Archive for November, 2009

Truth in Advertising

From ProbablyBadNews

This lends a whole new meaning to the term housebreaking

November 27, 2009 at 11:14 pm 3 comments

“Felony” Police Dog Gets Death Penalty

Most of the local outlets aren’t covering this, but Minneapolis KARE11 News is reporting on the “euthanasia” of a local police K-9:

At ten years of age, Felony was nearing the end of his K-9 career with the Howard Lake Police Department. It just wasn’t supposed to end like this.

On October 30th, one of Felony’s handlers found that the black labrador had escaped his kennel.  He immediately called the Wright County Humane Society, who reported that they didn’t have the dog.

The County wasn’t aware that Felony had been picked up by a dog catcher working for the Animal Humane Society (AHS) not long after he escaped.

“Our officer contacted the Animal Humane Society shortly after contacting the dog catcher, said Chief Tracy Vetruba. “Unfortunately, at that time the dog catcher still had the dog, who he did not believe was our dog, and it ‘was’ our dog.”

Felony had somehow lost his license and rabies tags — and he had never been micro-chipped.  Thinking that their original calls to Wright County Humane Society and Animal Humane Society were sufficient to alert them to the dog, the Howard Lake police did not make any follow-up phone calls.  So, when he arrived at the Animal Humane Society Felony was placed on 5 day mandatory hold.  During the hold time he was labeled as “dangerous and unadoptable” — so at the end of his hold time, the police dog was killed.

The Howard Lake Herald-Journal reported that the dog was described to AHS and Wright County as being a black labrador.  Since he’s a working dog who’s almost eleven, Felony has a grey muzzle and paws — which reportedly made Kozitka believe he was not the “all black” K-9 he had just been asked to look for.  Why he didn’t think it was important to notify the police department of any black labs or substantially black lab-like dogs he picked up on this particular day is beyond me.  AHS skips out of the blame game by stating they have no record of calls from the police department providing a BOLO on Felony.  I’d love to see their phone records for October… 

KARE11 quotes Police Chief Tracy Vetruba:

“It’s kindof like the perfect storm of events coming together to result in a (sic)tradedy,” said Vetruba. “Our officers were devastated to learn that he was put down. He will absolutely be missed by our officers.”

I suppose a callous disregard for the life of a valuable police K-9 on the part of those whose jobs are (supposedly) to safeguard our community’s animals could be considered as part of a “perfect storm”.   I just see it as blatant, cold-hearted callousness. 

CityPages reports:

Howard Lake police say Felony had been with the force since 2002, after K-9 stints in Ortonville and Hector, and was responsible for more than $25,000 worth of seized drugs, cars  and cash.

This dog spent his life serving the community.  And he didn’t do it for a salary, benefits and a pension — he did his job for the pure joy of it.  What a sad and pointless waste. 

First I’m utterly gobsmacked that the City of Howard Lake couldn’t find the time or money to microchip a $5,000 police K-9.  Second, as dog owning (and tax paying) resident of Minnesota, I’m also deeply troubled by the callous attitude taken by Wright County dog catcher Wayne Kozitka and AHS.  If they make so little effort to identify and return a valuable local police K-9 that they’ve specifically been asked to look for — what kind of treatment can an average pet owner expect?

We’ve blogged here before about AHS’s disturbingly high kill rates.  I couldn’t find information on their website about the methods AHS uses to assess the adoptability of dogs in their care, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they use some version of Susan Sternberg’s test.  Sternberg’s Asses-A-Pet program recommends testing a dog for “food aggression” by poking it with a fake hand while it’s eating.  A picture of one of these hands is shown below – next to a picture of the kind of bite sleeve commonly used to train police K-9s.

Take a good, long look at those two pictures and tell me how shocked you’d be to find that a shelter stressed dog who has had any protection training might take one look at the item on the left and confuse it for the one on the right.  And then explain to me how a group who was specifically asked to be on the lookout for a lost black labrador who is a police K-9 doesn’t think to contact them when a short-coated black dog who likes to bite sleeves is seized the day after the loss is reported (oh, thats right – they never got the message [head-desk]).

Felony gave his life for his community.  Instead of dying a heroic death during a drug raid or tracking down a violent criminal – he died a sad and pointless death alone in a shelter death room.  Instead of being lauded as a hero, he’ll be mourned as a “mistake”.   …it breaks my heart…

To help protect these wonderful, valuable, four-legged public servants from similar pointless cluster fucks mishaps in the future, Midwest Animal Rescue & Services has offered free micro-chipping and registration for police dogs across the Twin Cities metro area.  Show them a little love.

November 27, 2009 at 3:54 am 8 comments

Poodle Bites

It’s called the Poodle Dog Bush, and while that name makes it sound like one of the sweet, quirky characters from Dr. Seuss’s books — it’s actually one of the junkyard dogs of the plant world.

 Photo courtesy sedges_have_edges of under Creative Commons license 
Clink link for large photo

Turricula parryi  bites.   Like the demon spawn of stinging nettle and poison ivy, the deviously attractive plant causes severe dermatitis in everyone who touches – or even smells it.
The leaves, flowers and stem of living and dead plants cause adverse reactions.  Symptoms include pain, itching, swelling and blistering of the skin and mucous membranes.  In bit of added trickery, symptoms often don’t show up until 12-36 hours after contact and they can last for weeks.

The poodle dog bush tempts hikers with quirky good looks.  Like a cross between Joshua tree and trumpet flower, it blooms from June though August.  The plant prefers recent burns, disturbed areas and chaparral slopes from the southern Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley south to Baja California.  The only hint you may get of its evil intent is a strong, foul odor.  The poodle dog bush is covered with stiff microscopic hairs known as trichomes.  The trichomes emit prenylated phenolic compounds that cause the dermatitis (and probably also the foul odor).

November 25, 2009 at 3:16 am 3 comments

What Would Border Collies Do?

Dogs doing chemistry!   I love the idea – and while I probably shouldn’t be (because after all, they are just dogs) I have to admit that I am just a wee bit disappointed that they appear to be doing it wrong….

I suspect that this intrepid, alchemical pack of golden retrievers was trying to create oxygen.  An oxygen atom has eight protons, eight neutrons and eight electrons.  What they appear to have created instead is an incredibly rare beryllium anion with four protons, four neutrons and six electrons.

If you’re wondering how I can tell what atom they’re creating, the answer is in the protons.  The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom determines what element it is.  If alchemists had figured out how add or subtract protons from atomic nuclei, they’d have solved the problem of transmutation. 

Unfortunately for alchemists (but fortunately for those of us who depend on the laws of atomic physics to exist), it’s incredibly difficult to add or subtract protons from atomic nuclei.  But electrons aren’t as loyal as protons.  They move around between orbitals, ions, atoms and molecules with varying levels of ease, and only stick around when atomic forces, well – force them to.

An oxygen atom has eight protons in its nucleus so in its neutral, or zero valence state, it also has eight electrons.  A beryllium atom has four protons in its nucleus and in its neutral or zero valence state, four electrons.  Either atom can have a varying number of neutrons with the number present determining which isotope one is dealing with.

If you watch carefully you’ll see that the atom that these bright (rather than erudite) dogs have created appears to have four protons, four neutrons and six electrons.  If it has four protons, the atom must be beryllium — it can’t be anything else.  Giving it six electrons instead of the four needed to balance the charge of the four protons in the nucleus adds two negative charges to create Be-2  —  an ion that exists only in the laboratory and the imagination of sixteen, beautiful, obedient dogs with a stunning (though somewhat flawed) grasp of chemistry.

(does anyone else find it ironic that the theme music for the video is “Can’t be Wrong”)

November 24, 2009 at 4:24 am 6 comments

Hannibal Chuckter

Charlie had his first veterinary appointment today.  While he will cheerfully allow me to handle him any way I like, being handled by strangers is still a completely different story.  So I brought him in by himself (I usually bring the dogs in as a pack, as they’re all very easy to handle).  And I brought a muzzle.

The spectre of young Charlie wearing this lovely bit of apparel, along with the blinkless stare and completely even, 60 bpm pulse rate he maintained throughout the examination earned him the charming new nickname.

I’ll admit that the little shit looked astonishingly evil, even to me.  When I took him back out to the van I left the muzzle on until I got him into the crate.  Once he was safely inside, I slipped the muzzle off and shut the crate door in a single swift move (I may be a gimp, but I can still move pretty darn quickly when I need to).  Once the door was closed, I was surprised – and quite pleased – to see a soft, happy, wiggly puppy on the other side.  I opened the door back up and the vicious killer my happy puppy greeted me with a wagging tail and a flurry of soft, sloppy kisses.

I am so glad I spent all that time getting him used to wearing the muzzle.

Once we returned home, Charlie released his stress by viciously attacking wrestling with Audie.

November 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm 5 comments

Dandelions, Orchids and Destiny

I just read a fascinating article in the December edition of  The Atlantic.  David Dobb’s  The Science of Success  relates the genetics of behavioral plasticity to weeds and hothouse plants:

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.

Today most of us agree that behavior arises from a complex interaction of nature and nurture.  The goal of behavioral genetics is to understand the complex interaction between genetic and environmental contributions to behavior, and it’s not an easy job.  First of all it can be difficult simply to define exactly what the specific behavior one wants to study involves.  Toss in the additional complicating factors that arise because the expression of behavior, like all complex traits, is born from an intricate dance between genetic heritage, upbringing and epigenetic factors — and you discover that even creatures as outwardly similar as identical twins are as unique as snowflakes.

