Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A study with insights into welfare
If you think that having dogs who bounce off the walls is problematic for them and for you, you are not alone. “Wall bouncing” is one of the repetitive behaviors that have long been considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress in the animals performing them. Other repetitive behaviors that are commonly seen in dogs are pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behavior.
Stereotypical behaviors are those that are not just repetitive, but also pointless and occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. That is, when animals are performing stereotypies, they are exhibiting behavior that has no function, and doing it over and over because their living environment is inadequate to meet their needs. A recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior called Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? explored whether all the repetitive behaviors observed in kennelled dogs are actually stereotypies. The reason this question matters is that if their repetitive behaviors are stereotypies, it suggests that animals’ welfare may be compromised, but if they are performing repetitive behaviors for other reasons, then that conclusion may be suspect.
The researchers studied 30 male German Shepherds who are fully trained Police Dogs in the UK and live in a kennel that can hold as many as 40 dogs. They studied their behavior as well as their cortisol profiles (which indicate stress) before and after veterinary exams. They found that all but two of the dogs performed repetitive behaviors, but that very few of them displayed stereotypies. Repetitive behaviors were most commonly induced by a dog and handler walking past the kennel and by witnessing food preparation, which supports the idea that repetitive behaviors are simply a response to situations of high arousal rather than to stress.
The dogs could be divided into four groups based on the pattern of their repetitive behavior and the eliciting stimuli. Twelve of the dogs only exhibited repetitive behavior in response to husbandry events (including veterinary care) or not at all and showed them in less than half of the observation period. Five additional dogs also only displayed repetitive behavior in those same contexts, but they showed it more than half of the time that they were observed. Eight dogs performed repetitive behaviors in response to husbandry and when a person walked by or stood outside their kennel. The last five dogs displayed repetitive behavior in the absence of these and other specific stimuli.
Though all the groups had similar baseline cortisol profiles, this last group had a cortisol profile following the exam that differed from the other groups. These dogs showed a decrease in cortisol immediately after the exam rather than the increase in cortisol seem in the other groups. This suggests one of two possibilities. One is that these dogs are under chronic stress and lack the physiological ability to respond typically to the additional stress of an exam. The other possibility is that these dogs are so attached to people, including their caregivers and the veterinarian, that being with them after a separation is such a positive experience that it balances out the stress of being removed from the kennel and examined.
The relationship between repetitive behaviors in dogs and their welfare status remains unclear, but this study suggests that there is not just one motivating factor behind the expression of repetitive behaviors. Many questions remain about repetitive behavior in dogs who are kenneled. Is it an indication of poor welfare? Could the repetitive behaviors be a result of reinforcement (food or attention) of these behaviors from people caring for the dogs? Why are the cortisol profiles different in dogs who exhibit repetitive behaviors without specific eliciting stimuli?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New evidence from archaeological sites
Archaeological sites with hundreds of dead mammoths posed a puzzle to scientists: How could humans kill so many of these massive animals with the weapons available at the time? The answer is that one of the “weapons” used was not made of stone like the other tools of the time, but was made of flesh and blood. It was the domestic dog.
According to new research by Pat Shipman at Penn State University, humans may have been cooperating with some of the earliest domesticated dogs, which improved their mammoth hunting success considerably. The dogs could have contributed in a number of ways. They may have helped people find prey more quickly and more often. It’s possible that they held prey by charging and growling until the humans moved in to make the kill. After the mammoths died, dogs’ role in the hunt may have continued in the form of guarding the meat from scavengers or helping to carry it home.
Shipman developed several testable hypotheses about these new ideas. Based on analyses of what types of bones were present at the site (both dogs and wolves) as well as the cause of death of the mammoths, the idea that dogs were important in mammoth hunts about 45,000 to 15,000 years ago was supported. It is interesting that it was only during this time period that such large groups of hunted mammoths have been found, as humans (and their ancestors and extinct close relatives) began hunting mammoths over a million years ago.
A further piece of evidence that dogs were involved in mammoth hunting is the finding of a dog skull with a large bone, likely from a mammoth, that had been put in its mouth not long after it died. (That skull is shown in the photograph.) The find suggests that there were special rituals to acknowledge the dog’s role in mammoth hunting.
