Tag Archives: cognition

Yes, your pet can tell time

Are you taking your time when feeding your pet? Fluffy and Fido are on to you — and they can tell when you are dawdling.

time dog

A new study from Northwestern University has found some of the clearest evidence yet that animals can judge time. By examining the brain’s medial entorhinal cortex, the researchers discovered a previously unknown set of neurons that turn on like a clock when an animal is waiting.

“Does your dog know that it took you twice as long to get its food as it took yesterday? There wasn’t a good answer for that before,” said Daniel Dombeck, who led the study. “This is one of the most convincing experiments to show that animals really do have an explicit representation of time in their brains when they are challenged to measure a time interval.”

The research was published online this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Dombeck is an associate professor of neurobiology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

When planning the study, Dombeck’s team focused on the medial entorhinal cortex, an area located in the brain’s temporal lobe that is associated with memory and navigation. Because that part of the brain encodes spatial information in episodic memories, Dombeck hypothesized that the area could also be responsible for encoding time.

“Every memory is a bit different,” said James Heys, a postdoctoral fellow in Dombeck’s laboratory. “But there are two central features to all episodic memories: space and time. They always happen in a particular environment and are always structured in time.”

To test their hypothesis, Dombeck and Heys set up an experiment called the virtual “door stop” task. In the experiment, a mouse runs on a physical treadmill in a virtual reality environment. The mouse learns to run down a hallway to a door that is located about halfway down the track. After six seconds, the door opens, allowing the mouse to continue down the hallway to receive its reward.

After running several training sessions, researchers made the door invisible in the virtual reality scene. In the new scenario, the mouse still knew where the now-invisible “door” was located based on the floor’s changing textures. And it still waited six seconds at the “door” before abruptly racing down the track to collect its reward.

“The important point here is that the mouse doesn’t know when the door is open or closed because it’s invisible,” said Heys, the paper’s first author. “The only way he can solve this task efficiently is by using his brain’s internal sense of time.”

By using virtual reality, Dombeck and his team can neatly control potentially influencing factors, such as the sound of the door opening. “We wouldn’t be able to make the door completely invisible in a real environment,” Dombeck said. “The animal could touch it, hear it, smell it or sense it in some way. They wouldn’t have to judge time; they would just sense when the door opened. In virtual reality, we can take away all sensory cues.”

But Dombeck and his team did more than watch the mice complete the door stop task over and over again. They took the experiment one step further by imaging the mice’s brain activity. Using two-photon microscopy, which allows advanced, high-resolution imaging of the brain, Dombeck and Heys watched the mice’s neurons fire.

“As the animals run along the track and get to the invisible door, we see the cells firing that control spatial encoding,” Dombeck said. “Then, when the animal stops at the door, we see those cells turned off and a new set of cells turn on. This was a big surprise and a new discovery.”

Dombeck noted these “timing cells” did not fire during active running — only during rest. “Not only are the cells active during rest,” he said, “but they actually encode how much time the animal has been resting.”

The implication of the work expands well beyond your impatient pooch. Now that researchers have found these new time-encoding neurons, they can study how neurodegenerative diseases might affect this set of cells.

“Patients with Alzheimer’s disease notably forget when things happened in time,” Heys said. “Perhaps this is because they are losing some of the basic functions of the entorhinal cortex, which is one of the first brain regions affected by the disease.”

“So this could lead to new early-detection tests for Alzheimer’s,” Dombeck added. “We could start asking people to judge how much time has elapsed or ask them to navigate a virtual reality environment — essentially having a human do a ‘door stop’ task.”

Source:   Northwestern University media statement

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Scientists chase mystery of how dogs process words

When some dogs hear their owners say “squirrel,” they perk up, become agitated. They may even run to a window and look out of it. But what does the word mean to the dog? Does it mean, “Pay attention, something is happening?” Or does the dog actually picture a small, bushy-tailed rodent in its mind?

scanner_eddie

Eddie, one of the dogs that participated in the study, poses in the fMRI scanner with two of the toys used in the experiments, “Monkey” and “Piggy.” (Photo courtesy Gregory Berns)

Frontiers in Neuroscience published one of the first studies using brain imaging to probe how our canine companions process words they have been taught to associate with objects, conducted by scientists at Emory University. The results suggest that dogs have at least a rudimentary neural representation of meaning for words they have been taught, differentiating words they have heard before from those they have not.

“Many dog owners think that their dogs know what some words mean, but there really isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” says Ashley Prichard, a PhD candidate in Emory’s Department of Psychology and first author of the study. “We wanted to get data from the dogs themselves — not just owner reports.”

