Good Dog: Studies & Research
It was three heavenly days of dog talks!
This past weekend was the first ever North American Canine Science Conference. It was open to people from all over the world studying any aspect of any canine species. A similar event called the Canine Science Forum has been happening every other year in Europe since 2008, and this gathering was modeled after it. The goal was to maintain the high scientific standards and keep the friendly atmosphere, and both goals were met. Although there were a number of talks about wolves, foxes and dingoes, the majority of the presentations were about our best friends, the domestic dog.
The range of topics was extraordinary with talks on evolution and domestication, behavioral genetics, play behavior, the social relationship between humans and dogs, stress, problem behavior in shelter dogs, detection dogs, food preferences, guide dogs, therapy dogs, hormones, clicker training, behavioral evaluations in shelters, helping extremely fearful dogs, attachment styles in dogs, hearing and vision impaired dogs, dogs’ problem solving abilities, and the social effects of synchronized behavior between people and dogs.
The biggest problem while attending the conference was deciding which talk to attend when there were concurrent sessions. The good news is that I never made a bad choice—perhaps it was not possible to do so. Like all 130 attendees, I spent the weekend reveling in the knowledge that was all around us, and in the knowledge that there are now so many people actively engaged in scientific research about canines that a conference such as this is possible. The word on the street is that many Europeans doubted that this conference would be possible much less a success because they were under the impression that there was not enough interest or research on this side of the pond for it to work.
The conference organizers hope to host another Canine Science Conference in two years. It’s a new and fantastic development that the amount of research in this area is substantial enough for an entire conference to focus on it.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Vasopressin and Oxytocin Affect this Behavior
Many hormones influence canine aggression, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Arizona titled, “Endogenous Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Aggression in Domestic Dogs”. This is no surprise given that the hormones testosterone and serotonin have a huge influence on aggressive behavior, but this study provides evidence that high vasopressin levels are associated with aggression, and that high levels of oxytocin are associated with the absence of aggression in dogs. Previous work has shown that oxytocin levels in dogs are elevated by positive interactions with people. (In humans, oxytocin is important in both childbirth and in breastfeeding, and is also known to facilitate social bonding. Vasopressin is also influential in people, with previous research indicating that people with long standing aggression problems have high levels of this hormone.)
Dogs with a history of behaving aggressively to other dogs were recruited for this study, and for every dog recruited, a non-aggressive dog of the same age, sex and breed was also recruited. In one experiment, dogs were on leash and exposed to a recorded sound of a barking dog behind a curtain. then the curtain was pulled back, revealing a realistic dog model with a person. Dogs were also tested with videos showing dogs exhibiting various non-aggressive behaviors. (In control trials, they were also exposed to random sound effects everyday objects such as a box or a yoga ball. No dogs reacted with aggression to these objects.)
In all trials, the dogs’ hormone levels were recorded before and after the exposure to what was behind the curtain. Many of the aggressive dogs did react to the model dog with barking, lunging and growling, but there were almost no reactions to the controls or the videos. The dogs who reacted aggressively had higher levels of vasopressin than dogs who did not react, but no differences in their oxytocin levels were found.
Another experiment in this study compared hormone levels of dogs in an assistance guide dog training program to those of the pet dogs in the study. Researchers found that these assistance dogs had higher levels of oxytocin than pet dogs, but did not find differences in vasopressin levels between these two groups of dogs.
The assistance dogs are from a population of dogs who have been bred for over 40 years for traits such as friendliness, calm temperaments and the lack of aggressive behavior. At the physiological level, they showed a difference in oxytocin levels when compared to pet dogs, suggesting that the selective breeding of these dogs may have been acting on oxytocin levels, and that changes in the levels of that hormone may also influence the likelihood of aggressive behavior.
There is a never ending quest for ways to help dogs overcome aggressive behavior. This study indicates that there may be value in pursuing treatments based on targeting both vasopressin and oxytocin.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Study suggests surprising reason
There are lots of programs that allow children to be with a dog when reading. The goal is to help children read better and to feel more comfortable doing so. There’s a general understanding that the presence of a dog is beneficial to children who are learning to read, but not much data about how dogs help. A new study, “Minor Immediate Effects of a Dog on Children’s Reading Performance and Physiology" tested the effects of dogs on kids who are learning to read. The project found that (surprise, surprise) dogs have a positive impact, and that it is largely due to the effect of dogs on psychological factors.
