Category Archives: research

What are you looking at? (Dogs follow the human gaze)

Dogs are known to be excellent readers of human body language in multiple situations. Surprisingly, however, scientists have so far found that dogs do not follow human gaze into distant space. Scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated how this skill of dogs is influenced by aging, habituation and formal training. The outcome: Gaze following to human gaze cues did not differ over the dogs’ lifespan, however, formal training was found to directly influence gaze following in dogs.


Gaze following to distant space has been documented in many species and is considered a basic response found in many taxa. Dogs may present a special case as the researchers found evidence that they are able to follow human gaze to objects such as food or toys, but not for the comparatively simpler task of following gaze into distant space.

Two possible reasons were offered to explain this phenomenon: One reason could be habituation. Dogs lose their innate gaze following response as they age, as they are frequently exposed to human gaze cues over their lifespan and slowly stop responding to them. Another reason could be formal training such as obedience, agility, and trick training may interfere with the dogs’ response to gaze cues, since dogs are usually trained to look at the owner, to wait for commands and ignore distractions.

What influences dogs’ gaze following response to human gaze cues?

Lead author Lisa Wallis and her colleagues at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab in order to address the question of whether habituation, and/or training influences dogs’ gaze following response, and to determine, for the first time, how this ability changes over the course of a dog’s life by comparing groups of dogs of different ages. 

Dogs of all ages are able to follow human gaze

The scientists tested two groups of dogs with differing amounts of formal training over their lifespan. Both groups participated firstly in a test and control condition, where their initial gaze following performance was measured. The experimenter obtained the dogs’ attention using its name and the command “watch” after which the experimenter turned her head swiftly to look at the door of the testing room in the test condition, or looked down to the floor next to her feet in the control condition. If the dogs responded by looking at the door within two seconds in the test condition but did not look at the door in the control condition, a gaze following response was recorded.

Dogs’ tendency to follow human gaze is influenced by training for eye contact
Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis' gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis’ gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs which had a higher amount of formal training over their lifespan showed a lower gaze following response compared to dogs with little or no training. Similarly, short-term training also decreased dogs’ gaze following response and increased gaze to the human face.

The authors conclude that formal training had a stronger influence than aging or habituation on dogs’ gaze following response. This may explain why previous studies have failed to find a gaze following response when cues to distant space are used, and why in comparison to other species dogs perform relatively poorly in this task. The fact that the experimenter used strong attention-getting cues and provided contextual relevance by looking at a door may have also contributed to the positive results found in this study.

“From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs”. – says Lisa Wallis.

In her current project, together with her colleague Durga Chapagain, Wallis is investigating the effects of diet on cognitive aging in older dogs. The scientists are still looking for dog owners who would like to participate in that long-term study (food is provided for free).

This research has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Source:  Vedmeduni Vienna media release

The prescription for a soldier’s PTSD

I just found this very short item on the San Francisco Chronicle website.  A photo of a heavily tattooed man, his baby and his dog….

 Photo: Patty Snijders

Photo: Patty Snijders

The man is Ari Sonnenberg with his daughter, Nila Louise Sonnenberg, born April 1, 2015, and his Belgian Malinois dog, Sigmund Freud (also known as  Siggy).

Patty Snijders (Ari’s wife) says: “The dog has helped both Ari and me tremendously. He’s made our marriage stronger and prepared us for parenthood in many ways.”

A simple photograph and a lovely sentiment.  Siggy sounds very special and his presence has clearly been a help to the couple.

The body of knowledge about the value of dogs for our physical and mental health continues to grow, with research and study and stories like those of Siggy and his owners.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

Dogs absorb lawn chemicals

Dogs exposed to garden and lawn chemicals may have a higher risk of bladder cancer. iStockPhoto

Dogs exposed to garden and lawn chemicals may have a higher risk of bladder cancer.
iStockPhoto

 

Dogs are ingesting, inhaling and otherwise being exposed to garden and lawn chemicals that have been associated with bladder cancer, according to a new study.

The paper, which will appear in the July issue of Science of the Total Environment, also found that wind could carry the chemicals to untreated properties. The researchers also found that dogs, once contaminated by the chemicals, can transfer them to their owners.

The chemicals are common herbicides containing the following: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), 4-chloro-2- methylphenoxypropionic acid (MCPP) and/or dicamba.

“The routes of exposure that have been documented in experimental settings include ingestion, inhalation and transdermal exposures,” lead author Deborah Knapp of Purdue University’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, told Discovery News.

“In the case of dogs,” she added, “they could directly ingest the chemicals from the plant, or they could lick their paws or fur and ingest chemicals that have been picked up on their feet, legs or body.”

Scottish terriers, West Highland white terriers, Shetland sheepdogs, beagles and wire hair fox terriers are all at particular risk, the researchers suggest, because these breeds have a high genetic propensity for bladder cancer.

Knapp and her colleagues first conducted an experimental grass plot study that involved spraying various defined patches with the chemicals under different conditions. These included spraying the herbicides on plots that were green, dry brown, wet or recently mowed. The researchers next measured how much of the chemicals remained on the grass up to 72 hours post treatment.

Co-author Angus Murphy, also from Purdue, explained that dead or dying plant material does not readily absorb the chemicals, “so the herbicide can remain longer on the surface of the plant.”

He continued, “If an excessive amount of herbicide is applied, then the capacity of the target plant to take up the compound may be overwhelmed.”

In a second experiment, the researchers analyzed urine samples of dogs from households that either used herbicides or didn’t. The majority of dogs from homes that used the chemicals were found to have these same herbicides in their urine. Some dogs from untreated homes also had the chemicals in their urine.

Knapp explained that wind could cause the herbicides to travel up to 50 feet away from the application site. Neighbors who use the chemicals might therefore impact other individuals in the area.

“There are industry guidelines for restricting lawn chemical application based on wind speed, although homeowners may not be aware of these,” Knapp said.

Once contaminated, dogs can pass the chemicals on to their owners and to others. The study only looked at dogs, but the researchers suspect that cats and other pets could also be affected.

“Dogs can pick up the chemicals on their paws and their fur,” Knapp said. “They can then track the chemicals inside the house, leaving chemicals on the floor or furniture. In addition, if the dog has chemicals on its fur, the pet owner could come in contact with the chemicals when they pet or hold the dog.”

John Reif, a professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, told Discovery News, “The paper presents important information since exposure to 2,-4-D, a widely used broad leaf herbicide, has been associated with increased risk of cancer in pet dogs and humans.”

Reif added, “This study has potentially important implications for human health since it demonstrates widespread exposure to pet dogs. The likelihood that children, who share the local environment with their pets, are similarly exposed to these chemicals is high and thus additional studies should be conducted to evaluate this possibility.”

The researchers suggest that if owners still must use herbicides, they should follow manufacturer guidelines, allow gardens and lawns to dry before allowing pets out, wash their dog’s feet each time the dog comes inside, and consider treating the back yard one week before the front (or vice versa) so that pets will have an area of less potential chemical exposure available to them.

Source:  Discovery.com

 

Barking characterizes dogs like voices characterize people

An international group of researchers has conducted a study on canine behavior showing that gender, age, context and individual recognition can be identified with a high percentage of success through statistical and computational methods of pattern recognition applied to their barking.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

This research aimed to understand the acoustic signals obtained from dog barking when the dog subjects are subjected to certain situations. The research was conducted through the development of a computational system based on statistic modeling that is able to recognize diverse characteristics of the dog (gender, age, individual, situation).

This diagram has been used to help ‘map’ the computing system behind the research:

Photo credit:   Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM)

Photo credit:
Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM)

The experiments were carried out in Budapest with eight Mudi breed dogs from Hungary, usually used as sheep-dogs—three males and five females. Each dog (aged between one and 10) registered 100 barks. A total of 800 barks was obtained by placing the dogs in seven different situations: (a) alone, after the owner tied the dog to a tree; (b) playing with a ball; (c) fighting, when a human pretended to attack the dog’s owner; (d) receiving their food ration; (f) in the company of a person who was foreign to the dog; and (g) preparing to go out with the owner. Each one of the 800 barks was characterized from 29 acoustic measurements.

By using the diverse computational models obtained from the collected data during the experiment, researchers successfully recognized the dog’s gender 85.13% of the time, while the age of the dog (recoded as young, adult and old) was classified without mistakes 80.25% of the time. The task of identifying the situation in which the dog was engaged was successful 55.50% of the time, while the recognition (among the eight dogs participating in the study) of the Mudi breed was successful the 67.63% of the time.

Whilst a highly technical bit of research, particularly for those of us who are challenged by computer programming and mathematics, there are applied uses for this research such as in assessing dog behavior.  Software programs using these models could help to identify fear, anxiety and levels of aggressiveness in a dog.

Source:  Phys.org

Controlling the brown dog tick

Dogs and their owners who battle the Brown Dog Tick sometimes go to desperate measures ─ including getting rid of their dogs, fumigating their homes, throwing many possessions out or even moving ─ to control the pesky bugs, which breed indoors and hide in places that are practically impossible to reach.

A petri dish contains several brown dog ticks, a species researchers believe has become resistant to the most commonly used pesticides.  UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

A petri dish contains several brown dog ticks, a species researchers believe has become resistant to the most commonly used pesticides. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

Phil Kaufman, an associate professor of veterinary entomology at the University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, is one of several investigators who have just published two studies. One shows the tick is resistant to the most commonly used chemical applied directly between the dog’s shoulder blades. The other shows the effectiveness of carbon dioxide as a lure for baiting ticks to bed bug traps.

The first finding, while not good news, is practical. Pet owners and pest control companies know pesticides with permethrin will not control the Brown Dog Tick. The chemical fipronil should work in most situations, but owners should watch for loss of activity of the chemical, such as ticks that appear to be alive and swelling within the month after treatment.

The second finding is critical as Kaufman and other scientists, such as Faith Oi, grapple with getting rid of the Brown Dog Tick.

Kaufman and Oi describe the Brown Dog Tick as “cryptobiotic,” meaning it hides in nooks and crannies of your house where you’d never find them, and they spend about 95 percent of their time away from the dog. But if experts can get the ticks to come to one spot, they can better control them, Kaufman said.

Meanwhile, homeowners can use pesticides to control the ticks, but “the vacuum is your best friend,” Oi said.

Brown Dog ticks can complete their lifecycle inside people’s homes, unlike most ticks, which spend most of their lifetime outside, Kaufman said. One female Brown Dog Tick can lay up to 5,000 eggs in its lifetime and if that is in your home, you could be in for trouble.

“They’re particularly troublesome for people who have cluttered homes, and they drive some homeowners to desperate measures in search of ways to control the tick,” Kaufman said. “Eliminating places where ticks live and breed is the one of the best practices for tick control.”

Homeowners also can help by simplifying their interiors. That allows for more thorough inspections, easier cleaning and pesticide applications, he said. It also allows for more effective evaluation of the treatment after products are applied.

In addition to being pesky, Brown Dog ticks can damage or irritate a dog’s skin. In rare cases, they can cause a fever, anorexia or anemia. If you see these signs in your dog, you should see a veterinarian as soon as possible, Kaufman said.

This research into the brown dog tick has been published in the March 2015 and May 2015 issues of the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Source:  University of Florida media release

A bond that goes way back

The special relationship between humans and dogs may go back 27,000 to 40,000 years, according to genomic analysis of an ancient Taimyr wolf bone reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 21. Earlier genome-based estimates have suggested that the ancestors of modern-day dogs diverged from wolves no more than 16,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age.

The genome from this ancient specimen, which has been radiocarbon dated to 35,000 years ago, reveals that the Taimyr wolf represents the most recent common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs.

his image compares an ancient Taimyr Wolf bone from the lower jaw to a modern pipette.  Photo by Love Dalén

This image compares an ancient Taimyr Wolf bone from the lower jaw to a modern pipette. Photo by Love Dalén

“Dogs may have been domesticated much earlier than is generally believed,” says Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. “The only other explanation is that there was a major divergence between two wolf populations at that time, and one of these populations subsequently gave rise to all modern wolves.” Dalén considers this second explanation less likely, since it would require that the second wolf population subsequently became extinct in the wild.

