Good Dog: Studies & Research
Studies on dogs following gestures.
AT TWO WEDDINGS, darling ring bearers paraded down the aisle proudly holding the prized objects. They couldn’t have been more than six. When they suddenly stopped—as six-year-olds tend to do—to look at something on the ground, guests leaned into the aisle and pointed toward the beaming faces ahead. Smiles filled the crowd as they continued on their way.
At one wedding, the ring bearer was a little boy, and at the other, a dog.
If we’ve spent any time with companion dogs, we aren’t surprised when a dog stops to check out the ground. It also shouldn’t surprise us that a dog might go where we point. Pointing is about social communication, and it often feels like dogs are right there with us, sometimes even more than members of our own species.
In the last 20 years, dogs’ attention to our communicative gestures—particularly this thing we do with our arm and finger—has attracted enormous attention from researchers around the globe. In fact, the pointing gesture is so fundamental that seemingly no article on the canine mind is complete without a sentence such as “dogs read our gestures, like pointing, more flexibly than any other animal” (New York Times), or—more boldly in Time—“While chimps and even wolves lack an innate ability to understand what pointing means, dogs come by the knowledge naturally.”
These statements tend to produce any number of reactions in dog owners, from “Obviously,” sometimes accompanied with a side of, “Why do they bother to do this research anyway?” to the flip side: “My dog doesn’t do that … what are they talking about?” Or even the more nihilistic view: “Sure they do, but who cares?”
Here’s why we care: this one little gesture, in all its complexity, could be a core feature of the intimate bond we share with dogs.
Since the late 1990s, researchers have tried to uncover why and how dogs pick up on our cues. Initially, key questions focused on whether their ability to follow the pointing gesture arose from our long-standing co-evolutionary history or, alternatively, if they learned the behavior over the course of their individual lives.
Pointing Is About Us
Pointing is something we humans do as part of our social communication, and it is useful only because we all agree on how it should be interpreted. Imagine if your point were perceived as, “Hey! Check out my fingertip. No dirt under my nail. Wonderful, huh?” Not exactly useful for communication. Fortunately, we understand that pointing creates a shared experience beyond our fingertips; pointing draws someone’s attention past our outstretched index finger to something out there in the world.
This cooperative gesture serves us well. Yelling, “Look out!” is only somewhat informative, but yelling, “Look out!” and pointing can help a fellow human locate and respond to a Frisbee sailing in at head level or Godzilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue. Communication achieved.
Despite our mothers’ reminders that pointing is rude, it has a function: it reflects our ability to hold shared attention with others, which could also indicate that someone else is aware of the same thing that we are. Pretty meta. Joint attention can thus be associated with an ability to infer others’ mental states, which is considered an important social capability in humans.
At about six months, children start following the gaze and gestures of others. We start pointing around our first birthday and become increasingly point-savvy as we age. When toddlers see something of interest and point at it, they become excited when we also look. They will also point when seeking something or to provide information (I want that. You dropped something). Regardless of how it’s used or understood at any given age or moment, pointing intrinsically aids our communication with one another.
Do Dogs Get the Point?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the academic interest in the canine mind that blossomed in the late 1990s was actually largely about us, investigating to what extent dogs responded to our communicative gestures— notably, our pointing. In research labs around the world, it has been a pointing party ever since.
Watch any program covering research into the canine mind and you’re bound to hear mention of studies involving a dog, two cups and a pointing human. The experiment, commonly referred to as the object-choice task, follows some variation of this procedure: a dog first learns he can get a treat for approaching either of two identical cups. He then watches as a person points to one of the cups. Will the dog follow the point to the cup?
Human children are quite good at this task, and numerous studies confirm that dogs are, too. From an early age, dogs are highly responsive to this gesture. Dogs do well when a person points with a foot, or bows or nods. They’ll also respond to what’s commonly referred to as a “momentary” point, in which the person points and then lowers his or her arm before the dog makes a choice. They will follow the point even when a person stands by one cup and points at the other. Although we all know smell is a major player in the canine world, it doesn’t appear to factor greatly into dog performance; when food is hidden under one cup and nobody points, they don’t do so well. Some researchers describe their performance as “remarkable” and “outstandingly flexible.”
Not all species catch our communicative drift. A bee that flies into your car will never be aided by your outstretched arm pointing toward the open window. Given dogs’ long history with us, researchers wondered whether canine sensitivity arose through the domestication process—in which case, wolves, their closest relative, might be less adept in this task—or, on the other hand, whether it’s a product of learning and dogs’ individual life experiences. Or maybe the reality is not so black-and- white. What underlies their highly flexible ability?
Wolves do not follow our gestures as flexibly as dogs. Nor do chimpanzees, our closest relatives. This isn’t to say that wolves (or chimpanzees) can’t or don’t do it. Extensively socialized wolves and enculturated chimps—those highly familiarized with human behavior— can follow our points, but dogs generally respond more readily and easily, and wolves need more exposure to perform similarly. In 2002, Brian Hare of the Duke Canine Cognition Center pulled together then-current research on dogs, wolves and chimpanzees and, in an article in Science, concluded, “Dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.”
Both Nature & Nurture Point to Success
More immediate genetic influences, like artificial selection, could also influence dogs’ skills. Márta Gácsi and colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest found that while all dogs tested followed the point better than chance would predict, dogs bred for cooperative work (like gun dogs) performed better than those bred for independent work (like guard dogs). All the dogs in the study were living as pets and none had received special training, implying that genetics plays a role at some level in enhancing dogs’ ability to follow our gestures.
At the same time, individual life experiences could also contribute to a dog’s responsiveness. For example, the reactions of shelter dogs to our pointing gestures vary widely, and a small group of intensively socialized lab-raised dogs did not fare well in the task.
