Culture: Science & History
Breeders, judges and historians talk about breed standards—why they work and when they don’t
In the world of mammals, the domestic dog— Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of the gray wolf— reigns as the most morphologically diverse. Consider, for example, the extremes represented by the 155- pound South Russian Ovcharka and the seven-pound Silky Terrier. This incredible variety can be attributed in part to the dog’s basic template, which can be customized by the manipulation of a very small number of genes.
For instance, 95 percent of all five canine fur textures and lengths (the Afghan Hound and Curly-Coated Retriever curiously excepted) is orchestrated by three genes. Further, just six or seven locations in the canine genome account for nearly 80 percent of dogs’ vast size and weight differences. (In humans, these genes number in the hundreds, if not thousands). A single mutation, shared by 14 diminutive breeds, determines that a dog will be small, and another is responsible for the long-bodied, short-legged nature of numerous dwarf breeds.
Clearly, the dog’s random morphology isn’t quite as arbitrary as we thought, and breeds aren’t quite as unique. Furthermore, canine traits come in packages. Flip a switch to make the legs more slender, and the skull will narrow as well. Turn down the volume on pigment and the chance of deafness increases.
Those who bred dogs had long known that traits were related, but there was little understanding of how those relationships worked; nor was there much concern. Dogs were bred for skills useful in a practical world. Once breed exhibition became a fashionable pastime and working dogs were awarded championships based strictly on appearance, however, all this changed.
In 1866, John Henry Walsh (writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”), editor of The Field, the most influential hunting and kennel journal in England, was the first to describe a breed’s physical characteristics with phrases that he believed were equivalent to its field ability. A bird dog judged perfect to a well-written breed standard would, by the logic of the day, perform perfectly in the field.
At the time, horsemen and sportsmen were the dog-fancy glitterati (women became active later), and many of the arcane descriptions in breed standards are borrowed from those arenas. For example, the Poodle’s “straight-forward springy trot” describes the dog’s ability to retrieve and carry a bird. The phrase “stand like a cleverly made hunter” references ideal anatomical construction and proportion in the German Shorthaired Pointer.
Today, breed standards serve three purposes: assessment in competition; delineation of unique qualities in different breeds, some very much alike; and maintenance of breed similarity throughout the world.
The question is, what happens to purebred dogs when language, intrinsically fluid and inexact, is used to suspend change in morphology and behavior? In the late 1990s, as a doctoral student in linguistics at Claremont Graduate University, I conducted a study to find out. Part of the research included interviews with experienced American Kennel Club (AKC) breeders, specialty judges and breed historians. What I heard from them provides some insight into specific ways that a standardized lexicon can influence change in pedigreed dogs far beyond what is intended.
Dogs in Translation For some breeds, international politics played a role. At the first Canine Congress in 1886, the Germans were opposed to the Swiss-type Saint Bernard, favoring the bulkier English type. Nothing was resolved until 1887, when the Swiss dog was finally approved as the international type. The United States club, with its strong ties to England, adopted the international standard in words, but in practice, bred to the English type.
During an interview, as three Saints gnawed on bones nearby, an experienced breeder and specialty judge offered his opinion: “This changed the morphology of the American Saint, most noticeably in the head. The Saint Bernard standard was translated, with some errors, from German to English in 1888. For instance, ‘when in action’ should have read ‘when excited or alert.’ The phrase, ‘the horizontal axis of the head’ should have read ‘the long axis of the head.’” More than a century later, the club had still not made corrections, perhaps because, as linguists argue, translation of a lexicon from one language to another can never be exact.
Translations are more like corrections or clarifications. When standards are clarified, they usually get longer and, consequently, more exclusive. A standard that calls for feet to be “round, compact, catlike, standing well upon the toe pads,” is more restrictive than one that says feet must be “close, round and firm.” Revisionists tread cautiously because an imprecisely rephrased standard can have an impact on a breed’s genetic diversity.
Amending a standard for any reason is controversial for those entrenched in a time-honored tradition devoted to blueblood history (albeit a fanciful history, since geneticists tell us that very few breeds are as old as they were once touted). As one Greyhound breeder observed, “The torch handed to us was the perfect coursing dog. Our standard is taken word for word from what Stonehenge wrote in the 1860s. If we added more words to make it more explicit, it may end up being a Greyhound different than the one each one of us has in our head.”
