Tag Archives: dogs

Why chocolate is really, really bad for dogs

The only good chocolate for dogs is a chocolate fur, like is majestic lab is rocking. Credit: Pixabay.

Unlike cats, which lack the ability to taste sweetness, dogs find chocolate just as appealing as humans. But while the dark treat can be a euphoric delight for us, it can be poisonous to canines.

That’s not to say that all dogs get poisoned by chocolate or that a candy bar is enough to necessarily kill your pet canine. The dose makes the poison. The weight of the dog also matters, so large canines should be able to handle a small amount of chocolate whereas smaller breeds might run into serious trouble.

Although you shouldn’t panic if your dog accidentally ingests chocolate, candy and other chocolate sweets should never be offered to dogs. Generally, you should treat chocolate as toxic to dogs and should make an effort to keep it away from them.

Why chocolate can be dangerous to dogs

Among the many chemical compounds found in dark chocolate and cocoa is theobromine. Formerly known as xantheose, theobromine is a bitter alkaloid compound that acts as a mild stimulant for the human body.

The consumption of theobromine is generally associated with positive effects, such as reduced blood pressure, improved focus and concentration, and enhanced mood. That’s in humans. In dogs, theobromine, as well as caffeine, raise the heart rate and can overstimulate the nervous system.

Because dogs can’t break down, or metabolize, theobromine as well as humans can, the compound is toxic to dogs, over a certain threshold, depending on their body weight.

Mild symptoms of chocolate toxicity occur when a canine consumes 20 mg of theobromine per kilogram per body weight. Cardiac symptoms occur at around 40 to 50 mg/kg and dangerous seizures occur at doses greater than 60 mg/kg.

This explains why a candy bar may cause a chihuahua (average weight 2 kg) to run in circles while Great Dane (average weight 70 kg) might feel just fine.

Darker, purer varieties of chocolate tend to be the most dangerous because they contain the highest concentration of theobromine. According to the USDA nutrient database, various chocolate/cocoa products contain the following amounts of theobromine per 100 grams;

  • Unsweetened cocoa powder: 2634 mg;
  • Baking chocolate (unsweetened): 1297 mg;
  • Dark chocolate (70% cocoa): 802 mg;
  • Mars Twix (twin bar): 39.9 mg;
  • White chocolate: 0 mg;

As a rule of thumb, chocolate poisoning in dogs generally occurs after the ingestion of 3.5g of dark chocolate for every 1kg they weigh, or 14g of milk chocolate for every kilogram.

Signs that your dog may be suffering from chocolate poisoning

Chocolate poisoning mainly affects the heart, central nervous system, and kidneys. The symptoms of theobromine toxicity usually appear within 6 to 12 hours after your dog eats too much chocolate and may last up to 72 hours. These include:

  • vomiting,
  • diarrhea,
  • restlessness,
  • increased urination,
  • tremors,
  • elevated or abnormal heart rate,
  • seizures,
  • and in extreme cases collapse and death.

Can chocolate kill dogs?

In short, yes. However, fatalities in dogs due to chocolate poisoning are very rare. According to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service from the U.S., out of 1,000 dog chocolate toxicity cases recorded in its database, only five dogs died. 

What do if your dog eats chocolate

If you caught your dog eating chocolate or you suspect this may have happened, it is best to call your veterinarian and ask for advice on how to proceed going forward. Based on your dog’s size and the amount and kind of chocolate ingested, the veterinarian may recommend monitoring your dog for any symptoms of poisoning or ask that you immediately come to the clinic.

If there are good reasons to believe potentially dangerous chocolate poisoning may be imminent, and as long as your pet consumed the chocolate less than two hours ago, the veterinarian may induce vomiting.

Sometimes, the dog may be given doses of activated charcoal, which helps to flush toxins out of the body before they are absorbed into the bloodstream.

In very extreme cases of poisoning, the veterinarian might administer medications and/or intravenous fluids to provide additional treatment.

Keep chocolate away from dogs

There’s no reason to believe chocolate isn’t as tasty to dogs as it is to humans. Unfortunately, many dog owners are ignorant to the fact that chocolate can poison their pets and intentionally offer chocolate snacks as a treat.

Usually, this isn’t a problem for very large breeds when they ingest small amounts of chocolate, but smaller dogs can suffer greatly and even die in extreme cases due to theobromine poisoning.

If you are aware that chocolate can poison your pet, you have no excuse to keep sweets accessible. It is advisable to keep any chocolate items on a high shelf, preferably in a closed-door pantry. Guests and children should be kindly reminded that chocolate is bad for dogs and that they shouldn’t offer chocolate treats regardless of how much the pet begs for them.

Most chocolate poisoning in dogs occurs around major holidays such as Christmas, Easter, or Valentine’s Day, so these are times when you should be extra careful. 

How old is your dog? Open-science project is studying how dogs age, and you can join it

We’ve all heard the saying that one dog year is roughly equivalent to seven human years. But new research is working to find out more about how dogs progress through life — and, in turn, teach us about how we, ourselves, age.

Image via Pixabay.

It is true that dogs age faster than humans. However, according to researchers behind the Dog Aging Project (DAP), founded in 2018, the details are a bit murky. Saying that one human year is equivalent to seven dog years is a very broad simplification; big dogs tend to age the fastest, around 10 times as fast as humans, while little breeds age slower, about five times as fast as humans.

In other words, there is still much we don’t know about how man’s best friend grows old. Which is why the DAP was set up.

A dog’s life

“This is a very large, ambitious, wildly interdisciplinary project that has the potential to be a powerful resource for the broader scientific community,” said Joshua Akey, a professor in Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and a member of the Dog Aging Project’s research team.

“Personally, I find this project exciting because I think it will improve dog, and ultimately, human health.”

The project is the largest undertaking to date that looks into canine aging and longevity. It currently involves tens of thousands of dogs of all breeds, sizes, and backgrounds, data from which goes into an open-source repository for veterinarians and scientists to use in the future. This wealth of data can be used to assess how well a particular dog is faring for their age, the researchers behind the DAP explain and help further our understanding of healthy aging in both dogs and humans.

It is set to run for at least 10 years in order to gather the data required. So far, over 32,000 dogs and their owners have joined the program, and recruitment is still ongoing. The owners of these dogs agreed to fill out annual surveys and take various measurements of their dogs to be used in the program. Some of them have also been asked to collect DNA material via cheek swabs for the researchers to sample. In addition, veterinarians associated with the program across the USA submit fur, blood, and other required samples from the dogs enrolled in the program (collectively known as the “DAP Pack”).

“We are sequencing the genomes of 10,000 dogs,” Akey said. “This will be one of the largest genetics data sets ever produced for dogs, and it will be a powerful resource not only to understand the role of genetics in aging, but also to answer more fundamental questions about the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs.”

The end goal of the program is to isolate specific biomarkers of aging in dogs. These should translate well to humans, the team explains. Dogs experience almost the same diseases and functional declines related to age as humans, veterinary care of dogs mirrors human healthcare in many ways, and dogs very often share living environments with humans. That last factor is very important as the environment is a main driver of aging and cannot be replicated in the lab.

Given that dogs share our environment, age similarly to us, but are much shorter-lived than humans, we have an exciting opportunity to identify factors that promote a healthy lifespan, and to find the signs of premature aging.

The oldest 300 dogs in the program will have their DNA sequenced as part of the ‘super-centenarian study. The team hopes to start this process in a few months. By that time, they will also open their entire anonymized dataset for researchers around the world to study.

If you live in the USA and would like to help, you and your doggo can enroll here.

The paper “An Open Science study of ageing in companion dogs” has been published in the journal Nature.

Why your dog likes to eat grass

Credit: Pxhere.

Your beloved canine is obviously not a cow, but that doesn’t stop them from behaving like one sometimes. Many dog owners are baffled when they see a dog eat grass, perhaps because they’ve never imagined them as grazing animals. You shouldn’t fret, though. Dogs eating grass is a lot more common than you think.

This behavior of eating things that technically aren’t food, known as pica, has been observed before in wild dogs and wolves (plant material has been found in 2% to 74% of stomach content samples of wolves and cougars), so it may be completely natural. As to why exactly dogs engage in this strange behavior despite having access to an unlimited supply of scooby snacks, no one is really sure.

Some doctors believe that dogs eat grass because they are sick and need to vomit, although some studies we’ve found refute this idea. Alternatively, dogs may be experiencing a dietary deficiency, but if that’s the case why do dogs on a balanced diet still partake in consuming plants sprouting off the sidewalk or on your neighbor’s lawn?

Whatever may be the case, veterinarians unanimously agree that this behavior is both common and safe. A survey of 49 owners found that 79% of their dogs had eaten plants at least once, with grass being the most commonly eaten plant.

Do dogs eat grass because they’re sick?

Credit: Pixabay.

It’s believed that plant-eating in dogs is due to some illness and that the ingestion of grass and other plant material is followed within minutes by vomiting. In a 2008 study, 25 veterinary students who had pet dogs were asked about signs of sickness before grass consumption. All participants reported that their dogs ate grass but none observed any signs of illness before their dogs ingested the plants. Only 8% said that their dogs regularly vomit afterward.

A survey of 47 dog owners came up with similar results, with only four dogs showing signs of illness before ingesting grass and only six dogs vomited afterward.

The researchers then extended their study by making the same inquiries in an online survey, which this time included 1,571 participants. The findings showed that 68% of the respondents said their dogs regularly ingest plants (on a daily or weekly basis), but only 8% said that their dogs showed some signs of illness before plant-eating. Around 22% of the respondents said that their pets regularly vomit afterward. Younger dogs were more likely to eat plants more frequently than older dogs and were also less likely to appear ill beforehand or to vomit afterward.

Each dog owner also supplied information about the diets of their pets, showing no indication that dogs who were primarily fed table scraps or raw food were any more prone to eating grass than those on a commercial ‘dog food’ diet.

One proposed reason why dogs eat grass is that the canines may receive less fiber in their diet, but the study found no connection between the two.

These results suggest that grass eating is a highly common behavior and is likely unrelated to illness or vomiting afterward. “Vomiting seems to be incidental to, rather than caused by, plant eating,” wrote the researchers.

Eating grass may help Fido’s digestion

According to Benjamin Hart, Professor Emeritus at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, plant-eating likely played a role in the ongoing purging of intestinal parasites (nematodes) in wild canids. When the plant material passes through the intestinal tract, it increases intestinal motility and wraps around worms, thereby purging the tract of nematodes. This behavior may have been preserved in domesticated dogs, the researcher said, as well as in felines who also engage in the same type of pica.

Then again, some believe that dogs eat grass simply because they like the taste and texture of it. That may be entirely so, but whether dogs eat grass purely out of enjoyment is challenging if not impossible to prove. Likewise, others believe that dogs eat grass because they’re bored, which sounds very odd and begs the question: Why aren’t you playing enough with your dog? If you believe your dog is eating grass to draw your attention, it may be their way of communicating they feel neglected and would like some more pets, thank you.

Is eating grass safe for my dog?

The bottom line is that your pet’s tendency to consume plants is nothing to worry about nor is it out of the ordinary. Eating grass doesn’t seem to be associated with any illness. Instead, it seems like it is a trait inherited from wild ancestors.

There’s a caveat though. Some lawns are sprayed with certain herbicides and pesticides that may be toxic, depending on the dog’s size. In these cases, it may be safer to not allow your pet to eat plant material that may be contaminated.

In order to sway your dog away from eating grass, the best course of action is to present a viable alternative. So be prepared with a treat next time you’re out on a walk with your favorite canine. Offer the treat when the dog complies and refrains from nibbling grass.

The average dog knows 89 words and phrases

Credit: Pixabay.

By several behavioral measures, the mental abilities of the average canine are on par with those of a human child around age 2. They’re also very similar in their comprehension of words, with a new study finding that, on average, dogs respond to 89 words.

“We aimed to develop a comprehensive owner-reported inventory of words to which owners believe their dogs respond differentially and consistently,” wrote Catherine Reeve and Sophie Jacques, the authors of the new study, both researchers at Dalhousie University, Canada.

Dogs, likely the first domesticated animal, and humans share a strong bond that stretches back thousands of years. Over time, dogs were selected for traits that made them more sociable, loyal, and cooperative. Early on, domesticated canines proved useful in hunting, but nowadays they occupy a wide range of specialized roles, such as search and rescue, agriculture, police, and scent detection (dogs can sense several types of cancer, migraines, low blood sugar, seizures, diabetes, and even COVID-19).

Their ability to fulfill these roles hinges, for the most part, on their responsiveness to human social cues. Often these cues are verbal commands and basic utterances during various contexts (i.e. playtime or walking), but also non-verbal cues such as gestures.

As early as the 1920s, scientists have sought to assess dogs’ ability to comprehend human speech. One study from 1928 documented the ability of Fellow, a young male German Shepherd, to respond to verbal commands uttered by his owner. Fellow could recognize 68 words and phrases, including phrases such as Go outside and wait for me. More recently, a 2004 study found that Rico, a Border Collie, could identify and retrieve over 200 items, such as various different balls and stuffed toys, when the owner uttered each item’s unique name.

These studies show that dogs can respond consistently and differently to spoken words and phrases, something not at all surprising even to first-time dog owners. But the Canadian researchers wanted to investigate more closely and empirically the extent to which typical dogs respond to words. Fellow, Rico, and most other canines involved in similar studies were very well trained, for instance.

In order to quantify the number of words a dog could comprehend, the researchers employed virtually the same tool that psychologists use to assess infants’ understanding and development of early language, based on a parent-reported checklist called the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory.

A total of 165 owners of a variety of dog breeds were surveyed about the different words and phrases that their pets seemed to understand. Each owner was also asked questions about themselves that were relevant to the study, such as dog training experience and household member composition, as well as about their dogs (i.e. breed, age, sex, training background).

On average, dog owners identified 89 terms that their pets responded to consistently, half of which were classed as commands. There were outliers, of course, with one clever dog reported to respond to 215 words. The least responsive dog responded to only 15 words.

The most responsive breeds included the Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, German Shepherd, Bichon Frise, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and the Chihuahua. Breeds that were not quite as responsive included hounds like the Beagle and Whippet or working-guardians like Boxers and the Cane Corso.

The most common words dogs responded to were their own name, as well as command-like words like ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘down’, ‘stay’, ‘wait’, ‘no’, ‘OK’ and ‘leave it’.  But many dogs could also understand nouns like ‘treat’, ‘breakfast’, ‘dinner’, ‘garbage’, ‘poo’ and things to chase, such as a ‘ball’ or ‘squirrel’.

A word was counted as a response if the pet looked up, whined, ran, wagged their tails, or performed a requested action.

“The current study takes an important first step towards developing an instrument that makes it possible to identify which words might most likely be responded to by dogs. Although research on dogs’ responses to words exists, much of it has been limited in scope (e.g., teaching a handful of commands or object words) or sample size (e.g., training a single dog). The current study is consistent with existing research suggesting that dogs may be particularly adept at responding to commands rather than object words,” the researchers wrote in their study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The researchers cautioned, however, that these results do not prove that dogs actually understand the meaning of the words. They could respond to various words uttered by humans due to operant or classical conditioning, such as that present in basic dog training (the sounds that form the word ‘sit’ are eventually associated with a reward). Dogs may also learn to associate certain sounds that form words with events or objects more passively by learning the association between them through repeated pairings, a process scientists call statistical learning.

“With additional research, our tool could become an efficient, effective, and economical research instrument for mapping out some of their competences and perhaps help predict early the potential of individual dogs for various professions,” they added.

Feeding dogs only once a day may protect them from age-related disease

Credit: Pixabay.

An analysis of a survey of more than 24,000 pet canines found that dogs that were fed only once a day were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with age-related diseases than dogs that had more meals. For now, veterinarians say dog owners should not change their pets’ current feeding regimes until further research establishes a causal link.

You may have heard about intermittent fasting, eating only during a specific time. While most diets focus on what you eat, such as consuming fewer carbs or fats, intermittent fasting is all about when you eat — the calories and nutrients themselves matter too, but they’re secondary in this instance.

And unlike most fad diets, science actually supports a range of health benefits that have been associated with fasting. A 2021 study published in the journal Nature Aging analyzed the effects of different fasting methods on longevity in organisms ranging from yeast to humans. The researchers found that the alternation of fasting and refeeding periods reduces risk factors for aging, diabetes, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and cancer, linking these effects to major nutrient-sensing signaling pathways.

The metabolic and cellular responses triggered by fasting may explain the most recent findings by researchers from the University of Washington, who concluded that dogs that ate just once a day were advancing in age more healthily than dogs fed twice or more per day. Dogs evolved from wolves, predators that would often go for days without eating until they found their next prey, so it would make sense that time-restricted feeding may be beneficial for them.

The study involved thousands of dogs as part of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious initiative that aims to follow thousands of dogs for ten years in order to identify the biological and environmental factors that maximize healthy longevity.

“Controlling for sex, age, breed, and other potential confounders, we found that dogs fed once daily rather than more frequently had lower mean scores on a cognitive dysfunction scale, and lower odds of having gastrointestinal, dental, orthopedic, kidney/urinary, and liver/pancreas disorders. Therefore, our findings suggest that once-a-day feeding in dogs is associated with improved health across multiple body systems,” the researchers wrote in their study that appeared in the pre-print journal bioRxiv.