Lucia Lazarowski of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Auburn University, one of the investigators in the lab-raised dog study, saw their challenges first-hand. But when she later adopted Captain, a study participant, and informally examined his responsiveness to pointing, she found he performed much better in her home: “He actually looked in the direction I pointed and sniffed in the area I was pointing to. During the test, however, he was one of the more non-responsive dogs. Now, we like to play a game where I toss small treats around the room for him to hunt, and if he can’t find them, sometimes I’ll point to them, so he probably has picked it up from that.” Captain’s transition to canine pointfollower highlights that learning and life experiences can factor into the skill.
The person behind the point can also affect dog performance. Amy Cook, CDBC, CPDT-KA, conducted a study on the topic at the University of California, Berkeley; reporting in Animal Cognition, Cook noted that when owners and strangers were pitted against one another (in what I hope was described as a “point-off”), dogs tended to follow their owners, even when they received no reward (i.e., the point did not lead to the dog getting food). As Cook explains, “Dogs make decisions by attending preferentially to social signals from humans with whom they have become more familiar.” Many of us think it’s all about us, and our dogs might agree.
If dogs respond to the pointing gesture based on whose finger is doing the work, then again, it looks like life experiences could be controlling the switches. But not so fast: Cook suggests that this unique spin on the issue— dogs being more attentive to a familiar person—could have been shaped by evolutionary pressures to bond with a caretaker. Attachment relationships between dogs and their humans are well documented and, as Cook says, going with your person could be “a successful strategy in the long term.”
Isn’t it nice when everyone can be right? Dog responsiveness to our communicative gestures could be a product of their evolutionary history plus their ability to learn rapidly once in a human environment. In a 2009 article in Behavioural Processes, Pamela Reid, CAAB and vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, reflects on what’s behind canine responsiveness to our social cues: “Dogs are too skilled for it to be pure trial-and- error learning. Yet it is improbable that a versatile behavior like this would be largely innate.” She suggests that what we see in dogs is an adaptive specialization of learning. “In essence, they come with a built-in head start to learn the significance of people’s gestures, in much the same way that white-crowned sparrows acquire their species-typical song and ducklings imprint on their own kind.” This fits in well with what is understood of instinctual or innate behaviors. As Jack Hailman explained in his inf luential piece in Scientific American in 1969, “How an Instinct Is Learned,” species-specific behaviors require some amount of experience and development.
When Patricia McConnell, CAAB, mulled over the pointing research on her blog, “The Other End of the Leash,” she agreed that dogs could be “predisposed to learn to follow a pointing gesture.” McConnell also highlights something you might have seen yourself: present a very young puppy with an outstretched finger and that puppy is going to approach your fingertip, not follow it to a distant location. McConnell’s point is that point-following in puppies is not automatic, although they learn it very easily.
To this, Reid adds, “Just because a skill appears early in development does not preclude learning. It does, however, demand that puppies be highly attentive to the actions of humans, a tendency that has been confirmed in studies of dog-human attachment.”
What Do You Understand, Dog?
What do dogs think of all this? What does it mean to be a dog who “understands” our pointing gesture?
A 2013 article by Ádám Miklósi and József Topál of the Family Dog Project in Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes by highlighting that “dog social competence [appears] sometimes ‘infant-like’ or ‘human-like,’ but, importantly, the underlying mental mechanisms may turn out to be quite different.”
It’s hard enough for us to figure out if, for example, our boss is merely suggesting that we do something or telling us to do it. The same is true for dogs and the pointing gesture. Do dogs see pointing as an imperative—“You. Go there.”—or as simply providing information or a helpful suggestion—“I recommend that you go there.”—a subtle yet meaningful difference. A 2011 article published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Helene Pettersson and colleagues found that, like children, dogs are more likely to follow a point when it is accompanied by a cooperative tone of voice as opposed to a prohibitive tone. At the same time, dogs sometimes follow the point to an empty container, leading some to wonder whether, under certain circumstances, dogs might perceive the gesture as a command.
Like humans, dogs seem to distinguish when communication is—or is not—intended for them, although they could be relying on a more limited set of cues. Numerous studies find that initiating eye contact and using high-pitched vocalizations help dogs understand that the communication is for them. Setting is also important. In a 2011 study reported in PLoS ONE, Linda Scheider and colleagues found that if a person points to a location where a dog has never experienced reinforcement, the dog is not as likely to follow as he would be if he had previously received reinforcement there (making me wonder whether the ring-bearer dog would spontaneously follow the point to the altar).
At some level, every pointing gesture suffers from a fundamental ambiguity: we might be pointing to a particular object, or we might be pointing to a specific space that happens to be inhabited by a particular object. Usually, we can figure it out without too much cognitive difficulty. Even nine-monthold infants understand when pointing refers to an object as opposed to the place where the object is located.
How about dogs? In a study recently published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by Tibor Tauzin and colleagues, an experimenter pointed at one of two different toys on either side of him. Before the dog could approach, the experimenter switched the location of the objects in full view of the dog. The researchers wondered whether the dog would approach the object that had initially been pointed at but that was now in a new location, or to the original location of the point. The result? Dogs did not follow the object to its new location. Instead, they approached the old location, which seems to imply that, for the dog, pointing could be more about the location than the pointed-at object.
For those of us who live or work with dogs, much of the value of pointing studies lies in what we do with the results. Despite being unflashy, the pointing gesture is actually rich in dimensions and angles that we can explore with our dogs. As Reid recommends, “Take note of your body gestures. Does your dog attend to your gestures in all cases, or only in certain contexts? Dogs are often way more sensitive than we can grasp. They’re not trying to fool you or trick you, get one over on you or cheat the system. Attending to our gestures is just what dogs do. It’s who they are.”
