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Tag: science

Aiming high to leave their mark

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No matter how big your male dog is you’ve probably noticed, and maybe wondered why, when he finally finds what upright object he wants to pee on, he often strains to aim as high as he can.

The answer is — and perhaps this is more a matter of male behavior than canine behavior — he’s trying to impress other dogs.

canine_urine_marking_dog_behaviorScience and conventional wisdom generally concur that sharing urine scents serves to let dogs get to know each other — that it’s a method of honest communication.

But now a group of researchers is saying that — honest as it otherwise is — there is some deception going on, especially along smaller dogs who are even more likely to hike their legs as high as they possibly can to leave the impression that they’re bigger than they really are.

In a study published in the Journal of Zoology, Betty McGuire and her team at Cornell University found smaller dogs tend to urinate more often than larger dogs, and they’re more likely to aim higher when focusing on vertically oriented targets.

handstandpee“Assuming body size is a proxy for competitive ability, small adult male dogs may place urine marks higher, relative to their own body size, than larger adult male dogs to exaggerate their competitive ability,” McGuire said.

Like this little fella (left).

The researchers went so far as to follow adult male dogs while they (the dogs) urinated on walks, then calculated the angle of their legs when raised during marking. They (the researchers) compared those calculations to the dogs’ height and mass and measured the height of the urine marks on the dogs’ chosen targets.

“Small males seemed to make an extra effort to raise their leg high — some small males would almost topple over,” McGuire told New Scientist. “So, we wondered whether small males try to exaggerate their body size by leaving high urine marks.”

The researchers said it’s likely the goal is to deceive other male dogs, but I suspect it is to impress the ladies, too.

D.K.-Metcalf-595x334Perhaps it emanates from that same source that gives some small dogs Napoleon complexes, making them make up for their lack of size by being louder.

But, I’d argue, neither is limited to canines.

Go to any bar and you can see pretty much the same thing, minus the fire hydrants, lampposts and urination, but with the same kind of loudness, strutting, poking out of chests, boasts, and little white (or yellow) lies.

Seems that, when it comes to the male of the species, neither dogs nor humans are above a little showing off.

When selling technology gets out ahead of understanding technology

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When the marketing of a new technology gets ahead of refining that technology, and finding its best use, it can be disastrous.

But, biotech being what it is, and greed being what it is, it happens — a lot: Let’s start selling it before we fully understand it, much less the repercussions it might bring.

Dog cloning is one example of that. Canine genetic testing — now being marketed by some companies — might well be another.

Promising uses may exist in both technologies, but the rush to market them, the gullibility of humans, and the total lack of oversight and restrictions governing their use, have resulted in a whole new market niche — selling false hope.

With both, claims have been made that can’t be backed up. With both, the marketing claims can’t be confirmed by scientific evidence, at least in amounts most scientist deem acceptable to serve as proof. With both, the zeal to put a product or service on the marketplace has led to many outrageous claims and more than a few “woops” moments.

71VI6KUzxML._SL1500_DNA testing of dogs has become a booming business in the last 10 years, starting with the marketing of tests that promised to determine what breeds are in your dog — a fun little method of solving they mystery of a dog’s heritage by testing its blood or saliva in a lab.

Companies said then that knowing what breeds make up your dog could also be a way of keeping him or her healthy, and allow you to watch out for certain diseases and disorders that those breeds are prone to.

In more recent years, it has been used to test for genetic mutations, making it, seemingly, a more valuable diagnostic tool for veterinarians.

Today, it can be used to make life or death decisions and that, a commentary piece in the journal Nature warned last week, is a mistake.

At least it appeared to be a mistake for a little dog named Petunia.

Petunia, 13, started having trouble walking and controlling her bladder and bowels last year.

91Wg3qmDurL._SL1500_Her owners bought a $65 home genetic test, and the results showed their pug carried a mutation that is linked to a neurodegenerative condition similar to the human disease ALS — one that would lead to paralysis and eventual death.

Based on that, her owners had her put down.

What they might not have realized is that as few as 1 in 100 dogs that test positive for the common mutation develop the rare disease. Petunia’s condition could have been the result of a more-treatable spinal disorder.

“Genetic testing for pets is expanding,” the Nature article said. “Hundreds of thousands of dogs have now been genetically screened, as Petunia was, and companies are beginning to offer tests for cats. But the science is lagging. Most of these tests are based on small, underpowered studies. Neither their accuracy nor their ability to predict health outcomes has been validated. Most vets don’t know enough about the limitations of the studies, or about genetics in general, to be able to advise worried owners.

“Pet genetics must be reined in. If not, some companies will continue to profit by selling potentially misleading and often inaccurate information; pets and their owners will suffer needlessly; and opportunities to improve pet health and even to leverage studies in dogs and cats to benefit human health might be lost. Ultimately, people will become more distrustful of science and medicine.”

