Category Archives: research

Dogs can adopt the perspective of humans

Humans are able to interpret the behaviour of others by attributing mental states to them (and to themselves). By adopting the perspectives of other persons, they can assume their emotions, needs and intentions and react accordingly.

In the animal kingdom, the ability to attribute mental states (Theory of Mind) is a highly contentious issue. Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna could prove with a new test procedure that dogs are not only able to identify whether a human has an eye on a food source and, therefore, knows where the food has been hidden. They can also apply this knowledge in order to correctly interpret cues by humans and find food they cannot see themselves.

This perspective taking ability is an important component of social intelligence. It helps dogs to cope with the human environment. The results have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

 

The so-called Theory of Mind describes the ability in humans to understand mental states in conspecifics such as emotions, intentions, knowledge, beliefs and desires. This ability develops in humans within the first four or five years of life while it is usually denied in animals. Indications that animals can understand mental states or even states of knowledge of others have only been found in apes and corvids so far. Dogs have been tested several times, but the results were poor and contradictory.

With a new experimental approach, cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute could now provide solid evidence for dogs being able to adopt our perspective. By adopting the position of a human and following their gaze, dogs understand what the human could see and, consequently, know.

This ability to ascribe knowledge is only a component of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but an important one.

Identifying the right informant

The so-called Guesser-Knower paradigm is a standard test in research into the attribution of knowledge to others. This experiment involves two persons: a “Knower” who hides food, invisibly for the dog, in one of several food containers or knows where somebody else has hided it, and a “Guesser”. The Guesser has either not been in the room or covered her eyes during the hiding of the food. A non-transparent wall blocks the animals’ view of the food being hidden. After that, the two humans become informants by pointing to different food containers.

The Knower always points to the baited container and the Guesser to another one. All containers smell of food. “To get the food, the dogs have to understand who knows the hiding place (Knower) and who does not and can, therefore, only guess (Guesser). They must identify the informant they can rely on if they have to decide for one food container,” said principal investigator Ludwig Huber. In approximately 70 per cent of the cases the dogs chose the container indicated by the Knower – and thus were able to successfully accomplish the test. This result was independent of the position of the food container, the person acting as the Knower and where the Guesser was looking.

Eye on hidden food source

Dogs are able to identify the human having an eye on a hidden food source. (Photo: Ludwig Huber/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Dogs can adopt human perspectives

The only aim of this test series, however, was to independently confirm a study carried out in New Zealand. Clear evidence of dogs being able to adopt our perspective and take advantage of it was provided in a new test developed by the team, the so-called “Guesser looking away” test.

In this new experiment, a third person in the middle hides the food. This person does not give cues later on. The potential informants were kneeing left and right of this hider and looked to the same side and slightly down. Thus, one of the two persons looked towards the baiter, the other person looked away. “This means that the tested dogs, in order to get the food, had to judge who is the Knower by adopting the informants’ perspectives and following their gazes,” explained Huber. Even in this test, which is very difficult for the animals, approximately 70 per cent of the trials had been mastered.

Adopting the human perspective leads to invisible food

Being able to adopt the perspective of a human does, however, not require the ability to understand intentions or wishes. “But the study showed that dogs can find out what humans or conspecifics can or cannot see,” explained Huber. “By adopting the positions of humans and following their gazes geometrically, they find out what humans see and, therefore, know – and consequently whom they can trust or not.”

In similar experiments, chimpanzees and few bird species such as scrub jays and ravens were able to understand the state of knowledge and also the intentions of conspecifics and modify their own behaviour accordingly. For dogs, there have only been specualtions and vague indications so far. But dogs understand our behaviour very well, for example our degree of attention. They can learn from directly visible cues such as gestures or gazes. Thus, they are able to find food even if their view of it has been blocked. “The ability to interpret our behaviour and anticipate our intentions, which has obviously developed through a combination of domestication and individual experience, seems to have supported the ability to adopt our perspective,” said Huber. “It still remains unclear which cognitive mechanisms contribute to this ability. But it helps dogs to find their way in our world very well.”

Source:  University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna media release

DNA influences face shape

A study of dog DNA has revealed a genetic mutation linked to flat face shapes such as those seen in pugs and bulldogs.

