Tag Archives: PLoS ONE

Picking puppies most suited to guide dog training

Animal behaviour experts at the University of Nottingham have developed a new tool which can be used to predict a young dog’s likelihood of successfully completing guide dog training.

Guide dog

Working dog organisations like the charity Guide Dogs, who funded the research, need to regularly assess the behaviour of the dogs they breed for training as not all of them turn out to be suited to the role. The charity is the largest of its kind in the world, breeding around 1,400 dogs for possible guide dog training every year.

As part of a wider £500k epidemiology research collaboration with Guide Dogs, the researchers in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science have created and tested a questionnaire-style decision tool which could help trainers from Guide Dogs to monitor and evaluate their dog’s behaviour. The tool successfully predicted training outcomes in 16.9% of young dogs of 5 to 12 months old to an accuracy of 84%. The tool is called the Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire (PTSQ).

The aim is to identify dogs who are not suitable to a guiding role early, before they enter time-consuming and costly formal training. The PTSQ is also intended to improve the understanding of a young dog’s behaviour, which Guide Dogs will use to inform their future training processes to give the best chances of success. The full study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Naomi Harvey, said: “Predicting working dog suitability in puppies has been a huge challenge to organisations for many years. If you’ve ever owned dogs you will know that every dog is different. They have their own characters and personality, which are heavily influenced by their life experiences. We were really pleased that this questionnaire-style behaviour assessment was able to effectively identify the dogs who were most, and least, suitable to guiding work, from a young age, and help to highlight those in between dogs who were at risk of failing training.” 

Chris Muldoon, Guide Dogs Research Development Manager, said: “The Puppy Training Supervisor Questionnaire is part of a suite of tools developed by the University of Nottingham for Guide Dogs. This tool, and the wider research project, is increasing our understanding of dog behavior and temperament to make informed decisions that will shape and improve our training processes.” 

The new behaviour assessment has been designed to be completed by training supervisors of young dogs at the age of 5, 8 and 12 months old. Questions were sourced either from previously published literature or created from suggestions from Guide Dogs staff surveys and feedback. This large study revealed seven reliable and interpretable character scores for measurement by the questionnaire. These were:

  • Adaptability
  • Body sensitivity
  • Distractibility
  • Excitability
  • General anxiety
  • Trainability
  • Stair anxiety

The research also evaluated aspects of the questionnaire’s reliability and accuracy. The results of the questionnaires completed by the training supervisors – 1,401 in total – showed consistency of individual dogs’ scores over the three age ranges. Of the dogs included in the study, 58% went on to qualify as guide dogs, 27% were behaviourally unsuited to guiding work and the remainder were unsuited for health reasons. Within this number there were also dogs with exceptional character and temperament who were selected for breeding.

The researchers say the work could be extended in the future to follow up the dogs’ working life as a guide dog. They say this could help shed light on why some dogs are retired early for behavioural reasons and the human and dog factors which contribute to this unique partnership’s success.

Source:  University of Nottingham press release

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Eyesight in the older dog

The eyesight in our dogs changes with age.

English Pointer with Puplight

Researchers based at the Nestlé Purina Research Center in Missouri have discovered that our dogs become more near-sighted as they age.  Their results were published in the journal PLoS One.

This investigation used an instrument called an autorefractor to measure the dogs’ eyesight in indirect and direct lighting conditions. The study involved nine Beagles ranging in age from 1 to 14 years.   Before entering the study, the dogs were examined to confirm that none of them had cataracts.

Measurements were taken on three different days of the week for a period of six weeks.

The researchers found a remarkable difference between the younger and older dogs.  The older dogs had a much-reduced ability to see at longer distances (far-sightedness) compared to the younger dogs.  Younger dogs were also able to make larger accommodation changes from indirect light to direct light conditions, indicating a more flexible lens.

Humans are the opposite in terms of length of sight.  As we age it can become more difficult to read and see things at shorter distances whereas our ability to see at distances is often not affected (although some older people do have difficulties adjusting to night and low-light conditions, just as the dogs in this study did).

So if your dog is getting older and you notice that they can’t pick up on your body language and signals, there’s a physical reason for it.

Through my own experience working with older dogs, I recommend using a light that helps your senior dog adjust to low-lighting conditions.  See my post on the PupLight, for example.