One of the hot areas of research in behavioral genetics is centered around the idea that specific polymorphisms affecting key behavioral genes can increase our vulnerability to specific mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders.  As Dobbs writes in The Atlantic, genetic polymorphisms have been found that affect our susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heightened risk-taking, antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems—if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.  According to Dobbs’ article:

This vulnerability hypothesis, as we can call it, has already changed our conception of many psychic and behavioral problems. It casts them as products not of nature or nurture but of complex “gene-environment interactions.” Your genes don’t doom you to these disorders. But if you have “bad” versions of certain genes and life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.

Although the science of behavioral genetics has been around since the 1960’s, the idea that Dobbs refers to as the orchid hypothesis is a new way to think about genetics and human behavior.  It points out that it’s not correct to think of the genes we inherit as being good or bad.  Genes represent potential, and like investments, some are low risk / low reward while others are high risk / high reward.  In a balanced genetic portfolio a species wants to hold investments in both sectors.

Some of the key areas where researchers have found behavioral genetic tradeoffs are in the serotonin and dopamine transmission and uptake systems.  In the 1990’s Klaus-Peter Lesch discovered that there were three different variants to the human serotonin-transporter gene (the short/short, short/long, and long/long alleles).  He found that the two shorter versions of the gene were related to a higher risk of being affected by depression, anxiety and related problems. 

At the same time that Lesch was working on serotonin-transporter genes, Stephen Suomi was studying personality types in Rhesus monkeys.  Dobbs writes:

Very early in his work, Suomi identified two types of monkeys that had trouble managing these relations. One type, which Suomi calls a “depressed” or “neurotic” monkey, accounted for about 20 percent of each generation. These monkeys are slow to leave their mothers’ sides when young. As adults they remain tentative, withdrawn, and anxious. They form fewer bonds and alliances than other monkeys do.

The other type, generally male, is what Suomi calls a “bully”: an unusually and indiscriminately aggressive monkey. These monkeys accounted for 5 to 10 percent of each generation. “Rhesus monkeys are fairly aggressive in general, even when young,” Suomi says, “and their play involves a lot of rough-and-tumble. But usually no one gets hurt—except with these guys. They do stupid things most other monkeys know not to. They repeatedly confront dominant monkeys. They get between moms and their kids. They don’t know how to calibrate their aggression, and they don’t know how to read signs they should back off. Their conflicts tend to always escalate.”


Suomi saw early on that each of these monkey types tended to come from a particular type of mother. Bullies came from harsh, censorious mothers who restrained their children from socializing. Anxious monkeys came from anxious, withdrawn, distracted mothers. The heritages were pretty clear-cut. But how much of these different personality types passed through genes, and how much derived from the manner in which the monkeys were raised?

To find out, Suomi split the variables. He took nervous infants of nervous mothers—babies who in standardized newborn testing were already jumpy themselves—and gave them to especially nurturing “supermoms.” These babies turned out very close to normal. Meanwhile, Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago took secure, high-scoring infants from secure, nurturing mothers and had them raised by abusive mothers. This setting produced nervous monkeys.

The lesson seemed clear. Genes played a role—but environment played an equally important one.

Lesch collaborated with Suomi on genotyping monkeys from the different behavioral groups identified. They were excited to discover that the same three serotonin-transporter gene variants that were known to be important in human behavioral genetics were also present in Suomi’s rhesus monkeys.

The next step in the work was a study conducted by Suomi, Lesch and J. Dee Higley on a serotonin metabolite that indicates how much serotonin an animal’s nervous system is processing.   The results of this work showed that regardless of which serotonin-transporter genotype a monkey inherited, all of the monkeys reared by nurturing mothers processed serotonin in the normal range. This pointed to the vital importance of nurture’s affect on nature.  It also made Suomi wonder if this genetic sensitivity to upbringing was a common feature in all primates.

Suomi made another remarkable discovery. He and others assayed the serotonin-transporter genes of seven of the 22 species of macaque, the primate genus to which the rhesus monkey belongs. None of these species had the serotonin-transporter polymorphism that Suomi was beginning to see as a key to rhesus monkeys’ flexibility. Studies of other key behavioral genes in primates produced similar results; according to Suomi, assays of the SERT gene in other primates studied to date, including chimps, baboons, and gorillas, turned up “nothing, nothing, nothing.” The science is young, and not all the data is in. But so far, among all primates, only rhesus monkeys and human beings seem to have multiple polymorphisms in genes heavily associated with behavior. “It’s just us and the rhesus,” Suomi says.

This discovery got Suomi thinking about another distinction we share with rhesus monkeys. Most primates can thrive only in their specific environments. Move them and they perish. But two kinds, often called “weed” species, are able to live almost anywhere and to readily adapt to new, changing, or disturbed environments: human beings and rhesus monkeys. The key to our success may be our weediness. And the key to our weediness may be the many ways in which our behavioral genes can vary.

