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Tag: experiment

Who’s the fool: Why do we humans persist in our efforts to trick the dog?

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Most of us have probably tried a version of this at home — be it with the fake tennis ball toss, the hidden treat or the imitation door knock.

How easily, and how many times in a row, can we fool the dog?

For some reason — maybe to test their intelligence, more likely because of the puckish tendencies of our own species — we seem to like to prank our pets.

Even many of your more admirable dog owners aren’t above punking their pugs, confusing their corgis, tricking their terriers or discombobulating their dachshunds.

My dog Ace has fallen victim to most of them. I’ve rapped against the wall to make him think someone’s at the front door. I’ve pretended to throw sticks and balls and hidden them behind my back as he gives chase. (This may explain why he’s not great at fetch). And, in perhaps the cruelest torment of all, I’ve made him think I’m holding a treat in one of my hands, holding out two closed fists and letting him pick one, then the other, only to find both are empty.

With each, he quickly caught on to the fact he was being played, and, despite my attempts to continue teasing him, moved on to something more interesting than me — like a shrub, or a rock, or the couch.

Dogs, due to their trusting nature, can be pretty easily fooled the first time. But you’re not likely to fool them with the same trick more than once or twice, according to a new study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Thirty four dogs were involved in the study, conducted at Kyoto University in Japan. One at a time, they were taken to a room where a researcher pointed to where food was hidden in a container. All the dogs followed the cue and got the treat. The second time around, the researchers pointed to an empty container, and all the dogs followed the cue , only to be disappointed.

The third time around, when the researcher again pointed to a full container of food, hardly any of the dogs bought it.

When a new experimenter came in to try again, the dogs initially trusted him — at least until he duped them, too. (Thank you, dogs, for not judging our entire species based on the acts of one.)

The leader of the team that conducted the study, Akiko Takaoka, says its findings suggests dogs are pretty good at determining how reliable an individual human is.

“Dogs have more sophisticated social intelligence than we thought. This social intelligence evolved selectively in their long life history with humans” she told BBC. Dogs understand what it means when a human points at something. If a dog’s owner points in the direction of a ball, stick or food, the dog will run and explore the location the person is pointing to.

But Takaoka said she was surprised that the dogs “devalued the reliability of a human” so quickly.

I wonder if the results might have been different if dog owners — rather than strangers — were the ones trying to fool them. Would they, based on the bond they have with their owners, be a little more trusting, and follow the cues a few more times before giving up?

Maybe … assuming their owner hasn’t raised them with a steady diet of pranks.

Fun as they may be, they should probably be done in moderation, and not during puppyhood. And, when it comes to training, it’s probably best to avoid duping our dogs into doing what we want them to do — as in tricking him into a bath, or into the crate, or using the word “treat” to get him to come. Deception — with the possible exception of putting his pill in a shroud of cheese — shouldn’t be something we regularly practice to control our dog.

Dogs like things to be predictable, John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol notes in the BBC article, and not knowing what’s going to happen next can make them stressed, fearful or even aggressive.

“Dogs whose owners are inconsistent to them often have behavioral disorders,” he said.

Still, many of us (perhaps due to our own behavioral disorders) persist — even those who know fooling the dog runs counter to good training, and works against building a relationship of trust.

Why we’re that way might be equally worthy of a study. Why, long after the dog has lost interest and moved on to something else, do some of us humans continue to try and amuse ourselves by tricking them?

Maybe those people are scientists at heart, and want to test their dog’s cognitive abilities. Maybe they justify it by telling themselves — as I did when teasing my little brother — that it’s building character, or teaching our dog that life isn’t always fair. Maybe they’re trying to establish their dominance, or at least their feeling of mental superiority, or re-establish the fact they are in control. Maybe they have a tiny cruel streak.

More likely, they are just seeking a laugh, or feel the need to confirm how much their dogs trust them.

The occasional prank, I think, is OK, but pulling too many of them might be an indication we’re not worthy of that trust, leading it to erode, as maybe — based on the experiment in Japan — it is already.

Dogs are continuing to figure us humans out (no small task). They learn our schedules. They predict our actions. Apparently, they have also learned when, amid our trickery, to turn us off, in which case the joke just might be on us.