Knowing that modern dogs can suffer catastrophic injuries when hunting bears and wolves, I wonder how often dogs were wounded or killed in mammoth hunts.
News: Guest Posts
with free live streaming
If you think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, Thank You!
That means you stopped by Dog Spies in May 2013 and read a post with the same title. But that was #SPARCS2013, and this is #SPARCS2014; same concept, different location, topics and speakers. During this year’s 3-day event, June 20-22 2014, leading canine researchers will cover three general areas of research that get at the core of what it’s like to be a dog:
Topics that many dogs are sometimes better acquainted with than their humans:
SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training and Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory. From June 20-22, 2014, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action — either in-person in Newport, RI, or via free Live Stream to your living room (or bathroom, if that’s where you prefer to take your canine science).
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the conference goals: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science. It is an international initiative to discuss what is known (and not known) about dog behavior, biology and cognition. No hooey included.
As a new addition to #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? — featuring myself and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb — will moderate. In conferences, I find that all the great info being discussed moves very fast. A question pops into your mind and you need clarification, but the speaker is already on the next topic.
At #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? will act as your pause button, fielding questions and expanding on speaker content. We’ll monitor questions and comments on social media, moderate the daily panel at the end of each day (posing your pressing questions and diving into hot-button topics), and we’ll hold post-talk interviews with each speaker (of course, speakers should be prepared to field questions on Ryan Gosling and his dog). We’re putting a large emphasis on engaging both the live and online audiences, so follow along at @DoUBelieveInDog and #SPARCS2014.
Here are the #SPARCS2014 featured speakers along with their respective talks topics. Visit the conference webpage for talk abstracts and learning goals:
Ray Coppinger, PhD
Why do breeds of dogs behave differently? –> Julie comment: No simple answer here!
Simon Gadbois, PhD
Applied canine olfactory processing: What trainers need to know beyond learning theory.
It is not what you like, but what you want that counts: The neurochemistry of behaviour and motivation.
Sam Gosling, PhD
Overview of research on temperament and personality of dogs.
Kathryn Lord, PhD
Barking and conflict.
Patricia McConnell, PhD
I see what you’re saying: Translating conflict-related visual signals.
Coyotes, Koalas and Kangaroos: What the behavior of other animals can teach you about your dog –> Julie comment: I haven’t seen a talk with this scope before!
James Serpell, PhD
Individual and breed differences in aggression
What the C-BARQ can tell us about human temperament –> Julie comment: C-BARQ stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. Get acquainted with it here.
The influence of owner/handler personality on the behavior of dogs
Monique Udell, PhD
Integrating ethology, learning theory & cognition in animal training
Clive Wynne, PhD
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? –> Julie comment: I’m sure trainers and owners want to know, “Do some approaches to dog behavior have more of a basis in learning theory than others?”
Prescott Breeden, BM, CCS
The phenotype of molecules: Why nature vs. nurture is the wrong question –> Julie comment: And the right question is…
#SPARCS2014 also features short presentations from emerging researchers. Check out the SPARCS Facebook page for speakers and topics.
Each year, the SPARCS conference and initiative is made possible by you. “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated.” Check out donation and membership opportunities.
Stay in touch with the SPARCS initiative on Facebook and Twitter.
Did you catch #SPARCS2013? Maybe you watched the Free Livestream or even attended in person. What was it like? And what are you looking forward to at #SPARCS2014?
This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
All of the theorizing on the differences between dog lovers and cat lovers has some new research to fuel the rivalry. A new study led by Denise Guastello, an associate professor of psychology at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, suggests that “dog people” and “cat people” are quite distinct in their personalities.
People who said they were dog lovers in the study tended to be more lively—meaning they were more energetic and outgoing. They also tended to follow rules closely. Cat lovers, on the other hand, were more introverted, more open-minded and more sensitive than dog lovers. Cat people also tended to be non-conformists, preferring to be question rather than follow the rules. All within reasonable assumptions, but here’s the kicker … the study shows cat owners scoring higher on intelligence than dog lovers.
Study researcher Guastello attributes some of these personality differences to the types of environments cat or dog people prefer. “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you're more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”
The researchers surveyed 600 college students, asking whether they would identify themselves as dog lovers or cat lovers, and what qualities they found most attractive in their pets. Participants also answered a slew of questions to assess their personality.
More people said they were dog lovers than cat lovers: About 60 percent of participants identified themselves as dog people, compared with 11 percent who said they were cat people. (The rest said they liked both animals, or neither animal.)
Dog lovers found companionship to be the most attractive quality in their pet dogs, whole cat people liked the affection from their cats. Because the study involved college students, it’s not known whether the results apply to other age groups, Guastello said. But previous studies have had similar findings. A 2010 study of more than 4,500 people found that dog lovers tend to be more extroverted (or outgoing), and conscientious (or rule-following).
It is to be noted that we could not find out just how the intelligence differential was measured, but it seems highly suspect considering all the factors that would need to be accounted for to get an accurate IQ assessment.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.
When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.
Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence.
Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience.
The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency.
Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.
The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins.
In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it.
This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.
Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent.
It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients).
Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality.
In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).
In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.
Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.
The Take-Away on Label Claims
Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.
News: Guest Posts
I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”
The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.
So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**
But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:
A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?
**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!
Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.
This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What dogs do influences potential adopters
We know that millions of shelter pets are available for adoption each year, but that many are never selected. Most previous research into the choices that people make about which dog to adopt has focused on what the dog looks like and the dog’s behavior in the kennel.
The recent study “Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption” investigated whether dogs’ behavior during an interaction outside of the kennel had any impact on the likelihood of adoption. (Potential adopters chose which dog or dogs they wanted to spend time with in a session out of the kennel.)
There were only two behaviors that influenced adoption: 1) Dogs who ignored people’s attempts to initiate play were far less likely to be adopted than those dogs who played when people attempted to initiate play with them, and 2) Dogs who spent more time lying down close to potential adopters were fourteen times more likely to be adopted than those who spent less time lying down near the people. Dogs who were adopted spent half as much time ignoring people’s attempts to play and twice as much time lying down near potential adopters than dogs who were not selected for adoption.
This research suggests that even in a short interaction—the average in this study was 8 minutes and did not differ between people who chose to adopt the dog and those who did not adopt the dog—people were making choices based on dogs’ behavior. Specifically, they chose dogs who played with them and who spent time lying down near them. This study suggests that people are selecting dogs who act in certain ways and that training dogs to behave in these ways has the potential to increase their chances of being adopted.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs and humans follow similar path
If you think that your dog has changed in his tendency to pay attention to you over time, you are probably right. A new study is the first to describe the developmental changes in dogs’ attention over their entire life.
In the study “Lifespan development of attentiveness in domestic dogs: drawing parallels with humans”, scientists studied 145 Border Collies from the ages of 6 months to almost 14 years old. Dogs were placed in 7 groups, reflecting these developmental periods: late puppyhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, late adulthood, senior, and geriatric.
The researchers concluded that dogs (at least of this breed) show predictable changes in attentiveness, which they define as the ability to choose to process some environmental stimuli over others, as they age. Their major findings were:
Have you noticed changes in your dog’s attention habits over time?
News: Guest Posts
On the whole, human breeders have not improved on nature.
On a flight last year, I sat next to a woman from India on her way to London from New York, where she had been visiting her first grandchild When she heard I wrote about dogs, she turned her attention to the one aspect of her daughter and son-in-law’s life she could not understand—their dog. On her walks around Central Park with the dog and her granddaughter, the dog drew the most attention and comment.
He was a black, blue-eyed French Bulldog for whom they had paid $3,000 to a veterinarian/breeder in New Jersey. They had already spent that much again on veterinary bills in less than a year.
