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Tag: research

Reflections on the dog paddle

dogpaddle

Throw a dog who has never gone swimming into a pool and, pretty much instantly, he’ll start moving his four legs in a series of motions we’ve come to call the dog paddle.

Throw a human who has never gone swimming into a pool and — though the possibilities are much higher for helpless flailing about, cussing, drowning, or becoming traumatized for life — he may eventually come to his senses enough to try and work his way back to the side of the pool. He’ll do so not using a butterfly stroke, breast stroke or Australian crawl, but by doing what dogs do.

The dog paddle: It’s seemingly instinctual. It’s primitive. And though we humans mostly outgrow it, it remains sort of the default mode of propelling ourselves through water.

Just how primitive it may be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University who — maybe because of his name, maybe not — has spent most of his career studying how marine mammals swim.

Most recently, he has been studying the swimming motions of dogs, and he has concluded that they are very similar to the motions dogs use in trotting. That explains the  ease with which most dogs can make the transition from land to water — requiring no lessons, and (generally) little coaxing: They basically propel themselves the same way in water as they do on land.

That their stride and strokes are nearly identical is interesting in itself, but Fish thinks it could also help explain how whales and dolphins ended up in the ocean.

Fish subscribes to the theory that marine mammals were intitially four-legged land dwellers who ventured into the water one day (likely dog paddling at first), decided they liked it better there, then evolved into such super swimmers that they no longer needed legs, or, for that matter, land.

underwater dogsFor his research, Fish set up some underwater video cameras and enlisted eight volunteer dogs (including his own) of six different breeds, ranging from Yorkshire terrier to Newfoundland.

He borrowed a swimming pool used to rehabilitate horses at the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing the video, Fish and fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal pairs of legs churning in unison, according to Science Daily. Fish presented his findings at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin.

While there’s plenty of dog research we’d categorize as a silly waste of time, we find all this pretty intriguing.

First, it reminds us that practice makes perfect — to think that long, long ago there might have been a couple of four-legged dolphins who didn’t know how to swim, hesitating at the edge of the water: “I dunno, it looks dangerous … should we go in?”

Second, in an era when we’re increasingly relying on computers to do our thinking for us, it serves as a warning that those muscles we don’t use can disappear. It raises a host of interesting questions about our future, and our past.

Why is it we humans tend to dog paddle in our first encounters with water? Is that some sort of instinctual nod to a past when we got about on four legs, instead of two?

If cavemen had spent more time at the swimming hole, might we homo sapiens have evolved into something more amphibious?

Given that, might mermaids really exist?

It’s kind of inspiring to think there might have been a day when dolphins, the planet’s most graceful swimmers, were total klutzes in the water — that they started off splashing about with some awkward looking dog paddling and progressed to the point where they could actually leap out of the water.

It reminds us that, maybe, anything is possible with enough hard work — even when it comes to behaviors we might think are genetic and therefore unchangeable. Do we sometimes wear our genes too tightly, and allow them to restrict us from leaping into new things, and getting over old ones?

We wish Fish luck in unraveling how four-legged terrestrial forms evolved into no-legged, finned ones. And as long as the dogs involved in his research are having a good time –  given Fish is letting his own dog be used in the study, we assume they are – we have no problem with them helping the professor prove his point.

In other words: Go Fish!

(Top Photo, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology; bottom photo, from the book Underwater Dogs)

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

SONY DSC

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.

Drones and droids and robot dogs, oh my!

The older I get the more wary I become of technology.

What I haven’t figured out is whether one necessarily follows the other: Am I just becoming more fearful as I age, or is technology proving itself more worth fearing?

Both are unstoppable forces. Just as one can’t stop the march of time (even with anti-aging technology), one can’t stop the march of technology.

It keeps coming — whether it’s wise or not, safe or not — and we all blindly jump on board and become dependent on it. If it makes us prettier, gets us where we’re going, let’s us accomplish things more quickly, or function without actually using our brains, we humans are generally all for it.