News: Karen B. London
Differential use of the left and right nostril
The common wisdom that dogs can smell fear doesn’t give dogs full credit to the nuances of their ability to sense emotion through their noses. A recent study titled “The dog nose “KNOWS” fear: Asymmetric nostril use during sniffing at canine and human emotional stimuli” examined dogs’ tendencies to sniff various substances with the right or the left nostril. Exploring this side bias may seem like looking at random details, but the side of the nose used to sniff something tells us a lot about the dog’s emotional reaction to the odor. The use of one side of the body indicates a differential use of one side of the brain or the other, which is a clue to the dog’s emotions.
The left side of the brain processes more positive emotions such as happiness and excitement as well as stimuli that are familiar. The right side of the brain tends to take over when a dog is processing negative emotions such as sadness or fear as well as novel stimuli. In general, the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and vice versa. However, the nose is an exception; the right nostril sends information to the right side of the brain to be processed and the left nostril sends its information to the left side. The findings of this study suggest that the pathways used to process various olfactory stimuli are dependent on more than just whether they elicit negative or positive feelings.
Eight odors were tested—four from dogs and four from humans. The four human odors were collected as sweat from donors who were joyful, fearful, physically stressed, or in a neutral situation. The joyful and fearful states were elicited by movies, and the physical stress odor was collected after donors ran for 15-minutes. The four canine odors were collected from dogs who were happy following a play session with the guardian, stressed by isolation in an unfamiliar place, disturbed by a stranger approaching the car, and dogs who were asleep. The dogs who “donated” odors were different from the dogs whose sniffing behavior was studied.
To further explore the phenomenon of side bias in sniffing, the guardians of the dogs in the study filled out a questionnaire related to each dog’s temperament. During the study, dogs were led to a video camera under which was mounted a Q-tip saturated with various odors. The videos captured the dog’s sniffing behavior so that it was possible to determine a laterality index for each dog for every odor based on the amount of time spent sniffing with each nostril. A laterality index of 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the left nostril and negative 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the right nostril. Dogs’ cardiac activity was also recorded during the tests of each odor.
I’m sure it’s the science geek in me, but I got a kick out of reading the sentence, “Results for nostril use are shown in Figure 2.” Three of the odors elicited consistent sidedness in nostril use and five of them did not. Dogs more frequently used the right nostril to sniff the canine isolation odor. They more frequently used the left nostril to sniff the human fear odor and the odor from human physical stress.
There were two ways in which the results of the questionnaire were correlated with the laterality pattern for a particular odor. The higher a guardian ranked the dog’s fear/aggressiveness to other dogs, the more likely that dog was to use the right nostril for sniffing the disturbed canine odor. This suggests that individual differences in emotional arousal and perhaps even in temperament influence asymmetries in sniffing behavior. Dogs with higher scores for predatory behavior used the left nostril more for sniffing the odor that came from physically stressed humans. This makes sense when we consider that it is structures in the left side of dogs’ brains that are involved in predatory behavior.
Dogs’ brains are every bit as amazing as their noses, as research about both of them reveal!
News: Guest Posts
An international group of scientists proposes dual domestication from wolves.
Among the many hotly debated topics related to the appearance of dogs in the lives of humans is how often and where it first occurred. In their landmark 1997 paper on dog origins, Robert K. Wayne, Carles Vilá, and their colleagues made the case for multiple origins, but many other students of dog evolution, including Peter Savolainen, a co-author on that paper, have repeatedly and strongly argued for a single place of origin.
In this week’s Science magazine (June 3, 2016) [the article is available here, gratis], Laurent Frantz of Oxford University’s ancient dog program, writing for more than a score of his colleagues from institutions around the world, presents the case for dual domestication of Paleolithic wolves in Western Eurasia and Eastern Asia. According to this hypothesis, a now extinct ancestral wolf split into at least two genetically distinct populations on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent where they encountered and joined forces with humans to become dogs.
Frantz and his coauthors pin much of their argument on analysis and comparison of the fully sequenced genome of a 4,800- year old dog unearthed at Newgrange, Ireland, to other ancient and modern dogs and modern wolves. They found it retained “a degree of ancestry” different from modern dogs or modern wolves. Using that and other evidence the researchers argue that the most comprehensive model for the appearance of the dog involves at least two domestication events 15,000 or more years ago. Frantz writes: “The eastern dog population then dispersed westward alongside humans at some point between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago, into Western Europe (10,11, 20), where they partially replaced an indigenous Paleolithic dog population. Our hypothesis reconciles previous studies that have suggested that domestic dogs originated either in East Asia (9, 19) or in Europe (7).”
I asked Greger Larson, co-director of the Oxford project and corresponding author on the paper, just what were the boundaries of “Western Eurasia,” comprised apparently of Europe and the Middle East, and “Eastern Asia?” He answered in an email that the boundaries were left deliberately vague because where wolves became dogs remains unknown, like the date itself.
In Science, Frantz writes: [W]e calculated the divergence time between two modern Russian wolves used in the study and the modern dogs to be 60,000 to 20,000 years ago.” The first number puts the dog in the time when Neanderthal was still the big kid on the European block, raising the possibility that Neanderthal had protodogs or that early modern humans came to Europe with dogs or soon allied with wolves. Either of the first two prospects must have set off alarms in some circles for Frantz cautions that those dates should not be taken as “a time frame for domestication” because the wolves they used may not have been “closely related to the population(s) that gave rise to dogs.”
