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Helicopter Pet Parents
Researchers look at how our personality affects pet care.

There's a lot of joking today about “helicopter parents” who are too overbearing with their kids. It may not be the best way to raise children, but what about pets? Two researchers at UC Berkeley and California State University are collaborating on a study that will look at personality and attachment style, how we relate to others, and whether it can predict better pet care.

In the first part of their research, Mikel Delgado and Gretchen Reevy surveyed more than 1,000 pet lovers across the country. They found that those who expressed the greatest affection for their pets were also rated among the most conscientious and neurotic. While these may be bad characteristics for human parents, it may work better for pets, who will never be independent. Cat lovers tended to score high on anxious attachment, meaning they tend to need more reassurance from their pets. Both dog and cat lovers scored low on avoidant attachment, suggesting that they enjoy close relationships with their pets.

This was the first study to combine principles of human attachment theory to pet people's personality types. Next Mikel and Gretchen plan to do further the research by investigating whether greater affection and anxious attachment is associated with better care and understanding of their pet's needs.

If you're interested in learning more about your attachment style (based on human relationships), take this long or short online test. 

The Challenge of Children
I’m sympathetic to many dogs

We all know that dogs and children can be a volatile mix, and that we must take care to protect kids from dogs. Regrettably, some kids are bitten and even more are scared or hurt by dogs chasing them or jumping up on them. As both a parent and as someone who works with dogs professionally, I see this as an important issue that we as a society must continue to improve.

Still, many times the interactions between kids and dogs leave me more concerned about the dogs than the children. Though far too many dog bites to kids happen, sometimes I think it’s amazing that there aren’t more considering what dogs have to put up with. While I think the majority of kids are kind to dogs, such good behavior is far from universal.

I’ve heard many people over the years praise their dogs by saying, “The kids can do ANYTHING to him.” I always respond by asking, “What are the kids doing to him?” while inside I’m crossing my paws and hoping it’s not too bad.

The answers range from the relatively benign (they follow him to pet him constantly, they dress him up) to the deeply concerning (they make a game of jumping over him, they use him like a pillow, they carry him around a lot) to the truly horrifying (they poke him in the eye, they pull his tail, they scream in his ear to wake him up, they try to ride him like a horse.)

My years working with clients as well as observations of dogs outside of work leave me with tremendous gratitude to the enormous numbers of dogs who react peacefully to kids. Some dogs are dealing with kids who are a bit rough, totally thoughtless or even downright cruel.

Without excusing dogs who have bitten kids, I think we’re asking dogs to put up with an awful lot considering what goes on in many households with kids. Almost every day, I silently thank the millions of dogs out there who have refrained from biting kids who bother them relentlessly. We’re very lucky as a society to have so many amazing canines as pets.

Missing Dog is Reunited
Rescued after 5 months during snowstorm

There is a great “silver lining” story from New York today about a lost dog reunion made possible, in a way, by the giant blizzard that never was. As we all know by now, the winter storm of the decade had little effect in that region (moving further up along the coast instead), but in preparing for it, a dog loving fire department lieutenant was able to trap the lost dog, a young Whippet named Burt, who had been lost for 5 months. Lieutenant David Kelly, 50, works 24-hour shifts out at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island, and had been leaving food out for the skinny, shy dog for more than three weeks. He had also been urging other fire department workers to leave food for the lost pup. Kelly has two rescue dogs at home so he is no stranger to the power of dog love, so he had decided that what with the huge storm coming, that it was time to step up his effort to catch the dog. You just gotta love it that he also thought to check for missing dogs of Burt’s type (Whippet or Greyhound) in the NYC area and found that the owner, Lauren Piccolo, had dedicated a Facebook page to her lost pup. On Monday night Kelly brought a crate from home, baited it with dog food, attached a lanyard to it, and waited. Shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Burt approached, grabbed for the food and Kelly was able to quickly close the crate door. Burt and Piccolo were soon reunited, and their story has become an instant sensation! Hats off to Lieutenant David Kelly—the hero of the hour—and welcome home Burt.