The research reveals new insights into the genes that underpin skull formation in people and animals.  Scientists say their findings also shed light on the causes of birth defects that affect babies’ head development in the womb.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute analysed DNA samples from 374 pet dogs of various pedigree and mixed breeds. The dogs were being treated at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

All of the animals underwent body scans as part of their care, producing detailed 3-dimensional images of the dogs’ heads.  These high-resolution images — called CT scans — enabled the researchers to take precise measurements of the shape of the dog’s skull.

By comparing the dogs’ genetic information with measurements of their skulls, the team were able to pinpoint DNA variations that are associated with different head shapes.

One variation — found to disrupt the activity of a gene called SMOC2 — was strongly linked to the length of the dog’s face. Animals with the mutation had significantly flatter faces, a condition called brachycephaly.

Babies are sometimes born with brachycephaly too, though little is known about its causes. Scientists say screening children for changes in the SMOC2 gene could help to diagnose the condition.

Lead researcher Dr Jeffrey Schoenebeck, of the University’s Roslin Institute, said: “Our results shed light on the molecular nature of this type of skull form that is so common and popular among dogs.”

Source:  University of Edinburgh news

Improving the lives of kids with disabilities – one family dog at a time

The family dog could serve as a partner and ally in efforts to help children with disabilities incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives, a new study from Oregon State University indicates.

In a case study of one 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and his family’s dog, researchers found the intervention program led to a wide range of improvements for the child, including physical activity as well as motor skills, quality of life and human-animal interactions.

“These initial findings indicate that we can improve the quality of life for children with disabilities, and we can get them to be more active,” said Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and corresponding author on the study. “And in this case, both are happening simultaneously, which is fantastic.”

CP-kid-and-dog-2-e1402346844838

A boy with cerebral palsy and a therapy dog (not the dog in this study) Photo courtesy of: http://www.michigancerebralpalsyattorneys.com

The researchers detailed the child’s experience in the adapted physical activity intervention program in a case study just published in the journal Animals.

Children with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy spend significantly less time participating in physical activity compared to their peers and are considered a health disparity group, meaning they generally face more health concerns than their peers.

Researchers designed an adapted physical activity, animal-assisted intervention where the family dog would serve as a partner with the child in physical activities designed to help improve overall physical activity, motor skills and quality of life. The family dog is a good choice for this type of intervention because the animal is already known to the child and there is an existing relationship – and both the dog and the child will benefit from the activities, MacDonald said.

Researchers took initial assessments of the child’s daily physical activity, motor skills and quality of life before starting the eight-week intervention. A veterinarian examined the dog’s fitness for participation and the human-animal interaction between the dog, a year-old Pomeranian, and the child was also assessed.

Then the pair began the eight-week intervention, which included a supervised physical activity program once a week for 60 minutes and participation in activities such as brushing the dog with each hand; playing fetch and alternating hands; balancing on a wobble board; and marching on a balancing disc.

“The dog would also balance on the wobble board, so it became a challenge for the child – if the dog can do it, I can, too,” MacDonald said. “It was so cool to see the relationship between the child and the dog evolve over time. They develop a partnership and the activities become more fun and challenging for the child. It becomes, in part, about the dog and the responsibility of taking care of it.”

The dog and the child also had “homework,” which included brushing the dog, playing fetch and going on daily walks. The child wore an accelerometer to measure physical activity levels at home.

At the conclusion of the intervention, researchers re-assessed and found that the child’s quality of life had increased significantly in several areas, including emotional, social and physical health, as assessed by the child as well as the parent. In addition, the child’s sedentary behavior decreased and time spent on moderate to vigorous activity increased dramatically.

“The findings so far are very encouraging,” MacDonald said. “There’s a chance down the road we could be encouraging families to adopt a dog for the public health benefits. How cool would that be?” 

The researchers also found that the relationship between the dog and the child improved over the course of the therapy as they worked together on various tasks. The dog’s prosocial, or positive, behavior toward the child is a sign of wellbeing for both members of the team, said Udell, who is director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at OSU.

“A closer child-dog bond increases the likelihood of lasting emotional benefits and may also facilitate long-term joint activity at home, such as taking walks, simply because it is enjoyable for all involved,” she said.

This study is one of the first to evaluate how a dog’s behavior and wellbeing are affected by their participation in animal-assisted therapy, Udell noted. From an animal welfare standpoint, it is promising that the dog’s behavior and performance on cognitive and physical tasks improved alongside the child’s.

Though the case study features only one child, the research team recruited several families with children with disabilities and their dogs to participate in the larger project, which was designed in part to test the design and methodology of the experiment and determine if it could be implemented on a larger scale.

Based on the initial results, researchers hope to pursue additional studies involving children with disabilities and their family dogs, if funding can be secured. They would like to examine other benefits such a pairing might have, including the sense of responsibility the child appears to gain during the course of the intervention.

“We’re also learning a lot from our child participants,” MacDonald said. “They’re teaching us stuff about friendship with the animal and the responsibility of taking care of a pet, which allows us to ask more research questions about the influence of a pet on the child and their family.” 

Source:  Oregon State University media statement

Pet dogs help kids feel less stressed

Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

boy-and-dog

Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study – the gold standard in research.

“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.” 

For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.

“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”

Source:  University of Florida News

How Dogs Interact with Others Plays a Role in Decision-Making

Researchers at Canisius College found that the relationship between two dogs living in the same household may impact how much influence they have on each other’s behavior.

Dogs who showed little to no aggression towards their housemates were more likely to automatically follow each other than dogs who viewed their canine housemates as rivals. The study results are reported in the latest issue of Animal Cognition.

Familiar dogs

Dogs were tested in their own homes because a laboratory setting would have introduced other influences into how the dogs reacted

To conduct this study, Christy Hoffman, Ph.D., and Malini Suchak, Ph.D., assistant professors of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, traveled to 37 multi-dog households to test the dogs in their own homes. This was an unusual approach, since most studies test dogs in the laboratory and often pair them with other dogs they don’t know. “We really wanted to look at the impact of the relationship between the dogs on their behavior, and doing that in a setting natural to the dogs, with dogs they already know, is really important,” Suchak says.

To classify how competitive household dogs were with each other, the owners were asked to fill out a survey known as the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ).

Dogs that were low in rivalry never or rarely displayed aggressive behavior toward the other dog. Dogs that were high in rivalry displayed some degree of aggression around valuable resources, suggesting they have a more competitive nature.

After their owners completed the C-BARQ, the dogs participated in a simple task. A research assistant placed two plates containing food in front of both dogs. One dog was allowed to approach the plates and eat the food from one plate before being walked out of the room. At that point, the second dog was allowed to make a choice. If the second dog followed the first dog, he arrived at an empty plate. If he didn’t follow the first dog, he went straight to the plate that still contained food.

Dogs that were low in rivalry were more likely to follow the first dog and frequently ended up at the empty plate. What surprised the researchers was that low rivalry dogs only blindly followed the demonstrator when allowed to make their choice immediately. “Low and high rivalry dogs only differed in the choices they made when there was no delay,” Hoffman says. “When they had to wait 5 seconds before making their choice, all dogs tended to go directly to the full plate.” 

Suchak adds, “This suggests that the low rivalry dogs may have been automatically following their housemates. When we forced the dogs to wait, it was as if the low rivalry dogs actually took the time to think about the situation, and they went straight for the food.”

The researchers also tested the dogs in a condition where a human removed the food from one plate before the dog made a choice. Interestingly, low rivalry dogs were more likely to follow the human demonstrator when there was no delay, a finding that paralleled what happened with dog demonstrators. Hoffman suggests this may have to do with the personality of low rivalry dogs, “Since the tendency of the low rivalry dogs to follow was seen when the demonstrator was both another dog and a human, competitiveness may be a characteristic of the individual that extends beyond their relationship with other dogs.” 

This means that if owners have a high rivalry dog “that dog may be more likely to think for himself, and less likely to blindly follow, than a dog that is less competitive,” says Hoffman. “On the whole, our findings show there is variation in the ways dogs make decisions and that how dogs interact with others plays a big role in how they respond under conditions that require quick thinking.”

Source:  Newswise

The evolution of dog breeds

When people migrate, Canis familiaris travels with them. Piecing together the details of those migrations has proved difficult because the clues are scattered across the genomes of hundreds of dog breeds. However, in a study published April 25, 2017 in Cell Reports, researchers have used gene sequences from 161 modern breeds to assemble an evolutionary tree of dogs.

The map of dog breeds, which is the largest to date, unearths new evidence that dogs traveled with humans across the Bering land bridge, and will likely help researchers identify disease-causing genes in both dogs and humans.

Cladogram of 161 Domestic Dog Breeds

Cladogram of 161 Domestic Dog Breeds

The study highlights how the oldest dog breeds evolved or were bred to fill certain roles. “First, there was selection for a type, like herders or pointers, and then there was admixture to get certain physical traits,” says study co-author and dog geneticist Heidi Parker of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “I think that understanding that types go back a lot longer than breeds or just physical appearances do is something to really think about.”

Most popular breeds in America are of European descent, but in the study, researchers found evidence that some breeds from Central and South America — such as the Peruvian Hairless Dog and the Xoloitzcuintli– are likely descended from the “New World Dog,” an ancient canine sub-species that migrated across the Bering Strait with the ancestors of Native Americans. Scientists have previously reported archaeological evidence that the New World Dog existed, but this study marks the first living evidence of them in modern breeds.

“What we noticed is that there are groups of American dogs that separated somewhat from the European breeds,” says study co-author Heidi Parker of the NIH. “We’ve been looking for some kind of signature of the New World Dog, and these dogs have New World Dogs hidden in their genome.” It’s unclear precisely which genes in modern hairless dogs are from Europe and which are from their New World ancestors, but the researchers hope to explore that in future studies.

Other results were more expected. For instance, many breeds of “gun dogs,” such as Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters, can trace their origins to Victorian England, when new technologies, such as guns, opened up new roles on hunting expeditions. Those dogs clustered closely together on the phylogenetic tree, as did the spaniel breeds. Breeds from the Middle East, such as the Saluki, and from Asia, such as Chow Chows and Akitas, seem to have diverged well before the “Victorian Explosion” in Europe and the United States.

Herding breeds, though largely European in origin, proved to be surprisingly diverse. “When we were looking at herding breeds, we saw much more diversity, where there was a particular group of herding breeds that seemed to come out of the United Kingdom, a particular group that came out of northern Europe, and a different group that came out of southern Europe,” says Parker, “which shows herding is not a recent thing. People were using dogs as workers thousands of years ago, not just hundreds of years ago.”

Different herding dogs use very different strategies to bring their flocks to heel, so in some ways, the phylogenetic data confirmed what many dog experts had previously suspected, the researchers noted. “What that also tells us is that herding dogs were developed not from a singular founder but in several different places and probably different times,” says the study’s senior co-author and dog geneticist Elaine Ostrander, also of the NIH.

Ostrander and her colleagues have spent years sequencing dog genomes but can also frequently be found out in the field at dog shows, recruiting dog owners to participate in the study. “If we see a breed that we haven’t had a good sample of to sequence, we definitely make a beeline for that owner,” says Ostrander. “And say, ‘Gosh, we don’t have the sequence of the Otterhound yet, and your dog is a beautiful Otterhound. Wouldn’t you like it to represent your breed in the dog genome sequence database?’ And of course, people are always very flattered to say, “Yes. I want my dog to represent Otterhound-ness.” All of the dog sequences in the study are from dogs whose owners volunteered, Ostrander says. Over half the dog breeds in the world today still have not been sequenced and the researchers intend to keep collecting dog genomes to fill in the gaps.

Understanding dogs’ genetic backstory also has practical applications. Our canine compatriots fall victim to many of the same diseases that humans do — including epilepsy, diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer — but disease prevalence varies widely and predictably between breeds, while it is more difficult to compartmentalize at-risk human populations. “Using all this data, you can follow the migration of disease alleles and predict where they are likely to pop up next, and that’s just so empowering for our field because a dog is such a great model for many human diseases,” says Ostrander. “Every time there’s a disease gene found in dogs it turns out to be important in people, too.”

