Tag Archives: Arizona State University

The puppy cuteness study

The popular meme proclaiming that all dogs are puppies assumes that humans’ adoration of canines is not conditional on their age. But a new study led by Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and director of Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory, suggests otherwise.

In a paper published this month in Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals, Wynne and colleagues describe the study, which found dogs’ attractiveness to humans peaks at roughly eight weeks, the same point in time at which their mother weans them and leaves them to fend for themselves.

While spending time in the Bahamas, Wynne was able to observe the many street dogs there. According to him, there are around a billion dogs in the world, 80 percent of whom are feral. For those dogs, human intervention is crucial to their survival. Wynne wondered if there was a connection between pups’ weaning age — when they are at their most vulnerable — and their level of attractiveness to humans. So he designed an experiment to test his query.

“It came out exactly as I’d hoped it would — that there is indeed an optimal age of maximum cuteness, and that age does line up pretty closely with the age at which mothers wean their pups,” Wynne said.

“This could be a signal coming through to us of how dogs have evolved to rely on human care. This could be dogs showing us how the bond between human and dog is not just something that we find immensely satisfying in our lives. … But for them, it’s the absolute bedrock of their existence. That being able to connect with us, to find an emotional hook with us is what actually makes their lives possible.”

The study was carried out using a series of photographs of puppies at different ages, from the first weeks of life through young adulthood. Fifty-one participants were asked to rank the puppies’ level of attractiveness in each photo. Three distinctive-looking breeds were ranked: Jack Russell terriers, cane corsos and white shepherds.

Results showed that the pups’ attractiveness was lowest at birth and increased to a maximum before 10 weeks of age before declining and then leveling off.

Cane corsos showed a maximum attractiveness at 6.3 weeks of age; Jack Russell terriers showed a maximum attractiveness at 7.7 weeks of age; and white shepherds showed a maximum attractiveness at 8.3 weeks of age.

puppies

Sample images of three breeds at different ages. The top row of images depicts a cane corso, the middle row depicts a Jack Russell terrier and the bottom row depicts a white shepherd. The middle column shows each dog at it’s “most attractive” age, as rated by participants: six weeks for Cane corsos; a little over seven weeks for Jack Russell terriers; and eight weeks for white shepherds

“Around seven or eight weeks of age, just as their mother is getting sick of them and is going to kick them out of the den and they’re going to have to make their own way in life, at that age, that is exactly when they are most attractive to human beings,” Wynne said.

The findings provide insight into the depth and origin of the relationship between humans and dogs, the oldest and most enduring of any human-animal relationship. And while some theories attribute the survival of the canine species to their intelligence, Wynne dissents.

“I think that the intelligence of dogs is not the fundamental issue,” he said. “It’s this tremendous capacity to form intimate, strong, affectionate bonds. And that starts at maybe eight weeks of life, when they’re so compelling to us.”

Though humans and other animals, such as cats and birds, have the capacity to form strong bonds, dogs in particular are especially suited to the task because of their gregarious nature. Even in hand-reared wolves, the species from which all dogs are descended, the willingness to engage humans does not match that of the domestic dog.

“It does seem to me that the dog has something rather special,” Wynne said. “Dogs have a very open-ended social program. That they are ready and willing to make friends with anybody.”

Wynne has thought of a couple of interesting ways to follow up on the cuteness study. One way is to show participants video of puppies at different ages, instead of still photos, to determine if perhaps there is something in the pups’ movement that attracts people. Another is to determine what the pups’ mother thinks about their level of attractiveness at different ages, though that is obviously easier said than done.

The takeaway from the study for Wynne is that extra piece of the puzzle that makes up the human-dog connection.

“[The study] doesn’t mean to say that we stop loving our dogs past [eight weeks],” he said. “The eight-week point is just the point where the hook is biggest, the ability of the animal to grab our interest is strongest. But, having grabbed our interest, we continue to love them all their lives.”

Source:  Arizona State University

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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