Good Dog: Studies & Research
Studies on dogs following gestures.
June 30 2016
AT TWO WEDDINGS, darling ring bearers paraded down the aisle proudly holding the prized objects. They couldn’t have been more than six. When they suddenly stopped—as six-year-olds tend to do—to look at something on the ground, guests leaned into the aisle and pointed toward the beaming faces ahead. Smiles filled the crowd as they continued on their way.
At one wedding, the ring bearer was a little boy, and at the other, a dog.
If we’ve spent any time with companion dogs, we aren’t surprised when a dog stops to check out the ground. It also shouldn’t surprise us that a dog might go where we point. Pointing is about social communication, and it often feels like dogs are right there with us, sometimes even more than members of our own species.
In the last 20 years, dogs’ attention to our communicative gestures—particularly this thing we do with our arm and finger—has attracted enormous attention from researchers around the globe. In fact, the pointing gesture is so fundamental that seemingly no article on the canine mind is complete without a sentence such as “dogs read our gestures, like pointing, more flexibly than any other animal” (New York Times), or—more boldly in Time—“While chimps and even wolves lack an innate ability to understand what pointing means, dogs come by the knowledge naturally.”
These statements tend to produce any number of reactions in dog owners, from “Obviously,” sometimes accompanied with a side of, “Why do they bother to do this research anyway?” to the flip side: “My dog doesn’t do that … what are they talking about?” Or even the more nihilistic view: “Sure they do, but who cares?”
Here’s why we care: this one little gesture, in all its complexity, could be a core feature of the intimate bond we share with dogs.
Since the late 1990s, researchers have tried to uncover why and how dogs pick up on our cues. Initially, key questions focused on whether their ability to follow the pointing gesture arose from our long-standing co-evolutionary history or, alternatively, if they learned the behavior over the course of their individual lives.
Pointing Is About Us
Pointing is something we humans do as part of our social communication, and it is useful only because we all agree on how it should be interpreted. Imagine if your point were perceived as, “Hey! Check out my fingertip. No dirt under my nail. Wonderful, huh?” Not exactly useful for communication. Fortunately, we understand that pointing creates a shared experience beyond our fingertips; pointing draws someone’s attention past our outstretched index finger to something out there in the world.
This cooperative gesture serves us well. Yelling, “Look out!” is only somewhat informative, but yelling, “Look out!” and pointing can help a fellow human locate and respond to a Frisbee sailing in at head level or Godzilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue. Communication achieved.
Despite our mothers’ reminders that pointing is rude, it has a function: it reflects our ability to hold shared attention with others, which could also indicate that someone else is aware of the same thing that we are. Pretty meta. Joint attention can thus be associated with an ability to infer others’ mental states, which is considered an important social capability in humans.
At about six months, children start following the gaze and gestures of others. We start pointing around our first birthday and become increasingly point-savvy as we age. When toddlers see something of interest and point at it, they become excited when we also look. They will also point when seeking something or to provide information (I want that. You dropped something). Regardless of how it’s used or understood at any given age or moment, pointing intrinsically aids our communication with one another.
Do Dogs Get the Point?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the academic interest in the canine mind that blossomed in the late 1990s was actually largely about us, investigating to what extent dogs responded to our communicative gestures— notably, our pointing. In research labs around the world, it has been a pointing party ever since.
Watch any program covering research into the canine mind and you’re bound to hear mention of studies involving a dog, two cups and a pointing human. The experiment, commonly referred to as the object-choice task, follows some variation of this procedure: a dog first learns he can get a treat for approaching either of two identical cups. He then watches as a person points to one of the cups. Will the dog follow the point to the cup?
Human children are quite good at this task, and numerous studies confirm that dogs are, too. From an early age, dogs are highly responsive to this gesture. Dogs do well when a person points with a foot, or bows or nods. They’ll also respond to what’s commonly referred to as a “momentary” point, in which the person points and then lowers his or her arm before the dog makes a choice. They will follow the point even when a person stands by one cup and points at the other. Although we all know smell is a major player in the canine world, it doesn’t appear to factor greatly into dog performance; when food is hidden under one cup and nobody points, they don’t do so well. Some researchers describe their performance as “remarkable” and “outstandingly flexible.”
Not all species catch our communicative drift. A bee that flies into your car will never be aided by your outstretched arm pointing toward the open window. Given dogs’ long history with us, researchers wondered whether canine sensitivity arose through the domestication process—in which case, wolves, their closest relative, might be less adept in this task—or, on the other hand, whether it’s a product of learning and dogs’ individual life experiences. Or maybe the reality is not so black-and- white. What underlies their highly flexible ability?
Wolves do not follow our gestures as flexibly as dogs. Nor do chimpanzees, our closest relatives. This isn’t to say that wolves (or chimpanzees) can’t or don’t do it. Extensively socialized wolves and enculturated chimps—those highly familiarized with human behavior— can follow our points, but dogs generally respond more readily and easily, and wolves need more exposure to perform similarly. In 2002, Brian Hare of the Duke Canine Cognition Center pulled together then-current research on dogs, wolves and chimpanzees and, in an article in Science, concluded, “Dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.”
