Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs who excel often do so in many tasks
Are dogs smart like people are smart? That is the question posed by researchers at the London School of Economics. They weren’t looking into whether dogs are as smart as people, but rather if they are smart in a variety of ways like people are.
When people take IQ tests, they tend to perform at a similar level across various tasks. If they do well in one area, they typically also shine in others. Are dogs the same way, showing a similar structure to their intelligence? By creating a dog IQ test of sorts with several components, the authors of, A general intelligence factor in dogs sought an answer to this question. They study was done with 68 working Border Collies to eliminate breed differences and to minimize differences in upbringing.
The tests performed on the dogs investigated their abilities to navigate barriers to get to food, to determine differences in quantities of food, and to follow a human gesture indicating the location of food. The combined tests took about an hour for each dog.
The general conclusions of the study suggest similarities between the structure of human and canine intelligence. Specifically, just like in people, there was individual variation and dogs who did well on one test were more likely to succeed at other tasks. Dogs who were quick at solving problems were also more accurate.
I think it is very interesting that we have moved away from the idea of “intelligence” as a single factor in humans, but researchers are searching for such a unified concept in dogs. Years ago, people spoke of general intelligence in humans as a separate thing than talents such as social skills, emotional connectedness and athletic or musical or artistic abilities. Now, we are more inclined to discuss people’s emotional or social intelligence or musical IQ, and more likely to discuss factors that are included in intelligence (like problem-solving ability) by being specific about them.
The main result of this study—that certain abilities in dogs such as negotiating detours, assessing quantities of food, responding to human gestures and solving problems quickly tend to be linked—is very interesting. I wish the authors would have focused on the links between the specific tasks they studied instead of generalizing to the point of putting every ability into one category called intelligence. What is going to happen if future studies suggest that a particular trait or ability is found to have no correlation to the others? Will it be considered irrelevant to intelligence, in its own special category or will it pose a problem to the concept of a general intelligence?
That said, I consider this an excellent study. It clearly shows that some individual dogs consistently have better success when asked to solve problems to accomplish various tasks. Very few studies have looked at how dogs differ from each other in this way. More studies on individual differences in cognitive ability are needed and I look forward to learning more about how dogs’ minds work as researchers continue to pursue studies comparing individuals’ abilities.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Superior Senses: Hearing
Floppy, folded, small, large—dogs’ ears come in many shapes, but they all serve the same purpose: as funnels for sound. Did you know that at least 18 muscles work to tilt, raise and rotate these furry appendages, helping the dog identify and capture sounds from different directions? Here are a few fast facts about canine ears and hearing.
Sources: Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog; Bruce Fogle, Dogs; DVM360.com; hypertextbook.com; aspcabehavior.org
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Links between canine lateralization, behavior and emotion
A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
The study of asymmetrical tail wagging that prompted our collective interest (Quaranta et al. 2007) found that differences depended on what inspired the wags in the first place. Dogs wagged higher to the right when greeting their guardians. The same right-side bias was seen in response to unfamiliar people, although the wags were lower overall. In response to cats, there was little wagging, but it was still higher to the right. In the tests, the only stimulus to which dogs’ wags had a left-side bias was an unfamiliar, confident dog.
Left or Right?
The left hemisphere is activated when the brain is processing positive experiences associated with emotions such as happiness, affection and excitement, as well as anything familiar. The right hemisphere takes precedence when processing sadness, fear, other negative emotions and novel things.
This link between emotions and sides of the brain came to light in studies of humans. Ahern and Schwartz (1979) found that people who were asked questions that elicited either positive or negative emotions responded in accordance with this principle. They looked to their right (showing left brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that elicited positive emotions, but looked to their left (showing right brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that evoked negative emotions.
Individuals—canine or human—who favor the left paw or hand more often use the right hemisphere of their brain, while right-pawed and right-handed individuals have a more active left-brain hemisphere. Studies have shown differences between right-pawed and left-pawed dogs. They have also revealed that dogs who are ambilateral—who don’t have a paw preference—are different in predictable ways from dogs who strongly prefer one paw over the other.
Lateralization research, an active area of study, informs our understanding of emotions and behavior. Though dogs and people are common study subjects, similar patterns have been found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and primates and other mammals.
Determining Paw Preference
Strength of Lateralization
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).
* * * * * * *
Love and understanding compound one another with our dogs, and lateralization is a case in point. A dear dog friend of mine is strongly right-pawed; it was pitiful to watch him attempt to learn to give a left high-five, or use his left paw to hold his Kong when he briefly had a bandage on his right paw. I used to find how hard it was for him to do anything with his left paw somewhat comical. Now I understand that this trait is part of the package that makes him the unflappable, happy, don’t-care-about-the-power-tools-running-all-day-during-the-kitchen-remodel, playful and exploratory, nothing-fazes-him kind of dog I love so much. I’m honored and overjoyed that when he greets me, his tail wags are as one-sided to the right as the rest of him.