But progress necessitates change. A handful of words differentiate an apple, an orange or a pear, but 13 varieties of apples require a larger lexicon. In his 1576 treatise, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, cynologist John Caius described the generic land Spaniel in 58 words: “The most part of their skins are white and if they be marked with any spots, they are commonly red, and somewhat great therewithal, the hairs not growing in such thickness but that the mixture of them may easily be perceived. Other some of them be reddish and blackish, but of that sort there be but a few.” Today, Caius’s dog has morphed into 13 f lushing Spaniel breeds. The Field Spaniel standard uses 973 words, short in comparison to the English Springer Spaniel standard, a 2,040 word descriptor.
Occasionally, words are added to explain what something is not. As one breed standard committee member noted, “There were lots of questions from judges about the preferred shape of the eye opening. So we said it’s acceptable as long as it’s not this, that or the other thing.” And at a California dog show, pointing to Mastiffs benched only a few feet from his St. Bernards, an exhibitor told me, “Sometimes breed clubs have to lengthen standards to differentiate their breeds from others so similar that, if marked differently, could be shown as Saints.”
When Words Fail Dressed in formal attire appropriate for the straitlaced Madison Avenue cocktail party that precedes every Westminster dog show, AKC VIPs sipped their drinks and talked candidly about breed standards.
A Doberman breeder, specialty and all-breed judge opined, “I’m not sure that the standard hasn’t been what’s wrong with some of the breeds, in that by naming and describing the criteria with which the animal is to be judged, the words lack exactness. When people bred to the standard, the animal changed and became what the words described. Also, some groups wrote the standard and have not been able to breed to that ideal, so now, they change the nuance of the words to fit the breed ideal. Making the dogs fit the words, and not vice-versa, is wrong.”
For instance, a standard that establishes criteria to develop the best muzzle shouldn’t include terms that are subjective or indefinite. Or as one judge said, “If the standard calls for a short muzzle, judges select dogs based on the shortest muzzles in the ring. The breed’s muzzle gets shorter and shorter. So you have to ask, ‘Shorter than what?’”
Another said, “Our standard calls for the ear, when pulled forward, to reach the eye. You see so many dogs in the ring now with longer ears. We always say, well, which eye is it supposed to reach, and is it pulled under the muzzle or over it? I have never seen a Golden Retriever with ears too short.”
Some breeders get so fixated on one attribute of the traditional standard that they are willing to sacrifice something more important. “For example, they may create a broad head but are willing to accept shorter legs and a longer back in order to do so,” another judge observed.
Breed standards, like all nomenclature, are subject to the rules of language. Like the dog it describes, vocabulary is deceptively capricious and unexpectedly fluid. A good example is size. Big breeds are getting bigger. As I was told by a breed historian in reference to St. Bernards, “What was bred to be powerful and strong in 1900 would not be considered powerful and strong today. Like an automobile in 1915, it was powerful then but not compared to now.” If a standard describes a breed as strong and powerful, the ideal dog gets bigger.
Rather than hack away at standards, some breed clubs hold seminars for judges in which contemporary nuances of an indefinite vocabulary are refined. Others reluctantly reword phrases to accommodate inexperienced newcomers (currently, the average length of interest and activity in the dog fancy is five years or less). A Golden Retriever breeder told me, “People who wrote the original standard were horse people, and this is where the phrase, ‘deep through the heart’ came from. It had two meanings, deep through the chest and courageous. The original meaning and nuance of the old words is often lost on today’s breeders, or is interpreted to mean something else.” After years of debate, the phrase was reluctantly changed to “deep through the chest.” Some clubs don’t revise words, but instead, reinterpret their meanings. Take English Bulldogs, for example. As an owner of one of these stocky dogs remarked, “The interpretation of words has changed. The Victorian [Bull]dog was a transition dog, less bulky, less massive, taller, leaner, and is now thicker and more compact.” Another handler observed that “one of the issues in the standard is weight. It calls for 45 to 50 pounds. But it has no height restriction, so a higher-station dog might be thinner.” The 1910 dog was a much taller and leaner dog compared to today’s stout fireplug variety, but both are considered to have been bred correctly to the standard.
A German Shepherd breeder and specialty judge who chairs the club’s standard committee told me that “you can have the same words in several standards, but they don’t mean the same thing. We use the word ‘almondshaped’ in our standard. But if you look at other breed standards, both the Collie and American Cocker call for almond-shaped eyes. The Collie has a small triangular eye and the Cocker’s is a goggle-eye [the eye protrudes from the skull].”