Already we’re reliant on the Internet, GPS, and cell phones. Already we can purchase almost anything we want online. But the day may soon come when, once we order it, it gets delivered by a robot, perhaps a flying one, or a terrain-traversing one, or one capable of hurling 35-pound cinder blocks 17 feet.

I would say these robot dogs could become the newspaper delivery boys of tomorrow, if newspapers had a tomorrow.

droneLast month 60 Minutes revealed that Amazon was working on drones that will be able to fly to homes and deliver packages at our doorstep.

Last week the New York Times reported that Google has purchased Boston Dynamics, the engineering firm that designed the graceful beast known as “Big Dog” (seen in the video above) and other animal-like robots, mostly for the Pentagon.

It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year, but Google’s not divulging what it’s up to.

Given search engines don’t generally need to climb mountains, or hurl cinder blocks, to find their information, one can only wonder.

Is the company branching into war machines? Does it want to corner the market on robot pets? (Boston Dynamics did serve as consultant on Sony’s ill-fated pet robot dog, Aibo.) Is it hoping to take Google Earth one step further and have robots take photographs through our windows? Or, more likely, is Google, like Amazon, positioning itself to become the place where you buy everything, and working on lining up a delivery team whose members don’t require salary, or health insurance, or coffee and pee breaks?

It almost looks like Amazon is poised to cover air delivery, while Google, with its latest purchase, is positioning itself to cover the ground. (That, at least until Big Dog becomes amphibious, leaves the high seas open — aye, aye robot! — for, say, a Yahoo, Bing or eBay).

biigdogBoston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., builds animal-like machines that can traverse smooth or rocky terrain, some of them at speeds faster than a human. Most of its projects have been built under contracts with Pentagon clients like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts held by Boston Dynamics, but that it did not plan to become a military contractor on its own.

So why does it need computers with legs, or robots that can climb walls and trees? Surely Google isn’t working on ”Terminators” that can track you down, knock on your door and provide you with the top 10 recipes for apple crumb cake.

The Times reports:  ”… Executives at the Internet giant are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection. But Boston Dynamics and its animal kingdom-themed machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts … The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.”

EVEN ELDER CARE? Oy, robot! I do not want a robot dispensing my medication if I end up in such a facility. At that time, I will be even more terrified of technology, and the last thing I would want to see would be a robot coming into my room –  no matter how sexy its voice – saying, “Time for your sponge bath.”

I’m not a total Luddite.

I can publish a website or two, and can hook up my cable TV, and can figure out about 10 percent of what my cell phone does.

But I resent how steep the learning curve has become — how much effort is involved in keeping up with technology. That device promising to make life easier — once you spend a week programming it — may be smaller than your little finger, but its owner’s manual will be fatter than a James Michener novel.

What I fear, though, is where technology can lead, especially technology without forethought, and how quickly and blindly many of us hop on the bandwagon, giving little consideration to the possible repercussions, and how easily it can run amok.

The one futuristic (but already here) technology I’ve researched most is dog cloning. Once achieved, the service was offered to pet owners hoping to bring their dead dogs back to life, and willing to pay $150,000 for that to be accomplished in South Korean laboratories. It bothered me so much, and on so many levels, I wrote a whole book about it. You can order it through Amazon, but don’t expect drone delivery for at least a couple more years. Might one day drones deliver our clones?

I realize my fears are both irrational and rational.

Fretting about the future, I guess, is part of getting older. Old fart worries were around back when automobiles first hit the road (and went on to become a leading cause of death). And it’s probably true that once we stop moving forward, we tend to stagnate. But there’s moving forward and smartly moving forward.

I’m not a fan of big government (except when it helps me get health insurance), but I sometimes wonder if we need a federal Department of Whoa, Let’s Take a Look at this First. Maybe it could monitor emerging technologies, and their ramifications, and determine whether they should be allowed to emerge at all. Maybe that would prevent unimaginable (but, with enough research, entirely predictable) things from happening — like cell-phone shaped cancers forming on the exact spot of our bodies where we pack our cell phones.

But we tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to those kinds of things. We wait for the damage to be done and leave it to personal injury lawyers to straighten it out — whether it’s a new anti-psychotic drug that unexpectedly made young males grow female breasts, or irreparable harm done by robotic surgical devices. (If you’ve been victim of either, lawyers are standing by to help you. At least that’s what my TV tells me.)

I want to enter my golden years without shiny silver robots assisting me in living, and without drones hovering outside my door (even if they are delivering a good book). Though I’ve met some clones, I wouldn’t mind getting through life without having any contact with droids and drones and robot dogs.

Sometimes, at least from the Fearful Old Man Perspective (FOMP), it seems we’re so focused on the future that we fail to see and appreciate the present, and don’t even begin to learn from the past.

Sometimes it seems we like dancing on the cutting edge, then cry foul when our feet get sliced up.

Sometimes it seems we embrace technology too quickly and casually, when it should be a careful and thoughtful embrace, made with the realization that, as much as technology can make life better, it can also screw it up badly. We tend to view technology in terms of what it can add to our life, not even considering what it might subtract. And, in what’s the biggest danger of all, we tend to let it overrule our hearts and do our thinking for us.

It can save and prolong lives, even, in a way, re-create them. It can make our human lives – though it’s arguable — more convenient.

But it can also gnaw away at us until we become tin men and scarecrows — maybe not actually missing our hearts and brains, but at least forgetting we ever had them.

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

wag

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)

D-O-Gs with OCD could help further understanding of the disorder in humans

dobermanWith all the research into how the medical issues of dogs often run parallel to our own, it’s no surprise that eight obsessive-compulsive Doberman pinschers are adding to our body of knowledge about that disorder.

A new study made use of MRI brain scans and found dogs and people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have similar brain abnormalities and share certain brain characteristics.

Three years ago, researchers found the shared gene believed responsible for flank-sucking, blanket-sucking and other compulsive behavior in Dobermans.

The new study shows what’s going on in their brains is similar — at least as an MRI sees it — to what’s going on in our’s.

“We have a lot of commonality with our best friend the dog,” said study leader Niwako Ogata, an assistant professor of animal behavior at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana.

Just as elderly dogs with the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s are being used as models to understand the degenerative disease in people, studying dogs is providing some clues into OCD, an anxiety disorder afflicting anywhere from 2 to 8 percent of Americans.

For the study, Ogata and colleagues recruited eight Doberman pinschers with CCD (canine compulsive disorder) and a control group of eight Dobermans without CCD, according to National Geographic. The team obtained MRI scans for each group and discovered that the CCD dogs had higher total brain and gray matter volumes and lower gray matter densities in certain parts of the brain. That’s similar to the structures of people brains’ with OCD.

It’s not known why both species’ brains show these features, Ogata said, but her team plans to repeat the experiment with more dogs and more breeds.

The team chose Dobermans because of the prevalence of CCD in the breed. About  28 percent of  Dobermans in the U.S. are afflicted.

People with OCD often perform the same rituals over and over again, like washing and rewashing their hands and locking and relocking doors. In dogs, common compulsive behaviors include paw-licking and tail-chasing.

Ogata, whose study was published online in April in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, said the study provides a better idea of “”how brains develop, and when and how genes interact with [their] environment to cause some behavior problems for both humans and dogs.”

Does doggy bling date to prehistoric times?

burieddog

A new study suggests the earliest domestic dogs weren’t just kept for hunting and protection, but for loving — a premise supported by evidence that some prehistoric pet owners actually outfitted their dogs in bling, if not before death, at least after it.

An analysis of ancient dog burials, published in PLoS ONE, found that deceased dogs were often laid to rest not just with respect, but with toys and ornaments, Jennifer Viegas reports on Discovery.com.

The findings show that, at least as recently as 10,000 years ago, dogs were valued for more than their ability to stand sentry and track game.

The researchers also say the earliest dog lovers were fish-eaters, and held spiritual beliefs. Subsisting on diets rich in seafood, they apparently didn’t rely on dogs to help them find dinner, or as dinner.

“Dog burials appear to be more common in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries,” Robert Losey, lead author of the study told Discovery News.