“We know that dogs have the capacity to process at least some aspects of human language since they can learn to follow verbal commands,” adds Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, senior author of the study. “Previous research, however, suggests dogs may rely on many other cues to follow a verbal command, such as gaze, gestures and even emotional expressions from their owners.”

The Emory researchers focused on questions surrounding the brain mechanisms dogs use to differentiate between words, or even what constitutes a word to a dog.

Berns is founder of the Dog Project, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. Studies by the Dog Project have furthered understanding of dogs’ neural response to expected reward, identified specialized areas in the dog brain for processing faces, demonstrated olfactory responses to human and dog odors, and linked prefrontal function to inhibitory control.

For the current study, 12 dogs of varying breeds were trained for months by their owners to retrieve two different objects, based on the objects’ names. Each dog’s pair of objects consisted of one with a soft texture, such as a stuffed animal, and another of a different texture, such as rubber, to facilitate discrimination. Training consisted of instructing the dogs to fetch one of the objects and then rewarding them with food or praise. Training was considered complete when a dog showed that it could discriminate between the two objects by consistently fetching the one requested by the owner when presented with both of the objects.

During one experiment, the trained dog lay in the fMRI scanner while the dog’s owner stood directly in front of the dog at the opening of the machine and said the names of the dog’s toys at set intervals, then showed the dog the corresponding toys.

Eddie, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, for instance, heard his owner say the words “Piggy” or “Monkey,” then his owner held up the matching toy. As a control, the owner then spoke gibberish words, such as “bobbu” and “bodmick,” then held up novel objects like a hat or a doll.

The results showed greater activation in auditory regions of the brain to the novel pseudowords relative to the trained words.

“We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” Prichard says. “What’s surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans — people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words.”

The researchers hypothesize that the dogs may show greater neural activation to a novel word because they sense their owners want them to understand what they are saying, and they are trying to do so. “Dogs ultimately want to please their owners, and perhaps also receive praise or food,” Berns says.

Half of the dogs in the experiment showed the increased activation for the novel words in their parietotemporal cortex, an area of the brain that the researchers believe may be analogous to the angular gyrus in humans, where lexical differences are processed.

The other half of the dogs, however, showed heightened activity to novel words in other brain regions, including the other parts of the left temporal cortex and amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus.

These differences may be related to a limitation of the study — the varying range in breeds and sizes of the dogs, as well as possible variations in their cognitive abilities. A major challenge in mapping the cognitive processes of the canine brain, the researchers acknowledge, is the variety of shapes and sizes of dogs’ brains across breeds.

“Dogs may have varying capacity and motivation for learning and understanding human words,” Berns says, “but they appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond just a low-level Pavlovian response.”

This conclusion does not mean that spoken words are the most effective way for an owner to communicate with a dog. In fact, other research also led by Prichard and Berns and recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the neural reward system of dogs is more attuned to visual and to scent cues than to verbal ones.

“When people want to teach their dog a trick, they often use a verbal command because that’s what we humans prefer,” Prichard says. “From the dog’s perspective, however, a visual command might be more effective, helping the dog learn the trick faster.”

Source:  Emory University

Dog intelligence ‘not exceptional’

Note from DoggyMom:

This research hit mainstream media at the beginning of the month.  It’s an important part of the research process to have results peer reviewed and it is also common for reviews of this nature – across multiple pieces of research.

I don’t necessarily think that dogs must be exceptional, however.  And so the results of cognition research that have been published so far shouldn’t be discounted because of this review.  Rather, the cognition research undertaken with dogs helps to prove that they are sentient (very important for animal welfare laws) and more intelligent than many people (and policy makers) believe.

I certainly don’t expect my dogs to be Einstein, but I do see that they have intelligence and emotions – both of which we should respect.


Scientists reviewed evidence that compared the brain power of dogs with other domestic animals, other social hunters and other carnivorous (an order including animals such as dogs, wolves, bears, lions and hyenas).Dog intelligence photo

The researchers, from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christ Church University, found the cognitive abilities of dogs were at least matched by several species in each of these groups.

The study examined more than 300 papers on the intelligence of dogs and other animals, and found several cases of “over interpretation” in favour of dogs’ abilities.

“During our work it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to ‘prove’ how clever dogs are,” said Professor Stephen Lea, of the University of Exeter.

“They are often compared to chimpanzees and whenever dogs ‘win’, this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional.

“Yet in each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks.”

The review focussed on sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition and self-awareness.

“Taking all three groups (domestic animals, social hunters and carnivorans) into account, dog cognition does not look exceptional,” said Dr Britta Osthaus, of Canterbury Christ Church University.

