Category Archives: Dogs

Puppies are Wired to Communicate With People, Study Shows

Researchers evaluated social communication skills in 375 budding service dogs with Canine Companions. Courtesy of Canine Companions

Dogs may have earned the title “man’s best friend” because of how good they are at interacting with people. Those social skills may be present shortly after birth rather than learned, a new study by University of Arizona researchers suggests.

Published in the journal Current Biology, the study also finds that genetics may help explain why some dogs perform better than others on social tasks such as following pointing gestures.

“There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies – sort of like humans – are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways,” said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Bray has spent the last decade conducting research with dogs in collaboration with California-based Canine Companions, a service dog organization serving clients with physical disabilities. She and her colleagues hope to better understand how dogs think and solve problems, which could have implications for identifying dogs that would make good service animals.

To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, Bray and her collaborators looked at how 375 of the organization’s 8-week-old budding service dogs, which had little previous one-on-one interaction with humans, performed on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication skills.

Because the researchers knew each puppy’s pedigree – and therefore how related they were to one another – they were also able to look at whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ abilities. Genetics explained more than 40% of the variation in puppies’ abilities to follow human pointing gestures, as well as variation in how long they engaged in eye contact with humans during a task designed to measure their interest in people.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

At the time of the study, the puppies were still living with their littermates and had not yet been sent to live with a volunteer puppy raiser. Therefore, their interactions with humans had been limited, making it unlikely that the behaviors were learned, Bray said.

The researchers engaged the puppies in four different tasks. In one task, an experimenter hid a treat beneath one of two overturned cups and pointed to it to see if the puppy could follow the gesture. To ensure that the pups weren’t just following their noses, a treat was also taped to the inside of both cups. In another version of the task, puppies watched as the researchers placed a yellow block next to the correct cup, instead of pointing, to indicate where the puppy should look for the food.

The other two tasks were designed to observe puppies’ propensity to look at human faces. In one task, the researchers spoke to the puppies in “dog-directed speech,” reciting a script in the sort of high-pitched voice people sometimes use when talking to a baby. They then measured how long the puppy held a gaze with the human. In the final task – a so-called “unsolvable task” – researchers sealed a treat inside a closed container and presented it to the puppy, then measured how often the puppy looked to the human for help opening the container.

While many of the puppies were responsive to humans’ physical and verbal cues, very few looked to humans for help with the unsolvable task. That suggests that while puppies may be born knowing how to respond to human-initiated communication, the ability to initiate communication on their own may come later.   

“In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves. Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help,” Bray said. “In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn’t really seem to be part of their repertoire yet.”

In many ways, that mirrors what we see in human children’s development, Bray said.

“If you think about language learning, children can understand what we’re saying to them before they can physically produce the words,” she said. “It’s potentially a similar story with puppies; they are understanding what is being socially conveyed to them, but the production of it on their end is probably going to take a little bit longer, developmentally.”

MacLean said the next step will be to see if researchers can identify the specific genes that may contribute to dogs’ capacity to communicate with humans.

“We’ve done some previous studies that show that dogs who tend to be successful as service dogs respond to people in different ways than dogs who aren’t successful,” MacLean said. “If you could identify a potential genetic basis for these traits, you might be able to predict, even before the puppy is born, if they are part of a litter that would be good service dog candidates, because they have the right genetic background. It’s a long way down the road, but there is potential to start applying this.”

Source: University of Arizona

Giving back, paying forward

Most small businesses like mine are approached on a regular basis to donate to fundraisers for animal welfare groups and charities. Sometimes, we have relationships with these groups and other times, they’ve never done business with us and we have to ascertain whether it is within our marketing budget to donate something and also whether that group shares our values.

There are many ways besides fundraisers that businesses can give back to their community.

In my business, I offer a loyalty card. After every five sessions of massage and physical therapy, the owner earns a free bag of our dog treats. Owners have the option, however, to donate the cost of their bag to a registered animal charity of their choice, although most leave the choice up to me. I rotate the donations.

Over the years, the business has given to:

Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue

Dogwatch Sanctuary Trust

Greyhounds as Pets

Pet Refuge

….to name a few.

Last week, I also offered to give massage to Liam, the assistance dog to young Sam Ward. Sam’s story appeared in the local paper because the little boy is in the final stages of aggressive Duchenne muscular dystrophy and his family are raising funds so they can fulfill his bucket list. Rather than giving back, I consider this my time to pay it forward, thanking those who have supported the business so I can give my time to others in need.

