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Archive for October, 2008

I suspect dogs (as can be inferred from the photographs and videos above) have long had an uneasy relationship with this holiday.  Nevertheless, Happy Halloween…

October 31st, 2008
3:10 pm

Yesterday’s science take on dogs reading human emotion led me to an earlier article on dogs identifying photographs which I also pass along (from Science Daily here and pasted below).  No surprise to me of course who has spent many drowsy evenings poring over the photograph album:


ScienceDaily (Nov. 29, 2007) — Like us, our canine friends are able to form abstract concepts.  Friederike Range and colleagues from the University of Vienna in Austria have shown for the first time that dogs can classify complex color photographs and place them into categories in the same way that humans do.  And the dogs successfully demonstrate their learning through the use of computer automated touch-screens, eliminating potential human influence.

In order to test whether dogs can visually categorize pictures, and transfer their knowledge to new situations, four dogs were shown landscape and dog photographs, and expected to make a selection on a computer touch-screen.

In the training phase, the dogs were shown both the landscape and dog photographs simultaneously and were rewarded with a food pellet if they selected the dog picture (positive stimulus). The dogs then took part in two tests.

In the first test, the dogs were shown completely different dog and landscape pictures.  They continued to reliably select the dog photographs, demonstrating that they could transfer their knowledge gained in the training phase to a new set of visual stimuli, even though they had never seen those particular pictures before.

In the second test, the dogs were shown new dog pictures pasted onto the landscape pictures used in the training phase, facing them with contradictory information: on the one hand, a new positive stimulus as the pictures contained dogs even though they were new dogs; on the other hand, a familiar negative stimulus in the form of the landscape.

When the dogs were faced with a choice between the new dog on the familiar landscape and a completely new landscape with no dog, they reliably selected the option with the dog.  These results show that the dogs were able to form a concept i.e. ‘dog’, although the experiment cannot tell us whether they recognized the dog pictures as actual dogs.

The authors also draw some conclusions on the strength of their methodology: “Using touch-screen computers with dogs opens up a whole world of possibilities on how to test the cognitive abilities of dogs by basically completely controlling any influence from the owner or experimenter.” They add that the method can also be used to test a range of learning strategies and has the potential to allow researchers to compare the cognitive abilities of different species using a single method.

Journal reference: Range F et al (2007). Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition (DOI 10.1007/s10071-007-0123-2).

October 30th, 2008
5:21 pm

This just in from the scientific community:

Dogs have a special ability that really marks them out as man’s best friend, scientists have discovered.

They appear to read emotion in human faces in just the same way people do. It may be evidence that they can see at a glance if we are happy, sad, pleased or angry.

When humans look at a new face their eyes tend to wander left, falling on the right hand side of the person’s face first. This “left gaze bias” only occurs when we encounter faces and does not apply any other time, such as when inspecting animals or inanimate objects.

A possible reason for the tendency is that the right side of the human face is better at expressing emotional state.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln have now shown that pet dogs also exhibit “left gaze bias”, but only when looking at human faces. No other animal has been known to display this behaviour before.

A team led by Dr Kun Guo showed 17 dogs images of human, dog and monkey faces as well as inanimate objects. Film of the dogs’ eye and head movement revealed a strong left gaze bias when the animals were presented with human faces. But this did not occur when they were shown other images, including those of dogs.

New Scientist magazine reported: “Guo suggests that over thousands of generations of association with humans, dogs may have evolved the left gaze bias as a way to gauge our emotions.”

Surprisingly, when the dogs in the study were shown an upside-down human face, they still looked left. In contrast, humans lose their left gaze bias altogether when shown an inverted face.

This may be because the right side of a dog’s brain, which processes information from the left visual field, is better adapted to interpreting human facial emotion than the left side, the scientists believe.

Whether or not a “left gaze bias” means that dogs really do read human emotions remains to be tested. But a follow up study showed that angry human faces induce a much stronger left gaze bias in dogs than neutral or happy faces.

October 29th, 2008
10:15 pm

This video surprised even me, who, as a dog, thought I knew these basic mechanics (but in the eagerness to quench my thirst didn’t quite think of my tongue working in this way). I will have to experiment myself to see if this is universal to all dogs or a quirk of the dog in the video.

October 28th, 2008
10:51 pm

The stakes have risen considerably for those who do not pick up after my kind in Manhattan and the four other boroughs.  $250…  Perhaps this will put a stop to the elephant dumper of the Upper West Side who consistently obstructs the sidewalks of our fair neighborhood with profound Number Twos.

Here is the story from The Daily News:


Break out those pooper scoopers or prepare to dig deep in your pockets.

The citywide fine for failing to clean up your pooch’s mess has more than doubled, to $250.

The announcement by the Sanitation Department marked the first time the penalty for ignoring Fido’s poop has increased in 30 years.

The fine had been $100 ever since the so-called pooper scooper law, which requires dog owners and walkers to pick up their pets’ droppings from streets and other public places, was passed in 1978.

Gov. Paterson signed the increase into law in July, but there was a 90-day delay before the new penalty was put into effect.

The Sanitation Department issued 763 tickets for pooper-scooper violations in the budget year that ended in July, a 30% increase from the year before.

October 26th, 2008
1:40 am

J.F. and R. Englert had a great weekend meeting dogs and dog people at the Central Park Paws Fair.  100 books were given away as prizes and J.F. is waiting to hear who won the cameo in the third book

J.F. and Ruby also met Elke Gazzara and her wonderful dachshund Maxi as well as her husband, the legendary actor and wonderful gentleman, Ben Gazzara.  Elke and Maxi read at the Dog Tales Tent following J.F.’s appearance and objective observers think she did a terrific job.  You can find her book here.

Also, I came across this story some time ago and again this week and decided it was worth passing along (particularly given my lackluster turn as a “therapy” dog in A Dog Among Diplomats…these dogs are the real professionals):


ALPHARETTA, Georgia (CNN) — Ben, who’s 15 months old, can already do a lot of things. He can turn on a light or open a door. He can pick up a remote control off the floor. He can pull a heavy object with his teeth.

But Ben, a gangly golden retriever, is more than a family pet. He is a specially trained seizure dog who may one day be able to save the life of his new owner, Colise Johnson.

“Having epilepsy and cerebral palsy is kind of like having a nonstop roller coaster ride,” said Johnson, 42, of Portland, Oregon. “You never know what’s going to happen, but with him, he slows the ride down so it’s manageable.”

Johnson, who uses a wheelchair and must wear a helmet because of persistent seizures, is among 3 million Americans who live with some form of epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes recurring seizures, violent muscle spasms or, sometimes, a loss of consciousness.

There are no estimates of how many patients are paired up with assistance dogs, and the benefits of having such an animal have not been studied to any great extent. But Dr. Gregory Barkley, a neurologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and an adviser for the Epilepsy Foundation of America, believes nearly a quarter of the people who suffer from frequent, severe seizures might be helped by a canine companion. He said the dogs have “an unqualified devotion to their master” that may offer important mental health benefits.


October 22nd, 2008
5:25 pm

J.F. and R. Englert (my stand-in) are looking forward to appearing at the writer’s tent at 11 am for a reading/discussion at this Saturday’s dog fair in Central Park (flyer above, for details click here).

There will also be a competition for dogs.  The prize for “Best In Park” (last year won by Dulcie the Dachshund who sadly we must report passed on) will once again be a cameo in book #3, A Dog At Sea.

It looks to be a wonderful day –100 copies of A Dog About Town will be given away as prizes!– and J.F. and R. are looking forward to chatting with readers.

October 17th, 2008
7:08 pm

A happy followup to the story of the Iraqi dog Ratchet:

A stray dog befriended by a US soldier in Iraq has been allowed to move to the US and be reunited with its owner.

Powerful allies in Capitol Hill and a worldwide online petition meant that Ratchet, a black dog that was adopted by Sergeant Gwen Beberg, will be shipped out of Iraq as early as Sunday. It will go first to Kuwait, where NorthWest Airlines is waiting to fly the dog to Minneapolis.

The rescue operation, which was due to start yesterday, was delayed after a communications breakdown between a pet rescue group and the US military.

Sergeant Beberg, who adopted the dog in May after helping to save it from a burning pile of rubbish, was delighted at the news. “I am thrilled that Ratchet is going home!” she wrote in an e-mail to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International, which helped to have the dog moved.