“We are doing dogs no favour by expecting too much of them. Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them.”

The paper, published in the journal Learning & Behavior, is entitled: “In what sense are dogs special? Canine cognition in comparative context.”

Source:  University of Exeter media release

Dogs understand what’s written all over your face

Dogs can understand

Dogs can understand emotional expressions of humans. Credit: © ZoomTeam / Fotolia

Dogs are capable of understanding the emotions behind an expression on a human face. For example, if a dog turns its head to the left, it could be picking up that someone is angry, fearful or happy. If there is a look of surprise on a person’s face, dogs tend to turn their head to the right. The heart rates of dogs also go up when they see someone who is having a bad day, say Marcello Siniscalchi, Serenella d’Ingeo and Angelo Quaranta of the University of Bari Aldo Moro in Italy.

The study in Springer’s journal Learning & Behavior is the latest to reveal just how connected dogs are with people. The research also provides evidence that dogs use different parts of their brains to process human emotions.

By living in close contact with humans, dogs have developed specific skills that enable them to interact and communicate efficiently with people. Recent studies have shown that the canine brain can pick up on emotional cues contained in a person’s voice, body odour and posture, and read their faces.

In this study, the authors watched what happened when they presented photographs of the same two adults’ faces (a man and a woman) to 26 feeding dogs. The images were placed strategically to the sides of the animals’ line of sight and the photos showed a human face expressing one of the six basic human emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust or being neutral.

The dogs showed greater response and cardiac activity when shown photographs that expressed arousing emotional states such as anger, fear and happiness. They also took longer to resume feeding after seeing these images. The dogs’ increased heart rate indicated that in these cases they experienced higher levels of stress.

In addition, dogs tended to turn their heads to the left when they saw human faces expressing anger, fear or happiness. The reverse happened when the faces looked surprised, possibly because dogs view it as a non-threatening, relaxed expression. These findings therefore support the existence of an asymmetrical emotional modulation of dogs’ brains to process basic human emotions.

“Clearly arousing, negative emotions seem to be processed by the right hemisphere of a dog’s brain, and more positive emotions by the left side,” says Siniscalchi.

The results support that of other studies done on dogs and other mammals. These show that the right side of the brain plays a more important part in regulating the sympathetic outflow to the heart. This is a fundamental organ for the control of the ‘fight or flight’ behavioural response necessary for survival.

Source:  Springer.com

Which are smarter, cats or dogs?

This debate among pet owners can still get quite heated.

In this short video, a scientist explains why she concludes that dogs have the greater cognitive capabilities:

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Human encouragement and how it may help dogs solve problems

Human encouragement might influence how dogs solve problems, according to a new Oregon State University study.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, sheds light on how people influence animal behavior, said study lead author Lauren Brubaker, a doctoral student in OSU’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab.

Brubaker evaluated the behavior of search and rescue dogs and pet dogs when presented with the same problem-solving task. Both sets of dogs persisted at the task for about the same proportion of time, but the search and rescue dogs were more successful at solving the task when encouraged by their owners.

However, the search and rescue dogs didn’t solve the task when they were alone. Further, pet dogs that solved the task with their owner present – but not encouraging them – also solved it when they were alone, Brubaker said.

“We thought that was unusual,” Brubaker said. “Because search and rescue dogs are trained to work independently, we expected that they would out-perform pet dogs on this independent task and that wasn’t the case. This suggests that the behavior of the owner, including their expectation of their dog and how they engage with their dog on a day-to-day basis, may influence the dog during a problem-solving task.

“This leads us to believe that communication between search and rescue dogs and their owner could be more effective than communication between pet dogs and their owners,” she said.

In the study, the dogs were given a solvable task with a person present: open a puzzle box containing a sausage within two minutes. They compared a group of 28 search and rescue dogs and a group of 31 pet dogs.

Search and rescue dogs were used as a comparison to pet dogs because they are traditionally trained to work independently from their owner. The search and rescue dogs were provided by Mountain Wave Search and rescue in Portland, Douglas County Search and Rescue in Roseburg, and Benton County Search and Rescue in Corvallis.

Pet dogs were recruited at random from the community through online advertisement and by way of word of mouth. Data from pet dogs from a 2015 study conducted by Udell were also used in the analysis. The dogs in both groups were from a variety of breeds.

The dogs were given the puzzle box under two conditions: alone in the room, and with their owner in the room standing neutrally. During the neutral phase, owners were instructed to stand in the room with their arms by their side and to avoid communicating with the dog. In the encouragement condition, the owner was instructed to encourage the dog however they saw appropriate, typically by using verbal praise or gestures, but without touching the dog or the container and without making contact with the dog or the container.