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

 

Emotions matter: a dog’s view of facial expressions

A recent study from the University of Helsinki shows that the social gazing behavior of domestic dogs resembles that of humans: dogs view facial expressions systematically, preferring eyes. In addition, the facial expression alters their viewing behavior, especially in the face of threat. The study was published in the science journal PLOS ONE.

The study uused eye gaze tracking to demonstrate how dogs view the emotional expressions of dog and human faces. Dogs looked first at the eye region and generally examined eyes longer than nose or mouth areas. Species-specific characteristics of certain expressions attracted their attention, for example the mouths of threatening dogs. However, dogs appeared to base their perception of facial expressions on the whole face.

Threatening faces evoked attentional bias, which may be based on an evolutionary adaptive mechanism: the sensitivity to detect and avoid threats represents a survival advantage.

“The tolerant behavior strategy of dogs toward humans may partially explain the results. Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond them with pronounced appeasement signals”, says researcher Sanni Somppi from the University of Helsinki.

This is the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in non-primates. Already 150 years ago Charles Darwin proposed that the analogies in the form and function of human and non-human animal emotional expressions suggest shared evolutionary roots.  Recent findings provide modern scientific support for Darwin’s old argument.

Facial expressions research

Dogs view facial expressions on a monitor

A total of 31 dogs of 13 different breeds attended the study. Prior to the experiment the dogs were clicker-trained to stay still in front of a monitor without being cued or restrained.

Source:  AlphaGalileo media release

I have previously blogged about other University of Helsinki research.  These posts include:

 

The underlying cause of canine diabetes

In a new effort, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Baylor College of Medicine have used advanced imaging technology to fill in details about the underlying cause of canine diabetes, which until now has been little understood. For the first time, they’ve precisely quantified the dramatic loss of insulin-producing beta cells in dogs with the disease and compared it to the loss observed in people with type 1 diabetes.

Diabetic dogs had a sharp loss of insulin-producing beta cells compared to non-diabetic dogs

Diabetic dogs had a sharp loss of insulin-producing beta cells compared to non-diabetic dogs

“The architecture of the canine pancreas has never been studied in the detail that we have done in this paper,” said Rebecka Hess, professor of internal medicine at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and an author on the study.

Despite important differences between the disease in dogs and humans, the study also identified key similarities that suggest investigating diabetes in dogs may yield valuable insights into treating humans.

The research was led by Emily Shields, currently a graduate student in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, who completed much of the work as a high school and then college student in labs at Penn and Baylor.

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

Canine diabetes can be managed with insulin, similar to type 1 diabetes in humans. But, unlike the human version of the disease, dogs typically develop diabetes in middle or old age, while people with type 1 diabetes are typically diagnosed during childhood. In addition, while type 1 diabetes is known to be an autoimmune condition, researchers haven’t found conclusive evidence that the same is true in dogs.

To learn more about the factors that contribute to canine diabetes, the researchers made use of a repository of donated tissue samples from dogs — 23 with diabetes and 17 without — who had been treated at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital.

The team used robotic microscopes that can rapidly move around a slide taking images of pancreas tissue samples, which were analyzed by computer to determine the contents.

“In a larger view we could look at the entire cross-section of pancreas to determine how many islets there were and how big they were,” Shields said. “Then we could zoom in to differentiate beta cells, which produce insulin, from alpha cells, which produce glucagon.”

They found that beta cells dropped off in dramatic fashion in diabetic dogs, reduced 13-fold compared to non-diabetic animals. They also found that non-diabetic canine islets contained a large percentage of beta cells, comprising about 80 percent of endocrine cells. In contrast, beta cells comprise slightly more than 50 percent of endocrine cells in non-diabetic human islets. The researchers noted that this may mean that dogs need to lose more beta cells before experiencing symptoms of diabetes. The observation could explain why dogs develop a form of diabetes that is similar to type 1 diabetes, but do so later in life, compared to humans.

They also identified features of the islets and pancreatic structures that were different in dogs than in humans.

“In sharp contrast to human diabetes, in which there are a lot of islets still present but none contains insulin, we found in dogs that only a few beta cells were present and the islets were incredibly small,” Kushner said.

