Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Their brains reveal a positive response
You may not feel happy when you smell your husband’s underarm when he has not showered or used deodorant for 24 hours, but your dog probably does. So concluded scientists who conducted an fMRI study to investigate the response of dogs’ brains to both familiar and unfamiliar canine and human odors. Since the canine sense of smell is so well-developed, studies that investigate it are especially useful for learning more about dogs, including their behavior and emotions.
The 12 dogs in the study “Scent of the familiar: an fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors” (in press in the journal Behavioural Processes) have been trained to remain still during the entire procedure. Because the dogs don’t move during the process because of training rather than being medicated or restrained to achieve stillness, the way various areas of the brain respond to various stimuli can be studied. All of the dogs are family pets and were raised by people from puppyhood on.
In this experiment, researchers focused on the caudate, which is an area of the brain that is associated with positive feelings and rewards. The level of activity in this part of the brain in response to various odors informs us about the emotional reaction of dogs to various stimuli. The odors used were the dog’s own odor, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, a familiar person and an unfamiliar person. The familiar person was never the guardian handling the dog at the experiment because the scent of that person was present throughout the experiment.
The scientists found that dogs had the strongest, most positive reactions to the smell of a familiar person. Because most of the handlers with the dog during the experiment were female guardians, the familiar person was usually the male guardian or their child, although it was sometimes a close friend. The familiar dog was also a member of the household. The scents from dogs came from the perineal-genital area.
The dogs responded to all of the scents, but activation of the caudate portion of the brain in response to the familiar human scent showed that dogs distinguished it from all the other scents and that they had a particularly positive association with that smell. Dogs had a more positive response to familiar humans than to either unfamiliar humans or to members of their own species, whether familiar or unfamiliar.
Interestingly, the four dogs in this study who are service dogs had the strongest responses to human scents, which may be due to genetics, their intense exposure to humans during training or even simply a fluke related to small sample size. It is possible that dogs whose caudate is highly responsive to human scent may be best suited for service work. Because not all dogs selected to be service dogs end up successfully completing the time-consuming and expensive training, choosing those dogs who are most likely to succeed could save time and money as well as lessen the extensive waiting times for people in need of such dogs.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The similarities are considerable
If you’ve always thought that you and your dogs understand one another’s emotions, you increasingly have scientific evidence supporting your views. The use of MRIs allowed researchers to demonstrate that the brains of both dogs and people have a similar response to human voices, crying and laughter, among many other sounds. Researchers conclude that the brains of both dogs and people have similar reactions to the emotional cues in many sounds.
Eleven dogs and 22 people were subjected to the same MRI scans during which they had to remain still for up to 8 minutes while exposed to various sounds. (A lot of training went in to teaching dogs to remain motionless during the scans.) The study is called “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI” (only the abstract is available online) and it was published last week in the journal Current Biology. It is the first study to use this technique to compare the brain of humans to a non-primate animal species.
Over 200 different sounds were played to each participant in the study over a number of sessions. There were sounds such as whistles and car noises as well as dog vocalizations and human sounds. The responses to human sounds in both people and dogs occurred in similar regions of the brain. This study is the first time such a similarity to humans has been shown in an animal species that is NOT a primate. Both the people and the dogs also reacted in similar regions of the brain to emotional canine vocalizations such as whimpering and intense barking.
Along with the similarities, there were also differences in responses between the two species. Humans were better at distinguishing between the sounds of the environment and vocalizations than dogs were. Additionally, both species responded more strongly to vocalizations of their own species.
It is impossible to say from this study whether these vocal regions of the brain evolved in a more ancient lineage than was previously thought or whether the dogs have evolved this similarity during the period of domestication as a mechanism to allow better communication and understanding between dogs and people.
Future studies that investigate brains of additional species may be able to determine the reason for the similarity between dogs and people. These scientists next plan to study the response of dog brains to human language, which was not a part of this study.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog flexibility strikes again
If you’re not amazed by the diversity of dog body type and the huge number of habitats in which they can live, then you’re in the minority. Scientists, dog lovers and scientists who are dog lovers consider the domestic dog a species of considerable interest for the great number of forms that have evolved over a relatively short time. Some of the variation is obvious because it involves shape, size and color, while some of the behavioral tendencies are subtle. Even less obvious are the physiological difference between different types of dogs, including the recent discovery of adaptations to high altitude by the Tibetan Mastiff.
This breed of dog is most closely related to the Chinese native dogs, but in recent history, has been selected to live high in the mountains of Tibet at elevations of nearly 15,000 feet. The biggest challenge to life at such heights is the low level of oxygen. Even individuals who are quite fit can become out of breath just from walking at a casual pace under the low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions at high altitude. So, how do Tibetan Mastiffs thrive in Tibet? They do it in much the same way that wild animals and humans do—with genetic changes that affect hemoglobin concentration, the formation of extra blood vessels and the use and production of energy.
