Tag Archives: dogs

Dogs mirror owners’ stress levels, new study says

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Many people work stressful jobs but at least some get to come back home to a loving canine. However, according to a new study, we might want to be more careful with our mood in front of our beloved pets. The study found that dogs can not only feel that we are stressed, but it also causes them to feel stressed. The researchers say that this is the first time we’ve seen a long-term synchronization in stress levels between two different species.

The study was performed by Swedish researchers at Linköping University who recruited 25 border collies, 33 Shetland sheepdogs, and their human female owners. In order to measure stress in both dogs and humans, the researchers used markers found in strands of hair. Cortisol, the stress hormone, accumulates over time in growing hair, so each shaft becomes a biological record of stress — not all that different from measuring droughts in tree rings or temperature in ice cores.

Researchers focused on shorter strands of hair that corresponded to growth in the winter and summer of 2017 and 2018. They found that human and dog cortisol levels closely matched and held through the seasons, although dogs felt slightly more stressed during the winter.

Half of the dogs were enrolled in regular training and competitions, while the other half were regular pets. Competing dogs more closely mirrored the stress levels of their owners, presumably because the owners and their pets formed stronger bonds.

Remarkably, whether the dog had a garden to play in, the number of hours an owner worked, and whether the dog lived with other canines had little influence on cortisol level. This means that the environment has less influence on a dog’s stress than the owners themselves. Female dogs showed a higher cortisol concentration than male dogs. Previous studies showed that in most species, females show a higher emotional responsivity, which may explain the stronger association for cortisol levels between human owners and female dogs.

Owners who had a high score for neuroticism — a personality trait involving a long-term tendency to be in a negative or anxious emotional state — had dogs with the lowest hair cortisol levels. This may be explained by the fact that neurotic owners might seek more comfort from their pets, thereby giving them more attention, hugs, and treats.

For many dog owners, these findings shouldn’t come as a shocking surprise. Dogs are known to be highly affected by the owners’ moods, especially the crummy kind. And at the end of the day, you shouldn’t feel too guilty either. The researchers say that it’s still better for you and your dog to stay together even if you pass on the stress.

“Our results show that long-term stress hormone levels were synchronized between dogs and humans, two different species sharing everyday life. This could not be explained by either physical activity or by the amount of training. Since the personality of the owners was significantly related to the HCC of their dogs, we suggest that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs. To our knowledge, this is the first study to show interspecies synchronization of long-term stress,” the authors concluded in the journal Scientific Reports


Bronze-age Iberians included domesticated foxes and dogs in their burial practices


I mean, who wouldn’t domesticate this guy?!
Image via Pixabay.

By the third and second millennia BC, humans in today’s Spain often included animals in their tombs. The practice left us evidence of fox domestication by this time.

If you ever wanted a fox for a pet (be honest, we all do), you’ll be really envious of the Iberian peoples of the Early- to Middle-Bronze Age. Four foxes and a large number of dogs found at the Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida) sites showcase their widespread practice of burying people alongside domestic animals. The findings also give us a glimpse into how these people and their animals lived, as well as their close relationships.

Foxy fur babies

Last week we saw how stone-age communities in roughly the same area of modern Spain included dogs in their funeral practices. Today, let’s take a look at how these practices evolved over time.

“We discovered that in some cases the dogs received a special kind of food. We believe this is linked to their function as working dogs. Besides, one of the foxes shows signs of having already been a domestic animal in those times,” says Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, first author of the study.

Human remains found at these sites were buried in large silos along with dogs and a few foxes, the team reports. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis (performed on bone collagen), in addition to several other methods, allowed the researchers to piece together the diet of both the animals and their owners. The team looked at 37 dogs, 19 domestic ungulates, and 64 humans.

Study area.

Map of the study area showing Can Roqueta, Minferri and other sites cited in the text: (1) Bòbila Madurell, (2) Can Gambús, (3) Pinetons, (4) Mas d’en Boixos, and (5) Cantorella.
Image credits Grandal-d’Anglade et al., 2019, Arch. and Anth. Sciences.

The dogs tended to have comparable diets to that of the humans. The foxes had a more varied menu: in some cases, it closely resembled the dogs’, while others ate pretty much what wild animals with little human contact would eat.

Such diets suggest that the animals were already domesticated and relied on humans for food. Further evidence of the close ties these handlers formed with their pets comes from the remains of a fox retrieved at Can Roqueta.

“The case of the Can Roqueta fox is very special, because it is an old animal, with a broken leg. The fracture is still in its healing process, and shows signs of having been immobilized (cured) by humans. The feeding of this animal is very unusual, as it is more akin to a puppy dog’s. We interpret it as a domestic animal that lived for a long time with humans,” Grandal explains.

Some larger dogs — in particular those found at Con Roqueta — seem to have been fed a cereal-rich mix, as was at least one fox involved in the study. The team also reports findings signs of spinal column disorder in these specimens, suggesting they were used as pack animals. Their diet, then, directly reflected their role in the community — it’s not easy being a pack animal, and a high-carbohydrate diet gave them the calories needed to perform the task.

“It may seem strange that dogs were basically fed with cereals, but this was already recommended by the first-century Hispano-Roman agronomist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, in his work De re rustica,” says Silvia Albizuri Canadell, an archaeozoologist at the University of Barcelona and co-author of the study.

Unsurprisingly, other animals such as cows, sheep, or goats found in the graves had a herbivorous diet. Their role was likely to provide humans with food (milk, meat) or materials such as leather or wool — not labor. Factor in that the horse wasn’t known in these societies until much later, and the role of dogs as pack animals becomes more understandable. Dogs also served as an integral part of their communities’ economic pursuits by guiding herds and offering protection from wild animals. They likely obtained animal proteins from human leftovers.

In general, the team adds, both humans and dogs likely ate mostly plant matter, with some (but not a lot of) animal proteins, but “not necessarily much meat; they could be, for example, derived from milk,” according to Grandal. The men of these communities do stand out as incorporating more meat in their diets compared to women and children. Dogs’ diets were more similar to that of women and children, the team also found, suggesting that they  were more linked to […] domestic environments.”

“The characteristics of dogs include their great intelligence, easy trainability and, undoubtedly, their defensive behaviour. As if that were not enough, this animal was used until the nineteenth century AD in North America, Canada and Europe for light transport on its back and for dragging carts and sleds. It also functioned as a pack animal on the Peninsula during the Bronze Age,” says co-author Albizuri Canadell.

Some archaeological specimens from North America also show bone disorders that stem from the pulling of ‘travois’ (a type of sledge). Similar pathologies have also been recently identified in the vertebrae of Siberian Palaeolithic dogs.

All in all, the findings illustrate the role dogs played as transport animals in the first migrations and human movements through glacial Europe. These animals likely played a fundamental and much more important role in their communities than believed until recently, the team writes.

Animals may have also served as a type of status symbol. The team found significant variation in the funeral treatment of different members of the studied communities. In one case, the team found “the body of an old man with the remains of a whole cow and the legs of up to seven goats,” while a young woman was buried with “the offering of a whole goat, two foxes, and a bovine horn.” Yet another individual uncovered in a different funeral complex was laid to rest with the whole bodies of two bovines and two dogs.

“We still don’t know why only a few people would have had the right or privilege to be buried with this type of offering, unlike what happens with the vast majority of burials,” explains co-author Ariadna Nieto Espinet.

“[…] these could be an indicator of the wealth of the deceased individual or of his clan or family,” she argues. “It seems that species such as bovines and dogs, two of the most recurring animals in funeral offerings, are those that might have played a fundamental role in the economy and work as well as in the symbolic world, becoming elements of ostentation, prestige and protection”.

The paper “Dogs and foxes in Early-Middle Bronze Age funerary structures in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula: human control of canid diet at the sites of Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida)” has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Stone-age peoples in the Iberian Peninsula shared graves with dogs

Stone age communities in the Iberian Peninsula buried dogs alongside humans, a new study reports. These animals were also fed a diet very similar to that of their owners. All in all, the findings showcase how tight the relationship between humans and dogs had grown by this time.


Image via Pixabay.

Around the time that the Pit Grave culture arrived in the Iberian Peninsula — ‘imported’ by peoples migrating from Southern Europe some 4200 years ago — local tribes began ritualistically sacrificing and inhuming dogs. The sheer amount of cases recorded in the area suggests this practice was quite common, say researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the University of Barcelona (UB). But, the dogs shared more than a resting place with their owners — they also had a diet very similar to that of their human owners.

Overall, the findings shine a light on human-dog interactions in the Neolithic communities of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain), and the role these animals played in the day’s funerary practices.

Till death do us part — and then some more

The study analyzed the remains of twenty-six dogs found in funerary structures from four sites in the Barcelona region. Isotopic analyses were performed for eighteen of these canines to help determine how much control humans had over the dog’s lives — including aspects such as diet control.

The dogs were between one month and six years old (estimated based on their teeth) at the time of burial. Most were between twelve and eighteen months old. They were buried mainly in circular graves, together or near humans. A few specimens were found in separate graves, and one near the entrance of the mortuary chamber. The ages had to be estimated this way as most specimens were only partially complete. Full remains were recovered for a single animal which was buried near a child. None of the remains showed bone fractures nor marks left by evisceration, butchering, or predators.

Given their young age and lack of any signs of handling after death, the team believes these sacrifices and burials were ceremonial or religious in nature.

Main archaeological sites with dogs buried with humans in the study area.
Image credits Silvia Albizuri et al., (2019), JoSR.

“Choosing young animals aged up to one year old suggests there was an intention in the sacrifice. Although we can think it was for human consumption, the fact that these were buried near humans suggests there was an intention and a direct relation with death and the funerary ritual,” says first author Silvia Albizuri from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB.

“This hypothesis is consistent, in addition, with the fact that they are found in an area of cultural influence that gives a symbolic value to the dog during that period, such as Southern France or Northern Italy.”

The study also offers clues as to how these dogs lived. Isotopic analyses of both their and human remains revealed that most of these papers ate a diet similar to humans and their herbivorous animals. Cereal such as wheat and vegetables made up a large portion of a diet, which the team notes was likely “very similar to the [pig’s]”. The remains of two puppies showed very low nitrogen levels, which indicates a “mainly a vegetarian diet and which is clearly different from the rest of the dogs”, the authors explain. A few other adult specimens also showed signs of a mainly vegetarian diet. Only a handful of the dogs likely had menus rich in animal protein, they add.

“These data show a close coexistence between dogs and humans, and probably, a specific preparation of their nutrition, which is clear in the cases of a diet based on vegetables,” says co-author Eulàlia Subirà from the Research Group on Biological Anthropology (GREAB) of UAB.

“They would probably do so to obtain a better control of their tasks on security and to save the time they would have to spend looking for food. This management would explain the homogeneity of the size of the animals.”

The study stands out because not much is known about how dogs were involved in prehistoric burial customs. The number of dog remains and their proximity to humans in burial sites through the Iberian Peninsula is quite exceptional from this point of view, the team explains. Later individual burials are known in the region, but the team’s findings suggest this was a general practice among Neolithic tribes in the Iberian Peninsula up until the Iron age.

It also helps us better understand how dogs came to be man’s best friend.

“Recently, we saw dogs have ten genes with a key function for starch and fat digestion, which would make the carbohydrates assimilation more efficient than its ancestor’s, the wolf. Our study helps reaching the conclusion that during the Neolithic, several vegetables were introduced to their nutrition,” notes Eulàlia Subirà.

Furthermore, the findings also suggest that dogs played an important role in the lives of Neolithic populations in the area, perhaps for their role in protecting herds and settlements. This role may be the vital relation that turned them into a companion in death or symbols in funerary rituals, the researchers conclude.

The paper “Dogs in funerary contexts during the Middle Neolithic in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula (5th–early 4th millennium BCE)” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.


Puppies reach peak-cuteness around 8 to 10 weeks specifically to make us love them

New research delves into the cornerstones of human-dog bonding.


Image credits Dae Jeung Kim.

Scientific pursuit can often feel remote, involving too many things leptons or quasars for us to truly connect. Every now and again, however, members of academia ask and then try to answer questions that speak to our core — for example, exactly when in their lifetimes do dogs reach maximum cuteness? Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and director of Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory, says it’s around the time they get weaned.

Someone else’s problem now

Wynne and his colleagues write that about 80% of the world’s billion-strong population of dogs comprises of feral animals. Wynne himself has had ample opportunity to observe these feral dogs and how they interact with humans — for example, by watching street dogs in the Bahamas. Despite the apparent independence, human intervention is crucial for the survival of feral or street dogs, the team writes.

The next question is, of course, what would motivate people to intervene on behalf of these animals. One of the factors that seemed promising to the team was ‘cuteness’. So they set out to see if there is indeed a connection between pups’ weaning age (the most vulnerable period during a dog’s life) and their attractiveness to humans.

The study involved pictures of puppies of three races (Jack Russell terriers, Cane Corsos, and white shepherds) taken at different ages. Fifty-one participants were asked to rank the photographs based on their attractiveness levels. The results suggest that pups’ attractiveness was lowest at birth, reached peak-cuteness at roughly 10 weeks of age, then gradually declined and leveled off. Per-race rankings found that Cane Corso hit maximum cuteness at 6.3 weeks of age, Jack Russell terriers at 7.7 weeks of age, and white shepherds at 8.3 weeks of age. Caution to the wise, though: fifty-one participants is quite a limited sample size.

“Around seven or eight weeks of age, just as their mother is getting sick of them and is going to kick them out of the den and they’re going to have to make their own way in life, at that age, that is exactly when they are most attractive to human beings,” Wynne said.

He adds that the findings offer some nuance to the origin and relationships between humans and dogs. Being the oldest human-animal relationship we’ve formed, this relationship is often touted on its practical merits: we’ve befriended dogs because they’re smart and they help around the cave. But Wynne says the results suggest dogs’ usefulness and intelligence isn’t the only — or, even, the main — chip they base their survival on.

“I think that the intelligence of dogs is not the fundamental issue,” he explains. “It does seem to me that the dog has something rather special, […] a very open-ended social program. That they are ready and willing to make friends with anybody.”

Wynne explains that while other animals, most notably cats and birds, have shown the ability to form especially strong bonds with humans, dogs take this to the extreme. He adds that the eight-week maximum cuteness point has biological and evolutional significance. The fact that pups are the most attractive to us during weaning — when they’re at their most vulnerable — suggests that dogs have evolved specifically to rely on human care, the team adds.

The findings are also reinforced by previous research into human-dog dynamics and human-wolf relationships. Such research revealed that even hand-reared wolves are less willing and comfortable engaging humans compared to domestic dogs. In other words, man’s best friend likely evolved their gregarious nature specifically to cozy up to us humans. Not that I’m complaining.

“For them, it’s the absolute bedrock of their existence. […] being able to connect with us, to find an emotional hook with us is what actually makes their lives possible,” Wynne says.

The eight-week point is just the point where the hook is biggest, the ability of the animal to grab our interest is strongest. But, having grabbed our interest, we continue to love them all their lives.”

The team plans to follow up on their research using videos of puppies at different ages instead of still photographs to determine if there are other factors to pups’ behavior (such as movement) that attracts people. Another area they want to further explore is how mother dogs perceive their pups’ cuteness over time — although they admit that last one will be difficult to perform.

The paper “Dog Pups’ Attractiveness to Humans Peaks at Weaning Age” has been published in the journal Anthrozoös.

Man with dog.

That ridiculous voice we use to talk to dogs? They actually love it

A high-pitched voice and exaggerated emotion when interacting with a dog will get you a long way, science says.

Man with dog.

Image credits Besno Pile.

University of York researchers say that the way we speak to our dog-friends is a key relationship building element between pet and owner. The effect is similar to how ‘baby-talk’ helps adults bond with babies.


Previous research suggests that talking to a puppy in a high-pitched voice, with the customary exaggerated amount of emotion, helps improve engagement. New research from the University of York tested whether this effect holds true for adult dogs as well. Their results suggest that using this “dog-speak” can also help improve attention, and helps strengthen the bond between owner and pet.

“A special speech register, known as infant-directed speech, is thought to aid language acquisition and improve the way a human baby bonds with an adult,” said first author Dr. Katie Slocombe from the University of York’s Department of Psychology. “This form of speech is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs, known as dog-directed speech.”

This high-pitched, rhythmic speech is widely used in human-dog interactions in western cultures, but we don’t actually know if it’s any good for the dog. So, the team set out to find whether the type and content of the conversation help promote social bonding between pets and their human owners.

Unlike previous research efforts on this subject, the team placed real human participants in the same room as the dogs — up to now, such studies involved broadcasting speech over a loudspeaker, without any human present. This setting created a much more naturalistic environment for the dogs, and helped the team better control the variables involved — i.e. if the dog not only paid more attention, but would also want to interact more with a person that speaks to them in such a way.

The tests were performed with adult dogs. Each animal first listened to one person who used dog-directed speech (the high-pitched voice) using phrases such as ‘you’re a good dog’ or ‘want to go for a walk?’, then to another person using adult-directed speech with no specific, dog-related content — phrases such as ‘I went to the cinema last night’, for example. The attentiveness of each dog during these ‘talks’ was measured. Following the speaking phase, each dog was allowed to chose one of the two people to physically interact with.

Dogs were much more likely to want to interact and spend time with those who used dog-directed speech that contained dog-related content, compared to the counterparts. But this result by itself doesn’t do much to clear the waters — so the team also performed something of a control trial, meant to give them insight into what elements of speech appealed to the dogs: was it the high-pitched, emotional tone, or the words themselves? During this phase, the speakers were asked to mix dog-directed speech with non-dog-related words, and adult-directed speech with dog-related words.

“When we mixed-up the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one speaker over the other,” says Alex Benjamin, PhD student at the department of psychology, paper co-author. “This suggests that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.”

“We hope this research will be useful for pet owners interacting with their dogs, and also for veterinary professionals and rescue workers.”

The paper “Alex Benjamin, Katie Slocombe. ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech” has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Dog nose.

Dogs create a mental image of what they’re sniffing for

Dogs will be surprised, and a little confused, if the scent they’re trailing doesn’t match what they find.

Dog nose.

Image via Pixabay.

Dogs are awesome. Not only are they fluffy and quite cute, but they can also use their noses in ways that put us simple bipeds to shame. However, while the keenness of their scent has been known since antiquity, the question of whether or not they understand what they smell hasn’t been answered.

A smelly type of smell

That’s what a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena set out to discover, and their results suggest that dogs create a “mental representation” of what they’re tracking via scent trails. This means that our furry friends understand what they’re sniffing, form an expectation of the ‘target’, and will show confusion if that expectation isn’t met.

[Further Reading] They also hate hugs.

The team worked with 48 dogs, 25 of whom had undergone training either with the police or as part of a rescue team, while the other 23 were family pets without any special training. The canines first participated in a pre-test, during which the team identified two toys that each dog showed a preference for when asked to retrieve.

For the study proper, each underwent four trials. The dogs were tasked with following a scent trail drawn with one of the two toys for each trial. At the end of the scent trail (in an adjacent room) the dogs found either the toy used to lay down the trail (normal condition) or the other one identified in the pre-test phase (surprise condition). Half of the dogs involved in the study were allocated to the normal condition, half to the surprise condition.

“From my experience in other studies, I had assumed that the surprise would be measurable, in that the dogs would behave differently in the surprise condition than they would in the normal condition,” explains lead researcher Dr. Juliane Bräuer.

“In fact, quite a few dogs showed interesting behavior, especially in the first round of the surprise condition, which we called ‘hesitation:’ although they had obviously noticed the toy, they continued to search via smell, probably for the toy that had been used to lay the scent trail.”

This surprising effect was short-lived, however: while the animals hesitated in the first test, they went right ahead in subsequent runs. The team believes this could come down to the nature of the study, as the dogs were rewarded by playing games no matter which toy they found, which positively reinforced retrieving. Alternatively, it could come down to smell contamination from previous test runs that permeated the room, despite the researchers’ efforts to clean it.

Still, Dr. Bräuer believes the results of the first round are a solid indication that dogs form a mental representation of the target they’re sniffing out, which means they have a concrete expectation of what they’re going to find.

Finally, the team reports that while police and rescue dogs were expected to (and did) retrieve the toys faster than family dogs, by the fourth round the two groups performed equally — an effect that Dr. Bräuer remarks as “interesting”. Next, the team is going to focus on clarifying the connection between smell, search behavior, and cognition in dogs.

The paper “A ball is not a Kong: Odor representation and search behavior in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different education” has been published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Dogs use the “puppy-eyes” to manipulate you into giving them affection and attention and it works

A new study reveals that the infamous puppy dog eyes expression isn’t a way that our beloved pets express sadness — in fact, it may be a clever ploy by the dogs to receive attention and affection.


Image credits Waltteri Paulaharju.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Center report that dogs mostly use facial expressions in the presence of a human, while very rarely adopting them when on their own. The findings question the assumption that our canine pets‘ facial expressions are involuntary and tied to their emotional state. Rather, they might just be a medium to communicate, and are usually a direct response to attention or a request for one.