Dung shui: Do dogs line up with the earth’s axis to do their business?

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I’ve often wondered why my dog Ace circles before he poops. He’ll go into a semi-squat, then, like a lazy Susan, make two or three revolutions before unloading.

Could it be he has an “inner compass” and is getting himself in line with the earth’s axis?

A new study suggests that canines line up along magnetic field lines to do their business. How they do that remains a mystery; why they do that perhaps an even bigger one.

Maybe they know something we don’t — we being so far removed from the natural world that we mindlessly let our toilets dictate the direction we face while defecating.

Who knows how much better off our digestive health might be, how much better aligned our chakras might be, if we all voided while facing directly north or south?

Whether there are benefits to parallel pooping — for humans or dogs — are not matters the Czech and German researchers addressed in their paper, recently published in Frontiers in Zoology.

Instead, the research focused on whether dogs – like cattle, deer and foxes – line up parallel to the earth’s axis when they defecate.

Over a two-year period, the researchers observed 70 dogs, of 37 different breeds, as they went on outings, and duly logged each urination (5,582) and defecation (1,893), as well as the direction the dogs were facing while doing the deed.

They say the results lend credence to the suggestion that dogs and other animals have some sort of internal mechanism that helps guide them in matters of pooping, and likely much more — at least when the earth’s magnetic field is stable.

The earth’s magnetic field is stable is only about 20 percent of the time during daylight, they note. But when looking only at those periods, dogs off leash seemed to prefer to poop with their bodies oriented along the north-south axis, the study said — facing either directly north or south. As for peeing, female dogs did that while aligned with the north-south axis, while male dogs preferred a northwest heading.

The researchers say that if dogs are capable of “magnetoreception,” it would open “totally new horizons for magnetobiological research.”

As for why the dogs do it in the first place, the authors said, “An answer may lie in the biological meaning of the behavior: If dogs would use a visual … magnetic map to aid general orientation in space, as has been proposed for rodents, they might have the need to center/calibrate the map now and then with regard to landmarks or a magnetic reference …We might think of this the same way as a human is stopping during a hike to read a map.”

In other words, maybe dogs use pooping as an opportunity to take stock, get their bearings, plot their next step and better understand their place in the universe.

Humans sometimes do that on the toilet, too, I’d venture, especially when they run out of magazines to read.

And while most humans don’t put much thought into what direction they’re facing during the act, or whether they’re aligned with the earth’s axis, there are  some who advise taking that under consideration.

In a cursory — highly cursory — search of the Internet, we found a website called Vaastu NaresH, which suggests a water closet that faces north or south will lead to increased health and happiness. Another feng shui-related website advised one’s entire bathroom face north — not so much to align with the earth’s axis, but because that’s where the malevolent spirits are.

(I’m not sure the malevolent spirits appreciate being honored that way, whether they might prefer that you, instead of offering a full view, shut the door and turn on the exhaust fan. Then again, they are malevolent.)

As for dogs, I’ve never noticed any consistent alignment when it comes to defecating. My dog Ace seems to be an omni-directional pooper, basing his stance on whether the sun is in his eyes, whether there’s something interesting to watch off in the distance in some particular direction, how urgent the situation is, or simply what point he’s at in his urgent and dervish-like pre-poop spin when nature finally calls.

Then again, what do I know? My toilet faces southeast.

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)

Sheena avoids becoming a lab experiment

A mutt named Sheena will live to see Christmas.

Sheena’s former guardian, identified only as Gayle, surrendered the dog to the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter (NUVAS) in hopes of finding her a new home, according to the PETA Files

Sheena wasn’t getting along with another dog in the house and Gayle could not afford to keep three large dogs.

After surrendering Sheena, Gayle, visited the dog several times at the shelter in Lindon, Utah, to make sure that she was being cared for. One day, though, when Gayle called to check on the dog, she was told Sheena was gone.

Shelter staff informed her that Sheena had been sold to the University of Utah, and declined to say much beyond that.

Gayle contacted the university to determine whether Sheena was still alive, then called PETA’s emergency hotline, which informed her that NUVAS regularly sells dogs — some of them the same ones they feature on their website as cute, cuddly and adoptable — to the university for use in medical experiments.

According to PETA, dogs recently purchased by the university from the animal shelter have had holes cut into their chests and necks, and pacemakers implanted onto their hearts in order to induce irregular heartbeats; the dogs were then killed and dissected.

(A PETA petition urging the shelter’s board of directors to cease the practice can be signed here.)

Gayle called the university and demanded her dog back, and with assistance from PETA found a foster home where Sheena will stay until a permanent home can be found.

(Photo: Courtesy of PETA)

Glucose: The key to dogged determination?

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A new study confirms the notion that self-control is a limited resource, one that can and does get depleted — in humans and dogs.

And glucose, the study says, is one solution to helping us — whatever our species — stay on task, Miller-McCune magazine reports on its health blog.

The University of Kentucky study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science, says the same mechanism that regulates human self-control also operates in canines.

A research team led by psychologist Holly Miller conducted two experiments with canines, observing how much persistence they exhibited when given a task.

In the first, 13 dogs were separated into pairs based on their training history. One from each pair was cued to sit and stay by its owner for 10 minutes, with the command being repeated as necessary. The other was simply kept in a quiet room for that same amount of time.

Afterward, each dog was given a Tug-a-Jug toy, a clear cylinder containing treats that can be accessed via a hole at one end — if the dog manipulates it properly. Each toy contained half a hot dog, too large to fit through the hole.

The dogs that had exercised self-control by sitting in place for 10 minutes gave up and discarded the toy more quickly than the others.

In a second experiment, 22 dogs repeated the first experiment with an additional component: Half the dogs were given a glucose drink prior to grappling with the toy, and half were given a sugar-free beverage.

“Dogs given a glucose drink persisted in interacting with the toy whether or not they had had to exert self-control prior to the test,” the researchers report, adding the glucose apparently replenished the animal’s capacity to keep at the task.

Previous research has shown glucose has a similar effect on humans.

“People can control their own behavior,” Miller said. “When they fail, it is not because they are terrible or weak; it is because they are depleted … If they want better self-control, they can build it. They can encourage their bodies to store more self-control fuel via exercise.”

Which dog breed attracts the most women?

This is likely an advertisement in disguise (for the Sony Ericsson C510, with Smile Shutter), seems a trifle staged, and is far from scientific. But it passes the cute test.

In the video series, a camera is attached to the necks of different pups to document the reaction of the women the dog attracts. The purpose: to determine which breed is the best chick magnet.

In case you don’t have 10 minutes to spare, here are the results: The samoyed drew the most females, but the pug — at least in the view of the two dudes in the video — drew the hottest ones.

Oxytocin is a many splendored thing

Who needs children when a puppy can provide a similar emotional experience?

New Scientist magazine recently asked that question in an article about a Japanese study that showed relating to dogs causes a surge of the same hormones triggered by nurturing an infant, romantic love and close friendship.

Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle chemical” and the “love drug,” has been found to relieve stress, combat depression, breed trust in humans and generally make life more worth living. When two humans bond, their oxytocin levels increase.

Miho Nagasawa and Takefumi Kikusui, biologists at Azuba University in Japan, suspected social contact between two different species might boost oxytocin levels, as well.

“Miho and I are big dog lovers and feel something changed in our bodies when gazed [upon] by our dogs,” Kikusui says.

They recruited 55 dog owners and their pets for a videotaped laboratory play session. Owners provided a urine sample to measure oxytocin levels. They were then divided into two groups — one that played with their dog for half an hour, one that sat in the same room but were told to completely avoid their dogs’ gazes.

Then everybody’s urine was tested again. Participants that spent a long time making eye contact were determined to have experienced increases in their oxytocin levels of more than 20%. Those who avoided their pooches’ gaze saw their oxytocin levels drop slightly.

Among those playing with their dogs, the longer they made eye contact, the higher the increase was in their levels of the hormone.

A flood of the cuddle chemical could explain why playing with dogs can lift moods and even improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, Kikusui says. Possibly, the scientists say, oxytocin even played a part in the domestication of dogs from wolves, about 15,000 years ago.

“Maybe during the evolutionary process, humans and dogs came to share the same social cues”, such as eye contact and hand gestures, Kikusui says. “This is why dogs can adapt to human society.”