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Tag: cognition

Your attention, please …

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Look at you! Look at you! You are the cutest little reader I’ve ever seen. Yes you are. Yes you are! You’re just the sweetest reader ever. What a good reader! And, yes, you’re a genius, too. So very smart. Just a good good good pretty genius reader. Yes. Yes!

Talk to a baby like that (and most people do) and you’re going to get a reaction, studies show. You’re going to hold their attention, stimulate their brain, and (put most unscientifically) make them feel warm and bubbly inside.

Talk to a dog like that — especially if it’s a puppy and you have a higher-pitched, female type voice — and you’re going to achieve the same, a new study suggests. They’ll be more responsive and more likely to retain what (though it’s mostly gibberish) you’re saying.

Talk to your website readers like that, and they’re likely to think you’ve gone off the deep end, that you’re either stalking or patronizing them, and report you to the Internet police.

But you wouldn’t do that. Would you, pretty reader? Noooo. ‘Cuz you’re a good reader. Yes! You’re such a sweetie pie. Yes! Yes!

SONY DSCDogs, at least younger ones, find being talked to in a slow, sing-song, high-pitched, “baby-talk” type voice exciting, and react better to it, a new study says.

The findings show that the voice pitch and patterns of humans may help dogs learn words, as is believed to be the case with human babies.

To find out how dogs reacted to human speech, Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon in Saint Étienne, France, recorded the voices of 30 women.

The women were asked to read the scripted phrases as they would to dogs, and as they would to humans. For the dog-directed readings, researchers provided them with photos of dogs to help them get in the mood.

Each woman read the following words: “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!”

The women read the words as they would to a puppy, as they would to an older dog, and as they would to a human.

The recordings were then played to dogs — 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs at a New York City animal shelter.

Nine of the 10 puppies reacted strongly to the pupy-directed recordings, barking and running toward the loudspeaker and even going into a play stance.

The pups were less interested when the women were using the lower pitched, less playful voices they would use while talking to other humans.

The older dogs, possibly having heard their fill of baby talk, didn’t react at all — likely because they’d become more attuned to their master’s voice and less to those of strangers.

The study’s findings were presented this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Why we talk to babies this ultra-animated, affirmation-filled way — both our own and those we’re just meeting — is instinctual. Why we talk to dogs, especially puppies, like this, is a result of their big-eyed, baby-like appearance that brings out similar instincts in us.

SONY DSCIn either case, it’s all related to our instinct for nurturing, and our desire to communicate with a non-verbal, or not-yet-verbal, being.

In the study, the women’s exaggerated, high-pitched speech served far better to get the attention of the dogs, said Mathevon, who believes this way of talking may help dogs learn words.

I couldn’t find an explanation of why only women’s voices — 30 of them aged 18 to 55 — were used in the study, but I’d guess it’s because women are generally better at, and less embarrassed, at using baby talk in public.

Most of my dogs have favored women. Ace always preferred females, and my dog new dog, Jinjja, is much more comfortable around them too. If he hears a female voice in the distance he pulls toward it, if he hears a male one, he stops or retreats.

A lot of it I think is simply a matter of pitch. A higher pitch is less threatening.

Likely, with Jinjja, it also has to do with how he was raised. Probably, men ran the Korean dog farm he was rescued from, and during and after that rescue it was probably mostly women who were kind to him.

The same is probably true of many a shelter or rescue dog. Given women make up the bulk of the staff and volunteers at animal rescue and shelter operations, those dogs often tend to associate a female voice with food, warmth and safety.

Possibly, dogs have figured out females are the kinder and more nurturing gender (though that might be a little sexist to say). Or it could be women’s voices, in general, sound more like squeaky toys (though that might be a little sexist to say).

But you’re not going to hold that against me. Nooooooo. You’re too nice to do that, aren’t you? Aren’t you? You’re such a good reader. Yes, you are.

(Photos by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)

The nose knows but the ears tell

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Many of us may be most familiar with infrared thermography from its least valuable (I’d argue) use — ghost hunting.