Defenders of the purebred dog industry talk a lot about responsible breeders, and I once tended to follow their lead. But shortly after the Atlantic Monthly published my article, “The Politics of Dogs,” in March 1990 [It is hard to find on-line because of a class-action lawsuit regarding electronic rights, but it can be found.], I began to hear from people who had, like this couple, gone to a responsible breeder only to end up with a dog with problems. Many of the genetic conditions to which pedigreed dogs are prey do not follow strict lines of inheritance—they skip generations or move through aunts and uncles. They do sort by breed, but that is because those breeds have arisen from a small number of founders—in short, they are inbred, dangerously so, and this tight knit extended family shares most strongly genetic diseases and physical characteristics. Outer beauty conceals inner flaws.
French Bulldogs, for example, are prone to von Willebrand’s Disease, a blood disorder, as well as spinal problems, a cleft palate, and heat stroke. Many airlines no longer carry brachycephalic breeds—those with pushed in faces—because they have a tendency to die in flight from breathing problems related to overexcitement.
In light of that, the woman asked, why do so many people spend so much money on these dogs? This conversation occurred months before the sale of a Tibetan mastiff puppy at a luxury pets’ mart in Hangzhou, China, to a Qingdao property developer for 12-million yuan (about $1.9 million), reportedly a record price for a dog. It is easy here to invoke the 19th and early 20th century economist, Thorstein Veblen and his theory of conspicuous consumption.
To Veblen, such dogs are objects of conspicuous consumption, animals with no intrinsic value that nonetheless are made valuable by the fact that someone goes to great lengths to obtain and maintain them despite or because of the expense involved in doing so. Put another way, possession of such a being marks you as a person with so much money that you can obtain and maintain an animal with no useful talent.
That would certainly be the case with the Tibetan mastiff, which according to some assays is merely a reconstruction of a once mighty landrace of large livestock protection dog, which it resembles the way a teddy bear resembles a grizzly cub.
Clearly spending that much on a dog must be considered conspicuous consumption of the most extreme sort. It is also a mordant commentary on the Chinese Revolution, for half a century ago, Mao Zedong sought to rid China of pet dogs he considered objects of bourgeois recidivism—that is, conspicuous consumption.
Currently the recidivists have won. In China and other countries with a growing urban middle class, people are buying more and more dogs, eschewing their local dogs for Western pure breeds. To them, the pedigree signifies quality.
When Veblen used the Pekinese as an example of an object of conspicuous consumption, purebred dogs were relatively new on the scene and well beyond the means of most people. A century later, the dogs are no longer rare, nor are their prices, even at $1,000, so outrageous, especially when buyers are convinced they are getting excellent bloodlines, superior quality, and specific behavioral characteristics.
Those beliefs fuel demands for purebred dogs produced by commercial breeders—let’s just call anyone engaged in the large scale “production” of puppies for profit, a commercial, or mass, breeder, and recognize that some are better than others, which is not an endorsement of any of them.
Demand for purebred dogs shot up following World War II when returning veterans, establishing their lives in burgeoning suburbs, sought them out as accompaniments to their new homes, cars, and families. The pedigree provided by the rapidly expanding American Kennel Club, the largest registry of dogs in the world, proved these acquisitions were not the old family mutt, but refined and sophisticated pets. Demand fueled the growth of mass breeders, pet stores, dog shows, regulations to fence and leash dogs, and unwanted dogs.
I estimate that by some point in the 1990s half of all dogs In America were purebred, and a great many of them were from mass breeders. That was a problem because they too frequently bred dogs without regard for their temperament or genetic soundness and failed to socialize them during the critical first three to four months. If dogs are not socialized to humans during that time, they might have difficulty ever becoming fully socialized and often have behavioral issues.
The problem with these breeders has been known for decades and several national animal advocacy groups have campaigned against them for years without much result. Although there are many political explanations for the failure to end the retail trade in dogs, these groups have not invested in the sort of intense, dedicated campaign required to shut it down.
Instead, we get things like the Humane Society of the United States forming a group, Breeder’ Advisory and Resource Council, to advise it on matters relating to responsible dog breeding.
Mass breeders are a significant part of the problem of purebred dogs, but not the only one. My colleague and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff, has argued for a full halt to breeding more dogs as long as millions of perfectly fine, adoptable animals await new homes in shelters or the homes of breed rescue group volunteers. With so many dogs in need, he says, the compassionate and humane thing for someone wanting a dog is to adopt one.