Fundamentally, this paper is at once a bold attempt to come up with a workable hypothesis to explain the appearance of the dog in human affairs and a tentative step into troubled waters. Left unanswered are virtually all outstanding questions regarding the who, what, when, where, and why of the transformation of wolves to dogs. Geographically all it does is exclude Central Asia. Whether it does so wrongly may depend on how you define Central Asia geographically.
What makes it bold and radical even is the suggestion that early humans and wolves could have gotten together wherever and whenever they met on the trail of the big game they were following. There are many reasons for that including similar social and familial cultures, but humans and wolves could have joined forces to have become more successful hunters. We learn from Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Prey by L. David Mech, Douglas W. Smith, and Daniel R. MacNulty (Chicago, 2016) that while wolves appear excellent at finding and trailing game, they are not very good at making the kill, succeeding perhaps half the time. It is dangerous work at which humans with their weapons excel.
Imagine the scene: Human hunters locate wolves on the hunt by watching ravens who are known to follow them. Human hunters move in for the kill and take as many animals as they can. If smart, they might share immediately with the wolves. If not, the wolves might consume what the humans do not carry off or follow them back to their encampment to take what they can.
The rest is a tale of accommodation through socialization—the ability to bond with another being—and all that entails.
This article originally appeared in Psychology Today's Dog's Best Friend, used with permission.
We may think our dog wIll take a treat from any hand that offers it, but a new study by a team of Japanese researchers suggests that may not be the case. Primates engage in something called “social eavesdropping”— essentially, making judgments about others based on interactions that don’t directly affect their own interests. This study tested dogs’ ability to do the same by setting up situations in which the dogs’ owners asked for help in opening a box and were assisted (helper scenario), rejected (non-helper scenario), or ignored (control scenario) as the dogs looked on. After these interchanges, when the dogs were offered treats, they took them randomly from Helper and Control “strangers” but were biased against non-helpers. According to Kazuo Fujita, professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto university and one of the study’s authors, the ability to socially and emotionally evaluate others “is one of the key factors in building a highly collaborative society.” So, another step in the process of understanding how Canis lupus became familiaris: like humans, dogs are able to pick up clues about who to trust and who to avoid.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Beliefs do not substitute for data
Watching dogs play is very exciting, and there has been a lot empirical research on how and why dogs (and other animals) engage in this activity with boundless zeal. A number of people have asked me to comment about dog play after reading this section in a new book by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein called How Dogs Work. So, I decided to do so.
The authors begin their chapter 9 on play by claiming, “Hundreds of scientific papers have been written on the subject of ‘play’ behavior—an activity for which dogs are, of course, famous.” Recognizing that there is a solid and growing literature on play—there’s really no reason to put the word play in square quotes—I assumed that what followed would be a detailed review of this research, but rather, what I discovered was a disjointed discussion of play and not an in-depth review of the scientific literature. Instead, the authors offer their own unpublished observations and the results of unpublished student projects, all of which are impossible to assess.
Do dogs and other animals actually play? Coppinger and Feinstein write that they put the word play in scare quotes because “in spite of the fact that people feel like they know it when they see it, it’s not at all obvious that play is a unitary ‘thing-in-itself’ that can easily be characterized, let alone explained in evolutionary terms.” No one I know who has spent years studying play would argue that play is a “unitary ‘thing-in-itself’,” nor would they agree that play cannot be explained “in evolutionary terms.” Indeed, some of the references the authors include show there are a number of highly plausible evolutionary explanations (and the University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt, who has studied comparative aspects of play for many years and wrote The Genesis of Animal Play, provided the Foreword for Coppinger and Feinstein’s book).
Why do animals play? Briefly, various theories have been offered about why animals play, and there’s no one explanation that fits all examples of animal play. Detailed comparative data show play is important in social development, physical development, and cognitive development. And, neurobiological research strongly suggests play can be pleasurable and fun and animals may simply play because it feels good, “for the hell of it.” Indeed, many researchers are taking fun seriously, and the 25th anniversary issue of the journal Current Biology was devoted to the biology of fun with many play researchers weighing in on the topic. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “We agree that there is good reason to believe that animals derive pleasure from play - indeed they do from all of their motor activities.” (my emphasis) While animals might derive pleasure from play, eating, and sex, it’s difficult to argue they feel good running from competitors or predators, but the necessary research has not been done.
Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that that play functions as training for the unexpected by increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this training, we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.
Comparative data from a wide range of species support this hypothesis. And, while it is difficult to test these ideas in the field, a study of mountain goat kids by Rachel Théoret-Gosselin, Sandra Hamel, and Steeve D. Côté called “The role of maternal behavior and offspring development in the survival of mountain goat kids“ showed that “play behaviors could enhance the emotional resilience to stress not only for unpredicted events but also in stressful group situations because play could reduce aggressiveness in gregarious species.” More field data are needed and this study is an excellent example of what needs to be done.
The play bow: Are dogs really confused when they play and what does this mean?
The authors also dismiss the detailed work that has been conducted on the play bow, a highly ritualized and stereotyped action by which animals signal their intention to play (please see accompanying image). When dogs and other animals bow they crouch on their forelimbs, raise their hind end, and occasionally wag their tail and bark. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “But we wonder if the so-called play bow in fact really has any adaptive, let alone cognitive, significance.” A good deal of very detailed research has been conducted on the bow by my research group and also by Barbara Smuts and her students that clearly supports the claim that bows are adaptive and have cognitive significance (please also see along with Mechtild Käufer’s excellent book called Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play and a comprehensive review essay by Elisabetta Palagi and eight other play experts called “Rough-and-tumble play as a window on animal communication“). The abstract for this excellent evidence-based and extremely significant up-to-date essay reads: Rough-and-tumble play (RT) is a widespread phenomenon in mammals. Since it involves competition, whereby one animal attempts to gain advantage over another, RT runs the risk of escalation to serious fighting. Competition is typically curtailed by some degree of cooperation and different signals help negotiate potential mishaps during RT. This review provides a framework for such signals, showing that they range along two dimensions: one from signals borrowed from other functional contexts to those that are unique to play, and the other from purely emotional expressions to highly cognitive (intentional) constructions. Some animal taxa have exaggerated the emotional and cognitive interplay aspects of play signals, yielding admixtures of communication that have led to complex forms of RT. This complexity has been further exaggerated in some lineages by the development of specific novel gestures that can be used to negotiate playful mood and entice reluctant partners. Play-derived gestures may provide new mechanisms by which more sophisticated communication forms can evolve. Therefore, RT and playful communication provide a window into the study of social cognition, emotional regulation and the evolution of communication systems.
