Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Joins National Canine Research Council
Adam Miklósi just became the newest advisor to the National Canine Research Council. Their mission involves understanding and preserving the human-canine bond and they both conduct and fund research in support of this goal. Miklósi is an expert on the cognitive and social abilities of dogs that make their bond with humans possible and he has played a pivotal role in the way dogs are now viewed by scientists and lay people alike.
Although scientists as brilliant and prestigious as Konrad Lorenz, who won the Nobel Prize, and even Charles Darwin, were fascinated by dogs and studied them extensively, many others found them unworthy of attention. The viewpoint for generations was that because dogs were domesticated, they were not scientifically interesting the way that wild animals are. Many people in the field of ethology, which is the study of animals in their natural habitat rather than in the laboratory, failed to recognize that the natural environment of dogs is with people. Attempts to study them were met with scorn, and almost no funding.
In the last decade, the tide has turned, and now excellent research on dogs is being done in many areas of the world. As founder and head of the Family Dog Project and head of the Ethology Department at Eötvös University in Budapest, Miklósi is a worldwide leader in the study of the domestic dog. The goal of his research is to investigate the ethological and evolutionary foundations of the human-dog relationship.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The similarities are considerable
If you’ve always thought that you and your dogs understand one another’s emotions, you increasingly have scientific evidence supporting your views. The use of MRIs allowed researchers to demonstrate that the brains of both dogs and people have a similar response to human voices, crying and laughter, among many other sounds. Researchers conclude that the brains of both dogs and people have similar reactions to the emotional cues in many sounds.
Eleven dogs and 22 people were subjected to the same MRI scans during which they had to remain still for up to 8 minutes while exposed to various sounds. (A lot of training went in to teaching dogs to remain motionless during the scans.) The study is called “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI” (only the abstract is available online) and it was published last week in the journal Current Biology. It is the first study to use this technique to compare the brain of humans to a non-primate animal species.
Over 200 different sounds were played to each participant in the study over a number of sessions. There were sounds such as whistles and car noises as well as dog vocalizations and human sounds. The responses to human sounds in both people and dogs occurred in similar regions of the brain. This study is the first time such a similarity to humans has been shown in an animal species that is NOT a primate. Both the people and the dogs also reacted in similar regions of the brain to emotional canine vocalizations such as whimpering and intense barking.
Along with the similarities, there were also differences in responses between the two species. Humans were better at distinguishing between the sounds of the environment and vocalizations than dogs were. Additionally, both species responded more strongly to vocalizations of their own species.
It is impossible to say from this study whether these vocal regions of the brain evolved in a more ancient lineage than was previously thought or whether the dogs have evolved this similarity during the period of domestication as a mechanism to allow better communication and understanding between dogs and people.
Future studies that investigate brains of additional species may be able to determine the reason for the similarity between dogs and people. These scientists next plan to study the response of dog brains to human language, which was not a part of this study.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog flexibility strikes again
If you’re not amazed by the diversity of dog body type and the huge number of habitats in which they can live, then you’re in the minority. Scientists, dog lovers and scientists who are dog lovers consider the domestic dog a species of considerable interest for the great number of forms that have evolved over a relatively short time. Some of the variation is obvious because it involves shape, size and color, while some of the behavioral tendencies are subtle. Even less obvious are the physiological difference between different types of dogs, including the recent discovery of adaptations to high altitude by the Tibetan Mastiff.
This breed of dog is most closely related to the Chinese native dogs, but in recent history, has been selected to live high in the mountains of Tibet at elevations of nearly 15,000 feet. The biggest challenge to life at such heights is the low level of oxygen. Even individuals who are quite fit can become out of breath just from walking at a casual pace under the low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions at high altitude. So, how do Tibetan Mastiffs thrive in Tibet? They do it in much the same way that wild animals and humans do—with genetic changes that affect hemoglobin concentration, the formation of extra blood vessels and the use and production of energy.
In a new study called “Population variation revealed high altitude adaptation of Tibetan Mastiffs”, scientists found that this breed of dogs has at least a dozen areas in their genome that represent adaptations to the high life. One of the genes that helps them survive in their high-altitude/low oxygen environment is similar to a gene present in the Tibetan people, who are also adapted to the high life. The rest of them are different than those of the people as well as differing from animals such as the yak and the Tibetan antelope that are also adapted to this environment.
Though much selection on our companion dogs has changed their behavior and appearance, there are also examples of changes that are far harder to observe such as the Tibetan Mastiff ‘s adaptations to high altitude.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Infantile features have power
Those big puppy dog eyes may be powerful in addition to just being cute. According to a recent study, they may actually affect human choice about which dogs to adopt. The researchers who conducted the study “Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage” found that dogs whose facial expressions made them look more puppyish were adopted more quickly from shelters than dogs who did not show such facial expressions. (Paedomorphism is the retention of infantile or juvenile traits into adulthood.)
One of the most prominent paedomorphic features is large eyes relative to the size of the face. This trait can be enhanced by raising the eyebrows which makes the overall height and size of the eyes seem bigger. It was this action of eyebrow raising that was studied in the experiment.
A total of 27 dogs were a part of the study. To minimize variation in facial features, all of the dogs were of similar types: Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Mastiffs and mixed bull breeds. Dogs were filmed for 2 minutes and researchers recorded the number of eyebrow raises and tail wags that each dog performed as well as noting how much time the dog spent at the front of the kennel. Frequency of eyebrow raises was associated with shorter times until adoption. Specifically, dogs who raised their eyebrows 5 times during filming were adopted in an average of 50 days, those that performed 10 eyebrow raises were adopted in an average of 35 days, and dogs who did it 15 times had an average waiting time until adoption of only 28 days.
Interestingly, they found that amount of tail wagging and time at the front of the kennel were not strongly associated with time until being adopted even though such traits are typically considered favorable behavioral signs of friendliness. It would be interesting to know if the eyebrow raising behavior correlates with temperament and suitability as a pet or if it is a behavior that serves more strictly to encourage caregiving behavior in humans.
These results may shed light on the domestication of dogs. It has been proposed that the juvenile traits of dogs arose as a byproduct of selection against aggression. This line of reasoning claims that people chose to associate with the least aggressive canines, and that the evolution of puppyish features and behavior developed as an accidental consequence of those choices. Experiments support the idea that selecting against aggression does lead to the evolution of juvenile traits. However, this latest study suggests that the puppylike features themselves may have influenced which canines became closely associated with humans and that such features may have evolved earlier in the process of domestication than previously thought.
Do your buddy’s puppy dog eyes exert a powerful influence over you?
News: Guest Posts
As my Twitter bio says, I’m interested in your dog’s urine. I’m not kidding around here. For a recent Animal Behavior class, I buddied up with a doggie daycare and followed dogs on their afternoon walks. Yes. I was that person walking around NYC with a hand held camera, trailing dogs and video taping them as they peed.
This wasn’t a hypothesis testing experiment, I was simply trying to gauge what parts of urination were easily measured in a naturalistic context. I checked out things like urination duration, urine placement, leg position, leg height, tail position and post-pee scratching. If another dog was present, I got to see whether there was any over-marking (peeing on another dog’s pee) or adjacent marking (peeing nearby). I was just measuring stuff as you often do when starting to investigate why animals do what they do.
I’m not the only researcher interested in your dog’s urine. Patricia Yang and colleagues at The Georgia Institute of Technology have a similar interest in measuring things that might seem odd to measure. They’ve submitted the abstract The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet to the Annual Fluid Dynamics Conference held by the American Physical Society in late November.
Using “high-speed videography” and “flow-rate measurement” they investigated independent urination styles, such as the dripping of small mammals and the “jetting” of large mammals. New Scientist interviewed Yang (and Discover has a piece out as well), and the coverage touches on urethra length, gravitational pull and the number of seconds it takes to empty bladders. I eagerly await how the published study links Newtonian physics to urine!
Truth be told, maybe I wanted to write this post so I could write “jetting” of large mammals, and show this video. Also, I want to go on vacation with these people*:
But as you’ve seen, urine does not begin and end with the jetting of large mammals. Dog urination is pretty awesome and a number of researchers are holding a figurative magnifying glass up to it (and you can too!). Some dogs let it all out at once — although, I’m pretty sure that’s not called “jetting”) — while others let a little out at a time. And then of course, there’s how they do it.
A recent study by Wirant and McGuire (2004) found that female Jack Russell Terriers assumed a number of urination positions, including the squat-raise (most common), squat, arch-raise, combination and handstand. They found that females“used the squat-raise and arch-raise postures more when off their home area then when on their home area.” If dog urination has a social function, it might make sense to present your urine in different ways depending on where you are and who you are encountering, don’t you think?
Here’s what you can do: When you’re out walking your dog, pay attention to their urine. Do they assume a different position if you take them to an area where they’ve never been or go infrequently? Or do they pull out the same tricks no matter where they are?
Leave your urine reports below, and share early and often. My business is urine, and it can be yours too.
Photo: Flickr Nature’s Fire Hydrant via Mike Finkelstein Creative Commons
Pham et al. 2013. The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet. Bulletin of the American Physical Society. 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted
News: Guest Posts
Does it smell weird in here to you?
You know what I’m talking about. That nagging feeling that something smells “different,” but you just can’t put a finger on it. This has been my life for the last three days. Day after day, I’d enter the living room and think, “Did it always smell like that in here? It smells different, right? What is that!?”
On the fourth day, I finally sat down on the couch to read a book. On the coffee table before me sat a bowl of chestnuts. They had yet to be roasted. “Chestnuts don’t have a smell,” I thought. To the right of the chestnuts, the remote. Electronics, also void of smell (although my Game Boy got moldy, and that smelled). Then, I saw it. Next to the remote sat the biggest, most obvious thing on the table, the centerpiece you might say. A large, overripe cantaloupe. It had been there for 6 days and with the radiator pumping out heat (because it is so cold!), the cantaloupe was starting to mush, and that mush was permeating the air and my nostrils. How could I miss it? It was the most prominent thing in the room. Yet day after day, I missed that the gnarly cantaloupe was behind the new stench.
That’s how I feel about dogs. Not that they are starting to smell (although some of them might be), but that despite them being major parts of our lives, we can overlook the important bits.
I left 2013 by posing a question: How Well Do You Know Your Dog? Part 1. The answer: If judging by smell, you know your dog pretty well. In one study, people could identify the smell of their dog compared to an unknown dog in a “smell test.” I finished Part 1 suggesting that while we might be attuned to some nuanced bits of our dogs — like their smell — we’re not attuned to all parts of them, like behavior. I’ll explain.
Is Snoopy happy?
We know happy! But…
But fear was different. Study participants who were dog professionals did a better job identifying fear compared to both dog owners and people with little dog experience. The authors suggest that “professional experience with dogs aids proficiency in interpretations of fearful behavior.” It didn’t matter how many years the dog professionals had spent working with dogs; they had the same proficiency in identifying fear.
So why did dog professionals do so much better in identifying fear? One reason could be that professionals looked at more dog body parts for clues, such as the eyes, ears, mouth and tongue, while non-professionals looked at fewer body parts, focusing primarily on legs, paws and tails. More details in the figure provided by Wan et al. (2012).
The researchers summarize: “The results of the current study are among the first to demonstrate that the perception of an emotion in dogs can be associated with human observers’ level of dog experience.”
While many of us love dogs to pieces (Buzzfeed reminds me of this on a daily basis), noticing and interpreting their subtle behaviors can take practice. That’s okay! Behavior observation can be learned.
Keeping an eye out for fear
What does fear look like? It can include a wide variety of body parts and body postures. Wan and colleagues explain, “…fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size – crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs.”
Maybe, in certain contexts, you notice fearful behaviors in your own dog and want to help decrease it. Like gymnasts, fear is flexible. Just as dogs can sensitize to stimuli, so too can they habituate. With classical- and operant-conditioning techniques, behavior management, and maybe some professional assistance (see below), dogs can have a modified outlook on life. What does a modified outlook look like? Check out Masey’s progress over at Reactive Champion.
Sometimes we just can’t piece it together that the cantaloupe smells. But of course, a trained fruit expert would exclaim, “Julie! Your cantaloupe is rotting.” You see where I’m going with this. Sometimes dogs are fearful, and the clues are right in front of us, like a rotting cantaloupe. Learn to recognize dog fear behavior. This is a blog about dogs after all. Not cantaloupe.
Photo: a muddy dog…..is a happy dog via bambe1964; National. Flickr Creative Commons
References & Recommended Reading
This article first appeared on DogSpies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Six leading canine researchers talk about their work.
I think you would have fun playing Mad Libs with your dog’s life, filling in the blanks to match Siena or Diego’s unique personality and interests. After all, your intimate knowledge of your dog is unparalleled. You know what he thinks of the neighbor’s dog, and whether he prefers balls to sticks or carrots to apples. But our canine experts also know your dog, albeit in a different way. Scholars who focus on canine behavior, cognition and wellbeing, they collectively have more than a century of experience in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behavior, animal welfare, zoology, anthrozoology and psychology under their belts. Read on to find out what they think about dogs, and what they want you to know.
What common misconceptions do people have about dogs?
McConnell: Often it seems that we get things backwards with dogs. Sometimes it seems like people think of dogs as furry people, when they’re not. The flip side is that there are similarities between dogs and humans, and people need to be compassionate and understanding of what a dog is going through; those are often the times people dismiss the similarities.
For example, dogs need social contact and social approval, and a lot of what they do is motivated by fear. These are all very human ways of being, and I think people forget to extend these attributions to dogs; instead, they ascribe other motivations, like wanting to be dominant or trying to beat the system. On the other hand, dogs can be less like us than people tend to think. We use hugging to communicate love, approval and maybe support, whereas dogs often see that as threatening.
Otto: That dogs are perfectly happy to sit on a couch all the time. I think they learn to adjust to that, but are they reaching their potential? And is the relationship reaching its potential? I love teaching tricks because you can spend five minutes a day with a dog or a cat and do things that stretch their brains and change your relationship. I think that is such an important piece of the relationship, and it’s something we’re not routinely giving our dogs.
McGreevy: That dogs want to please humans—almost as though dogs are hard-wired to makes us happy. This beguiling notion paradoxically excuses all sorts of abuse when people interpret training failures as willful disobedience. Dogs want to have fun with us, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they get their kicks from being slaves to our needs, wants, desires and foibles.
Horowitz: That dogs understand right away what’s going on in a household. In other words, if you say something once, it’s somehow clear to them how they are supposed to behave, what you’d like them to do and how the day is going to go. Dogs are pretty flexible, and they adapt fairly well, but a lot of what we call misbehavior is just lack of mutual understanding: ours of the dog’s needs and abilities and theirs of what we expect of them. I find that a bit disheartening.
Another misconception is the alpha dog concept. For some reason, the concept of the hierarchy of the pack was a compelling idea that stuck and was popularized. It’s not only really damaging and simplifying, it’s wrong by analogy.
Miklósi: That the dog is a wolf and also that the dog is a child. I like to say that dogs are dogs, and that’s the most difficult way to try and conceptualize dogs!
Bradshaw: That dogs are reconstructed wolves. I keep coming across journalists who interview me and still believe the old stuff about keeping a dog in its place—that the dog wants to dominate you and take over your house. They’ve read this stuff, taken it in and believe it to be true. Ultimately, it’s bad for dogs. When I speak with people, they seem interested to learn that the UK military trains dogs, whether patrol or sniffer dogs, with play as the reward; punishment-based training has been phased out. When people hear that marines know they can train a dog better by playing a game than by hitting, they take note.
What’s your framework for thinking about the dog?
Horowitz: My consideration of the dog is for his umwelt—his perspective. I’m interested in the way the story of domestication and selective breeding combines with the dog’s particular sensory and cognitive abilities to produce the behaviors we see. I’m particularly interested in how we easily interpret those behaviors from an anthropocentric standpoint. Behaviors almost always look different when interpreted from an evolutionary and cognitive standpoint.
Miklósi: When thinking about any species other than ourselves—whether dog, fish or mice—we always have a third-person view. With this in mind, we view the animal based on how it fits into its niche. In our case, the dog’s niche isn’t a rain forest or an ocean but rather, the environment offered by humans. Even if dogs are feral, they are not in the middle of the forest; dogs remain close to humans.
From there, we think about how dogs achieve and maintain relationships with humans. I think this is what makes dogs unique compared to other animals—their relationship with humans is very special.
Bradshaw: I first think about the dog as an emotional animal for whom the primary motivation is to attach to humans. Somehow, through the course of domestication, we have built this into the vast majority of dogs.
The second framework is the dog’s olfactory sense, which we make use of and often take for granted. Dogs’ subjective world is defined, to a large extent, by smell rather than by what something looks like, which is how we define our world. Everybody knows that there are so many uses for the dog’s nose—that when you put your luggage on the conveyer belt in the airport, a dog might sniff it before it’s loaded on the plane—but we don’t readily incorporate their olfaction into our everyday lives with them.
McGreevy: I think of the normal dog as a social athlete and a fun-loving opportunist.
McConnell: Instead of talking about the dog, I find myself wanting to talk about a dog. Dogs are enormously variable, and I see so much frustration and so much suffering because people expect their dog to be one way and the dog behaves in another way.