I believe he is right, and I would add that the breeding of dogs as it is now done should stop until ways can be found to minimize the risk of a dog being born with an inherited deformity or illness. That includes behavioral problems. These conditions disproportionately seem found in puppy mill dogs, but not exclusively. Some of these conditions, especially cytoskeletal ones like brachycephaly are so extreme that puppies must be delivered by caesarean section and subsequently have difficulty breathing normally and dissipating heat. The book on these inherited ailments is long and growing longer. Most are due to the heavy inbreeding and common use of favored sires in breed formation.
It is worth remembering here, that breeds are formed through consolidation from an existing population, when a few animals are used to create the Platonic ideal of the ‘breed,’ and through amalgamation, in which representatives from several similar landraces are crossed to create the perfect representative of all.
No matter which method was followed, the resulting dog was said to represent the breed in its pure essence and be more intelligent and talented than any of its naturally breeding predecessors. With few exceptions involving specialized behaviors that have been enhanced through selective breeding, that is untrue. Nonetheless, like mantras, the histories of these new breeds and accounts of their prowess were repeated so often, they became truth—to everyone but the rulers of the American Kennel Club. For decades they have publicly maintained that the AKC issued pedigree proving that for three or more generations the dog in question is an official Chesapeake Bay Retriever or whatever the case may be does not represent quality, does not guarantee that the dog is healthy or possessed of a good temperament. They did that because they wished to avoid possible consumer lawsuits involving dogs with serious defects and flaws.
Despite those disclaimers, the AKC has continued to a promote the virtues of purebred dogs, like the problematic French Bulldog, the eleventh most popular dog it registered in 2013, and the larger English bulldog. It was the fifth most popular breed registered in 2013, even though nearly 72 percent of the bulldogs evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals had crippling hip dysplasia; none could whelp naturally.
The argument is sometimes made that breeds are important biological artifacts but, in fact, over the decades breeders have altered their appearance—and perhaps their behavior—and perhaps their behavior—substantially. Many breeders say that they are attempting to improve the breed they love, but the very notion that a breed needs improvement suggests that it has problems.
Few if any breeders can predict that all puppies in a litter will be free of congenital defect, but in many cases the odds are stacked against them from the start by a plethora of problems and conditions associated with their breed. Breeders and kennel clubs should focus on ridding the breeds they love and promote of those inheritable conditions, and the way to do that is to stop engaging in dangerous breeding practices and to avoid breeding dogs who have them in their bloodlines.
Dogs deserve no less.
This post first appeared on Mark Derr's blog, Dog's Best Friend on Psychology Today. Used with permission.
Study shows dog people laugh more
Do you enjoy a good laugh with your dog? If so, apparently you are not alone. So writes New York Times long-time health columnist Jane Brody on one of the many benefits her new dog Max contributes to her life. Brody’s recent article champions the many perks of “life with a dog”—companionship, exercise, meeting people and laughter. She cites a study of 95 people who were asked to keep “laughter” logs and record the frequency and source of their laughter. Results showed that dog owners laughed frequently more than cat owners and people who owned neither. The findings suggest a complex relationship between pet ownership and laughter. Dogs may serve as friends with whom to laugh or their behaviors may provide a greater source of laughter. Does this resonate with Bark readers? How does your dog make you laugh?
Last week, we marked that annual day of grins and laughter—April 1—with an in-box full of pranks. Jokey press releases, outlandish news reports and faux announcements tried to outduel each other for guffaws. Given the nature of our business, many were dog-themed.
Here’s a sampling of some of the April Fool’s jokes we received this year:
Google Apps for Business Dogs
Moo’s new delivery system—Pug Post!
The Milwaukee Brewers mascots square off
Great British Chefs offer fine dining for dogs
Plus, these favorites from the past deserve mention …
IKEA’s 2011 Hundstol Dog Highchair
Warby Parker introduces Warby Barker in 2012
Barclaycard launches Barclay PayWag in 2013
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