Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Can Dogs Eavesdrop?

Photo: Sophie Louise Davis / Shutterstock
Several studies suggest that dogs pay attention when humans are nice to someone, and preferentially approach the ‘nice’ rather than ‘not nice’ person. A new study by Esteban Freidin et al investigates dogs’ eavesdropping abilities in the search for further evidence on this ability.

Studies of canine eavesdropping typically involve a scenario in which two people have food and another person, playing the role of ‘beggar’, approaches to ask for some. One person gives food to the beggar, while the other refuses. After observing this, dogs are released to see which person they will approach first.

In a study by Sarah Marshall-Pescini et al (2011), dogs that observed generous versus selfish donors later chose to approach the generous person. This preference was strongest when both donors spoke and gestured towards the beggar. It was still found when the information available to the dog was verbal only, but dogs did not seem to be able to interpret gesture on its own. This study manipulated the behaviour of the donor, but the beggar’s actions remained the same.

The current experiment uses a version of this in which the dog observes how the ‘beggar’ responds. At the start, the two experimental assistants went up to the dog and showed it their plates, which contained cornflakes (for humans) and sausages (for dogs). Then they took up positions at opposite sides of the room, and began to eat the cornflakes at a regular pace. 

In the main condition, a person playing the role of beggar came in, approached each person in turn and asked for food. They always gave the beggar a cornflake, but he responded differently to each person. With the “positive” person, he ate the cornflake and said “So tasty!” With the “negative” person he rejected the cornflake, put it back on the plate, said “So ugly!” and turned his back to them. This condition therefore included both Gestural and Verbal information.

There were two other conditions. The Gestural condition was the same, except the beggar did not speak. In the Verbal condition, the beggar spoke the same words as in the main condition, but he did not gesture (and hence did not receive cornflakes).

In each condition, the beggar had six interactions (i.e. three with each person). After the beggar had left the room, the dog was released and was free to approach the people.

The experimental set-up. Source: PLoS One

The experiment was conducted at a location familiar to the dog, whether that was its home or a day-care. Seventy-two dogs took part, although some had to be excluded because they did not approach anyone (some of these dogs did not pay attention to the interaction and some seemed fearful). After this, there were fifteen dogs per group.

In the main condition, 13 out of 15 dogs approached the person who had received a “positive” response from the beggar. This suggests the dogs had successfully eavesdropped on the interactions. 

However, in the Gestural and Verbal conditions, the dogs’ choices were not significantly different from chance. This suggests that information from both gestures and speech was needed for the dogs to be able to choose the person who was most likely to give them something nice to eat.

Another version of the experiment was conducted, in which the two people changed places three times during the interaction sequence. After this, the dogs did not choose at a rate different from chance. It may be that they used the location to help them remember, that they were not able to discriminate easily between people they had only just met, or that they were confused by the multiple changes of place.

In a further version, in which the beggar acted the same but the donors were replaced by bowls of food, the dogs’ choices were no different from chance.

The researchers say, “we found that dogs could choose which donor to beg food from based, not on the behaviour of the target individuals (the donors in our protocol), but on the reaction that an interacting person (the beggar, who was absent at the time of choice) showed towards them. This finding may indicate a level of subtlety in dogs’ eavesdropping not found before.”

The dogs could use gestural and verbal information combined to decide who to approach for food, but without both types of information they did not know who to approach. And unlike previous studies, this was based solely on the reactions of the beggar.
 
When do your dogs beg for food?

Reference
Freidin E, Putrino N, D'Orazio M, & Bentosela M (2013). Dogs' Eavesdropping from People's Reactions in Third Party Interactions. PloS one, 8 (11) PMID: 24236108  
Marshall-Pescini, S., Passalacqua, C., Ferrario, A., Valsecchi, P., & Prato-Previde, E. (2011). Social eavesdropping in the domestic dog Animal Behaviour, 81, 1177-1183 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.02.029

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Cat's Gotta Scratch ...