Judges Play a Role A specialty judge is an experienced breeder and expert on a particular breed. An all-breed judge is a generalist qualified to judge several breeds. The specialty judge brings meaning to the words in the standard, and the allbreed judge makes sure the words mean what they say.
A specialty judge who also works as an all-breed judge explained that the interpretation of complex descriptions, such as the angle of the hock, is more difficult for a generalist all-breed judge to measure. “Because it’s easier to see a proper bite than a proper angulation, the bite may be given more significance than something more important, such as angulation of the hindquarters.” On the other hand, the all-breed judge tests the words. “If the breed club thinks the all-breed judge is misinterpreting the standard, then they need to rewrite it. The judge shouldn’t choose the dog that he thinks they mean.”
War of Words The AKC considers itself a club of clubs. Owners intent on breed registration must first demonstrate that a majority of breeders are interested in establishing a national breed club. Who gets to be in that club is at the heart of a mounting number of controversies.
In 1994, the AKC Labrador Retriever standard was revised to exclude dogs less than 22 inches at the withers (or 21 inches for bitches). Some breeders whose dogs no longer met the standard were part of an $11 million class-action suit against the AKC Labrador Retriever Parent Club (the national organization designated by AKC to represent the breed), claiming that height restrictions excluding shorter dogs no longer described the Labrador Retriever: if you make a bigger dog, you make a different dog. A litigant told me, “It’s perfectly reasonable to change a breed, but the dog should have a different name.” They tried and failed to trademark the name Labrador Retriever; the judge sided with the AKC parent club. The Border Collie war began in 1988, when the American Border Collie Association and others heard rumblings that some wanted to register the breed for conformation showing, which requires a breed standard. This idea didn’t go over well with herding trial enthusiasts; a Border Collie is what it does, not what it looks like. Any dog can enter an open sheepdog trial. There are no age, size, color, shape or breed restrictions, and registration is not required. Unlike registered purebreds, whose lineage must be proven in ancient studbooks, many Border Collie champions are registered on merit (ROM). In theory, a Pomeranian who could prove its worth at a sheepdog trial could, by performance, be called a Border Collie.
In the minds of many, AKC conformation specifications threatened 200 years of breeding for performance, not looks. Led by Donald McCaig, who retold the tale in his book The Dog Wars (2007, Outrun Press), the group prepared for battle: “Hands off the Border Collie! We own Border Collies. Our dogs are companion dogs, obedience dogs and livestock-herding dogs. For hundreds of years, Border Collies have been bred to strict performance standards and today they’re the soundest, most trainable dogs in the world. The AKC wants to push them out of the Miscellaneous Class and into the show ring. They seek a conformation standard [appearance standard] for the breed. We, the officers of every single legitimate national, regional and state Border Collie association, reject conformation breeding. Too often, the show ring fattens the puppy mills and creates unsound dogs. We will not permit the AKC to ruin our dogs.”
They filed to legally trademark the name but, like the Lab litigants, lost in court. In 1997, the first Border Collie was shown in conformation at Westminster. I was there that year and interviewed a handler/owner who had been instrumental in getting the breed registered and in writing the standard. I asked her how she did her research. “This dog is shown in Australia, the British Isles and New Zealand. So I read their standards and asked them what they would do differently if they could. I tried to emphasize movement and gait. The standard shouldn’t describe a still dog. The Border Collie is almost a vision of movement even when it is standing still … always poised on the brink of action. The head drops for a reason. It is common knowledge among Border Collie people. That’s why I didn’t include a description of the head in the standard. I thought everybody would know that.”
In the benching area, surrounded by panting dogs crowded into crates and standing patiently while being primped on grooming tables, the woman sat in a folding chair, visibly distraught. Tearyeyed, she continued: “Right before you got here, a prominent breeder came by and said he will breed a dog with the head held higher. The head has to do with movement in the field, in making eye contact with the sheep, the pattern of behavior that has evolved from two centuries of work. Now I regret having fought so hard for this. The standard should not threaten the dog as a working animal, but I believe it now will.” About the same time the Border Collie war was raging, AKC enthusiasts saw an opportunity to register the Jack Russell Terrier (JRT), an irascible, independent dog with an intense work ethic, extremely diverse genome and phenotype as dissimilar as that of the Border Collie. Many Jack Russell Terrier breeders vehemently opposed the action, claiming that the breed’s physical and working characteristics would be jeopardized by this move. Nevertheless, the splinter group formed the requisite national breed club, named itself the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA) and gained AKC recognition in 2001.