A romp at the dog park, a run along a trail, a walk around the neighborhood--we know how important it is to get our dogs out and about. But how often do we think about exercising our dog's brain? And really, why should we think about it at all?
Recently, I listened to an online seminar offered by Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB, and board certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, that provided several answers to this question.
Dr. Overall starts out by making the interesting point that it's very likely that dogs co-evolved with humans, which was made easier because both species have similar social systems that rely on work and problem-solving. Dogs still need to problem solve but in today's world, probably don't get enough opportunities to do it, which is why we need to provide them with mental stimulation as well as physical exercise.
She then discusses some of her research and shows videos of dogs working a puzzle box designed specifically for one of her projects; she also analyzes what the dogs' performance indicates about their emotional state.
The takeaway is that stimulating a dog's brain by engaging his capacity to problem solve improves both his physical and mental health. It's also key to helping dogs with behavior problems learn new ways to respond to stress.It's science nerd nirvana, a combination of theory and practical advice (most of which comes at the end in the Q&A segment).
The seminar is titled From Leashes to Neurons: The Importance of Exercising Your Dog's Brain for Optimal Mental and Physical Health, and you'll need to register to listen in (registration is free). Get started here: http://vetvine.com/article/192/akcchf-human-animal-bond-event
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs vary in their view of the world
If you think all dogs are cheerful, upbeat and excited about what life has to offer, you’ve either interacted exclusively with optimistic dogs, or you haven’t noticed that some dogs are a little more on the “food bowl half empty” side of the personality spectrum. Not all dogs are quite as happy-go-lucky as we humans generally assume.
The idea of individual personalities in dogs is hardly stop-the-presses news anymore, but studying such differences in dogs is still a fruitful area of research. In a 2014 study published in PLOS, a group of scientists studied judgment bias in dogs to investigate individual tendencies to view the world optimistically or pessimistically.
To study dogs’ expectations of the world, they trained them to associate different sounds with different outcomes. One sound let them know that touching a target would result in receiving the preferred reward of milk. The other sound, two octaves apart from the milk sound, indicated that they would get the less desirable reward of an equal amount of water. The correct response to the water tone was not to touch the target. Once dogs could easily distinguish between these two sounds, the real test of their personalities began.
Trained dogs were given a tone that was between the two trained tones, and their response was observed. Dogs who reacted to the ambiguous tone by pushing the target in anticipation of milk were considered optimists. They expected good things to happen. Dogs who failed to respond to the ambiguous tone were considered pessimists in that they did not have an expectation of good things. They were not filled with the hopefulness of the optimists in the study. This study allowed researchers to determine whether individual dogs have the expectation of positive outcomes or whether they expect negative outcomes.
Some dogs would respond to ambiguous tones even if they were more similar to the water tone than to the milk tone. These dogs were considered extreme optimists. Overall, researchers found that more dogs were optimists than pessimists. I find that reassuring since it matches the way most of us view dogs.
What do you think this test would reveal about your dog?
It looks like we soon may be able to chalk up another win for the power of the canine nose.
In a recent UK National Health Service (NHS) preliminary study, trained dogs were able to sniff out prostate cancer 9 out of 10 times, making them a more accurate predictor than the standard (but controversial) Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) screening test, which has a high "false positive" rate.
For men of a certain age, the prostate goes from a background to a foreground worry. The walnut-sized gland circles the neck of the male bladder, and when it starts causing problems, there can be a number of reasons. The most serious is cancer. To arrive at a definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy, which--like any surgery--comes with its own risks. And this is why the "false positive" rate matters: in order to make a decision to go ahead with a biopsy, a man needs to have a pretty good idea that it's needed. The more accurate the screening, the fewer unnecessary biopsies.
Based on the success of the preliminary study, the NHS has recently authorized clinical trials to more definitively test the canine ability to identify prostate cancer. Dogs trained by the group Medical Detection Dogs will be taking part in the upcoming trials. This group, co-founded by by Dr. Claire Guest, was among those profiled in Barbara Robertson's Wonder Dogs article; click on over to read more about it.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Investigating the microscopic worlds in our dogs may reveal pathways to better health.
The microbiome is the invisible world of the hundred trillion bacterial, viral and fungal microbes that live on us and in us—on our hair and skin, behind our ears and inside our eyelids. The bulk of these miniscule microbes are good guys, gut microbiota that congregate in the digestive tract, where they bolster the immune system, manufacture vitamins and digest food to generate nutrients and energy.
Microbial equilibrium is a delicate balancing act, and a broad spectrum of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases is linked to having too many microbes—or too few. For example, researchers know that significantly lower bacterial diversity is found in both people and dogs with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases.
Teasing out the biological interaction of trillions of miniscule microorganisms that colonize the body, and the role they play in well being, is a new frontier. Will it be a watershed moment in veterinary medicine? Scientists are hopeful. The human microbiome has become a hot topic in biologic investigations, and canine research is fast catching up, much of it inspired by the success of the Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Using stool and tissue samples to isolate microorganisms, researchers are mapping the diversity and normal profile of the human microbial community.
Another undertaking, the Human Food Project, invites the public to submit personal and family microbial samples along with samples from family dogs to better understand how a person’s microbiome compares to that of animals living in the same environment. (The project’s dog segment has been discontinued.) The analysis centers on the anthropological co-evolution of humans, animal and plant microbes to understand modern disease against the backdrop of our ancestral/microbial past.
It’s all about dogs at Companion PBx, a new startup that primarily targets the canine digestive tract. Its goal is to build a cumulative gut flora database and develop dietary products customized for dogs’ digestive health. In January 2015, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for construction of the database.
According to Companion PBx Chief Science Officer Kelly Scott Swanson, PhD, who’s on the faculty at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Animal Sciences, “By sequencing the microbes in your pet’s sample, we obtain a fingerprint of the microbial community in your pet’s GI tract.”
Microbes in Common
Affected by age, environment, ancestry, evolution, genetics and diet, microbial communities vary widely between species and across individuals within a species. A recent study suggests that our housemates—including the family dog—may also affect the composition of our personal microbial signature.
If you and your significant other kiss, hug and/or share a bed with your dog, the three of you have more in common than you think. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, revealed several similarities: Adults who share a dog have more similar mouth microbes than those who don’t. Dog-owning families have more diverse and different microbial colonies than dogless households. Parents tend to share more kinds of mouth bacteria with their dog than they do their children. And children raised with dogs have a wider variety of microbes than dogless kids (Song et al. 2013).
Whether these spit-swapped microbes serve a purpose or are just passing through is not clear. But research shows that children raised with dogs are less likely to be afflicted by eczema (Epstein et al. 2010) and asthma (American Society for Microbiology 2012).
The notion that microorganisms in the canine gastrointestinal tract might have unique properties is not new. Early Romans understood the medical value of a well-run therapy dog program. Health temples, the ancient equivalent of modern-day outpatient clinics, were staffed with live-in cynotherapists, gentle dogs who wandered about the grounds greeting patients and licking wounds. Were the dogs healing only psychosomatic injuries? Time and additional research funding will tell.
The idea that our microorganisms may to some extent be collectively beneficial is intriguing. People and dogs have been exchanging microbes for at least 30,000 years, since the first little cave girl kissed the first proto-dog puppy smack on the muzzle. That’s a long history of sharing. It’s possible that our microorganisms are at least symbiotic, and perhaps even played a role in the dramatic domestication of the dog.
Theoretically, many thousands of years ago, a population of carnivorous wolves or ancient proto-dogs (depending on where you stand in the dog-domestication debate) transitioned from a meat-heavy diet to one laden with grain, a consequence of the agrarian revolution.
Scientists know that the acquisition of a new diet is a fundamental driver for the evolution of a new species (Dale, Moran 2006). When species transition from carnivorous to omnivorous diets, the gut microbial community co-diversifies with the host and drives further evolution (Ley et al. 2008). As human diets changed, so too did those of Canis familiaris. Over time, as we incorporated these unique animals into our daily lives, we continued to reshape them.
In humans, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are on the increase. Scientists can’t verify a similar pattern in dogs because epidemiological studies are rarely conducted in veterinary medicine. Additionally, many autoimmune conditions are diagnosed based on the patient’s subjective description of symptoms.
But this is not the case with itchy skin. Dogs who scratch themselves incessantly are highly likely to have allergies. When researchers compared microbial colonies on the skin of healthy dogs to those of dogs with allergies, they found that non-allergic dogs have much richer and diverse skin microbial communities (Hoffmann et al. 2014).
But when it comes to proving causality, scientists wisely err on the side of caution. It’s not understood if a change in the microbiome causes certain conditions, or if it occurs as a consequence of the conditions. Nor is it absolutely clear that more diversity is better than less. At this point, scientists cannot say with confidence exactly what a healthy microbiome should look like in the dog.
Moreover, what seems logical may not be so. For instance, anyone who has lived with a poop-eating pooch has wondered why some dogs do and other don’t. Are coprophagic dogs seeking microbes lacking in their gut? Surprisingly, research involving mice suggests that this might not be the case; coprophagia in germfree mice is the same as in conventional lab mice (Ebino et al. 1987).
Other questions arise: Are the microbiomes of individual dog breeds more similar to each other than they are to those of other breeds? And could these isolated microbial communities drive breed-specific ailments?
Jan Suchodolski, DVM, a Texas A&M veterinary medical and biomedical sciences researcher who studies dog and cat gastrointestinal diseases, says that this doesn’t seem to be the case. As he noted, “So far, we do not have any clear evidence that gut microbiomes are more similar within breeds. Environmental influences such as age, diets and antibiotics, and especially the effects of GI disease, are larger than any breed effect.
“It may be possible that we missed an effect, as we have not evaluated thousands of animals. But if there were a breed effect, it would probably be very minor. Even within puppies of the same litter, the microbiome shows huge inter-animal variation, so the animal effect is much stronger than any other effect.”
Idiopathic canine inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a gastrointestinal condition in which the digestive tract is chronically inflamed. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss. Dogs with IBD have significantly lower bacterial diversity as well as microbial communities that are distinct from those of healthy dogs. In 2014, Dr. Suchodolski and his colleagues conducted a study of 22 companion dogs, half of whom suffered from idiopathic IBD (Minamoto et al. 2015). They wanted to know if traditional treatments—steroids and special diets—directly or indirectly created a more robust microbial community.
After treatment, the sick dogs felt a lot better. However, there was no change in their gut microbiota. The researchers concluded, “This study demonstrates intestinal dysbiosis [microbial imbalance] and altered serum metabolite profiles in dogs with IBD. But medical therapy doesn't seem to affect the intestinal dysbiosis.”
It could be that, rather than triggering the condition, microorganisms are compromised by it. Researchers also suspect that biological environmental stresses are involved in ways not yet understood. Dr. Suchodolski added, “It may be that we need longer follow-up periods of treatments to see potential improvements. Another reasonable theory is that with the current standard therapies—for instance, immunosuppression—we just control clinical signs, but the underlying etiology of the disease is ongoing.”
When it comes to treating dogs for myriad problems, vets often prescribe antibiotics, and for good reason: antibiotics save lives. But the war on infection sometimes puts good bacteria in the line of fire, too. When assaulted by repeated antibiotic use, some classes of gut bacteria struggle to recover. If the affected bacteria play a pivotal role in autoimmune health, overuse of antibiotics may coincide with a decrease in healthy autoimmune responses.
Antibiotics are not the only culprits. Scientists suspect that in human births, Cesarean deliveries may contribute to an increase in autoimmune weaknesses as well. In a vaginal birth, the fetus departs the womb without a single microbe but acquires them by passing through the mother’s birth canal. By the time the newborn takes his first breath, he is covered with colonies of bacteria that kick-start his immune system, establish a healthy digestive tract, help shape his growing brain and even protect him from psychiatric disorders. C-section babies start life without the microbes they would have picked up from vaginal delivery, suggesting that the colonization of the newborn might be delayed (Jakobsson et al. 2014).
Medical disorders connected to non-vaginal delivery and the slow introduction of protective bacteria have not been studied in the dog. Considering that a number of breeds with exceptionally flat, wide skulls—such as the Boston Terrier, French Bulldog and Bulldog—must have their pups delivered via C-section, it’s an area that deserves further study.
Or is diet the problem? Commercially manufactured dog chow was introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1920s. By the 1950s, processed dog food like Friskies, Sergeant’s and Purina were widely available through local grocery stores. Today in the U.S., we spend more than $10 billion a year on commercial pet food. The question arises: has the increase in autoimmune diseases paralleled the rise in popularity of processed dog food?
Because veterinary practices typically don’t collect this type of empirical data, the answer is, at best, a guess. But many dog owners think so, and have eliminated or cut back on processed foods in favor of raw meat and vegetables. However, as of now, there is no definitive evidence to show that fresh foods modulate the gut microbiota.
Sophisticated DNA sequencing technology has opened up the invisible world to scientific scrutiny. But determining its impact on the host species is difficult and time-consuming. Researchers need to locate and identify a microbe’s fingerprint, then remove a sample and grow it in a culture, a process especially difficult with shyer microbes that are destroyed by oxygen or stomach acid.
To figure out why we get sick and the role microbes play in illness, researchers must first determine how these trillions of organisms interact with each other. And the fact that scientists can prove a problem exists doesn’t mean they know how to fix it.
Developing therapeutic dog foods that target specific vulnerabilities may help, but will take time to develop. Although the probiotic movement may oversell their benefits, probiotics (friendly bacteria like those that live in the gut) are effective in some cases. And prebiotics, foods that encourage growth of good bacteria already present, may help as well.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is recruiting dogs with acute symptoms of diarrhea and/or vomiting for a new clinical trail that will evaluate the role of the intestinal microbiome—the community of “good” bacteria that live in the gut—on chronic gastrointestinal diseases. Therapy will include simple diet change, treatment with antibiotics or combination therapy with steroids for more complicated cases.
Penn Vet researchers anticipate that their study may reveal how gut microbiota influence and respond to treatment, which in turn could lay the groundwork for future projects using treatments such as prebiotics, probiotics or fecal transplants (transferring “good” microorganisms from a donor’s healthy stool to the patient’s gastrointestinal tract). According to Research Assistant Professor Dr. Daniel Beiting, “Whereas past studies have used a single method to sequence bacterial DNA, the Penn Vet study will use a more sophisticated approach called metagenomics, generating a much more comprehensive catalog of bacteria in the stool and providing insight into what they might be doing.”
Penn Vet is currently looking for dogs with chronic gastrointestinal problems. People interested in enrolling their dog in the study—Evaluating the Role of the Microbiome in the Resolution of Canine Chronic Enteropathy—should email Penn Vet’s Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (215) 573-0302.
Future possibilities are exciting. In the meantime, kiss your dog. It’s good for you in more ways than one.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs’ remarkable ability to sniff out disease is opening doors to earlier cancer detection.
Cancer. The very word strikes fear in us. A voraciously living thing, cancer is an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells that destroy nearby healthy tissue. Because the natural, life-building process of cell division isn’t perfect, cancer has always been part of the human experience, one that eventually has an impact on everyone—if not directly, then when a relative, friend or companion animal is diagnosed with it.
The fact that human illness often comes with a signature odor is also old news. Infectious diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and yellow fever have long been known to produce signature odors. Parents and doctors have used their noses to detect things like strep throat (metallic-smelling breath), phenylketonuria or PKU (in which the baby’s sweat smells like locker-room towels), even schizophrenia (a musty smell).
Mammals evolved using odors to find food, avoid illness-inducing spoiled or poisonous food, detect toxins in the environment, distinguish friend from predator, and assess well being. Following our noses is likely one of the key reasons humans, canines and other mammals developed large brains: to process all those smells.
Dogs are quite up front about this smelling stuff, greeting each other with a thorough sniff from tip to tail (or vice versa), quickly gathering a wealth of information through their noses. Humans do the same thing, just not quite so boldly. Historically, we’ve taken advantage of dogs’ superior sense of smell to track people and animals and to detect drugs, bombs and chemicals.
What is new is the increasing role dogs are playing in helping us detect minute, microscopic things we can’t see and certainly can’t smell, like cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable.
What exactly are dogs picking up with their remarkable olfactory sense? Turns out, it’s volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Simply put, VOCs are chemicals coming from a living or once-living organism that can pass into the surrounding air (“volatile” in this case means easily evaporated at normal temperatures). VOCs, which can be natural or human-made, are both numerous and ubiquitous. Our bodies constantly emit an incredible array of VOCs, some of which are odorous and some of which are not.
VOCs are first secreted at the cell level, finding their way into our blood, breath, skin, sweat, urine and feces and from there into the air, rather like the dead skin cells (dander) we slough off on a daily basis. VOCs vary depending the individual’s age, gender, diet and health, and possibly even genetic background. Just as our fingerprints and irises are uniquely individual, so is our fragrance.
Illness resulting from infectious diseases and metabolic disorders, including cancer, influence and change our VOCs—our odor profile. While we may or may not smell the change, dogs certainly can. The average dog has a sense of smell that is between 10,000 to 100,000 times keener than the average human’s, and the part of the dog’s brain that analyzes smell is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. This allows them to detect specific odors, including specific VOCs, in parts per trillion. One scientist described this as being able to detect one rotten apple in a barrel of two million.
Dogs often display intense interest in a new cut on their person’s leg or arm, putting their nose close to the wound and sniffing with purpose several times. When they do this, they’re inhaling the VOCs put out by the body’s blood and changing skin cells as they waft into the air. It’s not a stretch to understand how, using dogs’ built-in and potentially life-saving ability, individual dogs can be trained to detect and alert to specific VOCs associated with a wide variety of conditions in a more general way.
Cancer has been the most recent focus of this sort of research. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the patient’s chances are for survival. Dogs can detect certain cancers with high levels of accuracy long before some of the more traditional diagnostic methods. The trick is identifying the signature VOC that relates to a specific type of cancer so that the dog can be trained to alert to it.
Researchers are making great progress. Dogs have been trained to detect ovarian cancer in blood samples, distinguishing it from other gynecological cancers and healthy control samples. They have also been trained to detect melanoma, bladder, colorectal and lung cancer in patients’ urine, tumor or breath samples. Because this research is in its early stages, it’s not yet clear whether the dogs are detecting VOCs from the cancer cells or from other metabolic processes often seen in patients with cancer.
Italian researchers were able to train two German Shepherds, Liu and Zoey, to sniff out VOCs associated with prostate cancer in urine samples with 98 percent accuracy. The study’s remarkable results—far better than those achieved with standard PSA tests—were based on samples from 362 men with prostate cancer and 540 men with either non-neoplastic prostate disease or non-prostatic tumors. Liu and Zoey could tell the difference.*
Using chemical-analysis techniques such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, researchers are regularly adding VOCs to the list of components known to be associated with specific cancers, infectious diseases and metabolic disorders. This work is opening doors not just to improvements in the art of diagnosis but also, to the understanding of disease processes, which leads to better treatment, novel therapies or perhaps prevention.
Scientists are also reverse-engineering the dog nose to come up with electronic or artificial sniffers to detect those same VOCs, enhancing doctors’ ability to quickly and definitively diagnose various diseases and conditions in a simple, non-invasive way without using a dog. In 2013, over a thousand journal articles discussed the electronic nose in some way.
Before long, physicians may be waving an electronic nose over our bodies to diagnose illness, as Dr. McCoy did with Captain Kirk and Spock on Star Trek. If so, we’ll have our dogs’ wet, cold and very keen noses to thank.
*Lead researcher Gianluigi Taverna, MD, chief of the prostatic disease unit at Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan, presented these results in May 2014 at the annual scientific meeting of the American Urological Association, and referred to the highly trained dogs as “Ferraris.”
Learning a dog's heritage has its benefits
When we adopted our dog Charlie from the Sacramento Independent Rescuers, his foster mom, Shana Laursen, who specializes in Greyhound rescue with Greyhound Friends for Life, told us that he probably had some Whippet in him, thinking that not only his brindle coloring but the “set” of his back legs indicated that he might have a sprinter in him. She also added that was one of the reasons she picked him to foster. Lucky for us she did because by the time we saw his posting on Petfinder I had been getting discouraged after scouring for weeks online pet adoption services nationwide and local shelters to find a scruffy male terrier to be the “bro” to our three female dogs.
At that time we didn’t really know what breeds contributed to making Charlie the perfect match that he turned out to be. Some type of terrier definitely in the ascendency, his very first night in his new home found him scooting under the covers to sleep at my side, a position he has proudly claimed since. As for the Whippet? Sometimes he manages to keep up with our speedy Pointer, Lola, so perhaps Shana might be right. It was time to figure that out, so we decided to “test” Charles’ DNA using the really easy-to-use, Mars Wisdom Panel DNA test.
Unlike other genetic tests that rely on blood samples, for this one you only need to collect saliva samples from inside your dog’s mouth, using the two swabs that come with the kit. Next you dry the swabs out for a few minutes placing them in a convenient “holder” that comes with the kit. Next you register the sample online, filling out a few basic profile questions about the sex/age/weight of the dog. Plus they pose some really interesting optional questions like the reasons why you are doing the test—perhaps you want to understand your dog’s behavior better, or confirm the breed make up of a prospective adoptee, predict the adult size of a pup, or testing for health reasons? Many breeds are prone to a variety of genetic diseases, so it is beneficial to know what breeds your mixed breed dog might be, for possible preventive or diagnostic reasons. Importantly, this newest version of the Wisdom Panel 3.0 also includes a screening for the genetic mutation for MDR1 or Multi-Drug Resistance 1 that can be a really important consideration, and which can affect many herding breeds. As it is explained on their website:
“The MDR1 gene is responsible for production of a protein called P-glycoprotein. The P-glycoprotein molecule is a drug transport pump that plays an important role in limiting drug absorption and distribution (particularly to the brain) and enhancing the excretion/elimination of many drugs used in dogs. Dogs with the MDR1 mutation may have severe adverse reactions to some common drugs. Although the mutation is most closely associated with some purebreds, it can also be found in mixed-breed dogs. Therefore it is important for owners of mix-breeds to test their dogs and to share the results with their veterinarian in order to provide their pet with the best possible care. The discovery of the MDR1 mutation in dogs was made by Washington State University.”
While it is unlikely that terrier-mix Charlie has any herding breeds in him, he might have a Whippet ancestor—the long-haired variety having a 65% frequency of this mutation—so it is good for us to find this out now.
Browsing around their interesting site I also found this very informative video that explains the genetics behind a dog’s physical characteristics. I actually learned a lot from watching it, including the reason that many dogs have white markings on the their feet and paws—or on areas farther away from the dog’s back (where the dominate color starts off). Watch the video for the explanation of why this is:
So stay tuned, we’ll be getting Charlie’s results really soon. But until we do, what kind of terrier do you see in him?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard study makes it official: dogs are good for us.
If you live with a dog, chances are you’re familiar with canine de-stressing techniques. Perhaps you’ve felt a wave of relief from burying your face in fur after a difficult day at work, or experienced a release of calming chemicals after being met with a particularly enthusiastic greeting. And maybe those daily dog walks have helped you shed a few pounds or led to some welcome social interactions with other people and their dogs. And doesn’t life seem to have more meaning because there’s a living creature depending on you?
To dog people, the emotional, physical and even spiritual benefits of canine relationships tend to be obvious. These benefits feel as real to us as the saliva-soaked tennis ball we’re holding in our hands. That’s why it can be so hard to understand why the non-dog world hasn’t caught on to all these life-altering advantages. Even worse is the fact that many people who have never lived with a dog seem to think we may be making all this up—that the only place these benefits exist is in our heads.
Science in Action
Thanks to a special report from Harvard Medical School (HMS), we now have something important to share with these nonbelievers—proof! Get Healthy, Get a Dog is the first publication to compile hundreds of research studies from around the world that document the physical and psychological benefits of dog ownership. Taken together, these studies provide the most complete picture yet of the many ways in which dogs enrich human life: from lower cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health to weight loss, companionship, defense against depression and longer lifespans.
“The most common reaction we’ve been getting from people about this report is that they are so grateful that someone has finally put into print what they’ve known intuitively all along,” said medical editor Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, who supervises the Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group at HMS, teaches a college course on lifestyle medicine at the Harvard Extension School, and directs the Wellness Programs at the Spaulding Stroke Research and Recovery Institute, an HMS affiliate.
The 50-page report is the result of a collaboration between HMS and Angell Animal Medical Center, a leading veterinary hospital based in Boston. Get Healthy, Get a Dog approaches the dog/human relationship as a two-way street, so half of it is devoted to the human—what the dog does for the person—and half is devoted to the dog—what the person should do for the dog. Frates tackled the former, and Lisa Moses, VMD, who heads the Pain Management Service at Angell Animal Medical Center, covered the latter, which includes sections on nutrition, exercise, training and responsible pet ownership. Moses also makes a compelling case for adopting a dog rather than going to a breeder or pet store.
“We didn’t want to create the impression that a dog is some kind of tool for achieving better health,” says Moses in explaining the dual focus. “We wanted to emphasize that it’s the relationship that provides these benefits—it’s not the pet. And for that relationship to develop and be sustained, you have to do your part.”
Doing your part often means going for walks in the rain, sleet or snow, at all hours of the day and night. In fact, one of the primary health benefits of owning a dog is that it boosts your activity level. There have been about a dozen studies conducted on the link between dogs and human exercise, including one that compared 536 dog owners with 380 non-owners. Those with dogs were found to be fitter, thinner and less likely to have chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. A study in Missouri that paired public housing residents with certified therapy dogs for five 20-minute walks a week found that participants lost an average of 14.4 pounds without changing their diets. (The report points out that most weight-loss programs and anti-obesity drug trails can’t boast such good results.)
Of course, the fact that regular exercise helps people lose weight and get healthy isn’t exactly breaking news. The insights come from the critical role the dog plays as a fitness partner—offering everything from enthusiastic encouragement to obnoxious pestering. Unlike a human partner, a dog is not going to suggest ducking out to a movie. “The dog support was always positive, while the human support could be positive (friends, family), negative (saboteurs) or inconsistent,” wrote Frates. Another reason that people tend to adhere to an exercise program if a dog is involved is the perception that the dog needs them. In one study, 72 percent of participants cited this as the reason they stuck to the activity schedule for the full 50 weeks of the trial.
“Sometimes people find that the dog becomes the excuse for taking care of themselves,” says Moses. “It may not be acceptable to them to be so self-oriented, but if it’s about the dog, then it’s okay.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) uncovered another piece of canine magic: a dog appears to help someone who is obese overcome his or her embarrassment about being seen in public doing physical activity.
It’s likely that increased exercise plus the calming effects of dogs (which we’ll get to later) contribute to lowering blood pressure. One study actually tested dog ownership as a treatment for high blood pressure. Thirty people with borderline hypertension were randomly assigned to either adopt a dog right away or defer adoption to a later date. After five months, the segment of new dog owners experienced significant declines in systolic pressure (the top number, which measures the highest arterial blood pressure). The group that had been asked to defer adoption experienced these same declines once they had taken their new dogs home and spent time with them. In 2013, the AHA went as far as to say that pet ownership “is a reasonable strategy for reducing heart disease risk.”
And there’s more good news on the cardiac front. A study of nearly 6,000 men and women in Australia found that dog owners of both sexes had lower triglyceride levels than non-owners, and male dog owners also had lower total cholesterol levels.
Beyond these formidable physical benefits are the psychological ones, which according to Frates “are hard to overstate.” Dogs make us feel less isolated. They pull us into a social world inhabited by other people walking other dogs. (Seventy percent of dog walks lead to at least one spoken interaction with a stranger.) And they help us meet the basic human need for companionship. Two large, long-term studies that followed people from childhood to old age found that those who were more engaged with others—whether those others were people or animals—lived longer. Those longer lives may also be more purposeful. A dog’s total dependency can make that person feel wanted and give life a sense of meaning.
Moses knows this phenomenon first hand. Her grandfather spent more than a decade as primary caretaker for his wife, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. During all those years, he had a succession of dogs to care for—or was it the other way around? After his wife died, his beloved Terrier mix Lady succumbed to kidney failure. “At age 92, unbeknownst to us, he went out and adopted another dog,” Moses says. “Having a dog was the reason he got up in the morning. It was his entire life. He was a living testament to the power of the human/canine bond.”
There are other indicators that dogs are particularly helpful to older people. The HMS report cites a year-long study from Canada that found elderly dog owners to be more capable of performing daily activities, such as dressing and feeding themselves. This is likely because in attending to their animal companions, seniors are reminded to take care of themselves. They also have a structure in place, thanks to the need for regular pet meal times and walks, which reinforces their own self-care habits.
At the other end of the age spectrum, children learn important life skills from early bonding with the family dog. That bonding can lead to stronger human connections later in life, according to a Tufts University study, which also found that kids who’ve forged emotional connections to dogs have more empathy, feel more self assured and do better in social settings.
“How else would you get your kids to touch and love something?” asks Frates, the mother of two teenage sons. “For boys especially in this culture, there are very few acceptable ways of encouraging this type of bonding and intimacy.”
There is even evidence that exposure to a dog from infancy onward reduces the likelihood that even the most allergy-prone kids will develop problems. Only 19 percent of babies living with dogs developed pet allergies, compared to 33 percent of babies who grew up in dog-free homes, according to one study.
As those babies grow up and become college students, the dog benefits continue. Several psychological studies have found that college-age adults tend to find more stress relief in turning to their dogs than in seeking comfort from parents or siblings. Still other adults were found to shake off the blues just by thinking about their dogs … which brings us to the magic of oxytocin.
Having a dog can be like having your own a prescription for oxytocin with unlimited refills—except that rather than dispensing this drug, your dog incites you to release it. Also known as the “love,” “bliss,” and “bonding” hormone, oxytocin inspires positive feelings. It helps stave off depression and limit the release of the stress hormone cortisol. You can get an oxytocin infusion by petting your dog, by laughing at the silly things she does, and even by looking into her loving eyes, a conclusion confirmed by recent study
Dogs also offer an alternative to meditation sessions and yoga classes when it comes to learning the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Every dog walk is typically an exercise in experiencing the present moment: savoring an especially aromatic fire hydrant, having a satisfying roll in the grass or interacting with a new neighbor. Dogs put us more in touch with nature and help us put aside our worries about the future and regrets about the past to focus on the here and now.
While all the information contained in Get Healthy, Get a Dog has been meticulously reviewed and objectively compiled, Moses and Frates are hardly dispassionate observers. Both say their lives have been greatly enriched by their relationships with their dogs. They do, however, come from very different ends of the dog spectrum. Moses, who shares her home with a rescue named Rudy, describes her love of canines as developing “in utero.” This was due largely to the influence of her grandfather and the fact that he treated his Beagle mix, Friday, like one of the grandchildren.
Frates, on the other hand, was terrified of dogs after being bitten on the shoulder by a Doberman. The experience, which happened when she was eight years old, was so traumatizing that she spent the next three decades crossing the street to avoid close contact with a dog, even a little one. Finally, though, it wasn’t any particular dog who changed her mind, it was her commitment to health. As a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine, Frates thought she had all the bases covered—diet, exercise, meditation. But when she took a health and longevity quiz to determine her “real” age (as opposed to her chronological one), she was surprised that one of the questions concerned dog ownership.
Intrigued by the implications, she began to review the existing literature, much of which has been summarized in this special report. She also purchased a Goldendoodle she named Reesee, from a breeder in West Virginia. “Everything has been different for me since then,” Frates says, adding that she and Reesee are regular running buddies. “When we go running, she is so happy and I’m happy because she’s happy. You just appreciate the world in a much different way.”
Frates believes that if something like the Harvard Health Report had been available years ago, she would have explored the joys of dog ownership much sooner. Now, she hopes that the report will encourage other non-dog people to reconsider their position. “We’re hoping to encourage people to take the leap of getting to know a dog,” she says. “And perhaps we’ll also be able to encourage more dog adoptions—that’s a focus that Lisa brought to the project.”
That’s because the nonprofit Angell Animal Medical Center, where Moses works, is part MSPCA, the nation’s second oldest humane society, and has a very active adoption component. (Now that she realizes the situation for homeless dogs, Frates says she would adopt in the future.) Get Healthy, Get a Dog includes a section on “Adopting a Dog,” which provides information on determining the right breed for your home and suggestions on finding breed rescue groups and shelters. It also urges people to stay away from pet stores, where the dogs typically come from puppy mills.
Moses hopes readers will follow the report’s suggestions and reap the amazing benefits of dog ownership.
“Dogs are more important now than ever before,” she says. “Because people are living longer and so many live alone and don’t have kids. This is the moment for the human-animal bond.”
The report is available as a printed document, a PDF or both and can be purchased online at health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/get-healthy-get-a-dog.
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