Tag Archives: dog behaviour

Dogs share food with other dogs even in complex situations

Generosity, even among family members, had long been considered to be a specifically human characteristic. Yet rats, chimpanzees and other animals also exhibit similar behaviour. Rachel Dale, Friederike Range and colleagues, of the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna had already shown that dogs also share food rewards with other dogs. Using a bar-pulling task, the dogs delivered the treats to partner dogs – especially if these were already known to them.

A new study by the research team, published in the journal PLoS ONE, now used a more complex task set-up to confirm the prosocial behaviour of dogs. The experiment showed that dogs continued to prefer familiar partners. However, the increased complexity of the task influenced the readiness with which the dogs delivered a food reward to another animal. The study thus confirmed that the chosen method affects the result and is much more dependent on social proximity than had previously been assumed.

Recognition of objects necessary for giving treats

Instead of pulling on a rope, the dogs in the present study had to recognize special objects in the form of tokens in order to deliver a food reward to the other dog. “This time we not only tested a different experimental set-up but also the level of difficulty,” explains Dale. “The dogs were first trained to touch a token in exchange for a food reward for themselves. They were then trained to recognize two more tokens: one that resulted in a reward being delivered to a partner dog and another which did not.” Three experiments were then conducted to test whether the dogs exhibited prosocial behaviour even in this more complex task and whether they would deliver a food reward to a partner or not. The researchers also tested whether it made a difference to the donor dog if the receiver was familiar or a stranger and whether the presence of another dog was enough to trigger generous behaviour in the test dog even if the partner had no access to the food.

prosocial-behaviour-photo-1

For testing prosocial behaviour, donor dogs had to choose via tokens, if they share Food or not. (Photo: Rachel Dale/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Do dogs have to see the recipients to reward them?

The test set-up consisted of two enclosures. The test dog was trained to wait on a specific location in one enclosure until the researchers revealed a board containing the tokens. The dog could then choose to deliver a food reward to the receiver dog or not. In the first test, either a familiar dog or a stranger sat in the receiver enclosure. The dogs could see each other during the experiment. In the second test, the receiver enclosure remained empty but the other dog was present in the testing room. In a third test, the test dogs were alone in the entire set-up. At the end of each test series, the donor animals could reward themselves by being allowed to touch the token that delivered the food reward to them. This was done to ensure that the dogs remained motivated and unstressed and did not become distracted by an unfamiliar dog.

Dogs remain charitable even in complex tasks

The experiment confirmed that dogs continue to exhibit prosocial behaviour despite the more complex task. The dogs clearly showed a preference for sharing the food reward with a familiar dog. Unfamiliar dogs were rewarded nearly three times less often than familiar ones. The higher level of complexity, however, impacted the general frequency of the food delivery. This influence could be shown among dogs for the first time by comparing the token choice experiment with the simpler bar-pulling set-up and confirms the results of similar tests performed with small children and chimpanzees.

prosocial-behaviour-photo-2

The donor dogs shared food even in the more complex token-test, but more likely for dogs they know. (Photo: Mylene Quervel-Chaumette/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Presence of a partner makes dogs more likely to share

The behavioural biologists found another significant difference regarding the question whether the presence of a partner was important for the motivation of the test dog. Even when a second dog was present in the testing room without being in the other enclosure, the donor dogs were more motivated to give a food reward. When the test dogs were alone in the room, the number of food deliveries went down.

This aspect, known as social facilitation, could not be shown in the first study. The social facilitation theory starts from the assumption that animals will perform more readily in the presence of conspecifics. Given a more complex task, the presence of a partner appears to play a greater role. In this case, too, the donor dogs preferred familiar partners. “The difference was smaller, however, than when there was direct visual contact. Social facilitation should therefore be considered and controlled more strongly in future studies and in simple experiments,” says Range.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna press release

How to Deal with a Crotch Hound

We all know the type…but are probably afraid to classify our own dogs as Crotch Hounds since it sounds so rude.  The dog trainer is this video calls the behavior ‘checking the oil’ when visitors arrive!

