Category Archives: research

New Research Unpicks Root Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs should be seen as a symptom of underlying frustrations rather than a diagnosis, and understanding these root causes could be key to effective treatment, new research by animal behaviour specialists suggests.

Separation anxiety photo

Many pet owners experience problem behaviour in their dogs when leaving them at home. These behaviours can include destruction of household items, urinating or defecating indoors, or excessive barking and are often labelled as ‘separation anxiety’ as the dog gets anxious at the prospect of being left alone.

Treatment plans tend to focus on helping the dog overcome the ‘pain of separation’, but the current work indicates dealing with various forms of frustration is a much more important element of the problem.

Animal behaviour researchers have now identified four key forms of separation anxiety, and suggest that animal behaviourists should consider these underlying reasons as the issue that needs treating, and not view ‘separation anxiety’ as a diagnosis.

The team, led by scientists from the University of Lincoln, UK, identified four main forms of distress for dogs when separated from their owners. These include a focus on getting away from something in the house, wanting to get to something outside, reacting to external noises or events, and a form of boredom.

More than 2,700 dogs representing over 100 breeds were included in the study.

Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: ´Until now, there has been a tendency to think of this as a single condition, ie ´My dog has got separation anxiety¡ and then to focus on the dependence on the owner and how to make them more independent. However, this new work indicates that having separation anxiety is more like saying ´My dog’s got an upset tummy which could have many causes and take many forms, and so both assessment and treatment need to be much more focussed.

´If your dog makes themselves ill by chewing something it shouldn’t, you would need to treat it very differently to if it has picked up an infection. One problem might need surgery and the other antibiotics.

´Labelling the problem of the dog who is being destructive, urinating or defecating indoors or vocalising when left alone as separation anxiety is not very helpful. It is the start of the diagnostic process, not the end. Our new research suggests that frustration in its various forms is very much at the heart of the problem and we need to understand this variety if we hope to offer better treatments for dogs.

The new study, published in the academic journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, highlights how different emotional states combine to produce problem behaviours in dogs. Although it is first triggered by the owner’s departure, the unwanted behaviour arises because of a combination of risk factors that may include elements of the dog’s temperament, the type of relationship it has with the owner and how the two of them interact.

The research team will soon be building on the latest study to examine in greater detail the influence the dog-owner relationship has on problem behaviours triggered by separation. It is hoped the research will open up new, more specific treatment programmes for owners.

Source:  University of Lincoln

New Study Results Consistent With Dog Domestication During Ice Age

Palaeolithic-dog

Analysis of Paleolithic-era teeth from a 28,500-year-old fossil site in the Czech Republic provides supporting evidence for two groups of canids – one dog-like and the other wolf-like – with differing diets, which is consistent with the early domestication of dogs.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was co-directed by Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

The researchers performed dental microwear texture analysis on a sample of fossils from the Předmostí site, which contains both wolf-like and dog-like canids. Canids are simply mammals of the dog family. The researchers identified distinctive microwear patterns for each canid morphotype. Compared to the wolf-like canids, the teeth of the early dog canids – called “protodogs” by the researchers – had larger wear scars, indicating a diet that included hard, brittle foods. The teeth of the wolf-like canids had smaller scars, suggesting they consumed more flesh, likely from mammoth, as shown by previous research.

This greater durophagy – animal eating behavior suggesting the consumption of hard objects – among the dog-like canids means they likely consumed bones and other less desirable food scraps within human settlement areas, Ungar said. It provides supporting evidence that there were two types of canids at the site, each with a distinct diet, which is consistent with other evidence of early-stage domestication.

“Our primary goal was to test whether these two morphotypes expressed notable differences in behavior, based on wear patterns,” said Ungar. “Dental microwear is a behavioral signal that can appear generations before morphological changes are established in a population, and it shows great promise in using the archaeological record to distinguish protodogs from wolves.”

Dog domestication is the earliest example of animal husbandry and the only type of domestication that occurred well before the earliest definitive evidence of agriculture. However, there is robust scientific debate about the timing and circumstances of the initial domestication of dogs, with estimates varying between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, well into the Ice Age, when people had a hunter-gatherer way of life. There is also debate about why wolves were first domesticated to become dogs. From an anthropological perspective, the timing of the domestication process is important for understanding early cognition, behavior and the ecology of early Homo sapiens.

The study’s lead author is Kari Prassack, curator of paleontology at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, which is part of the National Park Service. Co-authors were Martina Lázničková-Galetová of the Moravian Museum in Czech Republic; Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences; and Josephine DuBois, Ungar’s former Honors College student and now student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry.

This research was supported by the Czech Science Foundation, the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic and the University of Arkansas Honors College. Fossil material for this study came from collections of the Moravian Museum in Czech Republic.

Source:  University of Arkansas Research Frontiers

New dog, old tricks? Untrained stray dogs can understand human cues

If you have a dog, hopefully you’re lucky enough to know that they are highly attuned to their owners and can readily understand a wide range of commands and gestures. But are these abilities innate or are they exclusively learned through training?

To find out, a new study in Frontiers in Psychology investigated whether untrained stray dogs could understand human pointing gestures.

Dogs and gestures research

A new study shows that untrained stray dogs respond to gestures from people, suggesting that understanding between humans and dogs transcends training. Image: Shutterstock

The study revealed that about 80% of participating dogs successfully followed pointing gestures to a specific location despite having never received prior training. The results suggest that dogs can understand complex gestures by simply watching humans and this could have implications in reducing conflict between stray dogs and humans.

Dogs were domesticated 10,000–15,000 years ago, likely making them the oldest domesticated animals on the planet. Humans then bred dogs with the most desirable and useful traits so that they could function as companions and workers, leading to domesticated dogs that are highly receptive to human commands and gestures.

However, it was not clear whether dogs understand us through training alone, or whether this was innate. Can dogs interpret a signal, such as a gesture, without specific training, or even without having met the signaling person previously? One way to find out is to see whether untrained, stray dogs can interpret and react to human gestures.

Stray dogs are a common feature in cities around the world and particularly in many developing countries. While they may observe and occasionally interact with people, such dogs have never been trained, and are behaviorally “wild”. Conflicts between stray dogs and humans are a problem and understanding how humans shape stray dog behavior may help alleviate this.

To investigate, Dr. Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, India, and colleagues studied stray dogs across several Indian cities. The researchers approached solitary stray dogs and placed two covered bowls on the ground near them. A researcher then pointed to one of the two bowls, either momentarily or repeatedly, and recorded whether the dog approached the indicated bowl. They also recorded the perceived emotional state of the dogs during the experiment.

Approximately half of the dogs did not approach either bowl. However, the researchers noticed that these dogs were anxious and may have had bad experiences with humans before. The dogs who approached the bowls were noted as friendlier and less anxious, and approximately 80% correctly followed the pointing signals to one of the bowls, regardless of whether the pointing was momentary or repeated. This suggests that the dogs could indeed decipher complex gestures.

“We thought it was quite amazing that the dogs could follow a gesture as abstract as momentary pointing,” explained Bhadra. “This means that they closely observe the human, whom they are meeting for the first time, and they use their understanding of humans to make a decision. This shows their intelligence and adaptability.”

The results suggest that dogs may have an innate ability to understand certain human gestures which transcends training. However, it should be noted that the shyer, more anxious animals tended not to participate, so future studies are needed to determine more precisely how an individual dog’s personality affects their ability to understand human cues.

Overall, dogs may be more perceptive than we realize. “We need to understand that dogs are intelligent animals that can co-exist with us,” said Bhadra “They are quite capable of understanding our body language and we need to give them their space. A little empathy and respect for another species can reduce a lot of conflict.”

Original article:  Free-Ranging Dogs Are Capable of Utilizing Complex Human Pointing Cues

Source:  Frontiers Science News

Turning the page for Spot boosts literacy in young students

Reading in the presence of a pooch may be the page-turning motivation young children need, suggests a UBC researcher.