Dogs Are The Best On A Snowy Day

I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year when the short days and dreary weather begin get a little old, so this video couldn’t have hit my e-mail inbox at a better time—it is the perfect wintertime attitude adjustment. Leave it to the dogs to remind us that life is always fun, even with a bite in the air and snow on the ground!

Do Dogs React to Being Laughed At?
I wonder if it makes them feel bad

Marley had jumped up on our bed, as he is allowed to do, but the rule is that he has to get down if he is asked to do so. On this particular night, he seemed exhausted and eager to go to bed. Once ensconced in his favorite spot, he avoided eye contact with all of us. Wherever our faces were, he was looking the other way.

I proposed the idea that perhaps he was trying to avoid being told to get down off the bed, in an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” kind of way. This was pure guesswork, but the rest of my family thought it was funny because it really seemed to fit.

We began to act like him, looking away, pretending that nobody could tell us it was bedtime or anything else we didn’t want to hear, and we were all laughing. I caught a glance at Marley, and he looked really unhappy, which is when I said, “I wonder if he feels bad because we’re laughing at him.”

In truth we found Marley endearing and funny, and meant no disrespect, but how did he perceive it? Dogs are so in tune with our emotions and actions, and they are obviously intensely social beings, so it seems possible that he felt himself the object of derision where none was intended.

It made me sad to contemplate the idea, and my husband and kids felt the same way. We stopped laughing immediately and began to pet Marley as we usually would when we’re all about to go to bed. Soon Marley looked happy again, though still tired.

It’s no fun being laughed at, and it does happen to dogs, whether our intent is hurtful or not. Do you think your dog can tell if others are laughing at his expense?

Therapy Dogs and Cancer Patients
Study documents the benefits of pet therapy at a NYC hospital.
















When I visited hospital patients as part of a therapy dog program, it was obvious that my Sheltie, Nemo, brought joy to what could be a depressing environment. But still most people view animal-assisted therapy as a "nice to have," not something that could have a significant effect on a patient's health.

That may all change with a new study at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City. The collaboration between the hospital, therapy dog organization The Good Dog Foundation, animal health company Zoetis, and the Pfizer Foundation, is aiming to quantify the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

The research is the first that documents the benefits of pet therapy in adult cancer patients, and is by far the most rigorous study in this area. Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai, says that this is a definitive study that uses the same scientific standards to examine the merits of animal-assisted therapy as they use for the cancer treatment itself. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the positive effects, having hard data will help therapy dogs secure future funding and support.

In the six week study, 37 patients received daily 15-20 minute assisted animal visits (AAV). The patients were at the hospital with aggressive cancers in the head and neck, and were receiving a combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy in advance of surgery. The patients were assessed at the beginning of the study (as a baseline), at the mid-point, and at the end. They measured satisfaction with the AAVs, ability to withstand treatment, lingering effect of AAV after treatment, and perception of social support. 

The researchers found that the patients showed an increase in social well-being over the course of the study, even after they underwent marked declines in both physical and functional well-being. After controlling for the reduction in physical well-being, they also found statistically significant increases in emotional well-being as well. Some patients even said that they would have stopped their treatments before completion if it weren't for the regular therapy dog visits.

Most hospital patients are lucky if they see one therapy dog during their hospital stay, let alone the daily visits. But hopefully this study will help make the case for adding regular animal assisted therapy to more comprehensive treatment plans. 

The ARK at JFK
NYC airport is adding a terminal for traveling creatures.
A pet relief area at JFK International Airport.

Earlier this week I was at JFK International Airport and took a peek at one of the pet relief areas. It's a small, but well maintained, area for dogs to take a potty break before catching their flight. Many airports now have these relief spots, thanks in part to accommodating service dogs.

However, animals traveling in and out of the New York City airport will soon have a brand new terminal just for them. Construction has started on a 178,000-square-foot building, dubbed The ARK at JFK, which will feature an overnight pet resort, a 24-hour animal hospital, an aviary, and a climate controlled arrivals area, complete with horse stalls and 14.5 acre grounds.

