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Tag: anxiety

Tell-tail signs: How to read your dog’s wag

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I’ve got to admit I’ve never paid much attention to which way Ace’s tail is wagging — mostly to the right, or mostly to the left.

More often, it just seems to go back and forth, one side to the other, which is kind of the definition of wag.

But researchers in Italy, who first reported that the prominent direction of the wag signifies whether a dog is experiencing positive or negative feelings, now say other dogs are aware of this subtle distinction, and apparently have been for some time, indicating they — dogs — are much more on top of things than researchers.

Researchers at the University of Trento, in a new study, had dogs watch videos of other dogs wagging their tails. They found, according to a study reported in the journal Current Biology, that dogs watching another dog whose tail is wagging left  showed signs of anxiety, including a higher heart rate. When watching a tail wag right, they remained calm.

When watching “Two Broke Girls” the dogs asked if they might please leave the room. (Not really.)

Returning to seriousness, the Italian researchers first reported in 2007 that dogs convey a wide array of emotions through the tail wag — not just happiness. A wag to the left indicates negative emotions; a wag to the right indicates positive ones. The directions are as seen when standing behind a dog.

In the earlier study, 30 dogs were placed, one at a time, in a large box surrounded with black plastic to prevent any visual stimulus (except maybe to dogs who find black plastic stimulating). The dogs were then shown a stimulus for 60 seconds  — a dominant Belgian Malinois, a cat in a cage, their owners, and a strange human, by which we only mean one they hadn’t met.

A system for measuring the tail movements of each dog was established — far too complex to go into here. Suffice to say, as the scientists put it:

wagchart“Tail wagging scores associated with the different stimuli were analyzed from video-recordings. Positions of the tail were scored every 10 seconds by superimposition on the computer screen of a cursor on the long axis of the body: the maximum extents of the particular tail wag occurring at each 10 second interval was recorded. Using single frames from video recording two angles were identified with respect to the maximum excursion of the tail to the right and to the left side of the dog’s body. Tail wagging angles were obtained with reference to the axes formed by the midline of the dog’s pelvis – the segment extending lengthwise through the dog’s hips, drawn from the largest points as seen from above and the axes perpendicular to it.”

When faced with their owner, dogs exhibited a “striking right-sided bias in the amplitudes of tail wagging.”  Less robust right-sided wags were observed also when the dogs were shown unfamiliar humans. When faced with a cat, dogs showed very reduced tail wagging, but still a slight bias favoring the right side. Seeing a dominant unfamiliar dog led the dogs in the study to wag more to the left.

The first study reported: “How far asymmetric tail-wagging responses are associated with postural asymmetry in preparation to the stimuli is difficult to say.” (You can say that again)  “It is likely that control of the flexure of the vertebral column is the same for the tail as well as the rest of the column, but the method we used for scoring tail-wagging responses and the panels flanking the body of the animal in the test-cage minimized any effect of asymmetric posture associated with spine bending.”

I’ve got to wonder which way the dogs’ tails wagged — or if they tucked them between their legs — when they were listening to the scientists talk.

The researchers stop short of saying wagging tails are a mode of communication between dogs.

“This is something that could be explained in quite a mechanistic way,” said Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist and an author of both studies. “It’s simply a byproduct of the asymmetry of the brain.” Dogs, he explains, have asymmetrically organized brains, like humans (or at least most of them): ”The emotions are associated presumably with activation of either the right or left side of brain,” he said. “Left-brain activation produces a wag to the right, and vice versa.”

But it would seem to me that if one dog is moving his tail, and another is drawing conclusions from that motion, as the scientists say is the case, that’s communication — perhaps even a clearer form thereof than that to which the scientists are prone.

(Photo: Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Bari)

Dogs anticipate bad weather, and more

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows — at least not if you have a dog.

Two-thirds of American pet owners say their pets have a sixth sense about bad weather, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press and Petside.com.

Seventy-two percent of dog owners said they’ve gotten weather warnings from their pets, compared with 66 percent of cat owners.

And bad weather, many believe, is not all their pets are able to sense.

More than 40 percent of pet owners say their animals can sense the arrival of bad news, according to the poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.

“A sixth sense is something we can’t explain but we tend to trust. It’s a matter of belief and faith,” psychologist Stephanie LaFarge, the senior director of counseling services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the Associated Press.

Some scientists believe animals sense bad weather because of changes in barometric pressure, and that they can sense seizures, low blood sugar or other medical problems through changes in their owner’s hormone levels.

How some pets know when earthquakes are coming, or that bad news is on the horizon, remain more mysterious.

The ASPCA’s LaFarge says she has personally experienced the latter.

“I have been awakened in the middle of the night by a dog,” she said. “Very shortly after that, I received some very, very shocking bad news. I was awake when the phone rang. I couldn’t explain why I was awake except the dog was next to me nudging me. How did the dog know my father died at midnight?”

Are our economic worries affecting our pets?

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If your dog has been showing some uncharacteristic behavior problems of late, blame the economy.

According to Sainsbury’s Pet Insurance, some 3.35 million cat and dog owners have reported behavioral problems in their pets over the past 12 months, and “it is no coincidence that this comes at a time when many people are wrought with stress and anxiety” over the economy.

The study found that millions of troubled pets have caused damage to furniture, while others have suffered moodiness, aggression and loss of appetite.

Joanne Mallon, Sainsbury’s Pet Insurance manager, said this could all be due to the stress owners are under during the current economic climate.

“Cats and dogs can be very sensitive to their owner’s feelings and behavior, so changes in mood such as irritability, distress or remoteness could be sensed and leave the animals themselves agitated or depressed,” she said.

The findings come after the Sainsbury’s Bank revealed earlier this year that some 270,000 cat and dog owners have refused their sick pet veterinary treatment in the past because they could not afford it.

Name that emotion … dogs have them, too

Joy. Sadness. Hope. Fear. Fairness. Compassion. Curiosity. Resentment. Jealousy. Anxiety. Embarassment. Remorse.

Despite those who will tell you dogs feel none of those — that they are solely motivated by hunger — evidence is mounting that dogs’ emotions run a gamut a lot like the gamut our’s run. (Damn gamut.)

Ten years ago, anyone arguing that dogs felt guilt or compassion would have been laughed out of the room — and accused of anthropomorphism once he was gone.

Today, as an article in the Denver Post points out, scientists are finally acknowledging what pet owners have suspected all along – that dogs have feelings too, a lot like our’s, probably as a result of all these years evolving under the same roof together.

“We’re not trying to elevate animals. We’re not trying to reduce humans. We’re not saying we’re better or worse or the same,” said animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of the University of Colorado. “We’re saying we’re not alone in having a nuanced moral system.”

Bekoff, co-author of the newly released “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals,” is convinced dogs animals possess empathy and compassion, the emotions upon which moral sense is built. “Dogs know they are dependent. They learn to read us,” Bekoff said. “Dogs develop this great sense of trust. We’re tightly linked, and there is something spiritual about that unity.”

These days, more scientists are following in Bekoff’s footsteps – Harvard University, for instance, recently opened a Canine Cognition Lab, where researchers seek insight into the psychology of both humans and dogs.

“The amount of skepticism has dramatically dropped,” Bekoff said.

You can find the full Denver Post article here.