Here’s a new video with some advice on how to re-train your dog so your visitors are greeted in a more socially acceptable way.

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

Premature greying in dogs

A research team including the legendary Temple Grandin have published a study into the premature greying of dogs and linked behavioral factors such as anxiety, fear and impulsivity as causes of a dog becoming prematurely grey.

Dog with greying muzzle

A sample of 400 dogs, ages 1–4 years was obtained at dog parks, shows, veterinary clinics, and other venues. Each dog was photographed and the degree of muzzle greyness was rated on an ordinal scale ranging from “no grey” to “full grey.” White, merle or pale colored dogs were dropped from the study because it was impossible to determine degree of greyness.

Each owner filled out a questionnaire assessing the constructs of anxiety and impulsivity, as well as other behaviours and characteristics. To prevent response bias, owners were told that the purpose of the study involved dog lifestyle. Distractor items were added to the survey to prevent the owner from guessing the purpose of the survey. Examples of survey items indicating anxiety included: destruction when left alone; hair loss on vet exam or being in a new place; and cringes/cowers in response to groups of people.

Examples of survey items indicating impulsivity included: jumping on people, inability to calm, loss of focus, hyperactivity after exercise.

In this sample of young dogs, latent variable regression showed that the extent of muzzle greyness was significantly and positively predicted by anxiety (p = 0.005) and impulsivity (p < 0.001). Dog size, spay/neuter status, or medical problems did not predict extent of muzzle greyness. Fear responses to loud noise, unfamiliar animals and people were associated with increased greyness. Ordinal regression analysis showed that muzzle greyness was significantly predicted by fear of loud noises (p = 0.001), unfamiliar animals (p = 0.031), and unfamiliar people (p < 0.001).

The team concluded that premature greying in young dogs may be a possible indicator of anxiety, fear or impulsivity issues in dogs under four years of age.

Source: Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in young dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, December 2016

Intestinal health can impact dog behavior

intestinal-health-can-impact

Photo credit: University of Helsinki

General fearfulness, sensitivity to noise as well as hyperactivity and impulsiveness are the most common behavioural problems in dogs. At their worst, they can have a very negative impact on the wellbeing of the dog and owner alike.

“Behaviour and behavioural disorders often develop as a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, which makes studying them challenging. Metabolomics, or the study of the metabolism, provides us with new clues on the biological issues underpinning behavioural disorders while promoting genetic research. At the moment, metabolomics research in dogs is rare, and the purpose of this pilot study was to examine new approaches and attain information on any metabolic abnormalities associated with hyperactivity in dogs,” explains Professor Hannes Lohi of the University of Helsinki  and the  Folkhälsan Research Centre.

Ab­nor­mal meta­bolic blood test res­ults in hy­per­act­ive dogs

Determining the blood metabolites in hyperactive and normally behaved German Shepherds revealed a significant link between hyperactivity and lower blood phospholipid levels.

“We knew to expect this discovery from research on the human side, as several studies have recorded lower blood lipid and fatty acid levels in ADHD patients than in control groups. However, the causal relationship is not clear and requires further studies, particularly ones with more extensive research data. Our discovery supports the existing belief that human and canine diseases are similar, which suggests dogs can serve as excellent models for human illnesses,” states doctoral student Jenni Puurunen.

“It is significant that the dog’s age, sex or fasting had little impact on the link between behaviour and metabolites. We also controlled for dietary changes by feeding all dogs the same food for two weeks before testing,” explains Puurunen.

In­test­inal health can im­pact can­ine be­ha­viour

One of the most interesting discoveries in the study was the negative correlation between hyperactive behaviour and the levels of the metabolites of tryptophan, a vital amino acid. This metabolite is only produced when intestinal bacteria process the tryptophan received in food. The discovery suggests differences in the gut bacteria of hyperactive and normally behaved dogs, which is very significant in light of the discovery made a few years ago about the connection between the brain and the intestines.