In a new study called “Population variation revealed high altitude adaptation of Tibetan Mastiffs”, scientists found that this breed of dogs has at least a dozen areas in their genome that represent adaptations to the high life. One of the genes that helps them survive in their high-altitude/low oxygen environment is similar to a gene present in the Tibetan people, who are also adapted to the high life. The rest of them are different than those of the people as well as differing from animals such as the yak and the Tibetan antelope that are also adapted to this environment.
Though much selection on our companion dogs has changed their behavior and appearance, there are also examples of changes that are far harder to observe such as the Tibetan Mastiff ‘s adaptations to high altitude.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Infantile features have power
Those big puppy dog eyes may be powerful in addition to just being cute. According to a recent study, they may actually affect human choice about which dogs to adopt. The researchers who conducted the study “Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage” found that dogs whose facial expressions made them look more puppyish were adopted more quickly from shelters than dogs who did not show such facial expressions. (Paedomorphism is the retention of infantile or juvenile traits into adulthood.)
One of the most prominent paedomorphic features is large eyes relative to the size of the face. This trait can be enhanced by raising the eyebrows which makes the overall height and size of the eyes seem bigger. It was this action of eyebrow raising that was studied in the experiment.
A total of 27 dogs were a part of the study. To minimize variation in facial features, all of the dogs were of similar types: Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Mastiffs and mixed bull breeds. Dogs were filmed for 2 minutes and researchers recorded the number of eyebrow raises and tail wags that each dog performed as well as noting how much time the dog spent at the front of the kennel. Frequency of eyebrow raises was associated with shorter times until adoption. Specifically, dogs who raised their eyebrows 5 times during filming were adopted in an average of 50 days, those that performed 10 eyebrow raises were adopted in an average of 35 days, and dogs who did it 15 times had an average waiting time until adoption of only 28 days.
Interestingly, they found that amount of tail wagging and time at the front of the kennel were not strongly associated with time until being adopted even though such traits are typically considered favorable behavioral signs of friendliness. It would be interesting to know if the eyebrow raising behavior correlates with temperament and suitability as a pet or if it is a behavior that serves more strictly to encourage caregiving behavior in humans.
These results may shed light on the domestication of dogs. It has been proposed that the juvenile traits of dogs arose as a byproduct of selection against aggression. This line of reasoning claims that people chose to associate with the least aggressive canines, and that the evolution of puppyish features and behavior developed as an accidental consequence of those choices. Experiments support the idea that selecting against aggression does lead to the evolution of juvenile traits. However, this latest study suggests that the puppylike features themselves may have influenced which canines became closely associated with humans and that such features may have evolved earlier in the process of domestication than previously thought.
Do your buddy’s puppy dog eyes exert a powerful influence over you?
News: Guest Posts
As my Twitter bio says, I’m interested in your dog’s urine. I’m not kidding around here. For a recent Animal Behavior class, I buddied up with a doggie daycare and followed dogs on their afternoon walks. Yes. I was that person walking around NYC with a hand held camera, trailing dogs and video taping them as they peed.
This wasn’t a hypothesis testing experiment, I was simply trying to gauge what parts of urination were easily measured in a naturalistic context. I checked out things like urination duration, urine placement, leg position, leg height, tail position and post-pee scratching. If another dog was present, I got to see whether there was any over-marking (peeing on another dog’s pee) or adjacent marking (peeing nearby). I was just measuring stuff as you often do when starting to investigate why animals do what they do.
I’m not the only researcher interested in your dog’s urine. Patricia Yang and colleagues at The Georgia Institute of Technology have a similar interest in measuring things that might seem odd to measure. They’ve submitted the abstract The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet to the Annual Fluid Dynamics Conference held by the American Physical Society in late November.
Using “high-speed videography” and “flow-rate measurement” they investigated independent urination styles, such as the dripping of small mammals and the “jetting” of large mammals. New Scientist interviewed Yang (and Discover has a piece out as well), and the coverage touches on urethra length, gravitational pull and the number of seconds it takes to empty bladders. I eagerly await how the published study links Newtonian physics to urine!
Truth be told, maybe I wanted to write this post so I could write “jetting” of large mammals, and show this video. Also, I want to go on vacation with these people*:
But as you’ve seen, urine does not begin and end with the jetting of large mammals. Dog urination is pretty awesome and a number of researchers are holding a figurative magnifying glass up to it (and you can too!). Some dogs let it all out at once — although, I’m pretty sure that’s not called “jetting”) — while others let a little out at a time. And then of course, there’s how they do it.
