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Tag: study

Which motivates more — food or praise?

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A study at Emory University suggests that dogs aren’t strictly the food-obsessed beasts they’ve traditionally been seen as — and that many, maybe even most, prefer attention and praise over a chewy treat.

While only 13 dogs participated in the study, there were only two of them who — judging from their neural reactions — showed a distinct preference for food over praise.

The study, published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioral experiments to explore what kind of rewards canines prefer.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory and lead author of the research.

“Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”

Berns heads the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology. It 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.

Their previous research using the technique identified the ventral caudate region of the canine brain as a reward center and showed that region responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

Phys.org reports that, in the new study, researchers trained the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes. A pink toy truck signaled a food reward; a blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signaled no reward, to serve as a control.

The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an fMRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.

Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

Berns says the findings run counter to the old view that dogs “just want food and their owners are simply the means to get it … Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

In another part of the study, dogs were put into a Y-shaped maze in which one path led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner.

The dogs were repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths.

While most dogs alternated between the food and their owner, dogs who showed a greater response to praise in the first part of experiment chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time.

Berns said the study “shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

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(Photos: At top, Kady, a Lab-retriever mix in the study who preferred praise from her owner to food; at bottom, Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix who chose food over his owner’s praise / Emory University)

Is the quality of dog semen declining? And are contaminants in dog food to blame?


Researchers at the University of Nottingham say they’ve documented a serious decline in the fertility of male dogs — and suggest that dog food or environmental causes may be to blame.

In a study spanning 26 years, researchers tracked the sperm motility levels of five different breeds — Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, curly coat retrievers, border collies and German shepherds.

They took samples from between 42 and 97 dogs each year, according to the study, published in Scientific Reports.

Between 1988 and 1998, the team recorded a 2.5 percent decline in the amount of motile sperm per year. Between 2002 and 2014, this trend continued at a rate of 1.2 percent each year.

The researchers also found that male pups produced by dogs with declining sperm quality had an increased incidence of cryptorchidism, a condition where one or both of the testicles don’t descend properly.

The study suggests that the sperm quality may have been impacted by contaminants in dog food.

“We looked at other factors which may also play a part, for example, some genetic conditions do have an impact on fertility,” said Dr Richard Lea, leader of the study. “However, we discounted that because 26 years is simply too rapid a decline to be associated with a genetic problem.”

Dogs used for the study were all bred, raised and trained as service animals for disabled people at an unidentified center in England, according to the New York Times.

The scientists said that in addition to collecting samples throughout the study, they examined the testicles collected from dogs that had undergone castration.

Both showed environmental contaminants in high enough concentrations to affect sperm motility. These same chemicals were also discovered in various commercially available dog foods.

The researchers say the findings raise the question of whether a reported decline in human semen quality over the last 70 years could also be a result of environmental factors.

(Photos: Roscoe, a yellow Lab who was not involved in the study, and has no interest in the results, by John Woestendiek)

Woof in Advertising: Eukanuba makers agree to drop claims that food extends lifespans

Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, the makers of Eukanuba dog food have agreed to stop claiming their brand extends the lives of dogs.

In a settlement that resolves a false advertising complaint filed by the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Mars Petcare will cease making the claim.

The FTC announced yesterday it had reached a settlement with Mars. Eukanuba began an advertising campaign last year claiming the brand could extend the expected lifespan of a dog by 30 percent or more.

woof in advertisingThe ads — like the longer version promotion shown above — featured aging black Labs, inspiring music and the bold claim that Eukanuba had been “scientifically proven” to extend the lives of dogs.

“Two-thirds of all Americans have pets at home, and they spend billions of dollars to ensure that their pets are healthy and well-fed,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Pet owners count on ads to be truthful and not to misrepresent health-related benefits. In this case, Mars Petcare simply did not have the evidence to back up the life-extending claims it made about its Eukanuba dog food.”

The order settling the FTC’s charges prohibits Mars Petcare from making any misleading or unsubstantiated claims that its Eukanuba-brand pet food or any other pet food will enable any dogs to extend their lifespan by 30 percent or more or live exceptionally long lives.

In May 2015, Eukanaba began the marketing and ad campaign on television, in print, and on the Internet.

“Ten years ago, we launched a long life study,” one ad said. “What we observed was astonishing. With Eukanuba and proper care, dogs in the study were able to live beyond their typical lifespan.”

The ad then showed a dog named Iowa who, at 17, had lived five years beyond than the typical Labrador lifespan.

eukanubaThe ads were based on a “10-year Long Life Study” purportedly carried out at the Eukanuba Pet Health and Nutrition Center. Dozens of Labrador retrievers were fed Eukanuba and given “proper care” over that span.

