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Tag: study

Why some dogs chase their tails

tailchaser

Why do some dogs seem so obsessed with chasing their tails?

Researchers at Bristol University in the UK have entered the second phase of a study aimed at finding the answer.

Scientists from the two-year “Bristol Spinning Dog Project” will visit the homes of the 50 non-spinning dogs to collect urine samples and cheek swabs, and complete training tasks aimed at assessing the pet’s personality and ability to learn, The Independent reports.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers examined spinning dogs, delving into everything from their DNA to their environments to their personalities.

After examining dogs that chase their tails, the researchers will use the non-spinners to act as a control group.

Tail-chasing, while the topic of many a YouTube video, is likely something we shouldn’t be laughing about — out loud or otherwise — at least in those cases where the behavior is obsessive.

The researchers say reasons for the behavior aren’t fully understood — some spinning dogs may be merely seeking attention or expressing a desire to play, but spinning frequently or while alone could be a sign of frustration or a more serious disorder.

“There isn’t much information in the research literature about why dogs spin,” said Beth Loftus, one of the lead researchers. “We think this behavior develops because of personality and genetics, as well as the environment during a dog’s first 16 weeks and learning throughout life. But we don’t really know what it means for dogs’ welfare.”

“We hope to be able to identify dogs that are starting to spin and stop it from developing to the point where they are doing it almost to the complete exclusion of other, more normal types of behavior,” she added.

The research is being funded by the Dogs Trust charity.

(Photo : Flickr Commons / Tim Mowrer)

Does Fido want fries with that?

Revelation Research Dog at Drive Thru

One out of every six fast food customers pick up a little something for the dog at the drive-thru window, according to a study by a marketing research company.

“These visits translate to a staggering number of trips (over 1,000,000,000 annually) where the dog is the one ‘lovin’ it,’” concludes a recent study on dog ownership and fast food habits conducted by Relevation Research.

The study found just over one third of canine owners have visited fast food drive-thrus with their dog — and, of those, four-fifths claim to have ordered menu items specifically for their dogs.

McDonald’s is visited most often by dog owners, followed by Burger King and Wendy’s.

With dog ownership, and dog pampering, expected to continue to grow — especially among baby boomers and millenials — QSRs (or quick service restaurants) would be well advised to put healthy dog treats on the menu, it suggests.

“Because of disposable incomes and empty nester status, Baby Boomer owners could be strong candidates for QSR,” said Nan Martin of Relevation Research. “But the Baby Boomer also has an evolving focus on health. That means menu items specifically targeted for dogs or dog-friendly in terms of ingredients will resonate best.

“QSR and dog food/treat manufacturers should team up to design dog-safe offerings. Companies catering to the dog will win with owners who want to, guilt-free, feel like they’re spoiling the dog.”

(Photo: Relevation Research)

Kiss me, you dog (I need the probiotics)

Before you wipe off that next dog kiss — not that too many ohmidog! readers are the sort that do that — you might want to think about this:

Some of those doggy bacteria that dog-disliking alarmists and hand-wringing medical types are always warning us about might actually be good for you.

As with Greek yogurt and kimchee, some of the microbes lurking in a dog’s gut could have a probiotic effect on the owners’ body, aiding in both digestion and overall health.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are now seeking volunteers to take part in a study to prove just that — and here’s the coolest part: Volunteers, if they want, can keep the shelter dog assigned to them when the study is done.

The “Dogs as Probiotics” study will focus specifically on the effect dogs have on the health of older people — in terms of physical well-being, mental well-being and cognitive functioning.

kelly“We already know that dogs make us happier and in some ways healthier. The main point of this study is to try and understand whether or not there is an actual biological component behind this,” Kim Kelly, a UA doctoral student in medical anthropology, and one of the study’s primary investigators,
told the Arizona Daily Star.

“This has the potential to change the field in terms of how we understand, think about and use microbes to improve our health,” she said.

The study team is recruiting adults over the age of 50 and asking them to live with a dog from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona for three months.