Austrian children who were 9-10 years old and reading at below average levels participated in this study. Each child was involved in two videotaped reading sessions—one with a dog and one without. (It was randomly determined for each child whether the dog was present in the first or in the second session.) All of the dogs were previously certified as school visitation dogs and regularly interacted with kids in the school setting.
The children’s heart rates and heart rate variability were measured as an assessment of stress and excitement and levels of salivary cortisol were measured multiple times during each session. The quantity of various actions by the children were measured with videotape analysis. Behaviors of interest were those indicating nervousness such as coughing, throat clearing, jiggling the foot or leg, and playing with or fumbling with objects. The amount of time children spent talking or engaged in self-manipulation (such as scratching) was also recorded.
In the comprehension tests, reading performance was similar for children regardless of whether a dog was present. However, in a repeated reading (RR) test, the dog was a factor. For this test, children read a passage of text with the instruction to read as fast as they could while making as few errors as possible. They then had an opportunity to review words that gave them trouble and practice those words before reading the passage again. When children had a dog present in their first session, they did better on the repeated reading test. There was no such effect without a dog present or when the dog was present in the second session, suggesting that in the new situation of an experimental reading test, the dog’s presence offered some benefit. The advantage of a dog’s presence may be due to an increase in arousal and motivation that positively impacted children’s reading performance.
Additional evidence for an increase in arousal comes from the physiological measures taken during the study. Children had higher cortisol levels in the second session when a dog was present than when there was no dog, and kids had higher heart rates in the presence of a dog than when no dog was there. However, increased arousal in the children when a dog was present was not seen across the board. For example, children with a dog present in the first session showed fewer nervous movements than children whose first session did not have a dog present.
Most ideas about dogs helping young readers assume that the mechanism is a calming effect of the dogs on kids, including a decrease in their anxiety. This study suggests that increased arousal, which may add to children’s motivation to read, may be at play. The subjects of this study were children who had problems with reading, but most studies have used children whose reading skills were average, so that could be a factor in the findings. As the authors note, studying children over additional sessions would be more likely to reveal long term differences in reading progress.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The classic self-recognition test gets a makeover for dogs, using smell not sight
Dogs know individuals. Your dog knows I am not you and you are not me. Your dog knows that Rudy down the block is exceptional at playing, but Spot is not.
If dogs can recognize individuals, and your dog is an individual, might your dog know himself? As an individual? Does he have a sense of “me-ness”?
Alexandra Horowitz wants to know what it’s like to be a dog. Even her Twitter bio is dog-aware: “dogs sniff me; I sniff them back.” Her popular writing and research—at Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab in NYC—explore the unique experiences of the dog. Her recent publication in Behavioural Processes tackles the hefty question of their self-recognition.
But first, my teeth.
It was probably a good two hours post-lunch before a bathroom mirror informed me that I had a big piece of green gunk in my teeth. I was able to make this find—accompanied by “#$@&%*! Why didn’t anyone tell me?”—because I know mirrors reflect me, Julie. Faced with a mirror, we see ourselves: our constants (yup, my eyes are still brown), and our changes (#$@&%*! that pimple wasn’t there yesterday). You and I haven’t always done this. An understanding of self-in-the-mirror appears by age two.
Since the 1970s, researchers have used the mirror as a tool to investigate self-recognition in non-human animals. The main components of the mirror-self recognition test are a mirror and an individual who has covertly been marked in some way. In the original mirror test, chimpanzees—who had secretly been marked on the face with red odorless dye—were found to use the mirror to examine the mark. Something about them had changed. They would touch the mark on their face, in the same way you might touch a newly appearing pimple on your face. Not reaching toward the mirror, but instead using the mirror to refer back to themselves. Since then, the mirror test has panned out in a number of species like chimpanzees, dolphins, Asian elephants, and European magpies.
But dogs aren’t on this list. From personal experience or entertaining YouTube videos, you know that young dogs, or dogs unfamiliar with mirrors, often treat mirrors as another dog. Over time, dogs typically come to ignore mirrors. Studies find some dogs use mirrors to gather information or solve a problem—recognizing it as a tool to help see behind themselves or locate hidden food.
If dogs don’t “pass” the mirror test, is this the end of their self-recognition story? Not so fast. Maybe the traditional mirror test isn’t the most fitting medium for questions-of-the-self in dogs.
