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: Behavior & Training
Differential use of the left and right nostril
The common wisdom that dogs can smell fear doesn’t give dogs full credit to the nuances of their ability to sense emotion through their noses. A recent study titled “The dog nose “KNOWS” fear: Asymmetric nostril use during sniffing at canine and human emotional stimuli” examined dogs’ tendencies to sniff various substances with the right or the left nostril. Exploring this side bias may seem like looking at random details, but the side of the nose used to sniff something tells us a lot about the dog’s emotional reaction to the odor. The use of one side of the body indicates a differential use of one side of the brain or the other, which is a clue to the dog’s emotions.
The left side of the brain processes more positive emotions such as happiness and excitement as well as stimuli that are familiar. The right side of the brain tends to take over when a dog is processing negative emotions such as sadness or fear as well as novel stimuli. In general, the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and vice versa. However, the nose is an exception; the right nostril sends information to the right side of the brain to be processed and the left nostril sends its information to the left side. The findings of this study suggest that the pathways used to process various olfactory stimuli are dependent on more than just whether they elicit negative or positive feelings.
Eight odors were tested—four from dogs and four from humans. The four human odors were collected as sweat from donors who were joyful, fearful, physically stressed, or in a neutral situation. The joyful and fearful states were elicited by movies, and the physical stress odor was collected after donors ran for 15-minutes. The four canine odors were collected from dogs who were happy following a play session with the guardian, stressed by isolation in an unfamiliar place, disturbed by a stranger approaching the car, and dogs who were asleep. The dogs who “donated” odors were different from the dogs whose sniffing behavior was studied.
To further explore the phenomenon of side bias in sniffing, the guardians of the dogs in the study filled out a questionnaire related to each dog’s temperament. During the study, dogs were led to a video camera under which was mounted a Q-tip saturated with various odors. The videos captured the dog’s sniffing behavior so that it was possible to determine a laterality index for each dog for every odor based on the amount of time spent sniffing with each nostril. A laterality index of 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the left nostril and negative 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the right nostril. Dogs’ cardiac activity was also recorded during the tests of each odor.
I’m sure it’s the science geek in me, but I got a kick out of reading the sentence, “Results for nostril use are shown in Figure 2.” Three of the odors elicited consistent sidedness in nostril use and five of them did not. Dogs more frequently used the right nostril to sniff the canine isolation odor. They more frequently used the left nostril to sniff the human fear odor and the odor from human physical stress.
There were two ways in which the results of the questionnaire were correlated with the laterality pattern for a particular odor. The higher a guardian ranked the dog’s fear/aggressiveness to other dogs, the more likely that dog was to use the right nostril for sniffing the disturbed canine odor. This suggests that individual differences in emotional arousal and perhaps even in temperament influence asymmetries in sniffing behavior. Dogs with higher scores for predatory behavior used the left nostril more for sniffing the odor that came from physically stressed humans. This makes sense when we consider that it is structures in the left side of dogs’ brains that are involved in predatory behavior.
Dogs’ brains are every bit as amazing as their noses, as research about both of them reveal!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Natural detection task is very revealing
We all know that Beagles have better noses than Whippets, right? This almost seems too obvious to point out, especially to anyone who has ever had a dog of either breed. However, the authors of a recent study claim to be the first to scientifically document a difference in olfactory abilities across groups of dogs.
The researchers compared scenting ability across four groups of canines: dog breeds that have been selected for scenting abilities, dog breeds that have not been selected for scenting abilities, short-nosed dogs and hand-reared wolves. The task asked of these animals was simple—find the raw meat in a container that is hidden underneath one of five pots. There were multiple tests that varied in difficulty based on the number of holes in the container’s lid.
The results of the study were that dogs bred for scenting ability performed better than both short-nosed dogs and dogs who were not bred for their olfactory capabilities. The short-nosed dogs performed worse than any other group, suggesting that breeding for this head and face shape has adversely affected olfaction. In the most difficult of the tests, only wolves and the dogs bred for scenting abilities performed better than what would be expected if the animals were just guessing. Wolves improved their performance when they were re-tested, but the dogs in all three groups were no better the second time around.
Since dogs did not improve with repeated testing, this test may be a useful one-and-done way to assess a dog’s scenting capabilities. That is important because there is currently no standard method for testing the olfactory ability of dogs, but the method in this study could be used for quick assessments of dogs’ abilities. Most ways of testing dogs involve a match-to-sample design, which means that the dogs are taught a scent and they then have to find the same scent from among a group of scents. That requires extensive training, so it is impossible to determine to what degree those tests are assessing trainability and to what extent they measure scenting ability. Both trainability and olfactory ability are important for success as a working detection dog, but there’s great value in evaluating each trait independently.
News: Guest Posts
An international group of scientists proposes dual domestication from wolves.
Among the many hotly debated topics related to the appearance of dogs in the lives of humans is how often and where it first occurred. In their landmark 1997 paper on dog origins, Robert K. Wayne, Carles Vilá, and their colleagues made the case for multiple origins, but many other students of dog evolution, including Peter Savolainen, a co-author on that paper, have repeatedly and strongly argued for a single place of origin.
In this week’s Science magazine (June 3, 2016) [the article is available here, gratis], Laurent Frantz of Oxford University’s ancient dog program, writing for more than a score of his colleagues from institutions around the world, presents the case for dual domestication of Paleolithic wolves in Western Eurasia and Eastern Asia. According to this hypothesis, a now extinct ancestral wolf split into at least two genetically distinct populations on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent where they encountered and joined forces with humans to become dogs.
Frantz and his coauthors pin much of their argument on analysis and comparison of the fully sequenced genome of a 4,800- year old dog unearthed at Newgrange, Ireland, to other ancient and modern dogs and modern wolves. They found it retained “a degree of ancestry” different from modern dogs or modern wolves. Using that and other evidence the researchers argue that the most comprehensive model for the appearance of the dog involves at least two domestication events 15,000 or more years ago. Frantz writes: “The eastern dog population then dispersed westward alongside humans at some point between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago, into Western Europe (10,11, 20), where they partially replaced an indigenous Paleolithic dog population. Our hypothesis reconciles previous studies that have suggested that domestic dogs originated either in East Asia (9, 19) or in Europe (7).”
I asked Greger Larson, co-director of the Oxford project and corresponding author on the paper, just what were the boundaries of “Western Eurasia,” comprised apparently of Europe and the Middle East, and “Eastern Asia?” He answered in an email that the boundaries were left deliberately vague because where wolves became dogs remains unknown, like the date itself.
In Science, Frantz writes: [W]e calculated the divergence time between two modern Russian wolves used in the study and the modern dogs to be 60,000 to 20,000 years ago.” The first number puts the dog in the time when Neanderthal was still the big kid on the European block, raising the possibility that Neanderthal had protodogs or that early modern humans came to Europe with dogs or soon allied with wolves. Either of the first two prospects must have set off alarms in some circles for Frantz cautions that those dates should not be taken as “a time frame for domestication” because the wolves they used may not have been “closely related to the population(s) that gave rise to dogs.”
Fundamentally, this paper is at once a bold attempt to come up with a workable hypothesis to explain the appearance of the dog in human affairs and a tentative step into troubled waters. Left unanswered are virtually all outstanding questions regarding the who, what, when, where, and why of the transformation of wolves to dogs. Geographically all it does is exclude Central Asia. Whether it does so wrongly may depend on how you define Central Asia geographically.
What makes it bold and radical even is the suggestion that early humans and wolves could have gotten together wherever and whenever they met on the trail of the big game they were following. There are many reasons for that including similar social and familial cultures, but humans and wolves could have joined forces to have become more successful hunters. We learn from Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Prey by L. David Mech, Douglas W. Smith, and Daniel R. MacNulty (Chicago, 2016) that while wolves appear excellent at finding and trailing game, they are not very good at making the kill, succeeding perhaps half the time. It is dangerous work at which humans with their weapons excel.
Imagine the scene: Human hunters locate wolves on the hunt by watching ravens who are known to follow them. Human hunters move in for the kill and take as many animals as they can. If smart, they might share immediately with the wolves. If not, the wolves might consume what the humans do not carry off or follow them back to their encampment to take what they can.
The rest is a tale of accommodation through socialization—the ability to bond with another being—and all that entails.
This article originally appeared in Psychology Today's Dog's Best Friend, used with permission.
We may think our dog wIll take a treat from any hand that offers it, but a new study by a team of Japanese researchers suggests that may not be the case. Primates engage in something called “social eavesdropping”— essentially, making judgments about others based on interactions that don’t directly affect their own interests. This study tested dogs’ ability to do the same by setting up situations in which the dogs’ owners asked for help in opening a box and were assisted (helper scenario), rejected (non-helper scenario), or ignored (control scenario) as the dogs looked on. After these interchanges, when the dogs were offered treats, they took them randomly from Helper and Control “strangers” but were biased against non-helpers. According to Kazuo Fujita, professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto university and one of the study’s authors, the ability to socially and emotionally evaluate others “is one of the key factors in building a highly collaborative society.” So, another step in the process of understanding how Canis lupus became familiaris: like humans, dogs are able to pick up clues about who to trust and who to avoid.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Technology facilitates communication
What if dogs could talk? Specifically, what if service dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs could talk? Associate Professor Melody Moore Jackson at Georgia Tech, and a team that includes Professor Thad Starner, Research Scientist Clint Zeagler, and Jackson’s Border Collie Sky, are developing technology that allows dogs to say anything we give them the capability of saying. They’ve called their project FIDO, which is short for “Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations.”
They developed a vest with sensors on it that dogs can activate to communicate. The vest can play a message or send a text to a smart phone. From a training perspective, it’s a basic system—dogs are trained to hit specific sensors in response to certain cues. So, if asked which toy a person is holding, the dog can hit a sensor that plays a message that says, “That is the Frisbee®” or “That is the ball.” That is a cool trick, but the real genius of this vest is the variety of messages dogs can send.
For example, a service dog for a hearing-impaired person might hit a sensor in response to an alarm that sends a text saying, “I heard the alarm,” and a different sensor in response to the doorbell so that the message reads, “I heard the doorbell.” Many hearing impaired dogs lead their person to the source of a sound, such as a crying baby. This vest adds to the benefits of a service dog because it would also allow a person to be notified of a sound that is not reachable, such as a tornado siren. Just like distinguishing between the ball and the Frisbee®, telling these sounds apart is a type of discrimination task, and is the basis for many of the ways that this vest can be used.
For example, detection dogs are usually trained to bark if they find what they are looking for, perhaps a drug or an explosive. Although dogs are often trained to search for multiple types of drugs or explosives, they are limited in their ability to communicate the details of their finds to their handlers. It can make a big difference to everyone’s safety if the dog can let a handler know that the bomb is a stable type or an unstable one that needs careful handling. This vest can allow a dog to share more specific information.
This group developed a vest that allows a dog who has found anyone trapped after a natural disaster to activate a sensor with a message for that person to hear. The message lets the trapped individual know that help is on the way. Work is underway to develop a vest that allows a dog to activate a sensor that sends GPS coordinates to a handler. This allows the handler to join the dog, who does not have to leave the person who has been found. That could be lifesaving for a child who is hiding or for a person who is unable to move for whatever reason.
Similar technology could benefit people with any number of health problems. Imagine that a person with epilepsy has a seizure and the service dog has been trained to activate a sensor in response to that situation. The activation of the sensor would result in a call to 911 and also send a message to a family member. The message would include GPS coordinates and say, “My person had a seizure and 911 has been contacted.”
The possibilities of this technology are limitless. A dog could be trained to hit a sensor in response to someone saying, “Get help.” When that sensor is hit, a recording plays so anyone nearby hears, “My owner needs your attention. Please follow me.” This technology is very exciting because it allows dogs to communicate specific helpful information to people. The beauty of the design is that it is relatively easy to teach dogs with a solid base of training to activate sensors in response to specific cues. These vests represent a wonderful blending of solid dog training with new technology to increase the ability of dogs and people to accomplish a variety of tasks together.
Culture: Science & History
What can archeology tells us about the “connection” origins.
Studies of prehistoric dog burials have been making splashy headlines lately. Although the popular press would have us believe that these finds are proof of the affectionate relationship our ancestors had with dogs, the unifying theory that gives meaning to burial patterns remains elusive because ancient people left no written record.
What little we know about dogs’ social roles in antiquity is a patchy mosaic of information derived from physical analysis of bones excavated from gravesites. The accuracy of this mosaic has been further complicated by archaeologists’ long-standing difficulty with reliably distinguishing between wolves and dogs, not only because the two animals look similar, but also because changes in morphology during the early stages of domestication were subtle.
However, in 1986, zooarchaeologist Darcy Morey, now adjunct professor in anthropological sciences at Virginia’s Radford University, developed a statistical equation to more accurately identify dissimilarities between skulls. A decade later, geneticists were able to extricate even more conclusive information from DNA. Then, in a landmark paper published in 1999 in the Journal of Heredity, geneticists Carles Vilà, Jesus Maldonado and Robert Wayne suggested that the first domestication event occurred more than 100,000 years earlier than dog burial remains suggested. This marked the beginning of a decades-long trend that all but excluded archaeology and other academic disciplines from the equation.
Morey—and later, Greger Larson, evolutionary biologist in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology in the UK—challenged the exclusive use of DNA analysis to identify the time and place of the first domestication event. They advocated a return to a cross-discipline approach that included traditional archaeology, DNA analysis, isotope geochemistry and radiocarbon dating in the context of environmental sciences such as paleoclimatology and biogeography.
Robert Losey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, is among the scholars who agree with this approach. “When the genetic information can be integrated with information on dogs’ diets, diseases, activity patterns and archaeological context, we get a much more complex and informative picture of people’s emotional and day-to-day lives with their animals than we can through genetics alone.”
Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, is known for its well-preserved Middle Holocene (3,000- to 9,000-year-old) hunter-gatherer cemeteries, which attract scientists studying how social and environmental pressures influence long-term cultural change. Leading a team of researchers from various disciplines, Losey analyzed numerous Lake Baikal sites containing human, dog and wolf remains dating back 5,000 to 8,000 years; the team’s findings were published in 2011 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
As he explained, “What I tried to do in my study was to approach these dog skeletons just like we would a human skeleton. We applied a suite of analyses in order to tease out the interesting and relevant details of their lives. The best way to fully understand the domestication of dogs is to use as many forms of evidence as possible, and to employ a wide range of specialists.” Their interpretive model was partly based on ethnographic records of indigenous groups from across the northern hemisphere. For example, many northern people, who have an animistic understanding of their world, strongly believe that animals, plants and inanimate objects possess souls.
Using stable isotope analysis, researchers determined that dog and human diets were the same. In comparison, a wolf found buried in the same area had foraged on large game, a diet different than that of local people. Some dogs were buried with artifacts the dog would have used or been familiar with during its life: a decorative collar-like pendant made with red-deer teeth, a round ball-like stone, spoons, antlers and other implements.
Bone-wear suggested that the dogs had worked alongside people, likely as transport animals hauling heavy loads. Some had recovered from injuries that would have required special care. People and dogs were buried near one another in the same cemetery, and in some cases, were buried together (in one instance, a man was buried with two dogs, one on either side). Analysis of the dogs’ skeletons revealed a resemblance to modern-day Siberian Huskies, although they would have been larger. Genetic work on the specimens confirmed an ancestral link to our modern dogs.
According to Losey, “I think what we are really looking at is a set of relationships between people and dogs, and to study relationships, we need to try to understand the life histories of animals, not just their evolutionary history.”
