Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.
When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.
Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence.
Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience.
The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency.
Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.
The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins.
In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it.
This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.
Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent.
It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients).
Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality.
In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).
In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.
Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.
The Take-Away on Label Claims
Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.
News: Guest Posts
I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”
The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.
So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**
But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:
A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?
**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!
Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.
This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
News: Karen B. London
What dogs do influences potential adopters
We know that millions of shelter pets are available for adoption each year, but that many are never selected. Most previous research into the choices that people make about which dog to adopt has focused on what the dog looks like and the dog’s behavior in the kennel.
The recent study “Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption” investigated whether dogs’ behavior during an interaction outside of the kennel had any impact on the likelihood of adoption. (Potential adopters chose which dog or dogs they wanted to spend time with in a session out of the kennel.)
There were only two behaviors that influenced adoption: 1) Dogs who ignored people’s attempts to initiate play were far less likely to be adopted than those dogs who played when people attempted to initiate play with them, and 2) Dogs who spent more time lying down close to potential adopters were fourteen times more likely to be adopted than those who spent less time lying down near the people. Dogs who were adopted spent half as much time ignoring people’s attempts to play and twice as much time lying down near potential adopters than dogs who were not selected for adoption.
This research suggests that even in a short interaction—the average in this study was 8 minutes and did not differ between people who chose to adopt the dog and those who did not adopt the dog—people were making choices based on dogs’ behavior. Specifically, they chose dogs who played with them and who spent time lying down near them. This study suggests that people are selecting dogs who act in certain ways and that training dogs to behave in these ways has the potential to increase their chances of being adopted.
News: Karen B. London
Dogs and humans follow similar path
If you think that your dog has changed in his tendency to pay attention to you over time, you are probably right. A new study is the first to describe the developmental changes in dogs’ attention over their entire life.
In the study “Lifespan development of attentiveness in domestic dogs: drawing parallels with humans”, scientists studied 145 Border Collies from the ages of 6 months to almost 14 years old. Dogs were placed in 7 groups, reflecting these developmental periods: late puppyhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, late adulthood, senior, and geriatric.
The researchers concluded that dogs (at least of this breed) show predictable changes in attentiveness, which they define as the ability to choose to process some environmental stimuli over others, as they age. Their major findings were:
Have you noticed changes in your dog’s attention habits over time?
News: Guest Posts
On the whole, human breeders have not improved on nature.
On a flight last year, I sat next to a woman from India on her way to London from New York, where she had been visiting her first grandchild When she heard I wrote about dogs, she turned her attention to the one aspect of her daughter and son-in-law’s life she could not understand—their dog. On her walks around Central Park with the dog and her granddaughter, the dog drew the most attention and comment.
He was a black, blue-eyed French Bulldog for whom they had paid $3,000 to a veterinarian/breeder in New Jersey. They had already spent that much again on veterinary bills in less than a year.
Defenders of the purebred dog industry talk a lot about responsible breeders, and I once tended to follow their lead. But shortly after the Atlantic Monthly published my article, “The Politics of Dogs,” in March 1990 [It is hard to find on-line because of a class-action lawsuit regarding electronic rights, but it can be found.], I began to hear from people who had, like this couple, gone to a responsible breeder only to end up with a dog with problems. Many of the genetic conditions to which pedigreed dogs are prey do not follow strict lines of inheritance—they skip generations or move through aunts and uncles. They do sort by breed, but that is because those breeds have arisen from a small number of founders—in short, they are inbred, dangerously so, and this tight knit extended family shares most strongly genetic diseases and physical characteristics. Outer beauty conceals inner flaws.
French Bulldogs, for example, are prone to von Willebrand’s Disease, a blood disorder, as well as spinal problems, a cleft palate, and heat stroke. Many airlines no longer carry brachycephalic breeds—those with pushed in faces—because they have a tendency to die in flight from breathing problems related to overexcitement.
In light of that, the woman asked, why do so many people spend so much money on these dogs? This conversation occurred months before the sale of a Tibetan mastiff puppy at a luxury pets’ mart in Hangzhou, China, to a Qingdao property developer for 12-million yuan (about $1.9 million), reportedly a record price for a dog. It is easy here to invoke the 19th and early 20th century economist, Thorstein Veblen and his theory of conspicuous consumption.
To Veblen, such dogs are objects of conspicuous consumption, animals with no intrinsic value that nonetheless are made valuable by the fact that someone goes to great lengths to obtain and maintain them despite or because of the expense involved in doing so. Put another way, possession of such a being marks you as a person with so much money that you can obtain and maintain an animal with no useful talent.
That would certainly be the case with the Tibetan mastiff, which according to some assays is merely a reconstruction of a once mighty landrace of large livestock protection dog, which it resembles the way a teddy bear resembles a grizzly cub.
Clearly spending that much on a dog must be considered conspicuous consumption of the most extreme sort. It is also a mordant commentary on the Chinese Revolution, for half a century ago, Mao Zedong sought to rid China of pet dogs he considered objects of bourgeois recidivism—that is, conspicuous consumption.
Currently the recidivists have won. In China and other countries with a growing urban middle class, people are buying more and more dogs, eschewing their local dogs for Western pure breeds. To them, the pedigree signifies quality.
When Veblen used the Pekinese as an example of an object of conspicuous consumption, purebred dogs were relatively new on the scene and well beyond the means of most people. A century later, the dogs are no longer rare, nor are their prices, even at $1,000, so outrageous, especially when buyers are convinced they are getting excellent bloodlines, superior quality, and specific behavioral characteristics.
Those beliefs fuel demands for purebred dogs produced by commercial breeders—let’s just call anyone engaged in the large scale “production” of puppies for profit, a commercial, or mass, breeder, and recognize that some are better than others, which is not an endorsement of any of them.
Demand for purebred dogs shot up following World War II when returning veterans, establishing their lives in burgeoning suburbs, sought them out as accompaniments to their new homes, cars, and families. The pedigree provided by the rapidly expanding American Kennel Club, the largest registry of dogs in the world, proved these acquisitions were not the old family mutt, but refined and sophisticated pets. Demand fueled the growth of mass breeders, pet stores, dog shows, regulations to fence and leash dogs, and unwanted dogs.
I estimate that by some point in the 1990s half of all dogs In America were purebred, and a great many of them were from mass breeders. That was a problem because they too frequently bred dogs without regard for their temperament or genetic soundness and failed to socialize them during the critical first three to four months. If dogs are not socialized to humans during that time, they might have difficulty ever becoming fully socialized and often have behavioral issues.
The problem with these breeders has been known for decades and several national animal advocacy groups have campaigned against them for years without much result. Although there are many political explanations for the failure to end the retail trade in dogs, these groups have not invested in the sort of intense, dedicated campaign required to shut it down.
Instead, we get things like the Humane Society of the United States forming a group, Breeder’ Advisory and Resource Council, to advise it on matters relating to responsible dog breeding.
Mass breeders are a significant part of the problem of purebred dogs, but not the only one. My colleague and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff, has argued for a full halt to breeding more dogs as long as millions of perfectly fine, adoptable animals await new homes in shelters or the homes of breed rescue group volunteers. With so many dogs in need, he says, the compassionate and humane thing for someone wanting a dog is to adopt one.
I believe he is right, and I would add that the breeding of dogs as it is now done should stop until ways can be found to minimize the risk of a dog being born with an inherited deformity or illness. That includes behavioral problems. These conditions disproportionately seem found in puppy mill dogs, but not exclusively. Some of these conditions, especially cytoskeletal ones like brachycephaly are so extreme that puppies must be delivered by caesarean section and subsequently have difficulty breathing normally and dissipating heat. The book on these inherited ailments is long and growing longer. Most are due to the heavy inbreeding and common use of favored sires in breed formation.
It is worth remembering here, that breeds are formed through consolidation from an existing population, when a few animals are used to create the Platonic ideal of the ‘breed,’ and through amalgamation, in which representatives from several similar landraces are crossed to create the perfect representative of all.
No matter which method was followed, the resulting dog was said to represent the breed in its pure essence and be more intelligent and talented than any of its naturally breeding predecessors. With few exceptions involving specialized behaviors that have been enhanced through selective breeding, that is untrue. Nonetheless, like mantras, the histories of these new breeds and accounts of their prowess were repeated so often, they became truth—to everyone but the rulers of the American Kennel Club. For decades they have publicly maintained that the AKC issued pedigree proving that for three or more generations the dog in question is an official Chesapeake Bay Retriever or whatever the case may be does not represent quality, does not guarantee that the dog is healthy or possessed of a good temperament. They did that because they wished to avoid possible consumer lawsuits involving dogs with serious defects and flaws.
Despite those disclaimers, the AKC has continued to a promote the virtues of purebred dogs, like the problematic French Bulldog, the eleventh most popular dog it registered in 2013, and the larger English bulldog. It was the fifth most popular breed registered in 2013, even though nearly 72 percent of the bulldogs evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals had crippling hip dysplasia; none could whelp naturally.
The argument is sometimes made that breeds are important biological artifacts but, in fact, over the decades breeders have altered their appearance—and perhaps their behavior—and perhaps their behavior—substantially. Many breeders say that they are attempting to improve the breed they love, but the very notion that a breed needs improvement suggests that it has problems.
Few if any breeders can predict that all puppies in a litter will be free of congenital defect, but in many cases the odds are stacked against them from the start by a plethora of problems and conditions associated with their breed. Breeders and kennel clubs should focus on ridding the breeds they love and promote of those inheritable conditions, and the way to do that is to stop engaging in dangerous breeding practices and to avoid breeding dogs who have them in their bloodlines.
Dogs deserve no less.
This post first appeared on Mark Derr's blog, Dog's Best Friend on Psychology Today. Used with permission.
Study shows dog people laugh more
Do you enjoy a good laugh with your dog? If so, apparently you are not alone. So writes New York Times long-time health columnist Jane Brody on one of the many benefits her new dog Max contributes to her life. Brody’s recent article champions the many perks of “life with a dog”—companionship, exercise, meeting people and laughter. She cites a study of 95 people who were asked to keep “laughter” logs and record the frequency and source of their laughter. Results showed that dog owners laughed frequently more than cat owners and people who owned neither. The findings suggest a complex relationship between pet ownership and laughter. Dogs may serve as friends with whom to laugh or their behaviors may provide a greater source of laughter. Does this resonate with Bark readers? How does your dog make you laugh?
Last week, we marked that annual day of grins and laughter—April 1—with an in-box full of pranks. Jokey press releases, outlandish news reports and faux announcements tried to outduel each other for guffaws. Given the nature of our business, many were dog-themed.
Here’s a sampling of some of the April Fool’s jokes we received this year:
Google Apps for Business Dogs
Moo’s new delivery system—Pug Post!
The Milwaukee Brewers mascots square off
Great British Chefs offer fine dining for dogs
Plus, these favorites from the past deserve mention …
IKEA’s 2011 Hundstol Dog Highchair
Warby Parker introduces Warby Barker in 2012
Barclaycard launches Barclay PayWag in 2013
News: Karen B. London
Their brains reveal a positive response
You may not feel happy when you smell your husband’s underarm when he has not showered or used deodorant for 24 hours, but your dog probably does. So concluded scientists who conducted an fMRI study to investigate the response of dogs’ brains to both familiar and unfamiliar canine and human odors. Since the canine sense of smell is so well-developed, studies that investigate it are especially useful for learning more about dogs, including their behavior and emotions.
The 12 dogs in the study “Scent of the familiar: an fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors” (in press in the journal Behavioural Processes) have been trained to remain still during the entire procedure. Because the dogs don’t move during the process because of training rather than being medicated or restrained to achieve stillness, the way various areas of the brain respond to various stimuli can be studied. All of the dogs are family pets and were raised by people from puppyhood on.
In this experiment, researchers focused on the caudate, which is an area of the brain that is associated with positive feelings and rewards. The level of activity in this part of the brain in response to various odors informs us about the emotional reaction of dogs to various stimuli. The odors used were the dog’s own odor, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, a familiar person and an unfamiliar person. The familiar person was never the guardian handling the dog at the experiment because the scent of that person was present throughout the experiment.
The scientists found that dogs had the strongest, most positive reactions to the smell of a familiar person. Because most of the handlers with the dog during the experiment were female guardians, the familiar person was usually the male guardian or their child, although it was sometimes a close friend. The familiar dog was also a member of the household. The scents from dogs came from the perineal-genital area.
The dogs responded to all of the scents, but activation of the caudate portion of the brain in response to the familiar human scent showed that dogs distinguished it from all the other scents and that they had a particularly positive association with that smell. Dogs had a more positive response to familiar humans than to either unfamiliar humans or to members of their own species, whether familiar or unfamiliar.
Interestingly, the four dogs in this study who are service dogs had the strongest responses to human scents, which may be due to genetics, their intense exposure to humans during training or even simply a fluke related to small sample size. It is possible that dogs whose caudate is highly responsive to human scent may be best suited for service work. Because not all dogs selected to be service dogs end up successfully completing the time-consuming and expensive training, choosing those dogs who are most likely to succeed could save time and money as well as lessen the extensive waiting times for people in need of such dogs.
News: Karen B. London
Joins National Canine Research Council
Adam Miklósi just became the newest advisor to the National Canine Research Council. Their mission involves understanding and preserving the human-canine bond and they both conduct and fund research in support of this goal. Miklósi is an expert on the cognitive and social abilities of dogs that make their bond with humans possible and he has played a pivotal role in the way dogs are now viewed by scientists and lay people alike.
Although scientists as brilliant and prestigious as Konrad Lorenz, who won the Nobel Prize, and even Charles Darwin, were fascinated by dogs and studied them extensively, many others found them unworthy of attention. The viewpoint for generations was that because dogs were domesticated, they were not scientifically interesting the way that wild animals are. Many people in the field of ethology, which is the study of animals in their natural habitat rather than in the laboratory, failed to recognize that the natural environment of dogs is with people. Attempts to study them were met with scorn, and almost no funding.
In the last decade, the tide has turned, and now excellent research on dogs is being done in many areas of the world. As founder and head of the Family Dog Project and head of the Ethology Department at Eötvös University in Budapest, Miklósi is a worldwide leader in the study of the domestic dog. The goal of his research is to investigate the ethological and evolutionary foundations of the human-dog relationship.
News: Karen B. London
The similarities are considerable
If you’ve always thought that you and your dogs understand one another’s emotions, you increasingly have scientific evidence supporting your views. The use of MRIs allowed researchers to demonstrate that the brains of both dogs and people have a similar response to human voices, crying and laughter, among many other sounds. Researchers conclude that the brains of both dogs and people have similar reactions to the emotional cues in many sounds.
Eleven dogs and 22 people were subjected to the same MRI scans during which they had to remain still for up to 8 minutes while exposed to various sounds. (A lot of training went in to teaching dogs to remain motionless during the scans.) The study is called “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI” (only the abstract is available online) and it was published last week in the journal Current Biology. It is the first study to use this technique to compare the brain of humans to a non-primate animal species.
Over 200 different sounds were played to each participant in the study over a number of sessions. There were sounds such as whistles and car noises as well as dog vocalizations and human sounds. The responses to human sounds in both people and dogs occurred in similar regions of the brain. This study is the first time such a similarity to humans has been shown in an animal species that is NOT a primate. Both the people and the dogs also reacted in similar regions of the brain to emotional canine vocalizations such as whimpering and intense barking.
Along with the similarities, there were also differences in responses between the two species. Humans were better at distinguishing between the sounds of the environment and vocalizations than dogs were. Additionally, both species responded more strongly to vocalizations of their own species.
It is impossible to say from this study whether these vocal regions of the brain evolved in a more ancient lineage than was previously thought or whether the dogs have evolved this similarity during the period of domestication as a mechanism to allow better communication and understanding between dogs and people.
Future studies that investigate brains of additional species may be able to determine the reason for the similarity between dogs and people. These scientists next plan to study the response of dog brains to human language, which was not a part of this study.
News: Karen B. London
Dog flexibility strikes again
If you’re not amazed by the diversity of dog body type and the huge number of habitats in which they can live, then you’re in the minority. Scientists, dog lovers and scientists who are dog lovers consider the domestic dog a species of considerable interest for the great number of forms that have evolved over a relatively short time. Some of the variation is obvious because it involves shape, size and color, while some of the behavioral tendencies are subtle. Even less obvious are the physiological difference between different types of dogs, including the recent discovery of adaptations to high altitude by the Tibetan Mastiff.
This breed of dog is most closely related to the Chinese native dogs, but in recent history, has been selected to live high in the mountains of Tibet at elevations of nearly 15,000 feet. The biggest challenge to life at such heights is the low level of oxygen. Even individuals who are quite fit can become out of breath just from walking at a casual pace under the low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions at high altitude. So, how do Tibetan Mastiffs thrive in Tibet? They do it in much the same way that wild animals and humans do—with genetic changes that affect hemoglobin concentration, the formation of extra blood vessels and the use and production of energy.
In a new study called “Population variation revealed high altitude adaptation of Tibetan Mastiffs”, scientists found that this breed of dogs has at least a dozen areas in their genome that represent adaptations to the high life. One of the genes that helps them survive in their high-altitude/low oxygen environment is similar to a gene present in the Tibetan people, who are also adapted to the high life. The rest of them are different than those of the people as well as differing from animals such as the yak and the Tibetan antelope that are also adapted to this environment.
Though much selection on our companion dogs has changed their behavior and appearance, there are also examples of changes that are far harder to observe such as the Tibetan Mastiff ‘s adaptations to high altitude.
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