71aDTs6xiFL._SL1440_What’s not to be trusted here, though, is the marketing.

Claims are made before there is enough science to back them up, and we — minds boggled by all the indecipherable advances in technology around us — accept them.

Few of us really understand, and nobody — I’d argue — bothers much to look at the repercussions, to where it might all lead.

That’s what makes this Nature commentary exceptional. It was written by Lisa Moses, a veterinarian at the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and a research scholar on bioethics at Harvard, along with two other Boston-based experts.

Petunia’s case, she said, “is one, but there have been many of them. In fact, a number of cases just like that one are what started me thinking about this years ago, when the first genetic tests started to be used routinely.”

Co-author Elinor Karlsson, a researcher on dog genetics based at the UMass Medical School and the Broad Institute, said she was “aghast” when she learned from Moses that genetic research like hers is being used to make clinical decisions — including euthanasia.

“It really upset me,” she said. “Both the idea that people were already using genetics like this and the idea that the papers that I’ve published on things like bone cancer and compulsive disorder may also end up being used as tests, and that people wouldn’t understand what the limitations were of the work that we’ve done so far.”

The article calls for several remedies, including quality standards for how pet genetic tests are performed, how results are shared, and counselors who could help owners interpret results.

“One of the purposes of this article was just a heads-up to everybody that this needs some serious attention in an organized fashion,” said Veterinarian Steven Niemi, who co-authored the Nature commentary and is the director of the Office of Animal Resources at Harvard.

“We shall sell no wine before its time,” a wine-making company once boasted, hiring Orson Welles to voice those words in a TV ad. Of course, it wasn’t true. Gallo specialized in cheaper wines — Thunderbird even.

Nevertheless, it is advice those who are marketing technology might do well to take, at least if they want to come anywhere close to gaining the public’s trust. For the public, my advice would be don’t do it; wait for the proof.

Twinkle, twinkle little dog, empathetic is what you are

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Do dogs feel empathy? Of course, all us dog people say. Maybe, scientists have generally said.

Now comes what describes itself as the first scientific proof that pets are empathetic, in tune with their owner’s emotions, and quickly respond when they think their owners are upset.

In a new study, scientists took 34 dogs and positioned them behind a movable door with their owners on the other side.

Then they had those owners either pretend to cry, call for help, or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

The dogs nosed their way through the door three times more quickly when they thought their owners were upset and needed comforting.

“We found dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, if a dog knows a way to help them, they’ll go through barriers to provide to help them,” said lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

reddit“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” she said. “Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action.”

Researchers also determined dogs with lower stress levels were more likely to push through the door to “rescue” their owners.

Senior author Julia Meyers-Manor first conceived of the experiment after her own dog, a collie, rushed to her side after hearing her fake muffled cries for help while she was playing with her children.

A former faculty member at Macalester College and current assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, she wondered just how far a dog would go for a distressed human companion The Smithsonian reported.

Together with Sanford, an undergraduate at Macalester at the time, and their colleague Emma R. Burt, Meyers-Manor designed a series of experiments to explore the extent of empathy in dogs.

First, 34 dogs were separated from their owners by a clear plastic door held shut with magnets. The owners were instructed to either make crying noises or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for up to five minutes. Every 15 seconds, they would say the word “help” in either an upset or casual tone to match their emotional state.

Half the dogs pushed through the door to get to their humans’ side regardless of the anguish their owners conveyed.

Upon closer inspection of the dogs that entered their owners’ room, Sanford noticed that those who were hearing weeping barged in about four times faster than those hearing nonchalant humming. And when the team assessed the strength of each dog’s bond to its owner, they found that dogs who were more attached to their people were more likely to rush in to the sound of sobbing than those who stayed put.

“This validates what a lot of people already feel: The dogs do respond to the crying,” said Meyers-Manor. “It’s not just your imagination when your dog cuddles you when you’re crying in bed. They do seem to care about how we’re feeling.”

The study, titled “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs,” was published in the journal Learning & Behavior.

The responding dogs were also calmer when they reacted, and the dogs who barked and paced instead were more highly stressed.

“We think the dogs who opened that door might have been at that sweet spot: they perceived stress, but weren’t so personally distressed that they couldn’t do anything,” Sanford said.

Other variations in the responses could have resulted from that quality of the fake crying — “Some of the owners weren’t exactly actors,” she explained.

Regardless of their dogs’ reactions in the moment, most of the study’s human participants affirmed their dogs generally responded to them when they were troubled or in danger.

(Photo credits: Top, PetSmart Charities, lower, Reddit)

Trancing: Zombie-like behavior in dogs is nothing to worry about, scientists say

As “in the moment” as they are said to be, some dogs — like many of we humans — do zone out, and the behavior is nothing to worry about, scientists say.

Pete, the bull terrier above, is trancing, or ghost-walking, and maybe you’ve seen your dog doing the same thing: They stare blankly ahead, or close their eyes, standing either perfectly still or taking small slow motion steps. Most often, this is done in an enclosed space, like a closet, or under a bush.

Caroline Coile, a researcher specializing in canine genetics and behavior at Florida State University, noticed one of her Salukis doing it in her closet. Years later, when she got another Saluki, it did the same thing, except under a backyard bush.

She began researching the behavior and concluded, as others have, that it’s not a disorder, but more like human forms of meditation, Popular Science reports.

Dogs do it because it feels good.

Though many dog owners worry when they see it, though it does look weird, Coile says, “It’s not like they’re in an actual trance where they’re looking into a crystal ball or something. But it does seem like they go into some sort of meditation-like state.”

There does seem to be a tactile element involved. In most cases, dogs seek out a location where they have contact with something, such as clothes hanging in a closet, a curtain, or the fronds of bushes or house plants.

Coile says she believes trancing is more common in some breeds than others, with bull terriers and greyhounds seeming most likely to engage in the behavior, but she adds there is no evidence the behavior is hereditary.

One study published in Veterinary Record found trancing to be “apparently purposeless.”

Alice Moon-Fanelli, a certified animal behaviorist from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, investigated trancing while studying compulsive tail-chasing in bull terriers.

Moon-Fanelli worried that trancing was yet another manifestation of compulsive disorder in the breed, but trancing appeared to be unrelated, and completely harmless.

“The bull terriers would go under Christmas trees, curtains, towels… anything hanging that would cause dorsal stimulation,” she says. “Their eyes glaze over, and they would go into this slow moonwalk. Then they’d come out of it and be fine.”

So before you rush your dog to the doggie shrink, ask yourself this: Is canine trancing really any more bizarre than the things we humans do to relax and comfort ourselves, or to free and rest our brains — be it taking that Xanax, engaging in some meditation, or watching an episode of Law & Order that we’ve seen ten times?

Don, the talking dog who started it all

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In this era of talking dogs — from the animated creatures in Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” to those so easily found “conversing” on the Internet — it might behoove us to remember the first “real” one, the star of a vaudeville act known as Don the Talking Dog.

And since not too many of us were around in 1912 to recall that, we’re fortunate that Smithsonian Magazine writer Greg Daugherty revisited that era and that dog for the magazine recently.

Don the Talking Dog, a setter or pointer from Germany, made his debut in the U.S. in 1912 — during the golden age of vaudeville, the less salty cousin of burlesque, which was traditionally peppered with acts featuring animals doing human things.

There, for a few quarters, you could see rats riding cats around racetracks, dancing elephants, boxing kangaroos, juggling sea lions and monkeys displaying an array of talents.

smithsonianillustrationDon the Talking Dog — proclaimed “the canine phenomenon of the century” — took things a step further. He, or so his name implied, talked.

Only in German, of course. But with a heavy population of German immigrants at the time in New York City, he became a major hit.

He had already garnered attention in Europe by then, with a vocabulary that reached eight words.

His first word was haben (“have” in English), followed by his own name, the word kuchen (cake or biscuit), ja and nein, ruhe (rest) and hunger (which is the same in both languages).

Generally, he didn’t speak in sentences, just one word at a time, and only when prompted by his trainer.

Don arrived in the U.S. in 1912 at the invitation of the vaudeville impresario William Hammerstein.

“Don will sail on the Kronprinz Wilhelm next Wednesday,” the New York Times noted. “A special cabin has been engaged in order to insure his safety.”

When Don’s ship docked, he was greeted by reporters, though they were disappointed not to get any good quotes.

Don stayed in the U.S for the next two years, making appearances in New York and around the country, once performing on the same bill as escape artist Harry Houdini. He then toured the country, performing in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities.

His act consisted of answering a series of questions served up by his regular straight man and interpreter, a vaudeville veteran known as Loney Haskell. Haskell became so attached to Don, according to news reports at that, “that in one-night stands he slept in the dog’s kennel.”

The journal Science, party poopers even back then, didn’t quite buy his act: “The speech of Don is … to be regarded properly as the production of sounds which produce illusions in the hearer.”

screen_shot_2018-04-20_at_45805_pmDespite his dubious skills and limited vocabulary, Don became a pioneering celebrity endorser, for Milk-Bone dog biscuits.

After two years in the U.S., Don retired and returned to his homeland. Haskell once calculated that their stage performances paid Don $92 per word, the equivalent of about $2,300 a word today. He died at home, near Dresden, Germany, in late 1915.