While the researchers had hoped to be able to visualize immune cells infiltrating the pancreas and attacking beta cells, they failed to do so.  While other signs point to canine diabetes being an autoimmune condition, this study did not find a “smoking gun.”

Though the work highlights differences between canine and human diabetes, it also points to a number of similarities that distinguish the two from diabetes in rodents, which are often used as models to study the disease.

For example, the scientists observed that dogs’ beta cells were distributed throughout the islets, as beta cells in humans are. In rodents, beta cells are concentrated in the center of the islet.

“Now that we know more about the disease in dogs and in particular how they are similar to humans in ways that rodents are not, it makes them more appealing as a model,” Kushner said.

At Penn, Hess is currently working to look for genetic markers in dogs that heighten a dog’s risk of developing diabetes.

“My hope is that with genetic screening we can eventually identify pre-clinical diabetic dogs, potentially making breeding recommendations that could decrease the incidence and prevalence of the disease in dogs,” Hess said.

Source:  Penn News media release

The human-animal bond using functional MRI

How closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship? Credit: © christingasner / Fotolia

How closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship?
Credit: © christingasner / Fotolia

It has become common for people who have pets to refer to themselves as  “pet parents,” but how closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship?  A small study from a group of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers makes a contribution to answering this complex question by investigating differences in how important brain structures are activated when women view images of their children and of their own dogs.  Their report is being published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

“Pets hold a special place in many people’s hearts and lives, and there is compelling evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that interacting with pets can be beneficial to the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of humans,” says Lori Palley, DVM, of the MGH Center for Comparative Medicine, co-lead author of the report.  “Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin – which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment – rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting.”

In order to compare patterns of brain activation involved with the human-pet bond with those elicited by the maternal-child bond, the study enrolled a group of women with at least one child aged 2 to 10 years old and one pet dog that had been in the household for two years or longer.  Participation consisted of two sessions, the first being a home visit during which participants completed several questionnaires, including ones regarding their relationships with both their child and pet dog. The participants’ dog and child were also photographed in each participants’ home.

The second session took place at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which indicates levels of activation in specific brain structures by detecting changes in blood flow and oxygen levels – was performed as participants lay in a scanner and viewed a series of photographs.  The photos included images of each participant’s own child and own dog alternating with those of an unfamiliar child and dog belonging to another study participant.  After the scanning session, each participant completed additional assessments, including an image recognition test to confirm she had paid close attention to photos presented during scanning, and rated several images from each category shown during the session on factors relating to pleasantness and excitement.

Of 16 women originally enrolled, complete information and MR data was available for 14 participants.  The imaging studies revealed both similarities and differences in the way important brain regions reacted to images of a woman’s own child and own dog.  Areas previously reported as important for functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all showed increased activity when participants viewed either their own child or their own dog.  A region known to be important to bond formation – the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SNi/VTA) – was activated only in response to images of a participant’s own child.  The fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition and other visual processing functions, actually showed greater response to own-dog images than own-child images.

“Although this is a small study that may not apply to other individuals, the results suggest there is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated when mothers viewed images of either their child or their dog,” says Luke Stoeckel, PhD, MGH Department of Psychiatry, co-lead author of the PLOS One report. “We also observed differences in activation of some regions that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.  For example, like the SNi/VTA, the nucleus accumbens has been reported to have an important role in pair-bonding in both human and animal studies. But that region showed greater deactivation when mothers viewed their own-dog images instead of greater activation in response to own-child images, as one might expect. We think the greater response of the fusiform gyrus to images of participants’ dogs may reflect the increased reliance on visual than verbal cues in human-animal communications.”

The investigators note that further research is needed to replicate these findings in a larger sample and to see if they are seen in other populations – such as women without children, fathers and parents of adopted children – and in relationships with other animal species.  Combining fMRI studies with additional behavioral and physiological measures could obtain evidence to support a direct relationship between the observed brain activity and the purported functions.

Source:  Massachusetts General Hospital media release

Jealousy in dogs is real

Dogs can act jealous (is this really news to most dog owners?).  Well, researchers have taken steps to scientifically prove that jealousy exists.  They undertook this research because researchers studying emotion have argued for years whether jealousy requires complex cognition or that jealousy is a social construct not linked to physiology and psychology the way emotions like fear and anger are…

Emotion researcher Christine Harris, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, with Samwise, one of three border collies to inspire the study on dog jealousy. Photo by Steve Harris.