An online petition urging the US military to allow Ratchet to move to the US gathered almost 50,000 signatures. Supporters called congressional offices and Army headquarters demanding that the dog be saved.

Senator Norm Coleman and Senator Keith Ellison, both of Minnesota, also called for the dog’s release.

US soldiers in Iraq are prohibited from bringing home stray animals but the Department of Defence has made exceptions in the past.

Terri Crisp, of Operation Baghdad Pups, visited the Iraqi capital to help Ratchet and six other dogs. She flew out of Baghdad the same evening without the dog, however, because he did not make it to the airport.

Ms Crisp said that US soldiers had rescued many abused animals while serving in Iraq.

SPCA International, which runs the programme Operation Bagdad Pups to transfer Iraqi cats and dog befriended by troops to the US, blamed the military for responding too slowly to their requests to release Ratchet from a base south of Baghdad.

The military said that the dog was a free agent and could leave at any time. US forces were unable to provide the transportation because the the trip to the airport was considered an unnecessary risk to the lives of soldiers.

The pet rescue group said that it would make a second attempt to fly Ratchet out of Iraq as soon as Sunday. Sergeant Beberg, 28, said that she planned to do a “victory dance” once this happens.

The soldier is due to return home next month after completing her tour in Iraq. Larry Garrison, a publicist for Baghdad Pups, said that pets befriended in a war zone often helped soldiers to readjust to normal life when they returned home.

Operation Baghdad Pups claims to have helped in the transfer of more than 50 dogs and six cats to the US.

October 17th, 2008
12:54 am

I found this story on TimesOnline (  The photo above is of Sergeant Gwen Beberg and her dog Ratchet.


Every American soldier knows that you never leave a buddy behind.

Sergeant Gwen Beberg knows it. So do 30,000 other people who have signed an online petition urging the US Army to show some compassion. The maxim stands even if the buddy is a scruffy dog named Ratchet.

“I just want my puppy home. I miss my dog horribly,” Sergeant Beberg, 28, e-mailed her mother after being separated from Ratchet, whose life she saved by rescuing it from a pile of burning rubbish in May.

The split came after the sergeant was transferred from her base in Iraq in preparation for a return to the United States next month. “I’m coping reasonably well because I refuse to believe that Ratchet has been hurt,” she wrote. “If I find out that he was killed though . . . well, we just won’t entertain that possibility.”

Military sources on the ground have indicated that the dog is alive.

US soldiers in Iraq are prohibited from bringing home stray dogs but the Department of Defence has made exceptions in the past.

Ratchet’s cause has been taken up by Operation Baghdad Pups, a programme set up last year by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International.

So far the programme claims to have facilitated the transfer to America of fifty dogs and six cats. Terry Crisp, of Operation Baghdad Pups, flew to Dubai yesterday and is due to arrive in the Iraqi capital tomorrow to speak to members of the military. “Iraqis view dogs and cats as rats, as nuisances, carriers of disease,” she said, noting that US soldiers had rescued many abused animals, such as a puppy that was being kicked by a circle of Iraqi men.

SPCA International was working with Congress, the military and mental health workers to abolish the rule banning soldiers from adopting animals, she added.

Larry Garrison, a publicist for Baghdad Pups, said that pets befriended in a war zone often helped soldiers to readjust to normal life when they returned home.

“This is a story about people and animals. This is a story about people caring about other people,” he told The Times.

It is a view shared by thousands of people who have signed the “Clemency for Ratchet” petition. Many have left comments, expressing their support and distress.

The military said in a statement that Customs procedures often prevented foreign animals from entering the US without vaccination records and other medical documents.

In June a dog brought back to America by Operation Baghdad Pups tested positive for rabies. It was put down.

October 14th, 2008
8:25 pm

In keeping with the current crisis on Wall Street, I post the following from

INVESTORS ARE LIKELY BARKING up the wrong tree if they hope that the public’s fondness for their pets will provide a haven from an ugly stock market.

To be sure, Americans remain madly in love with their pets. And to prove it, pet owners last year spent more than $41 billion — a bigger sum than the gross domestic products of either Uruguay or Bulgaria — on their care and comfort, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA).

But times have changed for the 71 million U.S. households that own pets…

In other words, dogs may also be getting less of the shrinking monetary pie.

October 7th, 2008
11:38 pm