Archive for March, 2008
I stumbled upon a little gem in my computer today. An insightful article titled “Playing With a Dog” that was published in The Quarterly Review of Biology in 1936. The article is a vehicle for E.S. Russell to use observations of his fox terrier dog at play to illustrate some principles of animal behavior and cognition.
Russell wrote that before he trained his dog Gina to play with a ball, a ball held no meaning for her. Balls were not objects she noticed or paid attention to. But, after he trained her to play fetch, not only did a ball become significant to her but she also began to appear to categorize other objects as being ball-like. That is, she treated objects that could be used in the same way as a ball as if they were balls (i.e. she picked them up, brought them to him and dropped them.)
Humans and animals divide objects and events into meaningful categories as one of our most basic cognitive functions. Categories range from very basic ones like edible versus non-edible to abstract human concepts such as poetry versus prose. Categories are bounded sharply, not transitionally. A thing either is or is not part of a category.
The ability to categorize is an adaptive trait. Without it every object and every event would be perceived as unique and it would be impossible for animals to generalize. Complex behavior is based on elaborate abilities to categorize.
Categorization is highly context-specific. Items that on the surface seem to be utterly different (such as Frisbees and squirrels) can be viewed as highly similar if they are placed in a context (“things that are fun to chase”) that highlights an aspect they have in common (chase-ability). The way we categorize things also depends on our life experiences and the goals we have in mind as we consider them.
The objects that Russell’s dog treated like balls didn’t look alike. They didn’t have a common size, shape or smell. The only qualities they shared were that they were of a size and portability such that the dog could easily pick them up and carry them. Their functional value was the basis of the dog’s categorizing them as ‘ball-like’.
In another game, the dog was taught to bring Russell pennies to earn a bit of cheese as a reward. Soon after she learned this trick, she began looking for penny-like objects to bring them to him to try to get cheese. Some of the less preferred ‘ball-like’ toys were small and bright-colored or disc-shaped. Though the dog showed only a low interest in bringing these toys to Russell when she wanted to play fetch games, she showed a stronger preference for them once she learned they might earn her cheese. Russell stated that he thought that this indicated that an object may have different values in different contexts.
Russell discussed the importance of the dog’s Umwelt in perception and categorization. He noted that humans are so used to perceiving a vast number of discrete, easily discriminated objects in our own environment that we tend to assume that the world appears in a similar highly articulated and abstractly meaningful form to our dogs. In doing this, we forget that the dog’s interests are different and simpler than ours. The dog attends to and responds only to objects or events that bear a functional importance to it. Objects and events that only hold an abstract value (such as books, birthdays, paintings, etc.) may hold great meaning to us and be utterly unremarkable or even unknowable to our dogs.
On the other hand, objects and events that we see as insignificant may hold great meaning to our dogs. For example an unremarkable (to you) bit of crumpled paper on the ground might mean ‘possible bit of food’ to a dog and the soft, low rumble in the street that you tune out as meaningless may mean ‘delivery truck coming’ to your dog.
Sadly, many dog owners aren’t aware that not only do our dogs perceive the world in a much different way than we do, but also that their system of values is poles apart from ours. This leads to a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding and confusion for both species.
A dog owner can’t understand why her dog would ‘thoughtlessly’ urinate on an expensive Persian rug — and her dog can’t understand why his owner is upset that he peed right in the same place where the cat did. The rug exists in completely different realms of value and functionality in the woman’s world and in the dog’s.
We can never inhabit the same perceptual and contextual worlds that our dogs do – but as big-brained humans we can maintain an awareness that that difference exists. And we can use that awareness to be more patient, creative and mindful in finding ways to bridge the gap when misunderstandings occur.
Go play with your dog. Do it with an open mind and an open heart and you just might learn something new.
Pat Smith plays with Fly. This is a great game and they’re both obviously enjoying it, but I’m quite sure it has very different meanings and values to both of them.
I recently posted one story on the ways an artist proposed to use technology to improve the lives of dogs and another about how researchers used a robotic dog to try to study how docked tails might affect dog-dog interactions. I still don’t agree that artificial hackles or LED tails will help dogs live more meaningful lives or that using a robotic dog to study how real dogs interact with each other is scientifically valid but…. In a recent bit of internet research I was stunned to see how much time people spend comparing man’s best friend to man’s next friend.
Here’s a couple of examples of how robots might benefit real dogs:
I adored this robotic ball-throwing machine and the incredibly cool dachshund that enjoys playing with it – in moderation. (but I am quite sure that my kelpie would kill herself if we had one of these…..)
Here’s a nifty remote robotic dog treat dispenser. It lets you IM treats to your dog!
Now here’s some examples of how humans might use robotic dogs to improve our lives:
Check out the creepy robotic “dog” developed by defense contractors. Frankly, this one didn’t strike me as particularly doglike. Was that because it sounds like a hive of electronic bees or perhaps because it because it HAS NO HEAD? Yuck.
Hey! This is the perfect pet for those folks who want a dog but don’t want to bother with training it!
Is this a robot dog or a human in dog suit mimicking a dog robot? You decide.
NSFW robotic dog controlled by a television ventriloquist
A real dog attacks a robotic dog WITH A LONG TAIL!
The key to understanding what constitutes a good game versus a bad game to play with your dog is:
When YOU are the one guiding the play in a proactive way, it is a good game.
When YOUR DOG guides the action and you are simply reacting to what he does, it is a bad game.
Good games are an excellent way to tire out your dog by using his mind. They can also be an enjoyable way to proof your dog’s obedience.
Bad games are an excellent way to teach your dog that misbehaving is a way to get your attention. They can also teach your dog that it is okay to ignore your commands.
Here are some examples of bad games and – some ideas for good games.
Bad game: Wrestling and rough play
Many people like to wrestle and play roughly with their dogs. When we engage in these kinds of games with our dogs we encourage them to treat us like another dog. Think about it. When two dogs play together, they jump up on each other, bite each other, chase each other and test to see just who has more power. This is a VERY bad game as it teaches your dog to rudely jump up on you, bite you and challenge you. Sadly, I see many dogs that start out playing these kinds of games with their owners (often children) and end up biting them severely.
Bad game: Catch me if you can!
Your dog grabs an item you don’t want him to have. You call him to you to try to take it away, and instead of coming he runs off with it in his mouth. You chase after him and try to catch him to get the item back. This is a bad game because it teaches your dog that he can out-run and out-smart you. It is also bad because teaches him to run away from you instead of coming when you call him.
Good game: Hide and Seek
Find a place where there are only minor distractions. Hide in a place where you are easy to find and call your dog so that he can search and find you. Give him a BIG reward (love, petting, play, treats) when he finds you. As he gets better at the game, hide in more difficult places or play the game in areas where there are moderate to strong distractions (depending on your dog’s skill and reliability). This is a good game because it not only teaches your dog to come when you call him, it also builds a drive to search and find you when you’re not in sight.
Bad game: Wild or aggressive tug games
Playing a wild, aggressive, no-holds-barred game of tug-of-way with your dog, a game where he growls and bites at your hand to win, or where he learns to run off with the toy is a bad game. This game teaches your dog that if he challenges you, he might win. It also tends to make a dog more likely to bite and nip at hands and often turns into game where the dog runs off with the toy and ignores you.
Good game: Polite tug games
In polite tug-of-war games you initiate the play by showing the toy to the dog an inviting him to play tug with you. Hold the toy and give the dog a command like ‘tug’ or ‘take’ and encourage him to take the toy in his mouth. If the dog plays too roughly, you must end the game immediately and start a training session with the dog. If he plays nicely, continue on a bit making sure that YOU decide when each bout of tug ends. Unless you have a timid dog, only play this game in small bits. Be sure to end the game immediately when the dog gets too excited or nips at your hands. This game builds self-confidence in a timid dog. It can increase self control in dogs and it shows the dog you make the rules – but ONLY if you play it correctly!
Bad game: Throw for me
If your dog shoves or tosses a ball or other toy at you and TELLS you to throw it for him – you are playing HIS fetch game. If your dog refuses to release you the toy you’ve thrown or won’t bring it back to you, he’s playing a game with you. These games teach your dog to challenge you, to ignore your commands and to see you as a fool to toy with.
Good game: Fetch
In a good game of fetch, you initiate the play by showing the dog a ball or toy, telling him to sit and then throwing the toy after he sits. The dog politely brings the toy back and either drops it at your feet (not three feet away!) or – better yet – in your hand, so you can throw it again. This is a good game because not only does it teach your dog to listen to the SIT, WAIT, FETCH and DROP commands, it also shows him that you are the one who initiates and ends games. In a good game of fetch you should always end the play when the dog wants more.
Bad game: Sending your dog outside alone to entertain himself
Dogs are social animals. Your dog craves companionship, YOUR companionship. Sending him out into the yard (even a safe, securely fenced yard) is NOT a good way to exercise him. Leaving him out on his own for long periods of time gives your dog an opportunity to choose his own methods of entertainment. And in many cases these will not be things you would like him to do. This can teach your dog to bark incessantly, fence fight, dig holes, eat poop and engage in other bad habits. It also teaches your dog that you don’t have much interest in having a relationship with him.
Good game: Take a walk with your dog or play in the yard with him
Your dog LIVES to spend time with you. Dogs evolved to be our companions in life. Spending quality time with your dog — time where your focus is on sharing time with him in a constructive way – is the key to building a meaningful relationship with him.
This week’s Misguided Science Award goes to researchers at the University of Victoria who used a robotic dog to study how long versus short or docked tails affect canine behavior.
The study concluded that dogs approach a dog with a docked tail more cautiously than they do a dog with a ‘complete’ tail. According to one researcher, this could make a dog with a docked tail more aggressive.
Their findings were based on a series of observations regarding how dogs at a dog park approached the robotic dog when it was fitted with a long or short tail. The robotic tail wagged on some trials and stood up stiff in others.
First, I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone would consider that dogs’ reactions to an obviously fake, robotic dog represent valid data on dog-dog behavior. I am certain that even the most sheltered, apartment-dwelling city dogs innately understand the difference between real and robotic dogs. And in most cases they’re not going to react the same way to a robotic dog that they will to a real one.
Second, it does not appear that the group conducted an initial study of how dogs with long and short tails (remember, not all short tails are artificially docked) wag them in different situations.
I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs interact with each other. In my experience, short-tailed dogs don’t just wag their stubby little tails when they’re happy and excited. They typically wiggle the whole rear half of their bodies.
Tail-wagging doesn’t always indicate happiness or friendliness. Generally speaking, it indicates arousal. The soft, slow wag of a lowered tail can indicate calm interest. The rapid, loose wagging of a tail held at mid level (combined with a butt wiggle in a short-tailed dog) may indicate excited, friendly anticipation. Rapid, stiff, wagging of an erect tail generally indicates intent arousal – and may precede an aggressive response.
So, when robo-dog wagged what was very likely a short, stiff, erect, electronic tail he may have been communicating a weird, artificial kind of aggressive intent. I don’t find it the least bit strange that dogs avoided robo-dog or behaved in an antisocial manner toward him if that was the situation.
When robo-dog wagged a long tail at mid-height (especially if that long tail was constructed in a way that allowed it to flex as it wagged) he communicated an odd but friendly demeanor. I would expect confident, social dogs to approach a ‘thing’ that behaved that way to investigate it.
In neither case do I believe that the dogs studied mistook robo-dog for a real dog.
As you can probably guess based on what I’ve written here, I don’t for a minute believe that having a short or docked tail predisposes a dog toward behaving aggressively toward other dogs.
I have a different theory. Check out the video below for frightening footage of a short-tailed dog demonstrating some extremely aggressive behavior:
Did docking his tail make this
Airedale wire-haired fox terrier violently aggressive – or was it an owner who forced the poor beast to listen to death metal music that sent him over the edge?
Studies have indicated that listening to classical music, panpipes and whale songs may have a calming effect on dogs. Is it then a stretch to suggest that exposure to gangsta rap, death metal and the music of Richard Wagner could turn them to violence?
Are the vicious pibbles and rockwilders we hear so much about in the media innately hostile beasts – or have they been ruined because their owners exposed them to too much teevee violence and musical mayhem?
It’s food for thought….
Scientists are using dog hair to study mercury contamination in the environment and to assess how levels of the contaminant in food supplies may affect human populations.