The study found 90% of the dogs lived beyond the typical lifespan of the breed, with 28% living longer than 15 years.

The study was begun while Eukanuba was still owned by Procter & Gamble Co. Last year, Eukanuba, along with Iams and other smaller brands, was acquired by Mars Petcare.

The FTC alleges that the longevity claims are false or unsubstantiated and that the claim that longevity was proven through scientific evidence is false.

“Among other things, the evidence relied on by [Mars] for its representations concerning the Eukanuba brand dog food consisted primarily of results from a single study, the results of which showed no significant difference in the median age at death of the dogs in the study relative to the typical age at death of dogs of the same breed,” reads the complaint. “Therefore, the representations… were, and are, false or misleading.”

The FTC decision does not penalize the pet food company financially, and under it Mars neither admits nor denies any wrongdoing.

(More of our “Woof in Advertising” posts can be found here.)

“Erect-tail dysfunction:” Losing the wag

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The university that cloned the first mammal is now investigating why some older dogs — especially those in colder climes — sometimes experience limp tails.

A study at Edinburgh University in Scotland says the phenomenon known as ‘limber tail,’ which causes a dog’s tail to become limp and difficult to move, tends to affect larger working breeds, and is more common among dogs who live in the north.

The study of dozens of dogs found that the chance of a dog developing the condition rose by 50 per cent for each additional degree of latitude further north he or she lived.

Working dogs, who spend more time outdoors, and those who enjoy swimming were also around five times more likely to develop “limber tail,” which is also known as “cold tail” or “swimmer’s tail.” More informally, the condition is sometimes referred to as a dog “losing their wag.”

Personally, we like the name a Telegraph headline writer gave the condition: Erect-tail dysfunction.

No, this is not The Onion you’re reading, and this is not a joke — at least not to the dogs who get it. Owners report that it can be very painful and distressing for the dogs.

“We were surprised by how many owners were reporting limber tail to us but it meant we had the chance to do a detailed investigation,” said Dr. Carys Pugh, of The Roslin Institute and Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies.

The Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, commonly referred to as the Dick Vet, is no joke, either. It’s the veterinary school of the University of Edinburgh.

Dolly the sheep, the world’s first mammal clone, was born at the Roslin Institute in 1996, marking a new era of biological control. Nine years later the cloning of dog — the 18th species successfully cloned — was achieved by scientists in South Korea.

limptaillabIn the limber tail research, a team at the University of Edinburgh compared 38 cases of dogs with limber tail with 86 dogs that had no symptoms.

Those affected by limber tail were more likely to be working dogs, and more likely to regularly swim.

The condition, which was first reported in the scientific press in 1997, is thought to affect around 60,000 dogs in Britain, “but owners often struggle to find out what is wrong with their pets as there is little literature available,” the Telegraph reported.

It’s generally not a lifelong condition; rather, it resolves itself within a few days or weeks.

The researchers hope further studies will identify genes associated with the condition, which could one day help breeders to identify animals that are likely to be affected.

Caroline Kisko, Secretary of Kennel Club, which funded the research through its charitable trust, said owners should be careful not to over-expose their dogs to the cold.

“The condition is rare, but is it most often seen in working dogs such as Labrador retrievers, flat coated retrievers and pointers. Dogs usually recover their normal tail posture and function over a period of days or weeks, however it can be painful.”

Gudrun Ravetz, junior vice president of the British Veterinary Association warned owners not to become so worried about the cold that they stop exercising their pets.

“Limber tail is rarely seen in veterinary practices and the research indicates that most owners do not seek veterinary attention for this problem,” she said.

(Photos: Top, a young chocolate Lab with a perky and lively tail; bottom, an older chocolate Lab whose tail has gone limber)

Without some diversity, English bulldogs could become a breed of the past

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Due to centuries of selective breeding, and the efforts of breeders to keep the breed “pure,” the English bulldog has become so inbred it cannot be returned to health without an infusion of new bloodlines, a genetic study says.

The study, appearing in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, reached the stark conclusion that health issues created by human manipulation of the breed could lead to its doom.

“We tried not to be judgmental in our paper. We just said there’s a problem here, and if you are going to decide to do something about it, this is what you’ve got to work with, said co-author Niels Pedersen of the University of California, Davis.

“If you want to re-build the breed, these are the building blocks you have, but they’re very few. So if you’re using the same old bricks, you’re not going to be able to build a new house.” told the BBC.

Pedersen and colleagues from the Center for Companion Animal Health at UC Davis examined the DNA of 102 registered English Bulldogs and found an alarmingly low level of diversity.

That, they say, is the result of a small initial pool of founding dogs, and “bottlenecks” caused by breeding for “desirable” traits like a big head and a short snout.

Those traits have led to many of the breed’s health problems — difficulty breathing, poor mobility and reproductive issues among them.

The researchers say efforts to return the breed to health by using existing bloodlines alone are “questionable.”

Introducing new bloodlines, from outside the breed, are likely the only solution, but many breeders are resistant to that idea.

“The fastest way to get genetic diversity is to outcross to a breed that looks similar but is genetically distinct… Trying to manipulate diversity from within a breed if it doesn’t have much anyway is really very difficult,” Pedersen said. “If all your dogs are highly related to one another, which ones are you going to pick?”

One possibility suggested by the researchers is the Olde English Bulldogge, a 1970s attempt by an American breeder to recreate the healthier working bulldog that existed in England during the early 1800s.

“The English bulldog has reached the point where popularity can no longer excuse the health problems that the average bulldog endures,” Pedersen said in a statement.

The features of today’s English bulldog are the result of hundreds of years of breeding, but changes to the breed’s traits — flatter face, shorter nose, stubbier legs, more skin folds — have become particularly rapid in recent decades, Pedersen said.

Study: Dogs trust us less when we’re angry

How quickly your dog responds to you has a lot to do with the look on your face and the tone of your voice, according to a study at Brigham Young University.

Your dog may not respond more quickly if you use a positive tone, but he’s likely to respond much more slowly if you’re using a negative one, according to the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Brigham Young psychology professor Ross Flom and his research team conducted two experiments examining how dogs reacted to both positive and negative emotions.

“We know that dogs are sensitive to our emotional cues,” Flom said, “but we wanted to know: do they use these emotional cues?” he said.

The experiments measured how quickly dogs responded to an adult’s pointing gesture.

Some of the adults exhibited positive behaviors while making the gestures, such as smiling and speaking in a pleasant tone; others exhibited negative behaviors, such as frowning, furrowing their brow or speaking harshly.

As most dog owners could have predicted, the negative behaviors made dogs a little less cooperative and slow to react — proving yet again (as we also already know) you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

(Has anyone actually done a study on that?)

While dogs who sensed the pointing adults were angry reacted more slowly, dogs whose pointing adults reflected a positive attitude didn’t react any more speedily than those in a control group.

We can only assume those in the control group were issued orders by adults whose faces were expressionless and who spoke like Ben Stein.

Flom concluded that dogs use our tone and emotion to determine how fast to follow an order — or, to put it more scientifically …

“Together these results suggest that the addition of affective information does not significantly increase or decrease dogs’ point-following behavior. Rather these results demonstrate that the presence or absence of affective expressions influences a dog’s exploratory behavior and the presence or absence of reward affects whether they will follow an unfamiliar adult’s attention-directing gesture.”

Apparently, random human strangers were doing the gesturing in the study, as opposed to the owners of the dogs involved.

That, we suspect, would have made a big difference in a dog’s level of trust and eagerness to respond.

That dogs will take off and explore a new area or object based on a stranger’s request shows that dogs generally trust humans.

That dogs — or any animals for that matter — are slow to react to one who appears angry is really no big surprise, either.

That’s generally true in the human arena as well, with the exception of those being yelled at by drill sergeants, prison guards or junior high gym coaches.

Two hearts beating as one? Study suggests, with dogs and owners, it’s almost true

Even though this may be more marketing than science, we can’t help but like the results of this experiment in Australia.

Researchers, in an experiment funded by Pedigree, found that not only do our heart rates lower when we and our pets are together (as everybody knows by now), but they begin to mirror one another.

True, only three dogs and owners were involved in the study. True, the main interest of the company that sponsored it is to sell dog food. And true, what’s new about their findings — how closely the heart rates align — is probably of more poetic than practical use.

But still … It’s good to have a little science (if it can be called that) confirm our feelings of being in sync with our dogs.

In the experiment, three Australian dog owners separated, and then reunited with their pet in a staged but homey setting to see what kind of effect they had on each other’s heart rate.

Both dogs and owners were equipped with heart monitors.

“There was a really strong coherence in the heart rate pattern of both the owner and dog. Upon being reunited within the first minute, each heart rhythm became almost directly aligned and we saw a reduction straight away,” Mia Cobb, canine scientist and demonstration co-conductor told The Huffington Post Australia.

“This project is a really good illustration of what most owners experience every night when they come home from work and are reunited with their companion,” she added.