Source:  ScienceDaily

Full journal article available here

Reducing stress in shelter dogs

Editor’s Note from DoggyMom:  This research endorses the approach used by Best Friends Animal Society at its Kanab, Utah sanctuary which allows behavior-tested dogs to go on ‘sleepovers’ with volunteers and guests.  I have hosted many sleepover dogs in my 3 visits to Kanab (and planning to do it again on my 4th visit).  It is heartening to know that science has backed up the practice – showing that it helps the dogs relieve stress from living in a the kennel environment


“Who’s a good dog? You are, aren’t you? Yes, you’re the best dog that ever was.”

But is he really a good dog? Can you really tell when you’re doing a meet-and-greet in the shelter? Is that how he’s going to be when you take him home? Are you getting Lassie or the Hound of the Baskervilles?

These were the sorts of questions that led to a study done by an Arizona State University researcher.

Lisa Gunter, a doctoral candidate studying behavioral neuroscience at the Canine Science Collaboratory in the Department of Psychology, began the project as a pilot study at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, the largest no-kill shelter in the country. About 1,600 dogs and cats live there, visited by about 30,000 people per year. It’s a popular vacation destination for pet lovers. People come and take weeklong “volunteer vacations.”

Gunter looked at the sleepover program offered by Best Friends, where visitors can take a dog back to their hotel room for the night.

The question she had was this: Is their behavior on the sleepover predictive?

Shelter dog research

Credit: Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Lisa Gunter plays with her 11-year-old rescued border collie Sonya outside the Psychology building on ASU’s Tempe campus. Gunter, a doctoral candidate studying behavioral neuroscience at the Canine Science Collaboratory in the Department of Psychology, found that shelter dogs benefit from sleepover programs like the one offered at at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, the USA’s largest no-kill animal shelter.

“We wanted to see how one night out of the shelter would impact the dogs,” Gunter said. “Is that what someone will see in their house? … That has been a challenge in sheltering.”

Gunter measured levels of cortisol, a diurnal hormone that is a measure of stress. She also took a behavioral snapshot of each dog, asking such questions as: What’s he like on a leash? What’s he like when he sees another dog? What’s he like when you come into his kennel?

“We saw one night out significantly reduced their cortisol,” Gunter said. “When they returned the next day, it was the same. We knew it at least dropped for one night.”

Lowered stress levels could allow the dog to behave more naturally, giving people a better view of the dog’s true personality.

The researchers took cortisol samples at three time points: the dog at the shelter, the dog at the sleepover and the dog back at the shelter.

“We’re trying to get more at the dog’s welfare, how they’re feeling on a larger timescale, not just 10 or 15 minutes,” Gunter said. “When we saw the cortisol had significantly reduced on just one overnight, that was pretty exciting. We didn’t imagine that just one night out would make a difference.”

Anecdotally, people who took a dog home for a sleepover reported that after the dog settled down, it would immediately go for a long sleep.

“Is sleep potentially a component to their welfare?” she said. “Getting good, uninterrupted sleep could benefit them as well. That could be one mechanism by which we’re seeing this reduction in cortisol. The dogs are getting a good night’s sleep. That’s something they can’t get at the shelter because they have a lot of noisy neighbors.”

Gunter has been carrying out the study in collaboration with a researcher at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. They were recently awarded a grant to carry out this study at four shelters across the U.S. Instead of a one-day baseline, they’ll be collecting a two-day sample.

Shelters are constantly looking for ways to get animals into homes.

“For a long time in sheltering it was thought dogs would be more adoptable if you just taught them to sit, if you just taught them to be well-behaved,” Gunter said. “That’s not necessarily the case. That’s not what our lab has found. There are behaviors related to companionship of people in a meet-and-greet setting when the person is getting to know the dog.”

They’ve found two behaviors that people respond to: when the dog lies down next to the person and whether the dog responded to an invitation to play.

“We’re a behavior and cognition lab, so we really try to understand what the animal is experiencing by looking at its behavior,” Gunter said. “Until the time we can have a conversation with them, for now we’re left with observing their behavior. We’re essentially detectives, trying to gather the information to have our best understanding of what the dog is experiencing. It’s the best we can do, without being dogs.”

Source:  Newswise