After all, dogs are beings of smell, not sight. From quivering nostrils to sizable brain regions dedicated to olfaction, dogs are equipped to take in and process smells. Humans have harnessed this skill and taught working dogs to notice smells we designate important, like the presence of cancer or narcotics.
And then there's pee. Dogs find certain smells, like dog urine, intrinsically interesting. Dogs both leave, and investigate, urine deposits. It is pee that leads countless dogs around the world to pull humans this way and that when out on a walk (ok fine, dropped food’s also a high priority). With this in mind, Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, proposed researchers turn to urine for questions of “self” and “other” in dogs.
Bekoff’s “yellow snow” study, published in 2001, explored the topic of “me” / “my” and “you” / “your.” His field experiment was as hands-on as it sounds. Over the course of five winters, when out walking his dog Jethro, Bekoff moved urine-soaked snow to see how Jethro behaved when encountering his own pee versus that of other dogs. Jethro performed as expected, sniffing other dogs’ urine more than his own. Jethro, Bekoff suggested, “clearly had some sense of ‘self’: a sense of ‘mine-ness’ but not necessarily of ‘I-ness’.”
Alexandra Horowitz’s new study takes into account the main features of the mirror test as well as the “yellow snow” study. She devised a test explicitly suited for dogs—an olfactory mirror test. Think about it: In the visual mirror test, individuals attend to something visually different about their appearance. An olfactory mirror test, Horowitz explains, asks whether dogs attend to something changed about their own smell when their “smell image” has been changed by the addition of a new odor. This new odor, of course, aims to be equivalent to the mark, in mirror terms.
Over two experiments, Horowitz measured how long companion dogs sniffed different odor samples simultaneously presented to them in canisters. More sniffing, you can imagine, is akin to more interest. Given my interest in dog attention to chemical information—yes, I mean pee sniffing— you can imagine I was elated to participate in this study and present canisters to 36 wonderful dogs in Experiment 1. Horowitz found that dogs spent more time investigating their own urine that had been marked (modified with the addition of an odor), compared to their urine alone. “Me different,” you might conclude from the dog’s behavior.
Olfactory investigation coded when dog nose within 10 cm of canister. Credit: Horowitz 2017. Figure 3
Or maybe there’s another explanation. Dogs are neophilic, known for their interest in new things. Could it be that dogs spent more time sniffing their marked urine because they were interested in the new smell, independent of their own smell? Dog behavior better translated as: familiar smell over here = boring, but familiar smell mixed with new smell = interesting?
With this possibility in mind, dogs also investigated their own urine marked versus the mark substance itself. These trials eliminated novelty as a factor because both canisters contained the novel odor. In these trials, dogs did not differ in the amount of time spent sniffing each sample. Ruh roh. Where does that leave us?
This is where the scientific process shines. Could it be that the selectedmark itself affected the results? In the classic mirror studies, the mark aims to be inherently neutral, not highly unique or interesting on its own—an ink mark, a piece of tape, a sticker. Ho hum. The mark in Experiment 1 of the olfactory mirror test was a cancerous tissue sample from a dog, an unfamiliar odor (adding novelty) that untrained dogs are said, anecdotally, to notice. It’s possible the cancer cells were too interesting and novel, thus deviating from the neutral mark used in classic mirror tests. In fact, a number of dogs encountering canisters with the mark had pronounced “disgust” responses, highlighting that the selected mark might not have been so neutral.
Horowitz tried a different mark. Experiment 2 tested 12 dogs with a more neutral mark—anise essential oil from the sport of Nose work. In these trials, dogs replicated the main findings, investigating their own urine that had been marked more than their urine alone. But this time, dogs were also more interested in their marked urine than the mark alone, making it less likely that the mark’s novelty explained the results. Horowitz reflects, “This suggests that the longer investigation time is not tied to an interest in the mark, per se, but rather an interest in the mark when it appears in combination with or on the dog's own odour.”
With a new olfactory approach in place, studies will surely continue to refine and tease out the meaning behind dog interest in familiar—yet modified—scents. Inquiries like the olfactory mirror test put the microphone in the paws of the dog. If they could comment, I'd imagine they'd say, “Thank you for considering our pee! After all, pee means so much to us!”