Emotion researcher Christine Harris, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, with Samwise, one of three border collies to inspire the study on dog jealousy. Photo by Steve Harris.

The research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, by University of California San Diego psychology professor Christine Harris and former honors student Caroline Prouvost is the first experimental test of jealous behaviors in dogs.

The findings support the view that there may be a more basic form of jealousy, which evolved to protect social bonds from interlopers.

Harris and Prouvost show that dogs exhibit more jealous behaviors, like snapping and pushing at their owner or the rival, when the owner showed affection to what appeared to be another dog (actually a stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail). Dogs exhibited these behaviors more than if the same affection was showered on a novel object and much more than when the owner’s attention was simply diverted by reading a book.

“Our study suggests not only that dogs do engage in what appear to be jealous behaviors but also that they were seeking to break up the connection between the owner and a seeming rival,” Harris said. “We can’t really speak to the dogs’ subjective experiences, of course, but it looks as though they were motivated to protect an important social relationship.”

Since there had been no prior experiments on dog jealousy, the researchers adapted a test used with 6-month-old human infants. They worked with 36 dogs in their own homes and videotaped the owners ignoring them in favor of a stuffed, animated dog or a jack-o-lantern pail. In both these conditions, the owners were instructed to treat the objects as though they were real dogs – petting them, talking to them sweetly, etc. In the third scenario, the owners were asked to read aloud a pop-up book that played melodies. Two independent raters then coded the videos for a variety of aggressive, disruptive and attention-seeking behaviors.

Dogs were about twice as likely to push or touch the owner when the owner was interacting with the faux dog (78 percent) as when the owner was attending to the pail (42 percent). Even fewer (22 percent) did this in the book condition. About 30 percent of the dogs also tried to get between their owner and the stuffed animal. And while 25 percent snapped at the “other dog,” only one did so at the pail and book.

The “other dog” – the stuffed, animated pooch used in the experiment. Photo by Caroline Prouvost.

The “other dog” – the stuffed, animated pooch used in the experiment. Photo by Caroline Prouvost.

Did the dogs believe the stuffed animal was a real rival? Harris and Prouvost write that their aggression suggests they did. They also cite as additional evidence that 86 percent of the dogs sniffed the toy dog’s rear end during the experiment or post-experiment phase.

“Many people have assumed that jealousy is a social construction of human beings – or that it’s an emotion specifically tied to sexual and romantic relationships,” Harris said. “Our results challenge these ideas, showing that animals besides ourselves display strong distress whenever a rival usurps a loved one’s affection.”

Source:  UCSD media release

Short dog syndrome

You’ve probably heard about Short Man Syndrome.  (In fact, many of us (including me) have experienced it firsthand!)

Did you know that there is growing evidence of Short Dog Syndrome?

Researchers at the University of Sydney have published their research into this topic in the online journal PLoS One.  Professor Paul McGreevy is the lead author of the study and says, “the shorter the dogs the less controllable their behaviour is for their owners.”

Dachshunds and other short breed dogs may be more difficult to train and control

Dachshunds and other short breed dogs may be more difficult to control

The study used owners’ reports on the behaviour of over 8,000 dogs from across 80 breeds and related them to the shape of 960 dogs of those breeds, revealing strong relationships between height, bodyweight, skull proportions (relative width and length) and behaviour.

33 out of 36 undesirable behaviours were associated with height, bodyweight and skull shape

As a breed’s average height decreased, the likelihood of behaviors such as mounting humans or objects (humping), owner-directed aggression, begging for food and attention-seeking increased.

“The only behavioral trait associated with increasing height was ‘trainability’. When average bodyweight decreased, excitability and hyperactivity increased,” said Professor McGreevy.

The researchers admit that there is an aspect here of nature vs nurture.  If aggressive and ‘bad’ behaviours were present in larger dogs, the results could be more dangerous.  Poor behaviour in small dogs is likely to be tolerated more.  Over time, breeding has resulted in the patterns observed by the research team.

Source:  University of Sydney media release