Research shows that if a scratching post is available, cats will use it.

Scratching is a normal behaviour for a cat, but can be problematic for owners if a cat chooses to scratch the wrong items. A new study by Manuel Mengoli et al in Italy investigates feline scratching behaviour amongst a mixed sample of cats.

Photo: Imageman / Shutterstock

Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, including communicating with other cats via visible scratch marks and olfactory signals left behind from glands in the plantar pads. It may also keep their claws sharp and healthy. Although scratching is a normal behaviour, it can also be a sign of stress. As the authors say, “the use of scratching as a marking signal is normal in a wide territory, but when it is observed repeatedly inside the house, it is reasonable to conclude that the animal is not feeling safe in that specific environment.”

Cat owners were recruited via vet clinics and the departments of Psychology and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Padua. They completed a survey about their cat and its scratching behaviour. 

Surveys were completed for 128 cats, including both indoor and outdoor cats, a range of ages, males and females, neutered or not. (Unusually, the paper does not give details of the cat demographics, such as average age). 

The questionnaire asked about access to outdoors, whether or not a scratching post was available in the home, how often the cat used it, and how often (if ever) the cat scratched other items.


The results showed differences in scratching behaviour. The cats most likely to scratch ‘inappropriate’ items were entire males, who did not have a scratching post in the home. On the other hand, some cats hardly ever scratched inappropriate places, particularly neutered males, and intact females with access to the outdoors.

The most important finding for cat owners is this: If a scratching post is present, cats use it. 

If your cat is causing problems with scratching behaviour, the obvious solution is to get a scratching post. If this does not solve the problem, then you may also need to consider the kind of post you provide.

Although this study did not look at the type of post, it seems that some cats have preferences. Since posts can be made of different materials, including sisal, carpet and wood, it could be worth experimenting to find which your cat prefers. In fact, subsequent research has studied which is the best scratching post from the cat's perspective.

Another factor to bear in mind is the height of the post relative to the cat, since cats often like to stretch upwards while they scratch. Some posts on the market are of a height that is better suited to small cats, and bigger cats may prefer a taller post. Also, some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface as well as a vertical one.

It is important for cat owners to know that scratching posts, if provided, will be used. De-clawing is illegal in many places, including the UK, Australia and Brazil, but is common in some other countries including the US. The procedure is called onychectomy, and involves amputation of the last bone of each toe on the front paws (i.e. not just removal of the claws, because the claws are attached to the bone).

In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw writes that “The initial pain resulting from the procedure may be controlled with analgesics, but we do not know whether cats subsequently feel phantom pain due to the nerves that have been severed. However, cats and humans have nearly identical mechanisms for feeling pain, and four out of five people who have fingers amputated have phantom pain, so cats most likely do as well… Declawed cats are more likely to urinate outside their litter trays than other indoor cats, possibly because of the stress of this phantom pain.”

So the finding that cats will use scratching posts, while obvious to some, will help many cats and their owners.

What kind of scratching post does your cat prefer?

Reference
Bradshaw, J. (2013) Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. London:Allen Lane.
Mengoli M, Mariti C, Cozzi A, Cestarollo E, Lafont-Lecuelle C, Pageat P, & Gazzano A (2013). Scratching behaviour and its features: a questionnaire-based study in an Italian sample of domestic cats. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 15 (10), 886-92 PMID: 23492353

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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Can Dogs Cooperate With Each Other and With A Human?


In the process of domestication, it seems that dogs have become especially attuned to human communication. Does this mean they can cooperate with a human to solve a problem? And what if they need to cooperate with another dog instead? A study in press by Ostojić and Clayton investigates.
Photo: Jim Parkin / Shutterstock

The study is based on a “string task” in which two dogs (or a dog and a human) have to pull each end of a string in order to gain access to food that is otherwise out of reach on a platform. 