If you would like to donate to help Sam complete his bucket list, you can donate via Givealittle.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Long-term stress in dogs linked to the owner-dog relationship

The relationship a dog has with its owner is related to its stress level. This is the conclusion of a study from Linköping University. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also suggest that the link between stress and the owner’s personality traits differs between dog breeds.

Researchers at Linköping University study how the interaction between dog and human is connected to the wellbeing of the animal. Photo credit: Nataba

Researchers at Linköping University have investigated whether the stress levels of dogs are affected by the people they live with. Stress levels for the past several months can be determined in both dogs and humans by measuring the levels of stress hormone stored in hairs as they grow.

The researchers have collected hair from both dogs and owners, and measured levels of cortisol, the most important stress hormone, in them. They were interested in whether there are differences between different dog breeds. Breeding has led to the genetic selection of different breeds for different tasks. The study included 18 dogs from breeds that have been bred for independent hunting, such as the Swedish elkhound, the Norwegian elkhound, and the dachshund. A second group included dogs from ancient breeds that are genetically more closely related to the wolf than other breeds. This group comprised 24 dogs from breeds such as the shiba inu, the basenji, and the Siberian husky. All owners completed questionnaires about their own personality and that of their dog. They also answered questions about their relationship with their dog, including such matters as how the owner experienced the interaction with the dog, degree of emotional attachment to the dog, and the extent to which owning a dog gave rise to problems.

“The results showed that the owner’s personality affected the stress level in hunting dogs, but interestingly enough not in the ancient dogs. In addition, the relationship between the dog and the owner affected the stress level of the dogs. This was the case for both types, but the result was less marked for the ancient dogs”, says Lina Roth, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology (IFM).

In a previous study, the same researchers had seen that dogs from herding breeds, which have been genetically selected for their ability to collaborate with humans, mirror the long-term stress level of their owner. When the researchers now added information about the relationship of the herding dogs to their owner, it became clear that the relationship was significant for the long-term stress levels also in these dogs.

The researchers conclude that long-term stress is influenced least strongly by the owner and their relationship to the dog for ancient breeds. The hunting dogs show clear links between both the personality of the owner and their relationship to the dog, but it is only herding dogs that demonstrate the unique synchronisation with the long-term stress in the owner.

“We believe that the synchronisation of stress is a consequence of breeding the herding dogs for collaboration with people, while the relationship to the owner and the owner’s personality are important parameters that influence the synchronisation of stress levels”, says Lina Roth.

Parts of the study have received financial support from the Sveland Foundation.

Translation by George Farrants.

The article: Long term stress in dogs is related to the human-dog relationship and personality traits”, Amanda Höglin, Enya Van Poucke, Rebecca Katajamaa, Per Jensen, Elvar Theodorsson and Lina S. V. Roth, (2021), Scientific Reports, published online 21 April 2021, doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-88201-y

Source: Linköping University

Doggy quote of the month for June

“Dogs can tell when your heart is open – can tell when you’re dignifying them with your trust. Dogs smell trust.”

-poet Stephen Kuusisto, in his book Have Dog, Will Travel

Have Dog, Will Travel – a book review

Subtitled A Poet’s Journey, this book is a memoir about how Stephen Kuusisto’s first guide dog changed his life.

Born legally blind in the 1950s, Stephen’s family taught him to hide his disability. His alcoholic mother was particularly harsh and so the young Stephen would read books by pressing them right up against his nose and even rode a bike by teaching himself the layout of the local roads (which sounded to me like a particularly hazardous activity). A poet, at age 38 he was employed as a lecturer and made his away around his small college town because he had memorized the routes he needed to take.

Then he was made redundant and was disheartened and depressed when a job coach suggested that he could get a job as a pieceworker in an assembly line. Recognising that if he wanted more, he would need to broaden his world, Stephen registered with Guiding Eyes and started on a new journey with Corky the Labrador by his side.

This book recounts Stephen’s decision to get a guide dog. Under Corky’s guidance, Stephen was able to find an independence he had never known and was employed by Guiding Eyes to speak to audiences about the organisation’s activities and its value to those people with limited or no vision.

I liked this book; it’s a testament to the human-animal bond and the giving nature of dogs. I prefer hard copy books to e-reading and so this book will reside with my growing collection of dog books on the shelf in my lounge.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Petting therapy dogs enhances thinking skills of stressed students

For college students under pressure, a dog may be the best stress fighter around.

Programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved stressed-out students’ thinking and planning skills more effectively than programs that included traditional stress-management information, according to new Washington State University research.

Enzo, a Labrador retriever and experienced therapy dog, enjoys some attention and relaxation during the WSU stress management study with students.

The study was published on May 12, 2021 in the journal AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. The paper demonstrated that stressed students still exhibited these cognitive skills improvements up to six weeks after completion of the four-week-long program.

“It’s a really powerful finding,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues. This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

The researchers measured executive functioning in the 309 students involved in the study. Executive function is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, memorize: “all the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college,” Pendry said.

Pendry conducted this study as a follow up to previous work, which found that petting animals for just 10 minutes had physiological impacts, reducing students’ stress in the short-term.

In the three-year study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interaction and evidenced-based academic stress management. The dogs and volunteer handlers were provided through Palouse Paws, a local affiliate of Pet Partners, a national organization with over 10,000 therapy teams.

“The results were very strong,” Pendry said. “We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.”

Many universities, including WSU, have provided academic stress management programs and workshops for many years. These are traditionally very similar to college classes, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows and take notes. They’re often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” Pendry said. “Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling. It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.”

Human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. Through petting animals, they are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning, Pendry said.

“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” she said.

Animal sessions aren’t just about changing behavior; they help students engage in positive thoughts and actions.

“You can’t learn math just by being chill,” Pendry said. “But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful. Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning.”

The study was supported by a grant through the WALTHAM Human–Animal Interaction Collaborative Research Program.

Source: Washington State University

Majority of Americans trust their pet’s judgement more than anyone else when it comes to romantic partners

Two in every three Americans will end their relationship if their pet doesn’t approve, according to new research.

A survey of 2,000 single and dating Americans found that 67% of those in the dating scene feel this way, while 68% said their pet has the final say in who they date.

The results showed that most Americans value their furry friend’s opinion, as 71% of respondents trust their pet’s judgment over their own. Likewise, 68% trust their pets more than their friends and 67% trust them more than their own family.

In a study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Zesty Paws, results found that almost seven in 10 Americans (69%) have dated someone their pet didn’t like.

Luckily, 69% of those who have had their pets reject their dates said their pets liked their next partner.

Sixty-seven percent can thank their pet for scoring the first date with a potential partner or their current partner. But if the first date and meeting of the pet doesn’t go well, 68% said there’s no chance of a second date.

Respondents gave varying reasons for their pet’s distaste in their current or ex-partner including not liking their scent, height or lack of attention.

The most obvious signs a pet doesn’t like potential partners include not going near them (47%), clawing/biting them (41%) and growling/hissing at them (40%).

In order to be liked by a pet, respondents said their partner needs to be friendly (44%), give behind-the-ear scratches (40%) and give treats (38%).

“Pets play an important role in relationships and can help guide their pet parents in the right direction as they look to meet their match,” said Steve Ball, CEO of Zesty Paws. “As a Bestie always does, fur babies use their intuition to check out their parent’s potential date and make sure they “approve”. Their deep emotional connection to their human Bestie can, as the data shows, drive their dating decision making.”

Praises and rewards are in order from nearly two-thirds of pet owners (63%) since they say their pet saved them from a bad or awkward date by showing signs they don’t like that particular person.

Thirty-one percent of pet owners show their appreciation for their pet by prioritizing getting them the highest-rated treats and only 21% say that the price may matter.

This just shows how highly people regard their pets. Continuing the trend, more than two-thirds (69%) said it’s worse having their pet mad at them than their partner being mad at them.

And if a potential partner is rude towards a pet, 64% of respondents said they could never forgive them.

Pet parents will go to any lengths to make sure their wing-pets are there for them. When looking for pet food, treats and supplements, respondents said they often look to recommendations from others who have the same breed of pet (45%), vet recommendations (42%) and even the recommendations from family and friends (42%).

“Our pets make a huge positive impact in our lives and relationships,” said Ball. “Their unique quirks and unconditional love you can’t find anywhere else, makes it easy and natural for us to trust our furry besties to play a big part in every area of our lives.”

