Do Bigger Brains Equal Smarter Dogs?

Bigger dogs, with larger brains, perform better on certain measures of intelligence than their smaller canine counterparts, according to a new study led by the University of Arizona.

bigger vs smaller

Bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups. Credit: © alexzizu / Fotolia

Larger-brained dogs outperform smaller dogs on measures of executive functions – a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. In particular, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups, according to the study published in the journal Animal Cognition.

“The jury is out on why, necessarily, brain size might relate to cognition,” said lead study author Daniel Horschler, a UA anthropology doctoral student and member of the UA’s Arizona Canine Cognition Center. “We think of it as probably a proxy for something else going on, whether it’s the number of neurons that matters or differences in connectivity between neurons. Nobody’s really sure yet, but we’re interested in figuring out what those deeper things are.”

Canine brain size does not seem to be associated with all types of intelligence, however. Horschler found that brain size didn’t predict a dog’s performance on tests of social intelligence, which was measured by testing each dog’s ability to follow human pointing gestures. It also wasn’t associated with a dog’s inferential and physical reasoning ability.

The study’s findings mirror what scientists have previously found to be true in primates – that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.

“Previous studies have been composed mostly or entirely of primates, so we weren’t sure whether the result was an artifact of unique aspects of primate brain evolution,” Horschler said. “We think dogs are a really great test case for this because there’s huge variation in brain size, to a degree you don’t see in pretty much any other terrestrial mammals. You have chihuahuas versus Great Danes and everything in between.”

Horschler’s study is based on data from more than 7,000 purebred domestic dogs from 74 different breeds. Brain size was estimated based on breed standards.

The data came from the citizen science website Dognition.com, which offers instructions for dog owners to test their canines’ cognitive abilities through a variety of game-based activities. The users then submit their data to the site, where it can be accessed by researchers.

Short-term memory was tested by dog owners hiding a treat, in view of their dog, under one of two overturned plastic cups. Owners then waited 60, 90, 120 or 150 seconds before releasing their dog to get the treat. Smaller dogs had more difficulty remembering where the treat was hidden.

To test self-control, owners placed a treat in front of their seated dog and then forbade the dog from taking it. Owners then either watched the dog, covered their own eyes or turned away from the dog. Larger-breed dogs typically waited longer to snag the forbidden treat.

Horschler and his colleagues controlled for whether or not the dogs had been trained. They found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.

In the future, Horschler said he’d like to do comparative studies of cognitive abilities in different breed varieties, such as the miniature poodle and much larger standard poodle, which are essentially the same except for their size.

“I’m really interested in how cognition evolves and how that arises biologically,” Horschler said. “We’re coming to understand that brain size is in some way related to cognition, whether it’s because of brain size specifically or whether it’s a proxy for something else.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

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Pawprints on my heart

Many of you will be familiar with the phrase “Dogs leave pawprints on your heart.”  I don’t think there is a dog parent or former dog parent that would argue with it.

One of the ways I have kept my dogs in my heart is to preserve their paw prints for display in my home.  As a young child, I remember going to a local family day at our school.  At that event, each of us had our hand prints taken in plaster and they were painted in gold afterwards.  For many years, these handprints remained on the wall in our family room.

I decided to do something similar for my dogs (the first dogs I could claim were mine as a pet parent).

At the time I was taking Izzy’s print last year, I had to take everything off our walls in preparation for new wallpaper and painting.  It was an ideal time to decide about alternative ways of displaying my paw prints.  I really wanted them grouped together without having to place individual holes/hooks for each.

Here’s how it came together from the day I started on Izzy’s print:

 

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After taking Izzy’s paw print in the modelling clay and letting it dry thoroughly, I painted it with gold craft paint

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I then bought an ornament hanger that is actually designed for things like small plates. The adhesive fixes to the back of the paw print and then in permanent marking pen, I wrote her name, age 9 and 2018 (Ebony’s was taken at age 8 in 2002; Daisy at age 4 in 2004)

So here’s the crafty bit.  I bought a belt at a secondhand store for $3 and some ribbon also at a secondhand store for $2.50.   Here’s what the belt looked like at the beginning, with its pin removed:

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I then cut down the belt to a suitable length (removing the rivets at the top and length at the bottom) and wove black satin ribbon through the cutouts on the belt – affixing the ends of the ribbon to the back of the belt with glue using a hot glue gun.

