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Tag: mood

Have you hugged your dog today?

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We’re not recommending you do, and we’re not recommending you don’t. We’re only taking a quick look at the subject because, pure and innocent an act as hugging your dog might seem, it is not without controversy.

Stanley Coren, author of many dog books, stirred up a little of it in his column this month for Psychology Today, citing “new data” that shows getting hugged raises the stress and anxiety levels of dogs, and the possibilities of someone getting bitten.

Some people who have been hugging their dogs for years (and insist their dogs enjoy the affection) found his conclusions laughable, labeled him a party-pooping old fuddy duddy, and said his research techniques were anything but scientific.

We’d agree only with that last part — because Coren’s “new data” was gathered by looking at 250 random photos on the Internet of people hugging dogs.

“I can summarize the data quite simply by saying that the results indicated that the Internet contains many pictures of happy people hugging what appear to be unhappy dogs,” he wrote.

“In all, 81.6% of the photographs researchers scored showed dogs who were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. Only 7.6% of the photographs could rate as showing dogs that were comfortable with being hugged. The remaining 10.8% of the dogs either were showing neutral or ambiguous responses to this form of physical contact.

doghug1Those signs of stress or discomfort include baring of teeth, lowered ears, a dog turning his head away, and a dog who either closes his eyes or shows what is called “half-moon eye” or “whale eye.”

That’s when you can see the white portion of the eyes.

Here’s the problem, though — or one of them, anyway. How does Coren, or anybody else, know that the dogs pictured are stressing out because of the hug. Couldn’t it also be a reaction to WHO is hugging them? Or a reaction to the camera?

The simple fact is some dogs like being hugged, some tolerate it, and others don’t like it at all.

For the latter group, it might be the amount of pressure applied during a hug that they are reacting to — enough to make them feel restrained. It might be that hugs tend to be spontaneous and come out of nowhere.

Then, too, mood could be a factor. Sometimes dogs, and humans, feel like being hugged and sometimes they don’t.

There are just too many variables to make a sweeping conclusion — especially when it’s all based on what photos turn up in your Internet search and your subjective interpretation of those photos.

doghug3Reading a dog’s emotions is tricky enough when you are face to face with one. Doing it from a photo is even more problematic. What for example is this dog thinking?

Hard to read emotions through that many wrinkles, but he seems to be digging it.

We’d agree with the experts who say hugging a dog you don’t know or have just met is not a good idea — and that children should be taught that early on.

But beyond that, we’d be hesitant to put the kibosh on dog hugging altogether, especially when it’s based on Flickr’ed or Facebook’ed photos posted by dog owners wanting to show how much they love their dogs — whether their dogs like it or not.

In this writer’s life, he has been creeped out by some hugs, tolerated others, found some both warm and comforting, and gotten truly enthused by a few.

Probably, some old photos exist of him showing half moon eyes while being squeezed by his big sister.

Does that mean he doesn’t like hugs?

Of course not. He just prefers to make the decision on a case by case basis. Dogs should have that freedom, too.

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)

Serenity? I second that emotion

Ace’s Valium is really working for me.

No, not in the manner you might assume. I am refraining from sharing his stash. Nevertheless, I have calmed down – because he has calmed down.

When I get on the floor next to him, or even glance at him there, it’s as if the drug is somehow passing into me. Seeing him more comfortable makes me more comfortable, just as hearing his yelps put me on edge.

By way of background, I took Ace, 6,  to the vet last week after, a few days earlier, he began yelping every time he made a sudden motion. A herniated disc was the diagnosis, and the course of action recommended by the vet was NSAIDs to relieve the inflammation and doggie valium — Diazepam to be precise — to keep him unnaturally calm during the two weeks of bed rest prescribed.

I’ve heard of some negative side effects associated with NSAIDs and dogs, and I’ve never been big on pharmaceuticals that mask symptoms and alter moods, but the conservative – and least expensive – approach struck me as worth trying first.

The effect was almost immediate. Ace had been restless, pacing slowly and holding his head carefully, as if anticipating another burst of pain. His tensing up made me tense up, which made him tense up more, which made me tense up more.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed before – how our emotions and moods tend to play off each other and snowball.

Say a big scary bug comes in the house. I, upon seeing it, will jump up and reach for a magazine, shoe, or other instrument of death. Even before I jump up, though, Ace, even if he hasn’t seen the bug, mirrors my startled (assuming the bug is scary enough) reaction, almost as if he can sense, like a pending earthquake, my heart rate increasing from the other side of the room.

There’s a kind of emotional synchronization that occurs between dog and owner – and maybe it’s true of any two beings that co-reside, even spouses.

In our duality, we find a oneness, to the point we think we can read each other’s minds – and often we react based on that.

When Ace is happy, which is usually, it makes me happy, which makes him even happier, which makes me even happier. One of the things at the root of our love for dogs, I think, is that spiraling contentment and joy. Of course, the same is true, at least with Ace and me, when dog or human are unhappy.

Our dogs are a reflection of us, and we are a reflection of our dogs.

This reflection stuff gets reflected on a lot in my book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend,” which recounts the history of cloning dogs and its emergence as an industry that, in the view of critics, exploits the grief of bereaved pet owners.

One of the reasons losing a dog is so tough – on top of it bringing an end to all that respect and admiration we see in their eyes, all that loyalty and unconditional love – is, I think, that we see ourselves in them.

Cloning our dogs – as some people are doing – is not just a futile attempt to skirt death, but also, it can be argued, an attempt to recapture one’s own youth, via a puppified version of their own dog. When the old mirror dies, we can get a new, genetically identical one – one that looks exactly the same, but has the added benefit or making us feel younger when we look into it.

How dogs reflect their owners is the subject of another new and fascinating book, “Your Dog is Your Mirror,” which we will get around reviewing soon. (Those of you who visit ohmidog’s dog book page may have noticed it’s a bit behind, and doesn’t even include my book.)

Written by dog trainer Kevin Behan, “Your Dog is Your Mirror,” puts forth the theory that a dog’s behavior is driven by its owner’s emotions — that dogs respond to what their owner feels, even when the human isn’t aware they are feeling it. Behan says dominance – or being the pack leader — is not the key to dog training. Instead, it’s understanding what emotions you, the human, are passing on to the dog.

It’s the heart — more than dominance, treats or anything else — that connects dogs and humans.

Sometimes the dog helps carry your emotional baggage. Sometimes, as with Ace’s current situation, you try to help it with what it’s carrying.

For now, controlled substances are giving us a hand, providing Ace and me with a symbiotically snowballing sense of serenity. Yes, it’s somewhat artificial. And yes, I worry that the drugs will make him feel better before he actually is, leading him to attempt things he shouldn’t attempt.

So we are staying mostly in our current temporary lodgings — a mansion basement in North Carolina. He is under orders not to romp. So I shan’t romp, either. Instead, we’ll limit our outings. We’ll pop the occasional pill. We’ll read, and watch TV,  and watch each other, the way we do, having plenty of time for some quiet reflection.