It serves many far more sophisticated purposes, though, than providing fodder for those shaky-camera paranormal TV shows — from assessing medical conditions to military reconnaissance, from finding missing children to sensing mood changes in humans.

And, no big surprise, dogs.

In the latest post on Dog Spies, her blog on Scientific American, Julie Hecht recounted a recent study at the Animal Behavior, Cognition and Welfare Research Group at the University of Lincoln in the UK.

Researchers found, through infrared thermography, that the ear temperature of dogs decreased (turning blue on the camera) when they were isolated, and warmed backed up (turning red) when they reunited with people.

It’s similar to findings in studies of human stress levels — except in humans it’s the nose, instead of the ears, that is the most common giveaway.

As Hecht explained, infrared thermography picks up changes in surface temperature. When frightened, stressed or placed in unfamiliar surroundings, blood rushes away from your extremities, in dogs and humans. They get cooler as your core gets warmer and ready to react to whatever threat may be ahead.

The tip of a scared person’s nose gets cooler in such situations, just as rat paws and tails have been shown to do in experiments. In rabbits and sheep, the ears are the most obvious indicator.

Stefanie Riemer and colleagues placed dogs for brief periods in an isolated and novel environment. As the researchers expected, thermographic images of the dogs in isolation showed their ear temperature increasing, then rising when they were reunited with people.

The study appears in the current issue of Physiology & Behavior.

Six dogs were included in the study, and several were found to be unsuitable for study because their fur was too dense to get a good reading.

It seems like a technology that could be put to good use when it comes to studying dogs, and in learning more about those with behavioral issues and what triggers them.

That seems to me a better pursuit than chasing ghosts who aren’t really bothering anybody. Non-invasive, physically, as it is, even infrared photography has the potential for being cruel.

In a study in Italy two years ago, 20 bank tellers who had been robbed at gunpoint were shown a series of faces — happy, neutral, angry, etc. On the fifth face, the researchers exposed them to a loud and unexpected blast, and recorded, thermographically, how the blood left the noses and face.

Half of the tellers had already been diagnosed with PTSD.

Whether the researchers ended up giving PTSD to the other half is not addressed in the study.

(Photo: S. Riemer / Physiology & Behavior)

Dogs are better at filtering out useless info

While both human children and dogs learn from copying adult humans, dogs are better at spotting the bullshit.

So says (though not in those words) a new study from Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center.

Imitation, in addition to being the sincerest form of flattery, is how we — be we a puppy or a baby — learn. But young humans tend to be more trusting, following adult advice exactly. Dogs are more likely to see a shorter route to accomplishing the goal and opt for it, filtering out unnecessary steps that are just a waste of time.

(Might this explain why dogs don’t watch television all that much, or get on the Internet?)

In the experiment, researchers presented over 40 breeds of dogs with treats hidden inside puzzles.

They showed the dogs the steps necessary to solving the puzzle, but in doing so they included many unnecessary steps.

When the dogs’ turn came to solve the puzzle, they skipped the irrelevant steps that had nothing to do with getting to the treats, showing that dogs are able, or at least more able than human children, to separate bad advice from good advice.

Researchers contrasted their study results with those from a similar study at Yale that examined children, and they found humans relied more on imitation than the dogs. The children, after watching an adult solve the puzzle, tended to duplicate every step — even the unnecessary ones.

The study is similar to one about a decade ago that compared chimpanzees with human puzzle solvers. Chimpanzees, while prone to imitation, were slightly better at discerning the unnecessary steps and avoiding them than humans.

“So this tells us something really important about how humans learn relative to other animals,” said Yale Professor of Psychology Laurie Santos, one of the study’s authors. “We’re really trusting of the information that we get from other individuals – even more trusting than dogs are.”

“And what this means is we have to be really careful about the kinds of information we present ourselves with,” she added. “We’re not going to have the right filter for bad information, so we should stick to looking at information that’s going to be positive, information that’s going to be good.”

Or, as easily duped as our species is, we could just let dogs give us the advice.

It’s what you say AND how you say it

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Traditional wisdom holds that it’s not so much what you say to your dog as how you say it that counts — that tone, in other words, is everything.