I then attached each paw print to the new display using macrame cord. (If I have other dogs in the future, there is room to cut the cords, and re-position the prints to add at least two more on this hanger)

Voilà – my unique wall hanging with the pawprints on my heart.

wall hanging

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

Medical detection dogs help diabetes patients regulate insulin levels

New research by the University of Bristol in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs has found that the best trained alert dogs have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of people living with Type 1 diabetes.

As reported in PLOS One, on average trained dogs alerted their owners to 83 per cent of hypoglycaemic episodes in over 4,000 hypo- and hyper-glycaemic episodes that were examined. A hypoglycaemic episode is where blood sugar drops dangerously low and if left untreated, can lead to unconsciousness or even death.

medical alert assistance dog

Claire Pesterfield holding her dog Magic’s paw. He’s a medical alert assistant dog and has been trained to detect a minute shift in Claire’s blood sugar levels. She thinks he’s alerted and potentially saved her life 4,500 times in the five years they’ve been together. Photo by Trevor Martin

The findings confirm that alert dogs can help Type 1 patients regulate their blood sugars in a non-invasive way and avoid the risks of hypoglycaemic episodes and hyperglycaemia.

Lead author Dr Nicola Rooney from the Bristol Veterinary School, said: “We already know from previous studies that patients’ quality of life is vastly improved by having a medical detection dog. However, to date, evidence has come from small scale studies. Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.”

In this study, researchers from Bristol, assessed the reliability of 27 trained glycaemia alert dogs, whose owners provided six to 12 weeks continual worth of blood records detailing every time the dog was alerted.

Medical Detection Dogs train pet dogs to respond to respond to the odour of human disease and help owners live with life-threatening diseases. Familiar with their owners, dogs are conditioned to respond with alerting behaviours when their owners’ blood sugar levels fall outside a target range.

Encouraged by the alerting behaviour of their pet dog, if such out-of-range (OOR) episodes occur, the patient can take appropriate action, usually by administering insulin or eating to retain the right glucose levels.

Dr Rooney, Teaching Fellow in Animal Welfare and Behaviour, added: “Our research shows a dog’s effectiveness is affected by the individual dog and its connection with its human partner. Since the usage of such dogs is growing, it’s important that any dogs used for these purposes are professionally trained, matched and monitored by professional organisations like Medical Detection Dogs.  It’s also vital that research continues both to assess true efficacy and determine ways to optimise their performance.”

Dr Claire Guest, Chief Executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “The findings are fantastic news for all those who are living with Type 1 diabetes and other conditions. Medical detection dogs primarily serve patients looking for more effective and independent ways of managing their condition.

“Our dogs also serve the wider medical community by offering proactive solutions that are natural, non-invasive and have been shown to provide countless psychological benefits.

“As our natural companions, and with a highly refined sense of smell, why shouldn’t they be able to detect changes in our personal health?”

Paper:

How effective are trained dogs at alerting their owners to changes in blood glycaemic levels?: variations in performance of  glycaemia alert dogs by Nicola J Rooney, Claire M Guest, Lydia CM. Swanson, Steve V. Morant in PLOS One [open access]

Source:  University of Bristol media release

To the man in the little red car

Yesterday, Izzy and I were out for our late afternoon walk  in our neighborhood.

Like many residential areas, over the years I have watched as the local streets have become busier and often, despite the Council’s efforts at introducing traffic calming measures, cars race through intersections to trim a second or two off their commuting times on the main road.

So I’d like to thank the man in the little red car.  Izzy and I were waiting to cross the street, since you had the right-of-way.

Instead, you stopped and let us cross.

Thank you for your small act of kindness; it really made our day!

