Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It goes way beyond a big vocabulary
[Editor's update: A February 9 episode of Nova will feature Chaser.]
In a recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes, John W. Pilley and Alliston K. Reid have demonstrated an impressive level of language ability in a Border Collie named Chaser. It’s certainly easy to be most impressed by the fact that she knows the names of 1,022 objects, which she was taught over a nearly three-year period. Yet, from a scientific point of view and especially for scientists who study language acquisition and cognitive abilities, that is not as interesting as the other conclusions from the study “Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents.”
These scientists who studied Chaser also conclud that she can distinguish between the names of objects and commands. In other words, she understands that names refer to objects, regardless of the action she is told to perform to those objects. She was asked to either nose, paw or take one of three toys in an experiment, and could successfully do so. Years ago, the study of a Border Collie named Rico amazed the world with reports that the dog had a vocabulary of over 200 words, did not demonstrate this ability. Though Rico may have been able to do so, the experimental design did not allow a definitive conclusion. Pilley and Reid also concluded that Chaser understands categories of objects such as “ball,” “Frisbee” and “toy.” When asked to retrieve an object of one of these types, she was successful at choosing an item from the correct category. She is familiar with many items in each group. Interestingly, “balls” and “Frisbees” are categorized based on overall shape, but “toys” are those objects she is allowed to play with as opposed to those with which play is forbidden. The function, but not the form, of toys and non-toys is distinct. The final conclusion in the study was that Chaser can learn the name of a new object by inferential reasoning by exclusion. That is, she can learn the name of a new object based on the fact that it is the only novel object in a group of objects whose names are all already known by her. This kind of learning cannot be based on associative learning mechanisms because the novel name and the novel object are not presented together. What do you think about this study and what does it make you wonder about your own dog?
News: Guest Posts
Harvard brains miss a trick
I recently read about and then signed up for a happiness study conducted by Harvard researchers. I answered some personal questions and then agreed to respond, as soon as possible, to a daily (you can request more frequent check-ins) text and email. The short daily survey asks several questions about what I’m up to and how I feel about it, and then charts my emotional temperature.But I’ve hit a stumbling block. Recently, the survey dinged me during a lovely, long walk with my dogs. Feeling good! I reported. Then the survey asked if I was alone. Well, no. Then, it asked if I was interacting with someone. Well, yes. Although I admit at that point I started to feel a little nervous about my answer. But then, the next question came: Are you interacting with 1, 2, 3 or more people? People? I longed for an “other” at the very least. But I had no chance to explain. I selected “2 people.” All those years of study, math camps, tutors, slide rules, pocket protectors and advanced degrees, and these Ivy Leaguers forgot about companion animals in a study to gauge happiness? What were they thinking? When I consider the high points of my day, many times it’s spent directly interacting with my dogs. I love people too, especially my husband, but playing, walking, training, cuddling with my dogs is often pure pleasure. Hopefully the study, which appears to be dynamic, will change and begin to include these important relationships in the metrics of happiness. Otherwise, the results wil be incomplete.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New study suggests social animals developed larger noggins
Ask a cat lover and a dog lover which species is smarter and you'll get two different answers.
As a dog lover myself, you can guess my opinion, though what do I know, apparently a study in the United Kingdom found that the average cat lover holds a higher education than the canine persuasion! But, smarts aside, the truth is that dogs have larger brains, and not because they’re generally bigger.
A new study by Oxford University shows that canines have larger brains than felines because they are a highly social species. While researchers were mapping the evolutionary history of the brain across more than 500 different mammals, they found that there is a link between the sociality of animals and the size of their brains relative to body size.
The brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, and dogs. The brains of solitary animals, like cats, grew much more slowly during the same period. The study suggests that social animals may have developed larger brains because group living is challenging--now I can see why humans have such large brains!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Can implanted identification cause cancer?
Last week, the tragic story of Target the war dog hero sparked a discussion among our readers about microchips and the possible risks. A couple of people asked about the research behind the risk claims, so I decided to explore the topic. This discussion is particularly timely because Merck was recently served with a lawsuit over claims that its HomeAgain microchip caused cancer in a Massachusetts cat named Bulkin.
Unfortunately there are no large-scale, statistically valid experimental studies involving microchip implants in dogs, so we don’t know their long-term safety for sure. However, there have been a handful of studies with laboratory rodents, which is a start.
In six different studies with mice and rats, ranging from 1996 to 2006, it was reported that 0.8 and 10.2 percent of the animals developed malignant tumors around or adjacent to implanted microchips. It’s a wide range, though the majority of studies had a 1-2 percent tumor rate. The studies also had a wide range of sample sizes, which may help account for the variation in findings.
Nonetheless, based on the rodent studies, it does seem like there is a small chance that microchips are linked to malignant tumors. Considering that millions of dogs have microchips, the fact we haven’t seen an epidemic of microchip-related cancer confirms that the percentage is probably very small.
However, as any dog lover knows, statistics mean nothing when your pet is the one affected. The cancer risk has been particularly interesting to me since I'll be adding a new puppy to the family soon and will have to make the microchip decision. Both of my current dogs are micrchipped and it's always given me peace of mind, particularly since they are not allowed to run at USDAA agility trials with their collars on. Knowing the possible risk, I will be sure to monitor the shoulder blade area (where my pups have their microchips) for any changes to the skin.
No form of identification is flawless and none of them is guaranteed to bring your pup home. It’s up to you to weigh the risks and the benefits and decide what is best for your pet.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Different breeds share structure and movement characteristics
In agility there's a lot of talk about the effect of stride length and size on movement, but a new study has found that there may be less variation in basic structure than previously thought. Martin Fischer and his team at Jena University in Germany set out to determine gait differences between dog breeds and the impact joints have on movement. The research used high-speed 3-D cameras to film over 300 dogs walking on treadmills and continuous x-ray images to capture joint movement.
The study found that the fundamental movement of a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are profoundly similar. There is greater variation between individuals within breeds than between breeds. Selective breeding can change size and leg length, but Fischer’s study showed that we can’t influence basic structure and proportions.
Additionally, the researchers found clear evidence of a greater functionality between the shoulder bone and the upper leg. Unlike humans, the study found that dogs do not achieve their main motion through the movement of joints. Instead the majority of movement comes from the shoulder bone.
Fischer and his team expect that their research will change veterinary textbooks and also influence several other research studies. Another group at Jena University is looking at how amputated dogs compensate for a loss of a limb, which is part of a Europe-wide project to developing robots that are better able to overcome obstacles in unfamiliar environments.
Advancing veterinary care is not just about discovering new treatments or developing new technologies. I think it’s great that research on structure and movement is receiving funding, and not just because I’m involved in agility. Furthering our understanding of fundamental structure will help improve care and quality of life for all injured dogs.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New research on canine cognition
A recent study published in the journal Animal Cognition shows that dogs have a hard time “unlearning” certain tasks that they have been trained to do. In Minding the gap: spatial perseveration error in dogs, researchers Britta Osthaus, Donna Marlow and Pippa Ducat demonstrated that dogs who have learned a specific sort of detour behavior have trouble deviating from that behavior once the set up has changed.The researchers trained 50 dogs to go through a gap in a barrier in order to reach their guardians and receive a treat. Approximately 80 percent of the dogs learned this task in just a single trial. After 1 to 4 training trials, the dogs were confronted with a slightly different task. The gap in the barrier was no longer in the original position, but in a clearly visible alternative location along the barrier. When tested with this new task, dogs consistently went to the original position of the gap rather than to the new opening that would allow them to reach their target. This error was made by 46 of the 50 dogs. The more times they had gone through the original gap, the more likely they were to make the error once the gap had been relocated. This study shows that dogs have trouble “unlearning” at least certain sorts of spatial tasks and that they tend to persist with behavior that has led to success in the past, even when the task had changed. The researchers point out that this has implications related to both dog training and to future cognitive studies of dogs.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A new study addresses this question
In a recent study in the journal Current Biology, researchers assert that shelter dogs who show behavior indicative of separation distress tend to be pessimistic, compared with more optimistic dogs who are less likely to exhibit separation-related behavior. I’m going to explain briefly how the experiment was conducted and then discuss my concerns with the researchers’ conclusions.In their experiment, 24 shelter dogs were taught that a bowl in one location had food in it, while a bowl in another location was empty. Once the dogs were trained to this paradigm, they were tested to determine whether or not they had a “pessimistic” cognitive bias, or an “optimistic” one. In the test, bowls were placed in locations other than the ones that the dogs had been trained to understand. These ambiguous locations were in the same room as the tests with bowls that had either been empty or containing food during training. The time it took for the dogs to approach the bowls in these new locations was recorded. Dogs who went quickly to bowls in ambiguous locations were regarded as having an optimism that the bowl would contain food, while dogs who were slow to approach the bowl were considered to be pessimistic about the likelihood that the bowl would contain food. In another part of the study, these same dogs were observed to determine how much time they spent exhibited separation-related behavior patterns such as vocalizing, destructive chewing, and inappropriate elimination. The researchers found that “pessimistic” dogs showed more separation-related distress than the “optimistic” dogs, and thus concluded that the negative affective state of these pessimistic dogs is correlated with separation distress. My concern about this study is that I’m not convinced that the time until a dog approaches a bowl in an unknown location indicates optimism versus pessimism. What if degree of curiosity or tendency to fear new things is more relevant, rather than a cognitive decision about the likelihood of food being present? It is even possible that the dogs who were slower to approach the bowls were not as good at generalizing from the learning task or that they spent time considering what to do rather than acting impulsively. Or, perhaps the dogs who were slow to approach the bowls don’t tend to investigate things that are not theirs? (For dogs in home settings, we call this being “well-trained” or “well-behaved.”) The authors say that the results of the experiment were “unlikely to be explained by running speed/motivation, learning ability, or other dog characteristics” but except for running speed, they did not control for them. The researchers have provided evidence that dogs who are slower to approach a bowl in an ambiguous location are more likely to exhibit signs of separation distress, but I don’t think they have made a strong case that they can conclude more than that. They have not demonstrated a correlation between separation related distress and a pessimistic cognitive bias. There are too many other possible explanations that need to be sorted through and tested for such a claim to be convincing.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Literacy pups help kids develop a love of reading and writing
As a certified Good Dog Foundation therapy team, Nemo and I have visited our local library many times over the years. During these visits, I’ve noticed that the children develop more confidence every time we see them. We’ve even helped one girl overcome her fear of dogs. In today’s world of video games and television, it’s great to see kids get excited about reading and focus their attention on something non-technology related.
A recent study by a University of Alberta researcher, Lori Friesen, found that dogs can help foster a positive effect on children’s love of reading and writing. Friesen’s research assigned two Maltese Poodles, Tango and Sparky, to a second grade classroom in Alberta, Canada. She believes that the second grade is a critical period for developing a love of literacy and that dogs can help motivate children to develop a lifelong habit of reading and writing.
In the study, children signed up for weekly reading or writing sessions with Tango and Sparky. Friesen found that the program eased children’s fear of reading aloud and helped them develop a positive association with reading, writing and even school in general.
One third of the children took their experience with Tango and Sparky outside of the classroom and started reading or writing with their dogs at home. Parents reported that their kids were choosing to read when they previously wouldn’t have and that they were now talking about school at the dinner table for the first time. The children loved reading and writing with the pups so much that parents even noticed an increased motivation to go to school in the morning.
The study’s findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Language & Literacy, although Friesen disagrees with their categorization of her work as “animal–assisted therapy.” Friesen insists that the literacy dog program is not therapy since it is goal-oriented.
No matter what Friesen’s program is called, it’s clear that these literacy dogs are helping kids develop a lifelong love of reading and writing.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The standard OFA test may underestimate the risk of hip dysplasia
When we were ready to add a Sheltie to our family, I made sure prospective breeders met a long check list of requirements from socialization to genetic testing. Since Shelties are prone to hip dysplasia, I only considered breeders who screened the parents’ hips. The standard screening model is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals test, or more commonly known as the OFA.
So I was shocked to find out that the OFA test may not predict hip dysplasia risk as acurantly as once thought. A new study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that the OFA test may be underestimating hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis susceptibility in canines. The research compared the standard OFA test and the University of Pennsivania’s PennHIP screening model with 439 dogs older than two years. They found that 80 percent of dogs judged to be normal by the OFA test would be flagged to be at risk of developing osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia by the PennHIP test.
Furthermore, according to UPenn researchers, even if breeders were to selectively breed only those dogs having OFA-rated "excellent" hips -- the highest ranking -- the study suggests that 52 to 100 percent of offspring, depending on the breed, would be susceptible to hip dysplasia based on the PennHIP test.
Before making any conclusions, I’d like to see an independent study compare the two tests (University of Pennsylvania ran the study on their own screening method, funded by the University, the National Institutes of Health, The Seeing Eye Inc., the Morris Animal Foundation, and Nestle Purina Co.), as well as a long term study. However, if it’s true, the results are alarming considering how many breeders rely on the OFA test to make lineage decisions.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New research seeks to understand the stomach
My dog, Nemo, is an expert at getting into the garbage and eating treasures off the street. Fortunately, to date, Nemo’s dietary habits have been fairly innocuous, but eating bad food can easily lead to more serious conditions, like gastrointestinal infections.
Until now identifying canine gastrointestinal disease was difficult because scientists could only culture a small percentage of the bacteria in a dog's gut. And for a long time, diagnosis was further complicated because veterinarians didn’t have any information on what a healthy gut looked like.
Now researchers at the University of Illinois are using DNA pyrosequencing technology to map the canine gastrointestinal system. Having a standard will make it easier to diagnose and fight infections.
For dogs, a balanced and stable microbiota is important for gastrointestinal health, so research in this area can make a big impact on understanding our dogs’ health. With their newfound information, the scientists at the University of Illinois plan to study how diet, medicine, and age affect microbial count. They'll also be looking at the link between human and dog illness. This last topic is of increasing interest as more dogs are considered part of the family.
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