“It is [still] possible that a population of wolves remained relatively untamed but tracked human groups to a large degree, for a long time,” adds first author of the study Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute.

The researchers made these discoveries based on a small piece of bone picked up during an expedition to the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. Initially, they didn’t realize the bone fragment came from a wolf at all; this was only determined using a genetic test back in the laboratory. But wolves are common on the Taimyr Peninsula, and the bone could have easily belonged to a modern-day wolf. On a hunch, the researchers decided to radiocarbon date the bone anyway. It was only then that they realized what they had: a 35,000-year-old bone from an ancient Taimyr wolf.

The DNA evidence also shows that modern-day Siberian Huskies and Greenland sled dogs share an unusually large number of genes with the ancient Taimyr wolf.

“The power of DNA can provide direct evidence that a Siberian Husky you see walking down the street shares ancestry with a wolf that roamed Northern Siberia 35,000 years ago,” Skoglund says. To put that in perspective, “this wolf lived just a few thousand years after Neandertals disappeared from Europe and modern humans started populating Europe and Asia.”

Source:  EurekAlert! media statement

Dogs on Prozac – but not exclusively for best results

Dogs who suffer with separation anxiety become more optimistic when taking the animal equivalent of Prozac during behavioural treatment, according to the results of an innovative new study.

Led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, the research has for the first time revealed how the animals feel during the clinical treatment of behaviours associated with negative emotions.

Jess Cook signed up for the study as her dog Lexi would become so distraught when left alone in the house neighbours would complain about her howling.

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

For five weeks in 2013, Lexi, now seven, took two tablets a day in some butter. She also underwent behaviour management therapy, which taught her to cope better with being separated from her owner.

Miss Cook, who runs Like My Own Pet Care Services in Derbyshire and is studying for her MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Lincoln, slowly built up the amount of time Lexi was left unattended for. It proved successful and now she has come off her medication.

Canine separation-related problems – also described as separation anxiety or separation distress – are among the most common behavioural complaints of dog owners. But the issue of using psychoactive medication to help pets with behavioural problems is a widely debated one.

Treatment with psychoactive medication in parallel with a behaviour modification plan is well documented, but it is unknown if this is associated with an improvement in underlying emotion or mood, or simply an inhibition of the behaviour.

The new study, published in the peer-reviewed veterinary science journal BMC Veterinary Research, has thrown new light on the topic with researchers devising a method to evaluate animals’ emotional state when treated with fluoxetine – the active ingredient in Prozac for humans and Reconcile for pets. Prozac, the trade name for fluoxetine, is typically used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety in humans.

The researchers recruited dogs showing signs of separation anxiety, such as barking, howling, destruction of property and toileting when alone, and used a special behaviour test to determine if they were feeling ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’.

In the test, dogs were taught that when a food bowl was placed in one location it contained food, but when placed in another location that it was empty. The bowl was then placed in ambiguous locations, and the dogs’ response was assessed to determine whether they expected food (i.e. ‘optimistic’) or not (i.e. ‘pessimistic’).

The results indicated that when dogs were treated for separation problems using both a behaviour modification programme combined with fluoxetine treatment that they did become more optimistic, and as their mood improved so did the behaviour problem. The same results were not recorded for the control group.

Research lead Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “For quite a while, I, like many others, have been concerned as to whether drugs such as Reconcile simply inhibit the behaviour and perhaps had no effect on the animal’s mood. With the advent of new methods to assess animal welfare, we were able to answer this question and were pleased to see that, when the drug is used within normal therapeutic ranges, the dogs do indeed seem better.”

“However, it is important to emphasise that animals were treated with both the drug and a behaviour modification programme – with both being essential for effective treatment. Using the drug does seem to bring about a rapid improvement in mood while the animal responds to the training programme. The reality is, whether we like it or not, there are animals who are suffering and we need to take measures to both prevent the problem but also manage it as effectively as possible when it arises.”

Source:  University of Lincoln media release