Both Nature & Nurture Point to Success
More immediate genetic influences, like artificial selection, could also influence dogs’ skills. Márta Gácsi and colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest found that while all dogs tested followed the point better than chance would predict, dogs bred for cooperative work (like gun dogs) performed better than those bred for independent work (like guard dogs). All the dogs in the study were living as pets and none had received special training, implying that genetics plays a role at some level in enhancing dogs’ ability to follow our gestures.
At the same time, individual life experiences could also contribute to a dog’s responsiveness. For example, the reactions of shelter dogs to our pointing gestures vary widely, and a small group of intensively socialized lab-raised dogs did not fare well in the task.
Lucia Lazarowski of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Auburn University, one of the investigators in the lab-raised dog study, saw their challenges first-hand. But when she later adopted Captain, a study participant, and informally examined his responsiveness to pointing, she found he performed much better in her home: “He actually looked in the direction I pointed and sniffed in the area I was pointing to. During the test, however, he was one of the more non-responsive dogs. Now, we like to play a game where I toss small treats around the room for him to hunt, and if he can’t find them, sometimes I’ll point to them, so he probably has picked it up from that.” Captain’s transition to canine pointfollower highlights that learning and life experiences can factor into the skill.
The person behind the point can also affect dog performance. Amy Cook, CDBC, CPDT-KA, conducted a study on the topic at the University of California, Berkeley; reporting in Animal Cognition, Cook noted that when owners and strangers were pitted against one another (in what I hope was described as a “point-off”), dogs tended to follow their owners, even when they received no reward (i.e., the point did not lead to the dog getting food). As Cook explains, “Dogs make decisions by attending preferentially to social signals from humans with whom they have become more familiar.” Many of us think it’s all about us, and our dogs might agree.
If dogs respond to the pointing gesture based on whose finger is doing the work, then again, it looks like life experiences could be controlling the switches. But not so fast: Cook suggests that this unique spin on the issue— dogs being more attentive to a familiar person—could have been shaped by evolutionary pressures to bond with a caretaker. Attachment relationships between dogs and their humans are well documented and, as Cook says, going with your person could be “a successful strategy in the long term.”
Isn’t it nice when everyone can be right? Dog responsiveness to our communicative gestures could be a product of their evolutionary history plus their ability to learn rapidly once in a human environment. In a 2009 article in Behavioural Processes, Pamela Reid, CAAB and vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, reflects on what’s behind canine responsiveness to our social cues: “Dogs are too skilled for it to be pure trial-and- error learning. Yet it is improbable that a versatile behavior like this would be largely innate.” She suggests that what we see in dogs is an adaptive specialization of learning. “In essence, they come with a built-in head start to learn the significance of people’s gestures, in much the same way that white-crowned sparrows acquire their species-typical song and ducklings imprint on their own kind.” This fits in well with what is understood of instinctual or innate behaviors. As Jack Hailman explained in his inf luential piece in Scientific American in 1969, “How an Instinct Is Learned,” species-specific behaviors require some amount of experience and development.
When Patricia McConnell, CAAB, mulled over the pointing research on her blog, “The Other End of the Leash,” she agreed that dogs could be “predisposed to learn to follow a pointing gesture.” McConnell also highlights something you might have seen yourself: present a very young puppy with an outstretched finger and that puppy is going to approach your fingertip, not follow it to a distant location. McConnell’s point is that point-following in puppies is not automatic, although they learn it very easily.
To this, Reid adds, “Just because a skill appears early in development does not preclude learning. It does, however, demand that puppies be highly attentive to the actions of humans, a tendency that has been confirmed in studies of dog-human attachment.”
What Do You Understand, Dog?
What do dogs think of all this? What does it mean to be a dog who “understands” our pointing gesture?
A 2013 article by Ádám Miklósi and József Topál of the Family Dog Project in Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes by highlighting that “dog social competence [appears] sometimes ‘infant-like’ or ‘human-like,’ but, importantly, the underlying mental mechanisms may turn out to be quite different.”
It’s hard enough for us to figure out if, for example, our boss is merely suggesting that we do something or telling us to do it. The same is true for dogs and the pointing gesture. Do dogs see pointing as an imperative—“You. Go there.”—or as simply providing information or a helpful suggestion—“I recommend that you go there.”—a subtle yet meaningful difference. A 2011 article published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Helene Pettersson and colleagues found that, like children, dogs are more likely to follow a point when it is accompanied by a cooperative tone of voice as opposed to a prohibitive tone. At the same time, dogs sometimes follow the point to an empty container, leading some to wonder whether, under certain circumstances, dogs might perceive the gesture as a command.