Before each condition the owner was instructed to “bait” the container by picking the container up, placing the food inside the container while the dog watched, and showing it to the dog to allow the dog to see that the container had food in it. Then they placed it on the ground in a designated location. In the neutral-human condition, the owner took three steps back and stood neutrally for two minutes. During the alone condition the owner left the room after placing the object on the ground.

In the human-neutral condition, three of the pet dogs and two of search and rescue dogs solved the task. Two pet dogs solved the task in the alone condition. In the encouragement condition, nine of the search and rescue dogs solved the task, while only two pet dogs did.

“When the owner’s social cues direct the dog towards the independent problem-solving task, then we see something interesting,” said Monique Udell, an animal scientist who directs the Human-Animal Interaction Lab in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “While most dogs increase the amount of time they spend attending to the puzzle when encouraged, pet dogs often end up treating the puzzle like a toy. Instead of engaging in goal directed behavior, they act as if their owner was encouraging them to play.”

Udell continued, “It’s possible that when directed by their owners, search and rescue dogs instead see opening the box as their job. Their owners may be more effective at communicating about the task at hand. Or maybe there is something inherently different about dogs that are selected for search and rescue that makes them more apt to solve the problem. More research is needed to know for sure.”

Source:  Oregon State University media statement

Brain training for old dogs (touchscreens for dogs!)

Spoiling old dogs in their twilight years by retiring them to the sofa and forgiving them their stubbornness or disobedience, doesn’t do our four-legged friends any good. Regular brain training and lifelong learning create positive emotions and can slow down mental deterioration in old age. Physical limitations, however, often do not allow the same sort of training as used in young dogs.

In a new study, a team of researchers led by cognitive biologists from Vetmeduni Vienna propose computer interaction as a practical alternative. In the training lab, old dogs responded positively to cognitive training using educational touchscreen games. The aim now is to get the interactive “dog sudoku” ready for home use.

Touchscreen for dogs

Playing computer games might be the perfect “brain Training” for old dogs Credit: Messerli Research Institute/Vetmeduni Vienna

Lifelong learning is not just good for people, it is also good for dogs. Dogs are capable of learning even in old age, and constant brain training and mental problem-solving create positive emotions and slow the natural pace of mental deterioration. Unlike puppies or young dogs, however, old dogs are almost never trained or challenged mentally. Senior dogs are usually perfectly integrated into our lives and we often forgive them any disobedience or stubbornness. In addition, due to their increasing physical limitations, we usually spare old dogs the sort of training we might expect from young animals.

Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna propose computer games as an efficient alternative. Simple mental tasks on the computer, combined with a reward system, can replace physically demanding training and still keep the animals mentally fit even in old age. First, however, the method must be taken out of the laboratory and transferred to the living room.

Tablet games like “sudoku” for old dogs

At obedience school or in private, puppies and young dogs are socialised and challenged using a variety of training methods to help them integrate smoothly into our daily lives. As the dogs get older, however, we increasingly – and unconsciously – reduce the level of regular training and challenges. “Yet this restricts the opportunities to create positive mental experiences for the animals, which remain capable of learning even in old age,” explains first author Lisa Wallis. “As is the case with people, dopamine production in dogs also falls in old age, leading to a decline in memory and motivational drive. But this natural mental deterioration can be countered with the specific training of cognitive skills.”

Under laboratory conditions, the training works using computer-based brain-teasers. It does take some preparation to get the dogs used to the touchscreen, but once the animals have got the trick they turn into avid computer gamers. “Touchscreen interaction is usually analysed in young dogs. But we could show that old dogs also respond positively to this cognitive training method,” says senior author Ludwig Huber. “Above all, the prospect of a reward is an important factor to motivate the animals to do something new or challenging.”

Mentally fit four-legged “gamers” – laboratory solution to be made available to the general public

Using simple tasks that can be solved through touchscreen interaction, followed by a reward, even old dogs remain willing to learn. “The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling that older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy. Regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement and thus maximising learning opportunities”, says Huber.

It is still not clear whether dogs slowly forget the things they once learned because of reduced powers of recollection or due to a lack of training in old age. The fact is, however, that lifelong learning with the touchscreen can help counteract this development. The research team hopes that this study will not only motivate technicians and software developers, but also interested dog owners, to consider future cooperation. “Our scientific approach could result in an exciting citizen science project to increase the understanding of the importance of lifelong learning in animals,” says Wallis.

Source:  University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna