Category Archives: research

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

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

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

Mystery canine illness identified in UK

An outbreak of vomiting among dogs has been traced back to a type of animal coronavirus by researchers.

Vets were asked for help in collecting data

Vets across the country began reporting cases of acute onset prolific vomiting in 2019/20.

The Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network (SAVSNet) at the University of Liverpool asked vets for help in collecting data, with 1,258 case questionnaires from vets and owners plus 95 clinical samples from 71 animals.

Based on this data, a team from the universities of Liverpool, Lancaster, Manchester and Bristol identified the outbreak as most likely to be a variant of canine enteric coronavirus (CeCoV).

Canine coronavirus only affects dogs and is not the same as Sars Cov2 which causes Covid in humans. Researchers found no evidence of any similar illness in people.

The work is published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The team are working on a project funded by the Dogs Trust called SAVSNet-Agile which aims to develop a national surveillance system for canine health.

Dr Barry Rowlingson from Lancaster University said: “We’ve developed complex statistical models to look for disease outbreaks. Being able to rapidly detect increased incidence, without triggering a false alarm from a natural random variation, is the key problem here. Early detection is crucial to early treatment and enhanced monitoring.

“The SAVSNet Agile project aims to feed information back to local veterinary practices so they can be alert to any new outbreaks.”

Vets began to suspect an infectious cause because vomiting was more frequent than is typical for canine gastroenteritis.

SAVSNet researchers found a specific and significant increase in the number of dogs recorded as exhibiting gastroenteric signs between late December 2019 and March 2020.

As well as reusing health records, SAVSNet also collected questionnaire data from vets and owners caring for affected animals, as well as healthy controls. This showed male dogs were more at risk than females.

Charlotte Appleton, SAVSNet Agile PhD Student, said: “Obtaining such important results at an early stage of my PhD is a wonderful achievement and will hopefully provide a pathway of higher visibility into the health of domestic animals.”

Source: Lancaster University

With impressive accuracy, dogs can sniff out coronavirus

Many long for a return to a post-pandemic “normal,” which, for some, may entail concerts, travel, and large gatherings. But how to keep safe amid these potential public health risks?

One possibility, according to a new study, is dogs. A proof-of-concept investigation published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that specially trained detection dogs can sniff out COVID-19-positive samples with 96% accuracy.

“This is not a simple thing we’re asking the dogs to do,” says Cynthia Otto, senior author on the work and director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Working Dog Center. “Dogs have to be specific about detecting the odor of the infection, but they also have to generalize across the background odors of different people: men and women, adults and children, people of different ethnicities and geographies.”

In this initial study, researchers found the dogs could do that, but training must proceed with great care and, ideally, with many samples. The findings are feeding into another investigation that Otto and colleagues have dubbed “the T-shirt study,” in which dogs are being trained to discriminate between the odors of COVID-positive, -negative, and -vaccinated individuals based on the volatile organic compounds they leave on a T-shirt worn overnight.

“We are collecting many more samples in that study—hundreds or more—than we did in this first one, and are hopeful that will get the dogs closer to what they might encounter in a community setting,” Otto says.

Through the Working Dog Center, she and colleagues have had years of experience training medical-detection dogs, including those that can identify ovarian cancer. When the pandemic arrived, they leveraged that expertise to design a coronavirus detection study.

Collaborators Ian Frank from the Perelman School of Medicine and Audrey Odom John from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia provided SARS-CoV-2-positive samples from adult and pediatric patients, as well as samples from patients who had tested negative to serve as experimental controls. Otto worked closely with coronavirus expert Susan Weiss of Penn Medicine to process some of the samples in Penn’s Biosafety Level 2+ laboratory to inactivate the virus so they would be safe for the dogs to sniff.

Because of workplace shutdowns due to the pandemic, instead of working with dogs at Penn Vet, the researchers partnered with Pat Nolan, a trainer with a facility in Maryland.

Eight Labrador retrievers and a Belgian Malinois that had not done medical-detection work before were used in the study. First the researchers trained them to recognize a distinctive scent, a synthetic substance known as universal detection compound (UDC). They used a “scent wheel” in which each of 12 ports is loaded with a different sample and rewarded the dog when it responded to the port containing UDC.