The dogs were trained initially on a task they could solve on their own, because both ends of the string were close enough together. Some dogs opened their mouths very wide to get both ends in at once, while others used their paw to bring the ends closer together to make them fit in their jaw. When they pulled, a treat fell off the platform for them to eat.

Twenty-nine dogs were trained on this initial task. They included a number of search-and-rescue dogs, some with agility training, and pet dogs who had been trained in basic commands. They were a mix of breeds, including Golden retriever, Labrador retriever, and Parson Russell terrier, and of a range of ages.

The training for the study was very intense. Of the initial twenty-nine dogs, fifteen dogs could not complete the experiment because their owners did not have time, and three dogs did not take part because they were not interested in the initial task. This left eleven dogs that took part in the full experiment. 

The dogs were from households with more than one dog, so that when they had to work in pairs it was with a dog they already knew. 

The cooperative task was very similar to the initial string task, except that the two ends of the string were too far apart for one dog to solve it on their own. Each dog took part paired with another dog, and then again but paired with a human. When they set off from the starting point, each partner had to go to their end of the string, and when they pulled food fell off the platform. In the case of two dogs, two pieces of food fell off so that each got a reward.

In another version of the experiment, the scientists erected barriers so that one partner (dog or human) was delayed in reaching their end of the string. This meant the dog that was released normally had to wait for their partner to get to their end before they pulled the string; if they pulled it too much then the string would come all the way through and their partner would not be able to reach it. 

Each trial lasted until either the problem was solved, the string was pulled so far through that the problem became unsolvable, or 2 minutes had elapsed. Each pair had up to sixty trials, or until they had solved it twenty times in total, to show they really had understood the problem and their success wasn’t a fluke.
 
Of the eleven dogs that had completed the initial training, all of them could solve the puzzle by cooperating with their partner. This was the case whether their partner was another dog or a human.

In the ‘delay’ condition, the non-delayed dog learned to wait for their canine partner. Sometimes they tugged a little bit on the string and then waited, before tugging hard once their partner was also tugging. There was hardly any difference between the ‘delay’ condition and the regular condition when the pair was made up of two dogs.

When the ‘delayed’ partner was a human, although dogs could still solve the problem, they did not do as well. This is probably because the length of the ‘delay’ was much greater; on average the human took an extra 13 seconds to reach their end of the rope, compared to just an extra 2s for the ‘delayed’ dogs. The task was therefore much harder with a human partner, since it required a greater degree of self-control.

The authors point out that the social cue – of their partner arriving at the rope – may not have been the only cue they used. They say the feeling of pressure on the rope may also have been a factor, as could the sight of the food moving closer to them when both partners had hold of the rope. However, a social cue was definitely part of the solution, because even on the very first ‘delay’ trial dogs waited longer to pull the string than on the previous regular trials. Future studies could use a design in which the social cue was the only one.

This study showed that once they had learned the puzzle during training on their own, dogs were able to learn how to solve the task when it required them to cooperate with a partner. This was the case whether the partner was canine or human. They could even still solve the problem when their partner was delayed in reaching the rope, and it required them to wait before taking action.

The reasons why dogs can do this are less easy to understand. The authors say, “In the case of cooperative problem-solving, it is not yet clear whether the dogs’ ability to solve such tasks arises from group hunting shown in other social carnivores and, in particular, in wolves, or from abilities evolved during domestication.”

Animal cognition research keeps finding ways to show just how clever dogs are. As ordinary dog owners, perhaps the thing to take from this is that our dogs might like more activities that use their brain power, whether it’s teaching tricks, agility, giving them problems to solve, or simply letting them enjoy their regular walks.

What do you do to keep your dog’s brain active?

Reference
Ostojic, L, & Clayton, N.S. (2013). Behavioural coordination of dogs in a cooperative problem-solving task with a conspecific and a human partner Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0676-1

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Diabetes Alert Dogs


Photo: Mila Atkovska / Shutterstock
Can dogs be trained to alert diabetics when their blood sugar levels fall too low or too high? A new study by Nicola Rooney (University of Bristol) et al investigates the success of just such a program.

Medical Detection Dogs is a charity in the UK that trains dogs to detect disease. For example, they are investigating whether it is possible to train dogs to help with the early diagnosis of cancer, such as detecting prostate cancer from urine samples. They have bedbug detection dogs, who raise money to support the charity, which is reliant on public donations. And they also have medical alert dogs, trained to alert diabetics when their blood sugar becomes dangerously low.

Type 1 diabetes is a serious medical condition in which the pancreas is not able to produce enough insulin. Consequently, there is not enough insulin to get sugar into the cells. The symptoms include increased thirst, hunger, fatigue and blurred vision, as well as many complications that can be life-threatening. People with type 1 diabetes have to monitor their blood sugar levels frequently to ensure they don’t suffer from blood sugar that is too low or too high.

The charity has trained a number of dogs to alert when their owner is at risk of becoming hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar). Many of them are also able to detect hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar), though this is not trained until after the hypoglycaemia detection training is complete.

The dogs wear a high-visibility red jacket that identifies them as medical alert dogs. While the most common breed is Labrador Retriever, other breeds include Golden Retriever, Poodle, Labradoodle, Cocker Spaniel, and a Yorkshire Terrier. Dogs that are trained by the charity typically go their owner at about eighteen months of age.

Seventeen owners of hypoglycaemia alert dogs took part in the research. Nine of the dogs had completed their training, while the remainder were at an advanced stage. Nine of the dogs (a different subset) were trained by the charity and placed with their owners, while the other dogs already lived with their owners and were subsequently trained. The alert behaviour might involve jumping up, licking, nudging, barking and/or staring.
The study asked clients to record occasions when the dog alerted them and whether or not this was accurate. They answered a questionnaire about their experiences, provided data from blood samples, and allowed the researchers to access their medical records so that pre- and post-dog results could be compared. The full dataset was available for ten clients.
All of the people said since they got the dog there was a reduction in at least one of low blood sugar, becoming unconscious, or having to call a paramedic. The majority agreed that “The dog has enhanced my quality of life” and “I am totally satisfied with my dog.” This shows the dogs have made a big difference to their owners' lives.
Comparing blood tests to alert episodes showed that almost all of the dogs successfully identified when blood sugar was out of the normal range. In almost all cases, there was a significant change in glucose levels after they acquired the dog.
The people who have these dogs all have what is known as “brittle” diabetes, in other words it is unstable. The researchers say “their present Quality of Life and Wellbeing are comparable to other populations of non-dog users living with Type I diabetes. This suggests that the benefits of alert-dog ownership reported here have improved the clients’ life quality to levels comparable to the general Type I diabetes population.” This is a huge achievement, and it is beneficial to the individual as well as to society since it will result in lower emergency medical costs.
Most of the owners showed high levels of trust in their dog (remember that some dogs had not quite completed their training yet). Some liked the attention their dogs brought, while others were less keen on it.
The data showed there were differences in the dogs’ detection abilities, and future research is needed to investigate the reasons for this, such as whether some dogs are naturally better at it than others, and whether record-keeping is also a factor.
The researchers also suggest that differences in training may play a role. Future research could investigate any differences between dogs raised by the charity and those that were raised by their owners. There may also be differences in owners’ abilities when it comes to on-going training and rewarding successful alerts, so future research could usefully focus on the relationship between client and dog.
This study shows the dogs have made a big difference to the lives of their owners. Medical Detection Dogs now also trains dogs for other medical alerts, including narcolepsy and nut allergy.
Have you seen a medical assistance dog at work?
Reference
Rooney NJ, Morant S, & Guest C (2013). Investigation into the value of trained glycaemia alert dogs to clients with type I diabetes. PloS one, 8 (8) PMID: 23950905
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