“If the practice of burying dogs was solely related to their importance in procuring terrestrial game, we would expect to see them in the Early Holocene (around 9,000 years ago), when human subsistence practices were focused on these animals,” Losey, a University of Alberta anthropologist, added. “Further, we would expect to see them in later periods in areas where fish were never really major components of the diet and deer were the primary focus, but they are rare or absent in these regions.”

For the study, Losey’s team researched dog burials worldwide, but focused particularly on ones located in Eastern Siberia. The earliest known domesticated dog was found there, dating to 33,000 years ago. Dog burials in the region are more recent, going back about 10,000 years.

They found that dogs were sometimes buried with meaningful items, sometimes even their human, showing that man’s bond with dog — while it may be ever-strengthening — goes way, way back.

According to the Discovery report:

“…One dog, for example, was laid to rest “much like it is sleeping.” A man was buried with two dogs, one carefully placed to the left of his body, and the other to the right. A dog was buried with a round pebble, possibly a toy or meaningful symbol, placed in its mouth. Still other dogs were buried with ornaments and implements, such as spoons and stone knives.

“One of the most interesting burials contains a dog wearing a necklace made out of four red deer tooth pendants. Such necklaces appear to have been a fashion and/or symbolic trend at the time, since people wore them too.”

The researchers found that most of the dog burials in the area occurred during the Early Neolithic era, about 8,000 years ago.

(Photo by Robert Losey, via Discovery.com)

Take two dogs and call me in the morning

Call it an “aha” moment for the AHA: The American Heart Association has finally, officially, recognized that dogs are good for the ticker.

Last week, the organization issued a statement saying enough evidence now exists to make that assertion, and it didn’t even recommend dogs be taken in moderation, or consulting your doctor first.

Heartening as the news release was, the statement was overdue, or at least a few beats behind the thinking of those of us who already knew, and didn’t need studies to tell us, that our dogs are good for the heart, by which I mean the organ and more.

Dog owners are more likely to get exercise. Stroking a dog lowers blood pressure. Stress is handled better by dog owners — even when their dog isn’t with them. Studies have proven all those things.

But the mysteries of what dogs do for the heart, and the soul, have only begun to be unraveled. And on top of all the benefits to humans that can be scientifically confirmed and quantified, there’s much more dogs do for us — much of it undetectable by microscopes and double-blind studies, and part of me hopes it always will be.

Being humans, we can sometimes get so wrapped in measuring something that it interferes with treasuring that something. We can get so intent on delving into something’s complexities that we fail to savor its simplicity.

Dogs, could they speak, would tell us that, and they’d likely advise to look for the simple answer first.

How important, heart-wise, is the simple fact that a dog can give us reason to live, and love? While I am not a medical professional, or even a medical amateur, I think a heart that’s engaged and occupied is more likely to keep running smoothly than one sitting empty in the garage, getting dusty.

“Perhaps when one owns a pet one tends to be happier,” said Dr. Glenn Levine of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who led the committee that wrote the statement. “Pet owners might be more likely to take their medications and eat healthier meals.”

Pharmaceuticals and spinach, important as they may be, don’t make you happy to be alive, though, and want to continue in that state.

Dogs do.

The AHA isn’t saying everyone should go out and adopt a dog to lower their risk of heart disease. The statement emphasizes there’s much more involved in keeping your heart healthy, according to an NBC Today report.

“We did not want people to see this article and just go out and adopt or rescue or buy a dog …while they continue to just sit on the couch and smoke cigarettes,” said Levine, himself a dog owner.

In one study cited by the committee, researchers signed up 30 people with borderline high blood pressure who were about to adopt dogs from a shelter.

Then they persuaded half of them to wait — in the best interest of the study, if not the dogs.

Those allowed to adopt dogs right away had lower blood pressure two and five months later than those who had not adopted.

And once all the study participants had adopted dogs, systolic blood pressure was found to be lowered in the deferred-adoption group as well.

The study didn’t say whether those that adopted had lower blood pressure than those who bought dogs. Nevertheless, and even though I’m not a doctor, that’s what I’d prescribe.

(Photo: ohmidog!)