A recent study by Wirant and McGuire (2004) found that female Jack Russell Terriers assumed a number of urination positions, including the squat-raise (most common), squat, arch-raise, combination and handstand. They found that females“used the squat-raise and arch-raise postures more when off their home area then when on their home area.” If dog urination has a social function, it might make sense to present your urine in different ways depending on where you are and who you are encountering, don’t you think?
Here’s what you can do: When you’re out walking your dog, pay attention to their urine. Do they assume a different position if you take them to an area where they’ve never been or go infrequently? Or do they pull out the same tricks no matter where they are?
Leave your urine reports below, and share early and often. My business is urine, and it can be yours too.
Photo: Flickr Nature’s Fire Hydrant via Mike Finkelstein Creative Commons
Pham et al. 2013. The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet. Bulletin of the American Physical Society. 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted
News: Guest Posts
At her intake at a shelter in April 2012, Bean was a pup with a familiar profile: a Pit Bull whose family could no longer care for her. But it wasn’t long before someone at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley in Milpitas, California did notice something unusual about her.
It was her lack of “boing,” says staff member Finnegan Dowling. “No Pit Bull puppy should be that mellow.”
Bean also had a stiff walk. When she was excited, she hopped like a bunny. They took her for x-rays, but even sedation didn’t relax her joints enough to get pictures, Dowling says, and the vet referred her to UC Davis for an MRI scan.
There, Dr. Karen Vernau, chief of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, discovered that her hip joints were improperly formed. Bean’s determined spirit wasn’t lost on Vernau, but her chances of adoption seemed slim.
The five month old pup was suffering from muscular dystrophy, a progressive and currently incurable disease that would affect many parts of her body.
According to notes in Bean’s file at the Humane Society, she was scheduled for a procedure at Davis on May 25. By the 29th, she was diagnosed with myopathy, a neurological condition. But somewhere in between those dates, Dowling says, Dr. Vernau’s relationship with her patient “went from obligation to affection.”
Vernau and her family decided to adopt Bean. As the vet told a reporter, “We didn’t intend to go down this path with her, but she just sucked us in.”
This happy ending was only the beginning of Bean’s harrowing medical story.
Gradually, things got worse. Surgery to correct her hips was followed by relief—then new problems. A massive hernia called for another surgery. Her swallowing improved, but the muscles in her esophagus were failing and there were bouts of vomiting so intense she would sometimes choke and pass out. Bean grew thinner as she struggled with aspiration (food getting into her respiratory tract when eating), which caused pneumonia.
Her vets sought help from colleagues in human medicine, a multidisciplinary approach the university encourages through its “One Health Initiative.” They included Dr. Stan Marks, a gastrointestinal specialist, and Dr. Peter Belafsky, an expert in human swallowing and airway disorders, and others.
With help from the biomedical engineering department, Bean had been fitted with a feeding tube that allowed her to eat several times per day. It worked beautifully, according to Dr. Marks.
But it didn’t stop the vomiting.
Since the vomiting put her life at risk, Belafsky concluded that they would have to stop it by removing her larynx.
Belafsky, who performed the second documented human larynx transplant, knew how profoundly such problems affect a person’s quality of life. And it was clearly true for Bean.
Her surgery, which lasted more than three hours, was the first ever canine laryngectomy. The procedure is typically used to treat human cancer. According to Belafsky, the separation of her breathing and swallowing tubes will prevent food from getting into her lungs when she eats or vomits.
The lessons learned in Bean’s treatment will impact human care, and vice versa, Belafsky said in a press conference after the surgery. Belafsky hopes she will inspire human patients who have also lost their voice and now breathe through a hole in their neck. She may just get a guest membership in the “Lost Cords Club” for people who have had a laryngectomy.
After all, Bean is only two years old, but has slept out more than 100 rounds of anesthesia and undergone eight surgeries and countless other procedures. Her “can’t do list” is long. Can’t bark, breathe or swallow normally. Forget gobbling down a treat, and she can’t swim without drowning due to the tracheostomy tube.
But the list of things she once endured, the choking and pneumonia, has been tossed.
Now when she accompanies Vernau to the hospital, she serves as ambassador and teacher, allowing students to experience canine tube feeding.
At home, Bean is learning new ways to enjoy life, which still holds plenty of the good old stuff – balls to chew, cushy beds, and a loving family that includes two other dogs.
Watch this video about Bean's surgery and recovery.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Vet Experts Tell Us How
Did you know that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has fewer than 50 members? To obtain board certification in this specialty, each has gone beyond a DVM to earn various degrees in applied animal behavior, and has completed a rigorous training program as well.