Golden retriever Abby listens

Golden retriever Abby listens while Annie Letheman (right) reads to her sister Ruby and researcher Camille Rousseau (middle) observes.

Camille Rousseau, a doctoral student in UBC Okanagan’s School of Education, recently completed a study examining the behaviour of 17 children from Grades 1 to 3, while reading with and without a dog. The study was conducted with Christine Tardif-Williams, a professor at Brock University’s department of child and youth studies.

“Our study focused on whether a child would be motivated to continue reading longer and persevere through moderately challenging passages when they are accompanied by a dog,” explains Rousseau.

Participants were recruited based on their ability to read independently. Prior to the study, each child was tested to determine their reading range and to ensure they would be assigned appropriate story excerpts. The researchers then choose stories slightly beyond the child’s reading level.

During the study’s sessions, participants would read aloud to either an observer, the dog handler and their pet or without the dog. After finishing their first page, they would be offered the option of a second reading task or finishing the session.

“The findings showed that children spent significantly more time reading and showed more persistence when a dog—regardless of breed or age—was in the room as opposed to when they read without them,” says Rousseau. “In addition, the children reported feeling more interested and more competent.”

With the recent rise in popularity of therapy dog reading programs in schools, libraries and community organizations, Rousseau says their research could help to develop ‘gold-standard’ canine-assisted intervention strategies for struggling young readers.

“There have been studies that looked at the impact of therapy dogs on enhancing students’ reading abilities, but this was the first study that carefully selected and assigned challenging reading to children,” she says.

Some studies and programs have children choose their own book, and while the reading experience would still be positive, Rousseau adds it’s the educational experience of persevering through a moderate challenge that offers a potentially greater sense of achievement.

She hopes the study increases organizations’ understanding of how children’s reading could be enhanced by furry friends.

Rousseau is continuing her research on how canine-assisted therapy can influence students in other educational contexts through UBC’s therapy dog program—Building Academic Retention through K9’s (BARK).

The study was published in Anthrozoös, a multidisciplinary journal focusing on the interactions of people and animals.

Source:  University of British Columbia media release

Study Suggests Early-Life Exposure to Dogs May Lessen Risk of Developing Schizophrenia

Ever since humans domesticated the dog, the faithful, obedient and protective animal has provided its owner with companionship and emotional well-being. Now, a study from Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that being around “man’s best friend” from an early age may have a health benefit as well — lessening the chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult.

And while Fido may help prevent that condition, the jury is still out on whether or not there’s any link, positive or negative, between being raised with Fluffy the cat and later developing either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

800 Toddler with Dog_Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers suggests that exposure to pet dogs before the age of 13 may lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia later in life. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

“Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with alterations in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early life, and since household pets are often among the first things with which children have close contact, it was logical for us to explore the possibilities of a connection between the two,” says Robert Yolken, M.D., chair of the Stanley Division of Pediatric Neurovirology and professor of neurovirology in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and lead author of a research paper recently posted online in the journal PLOS One.

In the study, Yolken and colleagues at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore investigated the relationship between exposure to a household pet cat or dog during the first 12 years of life and a later diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. For schizophrenia, the researchers were surprised to see a statistically significant decrease in the risk of a person developing the disorder if exposed to a dog early in life. Across the entire age range studied, there was no significant link between dogs and bipolar disorder, or between cats and either psychiatric disorder.

The researchers caution that more studies are needed to confirm these findings, to search for the factors behind any strongly supported links, and to more precisely define the actual risks of developing psychiatric disorders from exposing infants and children under age 13 to pet cats and dogs.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s most recent National Pet Owners Survey, there are 94 million pet cats and 90 million pet dogs in the United States. Previous studies have identified early life exposures to pet cats and dogs as environmental factors that may alter the immune system through various means, including allergic responses, contact with zoonotic (animal) bacteria and viruses, changes in a home’s microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction effects on human brain chemistry.

Some investigators, Yolken notes, suspect that this “immune modulation” may alter the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is genetically or otherwise predisposed.

In their current study, Yolken and colleagues looked at a population of 1,371 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 that consisted of 396 people with schizophrenia, 381 with bipolar disorder and 594 controls. Information documented about each person included age, gender, race/ethnicity, place of birth and highest level of parental education (as a measure of socioeconomic status). Patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were recruited from inpatient, day hospital and rehabilitation programs of Sheppard Pratt Health System. Control group members were recruited from the Baltimore area and were screened to rule out any current or past psychiatric disorders.

All study participants were asked if they had a household pet cat or dog or both during their first 12 years of life. Those who reported that a pet cat or dog was in their house when they were born were considered to be exposed to that animal since birth.

The relationship between the age of first household pet exposure and psychiatric diagnosis was defined using a statistical model that produces a hazard ratio — a measure over time of how often specific events (in this case, exposure to a household pet and development of a psychiatric disorder) happen in a study group compared to their frequency in a control group. A hazard ratio of 1 suggests no difference between groups, while a ratio greater than 1 indicates an increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Likewise, a ratio less than 1 shows a decreased chance.

Analyses were conducted for four age ranges: birth to 3, 4 to 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 12.

Surprisingly, Yolken says, the findings suggests that people who are exposed to a pet dog before their 13th birthday are significantly less likely — as much as 24% — to be diagnosed later with schizophrenia.

“The largest apparent protective effect was found for children who had a household pet dog at birth or were first exposed after birth but before age 3,” he says.

Yolken adds that if it is assumed that the hazard ratio is an accurate reflection of relative risk, then some 840,000 cases of schizophrenia (24% of the 3.5 million people diagnosed with the disorder in the United States) might be prevented by pet dog exposure or other factors associated with pet dog exposure.

“There are several plausible explanations for this possible ‘protective’ effect from contact with dogs — perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia,” Yolken says.

For bipolar disorder, the study results suggest there is no risk association, either positive or negative, with being around dogs as an infant or young child.

Overall for all ages examined, early exposure to pet cats was neutral as the study could not link felines with either an increased or decreased risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“However, we did find a slightly increased risk of developing both disorders for those who were first in contact with cats between the ages of 9 and 12,” Yolken says. “This indicates that the time of exposure may be critical to whether or not it alters the risk.”

One example of a suspected pet-borne trigger for schizophrenia is the disease toxoplasmosis, a condition in which cats are the primary hosts of a parasite transmitted to humans via the animals’ feces. Pregnant women have been advised for years not to change cat litter boxes to eliminate the risk of the illness passing through the placenta to their fetuses and causing a miscarriage, stillbirth, or potentially, psychiatric disorders in a child born with the infection.

In a 2003 review paper, Yolken and colleague E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., associate director of research at the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, provided evidence from multiple epidemiological studies conducted since 1953 that showed there also is a statistical connection between a person exposed to the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis and an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. The researchers found that a large number of people in those studies who were diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, also had high levels of antibodies to the toxoplasmosis parasite.

Because of this finding and others like it, most research has focused on investigating a potential link between early exposure to cats and psychiatric disorder development. Yolken says the most recent study is among the first to consider contact with dogs as well.

“A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the associations between pet exposure and psychiatric disorders would allow us to develop appropriate prevention and treatment strategies,” Yolken says.

Source:  John Hopkins Newsroom

Unique Sled Dogs Helped the Inuit Thrive in the North American Arctic

Inuit sled dogs have changed little since people migrated with them to the North American Arctic across the Bering Strait from Siberia, according to researchers who have examined DNA from the dogs from that time span. The legacy of these Inuit dogs survives today in Arctic sled dogs, making them one of the last remaining descendant populations of indigenous, pre-European dog lineages in the Americas.

Inuit sled dogs

A team of Greenland sled dogs pulls in Greenland’s Disko Bay. The ancestors of these dogs arrived with the Inuit to the North American Arctic. (Courtesy/Tatiana Feuerborn)

The latest research is the result of nearly a decade’s work by University of California, Davis, researchers in anthropology and veterinary genetics, who analyzed the DNA of hundreds of dogs’ ancient skeletal remains to determine that the Inuit dog had significantly different DNA than other Arctic dogs, including malamutes and huskies.

