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Tag: scientists

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)

Just in time for Christmas … well, almost

I’ve written my name in books before — but always as a reminder to other people to keep their grubby paws off of them, or at least return them when they’re done.

But yesterday was a first: I signed my own book — own, as in the one I wrote.

I don’t get mail delivery here in Petite Acres, the trailer park in Cave Creek, Arizona, where Ace and I are spending December before heading back east in the last leg of our seven months of travels.

So when my publisher called to find out where to send the author’s copies of “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend,” I used my brother’s address, and he delivered them over the weekend.

I won’t compare the excitement of tearing open that cardboard box to seeing your baby arrive — that would be wrong — but there are some similarities, the main ones being, “Wow, that came out of me?” and the realization that all the labor pains were worth it after all.

The book is about the cloning of dogs — how, and why, it came to be achieved, and the colorful characters involved: from the Arizona billionaire who funded the initial research; to the scientists who produced Snuppy, the first canine clone, in South Korea; to those who marketed the service (even before the first dog was cloned); to those who bought it, the bereaved pet owners seeking replicas of dogs dead or near death.

It was two years in the making (the book, not dog cloning) — a project I undertook right after I left the Baltimore Sun, and one that wouldn’t have been accomplished were it not for the help of a lot of people.

My first autographed copy is being sent to one of them, Rona Kim, a law student in Seoul who served as my guide and interpreter during my visit to Korea, and without whom I would have probably spent three-fourths of my time there hopelessly lost.

The official release date of “DOG, INC.” is Dec. 30, but it can be pre-ordered now from all the major retailers.

By then, Ace and I will be headed back east — first to Washington for a scheduled appearance on the Diane Rehm show Jan. 5 (me, not Ace), then to Baltimore, where we hope to host a couple of book signing parties (details to come) and find a place to call home.

Dogs getting dumber, researcher says

Purebred dogs are getting dumber and less agile because of the focus by breeders on appearance, scientists in Sweden say.

According to a report in the London Telegraph, the researchers say the change has taken place over the course of just a few generations.

While 19th century dogs were selected for breeding based on their strength and skills — such as guarding homes, retrieving quarry or watching over livestock — today’s dogs are more likely to be chosen strictly for their appearance. As a result, the researchers say, the are less responsive to commands and not as alert or attentive.

“Modern breeding practices are affecting the behavior and mental abilities of pedigree breeds as well as their physical features,” said Kenth Svartberg, an ethologist from Stockholm University and author of the research report.

Dr. Svartberg tested 13,000 dogs on characteristics such as sociability and curiosity to help him rate 31 different breeds. He found that those bred for appearance, and especially for shows, displayed reduced ability levels. He also found that attractive appearance was often linked with introversion and a boring personality.

The worst affected working breeds were smooth collies, once a herding dog, and Rhodesian ridgebacks, which were used for hunting.

(Image from My Dog’s Brain, by Vermont artist Stephen Huneck)

World’s first dog believed discovered

An international team of scientists has identified what it believes is the world’s first known dog, and says that it lived in Belgium 31,700 years ago — a good 17,000 years earlier than what was previously thought to be the earliest dog, found in Russia.

The prehistoric dog’s remains were excavated at Goyet Cave in Belgium, suggesting to the researchers that the Aurignacian people of Europe from the Upper Paleolithic period were the first to domesticate dogs, the Discovery Channel reports

“The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” lead author Mietje Germonpre told Discovery News, comparing the tooth size more to wolves than dogs.

The scientists say — based on Isotopic analysis of the bones found – that the earliest dogs subsisted on horse, musk ox and reindeer.

Germonpre, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, said the Paleolithic dogs most resemble the Siberian husky, but were somewhat larger.

For the study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the scientists analyzed 117 skulls of recent and fossil large members of the Canidae family, which includes dogs, wolves and foxes.

Germonpre believes dog domestication might have begun when the prehistoric hunters killed a female wolf and then brought home her pups.

The yawning dog

A study published in the journal Biology Letters last week found that human yawns are contagious to dogs — the contagious yawn being a behavior once thought limited to humans and chimps.

In a study performed at London’s Birbeck College, 72 percent of 29 dogs tested yawned after observing a person doing so — a clear sign that dogs read human cues.

(The possibility that they were just really bored with the experiment was not addressed.)

Atsushi Senju and colleagues at Birkbeck College say mimicking human yawns is a sign of empathy. What’s surprising about dogs doing it is that empathy is not usually found in animals without self-awareness, which scientists say dogs lack.

Each of the 29 dogs watched a researcher perform a large yawn and then, in the control portion of the experiment, watched the same researcher merely open his mouth. No dogs yawned in the control portion. When the researcher yawned, dogs yawned contagiously 72 percent of the time, which is an even higher rate than reported in humans or chimps.

Scientists believe dogs lack a sense of self because they generally don’t recognize themselves in a mirror, as humans and chimps, dolphins and sometimes — when scientists can find a mirror large enough — elephants, do.

A sense of self is considered a prerequisite for understanding the feelings of others, (though it’s always seemed to me that too large of one can preclude that possibility). In my non-scientific view, it’s precisely that combination — the lack of self-awareness and abundance of empathy — that makes dogs so appealing.

But that’s just — Y-a-a-a-a-w-n-n — my opinion.