“The foods sled dogs are eating are scraps left over from people in the villages,” said Peter Bowers, an archaeologist at Northern Land Use Research, an Alaskan consulting firm, who contributed to a study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in October.
Sled dogs eat a diet rich in fish, similar to that partaken by Alaska’s indigenous population. Scientists hope to use data from sled dog populations to find out how much mercury humans are eating and determine where contaminants enter the food chain. Fish accumulate varying levels of mercury depending on their habitat and diet. Scientists hope that mercury levels in dog hair from different husky populations will provide information on mercury levels in the native fish they eat.
The study included samples of hair collected from dogs in five regions of Alaska as well as from a sample collected from sled dog remains dating back to 780 A.D. Another study also included samples collected from dogs living in the states of New York and Alaska who were fed a commercially-prepared diet.
The highest levels of mercury were detected in modern dogs living in a village near the Bering Sea. The lowest levels of mercury were detected in the archaeological group and modern dogs in New York who were fed a commercial diet. Dogs fed a commercial diets or who ate native diets but lived in areas farthest from the sea had the lowest levels of the modern day Alaskan group.
Salmon eat mercury-contaminated plankton and algae. The metal accumulates in their bodies and is passed on when a dog or other animal eats them.
The study focused on mercury levels in sled dog fur because people don’t often want to participate in research studies. Hair analyses are used because collecting hair samples is far less invasive than testing organs or blood, and hair samples provide a good indicator of mercury levels in an organism.
Interested in getting your dog’s hair tested for mercury levels? You can do it here: HairAnalysisLab (Though I am more than a little concerned about a laboratory group that can’t spell the word ‘analysis’ correctly….)
Another way dogs help us study mercury in the environment is by working as detection dogs. Clancy, a Labrador retriever mix employed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), has been trained to sniff out mercury in schools and laboratories.
In the last five years, Clancy (who was adopted from the humane society) has helped rid schools of more than 1,500 pounds of mercury. He and his handler are tested for mercury every 3 to 12 months.
Because they could potentially be exposed to high levels of the toxin, they have their blood tested instead of their hair as this provides for a greater level of short-term accuracy in detection.
Today we were stuck with some typically fickle Minnesota March weather. Yesterday most of the snow had melted out of our yard. A spring storm blew in last night and dampened our spring fever with a foot of wet snow.
After shoveling what felt like a foot of wet concrete off the sidewalks, I decided that the dogs and I could play indoors for the rest of the day.
We started with an easy trick. I had Audie pick up Mark’s slipper and fetch it to me (yes, my guy has huge feet).
Cute puppy with slipper. It’s fun, it’s sweet – but it’s not terribly exciting. So we kicked it up a notch. I had to tighten the exhaust on the boiler at the training center. I put Audie to work holding the crescent wrench while I adjusted the flange.
That’s more like it. A heavy, steel wrench is a bit of a challenge. But my boy was ready for more, so we headed back home. My nose was running after being out in the cold. Hey – let’s see if I can get him to fetch me a tissue!
First he has to pull it out of the box (this took just a bit of coaching), then sit up nice to hand it to me!
That went so well, we decided to go on to the laundry. Will my smart dog take wet clothes out of the washer and put them in the dryer?
He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to stick his head into the washing machine (proving, yet again that he IS a smart dog), so I helped him by pulling clothes out toward the door. At that point, he was perfectly willing to take them.
OK, mom – I’ve got this thing, now what do you want me to do with it?
You want it in here? OK, we got this far. He’d take it out of the washer, carry it to the dryer – then just stop. My bad. I haven’t taught him to pick up an item, take it to a location away from me and drop it yet. We’ll work on that piece and come back to this later.
In the mean time, maybe we can work on just one more chore:
This is a much better alternative to drinking out of that silly white bowl!
Zip has had more time to work on fetch skills. Her favorite trick is “Find The Remote”. Give her the command and first she looks for it:
There is it! Good girl, now grab it…
And bring it me!
The old dog’s only job is to be gorgeous and charming. As you can see, he does it with great skill.
I was going to post something else today but after I visited Lassie Get Help and saw her post on Jon Katz, it annoyed me so much I had to grab hold of her hand and sing Kum Ba Yah.
Check it out here: