Category Archives: research

Dogs benefit children with autism

A University of Missouri researcher has studied dog ownership decisions in families of children with autism and found that parents report a range of benefits of dog ownership including companionship, stress relief and opportunities for their children to learn responsibility.

Photo credit: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

‘Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,’ said Gretchen Carlisle, the study’s author. ‘Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.’

Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children with autism.  Nearly two-thirds of the parents in the study owned dogs, and of those parents, 94 percent reported their children with autism were bonded to their dogs. Even in families without dogs, 70 percent of parents said their children with autism liked dogs.

‘Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously.  If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.’

The study, “Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing earlier this year.

Source:  University of Missouri media release

For more about the benefits of dogs for people with autism, read my post Dogs are a ‘social lubricant’ in helping people with autism

Cleft palate in dogs

UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine researchers have identified the genetic mutation responsible for a form of cleft palate in the dog breed Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers.

Photo by Danika Bannasch/UC Davis

Photo by Danika Bannasch/UC Davis

They hope that the discovery, which provides the first dog model for the craniofacial defect, will lead to a better understanding of cleft palate in humans. Although cleft palate is one of the most common birth defects in children, affecting approximately one in 1,500 live human births in the United States, it is not completely understood.

By conducting a genome-wide study of this breed with a naturally occurring cleft palate, researchers identified a mutation responsible for the development of cleft palate. Dogs with this mutation also have a shortened lower jaw, similar to humans who have Pierre Robin Sequence. The disorder, a subset of cleft palate, affects one in 8,500 live human births and is characterized by a cleft palate, shortened lower jaw and displacement of the tongue base.

Cleft palate condition occurs when there is a failure in the formation of the secondary palate, which makes up all of the soft palate and the majority of the hard palate.

The team have published their study in the journal PLOS Genetics.

Source:  UC Davis media release

Attentiveness in dogs

Photo by Angela Gaigg

Photo by Angela Gaigg

Researchers at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni in Vienna have researched dogs’ attentiveness and how it changes over their lives – and the patterns shown are similar to humans!  The results have been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Dogs are individual personalities, possess awareness, and are particularly known for their trainability. To learn successfully, they must display a sufficient quantity of attention and concentration.

The study’s lead author, Lisa Wallis, and her colleagues investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab at the Vetmeduni Vienna and determined, for the first time, how attentiveness changes in the entire course of a dog’s life using a cross-sectional study design.

To determine how rapidly dogs of various age groups pay attention to objects or humans, the scientists performed two tests. In the first situation the dogs were confronted with a child’s toy suspended suddenly from the ceiling. The scientists measured how rapidly each dog reacted to this occurrence and how quickly the dogs became accustomed to it. Initially all dogs reacted with similar speed to the stimulus, but older dogs lost interest in the toy more rapidly than younger ones did.

In the second test situation, a person known to the dog entered the room and pretended to paint the wall. All dogs reacted by watching the person and the paint roller in the person’s hands for a longer duration than the toy hanging from the ceiling.

The dogs generally tended to react by watching the person with the object for longer than an object on its own. The team found that older dogs – like older human beings – demonstrated a certain calmness. They were less affected by new items in the environment and thus showed less interest than younger dogs.

In a further test the scientists investigated so-called selective attention. The dogs participated in an alternating attention task, where they had to perform two tasks consecutively. First, they needed  to find a food reward thrown onto the floor by the experimenter, then after eating the food, the experimenter waited for the dog to establish eye contact with her.  These tasks were repeated for a further twenty trials. The establishment of eye contact was marked by a clicking sound produced by a  “clicker” and small pieces of hot dog were used as a reward. The time spans to find the food and look up into the face were measured. With respect to both time spans, middle-aged dogs (3 to 6 years) reacted most rapidly.

“Under these test conditions, sensorimotor abilities were highest among dogs of middle age. Younger dogs fared more poorly probably because of their general lack of experience. Motor abilities in dogs as in humans deteriorate with age. Humans between the age of 20 and 39 years experience a similar peak in sensorimotor abilities,” says Wallis.   

Dogs also go through a difficult phase during adolescence (1-2 years) which affects their ability to pay attention. This phase of hormonal change may be compared to puberty in Man. Therefore, young dogs occasionally reacted with some delay to the clicker test. However, Wallis found that adolescent dogs improved their performance more rapidly than other age groups after several repetitions of the clicker test. In other words, the learning curve was found to be steepest in puberty. “Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability” says Wallis.

Source: Vetmeduni media release

The 5 types of dog walker

A new study in the International Journal of Environment and Waste Management discusses the environmental, health and safety issues of dog walking and, in particular, scooping the poop.

Please Clean UpChristopher Lowe of the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) and colleagues hoped to determine what factors influence dog walker behaviour and how those who do not do the right thing might be persuaded to take charge of their dog mess.

The team suggests that there are five types of dog walker from the most to the least socially and environmentally responsible:

  • Proud to pick up – happy to be seen carrying dog waste, will pick up in all locations and take it home if no bins are available
  • It is the right thing to do – will pick up in public places but will seek to dispose of the waste as soon as it is practical; often embarrassed to be seen carrying bagged waste
  • I have done my job – if there is no bin available will leave the bagged waste to be dealt with by someone else
  • Only if I have to – will only pick up in the presence of other people – likely to discard when no one is looking
  • Disengaged – will not pick up in any situation even if they are aware of the environmental consequences of their actions

Dog faeces are not only as unpleasant as any animal waste, they can also carry parasitic diseases that have health impacts on people and animals that come into contact with them. For instance, they might transmit toxocariasis, via the larvae (immature worms) of the dog roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause blindness, asthma and neurological problems in those affected. Dog faeces from animals that eat raw meat and bones are also suspected of causing neosporosis in cattle. The researchers also point out that the presence of dog faeces in country parks, walks and other recreational areas can deter visitors and so have a local economic impact in those areas.

The team’s final thoughts:  The issue of getting dog walkers to do the right thing is both complex and emotive….more research is needed.

Source:  AlphaGalileo media statement

Scent of my human

The functional MRI research team led by Gregory Berns have done it again.  In research published in the journal Behavioural Processes, they show that an area of the canine brain associated with reward responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than it does to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

Kady, a lab involved in the study, shown training for the experiment in a mock-up fMRI scanner.  Photo by Helen Berns

Kady, a lab involved in the study, shown training for the experiment in a mock-up fMRI scanner. Photo by Helen Berns

“In our experiment, the scent donors were not physically present. That means the canine brain responses were being triggered by something distant in space and time. It shows that dogs’ brains have these mental representations of us that persist when we’re not there.”

When humans smell the perfume or cologne of someone they love, they may have an immediate, emotional reaction that’s not necessarily cognitive, Berns notes. “Our experiment may be showing the same process in dogs. But since dogs are so much more olfactory than humans, their responses would likely be even more powerful than the ones we might have.”

The experiment involved 12 dogs of various breeds. The animals had all undergone training to hold perfectly still while undergoing an fMRI scan. As they were being scanned, the subjects were presented with five different scents that had been collected on sterile gauze pads that morning and sealed in Mylar envelopes. The scent samples came from the subject itself, a dog the subject had never met, a dog that lived in the subject’s household, a human the dog had never met, and a human that lived in the subject’s household.

The familiar human scent samples were taken from someone else from the house other than the handlers during the experiment, so that none of the scent donors were physically present.

The dog scents were swabbed from the rear/genital area and the human scents were taken from armpits.

The results showed that all five scents elicited a similar response in parts of the dogs’ brains involved in detecting smells, the olfactory bulb and peduncle. The caudate responses, however, were significantly stronger for the scents of familiar humans, followed by that of familiar dogs.

“The stronger caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate the familiar human scent from the others, they had a positive association with it,” Berns says. “While we might expect that dogs should be highly tuned to the smell of other dogs, it seems that the ‘reward response’ is reserved for their humans. Whether this is based on food, play, innate genetic predisposition or something else remains an area for future investigation.”

An interesting twist: The dogs in the experiment that had received training as service/therapy dogs showed greater caudate activation for the scent of a familiar human compared with the other dogs. It is unclear whether this difference was due to genetics or had simply been fostered through the service/therapy training.

“We plan to do further research to determine whether we can use brain-imaging techniques to better identify dogs that are optimal to serve as companion animals for the disabled,” Berns says.

The training of service dogs is time-consuming and expensive, he says, and only about one-third of the animals that begin the process successfully complete it. Meanwhile, the waiting list for service dogs is long, and includes many wounded veterans.

“In addition to serving as companion animals for wounded veterans, dogs play many important roles in military operations,” Berns says. “By understanding how dogs’ brains work, we hope to find better methods to select and train them for these roles.”

Source:  Emory University media release

Read my other blogs about functional MRI research:

 

 

How dogs detect explosives

Photo courtesy of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Photo courtesy of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

A research team at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has helped determine the science behind how dogs locate explosives such as Composition C-4 (a plastic explosive used by the U.S. military). The study found the dogs react best to the actual explosive, calling into question the use of products designed to mimic the odor of C-4 for training purposes.

These findings are the culmination of a four-year contract funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

“Appropriately, dogs that are trained to find real explosives are going to find real explosives and not much else,” said John Goodpaster, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology and director for the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program in the School of Science at IUPUI.

The effectiveness of trained detector dogs is well established, but the study sought to determine which chemical compounds cause a dog to recognize a particular explosive and alert to it. Previous studies have suggested that certain non-explosive chemicals emitted by Composition C-4 cause dogs to alert, and that these specific chemicals could be used as mimic substances to train the dogs in place of real explosives.

The research team discovered that the non-explosive chemicals given off by C-4 mimics also are present in a variety of everyday plastic objects. Objects tested included PVC pipes, electrical tape, movie tickets, a plastic grocery bag and plastic food wrapping. Several of the tested items emitted appreciable levels of a mimic compound recommended by some vendors for training dogs.

The second phase exposed 33 trained canines from the DOD, Department of Justice, Amtrak and other agencies to these vapors to see if the dogs would respond. The field trials demonstrated that the dogs failed to respond in any significant way to specific odor compounds found in C-4. The results indicate that if the dogs are trained on the full scent, they will only detect real explosives.

The study findings have been published in the March 2014 edition of the journal Forensic Science International.

Source:  IUPUI media release

How dogs were trained for functional MRI research

I’m an absolute advocate for positive reinforcement training.  Here’s how Professor Gregory Berns and his research team trained dogs to remain still in a noisy MRI scanner.

You can also read my other blogs about functional MRI research and dogs:

 

Understanding what is higher value

Researchers have now proven what dog trainers have known for some time: dogs have a sense of quality when it comes to treats and they will seek out the higher value ones.

Kristina Pattison and Thomas Zentall of the University of Kentucky tested the principle by feeding baby carrots and string cheese to ten dogs of various breeds

Dog eating cheeseThe research was conducted on dogs that would willingly eat cheese and baby carrots when offered, but showed a preference for the cheese. However, when given a choice between one slice of cheese, or the cheese together with a piece of carrot, nine of the ten dogs chose the cheese alone. That is, they chose less food over more food.

People, for instance, tend to place greater value on a set of six baseball cards that are in perfect condition, than on the same set of six perfect cards together with three more cards in fair condition.

In cases where rapid decisions must be made, quick solution-driven heuristics such as the “less is more” effect may come in handy. For instance, it is helpful when members of the same species, such as a pack of dogs, feed together. The one that hesitates may lose food to faster-choosing competitors.

