Good Dog: Studies & Research
Puppies are most responsive to this type of talk
Baby talk may make grown-ups sound ridiculous to many people, but that doesn’t take away from its value. Extensive research has shown that human infants are better able to learn language when we talk to them using higher pitches and at a slower speed than when we talk to other adults. This style of communication is called “infant-directed speech”, and it’s natural for many folks to slip into it when addressing young individuals, especially those who are not yet verbal.
A new study called “Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it?” suggests that the same principle may be operating when humans speak to dogs—another of our social partners who don’t fully understand our language. People tend to talk to their dogs in a way that is similar to the way they address children. There may be value in this “dog-directed speech” as well.
This study investigated the behavior of two species, and reported a major finding about each of them. On the human side, only women were studied, and researchers found that they used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages, but used higher pitches when they were talking to puppies than when addressing fully grown dogs. For the canines, this worked out well based on their age-related responses to the way we talk to them. Adult dogs were equally responsive to normal speech and dogs-directed speech. Puppies, however, became more engaged when addressed with dog-directed speech than when the women spoke to them as they normally talk. Specifically, it was the higher pitch in the dog-directed speech that influenced how attentive puppies were.
There are many questions that flow naturally from this study and its intriguing results. Do men talk to their dogs with higher-pitched, slower speech patterns, and does the age of the dog influence the degree to which they do it? Do dogs who look more juvenile because of larger eyes, shorter muzzles and bigger heads elicit dog-directed speech more than dogs who have a more mature look? Does dog-directed speech facilitate language learning in dogs as it does in human babies?
Do you talk to your dog using a different speaking style than the one you use for adult humans?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
How Closely Are They Linked?
I’m interviewing a new client whose dog tends to bark and charge and nip the heels and dan- gling hands of retreating strangers. Her dog is smallish and stocky, with a coarse, medium-length coat of mottled blue-gray, black, white and brown. His nose and ears are pointy. While I reassure her that his behavior actually makes sense from his doggy point of view, a little voice in my head whispers, “What did she expect? She got a Cattle Dog.” I have little difficulty discounting the client’s own plaintive claim that she’s had Cattle Dogs all her life and this is the first one who’s acted this way. “You were lucky until now,” my little voice says, assuming those dogs were somehow the exceptions. But when another client complains that his large, square-headed, short-coated, yellow dog is growly around his food bowl, I take his statement that “none of my other Labs have done this,” at face value. The current dog is clearly the exception. After all, my little voice says, “everyone knows Labs love people.”
My little voice is probably wrong.
So why not use breed as the way to choose the particular puppy or dog who’s likely to help us fulfill the dream of taking a perfectly behaved, friendly dog to cheer the lives of people in nursing homes, be endlessly tolerant with our kids or have the kind of indefatigable enthusiasm for retrieving that makes a good contraband-sniffing dog? How about using breed stereotypes to guide public policy decisions on whether some dogs are more likely than others to present a danger to people, or simply to assess whether that dog coming toward us means us good or ill?
Turns out it’s not that simple.
And even reliable identification of the ancestry of a mixed-breed dog by itself wouldn’t help us predict an increased likelihood of known, genetically driven traits — say, the blood-clotting disorder that plagues Dobermans or the heart defects of Cavaliers. The parents of any mixed-breed dog have, by definition, waded out of the closed gene pool that makes purebred dogs such fertile ground for genetic research. The inevitable inbreeding of purebred populations, combined with a phenomenon called genetic drift, gradually decreases overall genetic diversity; more and more animals have fewer and fewer variable traits, including characteristics that aren’t deliberately selected for or against. But as researchers found with a colony of wolves in Sweden, even inbreeding so severe that it causes infertility can be reversed by the introduction of just one outsider. So, if we could demonstrate such a thing as “acting like a Beagle” or “acting like a Basenji,” there would be little reason to expect either one from the offspring of a Beagle/Basenji pairing.
But what about those purebred Basenjis and Beagles and Cattle Dogs and Afghans and Golden Retrievers? Can’t we expect them to behave consistently in ways that resemble the work at which they were once selected to excel?
Yes and no.
And yet, every single one of her ancestors, going back scores, perhaps even hundreds, of generations, was hyper-motivated to chase. They would not have had the opportunity to reproduce otherwise. Racing Greyhounds are bred for two things only: a keen inclination to pursue small, fast-moving furry things and the physical ability to do it at great speed. Racing industry insiders estimate that only about 70 to 80 percent of the dogs who result from this ruthless selection process are keen enough to race. Now, a 75 percent incidence of a trait sounds pretty high. You’d certainly take those odds in Vegas at the roulette wheel. But this is a trait that’s already extremely common across the species; it is, in all likelihood, the most widespread of the predation behaviors of hunting, stalking, chasing, killing, dissecting and eating first observed and described by the famous wolf ethologist, David Mech. Most dogs already do this. If you take more complex behaviors that are actually selected against in the wild, like compulsively fighting other dogs and failing to respond to the doggy body language equivalent of “crying uncle,” for example, your odds of reliably producing the behavior through artificial selection go down dramatically. This explains how so many of the so-called “game-bred” dogs from fight busts (like the ones rescued from Michael Vick’s fighting operation) have gone on to live companionably with other dogs as relative couch potatoes in normal homes.