Like humans, dogs seem to distinguish when communication is—or is not—intended for them, although they could be relying on a more limited set of cues. Numerous studies find that initiating eye contact and using high-pitched vocalizations help dogs understand that the communication is for them. Setting is also important. In a 2011 study reported in PLoS ONE, Linda Scheider and colleagues found that if a person points to a location where a dog has never experienced reinforcement, the dog is not as likely to follow as he would be if he had previously received reinforcement there (making me wonder whether the ring-bearer dog would spontaneously follow the point to the altar).
At some level, every pointing gesture suffers from a fundamental ambiguity: we might be pointing to a particular object, or we might be pointing to a specific space that happens to be inhabited by a particular object. Usually, we can figure it out without too much cognitive difficulty. Even nine-monthold infants understand when pointing refers to an object as opposed to the place where the object is located.
How about dogs? In a study recently published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by Tibor Tauzin and colleagues, an experimenter pointed at one of two different toys on either side of him. Before the dog could approach, the experimenter switched the location of the objects in full view of the dog. The researchers wondered whether the dog would approach the object that had initially been pointed at but that was now in a new location, or to the original location of the point. The result? Dogs did not follow the object to its new location. Instead, they approached the old location, which seems to imply that, for the dog, pointing could be more about the location than the pointed-at object.
For those of us who live or work with dogs, much of the value of pointing studies lies in what we do with the results. Despite being unflashy, the pointing gesture is actually rich in dimensions and angles that we can explore with our dogs. As Reid recommends, “Take note of your body gestures. Does your dog attend to your gestures in all cases, or only in certain contexts? Dogs are often way more sensitive than we can grasp. They’re not trying to fool you or trick you, get one over on you or cheat the system. Attending to our gestures is just what dogs do. It’s who they are.”
News: Guest Posts
January 14 2015
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?
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?
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.
News: Guest Posts
with free live streaming
June 1 2014
If you think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, Thank You!
That means you stopped by Dog Spies in May 2013 and read a post with the same title. But that was #SPARCS2013, and this is #SPARCS2014; same concept, different location, topics and speakers. During this year’s 3-day event, June 20-22 2014, leading canine researchers will cover three general areas of research that get at the core of what it’s like to be a dog:
Topics that many dogs are sometimes better acquainted with than their humans:
SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training and Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory. From June 20-22, 2014, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action — either in-person in Newport, RI, or via free Live Stream to your living room (or bathroom, if that’s where you prefer to take your canine science).
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the conference goals: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science. It is an international initiative to discuss what is known (and not known) about dog behavior, biology and cognition. No hooey included.
As a new addition to #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? — featuring myself and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb — will moderate. In conferences, I find that all the great info being discussed moves very fast. A question pops into your mind and you need clarification, but the speaker is already on the next topic.
At #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? will act as your pause button, fielding questions and expanding on speaker content. We’ll monitor questions and comments on social media, moderate the daily panel at the end of each day (posing your pressing questions and diving into hot-button topics), and we’ll hold post-talk interviews with each speaker (of course, speakers should be prepared to field questions on Ryan Gosling and his dog). We’re putting a large emphasis on engaging both the live and online audiences, so follow along at @DoUBelieveInDog and #SPARCS2014.
Here are the #SPARCS2014 featured speakers along with their respective talks topics. Visit the conference webpage for talk abstracts and learning goals:
Ray Coppinger, PhD
Why do breeds of dogs behave differently? –> Julie comment: No simple answer here!
Simon Gadbois, PhD
Applied canine olfactory processing: What trainers need to know beyond learning theory.
It is not what you like, but what you want that counts: The neurochemistry of behaviour and motivation.
Sam Gosling, PhD
Overview of research on temperament and personality of dogs.
Kathryn Lord, PhD
Barking and conflict.
Patricia McConnell, PhD
I see what you’re saying: Translating conflict-related visual signals.
Coyotes, Koalas and Kangaroos: What the behavior of other animals can teach you about your dog –> Julie comment: I haven’t seen a talk with this scope before!
James Serpell, PhD
Individual and breed differences in aggression
What the C-BARQ can tell us about human temperament –> Julie comment: C-BARQ stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. Get acquainted with it here.
The influence of owner/handler personality on the behavior of dogs
Monique Udell, PhD
Integrating ethology, learning theory & cognition in animal training
Clive Wynne, PhD
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? –> Julie comment: I’m sure trainers and owners want to know, “Do some approaches to dog behavior have more of a basis in learning theory than others?”
Prescott Breeden, BM, CCS
The phenotype of molecules: Why nature vs. nurture is the wrong question –> Julie comment: And the right question is…
#SPARCS2014 also features short presentations from emerging researchers. Check out the SPARCS Facebook page for speakers and topics.
Each year, the SPARCS conference and initiative is made possible by you. “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated.” Check out donation and membership opportunities.
Stay in touch with the SPARCS initiative on Facebook and Twitter.
Did you catch #SPARCS2013? Maybe you watched the Free Livestream or even attended in person. What was it like? And what are you looking forward to at #SPARCS2014?
This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
News: Guest Posts
May 22 2014
I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”
The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.
So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**
But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:
A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?
**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!
Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.
This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
News: Guest Posts
May 15 2014
Unfortunately, this is true. I’ll explain.
Dogs are trained to sniff out a lot of things, and some of those “things” are human remains. Human remains, except those in a cemetery, are usually not out in the open; someone doesn’t want them found or there has been an accident. But bring your own Scooby Doo to the case, and you might have a fighting chance.
But how do dogs get into detection mode? Training can take many different forms, but customarily, trainers present dogs with a target odor (the smell of interest) and control odors (that are not of interest). They are trained to alert to the target odor and ignore the controls. Sometimes trainers use a scent detection board, like the one below that the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center uses when training dogs to alert to ovarian cancer.
To train dogs to identify and ultimately find a particular scent, trainers need samples. For different types of cancer, these samples might come from the blood, urine or tissue of a person with the target cancer. But what do you use if you are training a dog in human remains detection (thankfully given the innocuous-sounding acronym HRD)? If you are a HRD handler, how do you train and practice with your dog? Where do you get your, um, samples? Is this Dexter’s side gig?
One solution is to use nonhuman remains, as long as they are a suitable proxy for humans. A recent study by Cablk et al. (2012) compared the chemical compositions of decomposing tissue from a pig, cow, chicken and human. The researchers were investigating the volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the “smell particles”—released by animals and humans.
The important question in the HRD field is: which VOCs are produced when a human body decomposes? Are they similar to or different from VOCs of decomposing animal tissue? Identifying the specific compounds—and their ratios—could help when training dogs, or in creating synthetic training samples. You know, so you don’t need a fridge full of—well, you get the picture.
When comparing decomposing animal and human tissue, the results were clear:“Although there were compounds common to both animal and human remains, the VOC signatures of each of the animal remains differed from those of humans.” Thank goodness. You are not a pig. Nor are you a cow. But yes, you are kind of a chicken: “The VOC signatures from chicken and human samples were most similar, sharing the most compounds of the animals studied.”
By contrast, VOCs in pig remains were not so similar to VOCs found in human remains. “In addition to sharing only seven of 30 human-specific compounds, an additional nine unique VOCs were recorded from pig samples, which were not present in human samples.”
HRD trainers sometimes use pig remains to train dogs, but given their VOC differences, are pig remains the best best? Is it better to train on human, synthetic human or even chicken remains?*
We don’t usually confuse humans with chickens, but this similarity we just can’t shake. It seems Marty McFly was wrong. Maybe we are chickens.
Cablk et al. 2012. Characterization of the volatile organic compounds present in the headspace of decomposing animal remains, and compared with human remains. Forensic Science International, 220, 118–125.
Hoffman et al. 2009. Characterization of the volatile organic compounds present in the headspace of decomposing human remains. Forensic Science International, 186, 6–13.
This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
News: Guest Posts
Book Review: Dog Food Logic
May 8 2014
How wonderful if you could pose this question just once in your dog’s life and receive a perfect answer that would last a lifetime. Imagine if there were a ‘right’ formula, and once you know it, you could feed your dog forever and ever on the same exquisite diet. Your dog, in return, would be the happiest and healthiest doggie camper there ever was.
Unfortunately, “What should I feed my dog?” is not the question we should be asking. In fact, “What should I feed my dog” is akin to the infomercial that comes on at 3 AM informing you that if you just buy this Mega-Blast Belt (for three low monthly payments of $19.99), six-pack abs will follow. Both fall into a quick-fix category — the “right” product, the “right” answer — that unfortunately doesn’t exist.
Instead, the question that will last you a lifetime is, “How should I feed my dog?” This is where Linda Case, M.S. comes to the rescue. I don’t mean to be superhero-y about it, but Case’s new book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices is a unique work designed to help readers make informed, science-based decisions on what and how to feed our beloved companion dogs. As one veterinarian offers, “Dog Food Logic cuts through the noise and chaos and provides pet owners with a rational, science-based approach to evaluating their pets’ dietary needs and their feeding choices” (The Skeptvet Blog).
Linda Case knows a thing or two about animal nutrition. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She maintains the well-received blog, The Science Dog, and has written numerous books on companion animal nutrition, training and behavior. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Cats in Context conference at Canisius College in 2013 (Case spoke on cat nutrition, and I gave a talk on research into whether dogs and cats in the home can be friends — they can).
But back to dog food. If you are expecting a dry read on dog nutrition and diet, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dog Food Logic is a page turner, jam-packed with real-world examples that you can easily relate to. Case unpacks label claims, fad diets and the wonderfully persuasive field of pet food marketing. What does it mean when a food is ‘recommended by veterinarians or breeders?’ Who is Chef Michael, and should you trust him? And who’s keeping our dog food safe?
Throughout the book, Case discusses research into canine nutrition and diet in a way that is easy to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun. For example, studies have investigated:
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and since I can’t possibly summarize all the topics and findings covered in Case’s book, the above are intentional teasers. To find out more, read the book.
Case, L. 2014. Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices. Dogwise Publishing.
Case, L. The Science Dog blog.
Hecht, J. 2013. Dogs and Cats in the Home: Happiness for All? Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog?
McKenzie, B. The SkeptVet blog.
This article first appeard on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
News: Guest Posts
January 24 2014
As my Twitter bio says, I’m interested in your dog’s urine. I’m not kidding around here. For a recent Animal Behavior class, I buddied up with a doggie daycare and followed dogs on their afternoon walks. Yes. I was that person walking around NYC with a hand held camera, trailing dogs and video taping them as they peed.
This wasn’t a hypothesis testing experiment, I was simply trying to gauge what parts of urination were easily measured in a naturalistic context. I checked out things like urination duration, urine placement, leg position, leg height, tail position and post-pee scratching. If another dog was present, I got to see whether there was any over-marking (peeing on another dog’s pee) or adjacent marking (peeing nearby). I was just measuring stuff as you often do when starting to investigate why animals do what they do.
I’m not the only researcher interested in your dog’s urine. Patricia Yang and colleagues at The Georgia Institute of Technology have a similar interest in measuring things that might seem odd to measure. They’ve submitted the abstract The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet to the Annual Fluid Dynamics Conference held by the American Physical Society in late November.
Using “high-speed videography” and “flow-rate measurement” they investigated independent urination styles, such as the dripping of small mammals and the “jetting” of large mammals. New Scientist interviewed Yang (and Discover has a piece out as well), and the coverage touches on urethra length, gravitational pull and the number of seconds it takes to empty bladders. I eagerly await how the published study links Newtonian physics to urine!
Truth be told, maybe I wanted to write this post so I could write “jetting” of large mammals, and show this video. Also, I want to go on vacation with these people*:
But as you’ve seen, urine does not begin and end with the jetting of large mammals. Dog urination is pretty awesome and a number of researchers are holding a figurative magnifying glass up to it (and you can too!). Some dogs let it all out at once — although, I’m pretty sure that’s not called “jetting”) — while others let a little out at a time. And then of course, there’s how they do it.
A recent study by Wirant and McGuire (2004) found that female Jack Russell Terriers assumed a number of urination positions, including the squat-raise (most common), squat, arch-raise, combination and handstand. They found that females“used the squat-raise and arch-raise postures more when off their home area then when on their home area.” If dog urination has a social function, it might make sense to present your urine in different ways depending on where you are and who you are encountering, don’t you think?
Here’s what you can do: When you’re out walking your dog, pay attention to their urine. Do they assume a different position if you take them to an area where they’ve never been or go infrequently? Or do they pull out the same tricks no matter where they are?
Leave your urine reports below, and share early and often. My business is urine, and it can be yours too.
Photo: Flickr Nature’s Fire Hydrant via Mike Finkelstein Creative Commons
Pham et al. 2013. The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet. Bulletin of the American Physical Society. 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted
News: Guest Posts
January 17 2014
Does it smell weird in here to you?
You know what I’m talking about. That nagging feeling that something smells “different,” but you just can’t put a finger on it. This has been my life for the last three days. Day after day, I’d enter the living room and think, “Did it always smell like that in here? It smells different, right? What is that!?”
On the fourth day, I finally sat down on the couch to read a book. On the coffee table before me sat a bowl of chestnuts. They had yet to be roasted. “Chestnuts don’t have a smell,” I thought. To the right of the chestnuts, the remote. Electronics, also void of smell (although my Game Boy got moldy, and that smelled). Then, I saw it. Next to the remote sat the biggest, most obvious thing on the table, the centerpiece you might say. A large, overripe cantaloupe. It had been there for 6 days and with the radiator pumping out heat (because it is so cold!), the cantaloupe was starting to mush, and that mush was permeating the air and my nostrils. How could I miss it? It was the most prominent thing in the room. Yet day after day, I missed that the gnarly cantaloupe was behind the new stench.
That’s how I feel about dogs. Not that they are starting to smell (although some of them might be), but that despite them being major parts of our lives, we can overlook the important bits.
I left 2013 by posing a question: How Well Do You Know Your Dog? Part 1. The answer: If judging by smell, you know your dog pretty well. In one study, people could identify the smell of their dog compared to an unknown dog in a “smell test.” I finished Part 1 suggesting that while we might be attuned to some nuanced bits of our dogs — like their smell — we’re not attuned to all parts of them, like behavior. I’ll explain.
Is Snoopy happy?
We know happy! But…
But fear was different. Study participants who were dog professionals did a better job identifying fear compared to both dog owners and people with little dog experience. The authors suggest that “professional experience with dogs aids proficiency in interpretations of fearful behavior.” It didn’t matter how many years the dog professionals had spent working with dogs; they had the same proficiency in identifying fear.
