Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What do you want to know about dogs?
What’s hot on the research frontier can change quickly. Years ago in the environmental world, acid rain was all the rage, then it was mercury pollution and now big bucks are going to fund issues related to climate change. In the animal behavior world, copious studies on foraging behavior gave way to the popularity of parasitism, followed by a fascination with sexual selection and mating strategies.
Right now, studies of domestic animals, including dogs, are big, and a variety of topics are hot within the canine research community. I would love to see the funding that supports this research continue, and I think that will happen if people continue to see the value of the research. We’re learning about our best friends at a faster rate than ever, and it’s an exciting time to be interested in dogs.
Canine cognition research is a hugely popular area of study right now, as is the role of oxytocin in a variety of canine social behaviors. Interactions with people and the way dogs’ brains respond to various stimuli have also both been studied a lot lately. Play behavior has been popular for quite a long time, though we are perhaps past the main peak of the wave of studies on this topic for now. Receiving far less attention are some other areas of dog behavior. It’s currently far less common to study courtship and mating behavior, communication, aggression or feeding strategies.
Where would you like to see the studies of dogs go next? That is, what questions do you want answered in order to understand dogs better?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It bonds people and dogs
You gaze into your dog’s eyes. Your dog gazes back at you. It’s true love, right? Yes, absolutely! And it’s not just any kind of love, but perhaps one of the most powerful kinds of love that exists—the love between mother and child.
So says a new study published in the prestigious journal Science called ”Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the co-evolution of human-dog bonds.” This research provides evidence that our feelings of love for dogs are mutual and are in part a result of looking into one another’s eyes, just like mothers and babies do to form their strong attachment.
In humans, it has been shown that mothers who spend more time in mutual gazing with their babies have higher levels of oxytocin. (Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a large role in the formation of social bonds as well as feelings of love.) Additionally, there is a positive feedback loop in humans. Mothers with higher oxytocin levels engage in more mothering behavior, which affects oxytocin levels in their babies. That in turn leads to higher levels of attachment, which increases oxytocin levels in mothers, leading to more maternal behavior, and so on.
The purpose of this new research was to investigate whether humans and dogs also have a positive-feedback loop in which oxytocin plays a role, and if so to learn whether gazing is a part of the process. In one part of the study, researchers measured levels of oxytocin in the urine of people and their dogs both before and after they interacted. They found that in pairs in which the dogs gazed at their guardians for a long time, levels of oxytocin rose in both the people and the dogs.
In the second part of the study, experimenters examined whether giving oxytocin to dogs affected their gazing behavior or the oxytocin levels of their guardians. Researchers gave oxytocin to dogs (intranasally) and observed that female dogs given this chemical gazed at their owners for longer periods of time than female dogs given saline as a control. (It didn’t affect male dogs the same way.) Even though they were not given oxytocin, guardians’ levels of this hormone increased after interacting with female dogs who had received it. Researchers are not sure why the behavior of female, but not male, dogs was affected by the oxytocin.
This research suggests that the bond we feel with our dogs is not only similar to the bond between mothers and children, but that the mechanism behind the connection is the same. This type of attachment between different species is rare and continues to interest scientists and dog lovers alike. It’s possible that the process of domestication of the dog was possible in part because dogs co-opted the social communication and social bonding process of babies.
Do you feel the love when you and your dog gaze into one another’s eyes?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
There is no disputing the fact that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves a puppy’s odds of a growing into balanced, confident dog. Also not in question is the reality that canine under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, all primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.
The window in which the most effective socialization takes place is only open between weeks 3 and 12 of the puppy’s life; then, it slams shut. Given that the last combination vaccine (against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza and coronavirus) is usually administered when a puppy is 16 weeks old, it’s also the genesis of a dilemma.
Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders advise new owners to wait until after a puppy has had her final set of vaccinations to allow her to interact with others. Unfortunately, by that time, the socialization period has ended, precluding the pup’s best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills.