Both the human and canine subjects will undergo tests of an non-invasive sort during the study to determine whether or not the positive microbes in the humans increase, and whether it correlates with improved immune measures in older adults.

Probiotics are often referred as “good” or “helpful” bacteria. They can help keep the intestines healthy, assist in digesting food, and are believed to help the immune system.

Kelly, along with researchers at the University of San Diego and the University of Colorado, will explore whether living with a dog encourages the growth of positive micro organisms in the human gut.

“We essentially want to find out, is a dog acting like yogurt in having a probiotic effect,” she said.

In addition, researchers will monitor participants for any changes in the mental health and emotional well-being.

Once the scientists are done, human participants will have the option of keeping the dog they kept in their home during the study.

We’re guessing that — whether their digestion has improved or not — most of them will.

Who wouldn’t want someone who has been kissing them for three months to hang around?

(Video: Attendees at the SPCA of Maryland’s March for the Animals, 2009, receiving some free probiotics from my dog Ace; photo: Kim Kelly and her cocker spaniel Katie, courtesy of Kim Kelly)

Who’s the fool: Why do we humans persist in our efforts to trick the dog?

SONY DSC

Most of us have probably tried a version of this at home — be it with the fake tennis ball toss, the hidden treat or the imitation door knock.

How easily, and how many times in a row, can we fool the dog?

For some reason — maybe to test their intelligence, more likely because of the puckish tendencies of our own species — we seem to like to prank our pets.

Even many of your more admirable dog owners aren’t above punking their pugs, confusing their corgis, tricking their terriers or discombobulating their dachshunds.

My dog Ace has fallen victim to most of them. I’ve rapped against the wall to make him think someone’s at the front door. I’ve pretended to throw sticks and balls and hidden them behind my back as he gives chase. (This may explain why he’s not great at fetch). And, in perhaps the cruelest torment of all, I’ve made him think I’m holding a treat in one of my hands, holding out two closed fists and letting him pick one, then the other, only to find both are empty.

With each, he quickly caught on to the fact he was being played, and, despite my attempts to continue teasing him, moved on to something more interesting than me — like a shrub, or a rock, or the couch.

Dogs, due to their trusting nature, can be pretty easily fooled the first time. But you’re not likely to fool them with the same trick more than once or twice, according to a new study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Thirty four dogs were involved in the study, conducted at Kyoto University in Japan. One at a time, they were taken to a room where a researcher pointed to where food was hidden in a container. All the dogs followed the cue and got the treat. The second time around, the researchers pointed to an empty container, and all the dogs followed the cue , only to be disappointed.

The third time around, when the researcher again pointed to a full container of food, hardly any of the dogs bought it.

When a new experimenter came in to try again, the dogs initially trusted him — at least until he duped them, too. (Thank you, dogs, for not judging our entire species based on the acts of one.)

The leader of the team that conducted the study, Akiko Takaoka, says its findings suggests dogs are pretty good at determining how reliable an individual human is.

“Dogs have more sophisticated social intelligence than we thought. This social intelligence evolved selectively in their long life history with humans” she told BBC. Dogs understand what it means when a human points at something. If a dog’s owner points in the direction of a ball, stick or food, the dog will run and explore the location the person is pointing to.

But Takaoka said she was surprised that the dogs “devalued the reliability of a human” so quickly.

I wonder if the results might have been different if dog owners — rather than strangers — were the ones trying to fool them. Would they, based on the bond they have with their owners, be a little more trusting, and follow the cues a few more times before giving up?

Maybe … assuming their owner hasn’t raised them with a steady diet of pranks.

Fun as they may be, they should probably be done in moderation, and not during puppyhood. And, when it comes to training, it’s probably best to avoid duping our dogs into doing what we want them to do — as in tricking him into a bath, or into the crate, or using the word “treat” to get him to come. Deception — with the possible exception of putting his pill in a shroud of cheese — shouldn’t be something we regularly practice to control our dog.

Dogs like things to be predictable, John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol notes in the BBC article, and not knowing what’s going to happen next can make them stressed, fearful or even aggressive.