The so-called play bow. Based on an unpublished student project in which “Border collies were confronted with normal and drugged roosters”, Coppinger and Feinstein believe that the “so-called play bow” is a posture assumed by an animal confused by its next move. They write, “... the play bow occurs when an animal is in a temporarily indeterminate state ... In short, the ‘playing’ animal is in conflict about its next move - and the play bow in fact looks just like a combination of multiple conflicting behavioral shapes.” The authors ignore detailed research that shows how play bows are extremely stereotyped (they are what ethologists call a modal action pattern), they vary in shape and duration depending on where they are performed in a play bout, and they allow a dog to perform a wide variety of movements from this posture. There are no data that support their belief and the student’s data are impossible to assess. And, it’s not clear at all why they refer to the “so-called play bow,” when many researchers have studied it and concluded, based on substantial data, that it is indeed used almost exclusively in the context of play both as a play invitation signal and also to maintain the play mood.
Let’s briefly think about what it means when a dog or other animal is confused, because every definition I can find indicates that there have to be cognitive and emotional underpinnings. In the case of dog-dog play, a simple view would be that Harry (a dog) wants to play with Mary (another dog) and that Harry isn’t sure what to do so he carefully pays attention to what Mary has done and is doing, and tries to factor this information into what she is likely to do in the future. In essence, Harry is pondering if he chooses to do “X” or “Y,” what will Mary do (and, of course, vice versa). Because play is indeed a hodge-podge of various actions, a kaleidoscopic behavior, on the authors’ view, Harry is confused, and to overcome his confusion he performs play bows.
There are no data that support the belief that dogs are confused when they play, however, there are data that show that there is a good deal of rapid of thinking and feeling on-the-run based on what Harry thinks and feels Mary is likely to do during the on-going interaction (and vice versa). These sorts of interactions make it clear that play is also a good place to observe and to study what researchers call a “theory of mind,“ because Harry and Mary need to pay very close attention to what each has done and is doing, and how that will influence what she or he is likely to do in the future (for further discussion please see Alexandra Horowitz’s essay called “Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play“). There is a good deal of mind-reading going on here as Harry and Mary make careful and rapid assessments and predictions of what their play partner is likely to do.
The cognitive and emotional underpinnings of “being confused” are rather rich, and do not lend themselves to simple mechanistic explanations that are favored by the authors. Available and ample data for a number of different species show there are predictable rules of play that cross species lines, namely, ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you’re wrong. This is why play is so exciting to engage in and also so much fun to watch and to study. And, this is also why play among young and old dogs only rarely escalates into injurious aggression, although the authors recall an instance when play among four-week-old Border collie littermates was fatal and use this observation to claim that play “can itself cause significant harm” (p. 165). Indeed, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play.
Behavioral variability. Another example of a claim that is countered by available data centers on behavioral variability in young dogs and wolves. Coppinger and Feinstein write, “When we observe wolves, we see a similar picture. Wolf puppies are often noticeably more robust and varied in their play routines than dogs of the same size and age. This means, according to our hypothesis, that they should have more available motor patterns than the dogs do. That is in fact the case.“ (my emphasis) However, they offer no data.
Along these lines, years ago Robert Fagen, another play expert and author of the classic book Animal Play Behavior, analyzed the sequential variability of play and aggression in young dogs (beagles), wolves, and coyotes using data my students and I collected, and discovered that social play in the beagles was more variable than social play in wolves and coyotes of the same age (and coyote play was more variable than wolf play). These data were published in an essay I wrote with John Byers (“A critical reanalysis of the ontogeny of mammalian social and locomotor play: An ethological hornet’s nest,” in K. Immelmann, G. W. Barlow, L. Petrinovich, and M. Main, Eds., Behavioral Development, The Bielefeld Interdisciplinary Project. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 296-337, 1981) that the authors list in their reference section. And, we also found that young beagles and wolves shared the same basic ethogram and number of motor patterns. Perhaps working dogs such as Border collies are different from beagles and other dogs, but we really don’t know if this is the case.
The way in which the authors routinely dismiss a wealth of detailed research on animal play is characteristic of much of their book, that is essentially a tapestry of criticism using stories and unpublished projects in lieu of published data. It’s easy to see how one might walk away feeling that just about everyone else is wrong about dog behavior, cognition, emotions, and consciousness, and much of the research that has been done can be tossed into the garbage because it’s merely debris.
All in all, the one-sided assault on the ever-growing literature in the growing field called cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) fails. How Dogs Work does not really tell us how dogs work, but rather provides an extremely narrow view of mainly working dogs as machines. I find the topic to be of great interest and am always eager to learn more about why some people favor reductionist and mechanistic accounts to explain the behavior of complex sentient beings (see, for example, Sara Shettleworth’s book, Fundamentals of Comparative Cognition). However, How Dogs Work doesn’t convince me that the authors’ over-arching views are tenable. Beliefs don’t substitute for data that have been reviewed by peers, and there are plenty of data that are readily available.