So, I was particularly interested in a study conducted by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which looked at the risks to partially vaccinated puppies of contracting parvo at indoor puppy socialization sessions (socials). The results were reassuring.
Risk vs. Reward
It seems that puppies who have had only their first set of shots are at no greater risk of being infected with parvovirus than those not attending socials. During the study, it was reported that none of the 15 puppies who contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials, and that none of the puppies who attended socials contracted parvovirus.
This dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages owners to begin socialization classes for puppies as early as seven to eight weeks of age, and seven days after the first set of vaccines. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA, and other dog health and behavior experts concur.
As the ASVAB statement reads, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.”
It is important to note that structured puppy socials run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses take place indoors on non-porous surfaces, and “accidents” are cleaned up immediately with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as dirt, sand and, in particular, those found at dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination.
Also, puppy socials do not guarantee that a dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life; genetics, in-utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles.
Why is the window of opportunity so small? At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human counterparts. For example, puppies walk beautifully at three weeks, but it takes babies about a year to reach that milestone. This acceleration affects canine cognitive function, which develops rapidly during the short socialization period; it’s during this time that a puppy’s framework for future social functioning evolves. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.
As mentioned, the true socialization period of puppies—the time during which they readily incorporate new experiences into the developing worldviews that directly affect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (a whole other topic), this means that new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunities to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.
Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period” (the first having been spent with the mother and siblings). During those 28 days, a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. This is without question the most profoundly important period in a dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than during any subsequent period, and she learns not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also, to enjoy and seek out these experiences.
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s capacity to learn social skills is similar to a young child’s capacity to learn languages. Studies have shown that children younger than seven easily pick up new languages because their brains are capable of readily incorporating the sounds, words, grammar and structure of multiple languages.
Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. A six-year-old child who spends a year in a Mandarin immersion class will come out fluent in the language. If I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.
The analogy continues. My Mandarin would improve over time as I became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but I would never be as fluent as my young counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it takes a great deal more time and effort and has a lower chance of success.
Country Dog, City Dog
It goes without saying that your puppy needs to be socialized to the environment in which she will be living. If your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, for the life of a farm dog, socialization to lots of people and dogs is not as important. If your pup’s life will be devoted to managing livestock, this second socialization period would be the ideal time to hang out with sheep, goats, cows and horses.
But 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and since more of us have dogs in our homes than ever before, it behooves us to structure our puppy’s socialization period to take this into account. In San Francisco, we have a beach where sometimes hundreds of dogs roam around off-leash at any given time. Our sheepherding dog probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with that, but if you want to eventually spend quality time with your dog in this lovely locale, you’d best start her education early (yes, during those four crucial weeks).
In addition to socials, a widely accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks: babies, children, elderly folks, men and women of all races, sizes and shapes, dressed in all sorts of clothing and carrying all sorts of implements—umbrellas, canes, plastic bags. One caveat is that puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary.
As your pup’s guardian, you need to shield her from overtly frightening situations (being pursued by an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance), but you must also allow her to venture forth into the rollicking puppy mayhem at her own pace. Sometimes, a timid puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become a social butterfly. Take, for example, my dog Otis.
As a young puppy, she was shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of the city were initially overwhelming. At her first puppy social, she hung out under my chair and observed the other puppies playing; I did not coddle or overprotect her, nor did I force her to engage with them. By her second social, she was venturing forth, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to her safe place under my chair. By her third social, she was actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.
Since Otis was by nature somewhat fearful, I have no doubt that had she not had the chance to come out of her shell among other puppies and to learn and practice social skills, she would be a fearful dog today, possibly aggressively so. Instead, she has superb communication skills and is particularly adept at enticing other dogs to play and chase her. She remains cautious around novel stimuli (a strange stack of wood on our street or a kite hitting the beach nearby), but she is most definitely not fearful. Puppy socials made all the difference.
A word of caution here: Had I taken Otis only to that first puppy social (the one during which she hung out under my chair, overwhelmed and frightened), it almost certainly would have backfired. She would have learned that being around other dogs was an unpleasant experience to be avoided. She might have become aggressive in order to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs who have learned that snarling, snapping, lunging and barking keeps other dogs from approaching. Instead, because Otis had numerous opportunities to learn to how to play at her own pace, she became a world-class communicator.
I mention this primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a six-month-old puppy whose veterinarian had advised avoiding all contact with other dogs until the pup was fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, that meant no contact until 17 weeks.
Five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, the pup finally attended one social, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified and the owner decided not to go back. Now, this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act, or react. A desensitization/counterconditioning program will take months or years, and will never be as effective as if that puppy had been taken to numerous socials while her brain was configured to learn and cope.
Knowledge Is Power
I find it interesting (but not surprising) that in the UC Davis study encouraging early socialization, puppies taken to socials did not contract parvo, but some who were not taken to socials did. New owners who are conscientious enough to learn about the advantages of early and safe socialization are also knowledgeable enough to avoid taking under-vaccinated pups to dog parks, where the risk of contracting the virus is high.
Conversely, people unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until they’re fully vaccinated, which includes dog parks, beaches and other settings with porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.
Puppy socials are just one part of a well-thought-out socialization plan, but they form the plan’s cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations have been given.
In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well being of future generations of our best friends.
I hope this sheds some light not only on the advantages of socialization but also, on how such a program can begin early enough to make a real difference in the life of your dog. Now, get out there and mingle!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do abused dogs have traits in common?
Animal abuse happens all too often in oh so many situation and cultures, yet little research has been devoted to the problem. An interesting study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) titled “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse” compared dogs who have been (or have most likely been) abused with dogs who have not been abused.
Not surprisingly, behavioral differences were found between the abused dogs and other dogs. Dogs with a history of abuse were rated by their guardians as more excitable and performed more attachment and attention-seeking behavior than their counterparts. They also displayed more fear and aggression towards unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. They rolled in feces more often, exhibited more fearfulness on stairs, showed higher levels of hyperactivity, were more persistent barkers and had a greater frequency of “bizarre, strange, or repetitive behaviors.” That last category includes actions such as hoarding shoes, digging deep holes, sucking on pillows and being unable to stop, and circling when anxious.
The researchers discuss possible interpretations of the results of their study. They point out that fearfulness towards strangers (dogs and people) and aggression towards them are highly correlated in a number of studies, suggesting that much of the aggression seen in the abused dogs could be motivated by fear. They also point out that abuse could cause fearfulness that leads to aggression through a conditioned response, but that aggression could also be a result of genetic predisposition, poor socialization, brain injury and other injuries that could cause aggression motivated by pain.
The researchers went through several steps to identify abused dogs for inclusion in their study. Magazines sent to members of Best Friends Animal Society included a notice requesting anyone who suspected their dog had been abused to consider participating in a study about canine abuse. Over 1100 respondents were given a link to SurveyMonkey, which asked about reasons for suspecting abuse. From that sample, 149 were chosen for the next phase of the study because the cases of those dogs were considered “more likely than not to involve substantiated abuse.”
Five experts were then given the dogs’ historical information and physical reports of injuries, but no behavioral information. (Behavioral information was not included because that was the subject of the study.) If at least four of the experts evaluated the information and concluded that it was probable that the dog had been abused, the dog was included in the study. Only dogs who were still alive at the time of the study were included in order to avoid problems with memory or biased recall.
Of the 149 selected in the first phase of the study, only 69 proceeded to the next stage. Their guardians were instructed to fill out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was designed to measure a number of behavioral characteristics in dogs. The C-BARQ has become a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs. In this study, the abused dogs were compared to 5239 dogs from the C-BARQ database who matched the abused dogs in age range now and at the time of acquisition and the source of the dogs.<
Studies of abuse, in both children and animals, have limitations because abuse is often done secretly, and because of incomplete information about the victims. Rarely is there much information about their personality and behavior before being abused. This study, as the researchers note, suffers from these limitations as well as others.
Another limitation of this study is that it correlates behavior with a history of abuse, but is unable to show whether that abuse plays a causal role in the behavior of abused animals. While it is hard to imagine that abuse does not affect behavior, correlational studies are not designed to elucidate any such claims. The researchers caution that the differences they found between abused dogs and other dogs does not mean that the abuse CAUSED these differences. It is also possible that some of these behavioral characteristics are risk factors for abuse, meaning that they made abuse more likely, or that the abusive environment, rather than the abuse itself, played a casual role.
The researchers recommend that future studies investigate which behavioral differences are caused by abuse, which are risk factors for abuse and which are both. (For example, aggression in human children is known to be both a risk factor for abuse and a result of abuse.) They would also like to investigate which types of abuse are the most damaging. Again comparisons to humans are inevitable, and it is known that emotional abuse is often more damaging and harder to recover from than physical abuse. Finally, they want to know more about how the age at which dogs are abused affects outcomes.
Like many people, it makes me physically ill when I think about abuse of people or of animals, but I’m grateful that it is being studied. The more we know about abuse—its causes and its effects—the better we are able to help those who have suffered and to prevent additional instances of abuse.
News: Guest Posts
Ample data show dogs and other animals remember the past and plan for the future
A few days ago a colleague asked me if I'd seen an essay called "Dogs Don't Remember," published by Dr. Ira Hyman. I hadn't, and then, as I was doing an interview, a similar question about mental time travel by animals came up so I decided to pen a few comments about Dr. Hyman's claims that "Dogs don't remember what happened yesterday and don't plan for tomorrow" and "Even if they can't describe their memories,chimps may engage in mental time travel. My dogs, however, are stuck in an eternal present."
In his essay, Dr. Hyman also writes, "If I walk into the backyard, the dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me for days. If I stay in the backyard, they quickly become bored with me. If I go inside and return after 10-15 minutes, my dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me in days. They don't remember that I was in the backyard just a few minutes ago."
I don't see that dogs or other nonhuman animals (animals) greeting a friend(s) after a short absence says much about whether or not they remember that an individual(s) had just been there. Many animals engage in repeated and effusive greeting ceremonies when first seeing a friend and shortly thereafter. So too do humans.
What about future planning?
Given his interests in mental time travel, Dr. Hyman also writes, "Dogs don't plan for particular future events although they have a general expectation of when dinner will appear." He may be correct here. I don't know of any studies that show that dogs "plan for particular future events" but, for example, I have seen dogs and wild coyotes very cautiously approach an area where unfriendly individuals live and often have felt they were planning for possible combat. Nonetheless, I'll grant for now that it is difficult to differentiate planning for a particular event and having a general expectation that something might occur. However, I wouldn't be so sure that dogs don't do both until the proper studies are conducted.
Studies on nonhuman primates, birds, and other animals show, in fact, that they do remember the past and plan for the future. In an essay I wrote called "What Makes Us Uniquely Human?" that was concerned with mental time travel, I noted that the prominent primatologists Christophe and Hedwige Boesch-Ackerman wrote in their book The Chimpanzees of the Tai Forest that "A hunting chimpanzee 'not only has to anticipate the direction in which the prey will flee (recorded as a half anticipation), but also the speed of the prey so as to synchronize his movements to reach the correct height in the tree before the prey enters it (recorded as a full anticipation) . ... We also recorded a double anticipation when a hunter not only anticipates the actions of the prey, but also the effect the action of other chimpanzees will have on the future movements of the colobus, that is he does not anticipate what he sees (the escaping colobus), but how a future chimpanzee tactic will further influence the escaping monkeys." And, even birds remember the past and plan for the future (see, for example, "Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?" and for numerous examples of more recent research on a wide variety of animals please see).
