problem this way. We need to get to the root of the issue--the millions of buyers that keep these operations in business.

Read Paul's full report to learn more about the history behind puppy mills, the attempts to regulate them and improve conditions, and the stories he uncovered.

 

News: Guest Posts
Reacting to Behavior Before Departures
How many different situations does your dog understand?

Dogs respond to our behavior when we are preparing to leave the house. Reactions are different depending on where we are going. Each type of excursion is associated with a distinct set of (human) behaviors that occur prior to the departure. Dogs pay attention to these different behaviors because they carry a lot of information that matters to them.

The going-to-work behaviors that dogs observe their guardians perform mean that the person is leaving for much of the day. Those behaviors can include packing a lunch, blow drying hair, putting on dress shoes, carrying a specific bag or backpack and possibly being rushed and impatient. Dogs typically respond by sighing, going to lie down, and perhaps acting bored or disinterested. Their reaction reflects their understanding that they will not get to come along.

The actions that take place before a run may be putting on running shoes, grabbing a water bottle, stretching or eating something specific like toast or a banana. It’s easy for dogs who are running buddies to figure out that they get to come along and become excited in anticipation. Many will jump, spin, bark or do some other behavior associated with their enthusiasm or happiness. Some will bring the leash to their guardian, and others will stick very close, as if making sure that they are not accidentally left behind.

The behavior that is often most distressing to dogs involves the actions associated with travel. When many dogs see people filling suitcases, gathering items for a trip or anything else they connect to a long departure, their reactions reflect their displeasure. It’s as though they are thinking, “Uh-oh. I don’t like the looks of this at all.” Some dogs whine, some look sulky and others try to get in the way of our packing efforts.

Some departures are so brief that most dogs don’t make too much fuss over them. If you look outside, slip on your flip-flops and go outside suddenly, a dog who has seen this many times before likely connects those actions to your daily visit to the mailbox. Dogs may watch you from the window the whole time you are gone just to make sure they’ve read the signals correctly, but few experience much distress.

There are so many cues that tell dogs whether or not they are going when you leave, and give details about what’s to come. A bike helmet often means they stay behind (though in some families, it means just the opposite). Picking up the leash is a clear sign that they get to go with you. Shopping bags mean they are staying behind, as does a stuffed Kong being prepared. Grabbing poop bags is a good sign from the dog’s point of view, but grabbing your tablet is not. Dogs pay attention to what we do before we leave because information about their immediate future resides in our actions.

I’ve generalized about the reactions by dogs to various pre-departure behaviors. Obviously, a dog who is too new to the household to know the various patterns will not react predictably to your actions. Dogs who struggle when left alone, especially those with separation anxiety, are often too emotionally overwhelmed and panicky at any sign that you are leaving without them to cope with details distinguishing various situations. (Such dogs are often the most astute at figuring out whether they will be coming with you or being left behind, though.) Most dogs become quite attentive if they’re unsure about what is happening and can’t tell what your actions mean. If the cues that tell them what kind of departure is impending are mixed up or don’t match your usual pattern, most dogs focus closely on what you are doing to try to figure it out.

How many different situations involving your departures can your dog distinguish, and how nuanced are his reactions to each one?

News: Guest Posts
Dogs and Dreidels
Reactions vary

Like other holiday articles, dreidels are not part of daily life. These once-a-year items can cause a variety of responses in dogs, depending on the individual. For some dogs, they pose challenges, eliciting fear, arousal, caution or even panic. The dog in the following video is clearly not enjoying his dreidel experience at first, although he seems to become more comfortable with it as time goes on.

Other dogs always have a lot of fun with the dreidel, which means that their guardians can share this part of Chanukah with them. This dog apparently understands that it is a game.

The next dreidel-experiencing dog is particularly playful and probably enjoys any object that moves on the floor with or without his help.

There are plenty of dogs who fall in between these extremes. Like the dog below, they may find the dreidel riveting, but not really enjoy seeing it spin.

In my house, dogs don’t participate in the game of dreidel. I have never had a dog who was interested in doing anything but attacking them or running away from them. Just like fireworks on the Fourth of July, or trick-or-treaters at Halloween, a spinning dreidel is a part of my holiday celebrations from which I protect dogs.

If dreidels are part of your festivities, how does your dog react to them?

Dog's Life: Humane
The Story Behind the Calendar
A South Carolina firefighter adopts his canine counterpart.
The combination of hot guys and cute puppies has become a popular calendar fundraiser for animal welfare organizations across the country.

Last year South Carolina firefighter Rob Tackett was posing for the Charleston Animal Society's 2017 calendar. He was shirtless and holding a puppy named Kimber. The German Shepherd's family warned "Mr. March" that she didn't normally like men, but as soon as Kimber met Rob, she curled up in his arms.

"It was an instant connection," remembers Rob. "She felt safe with me."

Kimber was a special dog. Found malnourished and suffering from two different skin conditions, the poor pup was brought to the Charleston Animal Society where she recovered and was adopted by Marine veteran Steve Hall. Steve suffers from post traumatic stress disorder having served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately he found that his symptoms were alleviated with the help of his dog, Scout. But when Scout passed away, he adopted Kimber and she became his new source of support.

Steve and his family became good friends with Rob following the photo shoot. When Steve became sick and required several surgeries, Rob took care of Kimber during the hospital stay. Unfortunately Steve's health didn't improve, so he asked Rob to adopt Kimber. Steve was heartbroken, but it was in Kimber's best interest.

Rob knew what a hard decision it was, but didn't hesitate.

“I love that dog,” said Rob. “Kimber is an incredibly special dog, I’ve never been around a dog like her. Just being around her makes everything easier.”

Inspired by Steve, Rob has been training Kimber to be a therapy dog and hopes he can one day bring her to visit veterans to share the joy she brings to everyone around her.

“She’s skittish around other people at first,” explains Rob. “But when she gets comfortable she is the most loving dog in the world.”

Who knew there was such a heartwarming story behind the Charleston Animal Society's March calendar spread. All proceeds from the calendar go to their medical fund, which saves thousands of abused and abandoned animals each year. To purchase a copy, visit their web site.

 

 

News: Guest Posts
Falling While Walking a Dog
Has it happened to you?

A couple of times a decade, a fall of a truly spectacular nature occurs in my life because of dog-related forces. This morning, for example, an unlikely combination of bad luck and bad timing led to this score: Laws of Physics—1, Karen—0. I was walking Saylor, a sweet, cuddly adolescent dog with more power than you’d think based on her medium size and willowy build. Her strength is most obvious when she sees another dog, but usually I can distract her with treats and (reasonably) calmly walk by another dog without revealing her reactivity to anyone. That’s not how life unfolded today.

We had received more than a foot of snow this weekend. It’s still deep in places but has turned slick in others. (You can probably see where this is going.) On a sidewalk that had not been shoveled, I spotted a sled that resembled a boogie board. Detecting a potential issue, I actually said out loud to Saylor, “Don’t step on that sled. You’ll go flying,” without expecting her to understand. It was just my way of getting her attention so we could veer around it. Saylor noticed the dog before I did, and moved in his direction before I could make an adjustment or give her treats. The dog leapt up on the fence in front of the house so that his head and forelegs were over the fence. He remained there, threatening to make it all the way over, and barked aggressively.

Saylor had charged in his direction with such speed and power that my next step was right on the sled. It traveled in the way that children everywhere want sleds to move—fast and with no friction—resulting in an immediate slam to the ground with my entire backside hitting at the same time. I still had a firm hold on the leash, but that just meant that in addition to my undignified position in a pile of snow, my arm was thrashing about as she lunged at the dog attempting to climb the fence.

“I’m okay!” I said immediately to my husband, who was walking Marley—a dog much older and more calm than Saylor. I assumed (correctly) that my husband would be concerned that such a fall might have caused serious damage. I feel a bit stiff, but I’m grateful to have avoided the usual worries—broken wrist, concussion, bruised tailbone. My pride was far more damaged than my body. I got up laughing, headed away from the debacle of the sled, snow and barking dog on the fence, and worked on calming Saylor down.

I would love to have the incident on video because I’m sure it was hilarious, if not the sort of footage I would use to promote my dog skills. It’s all just part of life with dogs! If you’ve taken a similar spill, please share your story. (And I hope you were also unhurt.)

News: Guest Posts
The Ultimate Holiday Gift
A Sacramento woman facilitates over 700 adoptions in one month.
Kim Pacini-Hauch had been a long supporter of Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento, Calif. In the past, Kim donated money and spearheaded a drive to buy the animals beds. But in November, when she met with the shelter's director, Gina Knepp, found that their current predicament was dire. Front Street had around 300 cats and dogs at the shelter, and nearly 700 in foster care.

“I truly was shocked,” said Kim. “Think of putting almost 1,000 animals in one spot, looking at 2,000 eyeballs, and tell me how you would feel if you saw that all in one location. That’s what was going through my mind."

Kim decided she wanted to give the animals the greatest holiday present of all--forever homes.

