Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A few genes make all the difference
My relationship with dogs is sometimes a bit split. One side of things is that I love them, for all the reasons everybody reading this understands so well. Another side of my relationship with dogs is my fascination with them—a true scientific interest, based on some of their extraordinary characteristics. And research about their genetics has continued to add to their appeal as creatures worthy of great attention, even beyond the fact that they are so lovable.
From the diversity of forms seen in the domestic dog, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that their genetics are unusual. Though other domestic animals including chickens, horses, cows, sheep and cats have many different breeds, dogs alone have the amount of physical variation that is represented by Great Danes, Dachshunds, Pugs and Borzois. Animal lovers are generally interested in that fact, but all scientists ought to be astounded by it, and I most definitely am.
The selective breeding that has led to the range of forms in this species is a fascinating genetics experiment. Geneticists are grateful to the “field work” done by countless breeders over many generations because the dogs that have resulted provide a way to understand things that can’t be learned elsewhere.
One of the most fascinating recent discoveries that makes use of the variation in dogs is that it’s only a few genes that are responsible for the huge range of differences in the appearance of different breeds of dogs. The incredible variation in dog size, fur type, length and color, ear shape and position, and shape of the nose is controlled by just a few dozen gene regions.
In other species, the genetic control of traits such as size and shape is much more complex. For comparison, human height is controlled by around 200 gene regions. Until it was investigated, researchers assumed that underlying the incredible diversity of canine appearances was a corresponding genetic diversity, but it’s just not so. The more we learn about dogs, the more fascinating they become.
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Avery Publishing, 320 pp., 2010; $26.00
After the birth of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, a handful of biotech entrepreneurs envisioned a thriving business that would provide grieving dog lovers with genetically identical clones of their deceased pets. In Dog Inc., Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist John Woestendiek exposes the grave folly behind those science-fiction dreams.
Woestendiek travels between the United States and South Korea, following the companies looking to cash in on cloning technology, and their clients, who hope cloning really will approximate resurrection.
Although much of the book focuses on the salacious story of Bernann McKinney, a woman obsessed with cloning her Pit Bull, the strength of Dog Inc. is in Woestendiek’s ability to lay out the science and laboratory politics in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Readers will understand the X-inactivation process that made the first cloned cat so physically distinct from her progenitor — and, consequently, such a public relations failure — as well as the allegations of scientific fraud levied against Woo Suk Hwang, one of the pioneers of canine cloning.
Woestendiek never outright condemns canine cloning, but the details leave little question as to where he falls in the debate. He shines light on the poor treatment of the laboratory dogs used in cloning, the cloned puppies who do not survive the process and the heartbreaking fate of Snuppy himself. As for the actual clones, Dog Inc. tracks kittens, puppies and even a bull cloned at great financial and biological cost, only to prove physically and behaviorally distinct from their genetic parents.
The book serves as a valuable reminder that, like people, our pets are far more than the sum of their DNA.
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How big is the range?
Last weekend, there was a chocolate Lab at the athletic fields where my husband and I were playing flag football with some other people, including his guardian. Both my children had a ball running around with Porter on the sidelines. He was very sweet and well trained. He played Frisbee, chased some of the adults around if they enticed him to do so, and got off the field and sat when asked to do so. He was energetic, but not overly aroused, let everybody pet him, and was generally a credit to his breed.He was also enormous. He weighs 105 pounds, and while nobody would describe him as svelte, he wasn’t overly fat as we regrettably know so many dogs in this country are. It’s hard to say, but I would guess that his perfect weight would be somewhere in the low 90s, which is still a large Lab. He was broadly built and unusually tall for his breed. His loping style of running made me wonder whether he had any Great Dane in him, but I was told he’s all Lab. Lately, I have seen quite a few Labs who are pretty large, and yet I’ve also seen ones who are so small I suspect people often think they are adolescents who are yet to reach full height, event though they are 3-years-old, 5-years-old, or more—certainly full grown. I’ve seen dogs of other breeds who seem far from typical in size, including a Brittany who is 5 inches taller than all his littermates and an Airedale Terrier who was much closer in size to an average Irish Terrier. I know that despite breed standards, what’s popular in terms of size varies over time. And sometimes, for whatever reason, dogs are born who don’t match the size typical in their lines. Coming from a family with women who range in height from 4’9” to 5’11”, I am very interested in diversity in size among relations. Do you have a dog who is either unusually large or unusually small for the breed?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An ethologist who loved dogs
As this year’s Nobel Prizes were announced, I faced my annual wish for anyone interested in dog training and behavior to know that three scientists in the field of Ethology have been awarded this prize. In 1973, Niko Tinbergen (The Netherlands), Karl von Frisch (Austria) and Konrad Lorenz (Austria) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns.” They are regarded as being among the founders of the field of Ethology, which is the study of animals in their natural habitat.While they are best known for their work with birds, insects and fish, all of them studied a variety of species. Konrad Lorenz was quite interested in dogs, and wrote a wonderful book called Man Meets Dog. One of the great contributions of this book to the study of animals concerns Lorenz’ interdisciplinary approach to understanding dogs. As Donald McCaig states in the introduction to a recent edition, “He made it respectable to bring the practical observations of animals trainers and handlers into the academy. It was a great first step, and although the gulf between academic study and practical applications remains with us today, Lorenz did much to merge what is known from different areas into a cohesive body of knowledge in order to further our understanding of animals.” Some of my favorite aspects of this book are personal