There's no evidence that dogs are stuck in "an eternal present"
So, all in all, unless others and I are missing something, dogs do remember yesterday. If Dr. Hyman literally means by "yesterday" the preceding day—24 hours ago—perhaps he's correct. To the best of my knowledge, no animals other than humans look at or wear watches or use calendars. However, it doesn't seem that Dr. Hyman literally means yesterday, but rather, more generally, "the past," given the example he uses about dogs greeting him repeatedly even if he's only been absent for a short while.
There are many examples of dogs and other animals "remembering yesterday." Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused and who suffer from severe fear or depression for years on end, and also, for example, think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned in various sorts of learning experiments, and dogs who remember where they're fed and where they've cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on.
From an evolutionary point of view it would be somewhat odd and exceptional if mammals such as dogs and many other animals didn't remember yesterday and plan accordingly. Mental time travel truly is a very exciting field of research and I look forward to more studies that speak to the questions of how past experiences inform future behavior. And, as I mentioned above, there already are many detailed studies that show that mental time travel back to the past and ahead toward the future is not uniquely human.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Oxytocin improves dog performance
A new study in the journal Animal Cognition that reports that oxytocin increases canine responses to human social cues adds to the large number of known effects of this chemical. The more that oxytocin is studied, the more influential it seem to be.
All the articles that refer to oxytocin as “the love hormone” are simplifying to the point of distortion. Sure, levels of this chemical rise in the early stages of romantic love, but that’s just a small part of its role in our lives. Oxytocin is a biologically occurring molecule made of a short chain of nine amino acid acids that has strong effects on the body and on social behavior. Ever since a study roughly 20 years ago showed that it played a key role in the choice of a lifelong mate in the famously monogamous prairie vole, a series of studies have shown its key role in a number of species in trust and social interactions, including bonding. New human parents of babies show a rise in oxytocin, for example.
On the other hand, the moms out there experience other effects of oxytocin related to parenting, and those aren’t all so sweet and glorious. The same chemical that helps us love our babies also helps our babies enter the world and thrive in it. That’s because oxytocin is important for the production of contractions during childbirth and also for lactation to feed our infants.
>To make matters more complicated, oxytocin can make memories of negative social interactions more intense. So, again, “the love hormone” is really not a fair and complete way to describe its social function. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it focuses our attention on social information and gives us the ability to understand it at a deeper level. The recent study. “Oxytocin enhances the appropriate use of human social cues by the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in an object choice task ” supports this view of this powerful biochemical.
The researchers who conducted this study investigated the effects of oxytocin on canine performance in an object choice test (OCT). In an OCT, a person gives a non-verbal, social cue to a dog to indicate the location of a piece of hidden food. Based on the dog’s response, it is possible to learn what cues are meaningful to dogs and which ones they can correctly interpret. Two common cues in OCT studies are pointing and gazing in the direction of the food. In this study, dogs and their guardians came to the test center twice, 5 to 15 days apart for a set of 40 OCT trials, 20 for each cue—gazing or pointing. On one visit, the dog was given an intranasal dose of oxytocin prior to the study and on the other visit, an intranasal saline control was given. The order of these two treatments varied between dogs.
The dogs who were given oxytocin first performed better in their first session than those dogs given saline during the first visit to the testing center. Effects were not as obvious in the trials involving gazing. In gazing trials, the dogs given oxytocin performed no better than if they guessed randomly where the food was hidden, while the dogs given saline first did even worse. Since previous studies have suggested that dogs actively choose to avoid locations that humans have gazed at, this research suggests the possibility that oxytocin counteracts that negative interpretation by dogs, and that they simply guess.
vious OCT studies, dogs have shown no improvement over time. Since learning occurred no matter which treatment dogs received first, it does not appear as though the oxytocin was responsible.
Maybe it’s the science geek in me who has always been fascinated by social behavior, but I’m just as thrilled with the idea of oxytocin as “the social information enhancer and clarifier chemical” as I ever was by the term “the love hormone.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New research confirms that you are
Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?
A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:
1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations. That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)
2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.
3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.
Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions
Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.
The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?
In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)
The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object. They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.
The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.
What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.
If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs affected by state of their guardians
Emotional contagion is the trigger of an emotional response due to perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual. Emotional contagion has been studied extensively in birds, primates and dogs, among other animals. It is generally more pronounced between individuals who know each other than between strangers.
Emotional contagion occur between dogs and people. There is evidence that dogs are sensitive to their guardians’ emotions and that dogs’ behavior is influenced by the emotional expression of those guardians. It has been suggested that dogs have “affective empathy” towards people. That is, dogs can actually feel the emotional experiences of humans, including stress.
Stress has an interesting influence on memory in both humans and non-humans. The effect of stress on memory follows an inverted U-shaped curve. This means that as stress goes up to moderate levels, tasks that rely on memory improve, but as stress increases further, memory tasks are impaired.
In the recent study Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers investigated the role of stress and emotional contagion between dogs and people on performance in memory-related tasks.
Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups—stressed guardian, non-stressed guardian or stressed dog. The direct manipulation of canine stress levels allowed researchers to compare whether stress by emotional contagion had a similar affect as direct stress on the dogs’ performances. Dogs’ stress levels were increased by briefly separating them from their guardians.
Researchers experimentally manipulated the anxiety levels of people and then recorded their responses to a word list memory task. Stress levels were manipulated by giving the person mainly positive or mostly negative feedback during the experiment. Researchers recorded changes in dogs’ responses to memory tasks after guardians were stressed or not stressed as well as after directly manipulating dogs’ stress levels.
Stressed guardians performed better in the memory task than non-stressed guardians. Dogs improved their performance on memory tasks after they were stressed and after their guardians were stressed. Dogs in the non-stressed guardian group showed no such improvement. This study shows that guardian anxiety affects by and has a positive affect on dogs’ ability to perform well on a memory-related task.
Wellness: Healthy Living
A snoring spouse, sirens and glowing electronic screens can all make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Research from the Mayo Clinic finds that pets can be part of the problem, too.
Patients at the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine were asked about causes of interrupted sleep in 2002, and only 1 percent mentioned their pets as an issue, though 22 percent had pets sharing their beds. When patients were asked similar questions in 2013, 10 percent reported that their pets disturbed their sleep.
Dr. Lois Krahn, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, says, “Dogs disturbed sleep by wanting to sleep in a particular place on the bed (where the sleeper would prefer to place their feet, under the covers, on the pillow), needing attention and creating sounds [such as] whimpering during dreaming.”
One benefit of having a dog is having a warm body to snuggle up with at the end of a long day. But sometimes, what you love gets in the way of what you need. In a 2009 survey done by Kansas State University, Dr. Kate Stenske found that more than half of dog owners allow their dogs to sleep in their beds.
How can you reconcile your need for solid sleep with the comfort of your canine companion?
First, take an honest look at how well you sleep. Do you fall asleep quickly, or do you spend a long time tossing and turning? Are you up in the night, for your own needs or to take care of something else? In the morning, are you energized or do you rely on coffee to get going?
If your dog is getting in the way of your falling or staying asleep, it’s time to make some changes. Try moving her from your bed to her own bed in the same room; create a comfortable space near you but on the floor. This is a hard habit to break, so plan to work on it. You’ll have to keep moving her back to her bed when she climbs up with you, but be patient and offer lots of praise.
What about doggie sleep sounds? If you don’t want to use earplugs, try white noise from a fan or other appliance with a constant humming sound.
Once you take back your sleeping space, you may realize that the dog wasn’t the problem. Dr. J. Todd Arnedt of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan has tips for what he calls good “sleep hygiene.”
• Avoid evening exercise.
If you make these changes and insomnia is still stalking you, it’s time to talk to a professional for more in-depth study.
Most dog owners can continue to enjoy the comfort and companionship of their furriest family member through the night. But if sleep is evasive, you may want to take a closer look at what’s keeping you up at night.
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