But the fact that one in ten dogs did choose the cheese-and-carrot combination suggests that levels of motivation may play a role in this effect. The outlier dog, for instance, had a history of living in shelters and fending for himself.

Source:  Springer media release

Dogs’ brains respond to human voices

Yet more research on how dogs’ brains work.  This time from a research team at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and published in the journal Current Biology.

Using functional MRI, the team could see where blood flowed in the brains of a group of 11 dogs.  The dogs had been specially trained using positive reinforcement techniques to lie still in the MRI scanner for six minutes.

A dog lies still in the fMRI scanner, wearing earphones to pipe in sounds as part of the study. (Photo by Eniko Kubinyi)

A dog lies still in the fMRI scanner, wearing earphones to pipe in sounds as part of the study. (Photo by Eniko Kubinyi)

which tracks blood flow to various areas of the brain, a sign of increased activity—to peer inside the minds of dogs. One of a handful of labs groups worldwide that’s using the technology in this way, they’ve used positive reinforcement training to get a study group of 11 dogs to voluntarily enter the fMRI scanner and stay perfectly still for minutes at a tRead more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-dog-can-tell-from-your-voice-if-youre-happy-or-sad-180949807/#DXcpTX0jfeQGFWVY.99
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The team played each dog a series of over 200 sounds across several MRI sessions.  The sounds included human voices, dog vocalizations, and meaningless noises.

When the results were compared, it showed that the dogs’ brains appear to have a dedicated area that displays more activity in response to voices (whether human speech or dogs barking) than other meaningless noises (such as glass breaking).

More importantly, that part of the brain shows more activity upon hearing an emotionally positive sound, as compared to a negative one.  This means that our dogs are able to distinguish a tone of voice that is positive from one that is negative. (Something many of us probably already knew)

The voice areas of the dogs’ brains is similar to that found in humans, suggesting that our species evolved from a common ancestor almost 100 million years ago, enabling a high degree of communication and social structure.

“We know that dogs don’t have language, per se, but we see now that dogs have very similar mechanisms to process social information as humans,” Attila Andics, lead researcher on the study says. “It makes us wonder what aspects of so-called ‘language skills’ are not so human-specific after all, but are also there in other species. That’s something we plan to look at.”

Source:  Smithsonian Magazine

Here are my earlier blogs about functional MRI studies on dogs:

they show that the dogs’ brains appear to have a dedicated area that displays more activity in response to voices (whether human speech or dogs barking) than other meaningless noises (such as glass breaking), and that part of this area shows more activity upon hearing an emotionally positive sound, as compared to a negative one.Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-dog-can-tell-from-your-voice-if-youre-happy-or-sad-180949807/#DXcpTX0jfeQGFWVY.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
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Dog agility: Do emotions get in the way of a top performance?

dog agility

Researchers have debated human right brain/left brain theory for years.  New research has looked into whether lateralisation of brain function affects dogs.

The study involved 19 dogs and trainers.  The study subjects went through a series of tests, firstly paw preference tests whilst offering food followed by agility tests, using A-frames, jumps and weave poles.  Throughout the tests, the dogs received trainer stimuli from both the right and left sides.

Trainers also completed questionnaires giving more information about the dog’s temperament.  Results showed a correlation between paw preference and agility.  Dogs with stronger paw preferences seemed more predisposed to training, less distracted and had greater agility.

When trainers presented on the left, dogs were more agitated, emotional, and performances deteriorated.  A dog’s left visual field stimulates the right brain hemisphere.

Overall the results revealed that behavioural lateralisation correlates with
performance of agility-trained dogs.  These results support previous evidence that lateralisation in dogs can directly affect visually guided motor
responses.

The results have practical implications for personnel involved in
the selection of dogs trained specifically for agility competitions and for the
development of new training techniques.

You can read the full article on this research here.

 Read my previous blogs about paw preference in dogs:

·        Behaviour in dogs depends on paw preference

·         Is your dog right-pawed or left-pawed?