A lawsuit ensued. After an expensive court battle, the name Jack Russell Terrier was awarded to the working phenotype and the AKC changed the conformation dog’s name to Parson Russell Terrier. The AKC parent club is now the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America.
Writer Alston Chase, who includes the story of the breakup of the breed in his book We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear (2008, Transaction Publishers), told me, “The Jack Russell Terrier is a feisty, very aggressive, very tough dog. But middle-class urbanites don’t really want that kind of dog. They want a dog that will be a good pet.” Chase, who lives in rural Montana, has bred the working terrier since the 1970s.
The public took notice of the rather obscure breed when it became a media darling in the 1980s. Chase said, “The overbreeding followed the popularity driven by the media, not by the dog itself.” Aggressive and difficult in a pet environment, the breed was misrepresented as a mischievous lap dog on shows like the NBC sitcom Frasier. Surprised and disappointed by their dogs’ ornery personalities and exercise requirements, urban pet owners abandoned JRTs at shelters in record numbers.
According to Chase, one of only a handful of people in the U.S. continuing to breed the old-fashioned dog, “We’re doing what we can to prevent extinction of the original breed, but people aren’t in love with the value of diversity in the dog. They want dogs that look alike.”
Geneticist Jasper Rine, in a letter to the AKC supporting the Border Collie anti-conformation campaign (included in the appendix of McCaig’s 2007 book), predicted what was to come. “It may be nearly impossible to breed for a particular behavior based on heterozygous advantage and still achieve a homogenous conformation.” Breeding dogs for fixed conformation means breeding for homozygosis (the formation of genetically identical gametes) of the genes that contribute to appearance. In doing so, genetic linkage (the tendency of genes located in proximity to each other on a chromosome to be inherited together during meiosis, or cell division) may result in genes near those controlling conformation becoming homozygous as well. Unfortunately, chance determines which genes are swept up. By breeding for conformation, breeders may be breeding away from desirable behavior, even putting alleles (forms of a gene) at risk for extinction.
So, what has happened to the Labrador Retriever, Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier over the last 15 years?
The shorter-legged, more compact field-bred Lab continues to be shown in Canada, the UK and other countries that don’t disqualify individuals based on size. In the U.S., conformation and companion Labs are getting increasingly larger. Will diseases linked to large size compromise the American line? Time will tell.
As a consequence of the acrimonious Border Collie war, few working dog breeders had a desire to become specialty judges, so the fate of the conformation dog was left in the hands of generalist judges who lacked sheepdogtrial experience. As predicted, the standard created a split type: working dogs continue to be a rag-tag group, dissimilar in shape, size and color, but the same in their relentless determination to move sheep from one place to another. In contrast, AKC dogs look very similar, but their ability to herd sheep is open to question. Are both types called Border Collies? Formally, yes, but the AKC dog is widely, popularly and even affectionately known as the “Barbie Collie” by some: pretty as a picture, but, according to the member-owned American Border Collie Association and others, as blandly attractive and vacuous as the doll from which the name derives.
The working Border Collie is safe for now, but the old-fashioned Jack Russell Terrier can hardly be found. Like the Old English Bulldog who faded away with the passage of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wolfhound who died out with the demise of the wolf in the British Isles, the pre-AKC JRT will likely disappear as well. Eventually, sentimental breeders may attempt to recreate the breed when they realize what they’ve lost, and they may perhaps have some success in replicating the way the dog appeared. But the breed’s signature obstreperous temperament is something people will only read about in books.
* * * * *
It would seem, then, that words are indeed powerful. To say that the lexicon used to describe a purebred dog, or even name one, will not affect the way we engineer the animal contradicts the language-relativity hypothesis, which holds that the vernacular we use to frame our perceptions influences the way we regard, understand, interpret and reinvent them. As a tool, language plays an important role by which innovation—in this case, of a sentient human-made domestic animal—is further developed. Or, as the AKC says, refined.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? If you’re talking about dog breeds, that’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is no.
Culture: Science & History
New study reveals that our dogs are affected by how long we're gone.
With dogs in the house, returning home—from a day at work or a trip to the mailbox—is cause for celebration, a wagging tail, the gift of a ball at your feet or even a little dance. You’re home! You’re home! But have you ever wondered why some parties are bigger than others?
Recently, two Swedish researchers discovered that how long we’re gone makes a difference. In their study (published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in January 2011), Therese Rehn and Linda J. Keeling videotaped individuals’ family dogs on three different occasions while they were at home alone for periods of a half-hour, two hours and four hours.
In each case, the dogs spent nearly all their time alone lying down. (Other studies have shown that in households with more than one dog, there’s less lying about when the humans are gone; there’s an approximately 12 percent difference in activity levels.) The key difference in behavior in this study came during the reunion: After the two- and four-hour separations, the dogs welcomed their humans with greater exuberance than after a half-hour absence— exhibiting more frequent lip-licking, body-shaking and tail-wagging.
According to Rehn and Keeling, the more intense greeting behavior may indicate a desire to reinstate the relationship and/or may be the animals shaking off stress. In any case, the important takeaway is that dogs are affected by the duration of their solo time. The study doesn’t reveal whether they are actually missing their humans, but it does suggest that dogs feel the time— and that has welfare implications we can’t ignore.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Many presentations featured dogs
Last week, the Animal Behavior Society conference was held in Boulder, Colorado and was attended by hundreds of scientists. Besides being the 50th annual meeting, this conference was notable because of the strong representation by people who study dogs or work with them in other ways.
I first attended an Animal Behavior Society conference in 1994 and I remember no talks or posters about our best friends. Most talks were about insects, fish, and birds, all of which have long been subjects of study in the field of animal behavior. Studying dogs was not respected at that time and many people considered that research on the species was not applicable to science in general because dogs didn’t have a natural habitat other than living with people. I hadn’t started working with dogs professionally yet, and my talk on my graduate research was called “Nest Site Selection by a Member of a Wasp-Wasp Nesting Association.” Oh, how times have changed.
At this conference, dozens of people presented work, whether applied or basic, about dogs, including 21 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, or CAABs. (The certification is available to people with PhDs who work in applied animal behavior and have a number of other qualifications. There are currently about 50 of us CAABs.) This conference had more presentations about dogs than any previous ones. There were a number of interesting talks and posters about dogs including:
Differences in social and cognitive behavior between congenitally deaf and hearing dogs
The black dog syndrome: Factors influencing difficulty of canine adoptions
Social bonds between humans and their “best friends”
Improving enrichment for shelter dogs by changing human behavior
Are dogs exhibiting separation related problems more sensitive to social reinforcement?
Do puzzle toys have long-term benefits on canine cognitive functioning?
Inter-dog aggression in the home environment: A behavior modification case study
A comparison of the cognitive development of adolescent dogs
Successful treatment of canine human-directed resource guarding with multiple triggers
I loved attending talks about a variety of species, but seeing how much change there has been in the scientific community’s views about dogs over the last 20 years made this conference extra special.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Conflict among scientists who study it
Research about canine genetics and the domestication of dogs is an exciting area of study with many players, so it should surprise nobody that there is disagreement within the field. Multiple groups of researchers from around the world have compared the genomes of dogs and wolves. While they generally agree about the genetic changes that have produced differences between dogs and wolves, their conclusions about the domestication of dogs vary wildly.
The disagreement concerns fundamental aspects of the evolution of dogs such as where, when and why dogs evolved from wolves. So, the location, the timing, and the reason for domestication that various groups propose are not even close.
One group suggests domestication occurred around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and that it was the development of agriculture around that time that was the catalyst for domestication. Another group claims that it happened around 32,000 years ago in the south of China and related to scavenging alongside the people living there. A third group narrows the time frame for domestication to between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago, and believes that the wolf population from which dogs arose is extinct, making it hard to determine the location of domestication. This third group believes that dogs became domesticated near hunter-gatherers rather than in the presence of an agrarian society.
Much has been made about the discord among scientists studying the domestication of dogs, but it’s hardly surprising. The cutting edge of science is always marked by strongly held opposing views. In the best situations, the intense disagreement among people working in the same field is a crucial part of making progress. Competing hypotheses are critical for the advancement of science. As people challenge each other’s views, all are spurred to study the subject more deeply and design experiments to investigate that which has been called into question. From the ongoing work, the conflicts are eventually resolved as some ideas fall by the wayside and others gain increased support from new data and discoveries.