Reliably increasing the likelihood of complex behaviors through selective breeding isn’t easy. And racing Greyhounds are one of only a handful of dog breeds where this is still even attempted. Since the advent of modern purebreds in the late 19th century and the subsequent closing of breed registries, selection criteria have focused almost exclusively on appearance. Qualities of temperament are sometimes mentioned, although not in ways that can be practically applied in the show ring, where — as biologist Ray Coppinger has pointed out — the behavior required is standing, and to a lesser degree, trotting alongside a handler. Most purebred dogs come out of this selection system.
So these days, when people look fondly at the breed they fancy or angrily at the one they fear and say to me, “They’re not like other dogs,” I remind my little voice to recite, “Well, actually, they kind of are.”
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The same genomic regions affect human social behavior
The remarkable social abilities of dogs include the many ways that they are able to interact with humans. Dogs seek out humans for food, companionship, assistance and information. They have evolved these social skills throughout their recent evolutionary past because of the advantages of communicating and cooperating with people. Genetic changes in the domestic dog over thousands of years are the source of these behavioral changes, but there remains a lot of variation in both canine genetics and canine social behavior.
A recent study (Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders) investigated behavioral and genetic variation in hundreds of Beagles with similar upbringing and similar previous experiences with humans. Researchers studied the dogs’ social behavior by presenting them with an impossible task. Dogs were given a container that held three treats, but only two of them were accessible to the dog. The third treat was impossible for the dog to obtain. Using video, researchers quantified the time dogs spent looking at the people in the room with them, approaching them, and being in physical contact with them. Different dogs showed different tendencies to seek human interaction when they faced an unsolvable problem.
To investigate possible genetic sources of this behavioral variation, the scientists used a process called GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Study). Basically, this means that a large number of parts of the entire DNA of each dog were examined to discover potential genetic variants that were associated with the social behavior. This study shows a strong genetic aspect to differences in human-directed social behavior by dogs. Researchers found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In some cases, specific alleles (gene variants) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact.
Interestingly, the genes associated with variation in dog behavior in this study have been found to be related to various behavioral issues and social behavior complexes in humans. Specifically, autism, bipolar disorder and aggression in adolescents with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) are all variations in human behavior whose genetic contributions come at least in part from the same areas of DNA that influence human-directed social behavior in dogs. This suggests that dogs may be an appropriate and valuable model for studying these aspects of social behavior in people.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
New study shows links with anxiety, impulsiveness and fear
We know that premature gray hair in people is a result of a variety of influences. Many parents swear that their kids are making them go gray. Before and after pictures of U.S. Presidents show an astounding increase in gray hair in eight—or even four—years. Of course, genetics is also known to play a role, as is disease. A recent study called “Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in dogs” in the journal “Applied Animal Behavior Science” suggests that premature grayness in dogs may be correlated with a number of factors, including some with emotional associations.
Their results are based on a study of 400 dogs in the age range of 1-4 years who were recruited with flyers at veterinary clinics, dog shows and dog parks. Each dog was photographed from the front and from the side so that the degree of graying on their muzzle could be assessed. They were scored 0 = no gray, 1 = frontal gray, 2 = half gray and 3 = full gray. Additionally, their guardians filled out a 42-question survey. Data on anxious behaviors, impulsive behaviors, fears, size, age, sex, number of dogs and cats in the household, time spent unsupervised outdoors, whether they were spayed or neutered, medical issues and participation in organized sports or activities were collected.
Researchers found an association between graying on the muzzle and anxious behaviors, impulse behaviors, fear of loud noises, unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. The extent of grayness was positively correlated with age, and female dogs were more gray than male dogs. There was no link found for premature grayness with size, being spayed or neutered, medical problems (which were rare in the sample), reactions to thunderstorms, fear of unfamiliar places, number of dogs or cats in the household, time spent outside unsupervised or being involved in organized activities.
Dogs were only included in the study if it was possible to determine how gray their muzzles were. (White dogs and those with merled coloring didn’t make the cut, causing 43 dogs to be excluded from the study.) The people who evaluated the photographs were not the same people who had any knowledge of the questionnaires, which prevents accidental bias in assessment of the degree of graying. The survey was designed so that guardians were unaware of the purpose of the study. (They were simply told it was a study involving dog lifestyle.) In addition to questions that assessed the factors of interest in the study, there were so-called distractor questions to prevent people from biasing their answers based on what they thought researchers were investigating. Distractor questions included “Does your dog have hind limb dew claws?”
This research adds to our understanding of premature graying in dogs, and what’s most exciting about that is the possibilities it opens for helping dogs. Being anxious or fearful and struggling with impulse control are hard on dogs, and any help dogs receive for these issues can be beneficial. If premature graying provides a tip-off to professionals that these issues may be present, intervention may be more likely to happen and to happen faster. If behaviorists, veterinarians, trainers and other dog professionals know that a gray muzzle in a young dog may indicate that the dog suffers with these issues, perhaps they will more thoroughly assess them, or refer them to other people for evaluation. It’s just another way that people can potentially make life better and easier for many dogs.
