Dogs know when they don’t know

When they don’t have enough information to make an accurate decision, dogs will search for more – similarly to chimpanzees and humans.

Researchers at the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have shown that dogs possess some “metacognitive” abilities – specifically, they are aware of when they do not have enough information to solve a problem and will actively seek more information, similarly to primates. To investigate this, the researchers created a test in which dogs had to find a reward – a toy or food – behind one of two fences. They found that the dogs looked for additional information significantly more often when they had not seen where the reward was hidden.

Metacognition study

In this study, dogs showed some of the signs of metacognition, specifically that they searched for more information when they had not seen where a reward was placed. © Juliane Bräuer

In the field of comparative psychology, researchers study animals in order to learn about the evolution of various traits and what this can tell us about ourselves. At the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, project leader Juliane Bräuer studies dogs to make these comparisons. In a recent study published in the journal Learning & Behavior, Bräuer and colleague Julia Belger, now of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, explore whether dogs have metacognitive abilities – sometimes described as the ability to “know what one knows” – and in particular whether they are aware of what information they have learned and whether they need more information.

To test this, the researchers designed an apparatus involving two V-shaped fences. A reward, either food or a toy, would be placed by one researcher behind one of the two fences while another researcher held the dog. In some cases, the dog could see where the reward was placed, while in others the dog could not. The researchers then analyzed how frequently the dogs looked through a gap in the fence before choosing an option. The question was whether, like chimps and humans, the dog would “check” through the gap when he or she had not seen where the reward was placed. This would indicate that the dog was aware that he or she did not know where the reward was – a metacognitive ability – and would try to get more information before choosing a fence.

Experiment set up

The overall set-up of the experiment, showing the two V-shaped fences, the experimenter who places the reward, the experimenter holding the dog, and the dog in starting position, without a curtain to block the view. This dog was participating in the third variation, with a time delay. © DogStudies. Belger & Bräuer, 2018. Metacognition in dogs: Do dogs know they could be wrong? Learning & Behavior. DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0367-5.

Some researchers argue that some animals, such as dogs, may only look for extra information when searching as a routinized, instinctual behavior, and not as a result of a metacognitive process. To control for this, Bräuer and Belger tested whether dogs show the so-called “passport effect,” originally described by researcher Joseph Call. When humans are looking for something very important, for example, a passport, they will engage in more active searching and will check for it more often than if they are looking for something less important or generic. Great apes display this same behavior – they will search more for a high-value food. Thus, Bräuer and Belger varied whether the dogs were looking for high- or low-value food, in order to test whether dogs also had the searching flexibility displayed in the passport effect. In another variation, they tested whether it made a difference to the dog when they had to search for a toy or for food.

The dogs “checked” more often when they did not know where the reward was hidden

The researchers found that the dogs did check significantly more often for the reward when they had not seen where it was placed. “These results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden,” explains Belger. “The fact that dogs checked more when they had no knowledge of the reward’s location could suggest that dogs show metacognitive abilities, as they meet one of the assumptions of knowing about knowing.”

Checking, however, did not always make the dogs very much more successful. In the first variation, with food or a toy as a reward, when dogs checked they were correct more often than when they did not check. However, in the second variation, with high-value or low-value food as the reward, even when dogs checked, they were not correct more than one would expect based on chance. The researchers theorize that this could be due to inhibition problems – the dogs get so excited about finding the reward, that they cannot stop themselves from approaching the closest fence even when they have seen that the reward is probably not there.

Additionally, the dogs did check more often for the toy than for the food in the first variation, suggesting that they do show flexibility in their searching and are not just engaging in a routine behavior. However, they did not check more often for the high-value food in the second variation, although they did look for it more quickly. Overall, the researchers concluded that the dogs, while showing some degree of searching flexibility, are not as flexible as primates.

In a third variation of the test, the dogs could always see where a food reward was placed, but were subject to a delay of 5 seconds to 2 minutes before being allowed to retrieve the reward. Interestingly, the dogs did not check more often with a longer time delay, even though they were slightly less successful. “It’s possible that this was due to a ‘ceiling effect,’ as dogs overall selected the correct fence in 93% of trials in this variation, so the pressure for seeking extra information was low,” suggests Belger.

Do dogs have metacognitive abilities?

The results did not allow the researchers to say definitively whether dogs possess metacognition, although they displayed some evidence for it. “For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case our experiment was based on a ‘checking’ action relying on sight – but the dogs probably also used their sense of smell when checking through the gap. We know that smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it,” states Bräuer. “In future, we would like to develop an experiment investigating under what circumstances dogs decide to use their sense of smell versus sight. This may give us additional insights into their information seeking abilities.”

Source:   Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

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I’m thankful

On Thursday, Americans will celebrate another Thanksgiving Day.  There will be lots of food, family gatherings, parties and – hopefully – if you take the time to observe the true reason for the holiday – you will pause and give thanks for what you have been able to achieve and have been given over the last year.

I’m in New Zealand.  We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (although I wish we did, because I think New Zealand is a great place to live and we are endowed with so much in terms of quality of life.  It wouldn’t hurt us to stop and take a moment to give thanks.)

I am thankful and here’s why:

  • I work in a field that I am passionate about.  Yes, I have worked hard to establish my practice, but I am grateful that the effort has paid off.
  • My customers trust me to work in their homes with their dogs.  I am always aware that, as an in-home specialist, I am entrusted not only with the dog’s care but also access to homes.  You can’t get more personal than that.  I am grateful for the opportunity that these dog owners have given me.
  • My work enables me to travel and meet other people who work with dogs, too many of these dogs are homeless and in need of care.
  • My work also allows me time to visit with my family overseas and we are able to spend quality time together.
  • I have friends, most of whom are also dog people, and they give me support when I need it.  Like recently, when Izzy was hurt and she needed looking after during the work day.  My friend Marie stepped up to do this for me.  (My friends, Izzy and I also do fun dog things together – like beach walks and visits to dog-friendly cafes.)
  • Izzy, my greyhound, is healthy.  Although she is aging, she is aging gracefully and still loves to be my demo dog at workshops and public events.  When the weather is cooler, she also travels with me and visits with the customers.  She’s a true ambassador for canine massage and natural care.
  • People engage with me on Facebook, through this blog, and through the columns I write for NZ Dog World.  I love to write and it is satisfying knowing that people like you are reading what I have to say and to share and take the time to get in touch.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day please take the time to give thanks – even if you are not in a country that officially celebrates the day.

Remember to hug your dog, too!

Izzy resting

Obligatory photo of Izzy, The Balanced Dog’s demo dog and mascot.

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

No link between hypoallergenic dogs and lower risk of childhood asthma

Growing up with dogs is linked to a lower risk of asthma, especially if the dogs are female, a new study from Karolinska Institutet and Uppsala University in Sweden shows. However, the researchers found no relation between ‘allergy friendly’ breeds and a lower risk of asthma. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

asthma and child

Children growing up with female dogs, but not with ‘allergy friendly’ dogs have a lower risk of asthma. Photo: iStock

Earlier studies have demonstrated a link between growing up with dogs and a lower risk of childhood asthma, but it has not been known whether this association is modified by dog characteristics. In this new study, the researchers have interrogated how variables such as sex, breed, number of dogs or size of dog are associated with the risk of asthma and allergy amongst children raised in a home with a dog during their first year of life.

“The sex of the dog can affect the amount of allergens released, and we know that uncastrated male dogs express more of a particular allergen than castrated dogs and female dogs,” says Tove Fall, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Medical Sciences – Molecular Epidemiology at Uppsala University, who led the study with Professor Catarina Almqvist Malmros at Karolinska Institutet. “Moreover, some breeds are described anecdotally as ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘allergy friendly’ and are said to be more suitable for people with allergies, but there is no scientific evidence for this.”

Classified by different traits

The study included all children born in Sweden from 1 January 2001 to 31 December 2004 who had a dog in their home for the first year of life (23,600 individuals). Data from the Swedish population and health data registries were linked anonymously to two dog-owner registries from the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Swedish Kennel Club. The dogs were classified by sex, breed, number, size and alleged ‘hypoallergenicity’.

The researchers then studied the relationship between the dogs’ characteristics and the risk of asthma and allergy diagnosis or the prescription of asthma or allergy drugs at the age of six. The statistical analyses controlled for all known confounders that could affect the risk of developing asthma or allergies, such as parental asthma/allergy, geographical location and number of siblings.

Their results showed that the prevalence of asthma at age six was 5.4 per cent. Children with only female dogs at home had a 16 per cent lower risk of asthma than those raised with male dogs. However, living with a male dog did not correlate with a higher risk than living with no dog at all. Children living with two or more dogs had a 21 per cent lower risk of asthma than those who only lived with one dog.

Hypoallergenic dogs linked to higher risk of allergy

Children of parents with asthma/allergies more often had breeds described as ‘hypoallergenic’ than children of parents without asthma/allergies – 11.7 per cent versus 7.6 per cent. Exposure to these breeds was associated with a 27 per cent higher risk of allergy but no increased risk of asthma.

“The likely explanation for this higher risk is that families with a history of allergy to furred pets more often choose these dogs, and also that ‘allergy friendly’ dogs do not in fact release less allergens,” says Catarina Almqvist Malmros, Professor at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet and Consultant at Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital.

“The finding should be treated with caution as we can say nothing about any actual causality,” she continues. “More studies are needed to monitor differences over time, measure the risk of allergies using biomarkers, and take account of the microflora.”