But scientists in Hungary say dogs may understand more words than we think — and that it takes a combination of positive words and a positive tone for their brains to register a pleasurable reaction.

“Both what we say and how we say it matters to dogs,” said Attila Andics, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.

MRI readings conducted in the study showed the right hemisphere of dogs’ brains react to intonation, while the left hemisphere reacts to the meaning of words — as is the case with humans.

Their paper was published in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

The researchers — using words, positive tones and plenty of treats, we’d imagine — trained dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging machine and lie still while the machine recorded their brain activity.

The methods, similar to those being used at Emory University, are allowing scientists to better understand what goes on in the canine brain.

enik kubinyi2A trainer spoke common words of praise used by dog owners, including the Hungarian words for “good boy,” “super” and “well done,” as well as neutral words like “however” and “nevertheless.”

All the words were spoken using both positive tones and neutral tones, according to the New York Times.

Only words of praise spoken in a positive tone provoked significant reactions, making the reward centers in a dog’s brain light up.

The researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest recruited 13 family dogs for the study, and trained them to sit totally still for seven minutes in an fMRI scanner. The dogs were not restrained, and “could leave the scanner at any time,” the authors said.

Using the brain activity images, the researchers saw that the dogs processed the familiar words regardless of intonation, and they did so using the left hemisphere, just like humans. Tone, on the other hand, was analyzed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere.

Using neutral words in a positive tone, or positive words in a neutral tone, produced little reaction — or at least not one that shows up in MRI machines.

“It shows that for dogs a nice praise can very well work as a reward, but it works best if both words and intonation match,” Andics said. “So dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant.”

(Photos by Enik Kubinya, via New York Times)

Study: Dogs trust us less when we’re angry

How quickly your dog responds to you has a lot to do with the look on your face and the tone of your voice, according to a study at Brigham Young University.

Your dog may not respond more quickly if you use a positive tone, but he’s likely to respond much more slowly if you’re using a negative one, according to the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Brigham Young psychology professor Ross Flom and his research team conducted two experiments examining how dogs reacted to both positive and negative emotions.

“We know that dogs are sensitive to our emotional cues,” Flom said, “but we wanted to know: do they use these emotional cues?” he said.

The experiments measured how quickly dogs responded to an adult’s pointing gesture.

Some of the adults exhibited positive behaviors while making the gestures, such as smiling and speaking in a pleasant tone; others exhibited negative behaviors, such as frowning, furrowing their brow or speaking harshly.

As most dog owners could have predicted, the negative behaviors made dogs a little less cooperative and slow to react — proving yet again (as we also already know) you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

(Has anyone actually done a study on that?)

While dogs who sensed the pointing adults were angry reacted more slowly, dogs whose pointing adults reflected a positive attitude didn’t react any more speedily than those in a control group.

We can only assume those in the control group were issued orders by adults whose faces were expressionless and who spoke like Ben Stein.

Flom concluded that dogs use our tone and emotion to determine how fast to follow an order — or, to put it more scientifically …

“Together these results suggest that the addition of affective information does not significantly increase or decrease dogs’ point-following behavior. Rather these results demonstrate that the presence or absence of affective expressions influences a dog’s exploratory behavior and the presence or absence of reward affects whether they will follow an unfamiliar adult’s attention-directing gesture.”

Apparently, random human strangers were doing the gesturing in the study, as opposed to the owners of the dogs involved.

That, we suspect, would have made a big difference in a dog’s level of trust and eagerness to respond.

That dogs will take off and explore a new area or object based on a stranger’s request shows that dogs generally trust humans.

That dogs — or any animals for that matter — are slow to react to one who appears angry is really no big surprise, either.

That’s generally true in the human arena as well, with the exception of those being yelled at by drill sergeants, prison guards or junior high gym coaches.

How our dogs read our faces

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If you’re wondering how your dog is able to magically sense when you are sad, take a look in the mirror.

(And quit moping, you might be bringing your dog down.)

A new study suggests dogs have a specialized region in their brains for processing faces, and that face-reading region in the temporal cortex may help explain how they’ve become so adept at reading human social cues — a skill that up to now has, at least in the eyes of scientists, only been well-documented in humans and other primates.