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Research about dogs should account for that
The scientific interest in studying canine cognition has led to the development of a slew of test protocols—some uniquely designed for dogs and others modified from the field of comparative psychology. Many of them employ visual tasks to test dogs’ capabilities. In order to succeed with touch screens, at discriminating fine details in tests of their abilities to follow gazes or gestures, to understand object permanence, to identify faces or facial expressions, their visual perception is part of the equation. However, most of the studies are designed based on human, rather than canine, visual perception.
Canine vision differs from humans in a number of ways. Their ability to perceive a range of color hues is not as good as people’s ability, nor is their ability to distinguish levels of brightness or their visual acuity. Dogs are sensitive to higher flicker rates than people are, which can affect any studies that use moving items on computers or on televisions. There is evidence that dog vision is even more sensitive to movement than human vision.
Since visual perception abilities are not consistently accounted for in many studies with dogs, it is hard to know whether the test protocols are accurately assessing canine cognition. The results may be affected by visual capabilities instead. Researchers recently tested the hypothesis that visual perceptual differences between dogs and people could affect the performance in visually-based tasks using a free online tool (http://dog-vision.com) that converts images to settings that match what humans or dogs can see best. They report their results in the study “Do you see what I see? The difference between dog and human visual perception may affect the outcome of experiments”.
The test subjects in the study were humans, and they were asked to decide which side was indicated by a person in a series of photos. The photos showed a woman indicating a direction (right or left) by either pointing that way with her arm extended, by turning her head or by moving the gaze of her eyes in that direction without moving her head. People were tested with photos in their original form (set for human vision) and in a form altered for canine vision.
Participants in the study could correctly choose the direction of all three sorts of cues in the unaltered (human vision setting) photos. In the photos that were altered to the dog-vision setting, they could identify the cues in the pointing with extended arm and with the head turn quite well. However, their performance dropped considerably when asked the direction indicated by the gaze of the woman’s eyes in the dog-vision setting.
The results of this study suggest that differing visual capabilities may affect performance in visual tasks. The researchers acknowledge that this study only shows that human performance is influenced when visual tasks are designed for the other species, but it is likely that dogs are similarly affected. Though many experiments that do not account for vision differences between dogs and humans have still revealed intriguing canine capabilities, future research could benefit from doing so. It is likely that researchers could increase the number of unambiguous results and also eliminate the hassle of a large drop-out rate of subjects who do not meet preliminary criteria for inclusion in the study. Potentially challenging visual presentations are a problem in canine studies, and avoiding them will help scientists conduct better research.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Sex differences in people’s affiliative behavior
Investigating sex differences in the role of stress and hormones on affiliative behavior by people was the goal of a recent study. For anyone interested in the influence of hormones on behavior, the results are exciting, but it’s the dog angle that’s most noteworthy to me.
The study measured people’s affiliative behavior towards their dogs after victory or defeat in an agility competition. (A qualifying score of 85 or better was considered a victory. Scores below 85 were classified as defeats.) It’s gratifying that the researchers recognized the truly competitive nature of canine agility and its usefulness for studying reactions to victory and defeat. The main finding was that men and women exhibit different patterns of affiliative behavior based on whether they experienced success or failure, but they did not show different amounts of affiliative behavior overall.
One specific finding was that after defeat, women were more affiliative towards their dogs, but that men showed the reverse pattern—more affiliative behavior after victory. Additionally, the higher their cortisol levels (associated with defeat), the more affiliative behavior the women showed, but men responded to higher cortisol levels with lower levels of affiliative behavior. Their conclusion is that affiliative behavior is a sign of shared celebration for men, but of shared consolation for women. (It’s not clear how this impacts people’s relationships with their dogs as that was beyond the scope of this study, but I would LOVE to see further research that explores that question.)
Since the paper is written mainly for scientists concerned with the role of social stressors and hormones on affiliative behavior rather than for people interested in dogs, they had to explain what agility is and make the case that it is truly competitive. They wrote, “As a rule, contestants take these competitions very seriously,”—an obvious understatement.
With their choice to study human affiliative behavior in the context of agility, the authors demonstrated the ever- increasing recognition of the importance of dogs in people’s lives.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs sniff urine for different lengths of time
The information available in canine urine is astounding. From a proper sniff, dogs can learn about the sex, reproductive status, diet and stress level of dogs who have been there before. Urine is used to communicate about territories, to mask the smell of other dogs, to detect females who are likely to be reproductively receptive and to compete with other individuals. It’s no wonder that our canine friends find urine so compelling that they are irresistibly drawn to it. As anyone who has spent even a little time with dogs knows, urine sniffing is a favorite pastime.
