News: Guest Posts
In-home DNA tests are cheaper. Are they better?
Just in time for Christmas, the Canine Heritage Breed Test came out with a 4th gneration test to look for evidence of 120 breeds in your dog’s DNA, for the rock-bottom price of $25. Honestly, that seems like a pretty good deal—as long as you don’t plan on taking the results too seriously. I know of what I speak.
In 2007, the first in-home genetic tests started making the rounds. I wanted to unlock the nuances of my mutt, who was best described as a Labrador Retriever/Husky mix (See Lulu, left). So I sent a cheek swab along with $65 to MMI Genomics (creators of the Canine Heritage test).
I got a call, instead of the promised heritage certificate. Turns out, Lulu didn’t match with any of the then-38 breeds in the test. The results showed a little Siberian Husky “in the mix,” along with Chow Chow, Chinese Shar-Pei and Akita—none of which were “statistically significant” or made much sense.
MMI offered to refund my money and to flag Lulu’s sample for the next generation of testing in a few months, which aimed to include around 100 breeds. I wrote a blog about how I was relieved not to know, embracing the mystery, yada, yada, yada. Meanwhile, true to their word, the folks at MMI retested Lulu a while later. This time she came in with no “primary” matches, and Labrador Retriever as a “secondary” match and Yorkshire Terrier “in the mix.” Yorkie? Seriously?
Even though I repudiated any need to know by this time, I jumped onboard when Mars Veterinary launched its Wisdom Panel DNA test, based on blood samples drawn by your vet. Clearly, I wanted to know, and somehow not being personally responsible for collecting the testing sample made me more confident about the results.
The cost: I don’t actually remember, but significantly more than MMI’s swab test, plus the cost of the blood draw. (Now, Mars has a Widsom Panel cheek swab test as well, for $49.99).
Lulu’s Wisdom Panel found that she has some German Shepherd Dog and Labrador Retriever with a “high degree of certainty” and some Brittany with a “medium degree of certainty.” These breeds, at least, make sense to me—she looks and acts a little like all three types of dogs.
Ultimately, knowing she’s a German Labrittany didn’t change a thing about our happy life together, except I finally had an answer when strangers asked, “What kind of dog is that?” (Here’s one take on this phenomenon [video].) Worth $25? Probably.
Have you tried a DNA test for your dog? I’d love to hear about it.
News: JoAnna Lou
Study finds that rats look out for their friends
Rats have a bad reputation, but they actually make wonderful pets. I had two before my living situation allowed me to welcome dogs into my family. They were clean and actually quite personable. Reggie and Angie quickly learned their names and would run to the side of the cage when I came into the room. I always thought of them as being very dog-like.
A recent study not only confirmed that rats are smart, but found that they may have empathy for their friends.
Researchers at the University of Chicago placed a free-roaming rat in an enclosure with a caged rat. Once the free rats realized that they could release the trapped rat, they opened the cage every day, even if they were immediately separated (proving the rats were empathetic and not only freeing the trapped rats for companionship).
In the final set-up, the researchers placed rats into an enclosure with two cages—one with another rat and the other with chocolate. They found that the free rats were just as likely to free the caged rats as they were to access the chocolate. Even more unbelievable, the rats almost always shared the treats with the freed rats.
Interestingly when females figured out how to open the cage, they would immediately open it every day. Male rats would occasionally take a day off.
It’s pretty cool that there’s research showing that animals aren’t always just looking out for themselves. I would love to see a similar study done with dogs. When I was checking out the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard University, the researchers mentioned that they had a canine empathy study in the works and there are other scientists who have tackled the subject.
I do think dogs are capably of empathy, even though I’ve never seen it in my own pups. I’ve heard stories of therapy dogs that “take on” the stress symptoms of the patients they visit and pups who won’t leave someone’s side when they’re depressed.
Have you seen your pups express empathy?
News: Karen B. London
Results look promising
For anyone whose life has been touched by cancer, and that’s most people, any advancement in treating the disease provides hope and is welcome news. A new tool that helps in the treatment of osteosarcoma is a result of Stan Stearns’s desire to help other dogs like his St. Bernard Gabriel. Gabriel was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, and succumbed to the disease in 2008.
Stearns is an entrepreneur whose company, Valco Instruments, makes tiny tools used for precision work in laboratories. He developed a small drill that can be used to deliver a tiny quantity of a radioactive isotope to a dog’s tumor. This allows doctors to target the tumor accurately without causing harm to healthy cells or subjecting the entire body to chemotherapy. Preliminary results suggest that this treatment alleviates pain and limits the spread of the cancer.
Radioactive isotope therapy is a newer treatment for osteosarcoma, which is often treated by amputating an affected leg, though the cancer still often spreads to the lungs, at which point it’s difficult for the dog to survive more than a year. Treatment for dogs can be $6,000, and Stearns’s Foundation, the Gabriel Institute, has paid the costs for some families.
The goal of the Gabriel Institute is to conduct and support research into bone cancer with the hope of finding a cure. Though the institute focuses on dogs, the hope is that the research will benefit people with bone cancer as well.
News: JoAnna Lou
A study looks at the characteristics of reactive dogs
As pet lovers, we've always known that animals pick up on our emotions. When I first started competing in rally obedience and agility, Nemo always seemed to pick up on how nervous I was. As I gained more confidence, Nemo also looked more comfortable in the ring.
But could our being male or female affect our pets?
According to a new study, the sex of the person on the other end of the leash has the biggest effect on reactive behavior towards other dogs. The researchers proposed that the higher instance of threatening behavior and bites may be connected to a higher instance of aggressive and impulsive tendencies in men.
The study is certainly interesting, but there could be many explanations for this finding. Perhaps men are more likely to choose dogs that have strong personalities that are predisposed to being reactive towards other dogs. Or maybe men are less likely to socialize their pets. When I go dog events, like group hikes and play groups, the crowd is always mostly female.
What do you think about the study's findings?
News: JoAnna Lou
Study: Dogs behave based on observations of people
My dogs always seem to be watching what I'm doing. I'd like to think they care about my well being, but I think they're more interested in any clues that I might drop food or that it might be dinner time.
A recent study led by Sarah Marshall-Pescini at the University of Milan looks at the information dogs get from watching us and the decisions they make based on that data. Her research focused on what's called interspecies evesdropping, one species (in this case a dog) watching the interactions between two members of another species (in this case two humans).
In the study, the researchers had dogs observe food-sharing between humans. One person, designated the “beggar,” approached two people sitting on separate chairs, both holding a bowl of sausages. When the beggar asked for a piece, one person said no and moved one hand in a dismissive gesture, and the other said “have it” and gave a piece to the beggar. The beggar then left the room and the dog was set free to make a choice.
The study found that the dogs were five times more likely to approach the person who shared a piece of sausage than the person who chose not to share.
My dogs, particularly my food-greedy Shelties, are particularly clever at figuring out who is most likely to give them food. In my house, we like to call it “identifying the weak one.” While the study didn't exactly surprise me, it's interesting that eavesdropping on third-party interactions is a quality that we share with our dogs. The information gained from eavesdropping is considered an important input for decision-making in many other animals, including humans.
News: JoAnna Lou
Dogs can diagnose lung cancer in humans
Earlier this week, I wrote about the depressing number of dogs affected by cancer. Many organizations and researchers are working towards finding a cure. Meanwhile, dogs may play an important part in curing humans.
Lung cancer is the the deadliest form of cancer worldwide, but current detection methods have been unreliable. Scientists are looking at a possible test for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have been linked to the presence of cancer, but it's been difficult to apply and no lung cancer-specific VOCs have been identified.
Researchers at Schillerhoehe Hospital in Germany decided to see if dogs could be used to identify the elusive lung cancer VOCs.
The study worked with 220 volunteers, including lung cancer patients, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, and healthy people. The dogs successfully identified 71 samples with lung cancer out of a possible 100. They also correctly detected 372 samples that did not have lung cancer out of a possible 400.
The researchers concluded that the dogs could detect lung cancer independently from COPD and tobacco smoke. The findings are a big step towards the accurate diagnosis of lung cancer.
I'm always amazed that despite all the technology in the world, sometimes the most powerful tool of all is a dog's nose!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Avery Publishing, 320 pp., 2010; $26.00
After the birth of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, a handful of biotech entrepreneurs envisioned a thriving business that would provide grieving dog lovers with genetically identical clones of their deceased pets. In Dog Inc., Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist John Woestendiek exposes the grave folly behind those science-fiction dreams.
Woestendiek travels between the United States and South Korea, following the companies looking to cash in on cloning technology, and their clients, who hope cloning really will approximate resurrection.
Although much of the book focuses on the salacious story of Bernann McKinney, a woman obsessed with cloning her Pit Bull, the strength of Dog Inc. is in Woestendiek’s ability to lay out the science and laboratory politics in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Readers will understand the X-inactivation process that made the first cloned cat so physically distinct from her progenitor — and, consequently, such a public relations failure — as well as the allegations of scientific fraud levied against Woo Suk Hwang, one of the pioneers of canine cloning.
Woestendiek never outright condemns canine cloning, but the details leave little question as to where he falls in the debate. He shines light on the poor treatment of the laboratory dogs used in cloning, the cloned puppies who do not survive the process and the heartbreaking fate of Snuppy himself. As for the actual clones, Dog Inc. tracks kittens, puppies and even a bull cloned at great financial and biological cost, only to prove physically and behaviorally distinct from their genetic parents.
The book serves as a valuable reminder that, like people, our pets are far more than the sum of their DNA.
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
News: JoAnna Lou
Study finds humans responsible for barking
Since I share a home with two Shetland Sheepdogs, barking is a part of my everyday life. While I enjoy hearing all the funny noises my pets make, barking can have serious consequences: It is one of the behavior problems that lands dogs in shelters. Ironically, humans may be responsible for the very barking we complain about.
Csaba Molnar, a former ethologist at Eotvos Lorand University, has been studying how barking evolved in the dogs we love. Barking is common in domesticated dogs, but not wild dogs.
Since barking is common in domesticated dogs, but not wild dogs, Molnar believes that the behavior is linked to selective breeding by humans. Molnar's studies have uncovered some interesting findings.
Molnar is currently seeking funding to explore why humans might have selected for barking abilities, although another theory believes that it wasn't intentional. Eugene Morton, a zoologist and animal communication expert at the National Zoo, believes that in selecting for “friendly traits” in wolves, barking was a unintended byproduct. Barks are used by juvenile wolves, which also share many other traits with domesticated dogs, such as playfulness.
No matter how barking evolved, it's pretty cool that Molnar's study showed that we can understand dogs' vocalizations to some extent. We are closer to our pets than we think!
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