So why did dog professionals do so much better in identifying fear? One reason could be that professionals looked at more dog body parts for clues, such as the eyes, ears, mouth and tongue, while non-professionals looked at fewer body parts, focusing primarily on legs, paws and tails. More details in the figure provided by Wan et al. (2012).
The researchers summarize: “The results of the current study are among the first to demonstrate that the perception of an emotion in dogs can be associated with human observers’ level of dog experience.”
While many of us love dogs to pieces (Buzzfeed reminds me of this on a daily basis), noticing and interpreting their subtle behaviors can take practice. That’s okay! Behavior observation can be learned.
Keeping an eye out for fear
What does fear look like? It can include a wide variety of body parts and body postures. Wan and colleagues explain, “…fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size – crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs.”
Maybe, in certain contexts, you notice fearful behaviors in your own dog and want to help decrease it. Like gymnasts, fear is flexible. Just as dogs can sensitize to stimuli, so too can they habituate. With classical- and operant-conditioning techniques, behavior management, and maybe some professional assistance (see below), dogs can have a modified outlook on life. What does a modified outlook look like? Check out Masey’s progress over at Reactive Champion.
Sometimes we just can’t piece it together that the cantaloupe smells. But of course, a trained fruit expert would exclaim, “Julie! Your cantaloupe is rotting.” You see where I’m going with this. Sometimes dogs are fearful, and the clues are right in front of us, like a rotting cantaloupe. Learn to recognize dog fear behavior. This is a blog about dogs after all. Not cantaloupe.
Photo: a muddy dog…..is a happy dog via bambe1964; National. Flickr Creative Commons
References & Recommended Reading
This article first appeared on DogSpies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Six leading canine researchers talk about their work.
January 9 2014
I think you would have fun playing Mad Libs with your dog’s life, filling in the blanks to match Siena or Diego’s unique personality and interests. After all, your intimate knowledge of your dog is unparalleled. You know what he thinks of the neighbor’s dog, and whether he prefers balls to sticks or carrots to apples. But our canine experts also know your dog, albeit in a different way. Scholars who focus on canine behavior, cognition and wellbeing, they collectively have more than a century of experience in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behavior, animal welfare, zoology, anthrozoology and psychology under their belts. Read on to find out what they think about dogs, and what they want you to know.
What common misconceptions do people have about dogs?
McConnell: Often it seems that we get things backwards with dogs. Sometimes it seems like people think of dogs as furry people, when they’re not. The flip side is that there are similarities between dogs and humans, and people need to be compassionate and understanding of what a dog is going through; those are often the times people dismiss the similarities.
For example, dogs need social contact and social approval, and a lot of what they do is motivated by fear. These are all very human ways of being, and I think people forget to extend these attributions to dogs; instead, they ascribe other motivations, like wanting to be dominant or trying to beat the system. On the other hand, dogs can be less like us than people tend to think. We use hugging to communicate love, approval and maybe support, whereas dogs often see that as threatening.
Otto: That dogs are perfectly happy to sit on a couch all the time. I think they learn to adjust to that, but are they reaching their potential? And is the relationship reaching its potential? I love teaching tricks because you can spend five minutes a day with a dog or a cat and do things that stretch their brains and change your relationship. I think that is such an important piece of the relationship, and it’s something we’re not routinely giving our dogs.
McGreevy: That dogs want to please humans—almost as though dogs are hard-wired to makes us happy. This beguiling notion paradoxically excuses all sorts of abuse when people interpret training failures as willful disobedience. Dogs want to have fun with us, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they get their kicks from being slaves to our needs, wants, desires and foibles.
Horowitz: That dogs understand right away what’s going on in a household. In other words, if you say something once, it’s somehow clear to them how they are supposed to behave, what you’d like them to do and how the day is going to go. Dogs are pretty flexible, and they adapt fairly well, but a lot of what we call misbehavior is just lack of mutual understanding: ours of the dog’s needs and abilities and theirs of what we expect of them. I find that a bit disheartening.
Another misconception is the alpha dog concept. For some reason, the concept of the hierarchy of the pack was a compelling idea that stuck and was popularized. It’s not only really damaging and simplifying, it’s wrong by analogy.
Miklósi: That the dog is a wolf and also that the dog is a child. I like to say that dogs are dogs, and that’s the most difficult way to try and conceptualize dogs!
Bradshaw: That dogs are reconstructed wolves. I keep coming across journalists who interview me and still believe the old stuff about keeping a dog in its place—that the dog wants to dominate you and take over your house. They’ve read this stuff, taken it in and believe it to be true. Ultimately, it’s bad for dogs. When I speak with people, they seem interested to learn that the UK military trains dogs, whether patrol or sniffer dogs, with play as the reward; punishment-based training has been phased out. When people hear that marines know they can train a dog better by playing a game than by hitting, they take note.
What’s your framework for thinking about the dog?
Horowitz: My consideration of the dog is for his umwelt—his perspective. I’m interested in the way the story of domestication and selective breeding combines with the dog’s particular sensory and cognitive abilities to produce the behaviors we see. I’m particularly interested in how we easily interpret those behaviors from an anthropocentric standpoint. Behaviors almost always look different when interpreted from an evolutionary and cognitive standpoint.
Miklósi: When thinking about any species other than ourselves—whether dog, fish or mice—we always have a third-person view. With this in mind, we view the animal based on how it fits into its niche. In our case, the dog’s niche isn’t a rain forest or an ocean but rather, the environment offered by humans. Even if dogs are feral, they are not in the middle of the forest; dogs remain close to humans.
From there, we think about how dogs achieve and maintain relationships with humans. I think this is what makes dogs unique compared to other animals—their relationship with humans is very special.
Bradshaw: I first think about the dog as an emotional animal for whom the primary motivation is to attach to humans. Somehow, through the course of domestication, we have built this into the vast majority of dogs.
The second framework is the dog’s olfactory sense, which we make use of and often take for granted. Dogs’ subjective world is defined, to a large extent, by smell rather than by what something looks like, which is how we define our world. Everybody knows that there are so many uses for the dog’s nose—that when you put your luggage on the conveyer belt in the airport, a dog might sniff it before it’s loaded on the plane—but we don’t readily incorporate their olfaction into our everyday lives with them.
McGreevy: I think of the normal dog as a social athlete and a fun-loving opportunist.
McConnell: Instead of talking about the dog, I find myself wanting to talk about a dog. Dogs are enormously variable, and I see so much frustration and so much suffering because people expect their dog to be one way and the dog behaves in another way.
Just as people are individuals, dogs are individuals. I think it’s critical we understand that we’re not looking at a Golden Retriever or a Border Collie— although I don’t want to dismiss breedrelated traits—but that we’re looking at Frank or Willie or Spot or Martha.
What contributions to the field of dog science are you most proud of?
Bradshaw: When my colleagues and I at Bristol first started exploring separation disorders in dogs, they were thought to be rare—some kind of pathology. All the work we’ve done finds that separation disorders in dogs are not pathologies; they can be a reflection of something normal in dog behavior, which is attachment to people.
Also, my colleagues and I have done a lot of work for sniffer-dog welfare, improving not only the way that detection dogs operate in the field but also the way they are looked after, so they are not just efficient dogs but are happy dogs as well.
McGreevy: My contributions primarily relate to my team’s discoveries in dog behavior, physiology and welfare. We’ve shown how left- and righthandedness in dogs affect a dog’s ability to guide the visually impaired, how dogs’ retinae and brains depend on their skull shapes, and how many breeds’ body shapes predispose them to hip dysplasia. We’ve also developed and validated a scoring system for doggy dementia. On an international level, I helped tackle inherited disorders in dogs—the most preventable form of cruelty—by establishing national surveillance systems, such as VetCompass in the UK and Australia, for veterinarians to report inherited disorders.
Otto: I’m most proud of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the research to come. The center evolved out of my work following the health and behavior of the dogs who assisted after 9/11. It’s quite a landmark study; we are now in the 12th year of monitoring and evaluating the health and behavior of these dogs, and we are also working with a human psychologist to explore the ongoing relationship between the dogs and their handlers. This is the foundation for so much more research in the future.
Horowitz: I think that through our research, and the ideas that I developed in Inside of a Dog, I reminded people of the huge interest in understanding the dog’s point of view. In other words, looking at dog behavior from the dog’s side as opposed to from an owner’s perspective or the perspective of a comparative psychologist, who is interested primarily in mapping nonhuman animals to human animals.
So I think for many people, I helped re-spark the interest in the dog qua dog, and I’m very pleased and happy about that.
McConnell: I would say it’s my focus on the natural history of both humans as primates and dogs as canines, and using these evolutionary heritages to explain and enhance our interactions. My two favorite species have always been people and dogs, and I’m as fascinated by our own behavior as I am of canine behavior.
What needs more research or remains unresolved about the dog?
Otto: I have a sense that working dogs, dogs with a purpose and dogs who have things to do live longer and happier lives. Many pet dogs are frustrated, bored, inactive and fat; it kind of amazes me that a lot of dogs’ lives don’t even meet the environmental- stimulation standards required for rodents living in research labs. We need to think about how stimulation, or the lack thereof, affects dogs’ quality of life.
Miklósi: A better understanding of what makes for good social relationships between dogs and humans, particularly cooperation. For example, “working together” might be quite selfish for dogs in that they are working for a reward, like play or food. Alternatively, research could investigate whether cooperation can be organized such that dogs are cooperating for the sake it.
McGreevy: What I call “dogmanship”— the science of how the best dog folk interact with their dogs. I’m also interested in understanding how our behavior frustrates and confuses our dogs.
McConnell: We still need lots of research on communication: how dogs interpret our behavior, how we interpret their behavior and how accurate our perceptions and interpretations really are. I think that’s most important for companion dogs. Nutrition, diet, physiology and behavior need to be researched as well. I think there is so much in these areas that we haven’t explored yet and need to. Also, research could look specifically at aggression and investigate precipitating factors, putting it all on the table: nature, nurture, genetics, physiology and diet, experience, and learning.
Bradshaw: The whole area of the dog’s olfactory abilities is waiting to be properly understood. We use those abilities, but I don’t think we fully understand them. We know very little about the dog’s vomeronasal organ, and we don’t even agree as scientists on when dogs are using it. I don’t know what the implications of this knowledge would be for companion dogs, but sometimes the most exciting findings arise when doing research for the sake of it; practical value is a byproduct.
What do you wish the average dog owner knew about dogs?
Miklósi: You get out what you put in. If you want a dog as a social partner, that doesn’t mean lying in bed together and watching TV, but going out together actively. That could include learning, teaching, talking or solving problems together. I wish people understood that if they do this, they both would have happier lives.
A great example is olfaction. People think that dogs have fantastic abilities when it comes to smell, but that’s an oversimplification. Dogs have a fantastic potential for smelling, but if the dog spends its whole life in an apartment and never uses its nose, then I would assume that dog would have poor smelling abilities.
The same goes for social interactions. If the dog has no experience meeting other dogs or people, or has never had a task, then that dog will not function properly. And I think this is also a welfare issue. In some cases, street dogs who are rescued and taken to Western countries are worse off because they are alone, have no experiences and sleep all day.
Otto: Dogs are smart and their brains need exercise as much as their bodies. People get that they need to take their dog for a walk, but they don’t always think about needing to exercise the dog’s brain.
McGreevy: Most dogs are better communicators than most people. They are our guides; if we want to master dogmanship, we need to know how to read them. Horowitz: The dog deserves a lot more attention and scrutiny by owners and researchers alike. Particularly, attention to what life is like for this animal who has so cooperatively waltzed into our homes. McConnell: As social animals, one of the things we share with dogs is the duality of wanting to be connected to a group and also wanting to be individuals who can pursue their own desires and wishes as best they can. I think the more we can see dogs in this light, the more respectful we will be of dogs— and they of us. I think we’d get along better, and we’d see fewer behavior problems.
News: Guest Posts
January 8 2014
Your knowledge of your dog is unparalleled: You, not I, know whether she sleeps in the same spot all night or instead has a migratory sleep pattern. You know her affinity for trash, or lack thereof. And telling me her breed, age or name won’t give me access to those intimate details. They are for you to know, and for me to, well, not know.
Recently, researchers at The Queen’s University of Belfast found that our knowledge of dogs extends beyond what we see. Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper of the Canine Behaviour Center in the School of Psychology “examined the ability of humans to identify individual dogs by smell.” (An alternate title could have been, “Turning the Tables: Dogs Aren’t the Only Ones Who Can Sniff”).
In the study, dog owners smelled two blankets — one that had been infused with the individual odor of their dog, and one that had the smell of an unfamiliar dog. In case you ever want to try this at home, to infuse a dog’s smell in a blanket, the researchers placed the blanket in the dog’s bed for three nights with nothing else in there. Dog owners were blindfolded and then smelled the two blankets. The blindfold prevented owners from noticing, for example, that the blanket was covered with their dog’s hair (if anyone out there has figured out a way not to be covered in dog hair, contact me at @dogspies).
So what happened in the sniff test? Owners rocked! Without the help of visual cues, 88.5% were able to accurately say which blanket smelled like their dog (23 out of 26 owners).
While we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as a species who pays much attention to smell, when it comes to those we care about, our nose knows more than we think it knows. Back in the 1980s, researchers learned that mothers who’ve just given birth can identify a t-shirt impregnated with the smell of their newborn. As children age, both mothers and fathers can identify their child’s smell when given the “smell this t-shirt” test. Now we can add our dogs to this list. (If you live with a college-aged male, you might want to avoid the “smell this t-shirt” test.)
I wanted to say goodbye to 2013 with this study because it’s a reminder of how tuned in we can be to our dogs. We rightly allude to dogs as “man’s best friend” and many proclaim to be members of “nations of dog lovers.”
But at the same time, we often get dogs wrong. We think we have a solid understanding of who dogs are and what makes them tick, but animal behavior and cognition research continues to reveal there’s more of a disconnect than we may realize. We make human-based assumptions, rely on old theories and frequently don’t look at actual dog behavior.
Here at Dog Spies, we’ll ring in 2014 with How Well Do You Know Your Dog?: Part 2. I’m on a continual quest to see the dogs right in front of me on their terms, not mine. I hope you’ll join me!
Photo: Girl Smelling Marigolds via moodboard. Flickr Creative Commons.
Porter & Moore. 1981. Human kin recognition by olfactory cues. Physiology and Behaviour 27, 493- 495.
Porter et al. 1983. Maternal recognition of neonates through olfactory cues. Physiology and Behaviour 30, 151-154.
Wells & Hepper. 2000. The discrimination of dog odours by humans. Perception 29, 111-115.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
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