When the dogs consistently responded to the UDC scent, the team began training them to respond to urine samples from SARS-CoV-2 positive patients and discern positive from negative samples. The negative samples were subjected to the same inactivation treatment—either heat inactivation or detergent inactivation—as the positive samples.

Processing the results with assistance from Penn criminologist and statistician Richard Berk, the team found that after three weeks of training all nine dogs were able to readily identify SARS-CoV-2 positive samples, with 96% accuracy on average. Their sensitivity, or ability to avoid false negatives, however, was lower, in part, the researchers believe, because of the stringent criteria of the study: If the dogs walked by a port containing a positive sample even once without responding, that was labeled a “miss.”

The researchers ran into many complicating factors in their study, such as the tendency of the dogs to discriminate between the actual patients, rather than between their SARS-CoV-2 infection status. The dogs were also thrown off by a sample from a patient that tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 but who had recently recovered from COVID-19.

“The dogs kept responding to that sample, and we kept telling them no,” Otto says. “But obviously there was still something in the patient’s sample that the dogs were keying in on.”

Major lessons learned from the study, besides confirming that there is a SARS-CoV-2 odor that dogs can detect, were that future training should entail large numbers of diverse samples and that dogs should not be trained repeatedly on the samples from any single individual.

“That’s something we can carry forward not only in our COVID training but in our cancer work and any other medical detection efforts we do,” says Otto. “We want to make sure that we have all the steps in place to ensure quality, reproducibility, validity, and safety for when we operationalize our dogs and have them start screening in community settings.”

Cynthia M. Otto is a professor of working dog sciences & sports medicine and director of the Working Dog Center in the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Source: Penn Today

Archaeologists uncover earliest evidence of domesticated dogs in Arabian Peninsula

Dog bones dated between circa 4200 and 4000 BCE discovered

A team of archaeologists in north-west the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has uncovered the earliest evidence of dog domestication by the region’s ancient inhabitants.

An AlUla rock art panel shows two dogs hunting an ibex, surrounded by cattle. The weathering patterns and superimpositions visible on this panel indicate a late Neolithic age for the engravings, within the date range of the burials at the recently excavated burial sites. (PRNewsfoto/Royal Commission for AlUla for Saudi Arabia)

The discovery came from one of the projects in the large-scale archaeological surveys and excavations of the region commissioned by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU).

The researchers found the dog’s bones in a burial site that is one of the earliest monumental tombs identified in the Arabian Peninsula, roughly contemporary with such tombs already dated further north in the Levant.

Evidence shows the earliest use of the tomb was circa 4300 BCE and received burials for at least 600 years during the Neolithic-Chalcolithic era – an indication that the inhabitants may have had a shared memory of people, places and the connection between them.

“What we are finding will revolutionize how we view periods like the Neolithic in the Middle East. To have that kind of memory, that people may have known for hundreds of years where their kin were buried – that’s unheard of in this period in this region,” said Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (AAKSAU) – AlUla project.

“AlUla is at a point where we’re going to begin to realize how important it was to the development of mankind across the Middle East,” said the AAKSAU director, Hugh Thomas.

This is the earliest evidence of a domesticated dog in the Arabian Peninsula by a margin of circa 1,000 years.

The findings are published in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

The project team, with Saudi and international members, focused its efforts on two above-ground burial sites dating to the 5th and 4th millennia BCE and located 130 kilometers apart, one in volcanic uplands and the other in arid badlands. The sites were above ground, which is unique for that period of Arabian history, and were positioned for maximum visibility.

The research team detected the sites by using satellite imagery and then by aerial photography from a helicopter. Ground fieldwork began in late 2018.

It was in the volcanic uplands site that 26 fragments of a single dog’s bones were found, alongside with bones from 11 humans – six adults, an adolescent and four children.

The dog’s bones showed signs of arthritis, which suggests the animal lived with the humans into its middle or old age.

After assembling the bones, the team then had to determine that they were from a dog and not from a similar animal such as a desert wolf.

The team’s zoo archaeologist, Laura Strolin, was able to show it was indeed a dog by analyzing one bone in particular, from the animal’s left front leg. The breadth of this bone was 21.0 mm, which is in the range of other ancient Middle Eastern dogs. In comparison, the wolves of that time and place had a breadth of 24.7 to 26 mm for the same bone.

The dog’s bones were dated to between circa 4200 and 4000 BCE.

Rock art found in the region indicates that the Neolithic inhabitants used dogs when hunting ibex, and other animals.