A recent study called “Length of time domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) spend smelling urine of gonadectomised and intact conspecifics” was conducted to investigate whether gonadectomy (being spayed or neutered) affects urine-sniffing behavior. Since gonadectomy has significant impacts on body chemistry, it has long been suggested that it disrupts the flow of information available through urine that dogs have evolved to detect over many generations.
Researchers tested the affects of gonadectomy in urine sniffing by recording how long dogs sniffed urine from intact versus gonadectomized individuals. They found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from spayed or neutered dogs than from intact ones. One possibility is that the dogs are spending a longer time sniffing such urine because they are trying to figure out the information it contains. Because it may have a combination of chemicals that is different than the range of compounds that the dogs have evolved to understand, it may be harder for them to make sense out of it.
Interestingly, this study contradicts the findings of Lisberg and Snowdon, whose 2009 paper also analyzed the investigation patterns of unfamiliar urine and found that dogs spent more time sniffing urine from intact dogs than from gonadectomized ones. One possible explanation for the difference may be that for the current paper, the dogs were tested indoors, but for the 2009 paper, the study took place outside. (Fewer distractions inside may also explain an average sniff length of nearly 13 seconds in this paper compared with just over 5 seconds in the older study.) Another difference between the results of the two studies is that the recent research found no difference in sniffing time related to what kind of dog was doing the sniffing (male or female, intact or gonadectomized) but Lisberg and Snowdon found that neutered males and intact females both spent more time sniffing urine from intact males than from neutered males.
More research is definitely needed if we want to understand the complicated behavior of urine sniffing, which may involve many interactions between environment and individual traits of the dogs—both those who are the sources of urine and those who sniff if. Research is time intensive and can be costly, which is why I’m so impressed by this particular study. It was conducted in a single home in which the 12 dogs recruited to be sniffers all live, there was no funding source for the study and all of the urine in the study came from out of state to insure that the urine came from unfamiliar dogs. Kudos to the authors for taking the initiative to conduct a cool and clever experiment!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Intense mothering associated with puppy failure
We all know human mothers who dote excessively on their kids, depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to handle life’s challenges on their own. New research suggests that canine moms who are overly attentive may be causing the same harm to their puppies.
In a study of 98 puppies at a New Jersey facility that breeds, raises and trains guide dogs for the visually impaired, researchers found that high levels of maternal care were associated with failure. About 30 percent of puppies don’t make the cut, and too much mothering may be part of the problem. Puppies whose mothers were excessively attentive were more likely to fail out of the guide dog program.
Attentiveness involved many behaviors, such as the amount of time spent in contact with the puppies, time spent licking the puppies and time in the box with the puppies. Additionally, the mothers’ postures when nursing their puppies may have influenced their development. Some mothers lie on their sides while nursing, which gives puppies easy access to milk. Other moms remain standing, a posture that requires puppies to work harder for the milk. Puppies whose mothers stood during nursing were more likely to succeed as guide dogs.
The scientists who conducted the study assert that facing and overcoming minor obstacles—such as difficulties acquiring milk from Mom—may be important for developing independence and key life skills. The opportunity to succeed despite facing challenges may allow puppies to develop confidence, self-reliance, frustration tolerance or other qualities that made success as a guide dog more likely.
Interestingly, this study’s conclusion that excessive mothering is problematic contradicts the results found in a previous study of the effects of maternal care on working dogs. In that study, higher levels of maternal care were associated with success in a program for raising working dogs for the Swedish Armed Forces. It may be that different mothering styles are best for raising working dogs of different types—guide dogs versus military dogs. Another possibility is that we’ve got a Goldilocks situation in which some dogs mother too much and some dogs mother too little, but others provide the amount that is just right.
What does seem clear from both studies is that there are strong effects of early experiences on adult behavior in dogs. Impulse control, aggression, neophobia, motivation and anxiety and a host of emotional and cognitive traits are influenced by the type and amount of maternal care they receive in the first few weeks of life. Any program would likely benefit by considering this factor when deciding which individuals to breed.
There is much to be gained by understanding which factors are predictive of a successful working dog. As the authors of this recent research wrote, one element involves the “enduring benefits of maternal care—in moderation”.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs’ Color Vision
When Maureen and Jay Neitz adopted an adorable, fluffy black puppy in the late 1980s, they had no idea how important she would be in making new discoveries about vision.
They were just looking for a dog who was size-appropriate for the small apartment they lived in as UC Santa Barbara PhD candidates. Eventually, the teacup Poodle they named “Retina” helped the couple prove that dogs see much more than just black and white, and that dogs’ color vision is similar to that of the 8 percent of the human population who are red-green colorblind.
Ten million Americans, most of them male, are affected with red-green colorblindness, a genetic trait carried on the X chromosome. People with this condition can’t clearly see the difference between red and green. They often mistake green for white and red for brown or dark gray.
Colorblindness might not seem like a serious disability, but it causes unexpected, and sometimes tragic, problems for humans. For example, airline pilots must be able to differentiate between colors, which someone with red-green colorblindness can’t reliably do. Color vision is, of course, crucial in being able to discern if a traffic light is red or green. According to Don Peters, a consultant to the biotech industry who has red/green colorblindness, “Sodium vapor lights look a lot like red stoplights to me. It’s confusing to drive in an area with these lights, especially at night.” As a child, he had difficulties with color-related tasks: “I can still hear my teacher asking me why I colored the tree red. I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Colorblind people miss a lot of detail that people with normal color vision take for granted: they might not see the lines on a map, or lettering printed in colors that seem bright to those with normal vision but blend in for them. This can be dangerous when reading traffic signs or medication labels. Jay Neitz pointed out that children who are colorblind often have trouble in school, and can be mistakenly diagnosed with learning disabilities or ADHD; in spite of these potential problems, schools do not test students’ color vision.
The Neitzes established that dogs see shades of yellow, blue and gray. Other colors, such as red and green, appear faded or indistinct. Jay Neitz had an “aha” moment when Retina could not find her orange ball in a green lawn. “Sometimes the ball was right in front of her, but she would sniff around in the grass, trying to find it by smell. We realized that she simply couldn’t see it, even though it was obvious to us,” he said.
As UC Santa Barbara post-docs with degrees in biochemistry, molecular biology and biopsychology, the couple had access to a lab in which they could set up a testing area. “I realized that I had the opportunity to find out, once and for all, what kind of color vision dogs really have.” Jay built an apparatus that placed dogs in front of a screen with three lit panels. He trained the dogs to touch the screen with their noses when they saw a different shade. If the dog got it right, she would receive a cheese-flavored dog treat. In order to get the dog to touch the screen, Jay used peanut butter as an incentive. Once the dog mastered that part of the test, Jay no longer used the peanut butter.
Right away, Maureen and Jay discovered that, like people, dogs were good at figuring out shortcuts to getting a treat. In addition, “About 30 percent of the time, the dog made a lucky guess,” according to Maureen. The dogs’ attention spans were short, and on more than a few days, they just didn’t feel like doing the tests. “It took six months per dog to train them,” Maureen said. In addition to Retina, the Neitzes used two Italian Greyhounds; like Poodles, they are small, intelligent, easily trained dogs. “The dogs were treated very well,” Maureen said. “We had the utmost concern for their welfare.”
In 1989, Jay Neitz co-authored “Color vision in the dog,” which was published in the journal Visual Neuroscience; the research paper confirmed that dogs do, indeed see more than black and white. That led to a years-long search for a cure for colorblindness in humans.
Along the way, Jay heard from a diverse group of people interested in animal color vision. Game wardens asked him to create a color that hunters could use to spot each other but would be invisible to deer (“blaze orange” was the result) and, more recently, hundreds of people wanted to know what he thought of “The Dress,” a photo that went viral on the Internet featuring a dress that looked white and gold to some, blue and black to others.
Even the U.S. Army expressed an interest in the couple’s research. “They wanted to know if we could give dogs infrared vision so they could see lights used in locating bombs without alerting the enemy.” Jay joked that more people than he can count have sent him the “Far Side” cartoon showing a dog praying next to a bed, with a caption that reads “And please let Mom, Dad, Rex, Ginger, Tucker, me and all the rest of the family see color.”