Smithsonian reported, “His last words, if any, seem to have gone unrecorded.”

Other “talking” dogs would follow, including Rolf, a German-born terrier who supposedly communicated by a form of Morse code, and was able to add and subtract, and Queen, who was described as “positively the only dog in the world that speaks the English language.”

Fast forward 100 years and we still have folks making those claims — dog owners, scientists, and entrepreneurs, each group with probably a few hucksters among them, who claim to be on the verge of a device that translates dog to human.

Take them as you would the dogs speaking in this compilation (none of whom can say compilation, by the way) — with a grain of salt.

(Illustrations: Smithsonian Magazine)

Another example of how humans and dogs are becoming more alike: our poop


It’s never really looked at it in its entirety, as one phenomenon, but how alike dogs and humans are — and keep becoming — continues to astound scientists around the globe.

Compassion? Both species seem to have it. Cognition? Dogs are quite capable of that, perhaps even exceeding us in certain areas. The diseases and disorders we get? Pretty much the same.

Not too many people look at the forest — at what all this, cobbled together, might mean — but scientists from particular disciplines, locked in a lab with a narrow focus, keep discovering new similarities, such as this latest one, deep in our intestines.

The microorganisms that live in dog’s intestines are more similar to the microbes inside us than to those in other animals, says a new study published in the journal Microbiome.

The dog microbiome “has some of the same species [of bacteria] as the human’s,” said lead author Luis Pedro Coelhos, “but different strains.”

The researchers were surprised because they expected that dogs would share only a few strains of bacteria with their owners. Instead, their intestinal flora could be cousins, says a summary of the study in Popular Science.

The study was not really about those similarities; it was aimed at better understanding canine weight loss.

Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Nestlé Purina Research worked with a sample of 32 beagles and 32 Labrador retrievers. Half of the members of each breed were overweight, while the other half were a healthy weight. For four weeks, they fed all of the dogs the same diet of Purina.

Then, they collected poop and conducted DNA analyses as they further altered the diets of the dogs.

They found the leaner dogs’ microbiomes changed much less than that of the overweight dogs. The findings, they say, gave then a baseline for how a healthy dog microbiome should behave, and suggested dogs may be better subjects for research into human weight loss than other species that have been used for that purpose.

Jack Gilbert, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center who does research for Purina but was not involved in the study, told Popular Science the study was significant for what it showed about the similarities between the guts of dogs and our own.

“You can control a dog’s diet much more than you can do a human’s,” says Gilbert. The same is true for pigs and mice, but the fact that dogs have such a similar microbiomes to humans means that studying their response to certain diets could produce the best results.

The cause of the similarities isn’t entirely understood, but the study pointed out, “Dogs were domesticated early in modern human history and frequently shared food resources with humans.”

Over time, their digestive systems might have grown even more like our’s, and their obesity rates have come to mirror that of humans.

Further proof that we don’t just like each other, we are like each other — and in ways that continue to be discovered, as we sit around learning, bonding, loving, overeating and growing fat together, becoming, more and more, reflections of each other.

(Photo: Digital Vision/Getty)

Illinois bones said to be earliest evidence of domesticated dogs in America

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Three dogs unearthed at two burial sites In Illinois decades ago are older than originally thought, and likely date to 10,000 years ago.

That makes them the earliest known domesticated canines in the Americas.

Up until now, the nearly 9,300-year-old remains of dogs eaten by humans at a Texas site were the oldest physical evidence of American canines.

But radiocarbon dating of the Illinois dogs’ bones shows they were 1,500 years older than thought, zooarchaeologist Angela Perri said at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

Perri, who presented the paper April 13, said the bones also represent the earliest evidence of dogs being beloved by the humans they lived with.

The previous age estimate was based on a radiocarbon analysis of burned wood found in one of the animals’ graves, Science News reported.

The buried bones also represent the oldest known burials of individual dogs in the world, indicating that some dogs at least were held in high regard by ancient people in America.

Perri, of Durham University in England, said the absence of stone tool incisions on the three ancient dogs’ skeletons indicates that they were not killed by people, but died of natural causes before being buried.

Some researchers have proposed that whoever made the first excursions into the Americas arrived on dog-powered sleds, but no ancient dog remains have been found in northwestern North America, where the earliest settlers crossing a land bridge from Asia would have entered the New World.

“As much as we want to believe that dogs initially pulled us into the New World, that may not have been the case,” Perri said.

Genetic evidence has suggested a second human migration from Asia to North America occurred around 11,500 years ago, with people trekking south through an ice-free corridor into the northern Great Plains. Those people likely brought dogs to the Americas, Perri said.

She and her colleagues studied three dogs excavated at two sites in west-central Illinois, one found in 1960, two others found in the 1970s.

(Photo: Society for American Archaeology)