Dogs continue to play role in Arctic communities

Qimmiit (dogs in Inuktitut) were viewed by the Inuit as particularly well-suited to long-distance hauling of people and their goods across the Arctic and consuming local resources, such as sea mammals, for food.

The unique group of dogs helped the Inuit conquer the tough terrain of the North American Arctic 2,000 years ago, researchers said. Inuit dogs are the direct ancestors of modern Arctic sled dogs, and although their appearance has continued to change over time, they continue to play an important role in Arctic communities.

Experts examined the DNA from 921 dogs and wolves who lived during the last 4,500 years. Analysis of the DNA, and the locations and time periods in which they were recovered archaeologically, shows dogs from Inuit sites occupied beginning around 2,000 years ago were genetically different from dogs already in the region.

According to Sacks “the genetic profiles of ancient dogs of the American Arctic dating to 2,000 years ago were nearly identical to those of older dogs from Siberia, but contrasted starkly with those of more ancient dogs in the Americas, providing an unusually clear and definitive picture of the canine replacement event that coincided with the expansion of Thule peoples across the American Arctic two millennia ago.”

Preserving an important history

Research confirms that native peoples maintained their own dogs. By analyzing the shape of elements from 391 dogs, the study also shows that the Inuit had larger dogs with a proportionally narrower cranium to earlier dogs belonging to pre-Inuit groups.

The National Science Foundation-funded portion of the research at UC Davis was inspired by Inuit activist and author Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who told Darwent about Inuit sled-dog culling undertaken by Canadian police in the 1950s and asked if there was a way to use scientific methods to tell the history and importance of sled dogs in the Arctic. Preservation of these distinctive Inuit dogs is likely a reflection of the highly specialized role that dogs played in both long-range transportation and daily subsistence practices in Inuit society.

The article, “Specialized sledge dogs accompanied the Inuit dispersal across the North American Arctic,” was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Source:  UC Davis media release

Detection Dogs and DNA on the Trail of Endangered Lizards

Detection dogs trained to sniff out the scat of an endangered lizard in California’s San Joaquin Valley, combined with genetic species identification, could represent a new, noninvasive sampling technique for lizard conservation worldwide. That is according to a study published by the University of California, Davis, in partnership with the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation, U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Scientists have used trained conservation dogs to locate scat and collect DNA samples for everything from bears and foxes to gorillas and whales. But the technique had not been used for reptiles until this study, for which scientists developed a novel approach to identify the presence of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard in the Panoche Hills Recreation Area and Carrizo Plain National Monument, both managed by BLM.

They developed new methods to recover DNA from feces and genetically identify lizard species in the same area. The study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, is a proof of concept for a host of reptiles.

Lizard detection dog

Seamus, a trained detection dog, alerts his handler to the presence of scat. (Mike Westphal, Bureau of Land Management)

“So many reptilian species have been hit so hard,” said lead author Mark Statham, an associate researcher with the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “A large proportion of them are endangered or threatened. This is a really valuable way for people to be able to survey them.”

No direct contact needed

Current methods for surveying lizard species typically rely on live capture or visual surveys. Scat sampling allows biologists to study elusive, rare or dangerous animals without the need for direct contact. In addition to informing about the presence, habitat and genetics of an animal, scat can also be analyzed to inform researchers about diet, hormones, parasites and other health factors.

Using the new method, the authors genetically identified specific species for 78 percent of the 327 samples collected by dog-handler teams across four years. Most (82 percent) of those identified were confirmed as being from blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

To meet regulatory monitoring requirements, more research is needed to assess the viability of using detection dogs to recover usable DNA at larger scales. But the research highlights the broad potential this method holds for surveying and monitoring reptiles.

Funding was provided by the Bureau of Land Management.

Source:  UC Davis media release