Posts tagged ‘news’

Foiling urban coyotes

This week local KARE 11 reported that a Maltese in St. Louis Park died from injuries related to a coyote attack.

Jerry Stamm of St. Louis Park let his dog, Cici, outside on St. Patrick’s Day evening, then noticed a coyote in his fenceless backyard.

It’s a sad story that keeps getting repeated with different players. Brilliantly adaptive coyotes are becoming increasingly common in urban and suburban areas around the world. They’ve been a problem here in Red Wing for years and now, following trends of human urbanization, large numbers of the wily tricksters are relocating closer to the city.

“It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a place like Minnesota,” Peggy Callahan said, from the Wildlife Science Center.

Callahan says there are more coyotes than black bear in the state — well over 25,000. They extended east of the Mississippi after 1915, spreading to 48 states. Residents in St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Golden Valley have reported coyote sightings.

How should pet owners respond to the threat of sharing their environment with coyotes? The smartest course of action is to deal with it much like you would face a problem with your dog’s behavior — in a proactive way with smart action instead of reactively in fear.

If coyotes live in your area follow these rules to avoid conflicts.

  • Make sure all pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens) are protected by a sturdy, coyote-proof enclosure when they aren’t under your direct supervision. This includes potty breaks, as Mr. Stamm discovered.
  • Keep dogs and cats up to date on vaccinations. Coyotes can carry diseases that are transmissible to pets.
  • Don’t put out food for deer or other ground-dwelling wildlife near your home. Keep areas under bird feeders clean to discourage rodents that may attract coyotes.
  • Don’t feed your pets outside.
  • Keep garbage, compost and other waste in well secured containers.
  • Keep your dog on a leash on all walks unless he has solid off-leash obedience skills. And even if your dog is brilliantly well trained – it is still important to keep him in your sight.
  • If you see coyotes near your home yell, wave your arms, flash bright lights, bang things together and otherwise act like a dangerously mad threat. Don’t let them feel comfortable near your home.

Men have lived side by side with coyotes since we left the trees. Significant problems with the arrangement are more common now because there are few human-free areas left for coyotes to live in. Reduced hunting pressure from humans, and an increasing number of humans who actively or inadvertently encourage coyotes to acclimate to their presence has also created a near perfect environment to increase conflicts between our species.

Coyotes aren’t evil or malevolent, they’re just smart and opportunistic and you don’t need help from the Acme Corporation to foil them. If you put one tenth as much effort into discouraging coyotes as they do into looking for ways to take advantage of you – you’ll come out ahead in the game.

March 31, 2011 at 10:48 am 7 comments

Leashes kill – again

Flexi-type leads are attractive largely because they lure dog owners into a false idea of freedom. They encourage dog walkers to substitute the easy out of physical attachment for mindful attention and training.

In a sadly overdue step to make dog walkers safer, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that extension leashes will be outlawed on San Jose park trails after a dog walker was recently killed when she became entangled in a long leash (I suspect this was a fully extended Flexi type lead), fell and hit her head.

I’ve said it before and [sigh] I’m sure I’ll feel compelled to say it again – while any kind of leash presents some risk, extension type leashes like the uberpopular Flexi-lead present a terrible hidden danger to dogs and dog owners across America every day.

Throw away the attention substitute leash and put the time needed in to train your dog to come reliably when called, ignore distractions on command and walk politely at your side. Your dog will love the attention and you’ll love the results.

March 29, 2011 at 9:11 am 16 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

Do I smell a rat (er, mouse) in TSA’s future?

I hope so.

Israel21C recently reported on new technology that might someday replace invasive pat-downs and body scans TSA treats us to at the airport:

Israeli startup Bioexplorers has developed a new and unique way to sniff out terrorists – literally. After years of research, company CEO Eran Lumbroso tells ISRAEL21c, Bioexplorers has hit upon a foolproof, non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and even cargo – using mice.

Like dogs, mice have an excellent sense of smell and they’re relatively easy to train. As much as it pains to me admit it, mice offer some advantages. Their small size means they’re cheaper and easier to keep than dogs are, and because they don’t need human handlers, mice also won’t be sensitive to their prejudices.

The proposed system will combine low tech mice with high-tech training and screening equipment. The target to be screened will move through a passageway equipped with fans that extract the air surrounding the target and deliver it to chambers containing several mice. Each mouse is trained to respond to a single odor. When a mouse detects the target odor it moves into a second chamber and sets off an alarm.

Bioexplorers’ system is interesting because not only could it allow for less invasive screening than existing measures but, as an improvement over existing canine detection methods, it could also give screeners the ability to determine exactly which odorants have been detected.

Initial tests are promising.

[Bioexplorers] has conducted several tests at sites in Israel to ensure that the sensors work in real situations, including at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall. More than 1,000 people passed through a Bioexplorers sensor – some having been given “suspicious” objects and substances to hold – and the mice made the right call every time, says Lumbroso.

The company says they can train mice in just two weeks using a patented Skinnerian computer program. Mice will be expected to work four hour shifts with eight hour rest periods and each mouse’s career is anticipated to last about two years.

It’s an interesting idea and there may be additional uses for the tiny detectors. Bioexplorers’ representatives say they’re also working on systems designed for medical use.

They may be able to detect drugs and explosives at minute concentrations, but the mouse’s nose may be too refined for use in the wine industry. The io9 forums report that researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University conducted an experiment in 2008 to see if they could teach mice to tell different kinds of wine apart. The experiment was successful so the group decided to take the idea a step further and see if they could teach mice to tell different brands of red wine apart.

The results were interesting.

Only two of the ten mice tested displayed the ability to consistently tell the red wines apart. Six others performed on a what appeared to be a purely random basis.

But the final pair of connoisseur mice could not be persuaded to respond the target wine. These mice were consistently drawn to a specific non-reward wine indicating that they preferred the smell of this wine to the food rewards offered by the alternate choice.

I’m not terribly surprised to hear that well-fed laboratory mice will sometimes prefer an alluring scent over certain food rewards. Smell plays a huge part in the social and intellectual life of a mouse. A good smell, or an interesting one, may provide the kind of intellectual stimulation that could be more lacking in a laboratory mouse’s life than food is.

And while mice may replace dogs in situations where a static location like an airport or freight terminal needs to be screened for a wide array of compounds, I suspect that dogs will continue to be the detector of choice in field situations for some time to come.

March 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm 7 comments

I want a dog license

Dog licenses have been required in the United States since settlements were large enough to breed conflicts between neighbors. 

In his book “Pre-1900 Dog License Tags,” William J. Bone, D.V.M. wrote that dog licensing was first addressed in the U.S. during the 1700’s when several states passed laws desinged to control dogs and collect taxes to reimburse livestock owners for dog depredation. Dog licensing was first instituted in England at about the same time.

Of course dog catchers and dog pounds followed right on the heels of dog licenses, (though the first animal protection societies weren’t created until about a century later) and licensing provided revenue that helped support dog catching.

Back in the day, dog licenses cost money but they also sometimes offered certain priveleges and protections. According to Diane Bandy in Indiana Dog License History:

A dog who was licensed in Indiana, had certain privileges of running at large and escaping a death sentence imposed by officials. A dog who ran at large, licensed and not bothering livestock was also protected legally. If someone shot a licensed, non provoking dog, they could be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined anywhere from $5-$50 along with liabilities to the owner for injury or death.

Sadly, the idea of combining certain priveleges (running politely at large) with specified responsibilities  (staying out of trouble and wearing a tag that identifies you) did not gain much popularity. Over time, dog licenses became little more than a way to collect revenue and keep track of canine populations. And because license laws are notoriously difficult to enforce, scofflaws became the norm rather than the exception.

So much so that the national dog licensing system in Great Britain was abolished in 1987. According to a House of Commons Research Paper published in January of 1998:

The national dog licensing system, which was abolished in 1987, did nothing to contain the problems caused by irresponsible dog ownership since it had long ceased to command any public respect. Less than 50% of owners bothered to register. As a result, there is no evidence that the number of strays is higher since the abolition of dog licensing.

According to this article in today’s Star Tribune, thirteen years later some cities in Minnesota are following suit:

Are city dog licenses going the way of VCRs and film cameras? In an age when dogs sport name tags and personalized collars and have microchips injected between their shoulder blades, Golden Valley Police Chief Stacy Altonen thinks the answer is “yes.”

Next month the Golden Valley City Council is expected to drop a requirement that residents license their dogs, joining Plymouth, Minnetonka, Brooklyn Center, New Brighton, Falcon Heights and Northfield in the no-license category.

Altonen said the city is simply dropping an ordinance that wasn’t effective and that cost the city in staff time. Only about 600 dogs — a fraction of the canines residing in Golden Valley — were licensed each year.

A significant lack of compliance combined with the difficulty of enforcing license laws mean that dog licenses are becoming a net drain on finances in many areas. Advocates of licensing point out that license tags can provide a way to return lost pets to their owners but Altonen is quoted as saying that:

“In 17 years here, I can count on one hand the dogs we returned because of city tags. We return more dogs with microchips … or because people call right away when they lose their dogs so when we find them we know who lost them.”

Dog owners have historically been required to do little more than pay a fee and show proof of vaccination to license their pets. In exchange they’re received a shiny tag and a spot in the city database. Given the pathetic number of people who comply with license laws, most of us obviously see little value in that.

Why don’t dog licenses allow dog owners to do anything with their dogs?

A driver’s license gives you access to public roads. A concealed carry permit gives you the right to carry a handgun. But — someone who wants to drive a car or carry a concealed weapon has to pass a test to demonstrate at least a basic level of competence to earn that license.

Before you get your hackles up, I’ll say that I think that dropping the generic dog license requirement is a good thing. I don’t need a license to own a car, just to drive one on public roads. And I think that if municipalities want to institute revenue-generating programs that truly serve dog owners they need to reconsider what a dog license represents.

According to Merriam-Webster a license is:

1. the approval by someone in authority for the doing of something
2. the granting of power to perform various acts or duties
3. the right to act or move freely

Note that in all three cases a license is defined as granting the holder permission to do something. The problem with dog licenses is that they don’t function as “licenses” at all, they’re just an annual tax on dog ownership.

Dog licensing has become a way to collect revenue; a convenient tool to track data on pet ownership; and in some areas, a hammer to try to force compliance with vaccination, spay-neuter, breed-specific and other dog-related legislation. Since most people don’t license their dogs, I would assume that (despite what many try to tell us) these are not things most dog owers put a high value on. 

I don’t think I should need a license to own a dog. But I’d like to have the option of getting a dog license that functioned a lot like a driver’s license. To get it I’d take a written test to demonstrate basic knowledge of dog safety and dog-related laws and then my dog and I would take a skills test to demonstrate our ability to navigate the community in a safe and sane manner. If I demonstrated my ability and willingness to accept specific responsibilities and passed the test, I’d get a license that gave my dog and I certain privileges (such as on and off leash access to specified areas) that unlicensed dog owners do not have.

I want a dog license – but I want it to be license that says my dog and I have demonstrated that we’ve earned the right to hold it.

October 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm 21 comments

More than a mouthful

Today’s StarTribune reports on a Twin Cities dog who’s definitely got a grip.

Rose is a border collie / lab mix who was adopted from a local shelter and then given to Ed Watson.

Like many high-energy mutts, this five-year-old Labrador retriever/border collie mix loves a good game of Frisbee. Unlike the rest, she can catch and hold onto up to seven tossed discs — thrown separately — without dropping a one.

Rose’s unique talent was born of her obsession to hold on to her favorite toys. Watson noticed that the dog not only wanted to hold on to a Frisbee she had but that she could catch another without dropping it.

“She doesn’t like to let go when she’s got a lot of them,” Watson said, recalling that the first time she was able to keep her jaws clamped around seven Frisbees, she refused to drop them for a re-throw and hopped into the car with all seven still in her mouth. “I like to think she knew what she’d accomplished.”

Watson isn’t an experienced trainer of dogs – Rose is his first. But he works as a personal trainer so I suspect that he’s got a lot of personal focus and that he’s found that some his coaching skills work well on dogs. So well that Rose will appear in the 2011 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Go to this link for an excellent set of photos featuring Rose at work.

October 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

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

Monday Linkage

Interesting article in Time on how reading Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance caused one man to rethink his arguments against carnivory.

Best use for an Altoids tin ever.

The shooting of dogs by police officers has become disturblingly common. Read this excellent article from Radley Balko for information on how better training for police officers might help stem the tide.

From Terrierman: Ten Tips to Finding the Right Dog.

September 13, 2010 at 11:57 am Leave a comment

A breath of not-so-fresh air

That whiff of a buddy’s just-back-from-lunch garlic, onion, tomato, salami and beer breath may kill your appetite, but to a mouse it provides a powerful incentive to grab a pizza and beer for himself.

As reported last week at Science News:

For rodents, any food smell combined with breath odor sends an irresistible “eat this” message to the brain, reported Thursday.

Carbon disulfide, a metabolic byproduct found in the breath of many mammals, stimulates specialized cells in the mouse nose, scientists report in the journal Current Biology.

These cells send a signal to specialized structures within the mouse brain that links an incoming odor with food that’s safe to eat, researchers said.

Olfaction arises from the interaction of several astonishingly complex subsystems. And they do a lot more than just detect odors. While some receptor systems help animals detect and decode a wide range of chemosensory input others affect and regulate specific kinds of behavior.

GC-D cells are a set of neurons in the main olfactory epithelium that detect specific hormones and urinary stimuli. Although GC-D cells were first identified back in the 1980’s, there’s no evidence that they play a role in odor recognition. So why are they present in some mammalian noses?

According to Science News:

Special nasal cells, called GC-D cells, seem to respond to the CS2 in rodent breath, experiments by Munger and his colleagues reveal. A mouse that smells cinnamon on a buddy’s breath will choose cinnamon-scented food over any other flavor, the researchers found. And it doesn’t even have to be another mouse: Cotton balls laced with a food odor and CS2 did the trick. But mice without working GC-D cells lost the ability to interpret this chemical message and they didn’t copy their compatriots’ food choices, the team reports.

The new work provides a molecular explanation for how these rodents learn what’s OK to eat, says neuroscientist Emily Liman of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For people and other primates, food preferences are mostly learned visually (or compelled via threats of no dessert). But for nocturnal creatures such as rodents, visual cues are limited. So it makes sense that there’s a scent signal, Liman says.

This safe-to-eat signal is so powerful that a mouse who has eaten poison will return for more if it catches a whiff of the poison on another mouse’s breath, says behavioral scientist Bennett Galef of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “The strength of this social learning on food choice is huge,” says Galef, whose research revealed that mixing CS2 with rat poison drew four times as many rodents to the bait.

Humans and most other primates lack GC-D cells. Our eyes are as important as our noses in helping us decide what to eat. GC-D cells are present in dogs and many other mammals and, if mice are an accurate model, their noses play an important role in determining their food preferences.

We’ve known that carbon disulfide was important in helping mice and rats identify food sources for a long time but their link to the GC-D cells is a new discovery. Bennett Galef’s earlier research on carbon disulfide led to its widespread use as an attractant in rat poison. He wrote:

By signalling “safety,” CS2 increases the attractiveness of materials to which it is applied.

Carbon disulfide may increase the effectiveness of poison baits in ways that extend beyond simple enhancement of initial intake. Results of 4 recent sets of experiments indicate that experience with the smell of a diet, either on the breath of a conspecific, or in association with CS2, interferes with rats’ ability to acquire a subsequent aversion (bait-shyness) towards that diet.

The GC-D cells’ influence on food preference could help explain why every time a new pup or foster dog who eats poop stays at our place the rest of the pack starts eating poop again too.

The use of carbon disulfide as an attractant in rat poison may explain why dogs are attracted to eating it.

It could also explain why my dogs have no interest in a new Nylabone until I spit on it, and why Audie likes to sniff our breath after we eat.

And – because humans lack GC-D cells, it may also help explain why we don’t understand dogs’ great interest in sniffing urine, stale breath and feces.

Pizza breath - Nom!

July 25, 2010 at 12:50 pm Leave a 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

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