“We know that the composition of the gut microbiota significantly influences the creation of neurotransmitters, for example, those which regulate mood and behaviour. The effect also works vice-versa, so that a stress reaction in the brain can have an adverse effect on the gut microbiota. Consequently, we cannot tell whether our discovery is the cause of canine hyperactivity or its consequence,” Puurunen says.

A glob­ally unique meta­bolo­m­ics pro­ject is un­der­way

Earlier this year, Lohi’s research group released an article on a study of the metabolomics of fearful dogs, which revealed differences between the blood counts of fearful and fearless dogs. However, more extensive research is required to confirm these pilot-stage findings. The research group has launched an extensive collection of samples to test new metabolomics technology together with the company Genoscoper. If successful, the new system could become a significant tool to speed up genetic research, particularly as it relates to behavioural studies.

The study is part of a more extensive canine behaviour project underway at the research group. The project seeks to determine the environmental and hereditary factors as well as metabolic changes relating to behaviour and behavioural disorders, and map their similarities with corresponding illnesses in humans.

Source:  University of Helsinki media release

What are you looking at? (Dogs follow the human gaze)

Dogs are known to be excellent readers of human body language in multiple situations. Surprisingly, however, scientists have so far found that dogs do not follow human gaze into distant space. Scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated how this skill of dogs is influenced by aging, habituation and formal training. The outcome: Gaze following to human gaze cues did not differ over the dogs’ lifespan, however, formal training was found to directly influence gaze following in dogs.


Gaze following to distant space has been documented in many species and is considered a basic response found in many taxa. Dogs may present a special case as the researchers found evidence that they are able to follow human gaze to objects such as food or toys, but not for the comparatively simpler task of following gaze into distant space.

Two possible reasons were offered to explain this phenomenon: One reason could be habituation. Dogs lose their innate gaze following response as they age, as they are frequently exposed to human gaze cues over their lifespan and slowly stop responding to them. Another reason could be formal training such as obedience, agility, and trick training may interfere with the dogs’ response to gaze cues, since dogs are usually trained to look at the owner, to wait for commands and ignore distractions.

What influences dogs’ gaze following response to human gaze cues?

Lead author Lisa Wallis and her colleagues at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab in order to address the question of whether habituation, and/or training influences dogs’ gaze following response, and to determine, for the first time, how this ability changes over the course of a dog’s life by comparing groups of dogs of different ages. 

Dogs of all ages are able to follow human gaze

The scientists tested two groups of dogs with differing amounts of formal training over their lifespan. Both groups participated firstly in a test and control condition, where their initial gaze following performance was measured. The experimenter obtained the dogs’ attention using its name and the command “watch” after which the experimenter turned her head swiftly to look at the door of the testing room in the test condition, or looked down to the floor next to her feet in the control condition. If the dogs responded by looking at the door within two seconds in the test condition but did not look at the door in the control condition, a gaze following response was recorded.

Dogs’ tendency to follow human gaze is influenced by training for eye contact
Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis' gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis’ gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs which had a higher amount of formal training over their lifespan showed a lower gaze following response compared to dogs with little or no training. Similarly, short-term training also decreased dogs’ gaze following response and increased gaze to the human face.

The authors conclude that formal training had a stronger influence than aging or habituation on dogs’ gaze following response. This may explain why previous studies have failed to find a gaze following response when cues to distant space are used, and why in comparison to other species dogs perform relatively poorly in this task. The fact that the experimenter used strong attention-getting cues and provided contextual relevance by looking at a door may have also contributed to the positive results found in this study.

“From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs”. – says Lisa Wallis.

In her current project, together with her colleague Durga Chapagain, Wallis is investigating the effects of diet on cognitive aging in older dogs. The scientists are still looking for dog owners who would like to participate in that long-term study (food is provided for free).

This research has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Source:  Vedmeduni Vienna media release

Dogs on Prozac – but not exclusively for best results

Dogs who suffer with separation anxiety become more optimistic when taking the animal equivalent of Prozac during behavioural treatment, according to the results of an innovative new study.

Led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, the research has for the first time revealed how the animals feel during the clinical treatment of behaviours associated with negative emotions.