“Dogs whose owners are inconsistent to them often have behavioral disorders,” he said.

Still, many of us (perhaps due to our own behavioral disorders) persist — even those who know fooling the dog runs counter to good training, and works against building a relationship of trust.

Why we’re that way might be equally worthy of a study. Why, long after the dog has lost interest and moved on to something else, do some of us humans continue to try and amuse ourselves by tricking them?

Maybe those people are scientists at heart, and want to test their dog’s cognitive abilities. Maybe they justify it by telling themselves — as I did when teasing my little brother — that it’s building character, or teaching our dog that life isn’t always fair. Maybe they’re trying to establish their dominance, or at least their feeling of mental superiority, or re-establish the fact they are in control. Maybe they have a tiny cruel streak.

More likely, they are just seeking a laugh, or feel the need to confirm how much their dogs trust them.

The occasional prank, I think, is OK, but pulling too many of them might be an indication we’re not worthy of that trust, leading it to erode, as maybe — based on the experiment in Japan — it is already.

Dogs are continuing to figure us humans out (no small task). They learn our schedules. They predict our actions. Apparently, they have also learned when, amid our trickery, to turn us off, in which case the joke just might be on us.

A drug to make your dog live longer?

antiaging

Two University of Washington scientists think it might be possible to slow the aging process in canines and are launching a pilot study with 30 dogs to see if the drug rapamycin significantly extends their lifespans.

The researchers, using $200,000 in seed money from the University of Washington, plan to use pets, not laboratory animals, for the initial study, and recruit volunteer dogs — or at least dogs whose owners volunteer them — for larger scale studies in the future.

Daniel Promislow, an evolutionary geneticist, and Matthew Kaeberlein, a molecular biologist, say the study is aimed at determining whether rapamycin could lead to longer lives for dogs — as studies have shown is the case when it’s used on yeast, fruit flies, worms and mice.

“We’re not talking about doubling the healthy life spans of pets,” said Kaeberlein. “But at a minimum I would predict that you would get a 10 to 15 percent increase in average life span, and I think bigger effects are possible.”

In the pilot study, 30 large, middle-aged dogs will be involved — half receiving low doses of rapamycin, half receiving placebos.

The researchers say that subsequent studies will seek to enroll pet dogs from across the country.

Kaeberlein and Promislow hosted a meeting in Seattle last week where experts from across the country discussed the drug rapamycin and its possible effects on the health and longevity of dogs, the Seattle Times reported.

Currently used along with other medications to prevent rejection in organ-transplant patients, rapamycin has been called a promising anti-aging drug — though there have been no studies involving humans.

But almost 50 laboratory studies have shown that the compound can delay the onset of some diseases and degenerative processes and restore vigor to elderly animals, extending life spans by 9 to 40 percent.

Rapamycin functions, in part, by inactivating a protein that promotes cell growth. As a result, cells grow more slowly, which retards the spread of cancer.

Promislow, who has two elderly dogs of his own, noted that even if the drug doesn’t increase the life span of dogs, it could serve to keep them healthy longer. “We’re trying to understand why some dogs age better than others, and help all dogs age in a better way,” he said.

The drug has been shown to have serious side effects, including poor wound healing and an increased risk of diabetes, when used at the high doses required for organ transplant patients.

But the low doses used in anti-aging research with mice and other lab animals cause few side effects.

There have been no large-scale human trials. Studying how the drug affects dogs — who suffer many of the same old-age ailments as their masters — makes it possible to explore the possible benefits of rapamycin both more quickly and at a lesser cost.

If it does turn out to be a sort of  fountain of youth — for dogs, humans, or both — the potential profits would be enormous.

“I think it’s worth a go, not just from what it can teach us about humans, but for the sake of the animals themselves,” said University of Alabama Biology Department Chairman Steven Austad, an expert in aging research who is not involved in the project. “It may not work in dogs, but if it did, boy, it’s going to be huge.”

According to the Seattle Times article, drug companies aren’t very interested in rapamycin because it’s no longer under patent.