This talk of “weediness”, of course, immediately made me think of dogs.  The domestic dog is a brilliantly adaptive species, cheerfully surviving anywhere humans do.  From the arctic to the tropics, free ranging feral or pampered house pet, the dog lives in a wider range of habitats than almost any other animal.

So of course I wondered if anyone had studied the SERT gene and serotonin metabolites in dogs.  I surfed the googles and almost immediately hit pay dirt. 

I discovered that breed-specific patterns of a number of coding single nucleotide polymorphisms of behavior-related genes have been identified in different breeds of dogs.  I read that repeat polymorphisms associated with human attention deficit disorder appear to have the same effect in the Belgian Tervueren.  And I found that the same polymorphism in SLC6A4 found to be important in Suomi, Lesch and Higley’s work on the weediness of rhesus monkeys – has also been found in dogs.

One of the most interesting studies was Våge and Lingaas’  “Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) in Coding Regions of Canine Dopamine- and Serotonin-Related Genes” where they the important relationship in dogs between breed traits like size, color and conformation and behavioral phenotypes was described: 

The large number of canine breeds exhibits an extreme between-breed variation in traits like size, colour, conformation and behaviour. For many of these breeds, behavioural characteristics represent an important part of the breed definition and description. Certain behavioural phenotypes are associated with specific breeds as a result of long-term, systematic selection and limited genetic variation. In a behavioural context, dog breeds are evidence for the considerable impact of genetics on behavioural traits. They are therefore valuable models for genetic studies aimed at revealing basic biological knowledge of genetic regulation of behavioural traits. This can be efficiently performed through crossbreeding and backcrosses of these isolates with strong between-breed contrasts in specific behaviours.

There’s a lot more out there and it is absolutely fascinating stuff… but don’t hold your breath waiting for a genetic test that will tell you if Fifi suffers from clinical depression or Rover is a budding psychopath.  According to the DOE’s Human Genome Project website:  

“No single gene determines a particular behavior. Behaviors are complex traits involving multiple genes that are affected by a variety of other factors. This fact often gets overlooked in media reports hyping scientific breakthroughs on gene function, and, unfortunately, this can be very misleading to the public.”

Beyond any media hype, these studies point out the vital importance of early socialization, care and training on human and canine youngsters.  Your genes don’t make you who you are, they just lay out a general, and rather fuzzy, template for your environment to shape.  Having the gene variant that can predispose you to ADHD doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to suffer from it.  The other genes in your DNA and specific environmental factors can suppress or increase the chance that a trait will develop.  And as the orchid hypothesis points out, there are also cases where having a what is commonly seen as a problematic gene presents an adaptive advantage.

With apologies to the Greeks, we aren’t born with a single, immutable, predetermined destiny.  We’re born with potential, and the genes we inherit aren’t good or bad, some are just more adaptive in certain situations than others.  The range of adaptiveness that “weedy” genes give species like rhesus monkeys, humans and dogs allows us to adapt to a broader range of  environments – while possibly also leaving us more vulnerable to certain behavioral disorders than less weedy species. 

Resilient dandelion or fragile orchid – it’s not your destiny, it’s just a phenotype that affects your individual potential and increases the adaptiveness of your species as a whole.

November 18, 2009 at 7:30 pm 7 comments

That’ll Do

It’s another football Sunday [sigh].  Honey, this one’s for you —

November 16, 2009 at 12:06 am 1 comment


Japanese television.  Bizarre.  Incomprehensible.  And curiously intriguing.

[gigya width=”400″ height=”345″ src=”” quality=”high” wmode=”transparent” allowScriptAccess=”always” ]

IMO – the black lab was being tortured, the shiba must have been drugged and the chimp, well, he was a very good sport.

November 7, 2009 at 3:30 am 2 comments

Vicious Bitch

From the very excellent webcomic PartiallyClips  (click here to embiggen)


H/T to Natureblog for the link to this wonderful little time sink

November 5, 2009 at 1:44 am Leave a comment

End of the Rainbow

If you’re a dog whose had a bit of a rough start in life – what do you search for at the end of the rainbow?


(real rainbow in our real backyard yesterday)


Lots of good, healthy exercise


A best buddy to hang out with


A dog-friendly human (or two) to pester


And a warm place to nap


This looks smells pretty darn good to me!

Charlie’s come a long way from the dog whose most remarkable skills consisted of an unrestrained enthusiasm for creative elimination and the willingness to throw monumental temper tantrums.  He’s not ready to find his forever home yet, but every day he demonstrates more of the fine potential he’ll be happy to share with some lucky family.

November 3, 2009 at 4:11 am 11 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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November 2009