Posts filed under ‘science’

Outcrossing and essentialism

Paul Bloom believes that we find pleasure in the essence of things. He proposes that human beings draw meaning from the origins of things, that we are essentialists who assign value to the things around us as much from their provenance as by how they look, sound, taste, smell or function.

Bloom’s ideas on art, essentialism and our sense of pleasure may explain the obsession many fanciers have with the idea of eugenically pure blooded dogs. The idea that the smallest fraction of racially impure blood in a dog’s pedigree is far worse than breeding an entire race genetically damaged (but pure blooded!) dogs has always struck me as wildly irrational.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam via Wikimedia Commons

But after listening to Bloom’s ideas on essentialism I realized that most dog fanciers see the original development of a breed as a unique and specific creative act — like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In their eyes any genetic addition to the original bloodline is tantamount to forgery. If Bloom is right, I may have different feelings about outcrossing because I see the creation of dog breeds simply as the result of a specific tendency and style in breeding. As an art movement rather than a specific work of art. This is an important difference because if we understand a breed as an art movement instead of a specific work of art, outcrossing is an acceptable way to refine individual art forms within the greater movement.

The essentialist hypothesis may also help explain why people are so intensely opinionated about breeding dogs because, according to Bloom, when we experience a thing in what we feel to be its essence, we find a deep sense of pleasure in it. And – when we believe that we have been fooled into experiencing a thing as being genuine when it is not, we feel a deep sense of revulsion. So while I see an LUA Dalmatian as a logical bit of experimentation within an art movement, those who see dog breeds as art forms are likely to view it as an abomination.

August 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm 13 comments

Mt. Labrador

Mt. Labrador is one of the most bizarre, beautiful and little known rock formations in North America. The outcrop, which bears an amazing resemblance to the breed that shares its name, is located on a remote section of the southern coast of Maine.

The stunning cliff is an outcrop of Cutler complex anorthosite rock. Anorthosite is a somewhat rare, and quite beautiful, form of intrusive igneous rock and, in an odd twist to our story, a plagioclase mineral called Labradorite is a common constituent of anorthositic rocks.

As igneous rocks cool, well developed systems of joints are generated by the tensile stresses of shrinkage. The high temperature minerals in anorthosites also undergo higher rates of chemical weathering than minerals in low temperature rock types like granite do. This combination of factors means that anorthositic rocks undergo high rates of physical and chemical weathering and are therefore known for eroding into dramatic natural features.

Some other unusual examples of anorthosite outcrops can be found in the Black Giants of New Zealand, parts of the New Jersey Palisades, at Minnesota’s Split Rock lighthouse and – most abundantly – the mountains of the moon.

The billion year old rocks of Mt. Labrador are were first exposed during the Pleistocene glacial period and then later modified by digital erosion.

Popular largely only with mountain climbers, Mt. Labrador doesn’t attract many other visitors because of it’s remote location — about 50 miles west of Portland and 50 miles away from anything else.

April 1, 2011 at 2:49 am 2 comments


Today Engadget reports on nifty Japanese technology that may revolutionize poop patrol!

The SWITL robotic hand, designed by Furukawakikou can pick up wet, gooey messes and move them without changing their shape. SWITL was developed to speed up and simplify the handling of soft and/or gooey materials at bakeries.

How does it work? According to Engadget it may be the tool of Satan:

Unfortunately, Furukawa Kikou isn’t providing any details about the science behind SWITL so we’ll just assume that it’s Satan’s work until otherwise informed.

When SWITL was first announced back in June of 2009 Japan Tech Niche reported (italics mine):

The “SWITL” was developed base on a need for automated process for lining up bread dough at the factory which was handled manually before. “SWITL” is technology is patent pending and can apply not only in the food industry but also in wide different filed of applications. The company is planning to develop a new products implementing “SWITL” technology in a near future. Interesting idea indeed, I leave it to your imaginative mind to come up with the SWITL new applications.

Evil or not, cross Roomba with SWITL and dog poop littering yards and parks across the country could be, well, eliminated!

March 28, 2011 at 9:25 am 5 comments

Is there a gene for stupid?

Maybe. Maybe not.

An article in the February 15 edition of Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reported that pharmacologist John Hepler and associates recently discovered a gene in the brains of mice that codes for a signaling protein that “significantly boosted brainpower with seemingly no negative consequences.” Jabr writes:

People have this gene, too, and it is active in the same brain area. In other words, we may have a gene in our heads that is actively making us dumber.

Hepler et al were studying the CA2 section of the hippocampus when they discovered that neurons in that area appeared to be blocked from participating in learning and memory processes when they were saturated with signaling protein RGS14.

When they bred mice who lacked the gene for RGS14 the CA2 neurons were no longer blocked and the mice exhibited some interesting differences in learning and behavior. Scientific American reports that:

The genetic tweak affected more than physiology—it changed how the mice performed on memory tests, too. The experimenters presented two identical objects to knock­out mice, which lacked the RGS14 gene, and to normal mice. Four hours and again 24 hours later, the researchers switched one of the objects with a new object. The knockout mice spent far more time exploring the new object than the normal mice did, indicating that the altered rodents had a better memory for distinguishing familiar and strange objects. Knockout mice also learned to navigate a water maze and locate a submerged platform faster than normal mice did. The scientists observed no detriments from removing the RGS14 gene.

“Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” asks Serena Dudek, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “We don’t know. But if the gene is conserved by natural selection, there must be some reason. Intuitively, it seems there should be a downside to having this gene knocked out, but we haven’t found it so far. It may be that these mice are hallucinating, and you just can’t tell.”

And this is where I get frustrated that I don’t have unlimited access to journal articles (or an unlimited budget to buy it with) because based on what they’re saying here it sounds to me that while the gene may have something to do with spatial learning, it might also have evolved as a safety mechanism controlling neophobia – not stupidity.

I suppose that one might be able to test this by looking at the action of CA2 in young animals during different stages of development when neophobia typically ebbs and wanes, but since mice reach maturity within weeks of being born, I’m not sure they’d be viable candidates for this.

Either way, I’m sad to say that I don’t think they’ve discovered a genetic cure for stupidity.

Altered rodents

February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

Dog training as gaming

Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.

Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.

Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.

To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.

Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.

  1. Complex games give us a way to measure our progress.  When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
  2. A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
  3. A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad – and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
  4. A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
  5. It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast.  Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation.  It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
  6. A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ‘windows of enhanced attention’ – and leave you both wanting more.
  7. Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.

I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life – joy would disappear too.

A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.

November 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm 10 comments

A labrador oscillates at 4.3 hz

And a bear oscillates at 4 hz. They arrive at the point of dryness at the same time.

This sounds like the start of one of the many long and convoluted word problems I had to solve in graduate school but I found it in a press release. Today MIT’s Technology Review reports that a group of Georgia Institute of Technology students have created a simple mathematical model that helps describe how rapidly an animal needs to shake to dry its fur.

The group used high-speed videography, x-ray cinematography and particle tracking to study several different wet animals shaking themselves dry. The angular position of each animal’s shoulder skin was plotted as a function of time (producing a lovely series of sine waves) and the team calculated the conditions for water drop ejection by considering the balance of surface tension and centripetal forces on each drop.

They then developed a simple mathematical model to describe what they observed reasoning that water is bound to an animal by surface tension between the liquid and the hair. When the animal shakes, centripetal forces pull the water away. So to remove the water from its fur, the centripetal force an animal generates has to exceed the surface tension holding the water on.

The model indicated that shaking frequency was related to the shoulder radius of the animal with smaller animals needing to oscillate faster than large ones to dry themselves off. A mouse shakes at 27 Hz, a cat at 6 Hz and a bear at 4Hz. “Shake frequencies asymptotically approach 4Hz as animals grow in size,” they conclude.

Their model predicted that an animal’s shaking frequency should increase related to size with R^0.5 but the best fit for the data was when R^0.75. According to the press release:

Clearly, their model misses some important correction factor. Dickerson and co make one suggestion. In their model, the radius is the distance from the centre of the animal to its skin. Perhaps the fur makes a difference, they say in a video intended for the 2010 APS Gallery of Fluid Motion.

The video (which is excellent by the way but could not be embedded) is posted here and the original article here.

I think that the missing ‘looseness coeffecient’ is related to a combination the length and texture of an animal’s fur and the plasticity of its skin. And I suspect that the looseness of the skin is the more important factor. To test this I would find a group of dogs that had similar shoulder radii but different coat lengths and textures and different degrees of skin looseness. A largish beagle, a Shar-pei, a small labrador, an English bulldog, an American water spaniel, a Keeshond and a golden retriever would provide a nice data set for that experiment.

In a follow-up experiment I’d test the importance of surface adhesion factors like the texture and oiliness of the coat.