Previously, research from the Dog Aging Project investigated how canine health is affected by their gut microbes and breed-specific risks of genetic disease.

Although the new study on dog feeding patterns provides compelling evidence that fasting may protect pets from age-related conditions, the findings are purely correlative at this point. The survey data did not include information about what exactly each dog ate or the number of calories, which can be very important. For instance, dogs who are fed multiple times a day may tend to overeat, which could lead to obesity, an important risk factor in a range of diseases.

Ideally, the researchers would like to perform a randomized trial in which they can monitor canine diets over a long period of time and measure the effects on their health in a controlled setting.

In the meantime, pet owners are advised to not alter their dogs’ diets until further evidence surfaces. At the moment, most veterinary associations advise feeding dogs twice a day. 

People underestimate how much anxiety household sounds can produce for dogs

There are more sounds that can make your dog anxious in your home than you assumed, a new paper reports.

Image credits Susanne Pälmer.

Research at the University of California, Davis, has examined the potential of common household noises to make dogs anxious. Although it’s common knowledge that sudden, loud noises — fireworks or thunderstorms, for example — can easily trigger anxiety in man’s best friend, the results point to a much wider range of sounds our dogs might become frightened by.

But an arguably more important finding is that most owners can’t reliably pick up on the hallmark signs that their dog is anxious.


“We know that there are a lot of dogs that have noise sensitivities, but we underestimate their fearfulness to noise we consider normal because many dog owners can’t read body language,” said lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the findings, even common noises such as a microwave, a vacuum cleaner during operation, or the battery warning of a smoke detector can trigger a dog’s anxiety. As a rule of thumb, high-frequency intermittent noises are more likely to make your dog anxious than continuous, low-frequency ones.

Some of the most common signs of a dog’s anxiety include cringing, trembling, or retreating. These are the ones most people can reliably pick up on, quite understandably so, as they mimic our own anxiety responses. But other behaviors can be more subtle and easily missed. These include panting, the turning of the head away, or a stiffening of the body. Other signs are a turning back of their ears or lowering of the head below their shoulders.

Gigg says it’s important for dog owners to learn about the anxiety-related behavior that dogs exhibit so that they can better understand and help their pets.

The data for this study was collected as part of a survey of 386 dog owners about their animals’ responses to a range of household sounds. The authors also examined the dogs’ behaviors and the reactions of their owners. This revealed that people both underestimate the anxiousness of their dogs, with a majority of those appearing in the videos actually responding with amusement to their displays of anxiety.

“There is a mismatch between owners’ perceptions of the fearfulness and the amount of fearful behavior actually present. Some react with amusement rather than concern,” Grigg said. “We hope this study gets people to think about the sources of sound that might be causing their dog stress, so they can take steps to minimize their dog’s exposure to it.”

Since dogs can perceive sounds from a broader spectrum than humans, it is possible that something which seems innocuous to us is quite painful to their ears — very loud or high-pitched sounds being some examples. Grigg says that any steps taken to prevent such noises, for example changing the batteries in your smoke detectors more often, can help improve your dog’s quality of life tremendously.

“Dogs use body language much more than vocalizing and we need to be aware of that,” said Grigg. “We feed them, house them, love them and we have a caretaker obligation to respond better to their anxiety.”

The paper “Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Dogs that tilt their heads aren’t just adorable: they’re super smart

Credit: Cooper Photo.

If your pet canine tilts its head when hearing its name, congratulations: that dog may be a genius. I’m not making this up. A new study found that the seemingly perplexing head tilt isn’t a sign of confusion as we may be led to believe. Instead, it’s actually a sign that the dog is processing the meaning of words like oral commands and making connections. Dogs that tilted their heads most often were also the best performing at successfully responding to commands, some of them quite complex.

Dr. Andrea Sommese, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, was inspired to conduct this research after being involved in the Genius Dog Challenge, a live broadcasted series that features very talented dogs. During the broadcasts, some of the gifted dogs were very good at learning the names of a wide variety of toys. When the name of the toys was uttered by their owners, the dogs often tilted their heads.

Head tilting, as well as tail wagging, nostril sniffing, and pointing one of the ears, is a type of asymmetrical movement typical for canines that shows the animal prefers to use one of its body parts over others when interacting with the environment.

“Tilting the head is yet another asymmetrical movement in dogs, but it had never been studied. We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization: when the owner asks the dog to bring a toy by saying its name. We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners,” Sommese said in a statement.

Sommese and colleagues carefully analyzed all the broadcasts from the Genius Dog Challenge, which involved 40 dogs of various breeds. The owners were asked to teach their pets the names of two toys and test how well they were at the task once a month for three months. The test was simple: the dog had to fetch the correct toy when its name was uttered from an adjacent room.

Most of the dogs, however, failed at this task. Even two toy names proved too much. However, all seven border collies aced the test flawlessly. Collies are regarded as one of the most intelligent dog breeds in the world, and this experiment validated their cognitive prowess with the Hungarian researchers calling them “gifted word learners”.

Throughout the experiment, the scientists recorded the presence or absence of head-tilts when the owners would say the name of the toy. The typical dogs rarely tilted their heads while the gifted dogs more often than not tilted their heads upon hearing the fetch command.

In fact, the difference was striking. The gifted learners tilted their heads 43% of the time while the other 33 dogs did so just 2% of the time. That doesn’t sound like a coincidence, and the researchers seem to concur.

“It seems that there is a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent head tilts upon hearing its name. That is why we suggest an association between head-tilting and processing relevant and meaningful stimuli” clarifies Shany Dror, co-author of the study. 

However, these findings don’t necessarily mean your pooch is intellectually challenged just because they’re missing the head tilt.

“It is important to notice that this study only investigated head tilts during a very specific dog-owner communicative interaction: when the owner asks the dog to fetch a named toy. Hence, it is important to refrain from thinking that only Gifted Word Learner dogs tilt their heads in other situations not tested in this study” adds Andrea Temesi, another researcher working on the project. 

The researchers continued to work just with the collies in a series of other, more challenging experiments. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they collected the data remotely with the help of the owners, who cooperated and installed two cameras connected to a livestream software that monitored both the dogs’ and their owners’ behaviors.

In the new experiment, the collies were challenged with learning the names of 12 new toys and had only a week to do so. They were then tested by fetching the correct toy out of the bunch one month and then two months later.

The collies performed wonderfully, retrieving the correct toy 86% of the time. One of the collies, named Whisky, was particularly gifted bringing back the correct toy 54 out of 59 times. One month later, the retrieval rate dropped to 61%. Two months later it dropped to 57%, which isn’t bad at all considering the dogs lost their training.

Credit: Helge O. Svela.

Once again, the dogs tilted their heads when they heard the name of the toys called out by the owners. Every dog tended to tilt their heads to just one side or the other fairly consistently. For the researchers, this is seen as yet another piece of evidence that dogs engage in this behavior when they’re concentrating on a cognitive task.

Learning and remembering object names is not exclusive to collies, though. After the study ended, the researchers discovered that canines of other breeds are also adept at learning new words. These include a German shepherd, a Pekingese, a mini Australian shepherd, and a few dogs of mixed breeds.

“What we tested is a very specific skill: the capacity to learn object names,” Dror told NBC News.

“All dogs, however, are good at understanding their humans,” she said. “They do so by being able to read even the very subtle movements we make and learning in what context we do what. They are fine tuned to all our activities and can learn a lot by observing us.”

The findings appeared in the journal Animal Cognition.

How your labrador’s yellow coat may shed secrets about canine evolution

The level of variation in dogs is simply astounding. It’s hard to believe when you look at them, but Great Danes and Chihuahuas are the same species despite a ten-fold difference in size and mass. Fur color patterns are also responsible for a rich pallet of distinctive characteristics among different breeds. And, according to a new study, these fur coloring variations are owed to genes inherited from a distant common ancestor of dogs and wolves.

The surprising connection between a yellow lab and a white wolf

Professor Danika Bannasch is a geneticist and veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, whose work is focused on identifying the molecular causes for inherited diseases in dogs and horses. While at the University of Bern in Switzerland, Bannasch got the idea of figuring out the fundamental genetic basis for black and tan coat colors in dogs. She quickly rallied other colleagues, including researchers affiliated with the HudsonAlpha Institute, who are experts in phylogenetics and mammalian coat patterning.

Both wolves and dogs make two different types of pigments: a black pigment called eumelanin and a yellow pigment called pheomelanin. Combining these two pigments at the right time and the right place in the canine body produces five major color patterns or phenotypes. In Bannasch’s study, these phenotypes are dominant yellow, shaded yellow, agouti, black saddle, and black back. 

Within each pattern type, there may be variation due to other factors including: (1) the position of the boundaries between pheomelanic and eumelanic areas, for example in black saddle or black back; (2) the shade of pheomelanin (red to nearly white); (3) presence of a black facial mask or white spotting caused by genes other than ASIP; and (4) length and/or curl of hair coat. Patterns are displayed in order of dominance. Credit: Nature Ecology and Evolution.

After sequencing the DNA of ancient dogs and wolves, the researchers discovered that the production of the yellow pigment is controlled by the agouti signaling protein, whose activity is, in turn, controlled by the ASIP gene. Mutations in two distinct areas of the ASIP gene lead to different coat patterns.

But what was very surprising was the fact that the ASIP gene has been around for at least two million years, much earlier than the domestication of dogs around 30,000 years ago.

This gene originated in a now-extinct canid that diverged from gray wolves, which explains why the same genetic combination responsible for dominant yellow coat patterns is shared with arctic white wolves. The lighter coat was likely an advantageous adaptation to the extinct canid ancestor in an arctic environment, such as during the glaciation periods between 1.5 and 2 million years ago. The coat pattern persisted and was eventually inherited by dogs and wolves.

“While we think about all this variation in coat color among dogs, some of it happened long before ‘dogs’ were dogs,” Bannasch said. “The genetics turn out to be a lot more interesting because they tell us something about canid evolution.”

“We were initially surprised to discover that white wolves and yellow dogs have an almost identical ASIP DNA configuration,” added Chris Kaelin of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. “But we were even more surprised when it turned out that a specific DNA configuration is more than 2 million years old, prior to the emergence of modern wolves as a species.”

Meanwhile, the black back pattern was identified in a dog sample as early as 9,500 years old, showing that dogs had rich coat variations early on.

Bannasch actually has a black back Danish Swedish farmdog and two Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers with a dominant yellow pattern. Now, she only needs three other coat patterns to have the full set, she joked.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Puppies are likely born with the ability to communicate with humans

Credit: Emily Bray.

Apart from barking, whimpering, and muttering in various tones, dogs aren’t too big on vocal communication. But despite this shortcoming, dogs and humans are able to communicate remarkably well. Humans issue commands and dogs will tend to follow. Dogs will also issue their own commands, pawing their humans to get pets or barking while standing next to the door to signal it’s time to go for a walk. Now, researchers report that this amazing ability to interact with people is present in canines from a very early age. What’s more, this communication link between puppies and humans requires little, if any, training.

A good boy from an early age

For more than a decade, Emily Bray of the University of Arizona and colleagues have been conducting all sorts of research with dogs, particularly with those from Canine Companions, the largest service dog organization in the U.S. for people with physical disabilities. Ultimately, they’d like to learn how to improve the performance of service dogs, which requires a better understanding of how dogs think, solve problems, and communicate.

One important question the researchers attempted to investigate for this present study was how much of this capacity for communication is explained by biology. To this aim, they were fortunate enough to have access to hundreds of budding service dogs that were all starting out at the same early age. This setup allowed the researchers to constrain the experimental conditions quite nicely since all the puppies had virtually the same reading history and a known pedigree that can be traced for multiple generations. Seeing how the degree of relatedness between the puppies was known, this information could be then used to plot genetic versus environmental factors when assessing certain outcomes, such as communication abilities.

Credit: Emily Bray.

In total, the researchers worked with 375 eight-week-old puppies — 98 Labrador retrievers, 23 golden retrievers, and 254 Labrador golden crosses from 117 different litters — that had to perform the same tasks. For instance, one such task involved finding and bringing back an object such as a cup pointed to by a human.

All the puppies ultimately completed the task successfully, even when the odor of the object to be retrieved was masked. This shows that dogs are able to perform social communication from a very early age using gestures and eye contact. However, the puppies were only successful when a person initiated the interaction by speaking in a high-pitched voice, typical of humans addressing cute babies. Without the human initiating the interaction, the puppies didn’t look to people for help in completing a task in which food was locked in a Tupperware container.

“We show that puppies will reciprocate human social gaze and successfully use information given by a human in a social context from a very young age and prior to extensive experience with humans,” said Bray in a statement. “For example, even before puppies have left their littermates to live one-on-one with their volunteer raisers, most of them are able to find hidden food by following a human point to the indicated location.”

A statistical model employed by the researchers suggests that 40% of the variation in a puppy’s ability to follow a human’s finger-pointing or gaze can be explained genetically. The genetic component is likely even greater between more distantly related breeds. We know from previous research that breeds of dogs that were initially selected for cooperative work (like sheepdogs) are much better at following a person’s point than breeds selected for other kinds of work like guard dogs, hounds, or sled dogs).

In the future, Bray would like to identify some of these specific genes that are involved in such behaviors. The researchers have already collected blood samples and cognitive data, which will come in handy for a genome-wide association study.

“From a young age, dogs display human-like social skills, which have a strong genetic component, meaning these abilities have strong potential to undergo selection,” Bray said. “Our findings might therefore point to an important piece of the domestication story, in that animals with a propensity for communication with our own species might have been selected for in the wolf populations that gave rise to dogs.”

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Ancient bone suggests humans migrated to North America with their dogs

A small fragment of a 10,000-year-old dog bone found along the Alaskan coast could be the oldest evidence of domesticated dogs in North America. Researchers believe this could be a piece of evidence regarding the route taken by the first group of people to cross from Eurasia into North America.

The bone analyzed, smaller than a coin. Image credit: University of Buffalo

Humans are believed to have migrated from Siberia to North America over what is now known as the Bering Strait at the end of the last Ice Age, between 30,000 to 11,000 years ago — with dogs playing an important part. But the exact timing and the route of the human migration (and their beloved canine companions) remains unclear.

Now, a new study by University of Buffalo researchers provides new insight into these questions. The team analyzed a bone fragment found in Southeast Alaska, which they believe belonged to a dog that lived in the region about 10,150 years ago. The bone (a femur) represents the oldest confirmed remains of a domestic dog in the Americas.

“There have been multiple waves of dogs migrating into the Americas, but one question has been, when did the first dogs arrive? And did they follow an interior ice-free corridor between the massive ice sheets that covered the North American continent, or was their first migration along the coast?” co-author Charlotte Lindqvist said in a statement.

The bone fragment was actually found a while ago during excavations on the Alaskan coastal mainland in 1998 and 2003. A lot of bone samples and human artifacts were collected in the excavations, including the remains of the dog, which remained for years in storage until further studies could be carried out. This is where the team of researchers enters the stage.

Initially, they thought the fragment, of about one centimeter (0.4 inches), was of a bear bone. But they later realized it actually belonged to a canine lineage that split from Siberian dogs around 16,700 years ago (Canis lupus familiaris). It’s an almost extinct lineage that went to populate North America alongside indigenous humans.

Detailed analysis (including DNA analysis) confirmed that it was a dog, and also showed that it mainly ate seafood — in line with the findings of a previous study on dog remains in coastal Southwestern Alaska. The dogs likely fed on fish, seal and whale meat hunted by humans. Put all together, the study’s results could be significant to understand the history of human migration into the Americas.

“This all started out with our interest in how Ice Age climatic changes impacted animals’ survival and movements in this region,” Lindqvist said in a statement. “Southeast Alaska might have served as an ice-free stopping point of sorts, and now – with our dog – we think that early human migration through the region might be much more important than some previously suspected.”

Still, while this suggests that the dog came with the human migrants, there’s always the possibility of this being a rogue dog that somehow made its way to North America without humans. It’s not as strange as it seems. Dogs were domesticated from wolves between 14,000 and 29,000 years ago as part of a complex process of interbreeding episodes.

Still, the researchers believe the dog likely lived with humans. In the same cave where the bone was found years ago, human bones and all sets of artifacts were also identified, which suggests that the cave was used by humans. Plus, previous findings showed humans were in the region at that time.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Dogs seem to play more enthusiastically when you’re paying attention to them going at it

Man’s best friend is most playful when we’re watching, says new research.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study reports that pet dogs are much more likely to engage in play with other dogs when their owner is present and paying attention. While such results definitely go a long way towards making us all fuzzy for our furry friends, it also raises an interesting (and quite amusing) possibility: that these animals may, at least in part, put on a show for our enjoyment.

Big stick energy

The authors preface their paper by explaining that the deep attunement dogs seem to have to human interest or attention is well documented. However, we didn’t have any hard, reliable data on how this awareness impacts specific behaviors — like, for example, altering the way our pawed pals engage in play.

“We found overall that the availability of owner attention did in fact facilitate play,” says Lindsay Mehrkam, an animal behaviorist and lead author of the paper.

“It’s really quite striking that dogs who have the chance to play with each other whenever they want to, nonetheless are much more likely to get up off their butts and start playing when a person is just paying attention to them,” said co-author Clive Wynne of Arizona State University.

Human attention, the team explains, increased the frequency and intensity of behavior such as bowing, hip nudges, wrestling, chasing, or gentle bites that a dog would engage in with another dog during play.