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

Bulldogs’ Screw Tails Linked to Human Genetic Disease

With their small size, stubby faces and wide-set eyes, bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers are among the most popular of domestic dog breeds. Now researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine have found the genetic basis for these dogs’ appearance, and linked it to a rare inherited syndrome in humans.

bulldog

Moxie, a 3-year-old French bulldog, took part in a study of the genetics of “screwtail” dog breeds (bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers). A common mutation in these dogs is similar to genetic changes in a rare human disease, Robinow syndrome. (Photo credit: Katy Robertson)

Bulldogs, French bulldogs and Boston terriers aren’t the only dogs with short, wide heads, but they do share another feature not found in other breeds: a short, kinked tail or “screwtail,” said Professor Danika Bannasch, Department of Population Health and Reproduction in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. These three breeds all lack the vertebrae that make up the tail bone, she said.

The researchers sequenced the whole genome — the entire DNA sequence — of 100 dogs, including 10 from screwtail breeds. All the participating dogs were privately owned pets seen at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, whose owners agreed to participate. Graduate students Tamer Mansour and Katherine Lucot, with C. Titus Brown, associate professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Genome Center, searched through the DNA sequences to find changes associated with screwtail breeds.

From more than 12 million individual differences they were able to identify one mutation, in a gene called DISHEVELLED 2 or DVL2. This variant was found in 100 percent of the bulldogs and French bulldogs sampled, and was very common in Boston terriers.

This kind of whole genome comparison is relatively new, Bannasch said.

“Normally, we would have first had to identify a region DNA and work from there,” she said. “We could look at breed-specific traits, but not as well as we can now.”

Professor Henry Ho at the UC Davis School of Medicine studies similar genes in humans. Mutations in the related DVL1 and DVL3 genes are known to cause Robinow syndrome, a rare inherited disorder in humans characterized by strikingly similar anatomical changes — a short, wide “babyface,” short limbs and spinal deformities. In addition, Robinow patients and the screwtail breeds also share other disease traits, such as cleft palate. In both humans and dogs, DVL genes are part of a signaling pathway called WNT involved in development of the skeleton and nervous system, among other things, said Peter Dickinson, professor of surgical and radiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine. By characterizing the screwtail DVL2 protein product, Sara Konopelski, a graduate student in the Ho lab, pinpointed a key biochemical step in the WNT pathway that is disrupted by the mutation. This finding further suggests that a common molecular defect is responsible for the distinct appearances of both Robinow patients and screwtail dog breeds.

The DVL2 screwtail mutation is so common in these breeds, and so closely tied to the breed appearance, that it would be difficult to remove it by breeding, Dickinson said. Other genes are known to contribute to short, wide “brachycephalic” heads in dogs, and there are likely multiple genes that contribute both to appearance and to chronic health problems in these breeds.

Understanding a common mutation in popular dog breeds may, however, give more insight into the rare Robinow syndrome in humans. Only a few hundred cases have been documented since the syndrome was identified in 1969.

“It’s a very rare human disease but very common in dogs, so that could be a model for the human syndrome,” Bannasch said.

Source:  UC Davis media release

What I’ve been reading…

Most people in New Zealand went back to work on Monday after a couple of weeks of holidays around the Christmas and New Year period.

Although I worked the non-statutory days, I also had some ‘me time’ and I was able to get stuck into the many books that have been piling up on my end table.  (I prefer real books to electonic books, by the way, – no Kindle here!)

I read two of the David Rosenfelt books featuring Andy Carpenter, a lawyer and dog lover.  Andy has a Golden Retriever, Tara, and also supports a local rescue organisation.  He can afford to be choosy about the cases he decides to take on; Andy is wealthy thanks to a sizeable inheritance.

Play Dead and New Tricks are actually the 6th and 7th books in the Andy Carpenter series and I’ve got to get my hands on numbers 1-5 before proceeding in sequence again.

These novels were interesting stories packed with courtroom drama and, of course, dogs.

In Play Dead, the key to overturning Richard Evan’s  life sentence for murdering his girlfriend Stacy Harriman lies with his Golden Retriever, Reggie.  Presumed drowned after Richard murders Stacy on a boat (Stacy’s body was never found),  Reggie suddenly turns up at a local animal shelter years later.  Will Reggie lead Andy to the real killer?

In New Tricks, Andy becomes the court-appointed guardian of Waggy, a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy.  Waggy’s owner was murdered and the man’s wife is going to battle it out for custody of Waggy with her stepson.  That is, until the wife is also killed when her house explodes in front of Andy’s eyes and the stepson is charged with murder.  This story was full of twists and turns as well as courtroom drama.

Andy Carpenter is the protagonist is these books, unlike the Chet and Bernie books by Spencer Quinn (which I also love!) which feature Chet the Dog as the storyteller.

These novels were entertaining and made for a great, relaxing read over the holidays.   I definitely want to read all of the other Andy Carpenter books.  (there are 17 books so far with the latest book, Deck the Hounds, published in October 2018).

I think more books are going to pile up on the end table!

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

Research reveals overweight dogs may live shorter lives

New research from the University of Liverpool and Mars Petcare’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition reveals overweight dogs are more likely to have shorter lives than those at ideal body weights.

Results from the study, conducted retrospectively across two decades and published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, revealed the lifespan of dogs that were overweight was up to two and a half years shorter when compared to ideal-weight dogs.

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The study examined more than 50,000 dogs across 12 of the most popular dog breeds. The effect of being overweight was seen in all breeds, although the magnitude of the effect differed, ranging from between five months less for male German Shepherds to two years and six months less for male Yorkshire Terriers.

Poorer quality of life

It is estimated that over a quarter of households (26%) in the UK and nearly half in the US (47.6%) own a dog. However despite our affection for canine companions, concern is growing that many pet owners are unaware of the serious health implications of dogs carrying extra weight. Pet obesity is steadily on the rise, with latest figures estimating one in three dogs and cats in the U.S. is overweight.

Although the study did not examine the reasons behind the extra pounds in dogs, feeding habits are thought to play a role in pet obesity. According to a recent Better Cities For Pets survey , more than half (54%) of cat and dog owners always or often give their pet food if they beg for it, and nearly a quarter (22%) of cat and dog owners sometimes overfeed their pet to keep them happy.

Study co-author and Professor of Small Animal Medicine at the University of Liverpool Alex German, said: “Owners are often unaware that their dog is overweight, and many may not realise the impact that it can have on health. What they may not know is that, if their beloved pet is too heavy, they are more likely to suffer from other problems such as joint disease, breathing issues, and certain types of cancer, as well as having a poorer quality of life. These health and wellbeing issues can significantly impact how long they live.

“For many owners, giving food, particularly tasty table scraps and tidbits, is the way we show affection for our pets. Being careful about what you feed your dog could go a long way to keeping them in good shape and enabling them to be around for many years to come.
“Worryingly, it is estimated only one in five pet owners always measures how much food they are giving their pet, with four in five (87%) always or often simply estimating the amount of food they think their pet needs at each serving.”

About the Study

The University of Liverpool and WALTHAM study was a retrospective, observational cohort study that leveraged demographic, geographic and clinical data from dogs that received care at BANFIELD® Pet Hospitals between April 1994 and September 2015. Data were available from 50,787 dogs across 12 of the most popular family breeds: Dachshund, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, American Cocker Spaniel, Beagle, Boxer, Chihuahua, Pit Bull Terrier, Pomeranian, Shih Tzu, and Yorkshire Terrier. For each breed, the lifespan dogs whose owners reported them to be overweight and those in optimal body condition was compared.

As the largest general-veterinary practice in the world, Banfield has more than 1,000 hospitals across the United States and Puerto Rico comprised of veterinary teams who are committed to providing high-quality veterinary care for more than three million pets annually. The data extracted for this study included demographic (breed, sex, neuter status and date of birth) and geographic (latitude and longitude of the owner’s postcode) variables, plus data collected during in-clinic visits (date of visit, bodyweight and if available body condition), and date of death. Pedigree status and date of birth are both owner-reported parameters and were not verified by veterinary staff.

Source:  University of Liverpool