But the researchers are hoping dog lovers, dog-food companies and some foundations might be willing to contribute to further research.

They’ve set up a website, dogagingproject.com,where people can donate and sign their dogs up to take part in the research.

“Given how I feel about my pets, I see this as a unique project where there’s a real potential for citizen science,” Kaeberlein said. “I think it would be great if pet owners who are really interested in improving the health of their animals would help fund this work.”

(Photos: UW scientists Matt Kaeberlein, with his dog Dobby, and Dan Promislow, with his dog Frisbee; by Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Shut up and pet me: Study says dogs prefer petting over anything you might have to say

SONY DSCLess talk, more petting — that’s what your dog wants, according to a new study.

Based on tests with dozens of dogs — some from homes, some from shelters — researchers found that, when it comes to interacting with humans, dogs seems to prefer physical contact to anything you might have to say, praise included.

One possible exception — verbal pronouncements that dinner, or treats, are about to be served.

Two scientists from the University of Florida, who in a previous study determined dogs prefer eating food to being petted, have published the results of another research project, showing dogs prefer physical contact over verbal praise.

Neither conclusion seems that surprising to me, but one has to bear in mind that scientists prefer having their work published to having their bellies rubbed, dinner at a five-star restaurant or even verbal praise: “Good scientist. Yes! Yes! You’re a very good scientist.”

“I spend half my day talking to my dog,” study co-author Dr. Clive Wynne, who is now professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, told The Huffington Post. “She always looks like it’s valuable to her. It’s quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn’t seem to be rewarding to them after all.”

For one part of the study researchers observed 42 dogs as they interacted one at a time with two people in a room. One person petted the dog, while the other praised the dog verbally. The researchers measured how much time the dog chose to spend interacting with each person.

Next,  72 dogs were, one at a time, placed in a room with just one person and their behavior was observed as the person spent time petting or praising the dog, or not interacting at all.

Dogs showed the most interest in people who were petting them, while they seemed to show no more interest in spoken praise than in having no interaction with the human at all, according to the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

“I was surprised that when only one alternative was available, dogs still did not engage with the human for vocal praise,” said study co-author Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, now assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She conducted the research while earning her doctorate degree at the University of Florida.

The scientists say dogs never seem to tire of getting petted, and they note that previous studies have shown a dog being stroked, like the human who is stroking him, reaps some health benefits, including a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure.

We won’t go so far as to suggest dogs realize that petting is a more honest form of interaction; that words can be less sincere, or even deceptive; or that words can even be annoying — like when they go on too long, are ridiculously repetitious, or they’re uttered in that high-pitched baby talk tone some of us use when talking to our pets.

But we won’t rule it out, either.

For his part, researcher Wynne says that, even if his own dog doesn’t fully appreciate all he verbally passes on to her, he’ll probably keep talking to her anyway.  ”I just recognize better that I’m doing it more for my benefit than for hers,” he said.

(Photo: Ace seeking some physical contact in Kanab, Utah / by John Woestendiek) 

Run-on sentience: Are we going way overboard in attributing emotions to dogs?

Lately, it seems, hardly a month goes by without either some viral video or paper-writing scientist suggesting that — contrary to what scientists and the media think we think — dogs feel emotions much like our own, or at least a doggy version of them.

If it’s not a video, like the one above  – which is being described in the news media as a dog not just feeling remorse, but atoning for his misdeed —  it’s a new scientific paper proclaiming, yes, dogs do feel … you name it … joy, fear, anger, guilt, pride, compassion, love, shame.

(If you didn’t already think dogs feel joy, you may not be the world’s most perceptive person.)

(Some, apparently, get so overwhelmed by it that they pass out.)

This month’s emotion? Jealousy.

Dr. Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego — after a study involving dogs, their owners, stuffed animals,  jack-o’-lantern and children’s books – concluded that dogs showed a “primordial” form of jealousy, meaning, I guess, not as evolved, twisted, complex, nasty and, sometimes, fatal as the human form.