Do you have a dog who has gone prematurely gray? If so, do you think anxiety, impulsivity or fear is an issue for your dog?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Studies on dogs following gestures.
AT TWO WEDDINGS, darling ring bearers paraded down the aisle proudly holding the prized objects. They couldn’t have been more than six. When they suddenly stopped—as six-year-olds tend to do—to look at something on the ground, guests leaned into the aisle and pointed toward the beaming faces ahead. Smiles filled the crowd as they continued on their way.
At one wedding, the ring bearer was a little boy, and at the other, a dog.
If we’ve spent any time with companion dogs, we aren’t surprised when a dog stops to check out the ground. It also shouldn’t surprise us that a dog might go where we point. Pointing is about social communication, and it often feels like dogs are right there with us, sometimes even more than members of our own species.
In the last 20 years, dogs’ attention to our communicative gestures—particularly this thing we do with our arm and finger—has attracted enormous attention from researchers around the globe. In fact, the pointing gesture is so fundamental that seemingly no article on the canine mind is complete without a sentence such as “dogs read our gestures, like pointing, more flexibly than any other animal” (New York Times), or—more boldly in Time—“While chimps and even wolves lack an innate ability to understand what pointing means, dogs come by the knowledge naturally.”
These statements tend to produce any number of reactions in dog owners, from “Obviously,” sometimes accompanied with a side of, “Why do they bother to do this research anyway?” to the flip side: “My dog doesn’t do that … what are they talking about?” Or even the more nihilistic view: “Sure they do, but who cares?”
Here’s why we care: this one little gesture, in all its complexity, could be a core feature of the intimate bond we share with dogs.
Since the late 1990s, researchers have tried to uncover why and how dogs pick up on our cues. Initially, key questions focused on whether their ability to follow the pointing gesture arose from our long-standing co-evolutionary history or, alternatively, if they learned the behavior over the course of their individual lives.
Pointing Is About Us
Pointing is something we humans do as part of our social communication, and it is useful only because we all agree on how it should be interpreted. Imagine if your point were perceived as, “Hey! Check out my fingertip. No dirt under my nail. Wonderful, huh?” Not exactly useful for communication. Fortunately, we understand that pointing creates a shared experience beyond our fingertips; pointing draws someone’s attention past our outstretched index finger to something out there in the world.
This cooperative gesture serves us well. Yelling, “Look out!” is only somewhat informative, but yelling, “Look out!” and pointing can help a fellow human locate and respond to a Frisbee sailing in at head level or Godzilla rampaging down Fifth Avenue. Communication achieved.
Despite our mothers’ reminders that pointing is rude, it has a function: it reflects our ability to hold shared attention with others, which could also indicate that someone else is aware of the same thing that we are. Pretty meta. Joint attention can thus be associated with an ability to infer others’ mental states, which is considered an important social capability in humans.
At about six months, children start following the gaze and gestures of others. We start pointing around our first birthday and become increasingly point-savvy as we age. When toddlers see something of interest and point at it, they become excited when we also look. They will also point when seeking something or to provide information (I want that. You dropped something). Regardless of how it’s used or understood at any given age or moment, pointing intrinsically aids our communication with one another.
Do Dogs Get the Point?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the academic interest in the canine mind that blossomed in the late 1990s was actually largely about us, investigating to what extent dogs responded to our communicative gestures— notably, our pointing. In research labs around the world, it has been a pointing party ever since.
Watch any program covering research into the canine mind and you’re bound to hear mention of studies involving a dog, two cups and a pointing human. The experiment, commonly referred to as the object-choice task, follows some variation of this procedure: a dog first learns he can get a treat for approaching either of two identical cups. He then watches as a person points to one of the cups. Will the dog follow the point to the cup?
Human children are quite good at this task, and numerous studies confirm that dogs are, too. From an early age, dogs are highly responsive to this gesture. Dogs do well when a person points with a foot, or bows or nods. They’ll also respond to what’s commonly referred to as a “momentary” point, in which the person points and then lowers his or her arm before the dog makes a choice. They will follow the point even when a person stands by one cup and points at the other. Although we all know smell is a major player in the canine world, it doesn’t appear to factor greatly into dog performance; when food is hidden under one cup and nobody points, they don’t do so well. Some researchers describe their performance as “remarkable” and “outstandingly flexible.”
Not all species catch our communicative drift. A bee that flies into your car will never be aided by your outstretched arm pointing toward the open window. Given dogs’ long history with us, researchers wondered whether canine sensitivity arose through the domestication process—in which case, wolves, their closest relative, might be less adept in this task—or, on the other hand, whether it’s a product of learning and dogs’ individual life experiences. Or maybe the reality is not so black-and- white. What underlies their highly flexible ability?
Wolves do not follow our gestures as flexibly as dogs. Nor do chimpanzees, our closest relatives. This isn’t to say that wolves (or chimpanzees) can’t or don’t do it. Extensively socialized wolves and enculturated chimps—those highly familiarized with human behavior— can follow our points, but dogs generally respond more readily and easily, and wolves need more exposure to perform similarly. In 2002, Brian Hare of the Duke Canine Cognition Center pulled together then-current research on dogs, wolves and chimpanzees and, in an article in Science, concluded, “Dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.”
Both Nature & Nurture Point to Success
More immediate genetic influences, like artificial selection, could also influence dogs’ skills. Márta Gácsi and colleagues at the Family Dog Project in Budapest found that while all dogs tested followed the point better than chance would predict, dogs bred for cooperative work (like gun dogs) performed better than those bred for independent work (like guard dogs). All the dogs in the study were living as pets and none had received special training, implying that genetics plays a role at some level in enhancing dogs’ ability to follow our gestures.
At the same time, individual life experiences could also contribute to a dog’s responsiveness. For example, the reactions of shelter dogs to our pointing gestures vary widely, and a small group of intensively socialized lab-raised dogs did not fare well in the task.
Lucia Lazarowski of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Auburn University, one of the investigators in the lab-raised dog study, saw their challenges first-hand. But when she later adopted Captain, a study participant, and informally examined his responsiveness to pointing, she found he performed much better in her home: “He actually looked in the direction I pointed and sniffed in the area I was pointing to. During the test, however, he was one of the more non-responsive dogs. Now, we like to play a game where I toss small treats around the room for him to hunt, and if he can’t find them, sometimes I’ll point to them, so he probably has picked it up from that.” Captain’s transition to canine pointfollower highlights that learning and life experiences can factor into the skill.
The person behind the point can also affect dog performance. Amy Cook, CDBC, CPDT-KA, conducted a study on the topic at the University of California, Berkeley; reporting in Animal Cognition, Cook noted that when owners and strangers were pitted against one another (in what I hope was described as a “point-off”), dogs tended to follow their owners, even when they received no reward (i.e., the point did not lead to the dog getting food). As Cook explains, “Dogs make decisions by attending preferentially to social signals from humans with whom they have become more familiar.” Many of us think it’s all about us, and our dogs might agree.
If dogs respond to the pointing gesture based on whose finger is doing the work, then again, it looks like life experiences could be controlling the switches. But not so fast: Cook suggests that this unique spin on the issue— dogs being more attentive to a familiar person—could have been shaped by evolutionary pressures to bond with a caretaker. Attachment relationships between dogs and their humans are well documented and, as Cook says, going with your person could be “a successful strategy in the long term.”
Isn’t it nice when everyone can be right? Dog responsiveness to our communicative gestures could be a product of their evolutionary history plus their ability to learn rapidly once in a human environment. In a 2009 article in Behavioural Processes, Pamela Reid, CAAB and vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, reflects on what’s behind canine responsiveness to our social cues: “Dogs are too skilled for it to be pure trial-and- error learning. Yet it is improbable that a versatile behavior like this would be largely innate.” She suggests that what we see in dogs is an adaptive specialization of learning. “In essence, they come with a built-in head start to learn the significance of people’s gestures, in much the same way that white-crowned sparrows acquire their species-typical song and ducklings imprint on their own kind.” This fits in well with what is understood of instinctual or innate behaviors. As Jack Hailman explained in his inf luential piece in Scientific American in 1969, “How an Instinct Is Learned,” species-specific behaviors require some amount of experience and development.
When Patricia McConnell, CAAB, mulled over the pointing research on her blog, “The Other End of the Leash,” she agreed that dogs could be “predisposed to learn to follow a pointing gesture.” McConnell also highlights something you might have seen yourself: present a very young puppy with an outstretched finger and that puppy is going to approach your fingertip, not follow it to a distant location. McConnell’s point is that point-following in puppies is not automatic, although they learn it very easily.
To this, Reid adds, “Just because a skill appears early in development does not preclude learning. It does, however, demand that puppies be highly attentive to the actions of humans, a tendency that has been confirmed in studies of dog-human attachment.”
What Do You Understand, Dog?
What do dogs think of all this? What does it mean to be a dog who “understands” our pointing gesture?
A 2013 article by Ádám Miklósi and József Topál of the Family Dog Project in Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes by highlighting that “dog social competence [appears] sometimes ‘infant-like’ or ‘human-like,’ but, importantly, the underlying mental mechanisms may turn out to be quite different.”
It’s hard enough for us to figure out if, for example, our boss is merely suggesting that we do something or telling us to do it. The same is true for dogs and the pointing gesture. Do dogs see pointing as an imperative—“You. Go there.”—or as simply providing information or a helpful suggestion—“I recommend that you go there.”—a subtle yet meaningful difference. A 2011 article published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Helene Pettersson and colleagues found that, like children, dogs are more likely to follow a point when it is accompanied by a cooperative tone of voice as opposed to a prohibitive tone. At the same time, dogs sometimes follow the point to an empty container, leading some to wonder whether, under certain circumstances, dogs might perceive the gesture as a command.
Like humans, dogs seem to distinguish when communication is—or is not—intended for them, although they could be relying on a more limited set of cues. Numerous studies find that initiating eye contact and using high-pitched vocalizations help dogs understand that the communication is for them. Setting is also important. In a 2011 study reported in PLoS ONE, Linda Scheider and colleagues found that if a person points to a location where a dog has never experienced reinforcement, the dog is not as likely to follow as he would be if he had previously received reinforcement there (making me wonder whether the ring-bearer dog would spontaneously follow the point to the altar).
At some level, every pointing gesture suffers from a fundamental ambiguity: we might be pointing to a particular object, or we might be pointing to a specific space that happens to be inhabited by a particular object. Usually, we can figure it out without too much cognitive difficulty. Even nine-monthold infants understand when pointing refers to an object as opposed to the place where the object is located.
How about dogs? In a study recently published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by Tibor Tauzin and colleagues, an experimenter pointed at one of two different toys on either side of him. Before the dog could approach, the experimenter switched the location of the objects in full view of the dog. The researchers wondered whether the dog would approach the object that had initially been pointed at but that was now in a new location, or to the original location of the point. The result? Dogs did not follow the object to its new location. Instead, they approached the old location, which seems to imply that, for the dog, pointing could be more about the location than the pointed-at object.
For those of us who live or work with dogs, much of the value of pointing studies lies in what we do with the results. Despite being unflashy, the pointing gesture is actually rich in dimensions and angles that we can explore with our dogs. As Reid recommends, “Take note of your body gestures. Does your dog attend to your gestures in all cases, or only in certain contexts? Dogs are often way more sensitive than we can grasp. They’re not trying to fool you or trick you, get one over on you or cheat the system. Attending to our gestures is just what dogs do. It’s who they are.”
Cook, A., et al. 2014. My owner right or wrong: the effect of familiarity on the domestic dog’s behavior in a food-choice task. Animal Cognition 17: 461–470.
Franco, F., and G. Butterworth. 1996. Pointing and social awareness: declaring and requesting in the second year. Journal of Child Language 12(2): 307–336.
Gácsi, M., et al. 2009. Effect of selection for cooperation and attention in dogs. Behavioral and Brain Functions 5:31.
Hailman, J.P. 1969. How an Instinct Is Learned. Scientific American 221(6): 98–106.
Hare, B., et al. 2002. The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298(5598): 1634–1636.
Hochman, D. 2014. You’ll Go Far, My Pet. New York Times, April 11.
Kaminski, J., et al. 2011. How dogs know when communication is intended for them. Developmental Science 15: 222–232.
——— and J. Nitzschner. 2013. Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability. Learning and Motivation 44(4): 294–302.
Lazarowski, L., and D.C. Dorman. 2015. A comparison of pet and purpose-bred research dog (Canis familiaris) performance on human-guided object-choice tasks. Behavioural Processes 110: 60–67.
Miklósi, A., and J. Topál. 2013. What does it take to become ‘best friends’? Evolutionary changes in canine social competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(6): 287–294.
Pettersson, H., et al. 2011. Understanding of human communicative motives in domestic dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 133(3-4): 235–245.
Reid, P. 2009. Adapting to the human world: Dog’s responsiveness to our social cues. Behavioural Processes 80(3): 325–333.
Scaife, M., and J.S. Bruner. 1975. The capacity for joint visual attention in the infant. Nature 253: 265–266.
Scheider, L., et al. 2011. Domestic dogs use contextual information and tone of voice when following a human pointing gesture. PLoS ONE 6(7): e21676.
———, et al. 2013. Do domestic dogs interpret pointing as a command? Animal Cognition 16: 361–372.
Tauzin, T., et al. 2015. What or where? The meaning of referential human pointing for dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Comparative Psychology 129(4): 334–348.
Udell, M., et al. 2008. Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues. Animal Behaviour 76: 1767–1773.
Zimmer, C. 2009. The Secrets Inside Your Dog’s Mind. Time, September 21.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The saying, “Love me, love my dog” implies that your dog is a problem—something negative in the whole package of You. Could anything be more ridiculous? While it’s easy to assume that our dogs make us more lovable and even more desirable (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?), is there any evidence for this point of view?
The answer is yes! Multiple scientific studies—extensions of research into dogs’ many social effects—have concluded that dogs enhance human attractiveness. Scientists have known for some time that people are more attentive to and socially engaged with those accompanied by a dog than those who are not. We also know that bystanders are more helpful toward people with dogs. Other studies have extended our understanding of the canine influence on human social activity by investigating more personal, intimate types of behavior in the areas of courtship, dating and romance.
In one study, having a dog with him enhanced a man’s success when he asked women out. In this experiment, the man asked 240 women for their phone number— 120 times while accompanied by a dog and 120 times without one. He followed the exact same script whether the dog was with him or not.
The difference the dog made in his success rate was astounding. When he gave his pitch without a dog, 11 out of 120 women (9.2 percent) were sufficiently charmed to give him their number. When he was with a dog, 34 out of 120 (28.3 percent) complied with his request. With a dog, his success rate was three times as high. Never mind a wingman— if you want to meet someone, you need a wing-dog!