It's projected that 70,000 animals will go through the ARK each year, including companion pets, zoo animals, livestock, and race horses. The terminal, which is scheduled to open next year, will be the first USDA-approved, 24-hour, privately owned airport quarantine operation. Architecture firms specializing in equine and livestock design are collaborating with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design the state-of-the-art facility.

The ARK is primarily for animals in cargo, and won't have much impact on the average person flying with their pet, but it will be nice to have the boarding facility and animal hospital on premise. This facility also shows how airports are starting to cater to the growing number of traveling animals. I'd love to see elements of the design incorporated into other airports and into areas specifically for the average consumer.

What pet-friendly feature would you like to see incorporated into your local airport?

Can Your Dog Rock The Cone?
How to wear one with style

I’ve never liked the term “cone of shame.” That’s in part because a medical device that helps keep dogs safe has no business being associated with derogatory names. It’s also because I see no reason that dogs should ever be ashamed or made to feel so.

Perhaps that’s why I was especially delighted to see these examples of pets whose time in a cone was treated light-heartedly. Decorating these accessories made each and every one of the dogs (and cats) look charming without a trace of the woebegone, pathetic images so often presented in such situations. These dogs really know how to rock the cone!

I must admit that few of the dogs look thrilled. They may be out of sorts because of the cone or whatever issue caused them to need one in the first place. The extra decorations may be unwelcome, especially for the dog whose cone is full of stuffed animals. Some of the dogs may simply not like being stared at and photographed.

My favorite photos are of the dog who is part of the Pixar logo, the one in couture Burberry, and the dog with a top hat and pipe. The assorted coneflowers are pretty endearing, too. Making the cones fun and decorative definitely affects the way people view the dogs, taking shame out of the situation, which I like.

You’ve got to love the last photo of an absolutely cheerful dog with a bare cone. This dog needs no decoration other than that happy face. Some dogs can’t be brought down!

How Can This Be Comfortable?
Dogs rest in the weirdest positions

I don’t understand how dogs can possibly be comfortable in some of the positions they choose to be in. Take Marley, for example, in this picture. Even with every effort to remember that he is not a human and that I shouldn’t project my preferences on him, this makes no sense to me.  He looks like a “before” picture in an ad for a chiropractor.

Over the years, I’ve seen dogs resting with their necks bent at 90-degree angles, with their paws straight up in the air and with their faces smashed against the wall. I’ve seen them sleeping in their food bowls, tangled up with each other and with cats on top of them. Some dogs stretch out completely flat in way that seems impossible for canine joints while others are curled so tightly in boxes that I would have bet good money they would be unable to squeeze into them. I’ve even seen a few who have actually fallen asleep with their bodies suspended between the couch and coffee table.

Marley, and many other dogs, put themselves into what look like contortions on a regular basis. They do it on the floor, on the couch, and in bed. About the only place I don’t typically see dogs in odd postures is in their crates, but there are exceptions to that, too.

In what unfathomable position have you found your dog?

Dogs Shed Light on Migration Patterns
Scientists use canine remains to learn more about humans.

We've benefited in many ways from our relationship with dogs. Studying canines has led to everything from new medical advancements to behavioral insights. Now scientists are using dogs to understand human migration patterns around the world.

According to University of Illinois biologist Kelsey Witt, canines were one of the earliest organisms to have migrated with humans to every continent. This special relationship makes them a valuable research tool.

The school recently embarked on the largest genetic analysis to date of ancient dogs in the Americas, shedding light on both canine and human history. In the study, researchers compared DNA from ancient canine remains to those from previous collections. The findings suggested that dogs may have arrived in the Americas thousands of years after the first wave of people came from Asia (the period also coincides with the earliest known dog burial in the Americas). Based on the canine DNA, researchers also hypothesize that the first two major human migrations came from two different source populations.

In the study, scientists focused specifically on DNA from the cell mitochondria. Since it's inherited maternally, it shows an unbroken line of ancestry, as opposed to looking at chromosomes which can exchange genes between the maternal and paternal pair. This has allowed them to uncover breeding patterns, genetic diversity, and roles (ancient dogs were used for a wide range of jobs—hunting assistants, herders, haulers, companions, and even food).

While it may seem counterproductive to use dogs to study our migration patterns, scientists don't always have access to human remains since genetic analysis is destructive (understandably people don't want their loved ones' remains touched). This is why they often use ancient dog remains for their research. The scientists hope to continue their work and learn even more about patterns of human migration into the New World.

Dog Pushes Baby in Swinging Crib
Gentle help from Charlie the Beagle

I strongly believe that when you have a new baby, you should accept all assistance available to you. “Turn down no offer of help” was some of the best advice I ever got, and I frequently pass it on to other parents.

One family’s dog is able to offer rocking services to keep a baby swinging gently in her crib. In this video, you can see that the dog looks at the camera operator, who I presume is the guardian, after each push to the crib. He seems to be checking in, and I like to imagine him asking, “Did I do good?” (I never imagine that dogs consistently speak with proper grammar.)

This activity combines a happy baby and time for the dog to work on a specific skill, which is no different than training any other trick or action.  It looks to me as though the dog is being cued to rock the crib each time, based on how he continues to look at the person operating the camera. I hope the dog gets reinforced for responding correctly, because he really does a nice job gently contacting the crib so it rocks in a controlled way.

The dog does look nervous, but it could be that it’s the camera rather than anything else about the situation that is upsetting to him. Even if the dog showed signs of being completely relaxed, I would never want this to be an unsupervised activity. There’s too much risk of the dog overdoing the swinging or of the baby reacting with crying or other distress. It’s hard to say how the dog would react. It is easy to say, though, that this behavior is cute as well as having a practical component.

Dog Rides Bus to the Park
Seattle pup is a public transportation regular.

My dogs are always ready to go, running in circles while I put on my shoes, grab my jacket, and throw poop bags into my backpack. I imagine they wonder why it takes so long to leave the house. But not all dogs are so patient. One pup in Seattle became tired of waiting and took matters into her own paws.

Jeff Young and his Black Labrador mix, Eclipse, live next to the bus stop that takes them to the local dog park. Sometimes Jeff isn't finished smoking his cigarette when the bus arrives, so Eclipse started boarding the bus by herself and exiting a few stops later. Jeff then gets on the next one and meets her at the dog park.

The two year old pup soon became a regular on the bus, with riders looking out for her each day. Eclipse remained a local legend until Seattle radio host Miles Montgomery launched her into web infamy. He was riding the bus when suddenly Eclipse jumped into the seat next to him, then got off at her stop. Miles was so surprised that he took a selfie and posted it on Twitter. Soon the picture went viral and Eclipse's bus rides were famous.

In pet friendly Seattle, dogs are allowed to ride buses on leash, at the discretion of the driver. But no one seems to mind the well behaved Eclipse. I'm a little concerned that she's wandering off on her own, but perhaps Jeff should ditch the cigarettes and accompany Eclipse to the park on the first bus!

A Dog Rolling Over During Play Is a Combat Tactic, Not Submission

I’ve got the ‘dog play’ bug, arguably one of the better winter bugs to have. I recently covered which toys dogs prefer (the answer: new ones, although old ones can be reinvigorated), as well as the unfortunate finding that when a dog’s not “playing right,” it could be you, not them. But toys and people are only part of play. I haven’t said anything yet about the huge topic of dog-dog play!

Fear not! Enter a new study on dog-dog play published just this month inBehavioural Processes as part of an open access Special Canine Behavior Issue. The study focuses on a particular behavior that you’ve probably seen countless times — rolling onto the back during play. The scientists came to a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion, and if you’re like the people I hear chatting at the dog park, you might not be spot on about what it means.

Before we get to the new study, investigating what behaviors mean during dog-dog play is not new. For example, you’ve probably heard of play signals that help clarify play from not play. Play signals help say something like, “Hey, when I just bit you in the face, I didn’t mean it like I’M BITING YOU IN THE FACE. It was just for fun. See! Here’s a play bow for additional clarity. All fun here!” Play signals — like exaggerated, bouncy movements, or presenting a “play face” — start or maintain play, and they occur around potentially ambiguous behaviors — like a bite, tackle, or mount — or anything that might be misconstrued as ‘not playing.’ Play signals reinforce, “Woohoo! We’re not fighting! We’re playing!”

But not all behaviors that appear during dog-dog play are as well studied. Here to demonstrate today’s play behavior of interest is Theodore, or Teo for short. Prior to bringing his play skills to an international audience (he has his own Facebook page,Pibbling with Theodore), Teo was one of 367 dogs rescued from the second largest, multi-state dog fighting bust back in 2013. He currently lives a very different life alongside his four-legged siblings and Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Loehr Animal Behavior in Weaverville, North Carolina. Teo enjoys playing, making art with household items, and recycling.

Without further ado, Theodore in a video of slow-motion play with his “sister,” Lili (and Lili is making the slow-mo dinosaur noises).

 
 

 

Theodore shows many excellent play behaviors, but it’s ‘rolling onto the back’ that’s the focus of a new study by Kerri Norman and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge and University of South Africa. Their question is something you may have wondered yourself: when a dog rolls onto his or her back during play, what does it mean? Is it an indication of submission akin to a person tapping out or screaming “Uncle,” or is it instead “a combat maneuver adopted as part of an ongoing play sequence”?

Rolling onto one’s back is classically seen as a submissive gesture that “curtails active aggression.” Passive submission describes an individual voluntarily or “spontaneously [rolling] onto its back.” In a classic 1967 paper in American Zoologist, Rudolf Schenkel describes passive submission as “[expressing] some kind of timidity and helplessness.” Like coming out with your hands up or waving a white flag, passive submission is thought to prevent aggression.

Some have suggested that the rollover is still about ‘preventing aggression’ even when performed during dog-dog play. Owners observing playing dogs from the sidelines often take this a step further — the dog spending more time on its back is labeled ‘submissive’ or ‘subordinate’ while the dog on the top is ‘dominant.’ These labels often fit with a person’s worldview about dogs and asymmetries in relationships.

What if rolling over means something different when it’s during play? Norman and colleagues set out to investigate the meaning and function of rollovers during play. They wanted to know whether “rolling over onto the back and adopting a supine position” is an “act of submission” and serves to hinder subsequent aggression, or is instead, “executed tactically, for combat purposes” to solicit play, avoid a play bite (defensive maneuver), or deliver a play bite (offensive maneuver).

The researchers collected data on dog-dog play in two different contexts: staged play sessions where a medium-sized female dog was paired with 33 new play partners of various breeds and sizes, and 20 YouTube videos where two dogs played together — with half the videos including similarly sized dogs and the other half including dogs of different relative sizes.

Why the roll? 
First, not all dogs rolled over during play. This was particularly notable in the staged play sessions, where only 9 partners rolled over during play. In the YouTube videos, 27 of the 40 dogs rolled over, and rolling over occurred in both similarly-sized and differently-sized pairs. If your dog isn’t a roller during play, you’re in good company.

For dogs who did roll over, what did it mean? The researchers examined all instances of rolling over to see whether they were associated with submission — decreasing play, remaining passive, or being performed by the “smaller or weaker” partner — or were instead associated with the interactive, combative nature of play, where roll overs preceded “launching an attack (offensive), evading a nape bite (defensive), rolling in front of a potential partner (solicitation) or rolling over in a non-social context (other).”

The findings are stark: the smaller of the two play partners was not more likely to rollover than the larger dog. Additionally, “most rollovers were defensive and none of the 248 rollovers was submissive.” Here is a figure for you visualizers out there:

But once on their backs, maybe this is where submission kicks in? For example, a dog could go on his back to avoid a neck bite and then lay motionless, suggestive of passive submission. But that’s not what the dogs did. The researchers report, “no dog rolled over in response to an approach or aggressive action by the partner and did not remain passive in its back.” Instead, like you saw in the video of Theodore, the Playing Wonderdog, once on their backs, dogs in the supine position both blocked and launched bites at their partner.

What does this mean?
Wondering about why dogs do what they do seems to be an international pastime. But assuming that a dog rolling onto his back during play is akin to saying, you “came on too strong” or, ”OK, you won this round!” seems like a mistranslation. In some contexts, rolling onto the back is certainly associated with fear, or defusing or preventing aggression, but this new study reminds that ‘rolling over,’ like many behaviors, does not have a single, universal meaning. Instead, rolling over during play is often just playful. I think Theodore would agree.

1.13.2015, 9:00 PM Updates

I am happy that so many people are discussing this study! Here are a few more important points about rolling over and dog play:

1) When two dogs are playing, rollovers most often facilitate play. For example, a dog on its back often engages in playful sparring with another dog, delivering or avoiding neck bites, or engaging in open-mouth lunges. The researchers in the above study found that the majority of in-play rollovers were part of play fighting (meaning the ‘fighting’ was itself playful, not real fighting). The important takeaway is that rolling over during play is about play, it is NOT about ‘aggression’ as this Daily Mail headline incorrectly states.

2) Another way to think about rolling over in play is as a self-handicapping behavior because it helps dogs of different sizes or sociabilities play together. Self-handicapping is instrumental to play, and it implies that a dog is tempering his or her behavior in some way. For example, during play, dogs do not deliver bites at full force, and a larger dog might roll over to allow a smaller dog to jump on or mouth him. In Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz describes the behavior: “Some of the largest dogs regularly flop themselves on the ground, revealing their bellies for their smaller playmates to maul for a while—what I called a self-takedown.” The researchers in the above study note that “some of the present data indicate that the bigger dog is more likely to [rollover].” Self-takedowns can be a type of self-handicapping behavior that promote play.

This post is reprinted with permission and originally appeared on Scientific American.

New Year's Hopes

The day before Thanksgiving I received an animal control call from a woman who had recently found a pregnant stray Rott/Shep type dog and taken her home. The finder tried to find the dog’s owner but no one claimed her and 8 chunky puppies were born soon after. Unable to keep them and desperate about what to do with a large, protective mama and her 8 newborns, she called the shelter.

I told her that I would impound them through the shelter but then take them home to foster. I picked the family up, photographed mama and posted her on the shelter website and took them straight home where she would have a quite place to raise her babies. Ideally, puppies should be raised inside the house, however, I work ten to twelve hour days and have a house full of other pets. An 80 pound mama and 8 babies inside with me gone all day doesn’t work. What I have set up is a little shed and spacious kennel area with a floor heater that goes under the bedding and keeps it quite cozy. I settled the little family in on some soft blankets and let mama get used to her new digs.

I named the mama Bonnie and she did a wonderful job with her babies. The first 3 weeks or so with newborns is pretty easy. Mama does all the feeding and clean up and I just scoop up after her, change the bedding every day or two and keep her bowls full. I also try and pick up each puppy for a moment or two to make sure they are gaining weight and get them used to being handled.

Around 3 weeks of age puppies get fun. They also start to be a lot of work. Their eyes are open, they are walking around, the little tails start to wag and they learn to bark and growl and play. They start eating soaked kibble and mama stops cleaning up. For the next 5 weeks it seems like all I do is refill massive bowls of food and scoop up a few hundred piles of puppy poop a day. They start wanting to interact with people and I bring them inside as often as possible. I encourage gentle visitors of all ages to come and cuddle and socialize the babies and give them a great start. Puppies are so much work but they are also good for the soul. They kiss and cuddle and nibble fingers while mama gets a tummy rub. Just spending time with them is a great stress reliever.

As the New Year gets underway, I prepare to send Bonnie and the babies to adoptive homes soon. My hope for 2015 is that each of them gets a wonderful home where they will be cherished as adored companions.

 

Do you have any hopes or plans for you your dogs or others in the coming year?

Your Dog Feels You
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions

Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.

The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?

In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)

The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object.  They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.

The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.

What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.

If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.

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