All in all, we really know far more than the authors offer, and for numerous wide-ranging and critical discussions of many different aspects of dog behavior I suggest Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris edited by Alexandra Horowitz, Adam Miklosi’s Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition, The Social Dog: Behavior and Cognition edited by Juliane Kaminski and Sarah Marshall-Pescini, and Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. For more on play I highly recommend the excellent and comprehensive review article by Elisabetta Palagi and her colleagues called “Rough-and-tumble play as a window on animal communication“ and (in addition to the references above) Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis’ The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience.
What’s so incredibly exciting about the study of play behavior and the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much we’re learning about how individuals negotiate challenging and complex social and non-social situations by carefully analyzing what’s happening and by using hard-wired actions when needed (for example, when they need to do the right thing instantaneously or the first time they are faced with a specific situation and there’s no room for error), along with behavior patterns that require careful thought and flexibility motivated by what individuals are feeling about the situation in which they find themselves.
Please stay tuned for more on dog behavior, cognition, and emotions, because there is a lot of research being done by research groups around the world, and we still have a lot to learn. Dogs are amazing sentient beings who challenge us in many different ways.
I thank a number of people for help with this essay.
Note: In a number of email messages I've been asked if I knew what happened to the 1000’s of sled dogs dogs for whom Dr. Coppinger was responsible. On page 25 we’re told, “Some four thousand dogs ‘went through the yard’” when “Ray spent fifteen years breeding and training dogs that pull sleds.” I have no idea what happened to these dogs, but according to some people I consulted, this is an incredibly large number of dogs, an average of around 267 a year.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A vet speaks out on genetically modified pet food.
Most dogs now dine on some type of genetically modified (GM) food, often in the form of corn and soy in their kibble. As these ingredients increasingly enter the food supply, we have one more reason to wonder if our shopping choices might be harming our pets.
More animal feeding studies are needed, experts say, and a recent long-term, peer-reviewed report points out why. It found that a diet of GM corn and soy led to higher rates of severe stomach inflammation in pigs, which are physiologically similar to dogs.
Robert Silver, DVM, a Boulder, Colo., holistic vet, tackled the issue earlier this year when he presented his paper, “Genetically Modified Food and Its Impact on Pet Health” at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference in Kansas City, Mo. Why did he choose this controversial topic, one that few vets even acknowledge?
Silver—a pioneer in the field of holistic veterinary medical practice—says he was inspired by a seminar he attended in Boulder on GM foods and human health. The speakers included Don Huber, a Purdue University professor, and activist Jeffrey Smith, who discussed problems, including reproductive difficulties, that have occurred in livestock fed GM crops.
“I found this seminar mind-opening,” says Silver, the lone vet in attendance. “I had always believed the PR about GM foods—that they are going to feed the world and are a good outcome of our genetic technology.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the safety of GM crops consumed by humans and animals, considers most GM plants “substantially equivalent” to traditional plants and “generally recognized as safe.” Their regulation involves a voluntary consultation process with the developer before products are brought to market.
Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, disagrees. On its website (responsibletechnology.org), he warns that “nearly all GM crops are described as ‘pesticide plants.’ They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weed killer or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.”
Silver says that while “allergies, GI problems, increased risk of cancer, neurodegenerative conditions” and other ills could all be, in part, related to GM foods, “there is no objective evidence of this yet” in dogs. “However, all vets will agree that there has been an uptick in [these diseases] in the past 10 to 20 years.” The advent of GM foods in the 1990s “fits into this timing of disease increases,” he says.
His presentation referred to studies that raise doubt about the safety of biotech crops, such as one reported in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that genes inserted into crops can carry with them allergenic properties.
Silver says that genetic modification introduces foreign proteins that may encourage allergies, and the widely planted Bt corn, which makes its own insecticide, “could possibly cause leaky gut, the gateway to chronic disease.” Corn is a major component of most commercial pet foods. “The big problem with commercial foods is that they are manufactured at high temperatures and pressures,” which alters them and makes them “potentially more allergenic.” And commercial foods contain industrial ingredients that are “more likely to contain GM and herbicide contaminants.”
A study published last year found that GM crops engineered to withstand the toxic herbicide Roundup must now be doused with even more herbicide, since weeds have also developed resistance to it. Residues of these chemicals on crops can find their way into pet food.
A 2013 study published in the science journal Entropy reports that the heavy use of Roundup could be linked to Parkinson’s, autism, infertility and cancers. It goes on to report that residues of Roundup in food can interact with, and enhance, the damaging effects of other environmental toxins. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study’s researchers say.
According to Silver, heightened sensitivity to dietary ingredients “is probably what we are seeing with GM foods. It is of concern that this may be driving the increase in GI problems in pets.” Although gluten probably does account for some problems with grain consumption, “I think that grain-free diets, if they are also soy free and contain protein from animals not fed GM crops, can help many dogs, due to being GM free—and not due to some allergy or gluten issue.”
To a holistic doctor, food is medicine, and Silver strongly recommends home meal preparation from individually sourced ingredients to avoid feeding GM ingredients, especially to pets who have other health problems. “I am truly a holistic practitioner in that I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benbrook, C.M. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 24.
Ordlee, J., et al. 1996. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688–692.
Samsel, A., and S. Seneff. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15 (4): 1416–1463.
Culture: Science & History
How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
Pat Shipman, PhD, is a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State and an internationally recognized expert in taphonomy, the study of how living animals are transformed into skeletons, and then fossils. Her scientific training and boundless curiosity lead her to take on the intriguing question of just why Homo neaderthalensis, one of the most successful apex species of hunters who had thrived for millennium in Eurasia, would almost suddenly, anthropologically speaking, become extinct. Her hypothesis: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (The Belknap Press) points to the abilities of both certain wolves and our ancestors to pair up and this gave them the competitive edge in the battle of survival. It is certainly true that this wasn’t done intentionally, but such an evolutionary breakthrough resulted in an alliance that had devastating effects on not just the Neanderthals but on a long species list including the huge woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers and Cave bears. Could it be possible “man’s best friend” have been the Neanderthals’ worst nightmare ? Shipman’s thesis starts with Homo sapiens, who in expanding north out of Africa were not only as an invasive species, but the most invasive in history, wreaking ecologically enormous changes throughout continents. The evidence that she relies on, by a meticulous review of the most current archeological research and genomic and genetic studies, can perhaps most readily be seen in the mammoth remains megasites, where the number of kills increases almost exponentially after the first evidence of the wolf-dog–human alliance was discovered. For ten thousand years before the domestication of the wolf-dog, evidence of early humans hunting mega-fauna like mammoth is scant, but with the addition of the superior hunting and tracking talents that wolf-dogs contributed to our projectile throwing ancestors lead not only to more successful kills of large prey but insured the success of our two predatory species. As for the Neanderthal, it wasn’t just simply that humans bested them as hunters but climate change was also a key contributing factor: but the combo of the alliance of the apex predators with the ice age ensured their extinction, so goes evolution. As Shipman notes about the Jagger Principle, “… the immortal words of Mick Jagger (yes that one) and Keith Richards are the best statement I know of to describe evolution. Things don’t stay the same; you can’t always get what you want; but with a little flexibility, you might get what you need to survive.” This is truly a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and Shipman presents a compelling argument for how canines and humans proved their flexibility and how this could have been the main reason that we survived and the Neanderthals didn’t. But drawing upon the wisdom of another ’60s duo, we also got by with a little help from our [first] friends. See the following interview with Dr. Shipman to learn more.
Bark: How long did it take humans, once they migrated out of Africa, to team up with wolves, a species that was unknown in Africa?
Pat Shipman: There were wolves in North Africa, but my guess is that humans did not team up with them but rather, based on genetic information, with European wolves. The earliest humans in Europe date to perhaps 42,000 years ago. The earliest wolf-dogs we know at present show up about 34,000 years ago (or about 37,000, if the raw radiocarbon date is calibrated for irregularity in the deterioration of C-14). Thus, it may have taken 6,000 years, or less—I seriously doubt we have found the first wolf anyone ever attempted to domesticate.
BK: What environmental reasons led to this amazing partnership?
PS: There were many different predators in Europe when modern humans arrived; competition for prey was considerable, and even worse once humans came on the scene. The idea of domesticating any animal was completely unknown, but somehow— probably by accident—some wolves began cooperating with some humans because the alliance benefited both.
They caught more prey, faster, with less risk to canine or human, which meant more energy for reproduction. Wolves had a set of skills for hunting in packs: speed, keen ears, a very keen sense of smell, sharp teeth and claws. Early humans were much slower, had lousy senses of smell and hearing, and blunt teeth, but they had distance weapons that could kill an animal while avoiding injury from close contact. By teaming up with special wolves—wolfdogs they could capture a much wider array of animals with much less risk and less expenditure of energy. They were nearly unstoppable.
BK: You write that proto-dogs were like “living tools” to humans. Was this a mutually beneficial arrangement?
PS: Absolutely. You cannot force any animal to cooperate if it does not want to. You cannot force an animal not to be hostile to humans or to cooperate with humans if there is no benefit to the animal.
BK: Wolves are highly territorial, and may kill other wolves who come into their area. Since this was well before human settlements, humans and wolf-dogs would have traveled great distances, through other species’ (i.e., wolves’) territory. Could the advantage to the wolfdogs come from the protection offered by their human partners?
PS: Both wolf-dogs and humans were more efficient hunters through cooperation— the wolf-dogs by having hunters kill the prey from a distance after they had found it, isolated it and stressed it through charging and holding it at bay.
For wolf-dogs and humans to travel together, they must have cooperated to drive off or kill the wolf packs through whose territories they passed. Indeed, there is a marked rise in the number of wolf bones in human sites after wolf-dogs appear. I think wolves were deliberately targeted by humans in order to protect the wolf-dogs, and to protect the remains of their kills from scavengers.
BK: Why do you think that Neanderthals did not also have wolf-dogs?
PS: One quite real possibility is that modern humans had adaptations that fostered better communication with wolf-dogs and possibly (we don’t know) Neanderthals did not. For example, humans are the only primates with whites to their eyes, which makes communicating the “direction of gaze”— where you are looking—very obvious. This is a huge advantage in silent cooperative hunting. We do not yet know if Neanderthals had this adaptation or not. Assuming that they saw humans working with wolf-dogs, why Neanderthals did not steal them or make their own is unclear. Humans undoubtedly prized the canines and may have gone to great lengths to prevent them from being stolen. Maybe Neanderthals did not have the empathy and ability to understand wolf-dogs that is so necessary to a good working relationship. Maybe Neanderthals tried and just couldn’t figure out how to handle them.
BK: What do you think inspired humans to see that teaming up with wolves might give them a competitive edge? Did it have to do with their diet perhaps?
PS: I don’t think humans set out to domesticate wolves into dogs; I think it was an accident based on taking in orphaned puppies and raising them. Before working with wolf-dogs, humans were rarely able to kill mammoths or other very large game; afterward, there are sites with dozens of mammoth kills. I suspect that killing mammoths efficiently and regularly required the help of wolf-dogs, so mammoths weren’t really a preferred human food until humans had wolfdogs to help.
BK: It was interesting that the primary protein source in the bones of both wolfdogs and humans can be detected. What does that tell us?
PS: First, this sort of study tells us that, at the same site, wolf-dogs and wolves ate different prey animals predominantly. (That is a very surprising finding if my colleagues and I are mistaken and the wolf-dogs are really wolves, that would make them a very odd and distinctive group.) Second, this type of study shows us that humans may have provisioned wolf-dogs, rather than letting them simply eat whatever was left over.
BK: You say that wolf-dogs were a first, but unsuccessful, attempt at domestication; and that domestication happened several times in different areas. Are you concerned that their mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) evidence hasn’t been found in modern-day canids?
PS: Not at all. There is as much mtDNA evidence that these identified wolf-dogs were wolves as there is that they were dogs: none. The mtDNA we have so far from wolf-dogs is unique, previously unknown. What that means is uncertain.
This particular genetic material is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter and so on; the father’s mtDNA is not. This means that if you have a small population with an unusual mtDNA, the probability that it will go extinct in 1,000 years—much less 35,000—is very, very, very high.
It could be as simple as a few females who don’t reproduce successfully or have only males due to random chance. Also, athough we have several thousand mtDNA lineages from living animals, there are millions of dogs and wolves whose mtDNA is unknown. Maybe the sample sizes of living animals are too small and the wolf-dog mtDNA is still out there somewhere. Maybe it is simply extinct.
The standard calculation is that 99 percent of all mtDNA lineages go extinct, so we can’t conclude too much from that. I am not at all worried that the mtDNA information from wolfdogs has not yet been matched in any other group. Also, the entire wolf-dog group may well have gone extinct, with a still-later domestication of wolves into dogs. We just don’t know.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Seeing eye to eye
How better to spend a chilly winter afternoon than gazing into a pair of warm canine eyes? As it turns out, there’s a perfectly rational reason to do so, one that also suggests how dogs became our “truest companions.”
In a 2015 study reported in Science (“Oxytocin-gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds”), a team of Japanese researchers led by Miho Nagasawa studied the role oxytocin plays in the ancient relationship between people and dogs. Popularly called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin enhances the attachment between human mothers and infants; the longer the two gaze into one another’s eyes, the greater their levels of oxytocin. The practical effect of this feel-good neurological chemical is to stimulate contact. For mother and child, the shared gaze creates a seamless loop of affection and bonding.
Since both dogs and humans use gaze to communicate, the team hypothesized that this same loop might come into play between our two species. It could also help explain how dogs came to take their place in our lives—or, in science-speak, to suggest a reason for our unique “interspecies affiliation.”
The study’s results seem to confirm the hypothesis. In a series of experimental situations, dogs’ “gazing behavior” increased oxytocin levels in their owners, and when the owners gazed back, the dogs’ oxytocin levels went up as well. And, as with human mothers and infants, the amount of time owners talked to and touched their dogs also increased, thus deepening the bond between them.
So, the next time you find yourself engaged in a mutual-admiration session with your co-pilot, remember: it’s not just a pleasant way to pass the time, it’s also part of nature’s grand plan!
News: Karen B. London
Dogs who excel often do so in many tasks
Are dogs smart like people are smart? That is the question posed by researchers at the London School of Economics. They weren’t looking into whether dogs are as smart as people, but rather if they are smart in a variety of ways like people are.
When people take IQ tests, they tend to perform at a similar level across various tasks. If they do well in one area, they typically also shine in others. Are dogs the same way, showing a similar structure to their intelligence? By creating a dog IQ test of sorts with several components, the authors of, A general intelligence factor in dogs sought an answer to this question. They study was done with 68 working Border Collies to eliminate breed differences and to minimize differences in upbringing.
The tests performed on the dogs investigated their abilities to navigate barriers to get to food, to determine differences in quantities of food, and to follow a human gesture indicating the location of food. The combined tests took about an hour for each dog.
The general conclusions of the study suggest similarities between the structure of human and canine intelligence. Specifically, just like in people, there was individual variation and dogs who did well on one test were more likely to succeed at other tasks. Dogs who were quick at solving problems were also more accurate.
I think it is very interesting that we have moved away from the idea of “intelligence” as a single factor in humans, but researchers are searching for such a unified concept in dogs. Years ago, people spoke of general intelligence in humans as a separate thing than talents such as social skills, emotional connectedness and athletic or musical or artistic abilities. Now, we are more inclined to discuss people’s emotional or social intelligence or musical IQ, and more likely to discuss factors that are included in intelligence (like problem-solving ability) by being specific about them.
The main result of this study—that certain abilities in dogs such as negotiating detours, assessing quantities of food, responding to human gestures and solving problems quickly tend to be linked—is very interesting. I wish the authors would have focused on the links between the specific tasks they studied instead of generalizing to the point of putting every ability into one category called intelligence. What is going to happen if future studies suggest that a particular trait or ability is found to have no correlation to the others? Will it be considered irrelevant to intelligence, in its own special category or will it pose a problem to the concept of a general intelligence?
That said, I consider this an excellent study. It clearly shows that some individual dogs consistently have better success when asked to solve problems to accomplish various tasks. Very few studies have looked at how dogs differ from each other in this way. More studies on individual differences in cognitive ability are needed and I look forward to learning more about how dogs’ minds work as researchers continue to pursue studies comparing individuals’ abilities.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Superior Senses: Hearing
Floppy, folded, small, large—dogs’ ears come in many shapes, but they all serve the same purpose: as funnels for sound. Did you know that at least 18 muscles work to tilt, raise and rotate these furry appendages, helping the dog identify and capture sounds from different directions? Here are a few fast facts about canine ears and hearing.
Sources: Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog; Bruce Fogle, Dogs; DVM360.com; hypertextbook.com; aspcabehavior.org
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