Dogs have “neural machinery” that has been “hard-wired through cognitive evolution,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and the senior author of the study.

Berns heads the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best 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.

In previous research, the Dog Project identified a region of the canine brain that served as a reward center, and showed that region was responsible for a dog’s brain responding more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

In the current study, the researchers focused on how dogs respond to faces versus everyday objects, reports Phys.org.

“Dogs are obviously highly social animals,” Berns says, “so it makes sense that they would respond to faces. We wanted to know whether that response is learned or innate.”

The answer appears to be it’s a little of both — it was there to begin with, but has been honed over centuries of socializing with humans.

The study involved dogs viewing both static images and video images on a screen while undergoing an MRI.

Since dogs do not normally interact with two-dimensional images, they had to undergo training to learn to pay attention to the screen. Only six of the eight dogs enrolled in the study were able to hold a gaze for at least 30 seconds on each of the images, but for each of those six a region in their temporal lobe responded significantly more to movies of human faces.

The researchers have dubbed the canine face-processing region they identified the dog face area, or DFA.

(We assume they came up with that using that area of the human brain that is not too imaginative and wants to give everything an acronym.)

A previous study, decades ago, using electrophysiology, found sheep had facial recognition skills, but only a few face-selective cells were identified, as opposed to an entire region of the cortex, said Daniel Dilks, an Emory assistant professor of psychology and author of the study.

Humans, by the way, have at least three face processing regions in the brain.

“Dogs have been cohabitating with humans for longer than any other animal,” Dilks said. “They are incredibly social, not just with other members of their pack, but across species. Understanding more about canine cognition and perception may tell us more about social cognition and perception in general.”

(Photo courtesy of Gregory Berns, Emory University)

Kiss me, you dog (I need the probiotics)

Before you wipe off that next dog kiss — not that too many ohmidog! readers are the sort that do that — you might want to think about this:

Some of those doggy bacteria that dog-disliking alarmists and hand-wringing medical types are always warning us about might actually be good for you.

As with Greek yogurt and kimchee, some of the microbes lurking in a dog’s gut could have a probiotic effect on the owners’ body, aiding in both digestion and overall health.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are now seeking volunteers to take part in a study to prove just that — and here’s the coolest part: Volunteers, if they want, can keep the shelter dog assigned to them when the study is done.

The “Dogs as Probiotics” study will focus specifically on the effect dogs have on the health of older people — in terms of physical well-being, mental well-being and cognitive functioning.

kelly“We already know that dogs make us happier and in some ways healthier. The main point of this study is to try and understand whether or not there is an actual biological component behind this,” Kim Kelly, a UA doctoral student in medical anthropology, and one of the study’s primary investigators,
told the Arizona Daily Star.

“This has the potential to change the field in terms of how we understand, think about and use microbes to improve our health,” she said.

The study team is recruiting adults over the age of 50 and asking them to live with a dog from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona for three months.

Both the human and canine subjects will undergo tests of an non-invasive sort during the study to determine whether or not the positive microbes in the humans increase, and whether it correlates with improved immune measures in older adults.

Probiotics are often referred as “good” or “helpful” bacteria. They can help keep the intestines healthy, assist in digesting food, and are believed to help the immune system.

Kelly, along with researchers at the University of San Diego and the University of Colorado, will explore whether living with a dog encourages the growth of positive micro organisms in the human gut.

“We essentially want to find out, is a dog acting like yogurt in having a probiotic effect,” she said.

In addition, researchers will monitor participants for any changes in the mental health and emotional well-being.

Once the scientists are done, human participants will have the option of keeping the dog they kept in their home during the study.

We’re guessing that — whether their digestion has improved or not — most of them will.

Who wouldn’t want someone who has been kissing them for three months to hang around?

(Video: Attendees at the SPCA of Maryland’s March for the Animals, 2009, receiving some free probiotics from my dog Ace; photo: Kim Kelly and her cocker spaniel Katie, courtesy of Kim Kelly)