Just as people are individuals, dogs are individuals. I think it’s critical we understand that we’re not looking at a Golden Retriever or a Border Collie— although I don’t want to dismiss breedrelated traits—but that we’re looking at Frank or Willie or Spot or Martha.
What contributions to the field of dog science are you most proud of?
Bradshaw: When my colleagues and I at Bristol first started exploring separation disorders in dogs, they were thought to be rare—some kind of pathology. All the work we’ve done finds that separation disorders in dogs are not pathologies; they can be a reflection of something normal in dog behavior, which is attachment to people.
Also, my colleagues and I have done a lot of work for sniffer-dog welfare, improving not only the way that detection dogs operate in the field but also the way they are looked after, so they are not just efficient dogs but are happy dogs as well.
McGreevy: My contributions primarily relate to my team’s discoveries in dog behavior, physiology and welfare. We’ve shown how left- and righthandedness in dogs affect a dog’s ability to guide the visually impaired, how dogs’ retinae and brains depend on their skull shapes, and how many breeds’ body shapes predispose them to hip dysplasia. We’ve also developed and validated a scoring system for doggy dementia. On an international level, I helped tackle inherited disorders in dogs—the most preventable form of cruelty—by establishing national surveillance systems, such as VetCompass in the UK and Australia, for veterinarians to report inherited disorders.
Otto: I’m most proud of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the research to come. The center evolved out of my work following the health and behavior of the dogs who assisted after 9/11. It’s quite a landmark study; we are now in the 12th year of monitoring and evaluating the health and behavior of these dogs, and we are also working with a human psychologist to explore the ongoing relationship between the dogs and their handlers. This is the foundation for so much more research in the future.
Horowitz: I think that through our research, and the ideas that I developed in Inside of a Dog, I reminded people of the huge interest in understanding the dog’s point of view. In other words, looking at dog behavior from the dog’s side as opposed to from an owner’s perspective or the perspective of a comparative psychologist, who is interested primarily in mapping nonhuman animals to human animals.
So I think for many people, I helped re-spark the interest in the dog qua dog, and I’m very pleased and happy about that.
McConnell: I would say it’s my focus on the natural history of both humans as primates and dogs as canines, and using these evolutionary heritages to explain and enhance our interactions. My two favorite species have always been people and dogs, and I’m as fascinated by our own behavior as I am of canine behavior.
What needs more research or remains unresolved about the dog?
Otto: I have a sense that working dogs, dogs with a purpose and dogs who have things to do live longer and happier lives. Many pet dogs are frustrated, bored, inactive and fat; it kind of amazes me that a lot of dogs’ lives don’t even meet the environmental- stimulation standards required for rodents living in research labs. We need to think about how stimulation, or the lack thereof, affects dogs’ quality of life.
Miklósi: A better understanding of what makes for good social relationships between dogs and humans, particularly cooperation. For example, “working together” might be quite selfish for dogs in that they are working for a reward, like play or food. Alternatively, research could investigate whether cooperation can be organized such that dogs are cooperating for the sake it.
McGreevy: What I call “dogmanship”— the science of how the best dog folk interact with their dogs. I’m also interested in understanding how our behavior frustrates and confuses our dogs.
McConnell: We still need lots of research on communication: how dogs interpret our behavior, how we interpret their behavior and how accurate our perceptions and interpretations really are. I think that’s most important for companion dogs. Nutrition, diet, physiology and behavior need to be researched as well. I think there is so much in these areas that we haven’t explored yet and need to. Also, research could look specifically at aggression and investigate precipitating factors, putting it all on the table: nature, nurture, genetics, physiology and diet, experience, and learning.
Bradshaw: The whole area of the dog’s olfactory abilities is waiting to be properly understood. We use those abilities, but I don’t think we fully understand them. We know very little about the dog’s vomeronasal organ, and we don’t even agree as scientists on when dogs are using it. I don’t know what the implications of this knowledge would be for companion dogs, but sometimes the most exciting findings arise when doing research for the sake of it; practical value is a byproduct.
What do you wish the average dog owner knew about dogs?
Miklósi: You get out what you put in. If you want a dog as a social partner, that doesn’t mean lying in bed together and watching TV, but going out together actively. That could include learning, teaching, talking or solving problems together. I wish people understood that if they do this, they both would have happier lives.
A great example is olfaction. People think that dogs have fantastic abilities when it comes to smell, but that’s an oversimplification. Dogs have a fantastic potential for smelling, but if the dog spends its whole life in an apartment and never uses its nose, then I would assume that dog would have poor smelling abilities.
The same goes for social interactions. If the dog has no experience meeting other dogs or people, or has never had a task, then that dog will not function properly. And I think this is also a welfare issue. In some cases, street dogs who are rescued and taken to Western countries are worse off because they are alone, have no experiences and sleep all day.
Otto: Dogs are smart and their brains need exercise as much as their bodies. People get that they need to take their dog for a walk, but they don’t always think about needing to exercise the dog’s brain.
McGreevy: Most dogs are better communicators than most people. They are our guides; if we want to master dogmanship, we need to know how to read them. Horowitz: The dog deserves a lot more attention and scrutiny by owners and researchers alike. Particularly, attention to what life is like for this animal who has so cooperatively waltzed into our homes. McConnell: As social animals, one of the things we share with dogs is the duality of wanting to be connected to a group and also wanting to be individuals who can pursue their own desires and wishes as best they can. I think the more we can see dogs in this light, the more respectful we will be of dogs— and they of us. I think we’d get along better, and we’d see fewer behavior problems.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Vet Experts Tell Us How
Did you know that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has fewer than 50 members? To obtain board certification in this specialty, each has gone beyond a DVM to earn various degrees in applied animal behavior, and has completed a rigorous training program as well.
Decoding Your Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2014), with sections on canine behavior written by 20 ACVB diplomates, thus represents the expertise of some of the leading experts in the field. Their goal is two-fold: to make sure dog people have scientifically correct information about dog behavior problems and “to correct widespread misinformation.” The volume is well edited by Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi and pet journalist Steve Dale; Victoria Stilwell contributed the foreword.
A concerted effort to debunk the many fallacious, pseudoscientif ic notions all too prevalent in the dog world is really long overdue. This book repudiates, in each and every one of its 14 chapters, the theory of dominance— i.e., dogs want to be pack leaders—that has been promulgated for much too long. In “Creating a Mensa Dog,” Dr. Katherine Houpt outlines that theory: “It goes like this: since dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and wolves have a rigid dominance hierarchy within their pack, the same must be true for dogs. Simple, right? But the thinking turns out to be wrong.” She then goes on to tell us why it is wrong. Similarly, when this concept appears in other chapters, it’s firmly dismissed as a myth with no scientific basis that harms dogs and our relationships with them.
Another adroitly debunked myth is that dogs feel guilty about infractions people find upsetting, such as house soiling. Dogs must know they’ve done something wrong, right? In “Can’t We Just Talk?” Dr. Jacqueline Neilson explains that while to us, cringing may look like guilt, what is actually happening is that dogs see us acting aggressively and do what they wisely do when faced by an angry bully: offer a submissive response. In the fascinating chapter on aggression, Drs. Ilana Reisner and Stefanie Schwartz remind us that dogs are not mean: “There is no revenge or malice in dogs; they are merely using canine tools to respond to social situations.” Also, that aggression is a response to many different triggers, some of which might not be apparent to us. Consequently, it’s imperative that we learn how to read canine body language and methods of communication. Punishment, they say, “is not necessary when you’re managing your dog’s behavior, and at worst is likely to increase anxiety and aggression.” That means no leash pops, alpha rolls or other “in your face” confrontational techniques (as used by a popular TV personality). It is up to us to defuse the situation, and then work on a strategy to fix the problem.
On less dire subjects, it’s good to know Book Reviews that there is no association between “spoiling,” such as allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, and behavior problems. And that dogs rely on “visual and olfactory cues for communication,” which means it’s best to train them with hand signals first, then supplement with verbal cues.
I found the chapter on separation anxiety by Drs. E’Lise Christensen and Karen Overall to be invaluable, particularly their reminder that “only when dogs are calm can they learn new things, including how to be home alone.” With information ranging from the best ways to start out with dogs to helping dogs as they age, this book is appropriate for both novice and seasoned dog people. The editors have done a good job in making the text readable and approachable; each chapter incorporates case studies, and there is a clear organizational format. Recurring sections (“Facts, Not Fiction,” “Is That Really True?”) and review summaries (“What Did We Say?”) neatly encapsulate the various messages. I have a little quibble with the use of the latter phrase, which sounds like a scolding parent’s “What did I tell you!” But that doesn’t detract from my overall admiration for this book. Decoding Your Dog is an important addition to the canine canon, one that will go a long way toward increasing your understanding of your best friend.
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