According to an article in the New York Times, the dog version of jealousy is “not as complex as the human emotion, but similar in that there is a social triangle and the dog is trying to make sure it, not the rival, receives the attention.”

In the study, as it’s described in a a PLoS One paper co-written by Harris, researchers compared the reactions of dogs when their owners petted and talked to a jack-o’-lantern, read a children’s book aloud, and petted and talked to a stuffed toy dog that barked and whined.

The dogs paid little attention to the jack-o’-lantern or the book. But when dog owners petted and talked to the stuffed dog, their dogs reacted, coming over, pushing their noses into the owner or stuffed dog, sometimes barking, and sniffing the rear end of the stuffed dog.

I’m not sure that’s proof of jealousy — it could just be proof that dogs are smart enough to investigate when humans are trying to dupe them. On top of that, most dogs have experience playing with stuffed toys, as opposed to plastic pumpkins and children’s books. So it’s not too astonishing they would have a more excited reaction to them.

SONY DSCIn that way, the findings of this study aren’t really too surprising, or revealing, but they are indicative, I think, of a trend — in the scientific community, in the news media, and among normal members of society — of seeing dogs more and more as humans.

The “dogs feel jealousy” study, for example — flimsy as its findings sound — was picked up by most major news organizations.

“Study: Jealousy Is So Universal Even Dogs Feel It,” reported the New York Times.

“Study: Dogs Can Feel Jealous, Too,” said a CNN headline.

At least NPR phrased their headline as a question: “Does Your Dog Feel Jealous, Or Is That A Purely Human Flaw?”

These days, the news media doesn’t need a legitimate study to draw sweeping conclusions; a viral video will do.

The video at the top of this post has been shared — if not actually reported on with any depth — on news websites from Alabama to India.

The headlines all presume to know what the beagle is feeling, and some go so far as to explain the goal of his behavior as well: “I’m Sorry! Charlie the guilty dog showers crying baby with gifts to apologize for stealing her toy,” reads the headline in The Daily Mail.

acecouchAmazing the conclusions reporters and headline writers can reach nowadays — and the mind reading they can do — usually without ever stepping away from their computer.

My problem is not with attributing emotions to dogs. I believe they have most of the ones we do, or at least most of the desirable ones. I believe they have other magical gifts and skills we haven’t even begun to figure out. I believe studying what’s going on in their heads is a good thing — at least when it’s done by dog experts. I can even handle a little anthropomorphization; given we’re humans we tend to interpret things in human terms.

What bothers me, for starters, is presenting such findings as new, when dog owners have known most of them all along. Sometimes, it’s as if scientists and the news media are saying, oh wait, we’ve discovered dogs are not unfeeling blobs of fur, after all. Well, duh.

The problem I have is not so much ascribing emotions to dogs as it is the vanity of assuming emotions are something only humans feel.

SONY DSCFeel free, scientists, to study jealousy in dogs. And feel free to study it in humans. And feel free to compare and contrast the two.

And feel free as well, video posters, to share your dog’s interesting and seemingly human-like behavior, and to offer any theories you might have.

But let’s not leap to wild conclusions, based on how things look through our human eyes. Let’s not forget that dogs have had emotions all along. Let’s not assume they are “catching up” with us in terms of their emotions and behaviors. Maybe they’ve been ahead of us all along.

And let’s not be so surprised — given the centuries man has been choreographing their evolution, and the half century or so they’ve been mostly living inside with us — that they’re picking up some of our habits, good and bad.

While we’re at it, let’s let dogs remain, at least in part, dogs.

Let’s keep in mind, during all this, what we can learn from them. Are dogs lagging behind us, in terms of developing a sense of jealousy, or are they exhibiting a purer form of what we homo sapiens have taken to ridiculous extremes?

And let’s at least keep our minds open to the possibility that, when it comes to what dog and man can learn from each other,  we may not always be the teachers, or the role models, in that equation.

(Photos: Ace in Monterey, California, at home on the couch, and with a panhandler in Portland, Maine; by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)