A dog’s life

Anyone who’s ever befriended a dog knows what the puppy dog eyes are all about. It’s quite simple to pull off — all the dogs have to do is to raise their brow, making the eyes appear wider and (to a human) sadder. But boy is it effective at getting them some attention from any human struck by the visage.

Which, according to a team led by Dr Juliane Kaminski, is exactly the point. Following their study, aiming to understand if dog’s facial expressions are “subject to audience effects and/ or changes in response to an arousing stimulus (e.g food)”, the team reports that dogs don’t involuntarily strike facial expressions when aroused — rather, they do it to impress us.

“We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited,” Dr Kaminski explains. “In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching, but seeing food treats did not have the same effect.

The findings suggest that dogs are sensitive to a human’s attention and, most excitingly, that their facial expressions are active attempts at communications, not involuntary emotional displays.

For the study, the team worked with 24 dogs, all family pets but of various breeds, aged 1 to 12 years. Each dog was tied by their leashes about one meter away from a human participant. The dogs’ faces were filmed through all test scenarios, from the person facing the dog attentively to being distracted, with his or her body turned away from the animal. The team looked at three measurements to establish why dogs strike up facial expressions: attentive vs. not attentive, food present vs. food absent, and a trial run.

For this latter measurement, the experimenter “stood still and did not respond to any of the dog’s behaviors,” and was asked to look “at a predetermined spot at the opposite wall and […] not actively seek eye contact with the dog when she was oriented towards the dog.” The trial would last 2 minutes, after which the experimenter briefly interacted with the dog and then “changed her position according to the condition presented in the next trial.”

Puppy eyes — they’re all lies


Oh my god come here and let me love you!
Image via Pixabay.

Overall, the scientists report, the single most important factor dictating how likely the dogs were to show facial expressions was attention. Almost all human-dog interactions elicited a facial expression in response from the animals, and would drop them when a human was no longer directly watching the animals — this held true through the food and trial steps as well. The “eye brow raiser” (puppy dog eyes) and the “tongue show” were the two facial expressions that dogs produced “significantly more of” when a human was orientated towards them.

“Human attentional state also affected one of the dogs other behaviours, the frequency of vocalizations produced,” the team wrote. “The visibility of the food, however, did not affect dogs’ facial movements and there is also no conclusive evidence that it affected any of the dogs other behaviours.”

Boiled down, what this means is that dogs produced more facial expressions when a human was orientated towards them and in a position to communicate (i.e. not blatantly ignoring the dog). It’s not just happenstance, either — the visibility of food (which is a powerful arousal stimulus) didn’t elicit a similar effect on the animals’ facial movements, suggesting these were intended specifically for the human and not a general reaction to an emotion or state of arousal. The findings further help to strengthen past research which suggests a person’s gaze is a key element of human-dog communication — for example previous work showed that dogs will follow a human’s communicative gestures like pointing or gazing, but ignore such gestures when the human’s eyes were not directed at the dog.

It’s possible that dogs picked up this communication trick as they were domesticated, Dr Kaminski believes.

“Domestic dogs have a unique history – they have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs’ ability to communicate with us,” she said. “We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is – in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human’s eyes were closed or they had their back turned.”

“This study moves forward what we understand about dog cognition. We now know dogs make more facial expressions when the human is paying attention.”

However, the team points out that while they found that a human’s attention did correspond to an increase of all facial movements in the dogs, there was no indication that the animals “specifically modulate their facial movements” according to the human’s level of attentiveness.

One final interesting observation regards the two most common expressions dog produced when interacting with humans. A relaxed open mouth with the tongue showing is generally described in literature as a pose signifying attention — which would make sense in the context of the study. The role of the “puppy dog eyes” expression, however, is less clear. Despite this, the team notes that it “may have had the greatest influence on [genetic] selection” during domestication, citing work that showed shelter dogs which produced this expression “more frequently were rehomed quicker”.

The team has two theories as to why this happens. First is that the puppy dog eyes expression resembles facial movements that indicate sadness in humans, “potentially making humans feels more empathic towards dogs that produce this movement more,”  Secondly, by making the eyes bigger and more infant-like, the adorable facial expression could tap into our preference for paedomorphic characters (adults that retain infant features) “and/ or humans innate tendency to respond to ostensive cues, one of which is eyebrow raising”

Regardless of the exact reason, humans seem to be particularly responsive to this facial expression in dogs. Resorting to the puppy-eye argument more often when interacting with humans would thus benefit the dogs by strengthening the bond between the two — a powerful selective pressure during domestication. Ultimately, it is impossible to say if the dog’s behavior is drawn from an understanding of a human’s mental state, or simply a hard-wired or a learned response to seeing the face or the eyes of another individual.

But one thing is for sure — the puppy eyes work, dogs know it, and they’re not ashamed of using it. Not that we mind.

The paper “Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs” has been published in the journal Nature.

Wolves are better team players than dogs, study reveals, casting doubt on our view of domestication

Wolves might actually be friendlier and more forthcoming that dogs when cooperation is concerned, new research suggests. The findings go against the grain of popular wisdom that casts ‘man’s best friend’ as more of a team player than the wolf.


Image credits Andrea Bohl.

Wolves — they eat grandmothers and ambush unsuspecting kids traveling through the forest. At least, they do so in fairy tales. But that image is a good representative of what people generally hold to be true about wolves: these are dangerous, highly intelligent, highly capable hunters and ultimately, profoundly wild creatures. Our view of the dogs, however, is the polar opposite. They’re fluffy, playful members of the family, so perfectly adapted to civilized life and so socially graceful that they won the monicker “man’s best friends.”

Not so fast

It’s also not true, according to a research team led by Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a senior postdoc researcher at the Wolf Science and Clever dog Lab. Although previous research often suggests that domestication has imparted a more tolerant temperament to dogs compared to their wolf ancestors, a paper Dr Sarah’s team recently published casts doubt on this idea.

“We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa,” Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News.

“But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that.”

Wolves are very social animals. They base their packs on close familial ties and work together to raise pups or hunt. Modern dogs are also considered to be social animals. However, they don’t exhibit cooperation behaviors such as those listed above. Considering the belief that domestication made them friendlier and more tolerant of humans and other dogs, that shouldn’t be the case.

To find out what’s up, the team ran a classic behavior experiment and tested both species at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised together in the same environment ever since puppyhood. Known as the rope-pulling test, it’s basically a set-up that requires two animals to pull on a rope and get access to some food. The trick is that the testees have to work together — if they don’t both simultaneously pull on the rope, they don’t get any reward.

The center houses about 15 mongrel dogs and seven small packs of timber wolves, with two to three wolves in each pack. Dogs managed to successfully complete the test 2 times out of a total of 416 attempts, while wolves succeeded 100 times in 416 attempts — which, according to Dr Marshall-Pescini, puts their performance on par with that of chimpanzees. It’s probably glaringly evident, but the dogs almost never worked together, only collaborating 0.48% of the time. The team’s working hypothesis is that the dogs were reluctant to work together on the rope task because they wished to avoid potential conflicts — both wolves and dogs were curious about the food trays, the team reports, but dogs approached the food one at a time while wolves rarely waited their turn.

“Wolves will argue over food but also feed at the same time, [but] dogs simply avoid the potential [of] conflict,” Marshall-Pescini explains.

Too domesticated?

Dog snout.

Image credits Wow Phochiangrak.

The findings suggest that wolves’ wild streak makes them less averse to conflict, and they instead sort things out while working together. It goes against the traditional view of domestication, which holds that the process fosters more cooperative species. It’s easy to see why. Our perception of dogs as more cooperative than wolves likely comes down to the fact that dogs can be easily trained to work (as herd dogs, in hunts, or to rescue trapped survivors) or play with us.

However, it’s much harder to get dogs to cooperate with fellow dogs once you take people out of the picture. The team notes that this is especially true of village dogs, free-ranging animals with no owners or training which make up about 80% of all dogs on the planet. They will gather in loose packs and subsist mostly on scavaging garbage bins for scraps.

Very little research has been devoted to understanding these mooches, but work such as this might change that. The team’s next step will be to test how rearing or breeding changes how dogs cooperate with other dogs. Marshall-Pescini also wants to design a test that requires sequential cooperation, so the dogs’ tendency to avoid going after food at the same time can be taken out of the equation.

The paper “Importance of a species’ socioecology: Wolves outperform dogs in a conspecific cooperation task” has been published in the journal PNAS.


Dogs and wolves share a sense of fairness

Many dog owners — and this seems to have been confirmed by science — can attest that when obviously treated unfairly, a dog will recognize this situation and react. It’s been always thought that this is an acquired trait from living with humans but new research shows wolves do the same suggesting the behavior predates canine domestication.


Credit: Pixabay.

Humans are such a successful species largely because of cooperation. Alone we don’t amount to much but together we can literally shape the world. For cooperation to work, etiquette is necessary and to enforce these rules of cooperation humans have learned to sense inequality, to develop a ‘sense of fairness’. It’s believed this behavior is present in non-human primates as well but also in other intelligent social species.

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna worked with dogs and wolves that were raised to live in packs. In the experiment, two animals of each species were placed in adjacent cages where a buzzer would ring when the dog or wolf pressed it with their paw. When the buzzer was pressed, it would sometimes offer both animals a reward but the preferred and thus higher quality treat was again given to the partner. Other times, the animal performing the task would get nothing while the adjacent partner did.

When the partner got a treat but the dog or wolf performing the task didn’t, the animal doing the pressing refused to continue with it. Most tellingly, the dogs and wolves were happy to press the buzzer for no reward when there was no partner there. An unfairness threshold had been breached and cooperation ceased. Hierarchy in the pack for both dogs and wolves also played a role as the alpha males ceased the cooperation more quickly.


“When the inequity was greatest they stopped working,” said Jennifer Essler, from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

“For some of them it was a really really quick and strong response. One of the wolves stopped working after the third trial of not receiving anything while his partner received something. I think he was so frustrated he even broke the apparatus.”

Because both wolves and dogs have the same response, it overturns the idea that this behavior is acquired by domestication. Instead, the behavior must have first appeared in a common ancestor to both dogs and wolves. So next time you ground Fido for being naughty, you better help that inner wolf doesn’t come back at you.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Children can become closer to pets than to siblings, study finds

Children may feel closer to their pets than to siblings, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests.

Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

Researchers have found out more and more about how pets influence child development lately. A new paper from the University of Cambridge now adds to that growing body of literature showing that children gain more satisfaction from relationships with pets than those with brothers and sisters. The close quality of this bond, as well as the availability of companionship and disclosure could have a positive effect on children’s social skills and emotional health.

The paper comes as part of a larger study conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and led by Prof Claire Hughes from the Center of Family Research. The team surveyed 12 year old children from 77 different families with more than one child who owned one or more pets of any type on the quality of their relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says lead author and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry Matt Cassels.

“We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

The children reported strong ties to their siblings (no surprises there), but they reported their relationships with pets were just as strong. Dog families also reported lower overall levels of conflict and greater owner satisfaction compared to other kinds of pets.

One other surprising finding was that pets were rated on the same level of disclosure as siblings. Cassels believes this comes down to the fact that while pets can’t understand or respond to us, “they are completely non-judgmental.” Their inability to hold dialogue might even help in this respect, he adds.

The study also found that while boys and girls reported to be equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more getting more disclosure, companionship, and conflict out of the relationship compared to boys. It goes against the grain of previous research, Cassels adds, which usually found that boys form stronger ties to pets. Girls, their results suggest, “may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

Overall, the paper adds further evidence to the case of pets shaping children for the better and improving human quality of life.

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study.

“The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

The full paper “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings” has been published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

Five genes could give dogs their unique human interaction — and they share four with us

A new study has identified five genes which researchers believe give dogs their unique ability to interact with humans in their unique way. Four of these genes also “show similarities to certain conditions in humans.”

Image credits Brian Tomlinson / Flickr.

The dog is a man’s best friend. It’s also man’s oldest domesticated animal companion, which has adapted over fifteen thousand years to live among us. That’s a lot of time during which they’ve evolved a unique bond and ability to communicate and cooperate with us. Compared to their wild ancestors, dogs are much more likely to call on a human’s help with a difficult task; a wolf, faced with the same problem, would just try and solve it itself. But exactly which piece of their genetic code drives them to seek companionship and familiarity with humans, or allow them to pick up on our facial and emotional cues, has so far remained a mystery.

“Our findings are the first to reveal genes that can have caused the extreme change in social behaviour, which has occurred in dogs since they were domesticated,” says Per Jensen, professor of ethology, who is the leader of the research group.

The team tested 500 beagles with a similar background of human interactions by presenting them with an unsolvable problem. The box-like device held three treats, but allowed the dogs to reach two of them and then made the third one inaccessible. The dogs were “all genotyped with an HD Canine SNP-chip,” and the team used video recordings to quantify how likely the animals were to turn to a human for help — most dogs did so, by gazing towards their owner’s eye region or through physical proximity and contact.

Using a method called GWAS (genome-wide association study), the team then looked at the genetic material of the dogs that turned for help, to identify if they shared some particular genetic variants. They found one strong and two suggestive associations in two different genes on their 26th chromosome. Three other potential candidates were found in one of the linkage blocks.

“We found a clear association with DNA-regions containing five different interesting genes,” says Mia Persson, PhD-student and main author of the paper.

“If the associations we have found can be confirmed in other dog breeds it is possible that dog behaviour also can help us to better understand social disorders in humans,” says Per Jensen.

Some of these genes have previously been found to play a part in human social impairments, suggesting that they play a role in such behavior across species.

“Interestingly, four of the five genes thus identified have previously been associated with social behavior disorders in humans, and therefore remain strong candidates for modifying human-directed behavior in dogs,” the team writes.

The full paper “Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders” has been published in the journal Scientific Report.


dog depression

Can animals get depressed too?

dog depression

Credit: Pixabay

Depression in humans is diagnosed based on a list of subjective symptoms like feeling guilty all the time, loss of interest and pleasure derived from once pleasurable activities, or contemplation of one’s death. Many scientists believe non-human animals experience depression too, but since they can’t speak, it’s often very difficult to diagnose depression. Instead, they have to rely on observations of behaviour and apparent mood. So, when talking the ups and downs of animals, researchers don’t like to use the word ‘depression’ but rather ‘depression-like behaviour’.

One of the core symptoms of depression is anhedonia, the decrease or loss of interest in pleasurable activities. Scientists often look for anhedonia in animals to spot depression patterns by measuring interest in food they like a lot or sex drive. Changes in sleep and wake patterns, how often animals interact with their social circle, or whether they readily give up when faced with a stressful situation are some of the other makers used to diagnose depression in animals.

Olivier Berton, an assistant professor of neuroscience in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed studies of rodents, primates, and fish who lacked interest in, well, life. His own work with rodents suggests rats who are excluded from their social group or forced to live with larger animals that bully them stop exercising or eating. While these rodents would have normally gone through just about anything to push a lever that displaced a sweet treat or solve a maze, depressed-like rodents couldn’t care less.

“Definitely the most convincing observations derive from nonhuman primates. Based on behavioral observation, trained observers can say a monkey looks depressed. Because their emotional behaviors are similar to that of humans, just by looking at their facial expressions or the way their gaze is directed, we can get an indication of whether an animal may be experiencing sadness,” Berton said in an interview.

Depression-like behaviour has been most extensively studied in cats and dogs, the most common pets. Nowadays, veterinarians seem to agree that animals can get depressed and even prescribe Prozac-like medication that improves their mood.

It wasn’t always like this, though. In fact, up until the 1980s many veterinarians thought the idea that a dog could become depressed silly. It wasn’t until a young doctor called Nicholas Dodman of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University got into the picture that this changed. A brilliant graduate of Scotland’s Veterinary School at Glasgow University, Dodman emigrated to the United States in 1981 and soon changed his interest from the general field of veterinary medicine to animal behavior and behavioral pharmacology.

His studies led him to believe that some of the dogs’ behaviour were similar to human psychological states. Extrapolating from what he knew about human behavioural symptoms, Dodman concluded that dogs could become depressed and anxious. His ideas, however, were met with scrutiny from his fellow colleagues who argued: “Dogs don’t experience the same mental states and emotions that people do.”

This difference of opinion can be traced back to two trains of thought. René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician, and biologist claimed that only humans have feelings and conscious mental processes, and this sort of stuck for centuries. When Charles Darwin, the proponent of the theory of evolution, came into the picture he suggested the emotional experiences of animals are quite similar to those of humans.

Dodman clearly sided with Darwin. His logic told him that seeing how dogs and humans share similar brain structure, as well as brain chemistry, then there’s no reason to believe that dogs can’t get depressed. For instance, depression in humans is known to be partly caused by hormonal and chemical changes, which can be reverted to a degree with antidepressant drugs. So, Dodman gave dogs antidepressants and saw improvements in mood.

Slowly, veterinarians caught on, and drug manufacturers started making antidepressants specially designed for dogs. It’s a billion dollar business now.

But while many veterinarians say cats and dogs can become depressed, scientists are more reserved claiming we can’t know for sure before extensive studies are performed.

What studies seem to suggest thus far, though, is that pets like dogs and cats help improve depression symptoms in humans. Having a dog for a pet promotes physical activity and meaningful emotional connections, lowers blood pressure and makes us responsible. Most of all, dogs offer unconditional love which goes a long way for most people having a tough break in their lives.

“Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” says Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.

Dog fertility has gone down significantly, and we’re probably to blame

A new study has found that dog fertility has suffered a sharp decline in the past three decades, likely due to environmental or food contaminants.

American type Golden Retriever, photo by Golden dust / Wikipedia

Dogs are man’s best friend and for millennia, humanity has intertwined with their existence. We’ve changed how dogs feed, their behavior, we’ve created countless breeds based on our needs and desires – perhaps to the point where our actions could be considered inconsiderate or even reckless, but that’s beyond the point. This new study found that man-made contaminants are affecting dogs in a new, more subtle way: by damaging their sperm.

The study analyzed five dog breeds: labrador retriever, golden retriever, curly coat retriever, border collie and German shepherd. They collected semen from 42-97 dogs every year for the past 27 years, finding a significant decrease in quality.

Dr Richard Lea from the University of Nottingham led the study. He said:

“This is the first time that such a decline in male fertility has been reported in the dog and we believe this is due to environmental contaminants, some of which we have detected in dog food and in the sperm and testes of the animals themselves.”

This might not seem like such a big deal, but as ‘man’s best friend,’ dogs’ and humans’ fate seems tightly connected. Basically, we share the same environment as well as a number of physical characteristics, so whatever is affecting them may actually affect us. In fact, there is quite a stirred discussion regarding the quality of human sperm in recent years, with a number of medical experts claiming a decline.

“While further research is needed to conclusively demonstrate a link, the dog may indeed be a sentinel for humans – it shares the same environment, exhibits the same range of diseases, many with the same frequency and responds in a similar way to therapies.”

Regarding human sperm, we still don’t know for sure how “good” it is. There is a trove of scientific data indicating a decline in the past 70 years, but many have criticized the variability of data, due to the improvements in the available technology and laboratory personnel training.

The data in the dog study is more valuable in this sense, because it was gathered at the same lab, with the same technology and with similar techniques. It seems to support the idea of a decline in human sperm quality. Dr Lea added:

“The Nottingham study presents a unique set of reliable data from a controlled population which is free from these factors. This raises the tantalising prospect that the decline in canine semen quality has an environmental cause and begs the question whether a similar effect could also be observed in human male fertility.”

Journal Reference: Environmental Chemicals Impact Semen Quality in Dogs in Vitro and May be Associated with a Temporal Decline in Quality and Increased Cryptorchidis.

Male dogs are becoming less fertile, and researchers believe it’s happening to us next

Researchers have determined that the fertility of male dogs all over Britain has been steadily declining over the past three decades, for a whopping 30 percent across five common breeds. There isn’t any real danger of them losing their ability to reproduce anytime soon, but the findings could have serious implications for their human owners, the team believes.

My what does WHAT?!
Image credits Zach Zupancic/Flickr.

Ok, I don’t know about you but there’s two things that consistently make my day better no matter what’s going down: the dog jumping up and down for joy when he sees me come home, and the fact that my plumbing works like a charm. But, in a kind of depressing quantum link, the two of them seem to be connected — and science says there’ll be a whole lot less up and down going on.

“The dogs who share our homes are exposed to similar contaminants as we are, so the dog is a sentinel for human exposure,” said lead researcher Richard G. Lea, from the University of Nottingham in the UK, for the The New York Times.

Lea and his team have been assessing the fertility of a population of male service dogs at an English center for disabled people. They started in 1988, and since then they’ve analyzed a total of 232 dogs of five different breeds — Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, curly coat retrievers, border collies and German shepherds. The team chose to work with these dogs because their health and lineage are excellently recorded and they’re all being raised in one location in the same conditions.

Each year, the team would test the fertility of a selection of 42 to 97 dogs via sperm samples. At varying intervals throughout the 26 years of study, the dogs with the poorest sperm quality were removed from the test group. When they measured the percentage of sperm with healthy motility — the ability to swim in a straight line — the researchers found that it dropped by 2.4% each year. Even when not taking data from the dogs who were removed into account, sperm motility declined by an average of 1.2% every year from 2002 to 2014, for an overall decline of 30% over the entire study’ duration.

And the bad news don’t end here.

“Between 1994 and 2014, they also noticed that the mortality rate of the female puppies, although small, showed a threefold increase,” writes Jan Hoffman for the NY Times. “And the incidence of undescended testicles in male puppies, also small, had a 10-fold increase, to 1 percent from 0.1.”

Lea’s team isn’t sure what’s causing this, but they believe that it all comes down to the presence of environmental chemicals called PCBs and phthalates in the dog’s semen and testicles (removed by vets during routine desexing procedures.) Once widely used for paints and plastic masses, PCBs were banned back in the 1970s and ‘80s, and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) has been noted for its potential health risks. But even if they’ve fallen out of use, their long half-life means that they’re virtually everywhere today. Including, as the team found, in trace amounts in the food the dogs eat.

“The scientists cannot determine how the chemicals were introduced into the food supply; these are not additives,” says Hoffman. “But Lea and his colleagues speculate that they could be in the packaging as well as in water that came into contact with any ingredients.”

Ok, so what do dogs’ little swimmers have to do with us? Well, the same chemicals that affect them affect us, too. There are more than 60 studies that report a recent decline in the quality of human semen in the years between 1938 and 1991. Their results are hotly debated, but the evidence that the incidence of undescended testicles in human babies and cases of testicular cancer are on the rise, isn’t. By itself, however, the data isn’t enough to establish a link between these chemicals and the effects the team is seeing — there are just too many other chemicals at play here.

“If you think about it, we are exposed to a cocktail. Who knows how many chemicals are out there and what they are doing?” Lea said.

“What we have been able to do here is just to pull out ones that we know are present, and we have tested those in terms of their effects and it does suggest there is an impact. The next stage – and it is a big next stage – is trying to tease out what else is there and how those chemicals are interacting.”

The paper, titled “Environmental chemicals impact dog semen quality in vitro and may be associated with a temporal decline in sperm motility and increased cryptorchidism” has been published online in Scientific Reports.

Dogs hate hugs, and other amazing canine facts [infographic]

Dog — man’s best friend. Well, no one doubts dogs are very loyal and the best friends a taker can ever hope for. But what about you? Since you’re supposedly friends with dogs, you should know a thing or two about them. How many of these can you check off?

Share some other science facts about dogs that you know of in the comments. Oh, and remember, easy on the hugs. M’kay? 

NOAA photographs golden retrievers swimming back home from their mating run

NOAA has released a photograph of this year’s golden retriever migration. The animals are returning to shore after their mating run, where a new generation of puppies will be born.

Every year, golden retrievers swim to the Atlantic waters in which they were born to mingle, play and mate. The Great Golden Retriever Spawn has come to an end however, and thousands upon thousands of the animals are now making their way back home.

Image credits: Imgur user goldenretrievers.

NOAA captured this image earlier today off the east coast, a few miles away from the Outer Banks.

“They land here every year, and are a major tourist attraction,” said Avon pub owner Bailey Crown. “We’re all stocked up on treats and tennis balls to welcome them.”

The animals are expected to reach the peninsula later today, where locals and dog lovers all over the country are eagerly awaiting to pet the animals and call them “good boys” after their long journey.


How pets make you hotter to the opposite sex

A University of Nevada team, led by anthropologist Peter Gray, tested several hypotheses about pets and contemporary courtship or dating rituals. Their study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Anthrozoös.

Image via huffpost

Evolutionary psychology holds that women are more inclined to allocate resources to child rearing, while men tend to spend more time and energy on mating. The team wanted to verify if these tenants hold their own in a real life setting — if for example, women are more responsive to the way their dates treat their pets and men inclined to use their pets to attract sexual partners. Gray and his colleagues predicted that dogs, generally thought to require more attention than cats, would provide more powerful ques to women who would unconsciously size-up their date’s parenting qualities.

In collaboration with the pet store chain PetSmart and Match.com, the researchers sent a 21 question on-line survey to 1,210 single pet owners, 60% of whom were women and 40% men. As far as pets go, some 72% of them were dog owners, and 42% reported to owning a cat.

The study found that:

  • 22% of the men — but only 6% of women — admitted they had used their pet to attract potential dates.
  • 35% percent of women and 26% of men said they had been more attracted to someone because they owned a pet.
  • Nearly half of the women and a quarter of the men said they judged dates based on how the person responded to their pet.
  • 76% of women and 60% of men evaluated dates based on whether their pets like the person.
  • 64% of women and 49% of men said they were more attracted to a person if they owned a rescue animal.
  • 75% of the women and 54% of the men said they would not date someone who did not like pets.

The results are supported by previous studies on pets and dating. In 2008, two French social psychologists had a young man named Antoine approach 240 randomly selected women and ask for their phone number to go on a date. Half the time, he would be alone, and half the time he would be walking a dog named Gwendu. And that little gray dog had a huge impact — only 10% of the women gave Antoine their phone number when he was alone, but three times as many were happy to do the same when he was accompanied by Gwendu.

A new take on dating

During the Better with Pets Summit, scientist Sandra Lyn argued that the millennial generation has a much different relationship with their pets than the baby boomers, and the results of the study suggest she is right: men in their 20s and 30s were more likely to use their pets as “date-bait” than older singles. Millennials also reported being particularly attracted to pet owners and more inclined to evaluate mates by how their dogs and cats reacted to the date. Millennials were also more likely to find pictures of pets posted on on-line dating profiles a turn-on.

All in all, the researchers’ hypotheses about sex differences in the use of pets as signals of mate quality were confirmed. Women were more discriminating than men on eight of the eleven questions related to the use of pets in evaluating dating partners. (There were no sex differences for the other three questions.) Dog owners were more likely than cat owners to use pets as indicators of a date’s attributes, paying closer attention to their pet’s reaction than cat owners, and more likely to say that the way a date treated their own pet mattered and to believe that person’s pet revealed a lot about their personality.

The scientists also asked what the sexiest pet is, and dogs win by a mile. If you want to meet girls, don’t get a rabbit, none of the ladies reported them as being a turn-on.

dog evolution

Dogs may have been first domesticated in Nepal and Mongolia

It probably took a bit of convincing for man to turn wolves into dogs through domestication. At least this is not settled for debate: dogs branched from Eurasian grey wolves some 15,000 years ago. What’s less clear is where did this first happen. After embarking on a huge study which led them to analyze the genetic markup of hundreds of dog breeds, Adam Boyko at Cornell University thinks he’s finally got an answer: dogs were first domesticated in Central Asia, or in modern day Nepal and Mongolia.

dog evolution

Image: esdaw.eu

Boyko and colleagues swabbed DNA samples from  4,500 dogs belonging to 161 breeds, but also from 549 “village dogs” – the strays, genetically impure and wild variety of dogs. In total, dogs from 38 countries had their DNA sequenced. This analysis suggests that  East Asia, India and South-West Asia had the highest level of genetic diversity, giving confidence that dogs originated in what is now Nepal and Mongolia.

This far from the final word yet. Previous studies posited that dogs actually first appeared in Europe, others suggest Siberia as a more likely candidate. Boyko’s work, however, bears the largest population sample by far for such an investigation.  “We cannot rule out the possibility that dogs were domesticated elsewhere and subsequently, either through migration or a separate domestication event,” Boyko said.

Ancient cave painting showing a hunter and his dog (undated). Image: ScienceaGoGO

Ancient cave painting showing a hunter and his dog (undated). Image: ScienceaGoGO

The earliest archaeological evidence of canine domestication can be traced to the Natufian Grave, (c. 12,000 BCE) discovered in Ein Mallaha, Israel, in which an old man was buried with a puppy. Other ancient findings suggest that dogs were ubiquitously seen as guardians and faithful companions, no matter the culture or time – just like today. For instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia one scene depicts the goddess Ishtar traveling with seven prized dogs.

“The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. Of course, the dog was also a carrion eater, and in the villages it provided the same service as hyenas and jackals. As far as we can tell, there were only two main breeds of dog: large greyhounds which were used primarily in hunting, and very strong dogs (on the order of Danes and mastiffs), which in the ancient Orient were more than a match for the generally smaller wolves and, for that reason, were especially suitable as herd dogs. The sources distinguish numerous sub-breeds, but we can only partially identify these. The dog was often the companion of gods of therapeutics. Although the expression `vicious dog’ occurred, `dog’ as a derogatory term was little used (91),” notes famed historian  Wolfram Von Soden.

In Egypt, dogs were valued as part of the family and, when a dog would die, the family, if they could afford to, would have the dog mummified with as much care as they would pay for a human member of the family. In ancient Greek literature, the first mentions of dogs come under the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades. Dogs were the earliest animals domesticated in China (c. 12,000 BCE) along with pigs and were used in hunting and kept as companions. The blood of a dog was an important component in sealing oaths and swearing allegiances because dogs were thought to have been given to humans as a gift from heaven and so their blood was sacred. Today, the Chinese still spill the blood of dogs, but for less ritualistic purposes (i.e. feeding). Ancient Aztecs actually thought dogs predate humans. Moreover,  the souls of those who died without proper burial, such as those who drowned or were lost in battle or died alone on a hunt, were found by spirit dogs who would ensure their safe passage to the afterlife.


Dogs can tell when you’re happy or upset, study shows

Science confirms what every dog owner has known in his heart: our canine friends can tell when we’re happy or upset. The discovery represents the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions on other species.

The experimental setup used for testing the dogs’ ability to distinguish between emotions. CREDIT: ANJULI BARBER, MESSERLI RESEARCH INSTITUTE

“We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them,” says Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

In this new study, the dogs distinguished between an angry face and a happy face (of the same person) – and they did so in convincing fashion. After training on 15 picture pairs, the dogs were only shown the upper or the lower half of the face. They were tested on four types of trials:

  1. the same half of the faces as in the training but of novel faces,
  2. the other half of the faces used in training
  3. the other half of novel faces
  4. the left half of the faces used in training.

The dogs weren’t able to always figure out the happy face, but they did it often enough to show that they can distinguish the emotions. The study also showed that the dogs can learn and adapt what  they’ve learned to new situations.

“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber, senior author and head of the group at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute.

Müller and Huber report that the dogs were slower to learn to associate an angry face with a reward, which suggests that they already have a good idea about what they can expect when humans are happy and angry.

“We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favorite pets, and into the emotional lives of animals in general,” Müller says.

Journal Reference: Current Biology, Müller et al.: “Dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces”


Breed not the dominant factor in canine aggressiveness


Photo: dogsense.co.uk

It’s always depressing when we hear stories of dogs attacking people, more so when injuries lead to death. As always after such an unfortunate, yet statistically isolated, event there’s always a massive group of people bantering and calling for “something to be done.” In some countries, public pressure can rule death sentences for thousands of dogs. There’s also a general belief that some breeds are more aggressive than others. Is the breed or the dog’s education the dominant factor that makes it aggressive? Is a pit bull more likely to bite you because of its breed or because the owner trained him to behave this way?

In a recent article for Real Clear Science, Rachel Casey a senior lecturer in companion animal behavior and welfare at University of Bristol, details her team’s findings recently reported in a paper published in journal Applied Animal Behaviour.

Bad, bad dog!

Some 4,000 dog owners were surveyed regarding their pet’s aggressive behaviour, like incidents of growling, lunging, barking and biting. Occurrence of these stances was assessed in three distinct situations: towards family members; towards unfamiliar people entering the house; towards unfamiliar people outside the house. Characteristics for both owner (i.e. age) and dog (i.e. breed) were recorded.

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Their findings show that dogs generally tend not to show aggressiveness in more than one of the three situations. Thus, a dog that might be aggressive to family members, won’t be aggressive towards outsides and vice versa. This suggests that some dogs aren’t by default vicious or friendly to the bone in all situations.

Casey outlines in her article that it’s important for people to understand that any dog can turn aggressive given the right circumstances. This is no reason to marginalize canines, however. Instead, being conscious about it may help people avoid stumbling into false assumption traps.

The study compared breed groups in each situation with a reference category of cross-breeds. No difference in aggressiveness was observed in a family setting between pure breeds and cross-breeds. For aggression toward unfamiliar people, gundogs (hounds, retrievers and pointers) had a reduced risk compared to cross-breeds, and pastoral or herding dogs (for example German shepherd dogs) had an increased risk specifically when outside the house.

Measuring behaviour, instead of skull size

The difference was no more than 10%, however, between aggressive and non-aggressive dogs. Different breeds vary in behaviour, and any dog owner or knowledgeable person can attest this fact. The limited research carried out in this respect, however, so far shows that in evaluating aggression risk for an individual dog, there are more important factors to consider than its breed.

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 Even so, considering all dogs are more or less equal in their innate aggressiveness and this behavior is most heavily dependent on its environment (owner), are some of the existing policies that ban certain large breeds warranted? The idea is that a nutcase owner might turn his dog into a munching machine whether its a chihuahua or a rottweiler. The key difference is that the latter has the power to rip you to shreds. Casey claims there is no hard evidence suggesting this practice works, reducing the number of injuries.

“Policy should instead focus on the factors that influence the risk of aggression in the first place. Most people object when governments take the approach of banning things – imagine the cries of “nanny state” if fast cars were banned from the roads on account of their greater likelihood of causing injury than less powerful vehicles if driven irresponsibly. In reality, society takes the approach of reducing the risk posed by all drivers, regardless of what car they drive,” says Casey.

“Every new driver is given a thorough education, which is bench-marked by a standard theoretical and practical driving test. We have well-established, and largely accepted, codes of practice that govern drivers’ behaviour to reduce accident risk, and laws to enforce them. It would make sense to take the same approach for reducing aggression towards humans in dogs,” she continued.