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Tag: study

Researchers say the hyper-friendliness of dogs results from gene mutation

Researchers say they have pinpointed a gene mutation that explains why dogs are so hyper-friendly — one they believe could have played a role in their domestication.

The scientists say they have isolated two genes, variations in which lead to the hyper-friendliness and tail-wagging sociability that most dogs exhibit.

When I read the headlines I had two reactions. First, I didn’t want to believe that the love dogs display resulted from something as stark sounding as a “mutation.” Second, I decided I wanted those genes, and those mutations, inside me — and all humans.

Imagine how much better a place the world would be if we all got so excited we nearly peed when we greeted each other, covered the faces of friends and strangers with licks, and had that unconditional love and loyalty that dogs possess.

Interestingly, though, similar variations in those same genes are already inside a small number of us. The genes at issue — GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 — are the same ones that have been associated with a human disease called Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which causes developmental disabilities and many other health issues.

The condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability, unusual facial features, cardiovascular problems and other health issues. But it also can often lead to affected individuals having highly outgoing, engaging personalities and extreme interest in other people.

Having written about people with developmental disabilities for eight years as a reporter, I met more than a few people like that — in institutions, group homes, and living with their families. They’d come up and hug a complete stranger. They’d follow me around, paying attention to everything I did and said. They seemed to indiscriminately love everybody. They were hard to say goodbye to.

I didn’t know it was a result of their Williams-Beuren syndrome, or that there even was a Williams-Beuren syndrome (this was the 1980’s), just that they possessed an innocence and trust uncommon in our species. I can’t remember if, at the time, I saw that behavior as “dog-like.”

But some researchers did.

vonholdtBridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University, and Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University, met three years ago and started talking about dogs.

In an earlier study, vonHoldt had identified a gene that’s mutated more often in dogs than wolves — one that possibly led to their domestication.

Together, Udell and vonHoldt decided to examine the social behavior of a group of dogs and a group of wolves and then analyze their DNA in the region that included the genes in question.

The study they co-authored, using a combination of genetic sequencing and behavioral tests, pinpointed a couple genetic differences that seem to track with friendliness.

Using 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves, they were able to establish that the dogs showed a greater variation, or mutation, of those genes. Animals with these mutations appeared to pay more attention to the humans than those without, the researchers said.

“We find that hyper-sociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves,” the study concluded.

brubaker

The findings, in addition to providing new insights into the human disorder, could explain a large part of what led wolves to become domesticated, and how dogs evolved to become man’s best friend.

To learn more about the study, check out these reports from the
Los Angeles Times, Science and Princeton University.

(Photos: At top, Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author, cuddles with her Old English Sheepdog, Marla, by Chris Fascenelli, Princeton University Office of Communications; at bottom, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf, by Monty Sloan, via Princeton University Office of Communications)

Now open in L.A.: PetSpace, an adoption center that’s much, much more

All humane societies and SPCA’s see education as a large part of their mission, but few if any have taken that to the heights of PetSpace, a newly opened center in Los Angeles that is finding new homes for dogs and increasing our understanding of them at the same time.

Over a dozen dogs and cats were adopted during Saturday’s opening of PetSpace, the brainchild of Wallis Annenberg, the CEO and president of the Annenberg Foundation.

But, as the Los Angles Times reported over the weekend, PetSpace is about much more than rehoming dogs.

It’s part interactive science center, part children’s playground, part pet paradise, part research institute and part adoption center.

On top of facilitating adoptions, PetSpace will offer educational programming for the general public on how to care for pets, all while conducting its own scientific research focused on the human-animal bond.

To that end, it has established a Leadership Institute with 16 research fellows — experts in different academic fields — who will write a white paper on the science behind the human-animal bond.

“This whole notion of the human-animal bond goes so much deeper than how you choose a pet,” said Eric Strauss, a biology professor at Loyola Marymount University and the research paper’s lead author.

“We’re bonded emotionally through our pets. But we’re also bonded ecologically, medically and economically. I think that’s the real genesis of a new science here.”

Located in Silicon Beach in Playa Vista, the 30,000-square-foot facility houses more than 80 dogs, cats and rabbits from the Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care and Control shelters.

It has a staff of 30, assisted by more than 100 volunteers and will be open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with free admission.

Its creators see it as a destination in itself, a fun place that will inform and delight adults and children (and maybe make them even happier yet if they end up taking home a dog or cat).

petspace2

During Saturday’s opening, a large mechanical dog barked and wagged his tongue while perched on the second floor. On the ground level, visitors read animal adoption stories displayed on panels and explored an interactive touch screen wall announcing upcoming events.

The center, in addition to periodic seminars, will have a Sunday reading program where children can sit down with a book and an animal.

Meanwhile, in the various play areas, visitors snuggled with cats and dogs, while others met with dogs in their “suites.” Outside each is an interactive digital screen with information about the pets up for adoption.

The center will be making an intense effort to match the right dog to the right owner.

“What’s your lifestyle like? What time commitment do you have? We’ll have a pretty extensive conversation,” said J.J. Rawlinson, the center’s animal care manager and veterinarian. “We really take time to get to know the animals.”

The adoption fee is $80.

PetSpace has partnered with organizations across the city to develop its programming, which will also include higher education workshops on human-animal relationships.

petspace1

It will also provide medical resources, including aqua therapy, that are generally not available in shelters.

Part of the center’s mission will be to educate the public about spaying, neutering, grooming and other aspects of caring for a pet.

Wallis Annenberg is a billionaire philanthropist who has long made pets one of her pet projects.

“In my life, animals have been a profound gift — not just dear companions, but teachers and healers, showing how to live and love fully and in the moment. That’s why the opening of Annenberg PetSpace is so thrilling for me,” said Annenberg, the Annenberg Foundation’s chair and CEO.

The family foundation was founded by Walter H. Annenberg, whose company published, among others, TV Guide, Seventeen magazine and my old alma mater, the Philadelphia Inquirer. It also operated radio and TV stations nationwide. Annenberg died in 2002.

Wallis Annenberg, his daughter, described PetSpace as “a world-class space in which to study the joys and mysteries of life in all its forms. It will be an innovative and interactive place for families to engage with animals and animal lovers of all kinds.”

“And it will be a chance for me to pass on the kind of awe and affection and insight animals have provided me for all my years,” she told the San Diego News Daily.

The Annenberg team worked with Los Angeles area animal welfare organizations, including Los Angeles Animal Services, the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, spcaLA and the Humane Association of California to design the center.

(Photos and video from the PetSpace website)

Music to their ears: Musician’s song for edgy dogs seems to near instantly soothe them

A musician who calls himself “gnash” researched, composed and recorded a song he hoped would calm his own rescue dog’s restlessness, and he says it’s working — not just for Daisy, but for entire rooms of shelter dogs.

Daisy — the dog Garrett Nash, or gnash, shares with his girlfriend — is prone to becoming “super snippy when she’s not medicated,” he says, and at those time she’s prone to nipping almost anyone within reach.

“I’m a dog lover and I make music, so I was trying to connect the two,” he explained. “I was just thinking maybe, since Daisy was hanging out with me every day in the studio, well then maybe there’s a way that I could make her calm down a little bit.”

He talked to an animal behaviorist, then contacted the team at Glasgow University who had done a study on music that calms shelter dogs — one that found reggae seemed to work best.

He learned what sounds most appealed to dogs, what tempos and tones and repetitions showed evidence of calming them.

gnashThen he headed to studio with friends and got to work, ending up with Daisy’s Song — a soothing, restrained and not too reggae-like number that incorporated what he’d learned and, more important, seemed to work on Daisy.

When they tested it out, with Daisy seated next to a friend she’s always seemed particularly prone to nipping at, it was nearly magical.

You can view the results in the video at the end of this post. Suffice to say, before the song ended, Daisy was relaxed and nuzzling up against the chest of that friend she seemed so fearful of minutes earlier.

Exactly what Daisy’s condition is I can’t say. In the video below, gnash seems to be saying the dog has “a thing in her brain called a shiner (?) that makes her super snippy when she’s not medicated”

I’m no vet, though, and I couldn’t find any references to a disorder known by that name. (Those with a better grasp or understanding are welcome to comment and fill me in.) The closest I could come was progressive retinal atrophy, which can cause a shining to appear in a dog’s eyes, can affect behavior and can lead to eventual blindness.

After the song seemed to work on Daisy, gnash took the track to the adoption center of No Kill LA, a shelter operated by Best Friends Animal Society.

There, too, the song seemed to have a calming presence. During a listening session, the dogs in the room grew less frantic, seemed more restful and content.

The song, and the video about its making, were posted last week on YouTube last week, where those leaving comments are reporting varying results:

“Both of my dogs were anxious-one about a storm, and one tearing up a toilet paper tube,” wrote one. “I played this, and both are now peaceful, laying down and sleeping. I am impressed. I’m thinking of a nap myself.”

“My boxer went from licking everything in site to snoring in 4 minutes,” wrote another.

“My dog is really hyper he never sits for too long on my lap, but this actually made him sit for 10 minutes and I could tell he was listening… Loved this.”

Some dog-less comment leavers reported it put them asleep, some said they loved it whether it works or not, and one said all his dog did was lick his privates.

But weed out all the goons and trolls, and the response seems mostly to affirm that gnash achieved what he was trying to do, and more.

I played it for my dog Jinjja. He was lying down when it started. He lifted his head, his ears perked up, and he started gazing around the room and ceiling. His breathing seemed to slow down. He came over to be petted, looked out the window and laid back down, his muzzle between his paws. He lay still for the next eight minutes of the song, eyes closed and his ears periodically flicking back and forth, then finally got up and exited the room at the 12-minute mark.

“Going into this, my hopes were that I was gonna make the song, play it for Daisy and a couple of other dogs and hopefully they would react in a way that would make them a little more chill,” gnash said.

Already, the results seem to be going beyond that, and raise hopes that it could serve to calm dogs in shelters, which only increases their chances of adoption.

“It’s cool because maybe like humans will be able to find this on YouTube and show it to their friends, and then maybe they’ll play the song for their dogs and then maybe humans will love it and pets will love it too and it will make everybody smile a little bit more and that’s all I care about.”

Nervous dog owners = nervous dogs

nervousdogs

Leave it to scientists to confirm what we already know, and to do so using words we don’t begin to understand.

Case in point: Nervous dogs often have nervous owners. This is not to say a nervous dog can’t have a cool as a cucumber (coolus cucumberus) owner. Nor is it to say some highly twitchy (humanus nervosa) folks can’t have calm dogs.

Only that, as anyone who visits a dog park knows, nervous owners tend to have nervous dog at the end of the leash.

The new study buttresses the concept that our dogs tend to take on our personalities, and that tension — while it may not actually “flow down the leash” — is picked up on by our dogs, and often reflected in their own behavior.

It looks at the chemistry behind that.

The study at the University of Vienna — published in the journal PLOS One “investigated dyadic psychobiological factors influencing intra-individual cortisol variability in response to different challenging situations by testing 132 owners and their dogs in a laboratory setting.”

You might understand that, or, you (like me) might not know spit — or that cortisol levels can be measured through it.

In the study, the researchers measured the levels of cortisol — and the variability of those levels — in the saliva of dogs and owners put through stressful situations.

In addition, they assessed the personality of both dog and human participants — ranging from highly sensitive and neurotic to secure and self confident.

“We calculated the individual coefficient of variance of cortisol (iCV = sd/mean*100) over the different test situations as a parameter representing individual variability of cortisol concentration,” the study’s authors wrote. “We hypothesized that high cortisol variability indicates efficient and adaptive coping and a balanced individual and dyadic social performance.”

For a more reader-friendly account of the study, check out Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today blog:

“You can think of people who are high in neuroticism as being sensitive and nervous while people who score low in neuroticism are secure and confident. In this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly neurotic owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress.”

“Conversely, dog owners who were more laid back and agreeable had calmer dogs. Those folks have greater variability in their cortisol response, suggesting that they are better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain.”

The study says the male dogs of female owners often have less variability in their cortisol responses and are often generally less sociable and less relaxed than male dogs belonging to male owners.

(That’s the study saying that females generally score higher on measures of anxiety and neuroticism — not me. I would be way too nervous to say that.)

“Owners behave differently because they are pessimistic or neurotic, and perhaps dogs read the emotions of their owners and think the world is more dangerous — so they are more reactive to it,” the study says. “It looks like people who are pessimistic have dogs which are worse at coping with stress than others.”

Of course, where a dog was before ending up with its owner can play a pretty big role, too.

I, for example, am the cool as a cucumber owner of a nervous dog. He came from a farm in Korea where he was being raised to become meat. That would tend to instill some nervousness in anyone.

Three months after being adopted by me, he still gets pretty nervous — around large groups, when hearing loud noises. I don’t know about his cortisol levels, but at these times he whimpers, sheds profusely — is there such a thing as projectile shedding? — and pees in inappropriate places, such as on my leg.

He is making great strides in every way, but Jinjja still needs to chill, and get less worked up by new situations.

Of all the factors that shape our dogs — genetics, environment, owners — time (and its cousin, patience) may be the most important ones of all.

So my game plan is to provide him with plenty of both, expose him to new settings and situations, and show him that not all the world is a dangerous place — all while being a mellow role model.

In other words, impossible as it might be, I’m going to have to become EVEN cooler.

Study finds dogs prefer reggae

A new study by the Scotland SPCA and the University of Glasgow reveals that dogs have a preference for reggae music.

The study concluded that, while each dog has its own musical preferences, reggae and soft rock were the two most favored genres of the five that shelter dogs were exposed to during the tests.

“Overall, the response to different genres was mixed highlighting the possibility that like humans, our canine friends have their own individual music preferences,” said Neil Evans, professor of integrative physiology at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.

“That being said, reggae music and soft rock showed the highest positive changes in behavior,” he added.

Five types of music were played for the shelter dogs used in the experiment — Motown, pop, classical, soft rock and reggae, according to the BBC.

The dogs’ heart rates showed a decrease in stress levels while listening to soft rock and reggae, and researchers suspect that could have something to do with the tempo and repetitive themes of those genres.

The experiments were conducted at a rehoming center in Dumbarton, and based on its findings the Scottish SPCA says it plans to invest in sounds systems for all its kennels.

“At present both our Glasgow and Edinburgh centers are able to pipe music into their kennels,” said Gilly Mendes Ferreira, education and research manager. In the future every center will be able to offer our four-footed friends a canine-approved playlist, with the view to extending this research to other species in our care.”

Scotland’s animal welfare charity released research in 2015 that showed classical music led dogs to become more relaxed, but that those effects were only short term.

Both that study and the new one were published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour.

(The video above, showing a dog howling along with a Bob Marely song, is unconnected to the study and not presented here as either anecdotal or scientific proof of absolutely anything)

Your attention, please …

SONY DSC

Look at you! Look at you! You are the cutest little reader I’ve ever seen. Yes you are. Yes you are! You’re just the sweetest reader ever. What a good reader! And, yes, you’re a genius, too. So very smart. Just a good good good pretty genius reader. Yes. Yes!

Talk to a baby like that (and most people do) and you’re going to get a reaction, studies show. You’re going to hold their attention, stimulate their brain, and (put most unscientifically) make them feel warm and bubbly inside.

Talk to a dog like that — especially if it’s a puppy and you have a higher-pitched, female type voice — and you’re going to achieve the same, a new study suggests. They’ll be more responsive and more likely to retain what (though it’s mostly gibberish) you’re saying.

Talk to your website readers like that, and they’re likely to think you’ve gone off the deep end, that you’re either stalking or patronizing them, and report you to the Internet police.

But you wouldn’t do that. Would you, pretty reader? Noooo. ‘Cuz you’re a good reader. Yes! You’re such a sweetie pie. Yes! Yes!

SONY DSCDogs, at least younger ones, find being talked to in a slow, sing-song, high-pitched, “baby-talk” type voice exciting, and react better to it, a new study says.

The findings show that the voice pitch and patterns of humans may help dogs learn words, as is believed to be the case with human babies.

To find out how dogs reacted to human speech, Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon in Saint Étienne, France, recorded the voices of 30 women.

The women were asked to read the scripted phrases as they would to dogs, and as they would to humans. For the dog-directed readings, researchers provided them with photos of dogs to help them get in the mood.

Each woman read the following words: “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!”

The women read the words as they would to a puppy, as they would to an older dog, and as they would to a human.

The recordings were then played to dogs — 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs at a New York City animal shelter.

Nine of the 10 puppies reacted strongly to the pupy-directed recordings, barking and running toward the loudspeaker and even going into a play stance.

The pups were less interested when the women were using the lower pitched, less playful voices they would use while talking to other humans.

The older dogs, possibly having heard their fill of baby talk, didn’t react at all — likely because they’d become more attuned to their master’s voice and less to those of strangers.

The study’s findings were presented this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Why we talk to babies this ultra-animated, affirmation-filled way — both our own and those we’re just meeting — is instinctual. Why we talk to dogs, especially puppies, like this, is a result of their big-eyed, baby-like appearance that brings out similar instincts in us.

SONY DSCIn either case, it’s all related to our instinct for nurturing, and our desire to communicate with a non-verbal, or not-yet-verbal, being.

In the study, the women’s exaggerated, high-pitched speech served far better to get the attention of the dogs, said Mathevon, who believes this way of talking may help dogs learn words.

I couldn’t find an explanation of why only women’s voices — 30 of them aged 18 to 55 — were used in the study, but I’d guess it’s because women are generally better at, and less embarrassed, at using baby talk in public.

Most of my dogs have favored women. Ace always preferred females, and my dog new dog, Jinjja, is much more comfortable around them too. If he hears a female voice in the distance he pulls toward it, if he hears a male one, he stops or retreats.

A lot of it I think is simply a matter of pitch. A higher pitch is less threatening.

Likely, with Jinjja, it also has to do with how he was raised. Probably, men ran the Korean dog farm he was rescued from, and during and after that rescue it was probably mostly women who were kind to him.

The same is probably true of many a shelter or rescue dog. Given women make up the bulk of the staff and volunteers at animal rescue and shelter operations, those dogs often tend to associate a female voice with food, warmth and safety.

Possibly, dogs have figured out females are the kinder and more nurturing gender (though that might be a little sexist to say). Or it could be women’s voices, in general, sound more like squeaky toys (though that might be a little sexist to say).

But you’re not going to hold that against me. Nooooooo. You’re too nice to do that, aren’t you? Aren’t you? You’re such a good reader. Yes, you are.

(Photos by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)

How farming changed dogs — and us

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It’s no big surprise — given it’s what led them to befriend us in the first place — that dogs have been dining on our scraps since early in their domestication.

What’s more interesting is how dogs adapted to our junk food ways.

A team of researchers from France, Sweden and Romania has found evidence indicating that domesticated dogs underwent a genetic transformation, developing multiple copies of a gene that aids in the digestion of starch.

That’s the same thing we humans did, when we made the transition from a hunting to a farming society, consuming more starches and vegetable and less meat.

In their paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team describes what they found out by conducting a DNA analysis of ancient dog teeth and other bones.

They conclude that, around 7000 years ago, domesticated dogs were eating so much wheat and millet they made extra copies of starch-digesting genes to help them cope.

starchIn other words, as we began consuming more starches, so too — via our leftovers — did the dogs that were compromising their wolfy ways to hang around with us.

That we and dogs can have our genes altered by the food we consume and the repeated behaviors we engage in, is kind of intriguing, and kind of scary — and it brings new credence to the old phrase “you are what you eat.”

Some of the first insights into how farming changed the canine genome came three years ago, according to Sciencemag.com

That’s when a team led by evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden discovered that dogs have four to 30 copies of a gene called Amy2B, whereas wolves typically only have two.

The new study sought to get a better handle on when that happened.

Axelsson teamed up with Morgane Ollivier, a paleogeneticist at Ecole Normale Supéieure de Lyon in France and others, who extracted ancient DNA from the bones and teeth of 13 wolf and dog specimens collected from archaeological sites throughout Eurasia.

Four of the ancient dogs — from a 7000-year-old site in Romania and 5000-year-old sites in Turkey and France — had more than eight copies of Amy2B, Ollivier and his colleagues reported in Royal Society Open Science.

The findings rule out a modern origin for the increase in the number of Amy2B genes in dogs.

pastaDogs were likely domesticated more than 15,000 years ago, and likely continued eating mostly meat after that, as they became hunting companions to humans.

As humans turned to farming, the number of copies of Amy2B increased — first in us, then in dogs.

Being able to survive on whatever humans discarded likely enabled dogs to become widespread as people migrated across the globe, the scientists say.

It’s food for thought — how what we eat, or other repeated practices, can lead, far down the road, to alterations in our DNA.

Might scientists discover, generations from now, for example, that we humans have developed a selfie-taking gene that won’t let us stop taking excessive photos of ourselves?

They’ll name it 02BME.