The team carried out their experiment with 10 pairs of pets that had lived together for at least six months previously. According to owners, they all used to engage in play at least once a day (this step was taken to make sure that the dogs could enjoy each other’s company).

Each pair was then filmed as they interacted under three conditions: with the owner present, the owner present but ignoring them, and with a present and highly attentive owner (offering verbal praise and petting). Each scenario was run three times over the course of several days to ensure that the data was valid, and not flukes.

As for why this happens, the team believes that the owner’s attention could be a reward that the dogs are seeking in itself — similarly to how children playing with their parents will sometimes show off. Alternatively, the animals may have learned that playing among themselves, and playing more intensely, can lead to rewards such as an owner joining in or everyone going out for a walk.

Alternatively, the owner’s presence may act as a stabilizing agent which makes such intense play possible. Their mere presence can cause a rush of oxytocin, a hormone involved in emotional bonding and feelings of safety, which promotes play. Yet still, the human can act as an insurance policy against an all-out fight — although animals use play to strengthen bonds, it can also lead to aggression.

The fact is that right now, we simply don’t know why it happens, only that it does. The authors themselves are aware of this, and they’re already setting out on finding out.

“It’s one of those types of studies that leads to a lot more questions than answers,” said Mehrkam.

The paper “Owner attention facilitates social play in dog–dog dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): evidence for an interspecific audience effect” has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

The most adorable study of the year shows how dogs recognize each other

Imagine if some adult humans were the size of mythical giants and others were the size of two-year-olds. That’s the weird kind of world that dogs live in, exhibiting great variation in shape and size from one breed to the next. Considering dogs can look so different from each other, French researchers investigated how dogs determine whether another animal belongs to their own species. Although the study didn’t involve butt-sniffing, the researchers did find that, like humans, dogs can also recognize other dogs using their eyes.

The study was published in 2013, but it was only recently that it came to public attention after Benjamin Katz, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, enthusiastically tweeted about it.

Katz’s lengthy tweets not only emphatically described the study’s objective and study methods, but also its adorable subjects. These include Bag, Bounty, Sweet, and Vodka — an all-star lineup.

The nine dogs were shown two images at a time: one featured a headshot of a dog, the other of a “non-dog” (a hamster, a cat, or a human). When one of the subjects chose the image of the dog, they got a tasty treat. In the second phase, the objective was reversed, and the dogs were rewarded when they picked the non-dog image. The criterion for a subject to pass from a given task to the following one was set at 10 correct trials out of 12, for two consecutive sessions.

“Each of the nine subjects was able to group all the images of dogs within the same category. Thus, the dogs have the capacity of species discrimination despite their great phenotypic variability, based only on visual images of heads,” the researchers from the Université Paris wrote in their study.

Most dogs understood their task’s objective after a relatively small number of training sessions, except for Bounty, the two-year-old border collie.

Others took note of what may very well be Twitter’s cutest science thread of the year.

It’s not only us, dogs dream too. But what about?

You’ve probably seen it happen: your sleeping dog suddenly lets out a woof or a sigh as his legs begin to twitch or move as if he’s running. Is he… dreaming? Many scientists say that dogs, in fact, experience dreams and that the type of dream can vary depending on the size, breed, or other features of the dog.

Here’s what the science on dog dreaming says.

Most dog owners have, at some point, observed their dogs doing a peculiar thing: at various times during their sleep, the dogs would quiver, make leg twitches, or may even growl or snap at some sleep-created phantom. It almost seems like the dogs are having intense dreams, or at least that’s what many owners think. And the owners are actually right.

At the structural level, the brains of dogs are fairly similar to those of humans. Also, during sleep, the brain wave patterns of dogs are similar to that of humans and go through the same stages of electrical activity observed in humans, all of which are consistent with the idea that dogs are dreaming.

While science on dreaming is always bound to be scarce, there’s actually some fairly convincing evidence behind the fact that dogs dream.

Doggy dreams

Just like you and I, dogs enjoy a good nap. In fact, it’s not uncommon for dogs to sleep for 12-14 hours a day. Like humans, a dog’s sleep cycles through stages of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. Scientists recorded the electrical activity of the brains of six pointer dogs for 24 hours and found that the dogs spent 44 percent of their time alert, 21 percent drowsy, and 12 percent in REM sleep. They also spent 23 percent of their time in the deepest stage of non-REM sleep.

One of the most famous of these dream experiments involved lab rats and was carried out in 2001. These rats spent all day running in a maze, after which scientists monitored the brain activity of the rats in the maze and compared it to the brain activity of the rats during REM sleep. What they found was that the same areas lit up in the rats’ brains, suggesting that the rats were likely to be dreaming of the maze. By comparing the data, the researchers could guess where exactly in the maze the rats had dreamed themselves. The rats were “seeing” what they were dreaming about, the researchers said at the time.

“During dreams, at least, it is likely that animals form mental representations and have conscious experiences very similar to those of humans,” writes psychologist Christopher D. Frith.

This suggested to the researchers that animals tend to dream as we do, which makes a lot of sense. Sleep is a way through which we rest, but also build memories and mental shortcuts, cementing and structuring the information we’ve gathered through the day.

Dreams are also suspected to play a role in this, so it’s not surprising that other animals would also dream (although it’s relatively recent that science was actually able to prove this). The rats dreamed about their day, just like you might find yourself back in the office in your dreams, even if you would rather have dreamed yourself someplace more exciting.

Since a dog’s brain is more complex and shows the same electrical sequences, it is reasonable to assume that dogs are dreaming, as well. Image credits: Sebastiano Piazzi.

Researchers at MIT who carried out the 2001 study concluded that many animals probably have complex dreams, and they can remember and replay long sequences of events when they are asleep. Another 2016 study found that dogs who sleep more are happier, so if you see your furry friend taking a nap, don’t disturb them.

Another recent, 2020 study found that sleep “sleep may contribute to dogs’ memory consolidation”.

What dogs dream about

Much of the dreaming that all of us do at night is associated with the activities that you engaged in that day. Studies showed that this seems to be the case in rats and probably other mammals like dogs and cats too.

The full range of dog dreams is currently impossible to assess. But here’s what we do know.

If rats dream of things they’ve done during the day and humans do too, it’s likely that dogs also do it. There’s even a study suggesting this — so although the evidence is not entirely conclusive, it’s very likely that this type of dream is fairly common among dogs.

There is also evidence that they dream about common dog activities. This kind of research takes advantage of the fact that there is a special structure in the brainstem (the pons) that keeps all of us from acting out our dreams.

When scientists removed or inactivated the part of the brain that suppresses acting out of dreams in dogs, they observed that they began to move around, despite the fact that electrical recordings of their brains indicated that the dogs were still fast asleep. The dogs only started to move when the brain entered that stage of sleep associated with dreaming. During the course of a dream episode, these dogs actually began to execute the actions that they were performing in their dreams.

Does the breed affect a dog’s dreams?

Image credits: Paweł Czerwiński.

People vary as to how often they dream and what they dream about, and researchers believe that the same is true of dogs. Researchers reported that small dogs seem to have more frequent dreams than large dogs, but those small dog dreams are shorter in duration. Large dogs, on the other hand, have fewer, but longer dreams.

Research by psychologist Stanley Coren suggests that the length and frequency of dreams may be related to the animals’ size entirely. For example, a poodle may dream every 10 minutes, while a big labrador retriever may only dream once every 60 minutes. However, the length of the poodle’s dreams may only last a minute, while the labradors’ dreams may last 10 minutes long.

We can also chance a guess that what your dog does all day determines his dreams. While we can’t yet be sure, the fact that Pointers point and Dobermans display guard behavior implies that breed-specific activities may take place during dreams, too. Your labrador retriever, for instance, is more likely to dream about chasing tennis balls than a pug is.

Do dogs have nightmares?

Not all human dreams are good. We can infer that dogs can have nightmares, too. These nightmares are hard to watch as we all want the best for our doggie friends. But while it can be tempting to wake your dog to comfort her, as you would a child, there are some risks associated with doggy nightmares that you should know (and share with your family).

If you’ve ever been woken from a scary dream, you know that it can take a minute to remember where you are and who you are with. Like some people, dogs can react aggressively toward the person waking them. This can be dangerous, especially for children. The best thing that you can do for a dog you think is having a bad dream is to wait for your dog to wake up and be there to comfort him, following the old saying “let sleeping dogs lie.”

Dogs can also get narcolepsy, a disorder that causes the brain to fall into sudden sleep. In fact, research into a line of narcoleptic dogs at Stanford University helped unravel the biochemistry behind the human form of the condition.

The best way to give your dog pleasant dreams? Keep them happy

The best way to give ourselves or our children better dreams is to have happy daytime experiences and to get plenty of sleep in a safe and comfortable environment. This is also the best thing you can do. Nightmares may creep in from time to time, but a healthy, happy dog will have nice dreams.

The more your pup’s day is filled with fun and excitement, the more likely their dreams will be too. This can also include treat training that will stimulate your dog’s brain and provide them with plenty of fun mental challenges. Ensuring they enjoy their daily dog walk will also make a big difference.

Ancient DNA shows dogs are humans’ oldest friends

Researchers found that dog domestication took place 11,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age. This means they were domesticated before any other, and by a long shot.

Credit Flick Sasha

Until recently, the genetic history of dogs was told largely from the DNA from modern dogs. But this has offered a limited picture, as a large part of the genetic diversity of early dogs was likely lost when modern breeds were established. Early studies of ancient dog genomes hinted at past changes that have taken place in the canine genome.

Now, to expand the pool of ancient dog DNA, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, University of Oxford, University of Vienna, and archaeologists from more than 10 countries teamed up. They sequenced 27 ancient dog genomes, which they obtained from Europe, the Middle East, and Siberia, and which ranged from 11,000 to 100 years old.

Dr. Pontus Skoglund, co-author of the told BBC News: “Dogs are really unique in being this quite strange thing if you think about it, when all people were still hunter-gatherers, they domesticate what is really a wild carnivore – wolves are pretty frightening in many parts of the world. The question of why did people do that?”

The researchers first modeled the relationships inside of and between groups of ancient and modern dogs. They established that a 10,900-year-old dog from Russia was distinct from later ancient European, Middle Eastern, Siberian, or American dogs, as was the case with a canine lineage characterized by modern New Guinea singing dogs.

This allowed them to follow ancient canine populations as they moved and mixed, and compare these shifts with those in human populations. Sometimes, dogs’ travels paralleled those of people. For example, when farmers from the Middle East expanded into Europe 10,000 years ago, they took their dogs with them.

However, the history of humans and dogs hasn’t always intertwined perfectly. A major influx of people from Russia and Ukraine 5,000 years ago led to lasting change in the genetic make-up of Europe’s humans, but not its dogs. The study also showed that the ancestry of European dogs has become much less varied in the past 4,000 years.

Greger Larson, an author from the University of Oxford, said in a statement: “Dogs are our oldest and closest animal partner. Using DNA from ancient dogs is showing us just how far back our shared history goes and will ultimately help us understand when and where this deep relationship began.”

The study provides major new insights into the early history of dog populations and their relationships with humans and each other. Still, many questions remain. The research team is now focused on trying to uncover where and in which human cultural context were dogs first domesticated.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Is your dog’s nose cold and wet or warm and dry? Both are normal

Credit: Pixabay.

Most dog owners love to play and snuggle with their canine pets. Inevitably, these petting sessions often involve your dog licking your face or bumping their nose on your skin. Their snoot can feel cold and wet, other times it might be warm and dry. This may make some dog owners wonder: is it normal? Should I talk to a vet?

According to researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, both wet and dry noses are normal.

A dog’s nose will typically be warm and dry when they sleep. Immediately after they wake up, dogs lick their nose, which becomes cold and wet.

Previously, some have proposed that a dog’s cold nose helps canines regulate their body temperature. However, a dog’s nose is too small relative to their body size to offer any tangible advantage in terms of thermoregulation.

Another hypothesis that might explain the wetness of canine snouts suggests that a cooler nose aids carnivores in detecting prey. Anna Bálint and colleagues at Eötvös Loránd decided to investigate this latter hypothesis and measured the temperature of various dog noses, as well as those of horses and mooses.

Thermograph of a dog in the shade at 27 °C ambient temperature. The colour scale on the right is in °C and can be used to read out approximate temperatures. Note the warm tongue and the cold rhinarium (hairless nose tip). Credit: Scientific Reports.

In one experiment, the researchers trained three pet dogs to choose a warmer object, which had about the same temperature as a potential prey, over an object at room temperature. This suggests that a dog’s nose is indeed capable of detecting heat from relatively distant prey, even if the thermal radiation is weak.

“The ability to sense weak thermal radiation has the potential of conveying valuable sensory information to an animal preying mainly on endothermic animals. The ability to sense such radiation is known in insects (Black fire beetle, Melanophila acuminata), reptiles (certain snake species: Crotalinae, Boidae) and one species of mammal so far, the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus), which can detect skin areas richly perfused with blood and thus suitable for biting after landing on a host anima,” the researchers wrote.

After this behavioral trial, the researchers also performed a neural experiment to see what happens inside the brain when a cold nose is engaged in heat detection.

The researchers placed 13 dogs inside a functional MRI scanner and analyzed their brain waves as the canines were presented with a box containing warm water and an insulating door. When the insulating door was open, the dogs’ brains had a higher response in the somatosensory association cortex, a brain region that processes various sensory stimuli.

Taken together, the authors claim that the findings suggest that dogs and other cold-nosed animals employ heat detection in their hunting routines, in addition to their already keen sense of smell.

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

Rarest dog breed in the world is still alive (and singing) in the wild

Photo of a Highland Wild Dog in Indonesia. Credit: New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation.

The New Guinea singing dog is one of the oldest and rarest dog breeds in the world. It’s believed only 200 to 300 specimens are alive today, all of which are found in conservation centers. None have been seen in the wild since the 1970s. But a new genetic study found that another rare dog breed, the Highland Wild Dog, is essentially the same breed as the New Guinea singing dog, showing that this population isn’t actually extinct in the wild.

“Our motivations were to see if this population of Highland Wild dogs, which had been identified by a previous expedition in 2016, were, in fact, the rare and supposedly extinct in the wild New Guinea singing dogs,” Elaine Ostrander, National Institute of Health (NIH) Distinguished Investigator and senior author of the paper, told ZME Science.

“Having nuclear DNA gave us the opportunity to look at the genomes of these dogs and figure out what they were and where they came from,” she added.

A canine tune lost in the wild

New Guinea, the second largest island on Earth, is divided into the independent Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian-controlled West Papua. New Guinea singing dogs prefer sparsely populated areas in vast, thickly forested areas, which makes them extremely elusive. In fact, they’re so rare that some researchers believe Singers are now extinct in their native habitat of Papua New Guinea.

Aside from being rare and thought extinct in the wild, New Guinea singing dogs are pretty unique due to a number of features not found in modern dog breeds. Their spine is very flexible, almost cat-like so that they can actually climb trees in order to hunt birds, rabbits, and other prey. Their drive for predation is so strong that they can’t help themselves when they sense anything remotely resembling their favorite prey. So don’t let the fact that virtually all Singers have been raised in captivity fool you — they are by no means domesticated animals. Nor are Highland Wild Dogs.

“The Highland Wild Dogs are shy dogs. They’re not easily photographed or frequently seen. These three dogs that we were able to sample were in an area around a gold mine and they might have been attracted to come down because of food, for instance. But by and large, they stay at higher altitudes and further in,” Ostrander said.

New Guinea singing dog. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the most defining feature of New Guinea singing dogs is their unique vocalization ability, which makes their howls sound like they’re singing. Sometimes, when more Singers howl together, it can sound like a chorus.

Curious to hear what they sound like? Turn your volume down a notch and hit play below.

“They do have this harmonic, melodic sound that they make and that really distinguishes them from any other mammal on the Earth. It’s unusual, it’s pleasing,” Ostrander said. “It’s not clear why it evolved and it stayed. You can always speculate it’s a mating thing, but we don’t know that, honestly.”

“One of the most important things about these dogs is that they’re one of the only populations of actual wild dogs in the world. We have these Highland Wild dogs and we have dingoes. Most other dogs are just sort of feral domestic dogs and things like that. It’s kind of a very interesting group in that way. Are these dogs that have never lived with people or was it actually thousands of years ago they actually lived with people and have reverted to being wild? These are interesting questions when looking at these particular groups,” Dr. Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), who led the genomic analyses, told ZME Science.

Although virtually no Singers have been spotted in the wild for decades, on the Indonesian-side of the island, researchers have been able to capture and collect samples from 15 Highland Wild Dogs during 2016 and 2018 expeditions led by the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation. Blood samples from three individuals were used in the new study to sequence the Highland Wild Dog nuclear genome.

Two peas in a pod

Highland Wild Dogs are very physically similar to Singers and are believed to be even older than the New Guinea singing dogs. In fact, some believe that the Highland Wild Dogs is the direct ancestor of the New Guinea singing dog.

This hypothesis has been difficult to prove, until recently when researchers from NIH and NHGRI compared the genomes of both breeds, which are considered the oldest in the world.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the two breeds have very similar genetic sequences. Although their genomes aren’t identical, they much more closely resemble each other than any other canid known.

“In the tree of life, this makes them much more related to each other than modern breeds such as German shepherd or bassett hound,” Parker said.

“What we did is we looked at genetic markers on these dogs and compared them to a bunch of modern breed dogs, as well as village dogs from the area, and dingoes, and determined which ones they were most closely related to.”

“We found that Highland Wild Dogs had a lot in common with Papua New Guinea singing dogs, as well as the dingoes from Australia. Most importantly, the New Guinea singing dogs were most closely related to these Highland Wild Dogs.”

According to the researchers, the genomic similarities between the New Guinea singing dogs and the Highland Wild Dogs suggest that we’re dealing with the same breed.

Since all New Guinea singing dogs have been raised in captivity, there’s been a lot of inbreeding that reduced variations in the group’s DNA. But, essentially, the Highland Wild Dogs are the wild and original population of New Guinea singing dogs, this new study suggests. It’s just that the latter lost the genetic variation present in the wild population due to inbreeding.

“That would be expected because the conservation of the dogs only derived from eight or nine dogs and they’ve been inbred. And we do see about 30% of the Highland Wild Dog population is not seen in the captive New Guinea singing dog. What we don’t know is whether that 30% represents the original New Guinea singing dog-ness or is it a bit of admixture from the village dogs and things like that. We know it’s not very much if it is,” Ostrander said.

“Our conclusion is that these Highland Wild Dogs represent the predecessors to the New Guinea singing dogs that are in conservation centers today”

Breeding specimens from both captive and wild populations could thus replenish some of the genome sequences that have been lost in Singers. This way, researchers hope to regenerate a genuine New Guinea singing dog population as they might have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Another important finding worth mentioning is that both New Guinea singing dogs and Highland Wild Dogs have unique genomic variants found nowhere else in other dogs that we know today.

This may be important for research investigating the history of dog domestication.

“Another interesting result that came out of this is that when we looked at the DNA of Highland Wild Dogs grouped closely with the dingoes as well. They broke off apparently on a branch very early on before all the modern dogs from Western Europe that you see around the dog park. So, they represent a very early event in the evolution of dogs. That was unexpected and very cool!” Ostrander added.

But since New Guinea dogs split a long time ago from the common ancestor of modern breeds, the researchers would need a whole-genome sequence, not just the nuclear genome to find those unique sequences that may reveal instances in the timeline of canine domestication. That’s something that the researchers are working on now.

And since Singers are so talented at vocalization, their genome might help shed more light on how vocalization and its deficits occur.

“They make this noise unlike any other mammal. It isn’t like listening to your chihuahua singalong ‘happy birthday’. It’s really a very different sort of thing. I’m actually curious what the underlying genetics is. It’s one of the reasons I’m excited we’re doing whole-genome sequencing of these animals,” Ostrander said.

Scientists mostly rely on birds to look for clues about complex vocalization outside humans and other primates. Having another mammalian species that is a talented singer could greatly advance research into the genetic underpinnings of vocalization and perhaps lead to new treatments for human patients who are deficient in this respect.

“I think one of the most important things about this study is that it may offer some opportunities for conservation biology. We know that captive populations are pretty inbred and here’s this great example of a more outbred population of essentially the same thing. So, having an opportunity to contribute to the restoration of the species would be really exciting. That’s something that real conservation biologists I know will look into,” Ostrander concluded.

The findings appeared today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pheromones can keep your pets from ‘fighting like cats and dogs’

Credit: Pixabay.

Many times, bringing a new pet home when another pet was already accommodated beforehand is an invitation for trouble. This is more so true when cats and dogs are forced to interact in the household. A new study, however, suggests that pet owners can broker peace between felines and canines by employing calming pheromones.

In the UK, 7% of households own both cats and dogs. According to Daniel Mills, an animal behavior scientist at the University of Lincoln in the UK, the inherent tension between cats and dogs can potentially cause lots of stress to both pets on a day-to-day basis.

“Many cat and dog owners report that their animals are comfortable in each other’s company, but where this isn’t the case, a poor relationship between a resident cat and dog can have serious consequences for the welfare of individual animals. There may be an unacceptable level of social stress or restricted access to key resources such as food, water or suitable toilet areas. There will also be increased stress for the remainder of the family (both human and animal), and potential risks of injury due to conflict,” the researcher said in a statement.

Mills and colleagues are the first to explore the use of pheromones in order to improve the relationship between two species living in the same household.

Over six weeks, the researchers placed Feliway Friends, a pheromone with soothing effect for cats, and Adaptil, another pheromone that calms dogs, inside households where both cats and dogs interacted.

Both products significantly decreased the number of conflicts and other undesirable interactions between the two species. Examples of such interactions include the dog chasing the cat, cat hiding from the dog, or the dog and cat engaging in a staring match. In fact, Adaptil led to an increase in the number of desirable interactions, such as friendly greetings between cats and dogs or relaxing time spent together in the same room.

According to the researchers, unsolvable conflict between dogs and cats living in the same household is one of the main reasons why pets are taken to shelters for rehoming.

The most surprising part of the study was that the dog pheromones led to the most increase in desirable interactions. Capricious felines, whose comfortability is known to have a stronger influence on the quality of cat-dog interactions, had a less sensitive response to the calming pheromones than dogs.

“While it might be expected that Feliway Friends would be more effective in multi-species homes given the apparently stronger contribution of the cat’s comfortability to the quality of the cat-dog relationship, this did not appear to be the case. Our results might be explained by the behavior of the dog being the primary determinant of the cat’s quality of interaction with it,” said Dr. Miriam Prior, co-author of the study.

“We would like to investigate this further to really tease out the effects of these pheromone products individually and also to investigate their use in combination with each other. We suggest that Adaptil may have had such a beneficial effect because a more relaxed dog may be less likely to disturb the cat (e.g. by chasing it), resulting in a cat that is less stressed and more willing to form some form of social bond with the dog.”

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Do dogs really respond to human cries for help?

Joint rescue demonstration at The 60th Memorial Ceremony of Camp Shinodayama, Japan. Credit: Camp Shinodayama, JGSDF, Wikimedia Commons.

From the fictional adventures of Lassie to Disney’s Bolt, there’s no shortage in popular culture of canines ready to leap into the fiery bellies of hell itself at a moment’s notice, if that means rescuing a human.

While everybody can recognize that dogs are extremely attached to their owners, how eager are they really to engage in rescuing behavior?

This was the subject of a recent scientific inquiry performed by Joshua Van Bourg, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology, and Clive Wynne, who is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

The pair of researchers devised a series of clever tests meant to assess how responsive dogs are to cries for help, as well as to distinguish genuine rescuing behavior from other motivations. After all, in Van Bourg’s own words, “the difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”

Van Bourg and Wynne worked with 60 pet dogs and their owners, who had to feign distress by calling out “help” or “help me” while sitting inside a large box. A small door light enough to be pushed aside by a dog was fitted to one side of the box. None of the dogs had any training beforehand.

Each owner was coached on how to sound more authentic when calling out for help. They also had to refrain from calling their pet dogs by their name. Shouting a dog’s name would only be evidence of obedience, rather than rescuing behavior.

A. View from north camera. B. View from south camera. C. Rendering of the apparatus when closed. D. Schematic of the apparatus when open (dimensions are in meters). Credit: PLOS ONE.

Overall, one-third of the dogs opened the light-weight door to rescue their owners, which may not sound impressive at face value. In fact, it might even appear as some dogs are cruel — are two-thirds of the humans not worth saving? However, these results turned out to be very encouraging in light of the outcomes of the control tests.

A dog’s ability to rescue their owners hinges on their motivation to help, as well as on how well they understand what is actually needed to provide rescuing.

In one subsequent test, the dogs watched as one of the researchers dropped food in the same box where their owners cried for help. Only 19 of the 60 dogs (32%) opened the box, roughly the same as the number of dogs who rescued their owners. In other words, rescuing seems at least as appealing as a tasty treat, and we all know how much canines enjoy food.

“The key here is that without controlling for each dog’s understanding of how to open the box, the proportion of dogs who rescued their owners greatly underestimates the proportion of dogs who wanted to rescue their owners,” Van Bourg said.

“The fact that two-thirds of the dogs didn’t even open the box for food is a pretty strong indication that rescuing requires more than just motivation, there’s something else involved, and that’s the ability component,” Van Bourg said. “If you look at only those 19 dogs that showed us they were able to open the door in the food test, 84% of them rescued their owners. So, most dogs want to rescue you, but they need to know how.”

The distress test is shown in the left pair of bars, the reading test, in the middle pair, and the distress and reading tests are combined in the right pair. Credit: PLOS ONE.

In yet another test, the researchers investigated what would happen when the owners sat in the box while calmly reading aloud from a magazine. Four fewer dogs opened the box than during the distress test, the authors wrote in the journal PLOS ONE. This suggests the dogs genuinely responded to the distress of their owners, rather than simply wanting to be physically near their owners.

“A lot of the time it isn’t necessarily about rescuing,” Van Bourg said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from how special dogs really are. Most dogs would run into a burning building just because they can’t stand to be apart from their owners. How sweet is that? And if they know you’re in distress, well, that just ups the ante.”

Further hints of genuine rescuing motivations were provided by analyses of the canine’s behavior. When their owners cried for help, the dogs were visibly stressed, barking and whining more.

Furthermore, the dogs were just as stressed during their second and third attempts to open the door to the box during the distress test. In contrast, dogs acted less stressed during subsequent exposures to the reading test, showing that they became acclimated.

“Something about the owner’s distress counteracts this acclimation. There’s something about the owner calling for help that makes the dogs not get calmer with repeated exposure,” said Ban Bourg in a press release.

These findings suggest dogs rescuing their owners is an empathetically-motivated prosocial behavior. As such, studies such as these may also help shed light on “the mechanisms shaping the evolution of prosocial behavior as domestication and selective breeding may have favored hypersocial tendencies in dogs,” the researchers wrote in their study.

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the first study to support dogs’ prosocial tendencies towards humans or canine emotional contagion. Previously, researchers found that dogs were less likely to approach a person humming a song than a person feigning a distressed state by pretending to cry. There is also evidence that dogs and their owners can synchronize their emotions.

“What’s fascinating about this study,” Wynne said, “is that it shows that dogs really care about their people. Even without training, many dogs will try and rescue people who appear to be in distress — and when they fail, we can still see how upset they are. The results from the control tests indicate that dogs who fail to rescue their people are unable to understand what to do — it’s not that they don’t care about their people.

“Next, we want to explore whether the dogs that rescue do so to get close to their people, or whether they would still open the box even if that did not give them the opportunity to come together with their humans,” Wynne added.

Dogs are no longer livestock for the Chinese government

Dogs are a controversial animal in China, as in certain provinces, consuming dog meat is considered a delicacy with a long culinary history. There are also strict rules around owning certain kinds of dogs in cities such as Beijing, attributed to the belief that large dogs are inherently aggressive.

Dog eating days could be over in China. Credit Wikipedia Commons

Nevertheless, dogs-as-delicacy has been declining in popularity in China in recent years, and now things could change further amid the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese government just created new guidelines to reclassify dogs as pets rather than livestock, a game-changer for animal welfare organizations.

“Alongside the development of human civilization and the public’s care toward protecting animals, dogs have now evolved from being traditional livestock to companion animals,” the notice from the government reads, adding that dogs aren’t typically regarded as livestock worldwide.

The measure follows on the heels of February’s nationwide ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife in China. The country’s legislature fast-tracked the enactment of the ban in large part due to widespread suspicions that the COVID-19 outbreak stemmed from a novel coronavirus being transmitted from wild animals to humans

Included on the latest list of livestock animals are 13 types of “traditional livestock” such as pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys, and 18 types of “special livestock” such as various kinds of deer, all of which could be raised for the purpose of eating, according to the ministry.

What exactly the change in classification will mean for dogs remains to be seen. In theory, it will make it illegal for dogs to be bred to provide food, milk, fur, fiber, and medicine, or to serve the needs of sports or the military, and in turn, make it easier for authorities to control dogs-for-meat breeding enterprises.

Given the clear classification of dogs as companion animals by the ministry, local governments in China could follow suit to set up regulations banning the consumption of not only wildlife, but also pets. Shenzhen, the southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, became the first one to do so.

Around 10 million dogs and four million cats are estimated to be slaughtered and eaten in China every year, according to Hong Kong-based animal welfare group Animals Asia, but the practice is coming under increasing criticism from the country’s growing ranks of pet lovers.

In 2016, a group of dog lovers tried to stop a truck that was carrying 320 dogs headed for a slaughterhouse on a highway in Hebei province. They ended up getting into a fight with the truck driver and causing a massive traffic jam.

“This draft proposal could signal a game-changer moment for animal protection in China,” Wendy Higgins, a Humane Society International spokeswoman, told Reuters.  

3 out of 4 dogs suffer from some form of anxiety, and owners should be more aware of this

It’s not just humans that suffer from behavioral problems, dogs get them too. Some of these problems may include excessive barking, destructiveness, aggression, and fearfulness. A new study of nearly 14,000 Finnish pet dogs examined seven anxiety-like traits, finding that nearly three-quarters (72.5%) of dogs had some kind of highly problematic behavior.

Miniature schnauzers were found to be the most aggressive dogs of all of the breeds included in the study. Credit: Pixabay.

The study involved 13,715 dogs from 264 breeds, including 200 mix-breed dogs. The most common anxiety trait was noise sensitivity with 32% of dogs being highly fearful of at least one noise (i.e. thunder, fireworks, etc). The second most common trait was fearfulness (i.e. fear of other dogs, fear of strangers, etc.) with a prevalence of 29%. Separation related behavior and aggression were the most uncommon traits with a prevalence of 5% and 14%, respectively.

The dogs’ behavioral traits were reported by their Finnish owners through an online questionnaire. Their answers were then compiled into a dataset that classified and ranked the dogs’ as being either “low trait” or “high trait” depending on the severity of their anxiety-related behaviors.

Typically, self-reported data is not seen as the most reliable. In this case, however, there’s no better source to describe a pet’s behavior than their owners. In fact, Milla Salonen, the first author of the new study and a Ph.D. student at the University of Helsinki, told Gizmodo that “dog owners are actually pretty good at evaluating their animals” and “dog personality questionnaires are as reliable or even slightly more reliable than human personality questionnaires.”

According to the findings, many anxiety-related disorders became worse as dogs got older, especially for fear of thunder, fear of heights, and fear of certain surfaces. Younger dogs were more likely to display inattentive, hyperactive, and destructive behaviors compared to older dogs, frequently damaging stuff around the house or urinating indoors when left alone.

There were major differences in anxiety traits from breed to breed. For instance, 15.3% of border collies were fearful of heights compared to 38.7% of rough collies. Only 1.5% of Staffordshire bull terriers were afraid of strangers, whereas 27.5% of Spanish water dogs were fearful of new people. Labrador retrievers were the least aggressive, with only 0.4% exhibiting such tendencies. Meanwhile, 10.6% of miniature schnauzers showed significant aggression, making them the dogs with the highest prevalence of this behavioral trait out of all breeds involved in the study.

Breed differences in fear of thunder (a), fear of strangers (b), fear of surfaces and heights (c), hyperactivity/impulsivity (d), inattention (e), aggression toward strangers (f), tail chasing (g), fly snapping/light chasing (h) and vocalization/salivation/panting alone (i).  Credit: University of Helsinki.

These behaviors have a major genetic component, the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports. Relatives of compulsive dogs tend to share the same behaviors and previous studies have associated genomic areas with fear, noise sensitivity, and other problematic behaviors. Environmental factors such as training, physical activity, maternal care, and owner

Male dogs had a higher prevalence of aggressiveness, separation-related behavior, inattention, and hyperactivity/impulsivity. In contrast, female dogs had a higher prevalence of fearfulness, the study found.

Researchers also found that these behavioral problems were rarely alone and exhibited comorbidity. For instance, hyperactivity/impulsivity was correlated with inattention and compulsive behavior. Care to guess what other animals also show similar associations? Yup, humans.

“Behaviour problems, especially aggressiveness, may be public health concerns. Some of these behaviour problems have been suggested to be analogous, or possibly even homologous to human anxiety disorders, and the study of these spontaneous behaviour problems arising in a shared environment with people may reveal important biological factors underlying many psychiatric conditions,” the University of Helsinki scientists wrote.

Radar chart representation of the behavior of dog breeds: Border Collie (a), Miniature Schnauzer (b), Lagotto Romagnolo (c) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (d). Colors represent larger traits. Clockwise from top: blue – noise sensitivity, lime green – fear, violet – fear of surfaces and heights, orange – aggression, pine green – hyperactivity/inattention, purple – separation-related behavior, yellow – compulsive behavior. Credit: University of Helsinki.

The fact that so many dogs suffer from anxiety disorders might come as a surprise to many owners. In the future, the researchers plan on conducting more studies in order to identify which environmental and genetic factors are behind each anxiety-related canine trait.

Until then, dog owners should be more cognizant of these behaviors and take steps to mitigate them in order to improve their pets’ welfare. The researchers also advise people looking to adopt a dog of a certain breed to be mindful of their personality and underlying behavioral problems in order to match their own. For instance, if you’re more sedentary you should pick a breed that is hyperactive and requires a lot of exercise. After all, owning a dog isn’t all fun — you’re also responsible for their mental health and wellbeing.

Also, if your dog misbehaves due to their anxiety-related traits, the last thing you should do is punish them. A study published last month found that shouting at your dog caused canines to exhibit more stress-related behavior and showed a lower mood.