Kim told Gina that she would cover the cost of all Front Street adoptions through the end of the year, typically $65 per cat and $85 per dog, although the shelter offers a discounted rate of $20 during the holidays. This fee includes spaying or neutering, vaccinations, and microchipping.

When Kim and Gina were taking photos to promote the "Home for the Pawlidays" campaign, someone took a quick 38-second video for the Front Street Facebook page. The clip went viral, with more than two million people watching in 24 hours. The next day the shelter looked like Black Friday at an electronics store. A line extended around the block waiting to get in, with some people even camping out.

Front Street normally does 10-20 adoptions a day, but on the first day of the Home for the Pawlidays campaign, 60 pets were adopted. As of mid-December, the shelter finalized more than 700 adoptions, all paid for by Kim. The promotion was so successful, Front Street took animals from six other Northern California shelters that needed help finding adopters.

Kim's holiday generosity also inspired similar acts. Across the country in Florida, a local resident pledged $2,000 to Tampa Bay's Pet Resource Center to cover 100 adoptions. The anonymous donor mentioned being influenced by Kim's story. Even cooler, some of the patrons paid it forward by covering the adoption fee for another pet. By the time the "Secret Santa's" donation ran out, 126 pets had been adopted.

Shelters often offer adoption deals during the holidays, but it's the generosity of animal lovers that turns this into a social collaboration that encourages others to get involved.

“When someone steps up like the Sacramento donor," said Humane Society of the United States Shelter Outreach Director Kim Alboum, "it does spark the generosity of other donors, especially around the holidays. There are people who never thought of adopting who are now considering it. So this donor has done even more than they realize.”

Reducing or waiving adoption fees can be controversial. As any pet lovers knows, the initial cost of a pet pales in comparison to the long term financial commitment. But I think that these promotions are about more than just the money. These social movements inspire others to get involved, encouraging those who were thinking of buying a dog to consider adoption. As long as shelters are still diligent in the vetting process, I think these campaigns have great potential.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Pets in the Classroom
New York City pilots a program to bring dogs into schools.
Growing up with a pet helps kids develop compassion, while providing a unique friendship and source of stress relief. This is especially important in today's world where kids have to increasingly navigate uncertainty and anxiety. Unfortunately not every family is able to welcome a pet, but the New York City school district wanted to make sure every child could benefit from the therapeutic benefits of dogs.

Last week New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña joined students, teachers and service dogs at Education Department headquarters to kick off the city’s Comfort Dog pilot program. Through this initiative, participating schools will get at least one dog assigned to a specific teacher or staff member. They'll incorporate the pups into regular lessons and breaks throughout the school day.

“This is something that brings new opportunities to students,” explained Carmen. "When they’re having a bad day, just to pat a dog can make them feel better. This isn’t a fancy idea, the research shows it to be true.”

All of the dogs came from local animal shelters and they're finding homes quickly. Queens Public School 209 teacher Melissa Cerasuolo adopted Jesse, a terrier that had already been visiting her school.

“The kids are falling in love with her,” said Melissa, whose class also includes special needs students. "If kids have behavioral issues, just having the dog around will help them stay calm and control their emotions.”

School can be an incredibly stressful environment and I can see the potential of this program to complement lessons on empathy, anti-bullying, and other important issues. I hope that the comfort dogs are successful. If the city sees an improvement in the test schools' environment, they plan to expand the program. 

 

News: Guest Posts
Dog Lies Down After Police Command
Did he obey or copy the people around him?

Pilota, a Brazilian mutt, did not abandon his peeps during a drug raid. This photo of him lying down with members of his gang when the police ordered everyone to do so shows how he responded to the situation. Pilota (Portuguese for pilot) initially barked when police officers showed up at his home in southern Brazil, but when officers ordered everybody to lie down, he ran over and joined the people already on the ground.

Many have speculated that he was either following police orders or that he was just copying what everybody else around him was doing. Either way, becoming quiet and lying down on his back in apparent surrender along with everybody else was a wise move. Pilota’s actions may have saved his life because Brazilian police often shoot dogs immediately during a raid.

In the picture, Pilota appears to be giving appeasement signals, which are the signals social animals use to communicate that they are not going to challenge other individuals. His belly is exposed, his ears are back, his tail may be tucked and he has turned his gaze to the side. All of his visual signals suggest that he is actively communicating his intention of full surrender. This dog is doing everything he can to let the police officers know that he will not charge at them or fight them.

Though there were some arrests made after police found guns, ammunition, marijuana and cocaine in the raid, Pilota was among those who went free.