Studies have shown that people’s helpfulness and social interactions are prompted most strongly by light-colored dogs and puppies. An adult black dog was part of this experiment; researchers speculated that if the man had asked women for their phone numbers while accompanied by a light-colored puppy, his success might have been even higher. (Guéguen and Ciccotti 2008)
Why do dogs (of any kind) increase our appeal? To most dog lovers, explaining how dogs can make someone more attractive is pretty straightforward: people are more attractive if they have dogs because they have dogs! Quite simple —also quite circular. As it happens, there are a number of other, more satisfactory explanations.
Many people report that those with dogs seem safer, friendlier and more approachable; by being a conversation starter, the dog may also ease social awkwardness.
Interacting with companion animals can result in changes in our oxytocin and other hormone levels, and that may affect the opinion others have of us as well. Those who feel a rush of oxytocin in the presence of a dog may transfer the warm, fuzzy feelings to the person with the dog. So, dogs may make people attractive by prompting emotions that are extended to them by association.
This may not be good for our ego, but it can still be good for our love life!
Does This Dog Make Me Look Cute?
Another study surveyed 1,210 people on Match.com who owned pets—both cats and dogs—to learn if and how pets influenced their views about potential dates. One of the main findings was that dogs had a greater positive impact on the perceived level of attractiveness than did cats. (Gray et al. 2015)
Interestingly enough, there was also a gender component. The study concluded that dogs make men attractive to women to a greater degree than they make women attractive to men. Women were more likely to find someone attractive because they had a dog, and were also more likely to find a photo of a dog in an online dating profile a turn-on. Not surprisingly, more men than women ’fessed up to using a pet to attract a potential date. (I know of no studies investigating how dogs affect attractiveness between members of the same sex, but it would be intriguing to see what patterns emerge once that area has been explored.)
Compelling biological forces suggest the reasons for this gender difference, and there’s a large body of work on the subject. The basic theory is that, because women must commit a large amount of energy and effort to produce offspring (pregnancy and often greater caretaking responsibilities for the children), they need to be more selective about who they choose as a mate. Men, biologically speaking, are capable of producing lots of offspring with a minimum of, um, effort, so they can afford to be less discerning in their choices.
Of course, there are many exceptions, and in today’s world, the division of child-care responsibilities is often more equitable than in the past, but our evolutionary heritage still influences our behavior. Women are often attracted to men who have something to offer to potential offspring.
Having a pet may be a plus for several reasons. The expense of a pet may be a variation on finding a man in an expensive car attractive. If it demonstrates wealth, it could be appealing, since a lot of evolutionary research suggests that females prefer males with substantial resources to devote to offspring. The social skills observed when a man interacts with his dog may also add to his allure. Just like men with resources to share, those capable of emotional commitment and those with strong parenting skills are more likely to contribute to the successful raising of children. Dogs can enhance perceptions of all of these qualities.
Although the effects of having a dog were different for the two groups, the majority of men and women surveyed said that finding out that a date had adopted a pet made that person seem more attractive. (Cat guardians were less likely to feel this way than dog guardians.) As everyone in this study was a pet guardian, the increased attractiveness of someone with a pet may simply reflect our natural inclination to like people with whom we have things in common.
The youngest people in the survey— those in their 20s—were more likely than members of any other age group to express an attraction to someone because of a pet. They were also more likely to judge a date based on that person’s reactions to their own pet than were members of other age groups. Perhaps being a pet guardian makes these younger men and women seem more grown-up, mature or responsible, which could be a plus for younger people.
Another explanation for this strong age effect is the growing trend toward considering dogs to be members of the family. An increasing number of people describe their dogs (and cats) this way, and it’s possible that dogs influence mate choice by revealing a person’s emphasis on family. Compared with older people, who may be new to the concept or may never have fully embraced it, the youngest people in this study may have always placed this level of importance on their pets.
As it happens, Bark readers of all ages seem to be more likely than the general population to consider dogs as family members. In reply to a blog post asking about this, two-thirds of the answers used words that implied familial relationships: dogs were their babies, or they were their dogs’ moms and dads.
Dad or Cad?
Another study warns women to be aware of how dogs influence their views. Men can be attractive because they seem romantic, caring and interested in long-term attachments; in other words, they would make good dads. Another type of man is more of a cad—dangerous, exciting and into chasing women. Women are often attracted to cads for short-term relationships and to dads as long-term partners, but dogs can interfere with that classification.
Women taking part in this study were provided with descriptions of both cadlike and dad-like men. They said that overall, they preferred to marry the dads, but many expressed an interest in shortterm affairs with the cads. These same characters were then described to women with only one detail changed—they were now all dog guardians. Dogs made both dads and cads more attractive, but the difference was greater for the cads. In fact, if cads had dogs, they were even more appealing than dads with dogs.
Dogs appear to supply cads with the perfect combination of traits; attractive, exciting cads seem to have had their bad qualities erased by having a dog. The potential for manipulation is obvious: a man exploiting the shortterm cad-like strategy can block negative perceptions of his style by having a dog. As the authors of the research study write, “Thus, a cad with a dog is especially attractive to women, as they may believe they are getting the best of both worlds.” (Tifferet et al. 2013)
It’s wonderful to know that dogs can make men, and, to a lesser extent, women, more attractive. Now, if only scientists could find evidence that dog hair has the same powerful effect!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Does playing after training sessions make a difference?
Many people know that going to sleep after studying helps consolidate the information and commit it to long term memory. (It works out beautifully if the subject was putting you to sleep anyway!) For dogs, a different approach may be worthwhile. Researchers conducted a study in dogs called “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)” and concluded that physiological arousal—in the form of play—following training has a positive effect on learning in dogs.
The subjects of the study were all Labrador Retrievers, which allowed the researchers to make sure that differences between breeds did not influence their results. The dogs were trained in a choice task between two objects that looked and smelled differently. Training took place in sessions of 10 trials with short breaks to walk around outside or rest in a waiting area in between each session. Dogs were considered successful at the choice task when they chose the right object eight or more times in two consecutive trials of 1O.
Once dogs reached this level of success, they either rested for 30 minutes in the presence of their guardian and one of the researchers, or they were active for 30 minutes. Specifically, that activity consisted of 10 minutes of walking on leash, then 10 minutes of off leash play (fetch with a ball or with a disc or tug, depending on the dog’s preference), then 10 more minutes of walking on leash. The dogs in each group (rest or activity) were monitored for salivary cortisol levels and heart rate to confirm that their states of physiological arousal were different. (They were.)
The following day, all of the dogs were tested again to see how many trials it took them to relearn the task. The difference between the two groups was remarkable. The dogs who walked and played after training took an average of 26 trials to relearn the task. The dogs who rested after training needed an average of 43 trials to reach that same level of success. The differences could be a result of chemical changes in the brain.
The brain is affected by chemicals that influence memory, whether those chemicals are naturally produced by the body or given as a drug. Various studies have shown that hormones and drugs that induce high arousal can have positive effects on memory if the brain is exposed to them after training.
The results of this study provide further evidence that arousal following training can be beneficial, since dogs in the active group were more highly physiologically aroused than dogs in the rest group. However, I’m not convinced that the data show that play itself is the key factor that caused the difference between the two groups in the study. Perhaps the walking part of the post-training activity played a role, and it may be that any form of exercise could be beneficial following training.
I hope researchers conduct studies in the future to investigate whether it is truly the play itself that improves learning in dogs. I would love to know if playing during training (as opposed to after) enhances dogs’ learning, whether because of physiological arousal, or simply because it might be easier to learn when having fun.
Whether play is the cause of the difference between the two groups or not, I’m definitely in favor of playing with dogs after training sessions. It provides a mental break for dogs after the hard work of training. Most dogs love training, and the fun of play prevents a negative feeling about the end of a session. Both training and play can strengthen relationships between people and dogs and doing them back-to-back may be especially powerful. I often play with dogs after a training session, and if that enhances their training because of positive effects on memory, that’s another bonus.
Do you play with your dog after training sessions?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
New research explores how kids respond
The dogs of childhood are important beyond imagination. Kids describe them as their best friends and as their siblings. Many children view themselves as the primary recipient of their pets’ affections. Often, young people see little difference between the close connections they have with the human members of their family and those they share with the non-human ones. Because of most animals’ shorter lifespans, though, many kids must face the death of a dog, cat, or other pet. Their emotional response to the loss of a pet and what they say about the experience is the subject of the dissertation research and further study by Joshua J. Russell, PhD.
According to Russell’s research, children’s responses to the death of a pet are predictable in some ways. Kids had a much easier time dealing with the death of a pet if the animal reached an age where death was expected. Early deaths, especially unexpected ones, made it much harder for children to come to terms with the loss. Russell points out that kids have a strong sense of fairness related to whether their animals lives as long as they were “supposed to” or whether they died before that. Acceptance was easier for kids whose pets lived far into the normal lifespan for the species. Generally, kids understood that hamsters and fish don’t live very long, but many struggled to understand that our dogs, cats and rabbits will often die before we do. When a death happened because of an accident, it was especially difficult for kids to cope.
Many children who Russell interviewed felt that euthanasia was the right thing to do if a pet was suffering. Kids were split in their views about getting another pet after the death of another. Some felt that it was disloyal to the previous pets and their relationships with them. Others felt certain that they would feel better if they got a new pet and that the new relationship didn’t have anything to do with the old one.
It’s always difficult to deal with the grief of losing dogs, and it hurts my heart (a lot) to consider the pain that it causes children. It’s no fun to think about the way it feels for children to lose a pet because we can empathize all too well, no matter how old we are.
What do you remember about what is was like when a dog from your childhood died?
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A vet speaks out on genetically modified pet food.
Most dogs now dine on some type of genetically modified (GM) food, often in the form of corn and soy in their kibble. As these ingredients increasingly enter the food supply, we have one more reason to wonder if our shopping choices might be harming our pets.
More animal feeding studies are needed, experts say, and a recent long-term, peer-reviewed report points out why. It found that a diet of GM corn and soy led to higher rates of severe stomach inflammation in pigs, which are physiologically similar to dogs.
Robert Silver, DVM, a Boulder, Colo., holistic vet, tackled the issue earlier this year when he presented his paper, “Genetically Modified Food and Its Impact on Pet Health” at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference in Kansas City, Mo. Why did he choose this controversial topic, one that few vets even acknowledge?
Silver—a pioneer in the field of holistic veterinary medical practice—says he was inspired by a seminar he attended in Boulder on GM foods and human health. The speakers included Don Huber, a Purdue University professor, and activist Jeffrey Smith, who discussed problems, including reproductive difficulties, that have occurred in livestock fed GM crops.
“I found this seminar mind-opening,” says Silver, the lone vet in attendance. “I had always believed the PR about GM foods—that they are going to feed the world and are a good outcome of our genetic technology.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the safety of GM crops consumed by humans and animals, considers most GM plants “substantially equivalent” to traditional plants and “generally recognized as safe.” Their regulation involves a voluntary consultation process with the developer before products are brought to market.
Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, disagrees. On its website (responsibletechnology.org), he warns that “nearly all GM crops are described as ‘pesticide plants.’ They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weed killer or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.”
Silver says that while “allergies, GI problems, increased risk of cancer, neurodegenerative conditions” and other ills could all be, in part, related to GM foods, “there is no objective evidence of this yet” in dogs. “However, all vets will agree that there has been an uptick in [these diseases] in the past 10 to 20 years.” The advent of GM foods in the 1990s “fits into this timing of disease increases,” he says.
His presentation referred to studies that raise doubt about the safety of biotech crops, such as one reported in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that genes inserted into crops can carry with them allergenic properties.
Silver says that genetic modification introduces foreign proteins that may encourage allergies, and the widely planted Bt corn, which makes its own insecticide, “could possibly cause leaky gut, the gateway to chronic disease.” Corn is a major component of most commercial pet foods. “The big problem with commercial foods is that they are manufactured at high temperatures and pressures,” which alters them and makes them “potentially more allergenic.” And commercial foods contain industrial ingredients that are “more likely to contain GM and herbicide contaminants.”
A study published last year found that GM crops engineered to withstand the toxic herbicide Roundup must now be doused with even more herbicide, since weeds have also developed resistance to it. Residues of these chemicals on crops can find their way into pet food.
A 2013 study published in the science journal Entropy reports that the heavy use of Roundup could be linked to Parkinson’s, autism, infertility and cancers. It goes on to report that residues of Roundup in food can interact with, and enhance, the damaging effects of other environmental toxins. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study’s researchers say.
According to Silver, heightened sensitivity to dietary ingredients “is probably what we are seeing with GM foods. It is of concern that this may be driving the increase in GI problems in pets.” Although gluten probably does account for some problems with grain consumption, “I think that grain-free diets, if they are also soy free and contain protein from animals not fed GM crops, can help many dogs, due to being GM free—and not due to some allergy or gluten issue.”
To a holistic doctor, food is medicine, and Silver strongly recommends home meal preparation from individually sourced ingredients to avoid feeding GM ingredients, especially to pets who have other health problems. “I am truly a holistic practitioner in that I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benbrook, C.M. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 24.
Ordlee, J., et al. 1996. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688–692.
Samsel, A., and S. Seneff. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15 (4): 1416–1463.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The discovery of one of the last pure landrace dog breeds, the Sardinian Sheepdog (Cane Fonnese, Fonne's Dog) was celebrated by scientists in the October 11, 2016 issue of the journal Genetics.
The study revealed that the large flock guardian dog travelled the same ancient migration routes as the Sardinian people. And like their people the dog's genetic signature remains distinctly isolated.
A landrace is a regional type of domestic animal that over a long period of time has adapted to its purpose and environment through unregulated selection for behavior. Landrace dogs were common up through the early 1800s, but most disappeared as a consequence of cross breeding with dogs introduced by travelers.
The Sardinian Sheepdog is a breed because it's been created within an isolated population of animals. Sardinian shepherds allowed only their best working dogs to reproduce.
What's appealing to scientists is that the dog remains uncontaminated by modern artificial breeding practices, resulting in a robust genome. Sardinian dogs don't all look the same, but all have in common a high drive to guard sheep.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Corsica. The island was populated in multiple waves of people as far back as the upper paleolithic.
The study also revealed that the Sardinain Sheepdog originated from sight hounds developed in the near and middle east as well as large mastiff-like sheep guarding dogs from an area around Hungary.
Their genomic map mirrors human migration. Just like their dogs, the people of Sardinia derive from Hungary and the middle east.
Science Daily offers a reader-friendly description of the significance of the study: "Just as Sardinian people have long provided a wealth of genetic insights to scientists, the canine natives are an example of an isolated population that could prove a powerful resource for finding genes that influence health and behavior."
Read more about Cane Fonnese, landrace animals, and Sardinia.
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