Decoding Your Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2014), with sections on canine behavior written by 20 ACVB diplomates, thus represents the expertise of some of the leading experts in the field. Their goal is two-fold: to make sure dog people have scientifically correct information about dog behavior problems and “to correct widespread misinformation.” The volume is well edited by Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi and pet journalist Steve Dale; Victoria Stilwell contributed the foreword.
A concerted effort to debunk the many fallacious, pseudoscientif ic notions all too prevalent in the dog world is really long overdue. This book repudiates, in each and every one of its 14 chapters, the theory of dominance— i.e., dogs want to be pack leaders—that has been promulgated for much too long. In “Creating a Mensa Dog,” Dr. Katherine Houpt outlines that theory: “It goes like this: since dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and wolves have a rigid dominance hierarchy within their pack, the same must be true for dogs. Simple, right? But the thinking turns out to be wrong.” She then goes on to tell us why it is wrong. Similarly, when this concept appears in other chapters, it’s firmly dismissed as a myth with no scientific basis that harms dogs and our relationships with them.
Another adroitly debunked myth is that dogs feel guilty about infractions people find upsetting, such as house soiling. Dogs must know they’ve done something wrong, right? In “Can’t We Just Talk?” Dr. Jacqueline Neilson explains that while to us, cringing may look like guilt, what is actually happening is that dogs see us acting aggressively and do what they wisely do when faced by an angry bully: offer a submissive response. In the fascinating chapter on aggression, Drs. Ilana Reisner and Stefanie Schwartz remind us that dogs are not mean: “There is no revenge or malice in dogs; they are merely using canine tools to respond to social situations.” Also, that aggression is a response to many different triggers, some of which might not be apparent to us. Consequently, it’s imperative that we learn how to read canine body language and methods of communication. Punishment, they say, “is not necessary when you’re managing your dog’s behavior, and at worst is likely to increase anxiety and aggression.” That means no leash pops, alpha rolls or other “in your face” confrontational techniques (as used by a popular TV personality). It is up to us to defuse the situation, and then work on a strategy to fix the problem.
On less dire subjects, it’s good to know Book Reviews that there is no association between “spoiling,” such as allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, and behavior problems. And that dogs rely on “visual and olfactory cues for communication,” which means it’s best to train them with hand signals first, then supplement with verbal cues.
I found the chapter on separation anxiety by Drs. E’Lise Christensen and Karen Overall to be invaluable, particularly their reminder that “only when dogs are calm can they learn new things, including how to be home alone.” With information ranging from the best ways to start out with dogs to helping dogs as they age, this book is appropriate for both novice and seasoned dog people. The editors have done a good job in making the text readable and approachable; each chapter incorporates case studies, and there is a clear organizational format. Recurring sections (“Facts, Not Fiction,” “Is That Really True?”) and review summaries (“What Did We Say?”) neatly encapsulate the various messages. I have a little quibble with the use of the latter phrase, which sounds like a scolding parent’s “What did I tell you!” But that doesn’t detract from my overall admiration for this book. Decoding Your Dog is an important addition to the canine canon, one that will go a long way toward increasing your understanding of your best friend.
In a recent New York Times, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and the author of the excellent new book, How Dogs Love Us, writes an intriguing and engrossing editorial, “Dogs Are People, Too” (which was the top “emailed” article in the NYT the day it came out!). Berns and his team at Emory University have been testing dogs, the first of which was Berns’ own rescue dog, Callie, using functional MRIs to measure their brain activity, hoping to decode the canine brain. Unlike other researchers at other universities, the Emory Dog Project was the first to do this and the only ones who perform their research with not only volunteer dogs, but also by following a humane protocol that included “only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.” Other researchers also use “purpose-bred” Beagles, an abhorrent practice.
What they discovered was rather amazing. As I noted in the book review in Bark’s Winter issue, “Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and by extension, that the idea that you must be a dog’s pack leader is a mistake.”
In his commentary Berns notes, “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
In making his case for the “personhood” of dogs Berns explains that, “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” And that we can’t hide from the evidence shown in the MRIs, dogs, and other animals (like primates) do have emotional lives, just like us. In his book he describes that the defining traits of dogs is their interspecies social intelligence, “an ability to intuit what humans and other animal are thinking,” and furthermore that, “ Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they probably also have a high capacity for empathy. More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel.”
It is then perfectly understandable that he makes the case for granting dogs personhood, as he wrote in the Times piece, “ If we … granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”
Read the whole article here, and watch this video and we would love to know your thoughts too. Gregory Berns’ post on Psychology Today, is also of interest.
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