Sometimes the conflict is cordial and in other cases, it can be very bitter. At this point, the scientists studying dog domestication say that though there is a certain amount of rivalry, they get along and enjoy talking with each other. That may be harder to maintain as people move to the next phase of research into dog domestication and seek to sequence DNA samples from ancient dogs and wolves. The availability of archaeological bone samples is extremely limited so there will be a lot of competition among scientists for both funding to conduct the research and access to the material necessary to do so.
In other words, we can expect a lot of fights over bones in the near future.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Unfavorable behavior compared to other puppies
In a study of over 6000 puppies, researchers found that the behavior of puppies purchased from pet stores was less desirable than the behavior of puppies obtained form noncommercial breeders. Specifically, there were 12 areas in which pet store puppies’ behavior was unfavorable compared with puppies from noncommercial breeders and two areas in which their behavior was similar. There were no behavioral areas in which the pet store puppies’ behavior was preferable to the comparison group.
In a recent study called “Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommerical breeders" used guardian observations of their dogs to compare the behavior between the two study populations. Observations were quantified using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, which uses ordinal scales to rate either the intensity or frequency of the dogs’ behavior
The biggest differences between the two groups of dogs related to aggression with dogs from pet stores being far more likely to be aggressive towards their guardians, to other dogs in the household, to strangers, and to unfamiliar dogs. Among their other unfavorable comparisons with dogs from noncommercial breeders were that they were more likely to have house soiling issues, to be fearful, to have touch sensitivity problems, to be harder to train, and to have issues with excitability.
As a person who has long opposed the selling of puppies in pet stores for humane reasons as well as behavioral, it is with open arms that I welcome this objective study about the undesirability of this practice. It’s heartbreaking for me to think of all the people I have seen professionally over the years who have been emotionally devastated by the serious behavioral issues they have faced with a dog from a pet store. Of course, there are people who have lucked out and obtained a wonderful dog from a pet store, and I am very happy for such dogs and their people. However, it’s important to remember that overall, buying a dog from a pet store does not put the odds in your favor.
The authors of this study sum their research up with this important point: “Obtaining dogs from pet stores versus noncommercial breeders represented a significant risk factor for the development of a wide range of undesirable behavioral characteristics. Until the causes of the unfavorable differences detected in this group of dogs can be specifically identified and remedied, the authors cannot recommend that puppies be obtained from pet stores."
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It matters more than brightness
One of the most persistent errors about dogs is the claim that they are colorblind. It has been known for decades that dogs can see colors, but research into the details of how they use their color vision can still reveal new information. In a recent study called “Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness”, researchers asked the simple question, “Do dogs attend to color or brightness when learning the cues that indicate the presence of food?
In the experiment, researchers trained dogs to make a choice between boxes concealing food. The boxes were each marked with a colored paper, and the dog had to learn which one indicated a piece of meat was inside. Dogs were trained to discriminate between either light yellow and dark blue or between dark yellow and light blue. Then the dogs were tested to see if the cue they used to make correct choices was the color of the paper or the brightness of the paper.
For example, a dog who had learned to choose the box marked by a dark yellow piece of paper was tested with a choice between a box marked by light yellow or a box marked by dark blue. The experimenters were asking whether the dog had learned that “dark” indicates the presence of meat or whether “yellow” does. They found that dogs were making choices based on color, not brightness, in the majority of cases. It was a small sample size of only 8 dogs, but it suggests that dogs not only see color, which has long been known, but that they pay attention to it more than to the depth of color.
It is not surprising that if dogs have the ability to see color that they would use that color functionally in various situations. Asking whether dogs distinguish dark from light when the opportunity to distinguish by color is also present may be an important preliminary step in understanding what dogs attend to. However, I would be even more interested to know whether dogs favor color over shape, color over size or even color over various sounds to make their choices, as all of these seem more biologically relevant to dogs seeking food than brightness does.
Dog's Life: Humane
We humans are terrific at measuring and recordkeeping— we even know the length of Noah’s ark, in cubits (300) no less. Technology abets this trait, as computers dutifully crunch our numbers, ad, well, infinitum. As a species, however, we are not so good at appraising information to extract its meaning. Confronted with new data, we tend to overemphasize and generalize, often less than critically.