October 20, 2010 at 9:29 am 8 comments

Detection work goes to the dogs

Dogs have helped men search for prey for thousands of years. Today their marvelously sensitive noses help us search for an astonishingly wide variety of things. In traditional search and detection methods dogs sniff the environment directly to search for prey, escaped felons, lost persons, explosives, contraband and rare plant and animal species. But now filter-search odor detection methods, also referred to as Remote Explosive Scent Tracing or REST, bring minefields to dogs instead of taking dogs to minefields.

In REST air samples are collected from minefields using vacuum pumps equipped with special filters. After the air samples pass through them the filters are protected so that they retain odorant molecules while they’re transported to a secure location for testing. Samples are collected under strict quality assurance and quality control protocols similar to those used in environmental investigation and monitoring programs.

While sample collection can be tedious and time-consuming, REST methods provide a relatively fast way to identify areas that are free of mines and they allow dogs and handlers to work away from the danger of mines. Detailed mine location methods then only need to be used in areas where evidence of mines has been detected.

This week CNN reported that similar methods are now being used to outwit rhino poachers in Africa. They report that:

… there are times when it is not practical to use dogs on the ground, as the tarmac at border posts gets too hot for them during the day, or if there could be a danger to the animal.

Now researchers at the South African company Mechem are adapting their Explosive and Drug Detection System to the fight against poachers.


Inspector T.C.Oosthuizen, of the South African Police Service, said: “When we work at Komatipoort for instance, the tarmac is so hot, it starts melting so you can’t get a dog to work from 12 o’clock in the afternoon.

“And the smugglers, they know about it, so then they know you can’t bring a dog to the border posts because the dog of course will burn.

“With this machine you take the samples, and give it to the dog in a controlled environment, an air-conditioned facility. It’s cool for the dog so the dog can work longer and more.”

Hot pavement may not be as dangerous as a minefield but if authorities can provide dogs and handlers with a safe and comfortable work environment they can work more hours and, we hope, identify more contraband.

Detailed information on REST and other mine detection methods was published in the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining’s (GICHD) Mine Detection Dogs: Training, Operations and Odour Detection in June of 2003. GICHD states that REST isn’t used to locate mines directly. It’s used to identify areas that don’t contain traces of explosives or other target scents so that detailed searches for mines don’t need to be conducted there. They’re sometimes referred to as “reduction methods” because they reduce the size of the area where dangerous and time-consuming mine locating work must be done.

Composite air samples are systematically collected across the minefield. Each sample contains the molecules that remain in a filter after the air passed through it when the sample was collected. The area over which each sample was collected is carefully recorded and this allows the perimeter of areas where scent was and was not detected to be identified.

REST methods allow a relatively small number of searchers and dogs to screen large areas quickly. GHCID reports that in mine work as much as 95% of target areas can be declared safe (or mine free) after REST screening. If similar results are obtained when searching for rhino horn, this means that detailed searches for horn only need to be conducted in a small percentage of vehicles and cargo passing through checkpoint areas.

REST methods are most efficient when the target is a rare and unusual odorant because if it is common or widespread all the sample filters would contain odorant and no areas can be eliminated. Rhino horn is rare and unusual, so the method applies well to these searches.

Because dogs don’t perform scent work perfectly, when clearing mine fields two or more dogs are used to check each composite sample. The samples are transported to a central location where they’re attached to stands that make it easy for the dogs to sniff them. The dogs are trained to sniff each filter and indicate a positive find by sitting or lying down next to filters where they smell traces of the target odorant. Once a dog has sniffed all of the filters individually, they’re moved to different locations in the stands and the same dog sniffs each one again. After each sample has been sniffed twice by the same dog, one or more additional dogs repeat the process with the same filters (or duplicate filters). If a filter is examined by each dog twice without any positive indications the area it was collected from is identified as being clear of the target odorant.

This kind of detailed duplicate analysis is probably not as important when searching for contraband instead of explosives. Even if each sample is checked twice by a single dog, authorities should be able to clear traffic through checkpoints much more quickly than they can with direct detection methods. And, as CNN notes, dogs can also search traffic at times and in places where it would not otherwise be safe for them to do so.

Rhinos are critically endangered and poaching is dramatically on the rise because of demand from Asian markets where horn goes for as much as $30,000 a pound. Just this week LiveScience reported that:

“Within South Africa’s national parks — not counting private land there, where poaching was rare — there were 10 rhinos poached in 2007,” said Matthew Lewis, senior program officer for African species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. “Thus far in 2010 alone, more than 200 rhinos were poached within South Africa, with a lot of those poached outside national parks, so that’s a more than 2,000 percent increase in just three years’ time.”

Because the market has become so lucrative, organized groups of poachers now use high-tech equipment like helicopters, night-vision scopes, silencers and chemical immobilization to avoid detection and arrest.

I hope that REST helps authorities arrest more poachers in this deadly, and rapidly escalating, cat and mouse game before it’s too late…

September 23, 2010 at 6:28 pm Leave a comment


Time Tree is a new search utility for those interested in evolutionary divergence times between organisms in the published literature. Time Tree uses a hierarchical system to identify all published molecular time estimates on the divergence of the selected taxa and presents the results in a tabular format.

According to PennState’s press release:

“Timetrees are having broad impact in biology and in other fields such as geology, and even in human health, where researchers need to track the evolution and spread of disease-causing organisms,” said Hedges. At the other end of the timescale, astrobiologists, who study the origin and development of life in the universe, need to know which organisms were responsible for changes in the chemistry of rocks on Earth that are billions of years old. A timetree could rule out species that had not yet evolved at the time the rock formed, while implicating other species that have deep evolutionary branches. “The variety of uses of a timetree really drives home its power as an interdisciplinary tool,” said Hedges, himself an astrobiologist.

Of course when I found the app I immediately ran a search to find out when Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris first diverged:

According to Time Tree, the species who would become man and dog first began to diverge about 100 million years ago. What Time Tree doesn’t tell is is that, in a rare and wonderful bit of evolutionary husbandry, somewhere between 12,000 and 135,000 years ago these two species would be espaliered together again.

September 21, 2010 at 7:35 pm 1 comment

Missing the point?

A recent blog post by Jesse Bering over at Scientific American caught my eye today. Bering looks at a study published by Monique Udell, Nicole Dorey and Clive Wynne earlier this year in the journal Animal Behavior. Udell et al. claim to have demonstrated that stray dogs think about human social behavior and intentions in a fundamentally different way than our pet dogs do.

Bering recently returned from a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria and writes that:

Stray dogs are about common as squirrels there, and from what I saw, most of Sofia’s human population also has about as much interest in strays as Americans in the suburbs have in the squirrels living in their backyards. A June, 2010 estimate placed the figures at around 9,500 dogs running loose in the Sofia confines. So when you’ve got that many animals—even man’s best friend—in a relatively small, concentrated city (not to mention one with its own human homeless problems in the form of the ostracized Romanian Roma, or “gypsies”), mass desensitization is sadly inevitable. But this human-dog indifference is even more striking because it appears to be mutual.

I watched incredulously as the Sofia strays ambled casually down the sidewalks like proper Bulgarian citizens. They stepped aside politely for human pedestrians before continuing on their way, stopped patiently to look both ways before loping across frantically organized, crowded freeways, mingled with one another at storefronts and had their mangy coats tousled by the whooshing tires of passing commercial trucks while in the midday heat they slept quietly in tree-shaded gutters mere inches from the road. Most of these animals are multigenerational strays, which means that they are the offspring of strays who were the offspring of strays and so on, and on, for many breeding generations. Natural selection must work quickly indeed under such conditions: these are the descendents of the craftiest ancestral dogs of yesteryear Sofia, those who survived puppyhood without being crushed by some juggernaut and who managed to live long enough to pass on their wily natures to their offspring. Too much reliance on humans or interest in human behavior may well be maladaptive to these dogs’ overall genetic interests within this selective context, given the situation. I love my dogs, Gulliver and Uma, and they’re pretty smart as far as dogs go. But they wouldn’t last two minutes on the streets of Sofia.

The ability to read and correctly interpret human behavior is a vital skill if you’re a stray dog who wants to survive in an urban environment. The hordes of people who surround him are boon and a threat at the same time. A stray dog has to be able to judge whether a strange human’s intent is aggressive or benign in a nanosecond.

But while domestic dogs have been the focus of several studies on social cognition, feral dogs remain a resource for information that’s rarely been mined. Until recently, that is.

I wasn’t able to pull up a free copy of Udell et al.’s study and I’m too cheap to buy one, but Bering writes that:

Udell and her group in Florida, however, say that these impressive social cognitive abilities in dogs may not represent the “default” canine cognitive system. In their review of this literature on dog social cognition, the authors point out that:

The currently available data suggest that populations of dogs differing in [breeding] and in environmental and lifetime pressures might display different behavioral responses to the actions of humans. Despite this fact, the great majority of subjects in studies of the origins of domestic dogs’ human-compatible social cognition have been pet dogs living in human homes, with human-oriented working dogs representing the remainder of the subject pool.