Today, the Neitzes are both professors of ophthalmology and color vision researchers at the University of Washington. They continue their work in the field of color vision, but they don’t use dogs anymore. “Our dog study was done purely out of curiosity,” Maureen said. Jay added, “We demonstrated that color vision is much more complex than previously known, both in animals and in humans. Somewhere in our evolutionary past, humans developed the ability to see colors, which has helped us in many ways. One important advantage to having color vision is that it helps us determine whether a piece of food is ripe, and therefore good to eat. Humans were able to spot high-calorie food without putting out too much effort.”
In 2009, the Neitzes cured colorblindness in several male squirrel monkeys using gene therapy.
According to Maureen, “Male squirrel monkeys see only blue and yellow. Therefore, they make good subjects for color vision research.” The tests that the Neitzes developed during their original study with Retina and the two Greyhounds are now “vastly improved. We use a version of the Cambridge color test intended for human color vision testing, which Jay adapted so that it can be used on animals. It uses 16 colors, all of varying saturations.”
This more accurate test helps speed up color-vision research. The monkeys were given a human gene, which allowed them to see color the way we do. According to an article in Science, “The result raises questions about how the brain understands color, and it could eventually lead to gene-therapy treatments for colorblindness and other visual disorders in humans.”
As the Neitzes get closer to giving colorblind people normal color vision, it’s inspiring to think that a teacup Poodle trying to find her ball in the grass helped make this possible.
Read more about the Neitzes’ work.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
My dog Millie, a five-pound Yorkshire Terrier, and I do almost everything together. We hike, camp, watch sporting events, grocery shop, spend all day at the bookstore and visit research labs. Everywhere we go, people are attracted to her; they want to hold her, pet her or just say hi. Why do so many people think she is so cute? Is she perceived as cute because of her looks or her behavior? As it turns out, cuteness is influenced by both physical attributes and behavior, factors that affect the perception of cuteness in a variety of animal species.
Like many infant animals, babies and puppies have several things in common: large heads, round faces, big eyes. These appealing traits have a name: Kindchenschema (baby schema). A concept introduced by Konrad Lorenz in 1942, baby schema is defined as “a set of infantile physical characteristics ... [that] motivates caretaking behavior in other individuals, with the evolutionary function of enhancing offspring survival.”
Research by Kringelbach and others suggests that this baby schema may extend beyond physical characteristics to include “positive infant sounds and smells.” It’s not hard to imagine that these findings could also be applicable to puppy whimpering and barking, and that unmistakable puppy odor.
A preference for baby schema occurs early in human development. In a study by Borgi et al. (2014), researchers used eye tracking to determine that both children and adults looked longer at pictures rated high in infantile characteristics than at those rated low. This held true for pictures of humans, cats and dogs. And as research by Dekay and McClelland has shown, humans like animals who appear more humanlike; our concern for the well-being of a species correlates strongly with the species’ similarity to ourselves.
This partially explains why pet owners have a tendency to anthropomorphize their companion animals. I often talk to Millie as though she can understand every word, and I put her in her bed and arrange everything for her comfort much as I did for my son when he was small. Some persist in treating their dogs like children even when it clearly aggravates the dog. Although it might not bother all dogs, most dogs you see wearing cute clothing and bows in their hair would probably prefer no clothing or no bows. (When groomers put a bow on Millie, she has a fit and usually manages to remove it on the car ride home.)
Behaviors such as hand shaking, rolling over, speaking on command or engaging in unusual tricks also influence our perception of a dog’s cuteness. Conversely, specific behaviors can also detract from a dog’s cuteness quota. Excessive barking, aggression or chewing everything in sight tends to diminish our perception of exactly how cute a dog is.
This biological hardwiring has an evolutionary advantage. The human response to cuteness includes protective behavior, a willingness to care for the animal and increased attention, all things that can be good for the dog. Initially, I became interested in cuteness and its influence on humans after talking with a researcher at Eastern Kentucky University who studies perception. His work focuses on the affect of canine head tilt on a dog’s “cuteness” rating. One of the things he’s found is that the same dog can receive different ratings depending on the degree of tilt.
This type of research has direct application to the dog adoption process. As mentioned, cuteness induces protective behavior, which often leads to positive human-dog interactions. It follows that these feelings may result in a decision to adopt the dog who elicits them and to overlook those who don’t.
Because the well being of dogs is heavily dependent on their relationships with humans, it’s important to understand that these often-unconscious biases affect our choices. There’s nothing wrong with loving a cute dog—as I do Millie—but dogs of all sorts need love, and their value should not be determined by how cute we think they are.
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