News: Guest Posts
Study Finds BPA in Canned Dog Food—and Dogs
Endocrine-disrupting chemical raises red flags

A study by researchers at the University of Missouri finds that eating canned dog food may increase a pet’s exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA).

While the study was short-term, the results were “very revealing,” says investigator Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. Fourteen healthy pets were switched from their usual diet of kibble to canned food. Could a two-week menu change raise the dogs’ BPA levels?

It did, three-fold, and that could really be an issue for dogs that eat the same diet every day.

Over 300 studies have linked BPA to health problems from reproductive disorders to cancer, and now research is shedding light on how people and animals are exposed to the plastic-hardening chemical. While the FDA has reviewed the studies, they still consider BPA “safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”

By measuring BPA’s escape from packaging, scientists are narrowing the focus. One study settled the debate over whether BPA—banned in baby bottles but used in many other items—seeps from metal can linings and taints human foods. (It does). 

And in August, a long-term study in the UK found a sharp decline in canine fertility associated with exposure to other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The researchers considered food packaging a possible source, finding the chemicals in a range of dry and wet foods.

Some plastic dog toys have also been found to leach the chemical. A study at Texas Tech by environmental toxicologists Phil Smith and Kimberly Wooten found that BPA and phthalates leached from plastic bumpers into dishes filled with artificial dog saliva.

Wooten, who wasn’t involved in the present study, says that while it isn’t clear if dog health is being harmed long-term, “it’s still important information to have since there’s so little data on canine exposure to these types of chemicals.” She knows of no other studies that have looked at the effects of a specific BPA source on the concentrations in the blood.

“I’d say a 3-fold increase suggests that for dogs that eat canned food, their diet is the most important contributor to their total BPA levels.”  

The current study highlights another concern; with the pet food industry being held by about five companies, it seems commercial foods aren’t as diverse as packaging suggests. Of the two (unnamed) brands in the study, one was declared “BPA-free” by the manufacturer.

So, skip the can and spare your dog? It turned out, the dogs already had a small amount of BPA circulating in their blood, shown by initial baseline samples. The researchers then analyzed both the cans and the food for BPA. They also checked for any disturbances in gut bacteria and metabolic changes.

Although one of the diets was presumed to be BPA-free, feeding either brand for two weeks resulted in a three-fold increase of BPA levels in the animals. At the same time, the dogs showed gut microbiome and metabolic changes, with potential health consequences. Increased BPA may also reduce one bacterium known to metabolize BPA and related environmental chemicals, according to the study.

Bagged kibble might also contain BPA, since the dogs had some BPA in their blood before the study, possibly from their dry diets.

“This is the point that it is not clear,” Rosenfeld says. “It could be that the food already contains BPA. However, we saw minimal levels when the dogs were on kibble.” In some cases, very low amounts can lead to equally if not greater harmful effects as high doses, she says. The greatest concerns may be at the low and high doses.

“The doses we found in the dogs after being on canned food though were comparable to what has been linked to health problems in humans and rodents,” a list that includes diabetes and obesity, among others.

If the dogs continued to eat the canned food, would BPA keep building up in their bodies?

“We did not see what would happen if we took the dogs off the canned food or kept them on it longer,” Rosenfeld says. “These are definite follow-up studies.” Ideally, based on the results of this one, she says they would pursue long term studies to test BPA concentrations after long term feeding of canned food, examining the dogs for metabolic disorders—such as obesity and diabetes—and neurological ones, using MRI and behavioral testing.

In a previous rodent study, they did find that the longer mice were on a diet containing BPA, even though it was being metabolized, it would start accumulating in their system so that greater amounts would persist over time, she says.

In humans and primates, BPA is excreted through urine. “It is not clear how it is cleared in dogs.”

While BPA affects the reproductive system, Rosenfeld says they did not find any gender differences in this initial study—“but we would need to test more dogs to confirm.”

The main concern about the gut microbiome changes is that they have been linked with various diseases, including neurological, metabolic, immunological, gastrointestinal, and possibly even cancer, she says. “Thus, by affecting the gut microbiome, BPA could induce such secondary effects.”

Unfortunately, a supposedly safe substitute for BPA, BPS, didn’t fulfill its goal. Rosenfeld says that in rodents and fish, BPS has already been shown to lead to similar health concerns as BPA. Their study didn’t test BPS in the cans. “It is not clear if some dog foods are using this substitute,” she says.

“By feeding fresh food, dry food, and minimizing canned food, it will reduce exposure to BPA and BPS.”

 

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