Putting all of the small parts together, the researchers painted a big picture. They suggested that ancient indigenous people considered some dogs to be very special. Unlike the majority of simpler animals, whose spirits collectively recycled after death, these dogs were thought to be like humans, with powerful and unique souls that required mortuary rites similar to those of deceased people.
This special treatment was necessary for both dogs and humans so that their souls could return in new individuals. Losey added, “I think the act of treating a dog as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for. These practices also clearly indicate that people had close emotional bonds with some of their dogs, and perhaps mourned their loss like they did [the loss of] their own family members.”
Waves of Proto-domestication
Although romanticized images of digs in the shadows of ancient civilizations continue to feed the popular notion of archaeology, a more accurate but less dramatic scene would have scientists in white lab coats conducting microscopic analyses of polymorphic nucleotides extracted from bone remnants stored for many decades on museum shelves. Indeed, bones unearthed long ago have proven to be quite revelatory. The most unexpected discoveries regarding the human/dog relationship are based on analyses of materials extracted from canid bones excavated, catalogued and archived in 1873 and 1884, respectively.
The oldest skull, which dates to 31,700 years ago, was found at Belgium’s Goyet Cave. Another from a site in Predmosti in the Czech Republic proved to be about 27,000 years old. One skull from the Predmosti site had a mammoth bone fragment in its mouth. Does it indicate that a special connection had developed between people and dogs as far back as 30,000 years ago? Archaeologist Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences—lead author of the two papers describing the 2008 and 2012 research results—said, “I believe that the dog skull with the bone between its teeth suggests some sort of ritual treatment. The position of the bone fragment in the mouth suggests that it was inserted between the incisors of the dog post-mortem.” The ethnographic record indicates that placing body parts between the teeth of dead carnivores was a common practice in many cultures. Exactly why remains open to speculation.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman, who has written extensively on the evolutionary impact of the human/animal connection, suggested that the mammoth bone points to a cross-species alliance that may have developed even earlier—one that might account for the success of our early ancestors. She hypothesized that proto-dogs, like those found at the Predmosti site and at Goyet, cooperated with humans in a symbiotic hunting partnership that could account for the significant and abrupt increase in the number of animals found at mammoth kill-sites dating as far back as perhaps 45,000 years. The initial domestication of dogs may have been accidental, but once humans realized the value of these living “tools,” they began to refine them for increasingly specialized purposes.
In a separate study, a group of researchers led by Ole Thalmann examined ancient DNA of Eurasian dogs (the Predmosti dogs had not been genotyped) along with others, and came up with some surprising results. Separated by only a few thousand miles and a few thousand years, the ancient dogs were not related to each other, nor were they related to modern dogs. In addition, none of the lines survived, which suggests that domestication experienced many starts and stops in different regions with different wolf populations. Scientists speculated that the last ice age, which began about 26,000 years ago, might have contributed to this stutter-step process. They also found that living dogs are more closely related to ancient, extinct wolves than they are to modern wolves.
If domestic dogs somehow catastrophically died out, would we have the natural resources needed to recreate them? In Shipman’s opinion, “The answer is both no and yes. If dogs disappeared, they probably couldn’t re-evolve from the wolves we have now. But those extinct wolves evolved into contemporary wolves, and canids in general have a huge amount of variability in their genomes, which is why we have so many different types of dogs today. If by ‘dogs,’ you mean a highly variable canid that can live with and cooperate with humans, then I think the answer is yes. Would it be the same dog as today? We can’t be sure.”
Laid to Rest with Care
In the past two decades, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of about 1,400 dogs buried 2,500 years ago on prime ocean-view real estate in ancient Ashkelon, today a thriving city located on the Mediterranean Sea, 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. The dog burials spanned a period of eight decades. Carefully positioned alone in shallow pits, the dogs’ bodies were placed on their sides, legs flexed, tails gently tucked around their hind legs. Ranging in age from newborn through elderly, they appear to have died of natural causes.
Ashkelon is only one of thousands of ancient dog-burial sites scattered across the globe, and its large number of burials raises the question, “How many dogs were buried in antiquity?” The answer is, “We’ll never know.” Throughout prehistory, people mostly disposed of bodies, human and non-human, in untraceable ways; they sent them floating down rivers or buried them in shallow earthen graves—reverent practices that lost them to the ages.
In addition, dog burials were so common that they are field sites’ most overlooked artifacts. In her 2009 manual, A Practical Guide to In Situ Dog Remains for the Field Archaeologist, Susan Crockford, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria in Canada who has worked with dog remains for more than 20 years, maintains that far more dog burials are encountered than are ever mentioned in archaeological site reports. Workers aren’t properly trained to recognize dog remains, nor do most understand the history of dogs and their significant contribution to the human story. Consequently, much of what we could have learned about the human/dog connection has been lost forever.
Furthermore, scientists can’t develop statistical estimations because it’s unclear whether or not dog burials are representative of the total dog population. However, by calculating the timing of genetic bottlenecks, Thalmann and his colleagues suggested that ancient dog populations paralleled the trajectory of human population growth. Dog numbers increased steadily until about 5,000 years ago, then abruptly declined, followed by a sharp increase 2,500 years later. Even if their calculations are proven accurate, whether (and why) certain dogs were selected for burial while others were not remains unclear.
The first comprehensive review of dog burial studies, “Burying key evidence: the social bond between dogs and people,” by Darcy Morey, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (2006), put the documented cases and site locations in perspective. Written for a scholarly audience but with enough humanity to appeal to lay readers, the paper brought new attention to a topic of inherently widespread interest. Given that so many burials are untraceable and others are uncertain, why even suggest a total?
Professor Morey said, “Depending on circumstances, for a given site, I think it’s possible to suggest how many were buried, at least in that place.” In a later book, Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond, Morey included an appendix that inventoried dog burials, including totals as known from specific places. “But,” he added, “given frequent uncertainties, I think in general that suggesting combined totals is fraught with problems.”
As companions and helpers, dogs hold a special place in our hearts, and increasingly, as our equals in relation to our place in the collective physical world. Mary Elizabeth Thurston, author of The Lost History of the Canine Race, anthropologist and historian for Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester, N.Y., said, “Fifteen years ago, about 55 percent of the public believed pets deserve mortuary rites in death. Today, the number is much higher.”
Thurston also noted an uptick in the number of people who wanted to be laid to rest with their animal companion, either by arranging for their own cremated remains to be buried with the pet, or for the cremated remains of that animal to be interred with them. “When animals fill an innate need for companionship as either surrogate children or life partners, they become truly indispensible in the eyes of their human caretakers. The desire to be together is understandable. The grief felt at the death of that pet is profound, and people want to accord their animals a measure of respectful remembrance in death, just as [they] would any other family member. However, we can’t assume that ancient people, who left no written records, held our same modern sensibilities.”
Canine remains in ancient human burial pits more often indicate that the dog was part of an offering, sacrifice or spiritual ritual rather than a companion. Thurston suggested that the ancient interment of single animals with grave goods, especially things that the dog used in life, along with evidence that shows the dog died of natural causes, might suggest an affectionate relationship and the belief that the animal had a soul—that, like people, it would need these things on the “other side” for a good life.”
In “Peru’s Mummy Dogs,” writer Roger Atwood noted that in 2006, Sonia Guillén, archaeologist at the Maliqui Center in Ilo, Peru, reported that her team had discovered 40 dogs buried about 1,000 years ago in separate plots alongside the remains of what were probably their owners. The discovery was unusual in that the dogs were interred with items that look like toys and food. As Guillén, who studies Peru’s Chiribaya culture (which pre-dated the Incas), told the press, “We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs, there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies. They have their own graves, and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food.” Guillén, who suspects that the dogs may be direct ancestors of the companion and working dogs who populate the village today, is collecting DNA for future study.