Jess Cook signed up for the study as her dog Lexi would become so distraught when left alone in the house neighbours would complain about her howling.

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

Jess Cook and Lexi, photo courtesy of University of Lincoln, UK

For five weeks in 2013, Lexi, now seven, took two tablets a day in some butter. She also underwent behaviour management therapy, which taught her to cope better with being separated from her owner.

Miss Cook, who runs Like My Own Pet Care Services in Derbyshire and is studying for her MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Lincoln, slowly built up the amount of time Lexi was left unattended for. It proved successful and now she has come off her medication.

Canine separation-related problems – also described as separation anxiety or separation distress – are among the most common behavioural complaints of dog owners. But the issue of using psychoactive medication to help pets with behavioural problems is a widely debated one.

Treatment with psychoactive medication in parallel with a behaviour modification plan is well documented, but it is unknown if this is associated with an improvement in underlying emotion or mood, or simply an inhibition of the behaviour.

The new study, published in the peer-reviewed veterinary science journal BMC Veterinary Research, has thrown new light on the topic with researchers devising a method to evaluate animals’ emotional state when treated with fluoxetine – the active ingredient in Prozac for humans and Reconcile for pets. Prozac, the trade name for fluoxetine, is typically used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety in humans.

The researchers recruited dogs showing signs of separation anxiety, such as barking, howling, destruction of property and toileting when alone, and used a special behaviour test to determine if they were feeling ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’.

In the test, dogs were taught that when a food bowl was placed in one location it contained food, but when placed in another location that it was empty. The bowl was then placed in ambiguous locations, and the dogs’ response was assessed to determine whether they expected food (i.e. ‘optimistic’) or not (i.e. ‘pessimistic’).

The results indicated that when dogs were treated for separation problems using both a behaviour modification programme combined with fluoxetine treatment that they did become more optimistic, and as their mood improved so did the behaviour problem. The same results were not recorded for the control group.

Research lead Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “For quite a while, I, like many others, have been concerned as to whether drugs such as Reconcile simply inhibit the behaviour and perhaps had no effect on the animal’s mood. With the advent of new methods to assess animal welfare, we were able to answer this question and were pleased to see that, when the drug is used within normal therapeutic ranges, the dogs do indeed seem better.”

“However, it is important to emphasise that animals were treated with both the drug and a behaviour modification programme – with both being essential for effective treatment. Using the drug does seem to bring about a rapid improvement in mood while the animal responds to the training programme. The reality is, whether we like it or not, there are animals who are suffering and we need to take measures to both prevent the problem but also manage it as effectively as possible when it arises.”

Source:  University of Lincoln media release

The basics of animal behavior

Nikolaas Tinbergen, who lived from 1907-1988, was a scientist who developed four basic questions that would explain animal behavior; he ultimately won the Nobel Prize for his work.

If you get involved in animal advocacy or rescue work, it helps to have some understanding of animal behavior.   The ‘4 Questions’ help us to understand why an animal is exhibiting a behavior.  Some published resources call these Questions ‘the Four Whys…’ (although the questions aren’t always phrased as a why)

1.  What is the function of the trait, or why does it exist?

2.  What is the phylogeny, or evolutionary history, of the trait?

3.  What is the cause of the trait?  Regardless of history or function, there is likely to be a physical basis for the behavior.

4.  How did the trait develop?  This is where you consider how the animal interacted with its environment and surroundings over time.

Barking dog

So, as a simple example – let’s consider barking.  Barking exists as a form of communication that augments physical body language.  So that’s the function question answered.

As far as evolution is concerned, it is probable that early dogs had different vocal sounds which developed into the barking we know today in the wide range of dog breeds.

The cause of barking is the passing of air through vocal chords – much like in humans.

And how the trait developed…well this is connected to domestication and how dogs could communicate with the canine and human members of their pack.  Animal trainers learn to distinguish the different types of barking and help to pass this knowledge onto their clients.

Most dog owners can also understand the differences in their dog’s barking.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand