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Archive for August, 2010

Below is another interesting piece on dog behavior which will have some in the audience saying “we told you so.”

By Jennifer Viegas (Discovery News)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, dogs often shower us with praise. New research has just determined dogs automatically imitate us, even when it is not in their best interest to do so.

The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provides the first evidence that dogs copy at least some of our body movements and behaviors in ways that are spontaneous and voluntary.

In other words, they can’t really help themselves when it comes to copying people.

“This suggests that, like humans, dogs are subject to ‘automatic imitation’; they cannot inhibit online, the tendency to imitate head use and/or paw use,” lead author Friederike Range and her colleagues conclude.

It’s long been known that humans do this, even when the tendency to copy interferes with efficiency.

“For example,” according to the researchers, “if people are instructed to open their mouths as soon as they see the letters ‘OM’ appear on a screen, responses are slower when the letters are accompanied by an image of an opening hand than when they are accompanied by an image of an opening mouth.”

In a scientific first, Range — a University of Vienna researcher in the Department of Cognitive Biology — and her team tested this phenomenon on dogs. Ten adult dogs of various breeds and their owners, from Austria, participated in the experiments.

All of the dogs received preliminary training to open a sliding door using their head or a paw. The dogs then watched their owners open the door by hand or by head. For the latter, the owner would get down on the floor and use his or her head to push up or down on the sliding door.

The dogs were next divided into two groups. Dogs in the first group received a food reward whenever they copied what the owner did. Dogs in the second group received a food reward when they did the opposite.

All of the dogs were inclined to copy what the owner did, even if it meant receiving no food reward.

“This finding suggests that the dogs brought with them to the experiment a tendency automatically to imitate hand use and/or paw use by their owner; to imitate these actions even when it was costly to do so,” the authors report.

The scientists suggest owners would do well to match their own body movements, whenever possible, to tasks at hand during training sessions.

For example, if an owner is trying to teach a dog to shake “hands,” the person might have more success if he stretched out his own hand to demonstrate. The observing dog would then be inclined to stretch out a paw, mirroring what the human did. At that point, a food reward could be offered to the dog, reinforcing the behavior.


August 30th, 2010
3:49 am

I want to talk about the brain again.  Yes the brain, that marvelous organ many of us neglect.  My worry and J.F.’s is the loss of a reading audience as a result of distraction, not simply the loss of people reading, but the loss of people who are able to read well (two very different things).  One thing that is clearly not helping is the insatiable appetite to fill time with entertainment, also known as keeping your brain on a near endless round of visual and audio (almost always electronic) stimulation.  This article in the Times was an eyeopener (according to the Times many people can’t exercise without having two or three other things going at once –from  Yours Truly’s vantage point this isn’t lifestyle choice as much as it is some kind of strange affliction)  I admit there are times when I dart around from one thing to another, usually on my walks after a rain when the smells in the park and on the sidewalk are intoxicating, but that’s  a whole different level of distraction.  If you had my nose you’d understand.  These paragraphs are especially worthwhile:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

August 27th, 2010
3:06 am

Yes, we Labradors enjoy the water and even Yours Truly would go to water rescue school to earn my place on the Italian Riviera.

August 25th, 2010
1:54 am

While the finding of a research study (i.e. that dogs sneak food when their owners are not looking) may seem obvious, it suggests interesting things about what is going on inside a dog’s brain.

Here is Jennifer Viegas’ take from Discovery News via MSNBC:

If a dog’s eyes appear to be riveted to you and your sandwich the next time you try to enjoy lunch, consider the clever, strategical intent of your rapt viewer. That’s because new research has just demonstrated dogs quietly sneak food when we’re not looking, waiting for the perfect opportunity to bite, steal and nosh.

Before every dog owner and lover reading this comments, “Duh! I knew that already,” the finding is not to be taken lightly. The research, published in the latest issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, adds to the growing body of evidence that dogs possess theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others.

In other words, dogs can likely perceive what we see and know, allowing them to take advantage of us when opportunity arises. “Stains,” a dog featured on Animal Planet, has mastered the approach, as this video shows.

Shannon Kundey of Maryland’s Hood College and colleagues tested the phenomenon out in a more structured, scientific way on 20 dogs. To do this, they gave the dogs the opportunity to take food from one of two containers.

“These containers were located within the proximity of a human gatekeeper who was either looking straight ahead or not looking at the time of choice,” explained the scientists. “One container was silent when food was inserted or removed while the other was noisy.”

The vast majority of the dogs approached the silent container that was being pseudo ignored by the person.

The researchers then adjusted the experiment to see how dogs would react if the food container was noisy yet was still ignored by the nearby “gatekeeper,” or if the dogs weren’t particularly quiet when grabbing the snack.

According to the scientists, the “dogs preferentially attempted to retrieve food silently only when silence was germane to obtaining food unobserved by the human gatekeeper. Interestingly, dogs sourced from a local animal shelter evidenced similar outcomes.”

This latter finding “conflicts with other recent data suggesting that shelter dogs perform more poorly than pet dogs in tasks involving human social cues,” writes Kundey and her team.

Aside from giving some props to shelter dogs, the study suggests that the food nabbing skills aren’t necessarily learned through repeated experience. The sneakiness may have evolved in wolves, the ancestors to dogs, and could therefore have genetic components.

August 23rd, 2010
7:15 pm

My apologies for the crass headline (I have been reading the New York Post a bit too much of late).  Nevertheless, a reader recently inquired as to my thoughts on the dog-fire hydrant relationship.   Why do dogs pee on these squat pieces of metal and why do some city dogs seem absolutely unable to control their obsession for both urinating and sniffing these objects?

First, a safety point.  Given that death can come suddenly for the dog that mistakenly urinates on the exposed electricals at the base of traffic lights (a significant and tragic plot point in A Dog About Town), the choice of a fire hydrant as a target is at least a benign one.

But, again, why urinate on such objects at all?  Yours Truly usually manages to control his urges to mark the neighborhood, but it is an understandable urge.  I decided to take a quick look at the Internet to see what humans thought of the fire hydrant behavior and was surprised to find the following excellent observation by someone calling him/herself bowlinggreen (possibly a downtown Manhattanite?):

Yes, it’s like a tree stump in a city. Dogs normally mark on trees, but cities have few of them so hydrants will do. They would pee on signposts but they are too narrow so they would miss. Hydrants are nice and fat, and just the right size. When they sniff hydrants they gather all kinds of information…. like Pippi the poodle was there that day and she’s in heat, or that Boris the wolfhound has a bladder infection or that Max the pit bull had fish for dinner. They sniff dried pee to gather data, the same way we surf the internet to learn about the world. by bowlinggreen on August 26th, 2006

A good starting point, bowling green.  Indeed, a fire hydrant is a crucial hub for information exchange.  But it’s more like a community bulletin board than the Internet.  And because a dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times that of a human, the information exchanged can be extraordinarily complex.  Pippi the poodle might be in heat but one can also learn that she has trouble with relationships and is the fifth member of a dysfunctional Upper West Side family who are currently vacationing in Belize.  Yours Truly manages to avoid leaving messages himself, but he finds it difficult to pass up the classified section of the local fire hydrant information exchange.
Of course, as with any dog behavior, compulsivity is an ever present risk.  We are a habitual lot and in many of my city brethren I have witnessed the fire hydrant habit lead to a debilitating downward spiral of lies, faked emergencies (just to go out for another walk) and the dislocation of one owner’s shoulder as the fire-hydrant desperately pulled to the next target.
All of this reflection on the fire hydrant question has fatigued Yours Truly and made him hungry.  I’m off to see if Harry will part with some of last night’s steak.  Then perhaps a brief snooze in my sunny (and on this New York August day) humid corner.  Readers I welcome your thoughts about fire hydrants… or steak… or naps… or steak…
August 20th, 2010
3:53 am

Instead of a relevant gruesome image, I’ve pasted J.F.’s latest A Dog At Sea lest you have missed it.

Some dogs have no control over their appetites.  Fortunately, they have understanding owners like the man below.

August 4, 2010
Filed at 2:34 a.m. ET

ROCKFORD, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan man says he’s grateful his dog ate most of his toe while he was passed out drunk.

Jerry Douthett of Rockford says Kiko’s action helped uncover an undiagnosed diabetic condition and led to treatment that could save his life.

The Grand Rapids Press reported that the 48-year-old musician knew for a while something was wrong with his foot. He resisted seeking care until giving in to his nurse wife’s pressure one day last month.

Before going for an appointment, Douthett says he went out drinking, then came home and passed out. When he awoke, the terrier was beside him in bed and lots of blood was where his toe used to be.

His wife rushed him to Spectrum Health Blodgett Campus, where doctors found a bone infection and amputated the rest of the toe.

August 4th, 2010
3:14 am