The fieldwork uncovered other noteworthy artefacts, including a leaf-shaped mother-of-pearl pendant at the volcanic uplands site and a carnelian bead found at the arid badlands site.

The researchers expect more findings in future as a result of the massive survey from the air and on the ground, and multiple targeted excavations in the AlUla region undertaken by the AAKSAU and other teams, which are operating under the auspices of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). The AAKSAU team is led by researchers from the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia.

The researchers note that AlUla is a largely unexplored area located in a part of the world that has a fertile archaeological heritage of recognized global value.

“This article from RCU’s work at AlUla establishes benchmarks. There is much more to come as we reveal the depth and breadth of the area’s archaeological heritage,” said Rebecca Foote, Director of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Research for RCU.

Source: Taylor and Francis Group

Dogs Act Jealously Even When They Don’t See Their Rival

Past surveys have shown that more than 80% of dog owners report observing jealous behaviors from their dogs—vocalizations, agitated behavior, pulling on a leash—when they give attention to other dogs. New research published in the journal Psychological Science supports these observations and finds that dogs also exhibit jealous behaviors when they merely imagine that their owner is interacting with a potential rival, in this case, a highly realistic artificial dog.

“Research has supported what many dog owners firmly believe—dogs exhibit jealous behavior when their human companion interacts with a potential rival,” said Amalia Bastos with the University of Auckland and lead author on the paper. “We wanted to study this behavior more fully to determine if dogs could, like humans, mentally represent a situation that evoked jealousy.”

Dogs appear to be one of the few species that might display jealous behaviors in ways similar to a human child showing jealousy when their mother gives affection to another child. In humans, jealousy is closely linked with self-awareness, which is one reason animal-cognition researchers are so interested in studying jealousy and other secondary emotions in animals.

To test how and when dogs display jealous behavior, the researchers presented 18 dogs with situations where they could imagine a social interaction between their human companion and either a realistic fake dog or a fleece cylinder. The fake dog served as a potential rival for attention while the cylinder served as a control.

In the experiment, the dogs observed the fake-dog rival positioned next to their owner. A barrier was then placed between the dog and the potential rival obscuring them from view. Despite blocking the line of sight, the dogs forcefully attempted to reach their owners when they appeared to stroke the rival fake dog behind the barrier. In a repeat experiment using a fleece cylinder rather than a fake dog, the dogs pulled on the lead with far less force.

Through their study, Bastos and her colleagues found that dogs showed three human-like signatures of jealous behavior. Jealous behavior emerged only when their owner interacted with a perceived social rival and not an inanimate object; occurred as a consequence of that interaction and not due to a potential rival’s mere presence; and emerged even for an out-of-sight interaction between their owner and a social rival.

“These results support claims that dogs display jealous behavior. They also provide the first evidence that dogs can mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interactions,” said Bastos. “Previous studies confounded jealous behavior with play, interest, or aggression, because they never tested the dogs’ reactions to the owner and the social rival being present in the same room but not interacting.”

“There is still plenty of work to do to establish the extent of the similarities between the minds of humans and other animals, especially in terms of understanding the nature of nonhuman animals’ emotional experiences,” said Bastos. “It is too early to say whether dogs experience jealousy as we do, but it is now clear that they react to jealousy-inducing situations, even if these occur out-of-sight.”

# # #

Reference: Bastos, A. P. M., Neilands, P. D., Hassal, R. S., Lim, B. C., & Taylor A. H. (2021). Dogs mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interactions. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620979149

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Sniffing in the name of science

The lists of Earth’s endangered animals and plants are getting increasingly longer. But in order to stop this trend, we require more information. It is often difficult to find out exactly where the individual species can be found and how their populations are developing. According to a new overview study published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution by Dr Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and her colleagues, specially trained detection dogs can be indispensable in such cases. With the help of these dogs, the species sought can usually be found faster and more effectively than with other methods.

How many otters are there still in Germany? What habitats do threatened crested newts use on land? And do urban hedgehogs have to deal with different problems than their rural conspecifics? Anyone wishing to effectively protect a species should be able to answer such questions. But this is by no means easy. Many animals remain in hiding – even their droppings can be difficult to find. Thus, it is often difficult to know exactly whether and at what rate their stocks are shrinking or where the remaining survivors are. “We urgently need to know more about these species”, says Dr Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth of the UFZ. “But first we must find them”.

Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth with specially trained detection dog “Zammy”, a Border Collie.

Remote sensing with aerial and satellite images is useful for mapping open landscapes or detecting larger animals. But when it comes to densely overgrown areas and smaller, hidden species, experts often carry out the search themselves or work with cameras, hair traps, and similar tricks. Other techniques (e.g. analysing trace amounts of DNA) have also been attracting increasing interest worldwide. The use of specially trained detection dogs can also be particularly useful. After all, a dog’s sense of smell is virtually predestined to find the smallest traces of the target species. While humans have about six million olfactory receptors, a herding dog has more than 200 million – and a beagle even 300 million. This means that dogs can perceive an extremely wide range of odours, often in the tiniest concentrations. For example, they can easily find animal droppings in a forest or plants, mushrooms, and animals underground. 

At the UFZ, the detection dogs have already proven their abilities in several research projects. “In order to be able to better assess their potential, we wanted to know how detection dogs have previously been used around the world”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. Together with UFZ employee Wiebke Harms and Dr Anne Berger from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, she has evaluated 1220 publications documenting the use of such search dogs in more than 60 countries. “We were particularly interested in which breeds of dogs were used, which species they were supposed to track down, and how well they performed”, explains the researcher.

The longest experience with the detection dogs is in New Zealand, where dogs have been tracking threatened birds since around 1890. Since then, the idea has been implemented in many other regions, especially in North America and Europe. The studies analysed focused mainly on finding animals as well as their habitats and tracks. Dogs have been used to find more than 400 different animal species – most commonly mammals from the cat, dog, bear, and marten families. They have also been used to find birds and insects as well as 42 different plant species, 26 fungal species, and 6 bacterial species. These are not always endangered species. The dogs sometimes also sniff out pests such as bark beetles or invasive plants such as knotgrass and ragweed.

“In principle, you can train all dog breeds for such tasks”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. “But some of them may require more work than others”. Pinschers and Schnauzers, for example, are now more likely to be bred as companion dogs and are therefore less motivated to track down species. And terriers tend to immediately snatch their targets – which is, of course, not desirable. 

Pointers and setters, on the other hand, have been specially bred to find and point out game – but not to hunt it. This is why these breeds are often used in research and conservation projects in North America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia in order to detect ground-breeding birds such as ptarmigans and wood grouse. Retrievers and herding dogs also have qualities that make them good at tracking species. They are eager to learn, easy to motivate, enjoy working with people, and generally do not have a strong hunting instinct. That is why Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepherds are among the most popular detection dogs worldwide. 

Grimm-Seyfarth’s Border Collie Zammy, for example, learned as a puppy how to track down the droppings of otters. This is a valuable contribution to research because the droppings can be genetically analysed to find out which individual it comes from, how it is related to other conspecifics, and what it has eaten. However, even for experienced experts, these revealing traces are not so easy to find. Especially small and dark coloured droppings are easy to overlook. Dogs, on the other hand, sniff even the most unremarkable droppings without distinction. In an earlier UFZ study, they found four times as many droppings as human investigators alone. And the fact that Zammy is now also looking for crested newts makes his efforts even more rewarding.

According to the overview study, many other teams around the world have had similarly good experiences. In almost 90% of cases, the dogs worked much more effectively than other detection methods. Compared with camera traps, for example, they detected between 3.7 and 4.7 fold more black bears, pied martens, and bobcats. They are also often reach their destination particularly quickly. “They can find a single plant on a football field in a very short time”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. They are even able to discover underground parts of plants.

However, there are also cases where the use of detection dogs is not the method of choice. Rhinos, for example, leave their large piles of excrement clearly visible on paths so that humans can easily find them on their own. And animal species that know feral dogs as enemies are more likely to find (and fight) the detection dogs than to be found. “However, in most cases where the dogs did not perform so well, poor training is to blame”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. She believes that good training of the animal is the most important recipe for success for detection dogs. “If you select the right dog, know enough about the target species, and design the study accordingly, this can be an excellent detection method”. She and her colleagues are already planning further applications for the useful detection dogs. A new project that involves tracking down invasive plant species will soon be launched.

Publication: 
Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth, Wiebke Harms, Anne Berger: Detection dogs in nature conservation: A database on their worldwide deployment with a review on breeds used and their performance compared to other methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution (2020), DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13560. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/2041-210X.13560

Source: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)

Dogs play together to please us humans suggests new study

Sure, your dog plays with other pooches to have some fun and let off a little steam. But what if their decisions on when and how to play is largely based on making you happy?

Kobe (left) and Ian (right) play. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Mehrkam

New research published by a Monmouth University scientist suggests our dogs base their playful behaviors on what they believe their owners expect of them.

Lindsay Mehrkam, the director of Monmouth’s Human and Animal Wellness Collaboratory, conducted the research as part of her dissertation. The study was published in February in the journal Animal Cognition.

“The goal of the study was whether or not owner attention could promote play between dogs,” Mehrkam said.

The experiment involved 10 pairs of dogs who lived together with their owners. Each pair was filmed during three separate, 15-minute-long play sessions. Those sessions were subdivided so that five minutes would have the owner be present, attentive and encouraging play, then five minutes with the owner not paying attention, and close with five minutes of the owner not being in the room.

“We saw that overall as a group, the dogs played more when the owners paid attention to them, which isn’t terribly surprising,” Mehrkam said. “The things that made it interesting was trying to figure out the why.”

One thing the study doesn’t do, according to Mehrkam, is definitively say that dogs are only playing with each other if they think it makes their owners happy.

“If you look back at the research on play, it’s pretty well regarded that dog-dog play is a self-rewarding behavior,” she said.

Still, the effect of an owner’s presence is undeniable.

“There’s something about our attention that seems to indicate ‘this is an appropriate time to play’ or that may enrich the environment,” Mehrkam said.

The new research lays the groundwork for further study of dog psychology. Mehrkam said her team is looking into long-standing questions about the relationships between dogs and their owners, and more contemporary questions posed by life under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic — like if dogs can perceive a virtual audience, or if they’re made more anxious by an owner’s constant presence at home.

Source: NJ.com

Do Dogs Increase Your Attractiveness and Matches on Dating Apps?

Honest Paws, manufacturer of organic CBD products for pets, surveyed 600 U.S. singles seasoned in the art of online dating, to find out if dog ownership is the secret to success on dating apps and to uncover which apps are most ideal for meeting fellow dog lovers.

Do dogs improve your chances on dating apps? U.S. singles certainly think so. 70% of respondents, overall, and 72% of millennials think having a dog in their profile photos helps them get more matches, while 63% of respondents are more tempted to match with someone who has a dog in their profile. 

Samantha Ross, the editor at Romantific, offers a solid rationale for this:

“Men, in particular, can be seen as committed and trustworthy when they are seen with a pet. In some case studies, men with dogs are more likely to be approached as they are found to be charming and appealing. Having a pet also assures a potential partner that you are capable of taking care of another creature.”

In many cases, pets take on the role of wingman (or wing-woman) in addition to man’s best friend. According to survey results, 50% of singles have no issue using their dog as a ploy to meet someone they’re attracted to while out and about. Sometimes ditching the canned pick-up lines and leaving the ice-breaking to the dogs is your best bet for success – a real-life “meet-cute.” 

Tractive, a real-time GPS for pets, agrees, calling doggos our “fearless, filter-free socializers, who not only boost our happiness levels but encourage us to interact with new people.”

When asked which dog breeds singles love seeing most on dating app profile photos, a few lead the pack. German Shepherds, Pitbulls, Huskies, Labs, and Golden Retrievers were named favorites by the largest percentage of respondents.

Other beloved breeds like Chihuahuas, American Bulldogs, Pomeranians, and Poodles followed closely behind.

More respondents who are dog owners would rather quarantine with their dogs (55%) over a romantic partner (45%). Pandemic stress and countless more hours at home with significant others certainly exacerbate the willingness of couples to take some time apart. But overall, most dog parents can’t bear to be away from their pets for too long. 

Almost half of respondents say they would break up with someone they were dating if their dog did not like them, and a quarter of respondents even admit to staying in a relationship because they didn’t want to risk losing the dog – proof that the bond between humans and our canine partners runs deep. 

21% of Gen Z respondents and 24% of male respondents would even go as far as borrowing a friend’s dog for their dating profile photos – even though (eventually) they will be found out. And when they are, the outlook isn’t promising. 64% of respondents would cut ties with someone who lied about owning a dog on their dating app profile. 

Source: Honest Paws