The study was financed with grants from the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Initiative for Research on Microdata in the Social And Medical Sciences (SIMSAM), Agria, Forte, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas), the Swedish Heart and Lung Foundation, Stockholm County Council (ALF funding) and the Strategic Research Programme in Epidemiology (SFO-epi) at Karolinska Institutet.

Source:  Karolinska Institutet media release

Izzy’s toe – recovery and enrichment

It’s been quiet on the blog – more so than usual – over the last few weeks because it’s been a bit chaotic here.  You see, Izzy dislocated a toe on an evening walk and her rehab has been my priority.

The medical description of her injury was a ‘medial dislocation of the 5th digit.’  That’s the outside toe for those laypeople out there and it meant that the toe decided to go towards the centre of her body and at one point was completely tucked under the pads of the toes on the foot.  Ouch!

The most immediate concern was pain relief and I am grateful that we have an After Hours vet in our city.  Not all locations have this and you have to wait until morning to see a professional.

Home from the After Hours

Izzy had her toe padded and wrapped and was given a Metacam injection for pain relief. So tired I didn’t want to wake her to take her harness off

We were back out at our vet in the morning for an exam and they agreed with me to treat it conservatively which meant putting the toe back into place under anesthesia, restricted exercise (going to the toilet only) and NSAIDs for pain relief.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of enrichment activities for a dog that must rest.  Boredom can quickly set in and enrichment keeps their minds active so they are less likely to want to exercise and, in Izzy’s case, do zoomies in the house.

She taught a massage workshop with me on 27th October just 2 days after having her toe re-aligned; she simply had to sit out the gait analysis part of the agenda.  Otherwise, she was my perfect demo dog as usual and the change of scene was good for her.  She came home happy and tired.

Teaching Massage

Izzy was happy to rest on the massage table during class

And later in the week, my hairdresser allowed her to come with me so she could have another change of scene and enrichment.

At the Hairdressers with Therapaw Bootie

Izzy at the hairdresser’s who gave her a sheepskin to lay on. She’s wearing a Therapaws bootie to help protect her paw

After my hair was done, Izzy had her short toilet walk in a new neighborhood with new and different smells – also enrichment.

I’ve been taking her for short toilet breaks to other parks, too.  And rides in the car are also stimulating activities for her.

In between, I’m lucky that I had a friend who looked after her for two days while I was working and during this time she also had the company of another greyhound.   It really helps to have friends who understand and can help out when you dog is injured.

I’ve been lasering Izzy’s toe daily to help with blood flow and tissue healing and she is back to walking, although I am increasing the distance of her walks slowly to ensure we don’t over do it.  Also, after a period of rest, the physical condition of a dog declines.  So it’s wise to manage the re-introduction of exercise to avoid other strains and injuries.

Izzy has arthritis in her carpus (wrist) and toes, and so this injury is probably also a sign of the vulnerabilities that we will need to manage as she gets older.

The good news is that she is on the mend and we haven’t had any set back so far.

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

What Makes A Good Working Dog? Canine ‘Aptitude Test’ Might Offer Clues

The canine labor market is diverse and expansive. Assistance dogs may be trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, or with people in wheelchairs. Detection dogs may be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs. Other pups even learn to jump out of helicopters on daring rescue missions.

Despite the wide variety of working roles available for man’s best friend, those jobs can be tough to fill, since not every dog will qualify. Even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 percent that start a training program will successfully complete it, while the rest go on to be very well-trained family pets.

As a result, the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.

Working Dogs

Shelby Smith was matched with her assistance dog Picasso through the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. UA researcher Evan MacLean is looking for ways to help organizations like Canine Companions identify promising assistance dogs sooner. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, is exploring ways to identify the best dogs for different jobs – before they start the long and expensive training process — by looking at their cognitive abilities.

He is lead author of a new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science that looks at whether canines’ cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.

While a dog’s physical characteristics and temperament are often considered when thinking about which dog will be right for a given job, cognition is an area that’s received far less attention.

“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” said MacLean, assistant professor in the UA School of Anthropology. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”

MacLean’s study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs in training, which will go on to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy.

MacLean and his colleagues looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play.

What they found: A different set of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog.

In the case of assistance dogs, social skills — including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans — appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success.

“Dog jobs are just about as diverse as human jobs are,” MacLean said. “People sometimes think of working dogs as this general category of dogs that have jobs in society, but they actually have to do really, really different things, and because these jobs are so diverse, we didn’t expect that there was going to be one litmus test for what would make a good dog. It’s like if you think about aptitude testing with people – there are certain questions that will tell you something about one job but not another.”

The study involved 164 dogs from the California-based organization Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs, and 222 dogs from the Navy.

The researchers tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Dogs in the study were considered “successful” based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training. Through cognitive testing, MacLean and his colleagues were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.

The success of the Navy dogs, whose training is ongoing and not marked by a single graduation date, was measured based on trainers’ records of the dogs’ performance on training exercises, as well as questionnaires with people who trained or deployed with the dogs.

MacLean’s findings suggest that cognition could be considered alongside temperament and physicality to predict working dog success.

If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it could save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs and also ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, MacLean said.

He and his colleagues are now working on determining if cognitive testing could be informative even earlier — when a dog is just 8 weeks old. They also are looking at whether these skills have a genetic basis that could be targeted in breeding programs.

“One of the most exciting parts of all this is that it tells us cognition does something in animals,” MacLean said. “We study these abstract questions about how animals think about the world and how they solve problems, but there aren’t always a lot of situations where you can say, ‘Why does that matter? What does it allow an animal to actually do?’ This is some of the first evidence that suggests that these processes that we measure, which differ between individual dogs, have some real consequences related to something that’s quite worthy in society.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

Doggy quote of the month for November

“An immaculate house is a wonderful and elegant thing, but it can also be an empty and a cold thing.  I’ll take mine with flying paws and whisking tails and eager loving looks from dark earnest eyes.  When the children go away to school, and get married and move away, there are so many little quiet corners in a house.  A bevy of Cockers and an Irish or two livens things up considerably.  It is hard to be melancholy with somebody playing leapfrog around the room.”

Gladys Taber

Glady Taber, author (1899 – 1980)

Study finds glyphosate in cat and dog food

Got glyphosate?

Your pet’s breakfast might.

glyphosate

A new Cornell study published this month in Environmental Pollution finds that glyphosate, the active herbicidal ingredient in widely used weed killers like Roundup, was present at low levels in a variety of dog and cat foods the researchers purchased at stores. Before you go switching Fido or Fluffy’s favorite brand, however, be aware that the amounts of the herbicide found correspond to levels currently considered safe for humans.

The study grew out of a larger interdisciplinary research project led by Brian Richards, senior research associate in biological and environmental engineering, and supported by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Academic Venture Fund, which sought to reassess glyphosate mobility and impacts in several contexts: movement from crop fields in surface water, impacts on soils and on animals consuming it in their feed.

Richard’s co-investigators Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology, and Kenneth Simpson, professor of small-animal medicine, visited a pet store and a retail outlet, where they selected multiple bags of cat and dog foods from major brands. The 18 feeds were all mixtures of vegetable and meat ingredients, and one product was certified GMO-free. Analyses conducted by postdoctoral researcher and lead author Jiang Zhao in Hay’s lab, and research support specialist Steve Pacenka, found that all of the products contained glyphosate at concentrations ranging from approximately 80 to 2,000 micrograms of glyphosate per kilogram.

Since there is not enough data available to determine what effect – if any – low-dose glyphosate exposure has on domestic animals, the researchers used human acceptable daily intake guidelines to put these findings in context, according to Hay. The researchers estimated that the median dog exposure would amount to only 0.7 percent of the U.S. glyphosate limit set for humans.

“While the levels of glyphosate in pet foods surprised us, if a human ate it every day, their glyphosate exposure would still be well below the limits currently deemed safe,” Hay said.

“Even the most contaminated feed they studied had thousands of times less glyphosate than levels that were shown to have no adverse effects on dogs in the U.S. EPA’s Draft Risk Assessment for glyphosate” said Dan Wixted, a pesticide educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension who was not involved in the study.

While unable to pinpoint the exact product or crops that were the source of the glyphosate, Hay’s team did find a correlation with fiber, suggesting a plant-based origin.

“We know that glyphosate is only certified for spraying on crops, and it does not bio-accumulate in animals, so we would not expect it to come from feed animals that are the main protein sources in some of the products,” Hay said. “Our evidence suggests that it’s coming from plant material.”

One surprising finding of the study: Glyphosate was detected in the one GMO-free product the researchers analyzed at levels higher than those of several other processed feeds. This suggests that keeping feed stocks uncontaminated is a challenge even in the GMO-free market.

What is a pet owner to do with this information?

“Glyphosate is out there in our pets’ food, and while there doesn’t appear to be any immediate risk, there is still uncertainty about the chronic impact of low doses like these,” Hay said. “It’s hard to find a product that doesn’t have glyphosate in it, so we included the exposure assessment to provide some context. The old adage ‘dose determines the poison’ is good to keep in mind: While it’s possible that these animals might respond differently than humans, the numbers are still within a range that would be deemed safe for humans.”

Hay, for his part, has stopped feeding chow found to be high in glyphosate to his own dog, a pug beagle mix, but he hasn’t seen any changes in her health.

“She’s more cat than dog to be honest,” he said. “She sits on the bed and won’t go outside when it rains. But I can now confirm that her laziness has nothing to do with her feed.”

Source:  Cornell Chronicle