stories. For example, Lorenz describes the close relationship between his future brother-in-law, Peter, and a Newfoundland named Lord who joined the family when the dog was 1½ years old. Peter was the smallest of four brothers, and the youngest in a gang of boys who participated in their fair share of mischief. The dog protected him to such a degree that even his schoolmaster dared not raise his voice to Peter, lest he growl and leap up with his massive size on the shoulders. Naturally, this dog kept the other boys from teasing or bullying him as well. Lorenz discusses his great sadness at losing dogs to old age. When he was 17, his dog Bully died of a stroke and he describes his sadness that the dog had left no offspring. For a long time after Bully’s death, Lorenz says he heard the pattering of Bully’s peculiar gait following after him as he had done for so many years in life. He writes, “If I listened consciously, the trotting and snuffling ceased at once, but as soon as my thoughts began to wander again I seemed to hear them once more.” Only when his new puppy Tito began to run behind him and follow him everywhere did the “ghost” of Bully cease to follow him in his mind. Years later when Tito died, Lorenz felt a great guilt knowing that another dog would take the place of Tito just as Tito had replaced Bully in his heart. He says he felt ashamed of his own unfaithfulness and decided that for the rest of his life, only descendents of Tito would be his companions. Besides being a brilliant scientist, Lorenz is an excellent writer whose words are equally effective when he is discussing scientific principles as when he muses on the transience of life: “In human life there is enough suffering—of which everybody gets his share—when we come to take leave of someone we love, and when we see the end approaching, inevitably predestined by the fact that he was born a few decades earlier than ourselves, we may well ask ourselves whether we do right to hang our hearts on a creature that will be overtaken by senility and death before a human being, born on exactly the same day, has even passed his childhood.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Should we be worried about resistance
Heartworm disease is a horrible and potentially deadly disease that is fortunately preventable with medication. However, in recent years, animals in the Gulf region have been testing positive for heartworm, despite being on a prevention medicine. This has many people worried about a potential resistant superbug.
In response to the growing cases, the American Heartworm Society and Companion Animal Parasite Council met earlier this year to "explore the potential relationships between resistance to heartworm products and veterinary and pet owner compliance, loss of product efficacy and heartworm testing and treatment protocols."
For instance, 50 percent of people who buy heartworm preventative do not give the medication to their dogs as directed. The efficacy of heartworm preventative is greatly compromised if not given as intended.
The meeting concluded that more research is necessary, but that the investigation should not lead to dropping heartworm medicine, since year-round use is still the most effective way to prevent the deadly disease.
In human healthcare, there’s so much talk of antibiotic resistant supeprbugs that I avoid excessive medications and vaccines when possible, for both myself and my dogs. However, heartworm preventative is one medication I don’t skip with the pups. It’s such a serious disease and I hope that the possibility of a superbug is unfounded.
For more information on heartworm prevention, symptoms, and endemic areas, visit the American Heartworm Society website.
Unlocking secrets of canine DNA
The young son of Stanford University researcher, Prof. Carlos Bustamante, answered the phone this morning at 7 a.m., and handing the phone to his father said, “Oh, it’s for you.” News of his $500,000 MacArthur Award (“genius award”) came as a welcomed surprise to Bustamante. His work focuses on understanding the evolution and interactions of population genetics in dogs, humans and even plants and pathogens.One of the most recent findings of Bustamante’s group at Stanford, in collaboration with Cornell and the National Human Genome Research Institute, was that—“in contrast to humans”—many physical traits in dogs are determined by very few genetic regions. For example, a dog with version A of the “snout length” region may have a long, slender muzzle, while version B confers a more standard nose and C an abnormally short schnoz. And let’s say X, Y and Z in the “leg length” region bestow a range of heights from short to tall. That would mean that in this example an A/X dog would have a slender muzzle and short legs like a Dachshund. C/Y might be a Bulldog, while B/Z would be more like a Labrador. “This mixing and matching of chunks of DNA is how breeders were able to come up with so many different breeds in a relatively short amount of time,” writes Stanford’s Krista Conger. Fascinating findings and because complex traits in humans are more difficult to discern, their work with dogs has implications for human health as well.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lost dog found after 7 years
Jake was a 6-month old puppy in 2003 when he disappeared from his yard the day after Thanksgiving. That was in Michigan. He was apparently dropped off at a kennel in Kentucky this week where a staff member found him in an after-hours kennel wearing a shock collar and nothing else to give any information about him. The scanner picked up the microchip, which prompted a call to Brad Davis, who still lives in Michigan. He thought it was a wrong number until they said they located him because of his dog’s microchip. Davis is headed to Kentucky to pick up Jake.Microchipping has led to many successful reunions between people and their dogs, though most of them are not seven years later. Of course, Jake can hardly be the same dog that he was as a puppy back in 2003. Still, it’s wonderful for Davis and his family to know that Jake is alive and well, even if they’ll never know what happened the day he disappeared or in all the days since. Have you or anyone you know been reunited with a dog because that dog was microchipped?
Another health bonus from walking your dog
The New York Times had an interesting article about studies examining the health benefits of nature. Researchers have found that spending time in places with trees aplenty, such as parks and forests, is good for us and has a positive affect on our immune functions. Seems as if stress reduction is one factor that the scientists attribute to phytnocides, the “airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect them from rotting insects.” The Japanese have taken this to heart and even partake in a practice called “forest bathing.”
As The Times notes, “the scientists found that being among plants produced lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, among other things.” So for all of you who walk your dogs in the woods, not only are you doing the right thing by providing sensory stimulation and exercise for them but you too get a healthy boost from the trees!
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