Most human/dog burials occurred 5,000 to 8,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer societies and disappeared with the beginning of the agrarian era. But their absence doesn’t equate to a lack of an affectionate human/dog connection. At the Lake Baikal site, when pastoralists inhabited the area beginning about 5,000 years ago, they did not bury dogs, at least not in areas where archaeologists might find them. According to Robert Losey, “The difference between the pastoralists and the hunter-gatherers living in this area of Siberia is that the hunter-gatherers buried some of their dogs in cemeteries used otherwise for the human dead. The pastoralists do not appear to have done this.
“Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have interviewed local Buryat people, who are descended from some of these early pastoralists, about their dogs, and they clearly have a deep respect for [them], and do bury some of them. However, they are not considered non-human persons with individual souls, and in the local belief systems, are not spiritually equivalent with humans. So, they cannot be buried in local cemeteries. The best dogs, and the most loved ones, are given burial rites in some cases, but these tend to be elsewhere—on the tops of hills or mountains, for example. Some folks even recounted that they left pieces of meat in the graves with the dogs—food for them in the afterlife.”
As long as dogs have existed, they have been deliberately buried in every region they inhabited. Moreover, dogs have been buried more often than any other animal: singly, with other dogs, near people and with people. This ancient practice was a global phenomenon, one that crossed nearly all cultural boundaries. Precisely why dogs were buried may never be clearly understood, but the universality of the practice suggests it may be embedded in the human psyche and accordingly, is a fundamental part of the human/dog connection.
For in-depth information on sources cited click here.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The short answer is that it depends
Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.
Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”
Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.
Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)
Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.
His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.
Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.
Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.
His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.
That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.
Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.
How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.
When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.
I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.
I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.
The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.
What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?
Wellness: Healthy Living
Arizona genetics researchers are taking the unusual step of asking for dog lovers’ help in fighting a mysterious, potentially lethal infection that plagues both dog and man.
They are looking for dogs to be registered and potentially to have their DNA collected to help combat valley fever, a fungus-based disease once confined to the Southwest desert but is now spreading across the country.
Valley fever can be triggered by inhalation of just a handful of spores of a particular fungus. People, dogs and cats are susceptible to the illness that was once believed to occur only in Arizona and California. The disease is not contagious and is not spread from species to species.
The risk for valley fever increases as climates get drier, say California State University, Bakersfield researchers. Warmer temperatures and less rain basically kill off the fungus’ competitors for nutrients and thereby creating an ideal growing environment for the infection-causing fungus.
Valley fever is now being reported in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota, which never used to see the condition. And the states that typically see the condition are reporting more and more cases: The number of Valley Fever reports is increasing in more than a third of California’s counties, putting more dogs at risk for a disease that can lead to lameness, extreme weight loss and coma.
When Charlie, a 75-pound Chocolate Lab, started coughing, it didn’t set off any alarms. But then he developed a fever and was diagnosed as having kennel cough, which can be easily treated by antibiotics and steroids. Then the symptoms returned and again it was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. More than two months passed before Charlie was given the correct medication; the delay in a correct diagnosis lessens his chances for a full recovery.
Charlie now spends most of his time sleeping off the effects of valley fever, instead of being his normal playful self.
There is no cure for valley fever. Currently treatments focus on helping dogs beat the symptoms. Vet bills can mount up since a dog may have to get medication for up to eighteen months; in some severe cases, a dog may be on medicine for the rest of his life. It is estimated that Arizona dog lovers spend $60 million per year in caring for dogs with valley fever.
Seeing the increase in valley fever cases across the U.S., Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) researchers are now asking for dog people to take a brief online survey about their pet’s breed, health history and lifestyle. After the survey, the dog may be selected to give a saliva sample.
Then after the swabbing is done, researchers will look for differences in the genes of dogs who are sick compared to dogs who show signs of exposure to valley fever but who aren’t sick.
“In certain dogs, a minor infection can progress to severe disease, and the reasons for this are unknown,” said Dr. Bridget Barker, assistant professor and head of TGen’s Northern Arizona Center for Valley Fever Research in Flagstaff, Ariz.
This information would be used to help develop new therapies for both dogs and people, she said.
For more information about TGen’s Valley Fever PAWS (Prevention, Awareness, Working for Solutions), visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vfpaws, and on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPAWS.
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.
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