On that cautionary note, what are we dog people to make of a new University of California, Davis, study that examines relationships between early, late or no spay/neuter and several health conditions in Golden Retrievers? How do we apply its conclusions to the animals in our care?
The Davis docs found increased risk of several cancers, hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament tears among sterilized Goldens; the incidence varied according to the sex and age-at-neuter of their subjects. As such, their findings add to a growing library of veterinary literature on the spay/neuter subject. However, the authors are careful to limit their conclusions, as should we.
First, the findings are breed-specific. Goldens, a highly inbred line, were chosen in part because of their susceptibility to cancers and joint issues. The gene pool was further limited by a study sample of dogs (759, to be precise) seen at the UC Davis clinic, in northern California.
Second, we need to remind ourselves that risk is not destiny, and that correlation is not causation. The study notes that the risk of one type of canine cancer quadrupled in late-neutered females, but also reveals that its incidence grew from 1.6 to 7.4 percent— meaning that about 93 percent of the subjects did not contract the disease.
The authors also indicate that they did not specifically consider obesity, another known factor in dysplasia and cancers. Neutered dogs do tend to be heavier, but we can manage that risk by controlling food intake and quality. We also need to recognize that other studies have noted countervailing positive health effects, as spay/neuter reduces or eliminates rates of other common diseases, such as mammary cancers and uterine infections.
Third, context is crucial. These data feed into the universe of things that are harmful to canines. We know, for example, that nationwide, some 50 percent of the animals in shelters don’t survive the experience. To the extent that intact canines contribute litters to the shelter population, that risk dwarfs exposure to accidents or disease. Shelter “save” rates are improving in many places, but we remain far from a no-kill equilibrium. Job One for canine partisans (including the veterinary community) remains the imperative to reduce that carnage.
After sheltering, risk-of-death varies widely by age and breed. A comprehensive University of Georgia study of vet-reported deaths (“Mortality in North American Dogs from 1984 to 2004,” published in 2011) identifies infections, trauma and birth defects as primary culprits in young dogs, with tumor-related diseases at various breed-specific rates, distantly followed by trauma and infections, which dominate the tally for the late-in-lifespan.
Finally, there are the behavioral and other risk implications of fertility, including management of ardent males and bitches in heat.
The Davis study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the unintended consequences of fertility management in a useful and popular breed. Reproductive organs contribute hormones for many reasons—it would be surprising if their removal were completely trivial. Alternatives to traditional spay/neuter do exist, but they are rarely performed. Injectable sterilizers and contraceptives are coming on the market (they, of course, will carry their own measurable side effects).
It’s important to recognize the limitations of the study: one breed, one gene pool, defined conditions and their rank among all the calamities that can befall our best friends. The study itself notes that spay/neuter is uncommon in Europe, which would appear to open up a range of comparative research possibilities and fertility management options.
We should add the Davis work to the burgeoning database. But until a lot more measurements have been taken from which broader conclusions may be drawn, the best advice is not general to all dogs, but individualized: choose your canine companions carefully and love and support them well, and completely. And recognize that we can’t measure or control for everything, yet—or ever.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Deciding when to euthanize
Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.
In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.
Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.
Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Science supports what we’ve long believed
Our dogs are our kids. It’s not rocket science—we love them, they love us. They look to us for comfort and care. We call them our fur kids or our four-legged children. So, even though it’s not news to us, it’s validating to see science confirm what we already thought was true: Our dogs are like children to us.
Children have been shown to explore the world most confidently if they have a strong attachment to their caregiver (usually a parent.) They use the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment if they have learned that the parent is dependable and reliable, and this phenomenon is called the secure base effect.
In the recent study, The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs—Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, researchers conclude that dogs are bonded to their guardians in the same way that infants are bonded to their parents. They found that dogs use their guardians as a secure base, just as children do.
In the study, dogs were tested in each of two experiments and their behavior was quantified. In the first experiment, dogs were given the opportunity to obtain food from interactive dog toys, and the amount of time the dogs spent attempting to extract the food was recorded. The dogs were tested in three different experimental situations: 1) with their guardian absent, 2) with their guardian present and encouraging them, and 3) with their guardian present but silent and unresponsive. Researchers also recorded how much time the dogs spent in close proximity to their guardians as well as to the experimenter, who was present in all conditions.
The results of this experiment showed that the different situations had an impact on how long the dog manipulated the interactive toy in an attempt to extract the food. The dog manipulated it longer when the guardian was present than absent, but there was no difference in response to whether the guardian was encouraging the dog or remaining silent. The dogs spent an equal amount of time close to their guardian regardless of whether they were receiving encouragement or not. They spent more time close to the experimenter when their guardians were absent than when they were present, suggesting that the experimenter offered some security, social support or comfort in the experimental context.
The second experiment was designed to determine if the effects seen in the first experiment could be explained simply by the fact that in the situations in which the guardians were present, there were two people in the room, whereas in the guardian-absent condition, there was only one person. In other words, what if dogs are not affected by having their guardian as a secure base, but simply react to the presence of more than one person in the room? So, in experiment two, the first experiment was modified to include a fourth condition in which an unfamiliar person (rather than the guardian) was present along with the experimenter.
The results of the second experiment were that dogs manipulated the interactive toy longer in the presence than in the absence of their guardians, regardless of whether an additional unfamiliar person was in the room. The dogs spent more time near their silent, unresponsive guardians than to the unfamiliar person, who also refrained from interacting with the dog. The addition of the unfamiliar person condition allowed the researchers to determine that the guardian had a specific effect on the dog’s performance that cannot be explained by the presence of just any person.
Prior to participating in this experiment, all dogs were tested for their willingness to eat food in the absence of their guardians. They were also scored for their tendency to exhibit separation distress when kept away from their guardians. Interestingly, there was no relationship between the time spent manipulating the toys in the absence of their guardians and the amount of separation distress they showed, which means that the results of the experiments cannot be explained by a tendency of the dogs to manipulate the toy less because of the distress of separation.
This is the first study to demonstrate that the relationship between dogs and guardians is similar to the relationship between children and their parents in that both involve the secure base effect. This raises concerns about experiments into cognitive abilities that involve problem solving that is far more complex than in this study because the absence of guardians could significantly lower performance by the dogs.
It also confirms the view that most of us have about the canine members of our family—they are like kids to us!
News: Guest Posts
This weekend I’ll be the keynote speaker at the 5th International Symposium on Non-Surgical Contraceptive Methods of Pet Population Control. The conference title is a bit of a mouthful, but the basic idea is this: Can scientists develop a drug that will permanently sterilize dogs and cats? Or, put even more simply, can we make “the pill” for pets?
Now a lot of you may be asking, “Don’t we already have birth control for our companion animals?” Well, yes. Spay/neuter has been around for decades. But it’s not a perfect solution. For one, it’s expensive. That means not everyone can afford to sterilize their pet, even at a low-cost clinic. For another, it’s time consuming. That’s been a huge problem for non-profits trying to tackle America’s feral cat problem. With tens of millions of these felines on the streets, volunteers can’t catch and sterilize them quickly enough to keep up with their numbers. And if you think things in the U.S. are bad, consider China and India, which are home to tens millions of stray dogs that bite and spread rabies, yet these countries lack the resources to implement even meager spay/neuter programs. As a result of all of these limitations, millions of cats and dogs are euthanized in U.S. shelters every year, and millions more are shot and poisoned around the globe. If scientists could develop an injection or pill that would work as well as spay/neuter surgery, we might have a shot at eliminating the world’s homeless pet problem.
Enter the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs (ACC&D). Founded in 2000, the Portland, Oregon-based non-profit has been working with scientists and animal welfare advocates to create a non-surgical sterilant for pets. In late 2009, the mission got a huge boost from a U.S. billionaire named Gary Michelson, who announced $75 million in grants and prize money for the development of such a product. The announcement spurred dozens of research teams to begin brainstorming a solution. Some have proposed drugs that would kill the cells that produce sperm and eggs, treating them, essentially, like cancer. Others hope to go after the brain, shutting down pathways involved in fertility and reproduction. I covered these efforts in my award-winning 2009 article in Science, A Cure for Euthanasia?
ACC&D is behind next week’s symposium. It will be giving an update on these efforts and describing some new approaches to the problem of pet overpopulation. I’ll be talking about the topic of my book and what feral cats teach us about the changing status of pets in society. I hope you’ll check out the important work this organization is doing!
See more from David Grimm who is a reporter for Science magazine, you can see more from him at davidhgrimm.com
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