TOP 5 WAYS PETS SHOW THEY LIKE SOMEONE

  1. Wagging tail/purring                                   46%
  2. Sharing their favorite toy                            45%
  3. Rubbing up against                                    39%
  4. Allows petting                                             31%

HOW PEOPLE WIN A PET’S APPROVAL

  1. Be friendly                                                   44%
  2. Give behind-the-ear scratches                   40%
  3. Give treats                                                  38%
  4. Give pets                                                     38%
  5. Walk them                                                   31%

Source: SWNS Digital

Dogs’ ag­gress­ive be­ha­viour to­wards humans is of­ten caused by fear

A study encompassing some 9,000 dogs conducted at the University of Helsinki demonstrated that fearfulness, age, breed, the company of other members of the same species and the owner’s previous experience of dogs were associated with aggressive behaviour towards humans. The findings can potentially provide tools for understanding and preventing aggressive behaviour.

Photo by Shutterstock

Aggressive behaviour in dogs can include growling, barking, snapping and biting. These gestures are part of normal canine communication, and they also occur in non-aggressive situations, such as during play. However, aggressive behaviour can be excessive, making the dog a health threat to both humans and other animals.

“Understanding the factors underlying aggressive behaviour is important. In what kinds of circumstances does aggressive behaviour occur and what is the dog’s motive for such behaviour? In normal family dogs, aggressive behaviour is often unwanted, while some dogs with official duties are expected to have the capacity for aggressiveness. At the same time, aggressiveness can be caused by welfare issues, such as chronic pain,” says doctoral researcher Salla Mikkola from the University of Helsinki.

The canine gene research group active at the University of Helsinki surveyed connections between aggressive behaviour and several potential risk factors with the help of a dataset encompassing more than 9,000 dogs, a sample from a larger dataset from a behavioural survey dataset of nearly 14,000 dogs. The study investigated aggressiveness towards both dog owners and unfamiliar human beings. Dogs were classified as aggressive if they growled often and/or had attempted to snap at or bite a human at least occasionally in the situations described in the survey.

“Dogs’ fearfulness had a strong link to aggressive behaviour, with fearful dogs many times more likely to behave aggressively. Moreover, older dogs were more likely to behave aggressively than younger ones. One of the potential reasons behind this can be pain caused by a disease. Impairment of the senses can contribute to making it more difficult to notice people approaching, and dogs’ responses to sudden situations can be aggressive,” Mikkola adds.

Small dogs are more likely to behave aggressively than mid-sized and large dogs, but their aggressive behaviour is not necessarily considered as threatening as that of large dogs. Consequently, their behaviour is not addressed. In addition, the study found that male dogs were more aggressive than females. However, sterilisation had no effect on aggressive behaviour.

The first dogs of dog owners were more likely to behave aggressively compared to dogs whose owners had previous experience of dogs. The study also indicated that dogs that spend time in the company of other dogs behave less aggressively than dogs that live without other dogs in the household. While this phenomenon has been observed in prior research, the causality remains unclear.

“In the case of dogs prone to aggressive behaviour in the first instance, owners may not necessarily wish to take a risk of conflicts with another dog,” Mikkola muses.

Sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­en­ces in ag­gress­ive be­ha­viour between breeds

Differences in the aggressiveness of various dog breeds can point to a genetic cause.

“In our dataset, the Long-Haired Collie, Poodle (Toy, Miniature and Medium) and Miniature Schnauzer were the most aggressive breeds. Previous studies have shown fearfulness in Long-Haired Collies, while the other two breeds have been found to express aggressive behaviour towards unfamiliar people. As expected, the popular breeds of Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever were at the other extreme. People who are considering getting a dog should familiarise themselves with the background and needs of the breed. As for breeders, they should also pay attention to the character of dam candidates, since both fearfulness and aggressive behaviour are inherited,” says Professor Hannes Lohi from the University of Helsinki.

This study is part of a wider Academy of Finland project that investigates the epidemiology of canine behaviour, as well as related environmental and genetic factors and metabolic changes. Professor Hannes Lohi’s research group conducts research at the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Medicine, University of Helsinki, as well as the Folkhälsan Research Center. This study was supported, among others, by the Academy of Finland (308887), the European Research Council (Starting Grant), the ERA-NET NEURON funding platform and the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

Ori­ginal art­icle:

Salla Mikkola, Milla Salonen, Jenni Puurunen, Emma Hakanen, Sini Sulkama, César Araujo, Hannes Lohi. Aggressive behaviour is affected by demographic, environmental and behavioural factors in purebred dogs. Scientific Reports. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88793-5

Source: University of Helsinki

Pets at work

Pet retailer Petco has created some great graphics to support the benefits of pets in the workplace Have you seen them yet?

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Doggy quote of the month for May

“No man can fully understand the meaning of love unless he’s owned by a dog. ”
― Gene Hill, author

Izzy rides along to visit with customers