In other words, Udell and her coauthors’ contention is similar to arguments made by many researchers studying human psychological evolution—that our ability to make claims about “human nature” are seriously limited by the fact that the data upon which such claims are made are derived almost entirely from middleclass American undergraduate students between 18-22 years of age and recruited from a psychology department subject pool. She’s basically arguing that existing social cognition research on Canis lupus familiaris has largely neglected large demographic swells of the species and therefore does not necessarily paint an entirely accurate portrait of this species’ natural (default) psychological stance.

Comparing feral dogs to pet dogs is a lot like comparing undergraduates to middle-aged suburban housewives – but… I think Udell et al. made a bigger mistake if they extrapolated data collected from truly feral dogs living in shelter environments to those living free on the street or, for that matter, to dogs in general. Feral dogs in shelter environments are like early Native Americans forced into confinement camps. Trapped in an alien environment they have little or not control over, they won’t respond in a way that’s normal for them, much less the species in general. While they may be an interesting group to study, their behavior is not characteristic of the population at large.

We’ll get back to that point later. Meanwhile, back at the lab Udell et al. administered two different pointing comprehension tests to dogs at an animal shelter. The goal of the study was to assess the relative importance of a dog’s life experience in shaping his ability to understand human pointing gestures. The use and interpretation of pointing and other indicative gestures are important because they can tell us a lot about an animal’s higher cognitive abilities.

Index finger pointing is an innate skill in humans but it’s not the only way we send and receive directional and attentional cues. We also do it by shifting our gaze, turning our heads and re-orienting the position of our bodies. Dogs don’t have fingers so they may need to learn to interpret finger pointing gestures. I believe, however, that dogs do have some innate skills in using and understanding other types of pointing gestures.

And indeed there is strong evidence they do. Bering writes:

Several years ago, Duke University psychologist Brian Hare and his colleagues reported some striking evidence showing that domestic dogs performed above chance on a variety of human-guided selection tasks—including studies in which human experimenters pointed to different objects in the room. At the time, these data were interpreted as showing that dogs have human-like social cognition allowing them to understand cooperative intent in humans. In fact, whereas tame wolves fail to score above chance in such studies, domestic dogs even outperform chimpanzees on similar pointing tests, suggesting that we may have more in common psychologically with dogs than with species for which we’re taxonomically (much) more closely related. This prompted Hare to argue that the co-evolution of humans and the domestic dog had created in the latter a genuine ability to reason about human mental states.

Some of our human understanding of pointing gestures develops over time. In very young children (babies and toddlers) pointing is used primarily as a request. These kinds of declarative pointing gestures are the human equivalent of what I refer to as the “That! That!” point in my dogs. It’s the nose and gaze aimed with laser beam intensity at an object of desire that is literally or culturally out of a dog’s reach. In a declarative point a dog will stare fixedly at the object for long periods of time. If the dog thinks his dimwit owner has missed (or is ignoring) the gesture, he may turn and give her a brief inquisitive (please?) or cross (hey dimwit, over HERE!) look before returning his attention to the object.

As a human child matures she will start to use pointing gestures to guide your attention to things she thinks you may find interesting.  The indicative or “Hey, look at That” point is seen as a sign of an increased cognitive maturity in a child because its use indicates that the child is able to understand when others are and are not aware of something. That she has developed a theory of mind.

I believe that dogs (at least some of them) use indicative pointing gestures too. When Audie notices that one of our hens has escaped the back yard fence he’ll run to me with a very alert posture and work to catch my eye while stepping, dancing or making short darts to and then away from me. This “Timmy’s in the well!” attitude contrasts sharply with the still, fixated postures characteristic of a dog’s declarative pointing gestures.

Once he gets my attention Audie will lead me to the place where he found the lost hen (or dead raccoon or some other Thing of Vital Import) and use animated body postures combined with quick back and forth glances to direct my attention appropriately. The ability to use indicative and declarative gestures would imply that dogs have some ability to understand them as well.

Udell et al. wondered whether or not this ability to understand human pointing gestures is innate in dogs. Their thesis was that if stray dogs performed as well as pet dogs on pointing tests it would indicate the ability is innate. If they did not, some form of experiential learning is required to develop the skill.

Bering writes:

The most significant findings from Udell’s studies were these. Although the strays performed above chance when the experimenter was kneeling on the floor and the tip of the experimenter’s finger was rigidly held 10 cm from the target can, unlike the domestic dogs in prior studies these strays failed to respond correctly to the pointing gesture when such an obvious physical cue was removed. On pointing trials in which the experimenter’s finger was 50 cm from the closest edge of the target container at full extension and then her arm was retracted back to a neutral position before the subject was allowed to make a choice, the strays’ performance fell to chance levels. This distinction is critical for the debate over whether domestic dogs have some semblance of theory of mind, because in the first instance at least, dogs may be using a simple behavioral heuristic such as “pick-the-box-closest-to-the-hand” that does not require human-like social cognition in which they are inferring cooperative intent.

The data shows that the shelter dogs tested displayed inferior skills at interpreting two basic human indicative pointing gestures. This would appear to indicate that there is at least some learned component involved in dogs’ abilities to interpret pointing gestures.

In an article titled “Ontogeny’s impacts on human-dog communication” Clive Wynne, Monique Udell and Katherine Lord discuss how they studied 6 to 24 week old puppies’ skills at interpreting three different human pointing gestures. They report that “In each case, the oldest dogs performed better on each point type than the youngest dogs.”

This provides additional evidence that these skills have an acquired component – but… a study strikingly similar to Wynne et al’s conducted by Tanya Behne, Malinda Carpenter and Michael Tomasello on human toddlers in 2005 produced, well…  strikingly similar results. So it appears that we need to learn these skills too.

Udell et al. chose to study stray dogs from American shelters because they were interested in testing a population of dogs who hadn’t had a chance to learn human gestures in a home environment. But Wynne et al.’s work indicates that even spending a few months or even weeks in the company of humans who use pointing gestures meaningfully with them provides puppies with enough exposure to significantly improve their ability to understand these gestures. This leads me to wonder whether the dogs in Udell et al.’s study performed poorly because they were feral – or because there were in a highly stressful shelter environment. (Or maybe just because no human had ever communicated meaningfully with them before.)

Do feral dogs lack the ability to correctly interpret human body language? Perhaps those living in rural areas do, but when I watched the video of stray dogs at large on the streets of Moscow below, the first thing I noticed was how effortlessly they interpreted subtle cues from the people around them.

I also thought it was interesting (and a little depressing) that they displayed far better manners than most pet dogs do.

I think it would be a lot more interesting to test feral dogs at large in their natural environment using different kinds of indicative gestures. Finger pointing, gaze, head / facial orientation and body orientation gestures are used by humans (and dogs) to signal location and intent. Feral dogs need to be brilliant students of human behavior and intent to survive in urban environments and I wouldn’t be surprised if they performed significantly better than pet dogs at interpreting subtle cues – when tested in their natural environment.

It would also be interesting to study how being in the stressful environment of a shelter affects dogs’ performance at these kinds of tasks. The poor performance of the dogs in Udell et al.’s study may have been related more to the stressful environment they were tested in than their level of skill. If this is true it has important implications for shelter dog testing.

July 21, 2010 at 11:08 am 6 comments

Around the Web

There appears to be some confusion over at Google about that whole ‘don’t be evil‘ thing…


Via SFGate – The most depressing news story ever:

There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear that he might be one of them.

Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.

Great. Now not only do I have to be depressed about the number of people I know who will apparently never get it… the truly scary news is that I’ll never really know whether or not I’m a clueless dolt.


Speaking of clueless people, it is not unusual for me to meet clients with unrealistic expectations who expect me to wave a magic wand and make their dog’s problem behavior vanish in a puff of rainbow fairy dust. Because it such a device could be enormously amusing (if not highly lucrative) I have often wished I had one.

And today I thought that wish had come true.While browsing around ThinkGeek I came across this:

According to ThinkGeek The Magic Wand Programmable Remote:

…may not make legions of kobold minions explode into flames, but it will learn up to 13 commands from your existing remote controls and map them to particular magical motions. Flick the wand from side to side to flip the channels, twist the wand to turn up the volume. A beam of light will shoot out the unicorn tail hair and magic will happen! The Wand can learn from any remotes in your house and once you master its 13 movements, you can mastermind a symphony of electronic enjoyment from the comfort of your couch.

A target stick, magic wand and remote control all in one! I was really excited about it until reality crashed in and I remembered that most remote controlled electronic equipment is operated by infrared signals. My remote training collars receive radio signals (the same kind of system used in R/C cars)  so, sadly, my future television career will not be built on this particular magic wand.


Last, but not least, via thepapierboy’s flickrstream in honor of today’s solstice I bring you – Poophenge!

June 21, 2010 at 10:43 pm 6 comments

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